Sunday, November 15, 2020

The Undercollege, Part 10: Surface Tension

Originally published on Facebook Notes, 26th August 2011

Rudolf returned to consciousness to find himself being borne along by strong arms, his head just above the level of the water. Salt stung his eyes and throat, and he retched and blinked furiously. He felt like he'd been hit by a bus. It took some time for his eyes to clear enough to get a good view of the person holding him.

"Struggle not," she was ordering.

A pair of firm, sun-browned female breasts bobbed above him, bared to the elements. Despite her tan, the woman's skin had a strange translucent quality to it. Her dark hair was arranged into many plaits that skipped behind her as she swam. The other person holding him had a similar complexion, his muscular torso equally bare. He was supporting Rudolf's legs as they powered along through the water. Twisting his head around, Rudolf could see that the lighter Mike was being carried along by another male naked above the waist, a giant of a man who did not seem at all impeded by the bulk of the wiry engineer. This man also sported a long beard, and both it and his hair were plaited in the same way as the woman's.

"Struggle not," she commanded once again, jabbing something hard and sharp into the small of his back. Rudolf winced as pain lanced through him.

"Ow," he replied with feeling. "Who the bloody hell are you?"

"I am called Nausicaa," the woman spoke, confiding in him as a guard to a condemned prisoner, as if she knew that he would not be able to make use of the information. "These are my brothers, Halius and Laódamas."

"That's... agh... not exactly what I meant," Rudolf wheezed, coughing up a hidden cache of seawater. "Who are you people? And why is this not Cambridge... where are we?" Nothing but sea could be seen in all directions.

"Here?" Nausicaa waved her hand dismissively, displaying the small three-pronged flint spear she'd used to prod him earlier. "Here is nowhere. My siblings and I were keeping watch over Charybdis. The mouth opened and you emerged, so we are taking you to the Isle of Ely." She hesitated, then added "We are the Ael."

A growl of displeasure emerged from the mouth of the giant, Laódamas. "Answer not his questions, Nausicaa," he rumbled. "He is a hostage. He is one of Them."

Rudolf didn't respond, because he'd just spotted something that shocked him to the core. His eyes had been drawn down, past the woman's flat, slender navel to where the curve of her hips began. Instead of legs, Nausicaa's body below the waist segued into a long, smooth, green-brown tail, which beat the water rhythmically to propel them along. Rudolf suddenly felt the urge to retch again.

Mike was awake, but his blue-grey eyes were roving listlessly, and he was hardly moving. Meekly he allowed himself to be carried on towards the Ael's familiar destination.


The Cathedral Church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Ely, known locally as the Ship of the Fens, was a familiar landmark to Fen-dwellers, to whom it was visible for many miles around. Its octagonal Lantern Tower, not much younger than the ancient University of Cambridge itself, was unique in design, soaring upwards supported by eight trusty flying buttresses. To Rudolf and Mike, however, the whole edifice was at present noticeable primarily for its absence. Ely Isle - here a true island, surrounded by wine-dark seas lapping at its shores - did not at all resemble the town they remembered. Although the lie of the land was still recognisably the same, gone were the buildings and the boats. Instead the sandy-dirty shoreline was riddled with burrows, and it was into the mouth of one of these that the two students were taken.

"Back underground," Rudolf muttered. "Brilliant."

The tunnel did not go on for long. Soon it opened out into a wider chamber, still lit dimly by the reflection of the sun on the waves outside, and Rudolf was deposited on a rock ledge half out of the water, with Mike dropped beside him. The one who had been called Halius dived down below the water, his anguilliform tail flicking momentarily above the surface as he disappeared into a submerged opening.

Finally motionless for a moment, Rudolf and Mike concentrated on purging their throats and lungs of the foul brine. They had little time to collect their thoughts before several more of the strange eel-folk undulated into the room. They were led by a male almost as large as the giant Laódamas, although considerably older. This one's face was worn by several gill-like lines, and his hair, unbound, had the slime-green quality of seaweed. On his brow was a crown of sorts, an ornate circlet of shells. "Daughter," he boomed, his tone ominous. "You bring denizens of the Underworld. Why have you led them here?"

Nausicaa's alien brown eyes drifted down in deference, although it seemed to Rudolf that a lively intelligence flickered behind them. "The mouth of Charybdis opened, and we found them there. They emerged not prepared for the consequences." She paused. "If we had not intervened, they would likely have perished."

"Outcasts of the underworld?" the patriarch responded, mossy eyebrows raised. "Belike it would have been better to leave them." He turned to the other two Ael who had brought Mike and Rudolf with them. "Halius, I know that you follow your sister in everything, even to the point of idiocy. Laódamas, what do you have to say for yourself?"

The giant's muscular shoulders drooped, but he spoke clearly and articulately. "Alcinous, father, I saw nothing to lose in bringing them here. If they truly belong to Them, to the dwellers below, then we may be able to use them as hostages or extract information from them."

"But if they do not," Nausicaa interjected, "then they must be enemies of the underworld as we are. We could share knowledge. They could aid us."

"And what if this is a ploy?" Alcinous shot back. "What if they are servants of those who rule below, waiting only to be led to our stronghold before they use their dark craft to escape us and tell the others where we reside? Did either of you consider that?"

Rudolf seized the opportunity. "We're not from the underworld," he spoke loudly, although hoarsely, as his throat was still sore from the seawater. "If by that you mean the dark building down there. The... ah... Undercollege." The tall rower spat out a gobbet of salt water. "They're our enemies all right. We left a friend down there - a girl, Cat. They took her prisoner, and the two of us barely escaped with our lives."

"Is that so?" The Ael patriarch narrowed his eyes. "Then whence do you come? Only those who are dark of mind dwell in the dark places of the underworld. It has never been any other way." He frowned. "And to enter Their realm from the outside, one must first pass through ours. Yet we did not see you pass through Charybdis, or through the Eye of Acheron. How, then, did you come to be there?"

"We... don't exactly know," Rudolf admitted. "It just happened. One minute we were in Cambridge, the next minute we were there." He sucked air in through his salty lips. "We're from another world, you might say."

Alcinous did not release him from his stern gaze. "Your story is highly unconvincing," he pronounced. "Laódamas, take them to the beach and gut them as they would gut us."

The patriarch's pronouncement caused some surprise among the other Ael. Halius's eyes widened, and a cry of "What?" emerged from Nausicaa's full lips. "Oh, for pity's sake," Rudolf cursed as Laódamas grabbed hold of one of his burly arms. "If we really were spies, do you think we'd have such a poor cover story?" He tried to pull free, but the giant Ael's grip was vicelike.

"See that it is done," Alcinous commanded.

This time it was Nausicaa and Laódamas who dragged Rudolf along through the tunnel, not without resistance on his part, while Halius bore Mike over one translucent shoulder. The two Ael seemed more than capable of restraining the tall rower while swimming along, and after a particularly painful thwack with the handle of Nausicaa's trident he subsided, instead trying to think of something else to say. "You're making a big mistake," was all he could manage.

"The stench of corruption covers you," Laódamas shot back.

Rudolf had to admit that he'd smelled better; crawling around caves and traversing underground rivers was liable to do that to one. "We're not monsters. We wouldn't gut you. We're progressive." Magdalene College even admits women these days. They'd emerged into the sunlight. Halius only grunted as he turned, hefted Mike out of the water and slammed him down bodily onto the grey sand of the beach. As he did so, something fell out of Mike's pocket. It was the copper casket.

The reddish metal glinted as it met the sun's rays, and the lid sprang open. Out onto the sands rolled a very strange object. On a white metal chain, the pendant could have been any other piece of jewellery - except that the enormous ruby that formed its centrepiece was alive, pulsating like a human heart, and every time it did so its baleful glow grew momentarily brighter. "Sister! It is the phylactery of Dolios," Halius announced. "The red-eyed one wears it often when he comes to hunt."

Both Nausicaa and Laódamas had turned to glance at this new sight, the female Ael even releasing his arm. Rudolf saw his chance, and sprang into action.

His feet were already dragging along the sand below the tide line. Instead of trying to pull away from Laódamas, he grabbed hold of the giant Ael with both hands, using him as a pivot point to swing his legs around and send his shins crashing into Nausicaa's head. The female Ael, light as she was, was propelled out of the water and landed heavily on the beach next to Mike, her trident spinning away and her smooth tail flailing helplessly. Laódamas emitted a low growl as he latched onto Rudolf's other arm, and the two grappled for a few seconds. Then Halius was upon him, his hands closing around the man's throat and pressing, squeezing. Points of light exploded across Rudolf's vision as the two Ael began to throttle the life out of him.

"Stop." A new voice reached over the commotion - or at least a voice Rudolf hadn't heard in a short while. It was Mike. All three of them twisted to see.

The engineer, previously so unresponsive, had retrieved the trident and clambered to his knees. Holding the weapon in both hands, he now towered over Nausicaa's limp form, the semi-conscious Ael squirming but unable to evade, a fish out of water. "Remember this," he muttered. Time seemed to stand still as he brought the trident's three points stabbing down.

Onto the phylactery.

The grotesque ruby screamed as the weapon's central spike pierced it, and crimson arterial blood spurted from the wound, spattering both Nausicaa and Mike as the pendant jerked savagely in its death throes. Once, twice, three times more it pulsed, on each pulse expelling more of its vital fluid, then finally it lay still, its glow fading.

Rudolf gaped. So did Halius. Mike just sighed and dropped the trident to the sand, raising his hands in surrender. "Now," he spoke wearily, "can we have another go at negotiating?"


Shaking his head in disbelief, Rudolf listened to Alcinous outline the plan.

"We will descend via the Eye of Acheron," the Ael patriarch pronounced. "Halius, you will lead a full phalanx of our warriors into battle. I would take the command myself, but my daughter tells me I am too old for such things." There seemed to be genuine regret in Alcinous's booming voice. "The enemies of our enemies, these men Mike and Rudolf, will be given time to retrieve their companion. Once they are successful, or once they are slain, you will call the retreat via the same route."

Rudolf winced. He'd only known the Ael for little more than an hour, as he reckoned it, but it was already becoming apparent that they were a painfully literal people.

"Remember," Mike added, "your role is to create a diversion, not to take on all the forces of the Undercollege on even terms. I don't doubt your prowess, but you probably know better than we do what dirty tricks our friend the Red-Eyed One and his cronies have up their collective sleeve. There'll come a time when we can root them out for good. For now, you're just helping us settle a score."

"And we're grateful," Rudolf added, clumsily. "I mean, really grateful."

The rower could barely believe the turnaround in their fortunes. Mike's act in destroying the 'phylactery' had apparently done what Rudolf's words could not, namely to convince the Ael that the pair of them were friends and allies, not enemies. More impressively, over the last hour or so, the engineer had managed to convince Alcinous and his offspring to aid them in sneaking back into the Undercollege and retrieving Cat. The old fish even seemed to think he owed them something for destroying the phylactery.

It's a strange world. Not our world, anyway. And not our place to question. He'd left most of the negotiation to Mike, anyway. Since the other man had awoken from his unresponsive state, Rudolf had been mightily impressed with his steely resolve.

"Then the bargain is struck," Alcinous intoned. "You may wish to rest. We will depart at first light tomorrow."

Rudolf, who had been treading water in the Ael's half-submerged tunnels for most of the past hour, did indeed wish to rest. "Back to the beach?" he asked Mike as the engineer swam away from the Ael patriarch, their business concluded. "I could do with a quick sunbathe after all we've been through." Mike nodded wearily.

"Do you really think this will work?" Rudolf asked, once they were away from the main body of the Ael. When Mike did not respond after a few seconds, he continued. "I'm amazed they agreed to help us at all."

"I think they were only too happy to find some small way in which they could strike back. They have a list of grudges against the Undercollege dating back centuries," Mike replied. "What we've suffered is nothing compared to what they've been through. At the hands of that tux-wearing Praelector. They call him Dolios, or the Red-Eyed One. Same guy. They claim he's been around for a couple of hundred years himself."

"Huh." Rudolf frowned. "That's weird." I must have zoned out during that part of the discussion. For a historian, Rudolf had never been good at remembering stuff about the past.

"They even claim that the whole race of them was created by the academics of the College," Mike continued, "back in the mists of time. Genetically engineered, so to speak. Then sent out to the surface of this world, so that they could be hunted for sport. That explains why they all speak English, anyway."

"And why their culture is shot through with bastardised references to Homer," Rudolf added. "But what about my question? Will this work?"

"Honestly?" Mike turned to face him as they emerged, once again, into the sunlight. "I don't know. Probably some Ael will die. Perhaps we'll die ourselves. But right now?" He blinked, then fixed his gaze on Rudolf's. "I don't even care."

At that moment, Rudolf felt more scared of the engineer's blue-grey eyes than of the distant blood-red irises of the ancient Praelector.

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