(Note: This is not official version and may be removed in the near future. This do not reflect what is read in the podcast version, nor any other version you may encounter. I have preserved the rough form for posterity -- or something like that. This novel has since been rewritten.)
The cold black enveloped him in every direction and he soon realized that his inability to breath was the result of being thrust many feet underwater. But with nothing but darkness filling his vision he couldn’t tell which direction led to the surface. He hung there for a moment, feeling the water he had accidentally ingested swimming in the bottom of his lungs and his reflexes telling him to cough. Then, he picked a direction and swam frantically. A few seconds turned to many seconds and he started to wonder if he had chosen wrong and that he would die in the bottom in a watery grave. Quickly he dispelled those thoughts and swam harder and faster. Then, miraculously, he broke the surface. The chill sensation of air tickled his face. He breathed hard and coughed wildly as his lungs begged to be free of their burden. He dispelled the water and phlegm that found its way back into his throat and then breathed a sigh of relief.
Looking around he could see nothing. Without the light from Pea’s magical torch every direction left him blind; his eyes could not adjust. To add, his arms were still burning and the only thing that kept him going was the burst of adrenaline injected ever so smoothly into his muscles.
James tried to float on his back in order to cool his aching body. He managed it, albeit crudely, and grinned at having remembered something he hadn’t done since he was five. The only thing holding him down was his pack, which he took great effort to keep centered so he didn’t have to flop around too much to keep afloat. What am I going to do, he thought.
The echo of voices answered his question. At first he couldn’t make out what was being said as the voices merged into a collage of sounds. Then, as if his hearing suddenly became more accurate, he could hear the faint arguing of Pea and Darl. Despite his fear he chortled. Then the joyful moment was over.
“I’m okay,” he said, practically screaming it.
A first there was no reply except the continuing debate above. Then, suddenly the echoes stopped.
“James?” Pea’s voice came, broken, through the tunnel.
“I’m okay. There’s water down here. A lot of water. I can’t see.” He slipped briefly, coughed up the water that ran into his mouth, and righted himself.
“We’re on our way!”
James waited patiently in the water, floating calmly. He could stand the dark—for a time. He had never been afraid of the dark, not really. His parents had told him he had feared it when he was younger, but he could never remember those days, and in some ways he was grateful not to. He instead fixated on the nights when his parents had told him to go to bed and he had simply remained awake fiddling with his computer. He started to wonder when he would get to use his computer again.
He floated there in the dark for what seemed like ages. The sounds of Darl’s work in the tunnel filtered through the air. Shortly after the languid glow of Pea’s torch send a shimmer of light through the end of the tunnel and James could finally make out the dark shapes of his surroundings.
The tunnel ended some twenty feet above him, simply cut off by the ceiling of a monumental cavern that stretched farther than the light could reach. We must be under the river, he thought. He wondered how far Arnur was from the river. He guessed a couple miles at least, assuming they didn’t get lost, something he hoped wouldn’t happen. There’s no time for that.
A cry of surprise from above forced James to look up just in time to see Darl falling haphazardly through the opening in the tunnel. He tried to move out of the way, but it was too late and Darl came crashing down a few feet from him, landing stomach first, and sending a wave of water over his face. Darl surfaced a moment later. Pea snickered.
“Not funny!” Darl said.
Then Pea cried out too and fell with a small plop, sending yet another wave of water over both James and Darl. Then Pea surfaced too.
“Right, not funny,” Pea said, the torch still held in his tiny hand. The flame hadn’t gone out, in fact, it had sunk an inch below the water and still glowed bright. James admired it for a brief moment. Then Pea said, “Well, what direction should we go.”
“I haven’t a clue where we are, let alone which direction is east.”
“I think we’re under the river,” James said. “But where under the river I don’t know. The tunnel didn’t exactly stay straight.”
“Pick a direction then.” Pea didn’t seem too pleased with the option, but opted for it nonetheless.
James hung his head back for a moment and let his ears sink, using his legs to keep him afloat. He floated there, silent and quiet, contemplating the next course of action he would have to take. East could be any direction, he thought. And if we go the wrong way we’ll all be dead.
Something gently tugged on his back. At first he ignored it, thinking it little more than the movement of water around him, a current, or perhaps Darl or Pea swishing around. It was only enough to grab his attention, nothing more. But, he soon came to realize that it wasn’t the swishing and movement of his companions that was causing the force on his back. Rather, something inside his pack seemed to be pushing against the side. He swirled around and brought the pack to his front, pushing slowly with his legs to keep himself up. The tug remained and he opened the top to look inside.
The first thought that came to him was that everything within the pack that hadn’t been wrapped in something waterproof, was soaked through. The rations that had been given to him, and the etiquette book—for reasons he could only attribute to the workings of magic—were the only items untouched, and motionless.
Then he noticed the egg. It tugged gently against the walls of the pack. James looked up to try and find out whatever it was that attracted it. Then a glimmer of hope fell into his eyes. The egg pulled towards the two metal swords strapped tightly to Darl’s back, a feat which James imagined required far more effort than he could muster to keep them afloat.
“I think I have an idea,” he said.
Pea and Darl turned to him.
“I need a piece of metal. Something small.”
The two of them flashed him bewildered looks.
“This egg,” he pulled it out of the bag, drooped down into the water and regained his balance. “It’s magnetized.”
If James had found himself in their company at a happier time he would have laughed at their expressions. Pea’s left eye shrunk, contorted in confusion, and he looked somewhat like a constipated child. Darl on the other hand appeared to be desperately trying to pretend he knew what ‘magnetized’ meant, but James could see through the vacant expression and tell that the man hadn’t a clue.
“Magnetized?” Pea said.
“Something that is magnetized attracts metals. Most of them at least. See,” he held the egg out toward the swords to demonstrate, “it’s attracted to the metal.”
Pea and Darl peered at the small event.
“Small piece of metal. Come on.”
Then the two of them began digging amongst their belongings until Darl produced a small shard shaped like a jagged crystal. James reached out and took it, looked it over, and then exposed it to the egg. The shard instantly stuck, pulled by invisible forces.
“Hold this.” He handed the egg to Darl, who took it at arms length and, despite paddling in the dark water, managed to keep it there.
James, meanwhile, produced the etiquette book and tested it on the water. It floated steadily. He grinned. Then he took the egg back from Darl, shook his head lightly at how ridiculous the man was acting, and removed the shard, placed it on the book, and paused.
“Someone needs to take the egg a good distance away. It will disrupt the shard and give me a bad reading.”
“It’s not going to bite you.”
“I should hope not,” Pea said. “I’ve never heard of a petrified egg that bites.”
“Nor this thing you call magnetism. Some sort of weird magic that is,” Darl said.
He rolled his eyes. “Trust me, it’s harmless. On Earth this is a source of amusement and study. Someone take it.”
Pea and Darl both looked at each other and seemed on the brink of argument. Darl, however, took the egg angrily from James’ hands and began to doggy paddle into the dark. A minute later—when the old man’s form had become a dark silhouette, faded, and then ceased to be visible—he called for Darl to stop.
“Now we just wait.”
He watched intently, unable to remove his eyes, at times forgetting he had to continue moving in order to keep from drowning. Sure enough, the shard pulled the etiquette book clockwise, spinning it gently. A few seconds later and the shard halted with its tip pointed directly north. He grinned wide like a child receiving his first bike.
“That’s east,” he said, pointing. “I’m not going to make it far. My arms are burning.” He had managed to ignore them for a short while, but the pain had come back.
Darl swam back. “A little salve will solve that problem.”
James stayed afloat as Darl produced the salve and generously applied it to his arms in a drunken manner, Darl flailing one arm about to keep afloat and kicking rigorously to keep balanced. Immediate relief followed and James let his legs rest. “Thank you,” he said.
“No need for thanks. I told you that you didn’t have the arms to be a swordsman. That fact remains true. Now I know you would fair no better as a sailor.”
Together the three of them treaded water, pushing east into the darkness that dissipated as they approached and absorbed the light behind them as if they were traveling in a bubble of light. James was once again grateful for the powerful workings of the salve. For the second time he had been on the brink of collapse and the strange cream had given him an extra boost. He allowed his thoughts to wander from the dark, seemingly endless water-filled cavern around him. He wondered how the salve worked. Maybe, he thought, it masks the signals for pain. All the little cells screaming out go quiet. I’m hurting, but my brain doesn’t know it yet.
But how? That question held his attention the most. Granted, he understood enough about medical science back home to know that a shot or painkiller of some sort could remove pain. He even had experience with a cream that nurses used to numb the skin so that you couldn’t feel the prick of a needle. Yet, the salve seeped into the skin, into the muscles and tendons, and completely numbed them. He felt revitalized when the salve crept into his body, as if he had had a full nights rest. Stranger still, it seemed to help in the healing process, though it made little sense as to why. Regardless, his bruises, while still present, had healed to the point where only quick, jerky movements or a hard touch sent loads of pain through his body.
The only thing the salve didn’t hide was his desperate need for rest, a sensation that even his mind could not trick him to forget.
They swam for what James thought was at least ten pool lengths before earth rose beneath their feet and the water became shallow. Soon he was waste deep in water—Pea was up to his chin. He guessed that the water would deepen further on and took the opportunity to rest.
From where he stood he could see in all directions that the shallow water stretched out like a massive rock reef in a vast, black ocean. The cavern ceiling glimmered under the light of Pea’s torch, exposing the amber light of stalactites and strange yellow gems he had never seen before.
Then Darl pushed them on again. James groaned, but subsided and followed, trudging through the water until the earth abruptly fell away and he could no longer see the bottom. The three of them swam for another ten pool lengths, to which James’ arms finally gave their angry protest and began to lose their strength. Beyond, visible only by a flickering reflection, a coal black shore appeared. He sighed relief. Another pool length and he could see the opening to a tunnel. Salvation, he thought jokingly.
“Well, looks like this will end soon,” Darl said.
James agreed with a grumble.
Then, out from the dark beneath him, something brushed his leg. He looked down and saw nothing. But he couldn’t mistake the sensation of a massive object moving at great speed, something bumpy, coarse.
“There’s something in the water,” he said.
“Of course there is. We’re in the water,” Darl said, snappily.
“No. I felt something swim past my leg.” His voice shook. He had seen enough nature shows to be spooked.
“What are you talking about? Nothing lives down here. It’s dark. It’s dead. There’s nothing to eat.”
“Except us,” Pea said.
“Yes, but until we arrived there was nothing to eat.”
“This water could be quite deep. All sorts of things could live in the bottom. We’ve found such things on my world.”
He could tell that Darl still wasn’t convinced. Even Pea seemed skeptical, maneuvering in a short circle to display his interest and nothing more.
“We’re all tired. You’re probably just feeling things that aren’t really there,” Pea said.
Unable to convince them otherwise, James swam on cautiously. He had seen his fair share of shark movies and knew better than to start splashing around wildly. Maybe fish live down here. Harmless fish. He hoped deeply for that.
After they had crossed another pool length and the beach ahead shined brightly under Pea’s light, a high-pitched, barely audible sound rebounded off the walls in all directions. Then the sound grew into a loud whine akin to a whale. He listened, still swimming. Pea and Darl stopped.
Another cry, louder still, forced him to look down. In the darkness of the water a massive silhouette appeared, the image distorted by the rippling of waves and a slow current. The shape grew, moving at an amazing speed. Then details showed themselves. Two milk white eyes, lidless and ghostly, reflected the light from the torch, shimmering like two demonic pearls. Beneath those sat a set of holes, nostrils or something else, and farther below that a wide, black mouth opened. Three foot long, razor sharp teeth protruded from its jaw, some straight and others crooked and gnarled. A flipping pink tongue wobbled in the back of its throat. Black skin ran all along its face and down its back—part of which remained distorted by the dark depths—and bumpy ridges, wart-like bubbles, and fins ran along its entire length, one massive dorsal fin just beyond the top of its head. It bellowed a high, screeching cry as it came closer, and James attributed the sound to the sonar used by bats. The water around it began to bulge as its massive form pushed towards the surface.
“Move!” Darl yelled, swimming frantically out of the way. Pea, too, swam, thrusting his little legs like the fins of a beached animal.
James swam the opposite direction, away from the beach, trying desperately to get away of the enormous mouth. The creature, moving so fast that it couldn’t change course at the last minute, burst from the water, screeching all the while. Its body and fins tore through the surface like a mechanized plow. Then it crashed mouth first into the ceiling, clamped its jaws shut, turned, and forced itself around to dive back into the water. James had managed to get of the way when the creature broke the surface, but now found himself in the path of the creature again. He pushed himself the other way, back towards the beach, and by some miraculous fate, the creature dove past where he had been just a moment before. From head to tail it was at least as big as a school bus. Its tail was like that of a shark, thick, vertical, and muscular.
As the creature dove back into the water, James found himself suddenly swept down by a powerful undertow caused by the swishing of its massive tail. He instinctually flapped his arms, trying desperately to break the surface. The current drug him down until he could no longer see the light, and then, suddenly it let go and he furiously paddled and found himself break the surface some distance closer to the beach. Pea and Darl had somehow made it there and were screaming orders at him. Water in his ears clouded their words, and instead he paddled on and on, shivering.
He managed to get a few dozen feet closer to the beach before he heard the same cry as before behind him. Despite his mind telling him not to, and the Fearl sending him waves of better judgment, he turned to look. The creature swam swift and hard, its dorsal fin and the edge of its tail gliding smoothly through the water like an enormous great white shark. As it neared, its jaws opened like a set of torturous, pointed machines. He breathed, frantic, gulped water and coughed. His arms started to give out. Pain and a thousand sensations crept through is body.
Then it was on top of him, jaws clamping down and the wish of disturbed air whistling through the cavern. A moment later, a sudden screech of rage and hate, bubbling and burbling in a cry of agony. James looked back, saw the creature lurching down and preoccupied with a sword buried up to the hilt in its eye. It crashed down beside him in the water. With sound, it sought after him again, and he looked deep into the white ball of its remaining eye. A thick, milky puss flowed freely from the injured eye. He could see the pain there—rage, hatred, and darkness too. It started for him again, but before it could open its jaws he grabbed the hilt of the sword for reasons he couldn’t explain. Some fear induced instinct sent the urge and he obeyed.
The creature lifted its face and swam towards the beach, screeching as it went and shaking its jaws trying to tear the sword and James free. James clung desperately to the hilt. It reared up and tried to reach for the ceiling, but missed. Then it plunged into the water. He still clung to the sword and swayed in the water until his body bobbed above the creatures’ nose. It turned and shot for the surface. As it had before, it burst out and crashed into the ceiling, but James no longer dangled in front of its jaws. The effort helped the creature none, instead burying hilt deeper into its flesh. It crashed down into the water and swam towards the shore again, still shaking and roaring in protest.
His Fearl suddenly panged in the back of his mind. He listened, but could feel or hear nothing. Only a single image appeared in his mind—his image. Fear clinging to his senses, he thought hard on magic. His imagination ran with a thought and…
The blade shimmered, dinned and pinged, and, as he sensed magic pushing through him, yanked ceiling-wards and pulled straight through the creatures’ flesh. For a moment he hung in the air, suspended by a moment of zero gravity. The creatures’ screams echoed and hurt his ears. Then, it dove into the water and he crashed into the depths, only to be stopped a instant later by a hand that ripped him violently upwards and onto the rocky beach. For a brief moment his vision was stable and he could see the creature, frustrated and in pain, thrashing water in every direction, gurgling and spewing nebulous raven-colored blood, crimson briefly illumining within and dissipating as the creature made its final descent into the depths. The edge of the beach dropped instantly as if it were once a great cliff face.
Then, his vision clouded; his body protested, ached and began to give out. He heard Pea and Darl and felt them shake him to keep him awake. He closed his eyes, but didn’t go to sleep.
“I need to rest,” he said.