Mel and Smith gasped for air as water poured through the large gap in the barrel. Of course it wasn’t airtight; why would it be if it was meant to be a guest room? The river had swirled in through the cracks in the hull and only a tiny amount of air remained by the time Mel had the good sense to crack the glass window floating above water level. The leaks continued, but breaking the glass any further meant being showered with the shards and perhaps even tipping their makeshift vessel fully underwater.
But now the panel was loose and Carla was doing her best to break it from the outside. It didn’t take long for her to pull the too-large hammer out of her tiny bun pocket, but given that she was now less than a foot tall, it was hard to get proper leverage on the slippery wooden barrel. At least there was air, now, so with great effort and a few choice strikes from Mel’s practiced hands, the trio managed to squeeze out of their soggy prison.
The surroundings at the end of the river were pristine. There was no other way to put it. Smooth, squared marble made up pillars and steps in a clean, white temple showing no signs of erosion despite the water flowing everywhere. Down steps, down pillars, over the entries to hallways, there was a constant layer of clear water coating everything. Despite all of this, the floor was only under about an inch of the perpetual river and didn’t seem to be rushing off to any particular draining point.
“Ahoy-ahoy!” Mel turned to see a face poking out from one of the waterfalls. The man in the waterfall was classically handsome, with a strong jaw and smooth black skin framed by long dreadlocks accented with blonde highlights.
“You fellows,” the dreadlocked man called again. “Be you men of this land?”
Mel looked at Smith, who was failing spectacularly at wiping streaks of water off of his glasses, then down at Carla, who was clinging to the ruined barrel in order to avoid getting soaked in the shallow water on the floor. Right, then, it would be his place to speak for the group. “We were sent here from the barrel city.”
“Queer words, Chinaman, but not an answer to my question.” The man leaned ever so slightly out from the waterfall, seemingly unbothered by the streams running over his face.
“We’re foreigners, I suppose, but not-“ Mel stopped himself. If the man in the waterfall was mistaking Mel for Chinese, he had to at least be familiar with China. It had taken such a strange set of circumstances to get to this world in the first place that Mel felt like their little group must be the first to travel over in centuries, but here was a man who didn’t seem much older than twenty directly referencing a country from the world they called home.
“Are you from Earth, sir?” Mel tried to be polite, but his mind was racing.
“Ah, Earth! I’ve been there, my good boy, but it’s been too long.” The man stepped further out from the reaches of the waterfall, revealing himself further. He wore trousers and, although his hands were behind his back, he seemed to be wearing some sort of gloves of bracelets, but besides that he was naked. The man was also unhealthily scrawny. Mel was reminded of the sad commercials with starving African children begging for donations.
Smith had resigned himself to blurred eyesight, it would seem, so he stepped forward to speak. “We’re also from Earth, kid. The name is Smith. This is my manservant, Mel, and our pet hamburger, Carla.”
Mel and Carla both glared at Smith, but they didn’t have time to correct him before the skinny man answered. “Oh, I’m not from Earth. The name is Lee, by the way, Lee Njoko.”
Several things happened all at once. Lee held out his arm for a handshake, but strapped to his wrist was no glove or bracelet, but a blade of sharp metal. The elongated spade-knife hybrid was securely attached by straps of thick leather and it was all too easy to imagine Lee stabbing somebody while the blade stayed in place. Mel had seen weapons like it before, but he’d never imagined somebody casually walking around with a weapon that didn’t even need to be picked up to be used.
The hand and weapon were pointed toward Smith, but Mel still felt he had to take action. Everyone they’d met in this crazy world had tried to kill them. He gripped the hilt of the sword Pritha Prithvi had given him, but before he could pull it out, Carla bounded forward with the hammer she’d already had in her hand.
Lee staggered back into the waterfall, but there was no way to avoid Carla’s warning strike now. Lee melted back into the water and Mel braced himself for the inevitable impact as Carla splashed through and hit Lee, but instead-
Instead, Carla slammed into a wall. The water wasn’t trickling over some doorway after all, but a solid surface. Lee was nowhere to be found and Carla’s face, which of course was also her whole body, was squished flat as a pancake.
Mel ripped his sword from his side, his eyes darting in every direction. Lee had just disappeared into thin air. Despite his friendly disposition and familiarity with their home planet, there was no way this guy was a normal human.
There he was again, casually standing against another wall, for sure a wall this time. Mel and Smith gave simultaneous gasps at the sudden reappearance, but Lee was just laughing. Smith tried to react quickly despite his surprise, throwing an unskilled-looking punch Lee’s way, but in another instant, the strange man was gone.
No, Mel told himself. Look deeper. There were all sorts of people with crazy abilities in this world, especially in this world, but everything had to make some sort of sense. If it was some sort of teleportation, Lee would have instantly reappeared somewhere else, but it was a few seconds before the scrawny young man came into being twenty feet to the right. It was like he was melting out of the wall itself. But he’s vulnerable when he’s whole, or else he wouldn’t bother disappearing.
Mel didn’t want to kill anybody, but the safest way to do things now would be to go for a hit whether it was in a vital spot or not. When in danger, strike now and ask questions later. So Mel dashed toward Lee sword-first, striking in a matter of seconds.
But he didn’t hit solid flesh. The sword slowed as it passed into Lee’s body, but Lee did not seem hurt at all. The area immediately surrounding the sword had already transformed and in the time it took to blink, the man Mel had stabbed collapsed into gallons of water.
“What the hell are you?”
Lee materialized slowly this time. It looked like he was rising out of the ground on some sort of elevator, but as Mel looked slowly, he saw that the strange man wasn’t touching the ground. No, it was more like he was building himself out of the thin layer of-
“I am water.”
Mel gripped his sword tighter, watching the clear liquid turn itself into dark skin as Lee’s feet finished forming. But Lee’s arms were up in a position of surrender, his wrist blades nowhere to be seen.
“Sorry, I forget I even have those sometimes.” Lee massaged his wrists and sighed. “I’ve constructed myself with them so often that it’s almost hard not to.”
“You-“ Smith started and stumbled over his words, “You’re a guy made out of water? Or water made into a guy?”
“Both, sort of. Like I said, I’m Lee Njoko, spirit and physical manifestation of water.” Lee smiled and relaxed his arms. From the wall where he’d first appeared, Carla came unstuck, floating like a piece of paper to the ground. “I can fix that, if you need me to.”
Carla shook herself off like a wet dog, sproinging back into her usual shape. Besides a bump on the head, she didn’t look hurt, just a bit upset.
Mel kept his hand on his sword as he sheathed it and Smith didn’t look any less tense than when he’d thrown his sheepish punch. Lee was not popular right now, so what better to do than change the subject?
“Alright, fellows. Who wants to go to Earth?”