He had been walking for hours. The rocky outcrop had not appeared to have been so far away when he set off, but the trek had been surprisingly long.
The seagull was his constant, keeping a safe distance away; always watching. Chris thought back to the campsite and turned around to see if he could still see anything that he recognised. He could not.
Somewhere along the walk, the dunes had given way to rocks which were, in turn, giving way to small cliffs. The sand that had slipped through his toes was now gone and only pebbles met his footfalls. The sea had also darkened. It had become an untrustworthy green rather than blue, and, far out, the horizon promised ill. The bright morning belonged to another time and the memory of the campsite, along with his family, was in the process of being lost. He walked on and on.
There was something he needed to see behind that outcrop.
The bird was looking at him back at him with a raw intelligence. What are you? He heard himself thinking. Who are you?
As he walked further, the strip between land and sea was decreasing. If he had looked back he would have seen that the waters had already encroached upon his escape. He had no choice but to go further. A shiver ran along his body as the sun disappeared behind an assemblyy of clouds whose dark underbellies promised no good.
“Christopher!” a voice called.
Chris immediately shot his attention towards the outcrop and glimpsed a figure, dwarfed against the horizon.
“Christopher. You must come quickly for he knows of your arrival.”
The distance between him and the figure was too great for the words to materialise with such clarity. He heard them as if they had been spoken into his ear. There was an urgency in the voice that bordered on fear. The bird was now next to him and its attention was on the track they had come from. Its eyes were no longer the beady ones belonging to a creature, but ones that mirrored human concern. Its head shifted back to Chris and then to the outcrop.
Chris allowed himself a glance behind and saw that the sea had enveloped the land. He was standing on a disappearing spit that was being consumed by black waves and, inside those waves, he thought that he could see skeletal arms reaching towards him. He needed no more encouragement and started to sprint.
He ran along the slippery rocks and was alarmed to see that his way was being blocked by more and more obstacles. A tide pool full of malicious crabs appeared in in his path and he had to leap to avoid it. As he leapt, he felt the snapping of powerful claws consuming the space he had passed through. Massive boulders had somehow dislodged themselves from the cliff face and had made themselves into another barrier. With a running jump he was able to get a grip on the sides of two that had fallen together. He pushed and pulled his way up, noticing that, as he did so, they slid closer together in an apparent attempt to crush him.
The bird was now in flight. It hovered some fifteen feet above the ground and it was, Chris was sure, directing him.
Scrambling over the disappearing gap between the boulders, Chris fell to the floor. Here, he had fallen into deep seaweed. Its moist expanse covered the rocks and it was, he was sure, aware of him. When his feet touched its outer limits, a shock of expectancy had run along its connected limbs. It was breathing.
“Get to the rock face,”a voice whispered in his ear. “Get to the rock face and follow the slight pathway. Keep away from the seaweed. Keep away from the sea.”
As he listened to the warning, a wet sliver of seaweed wound its way around his ankle.
Chris thought that somebody had grabbed him. The powerful tug almost pulled him off his feet. He looked down to see more of the green menace reaching for his other ankle. In an instant, he was on his knees and grabbing for a rock. He pounded the extending arm with all his remaing strength. At first, the thing recoiled. Then another arm struck out. He stamped on that and bile oozed from it. The shock waves ran along the rest of the mass and there was a palpable sense of indignation.
Now it would strike all at once and it would consume him. Before this could happen, he was off, racing along its firtherst reach. His feet dancing to avoid being caught. Tendrils shot out but were missing their target. He heard a low groan and then came one final assault. Just as Chris was about to reach the rock face, a sliver caught his left foot and immediately established a grip that intended to drag him to his death.
That was when the seagull swooped.
It hit the aggressor with an explosion of wings and talons. Its strong beak sliced through the tendons and Chris was free. Now he could hear the sea roaring behind him. Its deep bellow belonged to an indignant beast that had lost its prey. If he needed any more urging, that was it. Chris moved into an even faster pace.
He was picking out the footfalls that were almost indiscernible in the rock. Spread some three feet apart, they guided his own steps when he would have otherwise faltered. Behind him, the waves and the monstrous seaweed were kicking up a dark spray that was forming into something more tangible.
If Chris had dared to look back, he would have seen an army of grey beings moving towards him. As waves, they were now surmounting the boulders that had stood in his way and were spreading out, climbing the walls of the cliff and the outer reaches of the shoreline in a fashion that suggested an intention to create a pincer.
There was nothing in his mind but escape. Not once did he think that this might have been a dream. Not once did he question the reality of his situation. Not once did he decide to rationalise. For Christopher, his total acceptance of his present fate saved his life.
This was real. The Piper had deemed it so.
He raced on with the elements gathering around him. He was not aware that wherever he ran, something was waiting for him. If he could have seen what the seagull could see, he would have understood the futility of his intended escape. The world was gathering around him, cutting off any chance of him evading it. The Piper had deemed it so.
When he turned and saw the pitiless depth of that which was following, hope slipped away. The waves were not waves, but were crude imitations of human beings. He then saw the final insult. The waves, that had formed into human figures, had one additional twist. The writhing forms belonged to children, ones that were so grotesquely tortured that they could have only been spewed up by hell itself.
Chris would fight, he always did, but this time he would lose. This time he would lose everything.
And then he remembered. He remembered the passageway underground and the tune that had drawn him so far. He remembered The Piper looking up with a smile that had stretched out for millennia and he remembered the gift that he had been offered; one more day with his father. Then, in realisation, he remembered that which he had promised to give up: Michael.
And that was when he would have thrown himself to a fate more terrible than death that waited for him. Yet that was when a hand reached down to pluck him from the screaming tide.
For the briefest of moments, Chris recognised the smell of his father.