On a tropical coast, far from the realms of men, elves, and dwarves, a horde of frogfolk scavengers slept in a heap on the beach. They dreamt of swimming and eating and other pleasant things. The scavengers lived in the present and when asleep were untroubled by nightmares.
Most of them were anyway. Gix was the exception. Gix had a lot of nightmares. He was not an ordinary scavenger. Just that night he had dreamt of battling a great sea monster, of being eaten by said monster, and then of being alive in its stomach for a long time. Now, awake, he imagined that’s what would happen to him if he were eaten by a monster. He would certainly live, and suffer, and die horribly and slowly in the monster’s stomach. It would be just his luck.
It was also his luck to wake up so early. He didn’t move, didn’t twitch a membrane, waiting for the others to awaken. He didn’t want to draw any attention to himself, and so he did not want to be seen as the first awake. Especially not today. Patient. Patient. Patient. Patient. Patient. It left him lots of time to ponder all the horror of his dream, all the ways being eaten by a sea monster could get worse, and all the horror of the day to come.
It was a culling day. Today, the Elders of the Reef came and chose some scavengers to take away. They always culled the ones like him. The ones that had nightmares. Gix wondered if being taken away by the Elders was better or worse than slow starvation inside a sea monster.
The sun crept up closer and closer to the horizon. Gix could feel it. He had a good sense of time. Unlike the other scavengers. Another thing wrong with him.
A loud ribbet escaped one of the scavengers, as she came awake. The others were immediately awake and croaking nonsensically. Gix joined them, pretending that he too had just awoken.
“Brrrrrrooooo,” he said, “Brrrrrroooo,” in greeting to the others. They slapped each other on the back with webbed hands and puffed up their throats. Gix joined them, eyes darting away to where an Elder would appear for the culling. His compatriots were always astounded when someone came from exactly the same place each day to instruct or direct them. Always surprised, and never afraid. A third thing wrong with Gix. He felt fear.
When the scavengers were sent to hunt through dark caves -- under and over the water -- Gix imagined what was inside. It made him a coward. The others just walked in. They didn’t even shine a lantern into the dark corners. Admittedly, Gix had survived rather longer than… well, than any of the scavengers.
Gix was the oldest frogfolk he knew. Except, of course, for Mother Dorga.
But that was different. Mother Dorga was in charge. Mother Dorga was an Elder. Gix was more afraid of Mother Dorga than of dark caves.
Gix knew it wouldn’t be long now before the Elders came to cull the scavengers. The sun was half out of the water. Soon. Soon. Soon.
Mother Dorga led a small procession of Elder frogfolk and warriors across the sand. She moved with a swaying grace and her entourage were armed with fine weapons. Every three months it was their duty to be sure that different groups of the Memory-less were tested to see if the Memory was awakening in them yet. It was an unending circuit -- going from the fishers to the scavengers to the cannon fodder -- but important work. The Elders needed new blood. If a Memory-less was changing, had lived long enough to find their Memory, then they went from expendable to the most precious resource on the Reef.
It was easy to tell who was gaining the Memory. It always began with a focus in their eyes: a longer attention span and the beginning of language.
A quick look at this group of scavengers did not encourage Dorga -- she doubted she would find a new Elder here today. Yet, her guards herded the croaking mass of frogfolk into a line so she could inspect them. Expressionless eyes and faces passed Dorga and she did not comment.
About halfway through Mother Dorga’s inspection, a salamander came riding down the beach on a crab. What was his name? Ah, Timtim. Timtim the reckless, according to Ancient Bullmon. He leapt off the crab’s back and then bowed to Mother Dorga with an exaggerated flourish of his hand.
He said, “Hello and good morrow, Mother. Are you almost done? I’m to take some scavengers with me on my expedition today. May I choose them?” Timtim smiled broadly at her -- which was odd. No one smiled at Mother Dorga -- and waited for her answer.
“Nearly done,” said Mother Dorga, eyes going back to the scavengers… She blinked. The one she’d been inspecting had crept away… trying to hide in the crowd! That was not the behavior of a Memory-less scavenger!
Oh no, oh no, oh no… thought Gix. He’d meet Mother Dorga’s eyes accidentally. He tried to pretend he had not, holding very, very still.
“You!” she croaked, pointing directly at Gix.
Gix sprang into motion. The little frogfolk leapt up and back, bouncing on the head of one of his fellow scavengers and then rebounding into the air again. He twisted this time, so that he could see where he was running.
Gix had planned against this day -- against being found out by Mother Dorga or someone else. Not that it was likely to do any good. Still. He had to try.
Gix was smaller than the other frogfolk -- but he knew just how to lash out to keep them from getting a grip on him. He jumped and tumbled his way towards the shoreline. He’d hidden supplies out beneath a pile of rocks. It was covered by the tide right now, but he could float out to it and then get his gear and then…
A spear stuck in the sand well in front of Gix, hurled by one of the guards accompanying Mother Dorga. Gix jumped, startled. Then he ran forward and grabbed the spear. It could be useful. He hadn’t counted on them throwing spears. Which surprised him. Usually, Gix was thorough in thinking of potential disasters.
He looked back just in time to see that the cursed salamander had run much faster than the others and was about to grab him. Gix thumped the shaft of the spear into salamander’s gut and then struck the creature on the side of the head with the other end of the weapon. The salamander went reeling into the surf, staggering while Gix turned and continued his escape into the ocean.
“Wait!” called the salamander. “Wait! Why are you running?”
Gix glanced back. The salamander was holding the side of his head, but he had a lopsided grin on his face. Why was he smiling? Why was he talking to Gix? No one talked to Gix. Except the other scavengers. But they weren’t conversationalists, really. Except the ones who were culled.
Gix decided that it was better to keep going. He ignored the salamander and paddled further out into the water, using the spear to float.
“You’ve got the Memory, don’t you?” called the salamander. “You’re an Elder!”
Gix turned back, scornful. If he was an Elder, would he be where he was now? Of course not!
“I’m not an Elder,” he told the idiot salamander. “I’m a scavenger.”
The salamander’s eyes widened. “You can speak already! You’re definitely an Elder. How old are you?”
“Nearly eight seasons,” said Gix. “Since I’ve been counting.”
“You’ve survived eight seasons as a scavenger?” said the salamander, incredulous. “How? And have you never noticed you were different?”
“Of course, I’m different! I can’t help it! I try, but I can’t! I have nightmares! And caution! But I don’t want to be… disappeared! Culled! I’m a good scavenger! Why not leave me be?”
“Because you’re an Elder,” said the salamander. “You’re not supposed to be a scavenger. You’re supposed to be a hero.”
Gix didn’t know what to say. There were so many things wrong with that statement.
“Come with me, and I’ll prove it! I’m supposed to pick scavengers to come with me today anyway. I’m Timtim. I’ll look out for you, I promise. Everything is going to be fine.”
Everything was decidedly not fine.
Not at all.
Gix thought he’d imagined all the worst things that could happen to him… and now he was finding new ones. He was on the deck of a small raft, sailing towards the edge of the Reef!
He was certainly going to die. But how? Would he drown? Get swept overboard and killed outright by an enormous wave? Would Timtim turn out to be a vicious murderer, despite his inviting smile? A deadly virus might strike and drive them all to murder each other? Or, would it be simple? A shark attack, perhaps? The possibilities were endless.
Along with Timtim and Gix were four more frogfolk: two more scavengers, as carefree as Gix was supposed to be, and two grumpy Elder warriors with spears. Timtim kept trying to talk to Gix.
“So… do you like being a scavenger?” asked Timtim.
Gix ignored him. The salamander tapped him on the shoulder.
“What’s your name?” asked the salamander. That was an even worse question!
“Do you know what we’re doing?” asked the salamander.
Gix did not know. He glanced at Timtim. Torn. Was it better to know? Or worse? He was not sure.
“We’re going to explore a shipwreck!” said Timtim, slapping Gix on the back. It was worse. Worse to know. Worse. Worse. Worse. There were so many ways to die in a shipwreck.
“So you’re going to need a few things.” Timtim frowned at his own equipment and took the net from his belt. “Here. Take this. We should have gotten you weapons before we left, but there will be plenty of time later.”
“No there won’t be,” said Gix. “We’re all going to die.”
Timtim laughed like he’d made a joke. “No, no,” said the salamander. “We’ll make it. Everything is going to be fine.”
Gix wished he would stop saying that.
“Do you know how to use a sword?” asked the friendly salamander.
Gix looked at him. That was a truly ridiculous question.
Timtim chuckled again. “Well, then, maybe snag some roundfish. They’re almost as good for throwing as eggs.” Timtim still gave Gix a short bone sword, along with a small harpoon. It was more equipment than Gix had ever had at his disposal.
“Careful of the tip on that,” said Timtim, pointing to the harpoon. “It’s dipped in poison!” the salamander explained with a wink.
They sailed on. Soon, too soon, Gix could see the edge of the Reef. It was like a line of darkness in the water. Below them the ocean was pure, clean aquamarine, dotted with shimmering corals and flashing schools of fish. It was a natural barrier for the Reefkin -- allowing only smaller sea creatures to come near the shore. As they crossed into the deep blue black sea beyond the Reef, Gix held his breath. He couldn’t help it.
He let the breath go when Timtim clapped him on the back. “The wreck is not far beyond the Reef, everything will be--”
Behind Timtim, Gix saw the first orange tentacle rise from dark waters. Gix hadn’t thought of a giant octopus. He berated himself for his lack of imagination as he screamed.
Another tentacle rose from the water -- this one on the other side of their little boat. It reached down, groping for the boat and it’s small crew.
The two Memoried heroes raised their spears and one threw. The weapon stuck in the tentacle. The great orange limb retreated -- vanishing back under the water. A moment later four more tentacles broke the surface, furiously grasping for the little craft.
One limb wrapped around the croaking, hopping Memory-less frogfolk while Gix danced to one side. The two scavengers were gone in a moment, pulled down under the water.
Another tentacle wrapped around the boat itself. Together, the warriors stabbed it -- forcing it to loosen it’s grasp. It did… but two more unharmed tentacles appeared to replace it.
This wasn’t going to work. Gix could see that it wasn’t going to work -- no matter how they stabbed and struck at the tentacles, they weren’t going to defeat this monster without going to it.
Still screaming his head off, Gix charged -- and as one of the tentacles was forced to release the boat he unfurled the net Timtim had given him. It caught on the tentacle and with only half a second to catch his breath, Gix was torn from the boat and splashed into the deep ocean.
The water here was dark. There was no difference between looking down and looking south or north or west. All was murky blue, fading to black. As Gix was pulled down, deeper and deeper into the water, part of that darkness resolved itself into the curve of the giant octopus. Desperately, Gix shook the net, trying to free himself before he was tossed below the beast.
With a lucky jerk of his wrist, he released the net. Momentum still propelled him down, down, towards the monster. Gix readied his small harpoon -- hoping, hoping this would work.
Should have thought about being eaten by an octopus, he berated himself. Gix swam closer and closer to the octopus’ side -- and then loosed the harpoon. It struck true, and Gix could see the skin of the monster twitch and flinch in irritation. The whole thing turned -- and Gix let the harpoon go. The octopus rotated so that, in a moment, Gix was facing one enormous eye. Larger than he was.
He kicked forward, mouth open and trailing bubbles since he could no longer scream. He stabbed with the bone sword Timtim had given him, plunging it into the monster’s eye.
He felt it go in -- and then the sea heaved around Gix, sending him spinning.
The water was suddenly even darker than it had been. Gix twisted, desperately trying to find up. And he could not. There was no sun. No sign of the reef. Everything, in every direction was endless dark water.
Gix panicked, flailing around. He was going to be eaten by the octopus. Or he was going to run afoul of another monster. Or he was going to swim down and get lost in an underwater cave and never find his way out and starve. Or he’d be--
Gix kicked out strongly as he enumerated in his head all the ways his situation was going to get worse. He wasn’t going to die standing still, at least. Of that he was certain. Unless the octopus could paralyze him somehow. Or he swam into his discarded harpoon. Or--
He broke the surface of the sea without warning. Around him, the water was darker than before, blackened by the octopus’ ink.
A strong hand grabbed Gix by the arm and hauled him up onto the raft. Timtim. The mad salamander was grinning.
“You did great!” he said.
“Great?!” spluttered Gix. “I almost died! We all almost died!”
“But we didn’t!” said Timtim, forgetting, apparently, that some of them had.
Gix sank dejectedly on the raft’s surface. Was he the only sane one? He’d thought that the Elders were more clever than he. But this salamander was clearly out of his mind.
“We could go back,” Timtim said, considering the far away shore. “With half our crew gone, it won’t be easy to search the wreck.”
Gix sighed. He looked back at the beach, thinking of all the ways he could perish there. Then he turned out towards the wreck, with all its dangers. He held his head in his hands. Even the raft was unsafe… with an angry one-eyed octopus somewhere close at hand.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “We’re going to die somewhere.”
Timtim’s eyes glittered, like he knew Gix would say that. “And better to die going forward than back!” The salamander clapped Gix on the shoulder. “That’s the spirit-- what was your name?”
“It’s Gix,” said the little frog. “I’m called Gix.”
“That’s the spirit, Gix! Onward!” said Timtim, “Everything is going to be fine.”