I woke up soaked on an unfamiliar beach, the remains of the lifeboat scattered like a shattered shell around me. Lifting my face from the sand, I was amazed to see an otter and a stork sitting a few feet away, staring at me.
“Oh good, you’re alive,” the otter said.
“We didn’t know how to tell,” the stork explained. “You being such a strange creature.”
Talking animals. Clearly, I was either asleep or deluded. I slapped myself across the face, hoping it would snap me back to reality.
“I don’t think he’s well,” the stork muttered out of the corner of his beak.
I slapped myself again.
“Is that working for you?” the stork asked.
“I’ll help.” The otter scurried over and started slapping me back and forth. “Is that working?”
“Ow ow ow stop!”
“Alright, but it was your idea.”
I got to my feet and looked around. The beach was a glorious ribbon of gold backed by gently rolling dunes. Across an inlet, verdant woodland grew above rugged cliffs. A lighthouse stood proud in front of the trees.
I had no idea where I was, but the sky was blue and clear with just a few fluffy white clouds.
“You look confused,” the stork said. “We should get you to someone who can help.”
I followed them along the beach. The way I saw it, there were two options. Either I was imagining them talking, in which case following did no harms, or my scrambled brain was seeing people as animals, in which case they really could help. Either way, this was the best option.
We approached a small town spread across the sides of the inlet and up the river beyond. Cobbled streets were lined with houses that ranged from the tiny to the towering. Quays stretched across the inlet, sheltering a host of sailing boats. The streets bustled with life, from scurrying mice to a giraffe clopping down towards the shore, and birds circled above, gossipping and singing to each other.
My guides led me to a harbour master’s office, where a grisly bear sat hunched behind a desk, a quill pen pinched between her claws.
“What have you two found?” she asked, staring at me.
“I think he’s some kind of ape,” the otter said.
“Or she is,” the stork added. “Can’t tell with that strange fur all over it.”
“Pleased to meet you,” I said, holding out my hand.
The bear stretched out a paw and I took it, expecting to feel the reassuring touch of human fingers beneath my delusion. Instead I felt fur, as real as the floorboards beneath my feet or the sand that had found its way into my underwear.
Perhaps I was still asleep. I pinched myself on the back of the hand but failed to wake up. The bear imitated the gesture, pinching her own furred flesh.
“You have very strange greetings,” she said, “wherever you come from.”
Somehow, that made it all seem more real.
“I come from Brighton,” I said. “The ship I was travelling on was wrecked and now I’m hoping someone can transport me home.”
“I see. Where is this Brighton?”
“South of London.”
“And this London is…”
“London. The capital of England.”
The bear tilted her head on one side.
“And where is this England?”
I gaped at her.
“You run this harbour, and you don’t know-”
“North, east, south, west?”
“I… I don’t know.”
I stood aghast. If this wasn’t England – a point I wasn’t yet ready to concede – its inhabitants must at least know which way home lay.
“Then I’m afraid we can’t take you.”
So that was how it went. They’d trapped me here somehow. Well, I wasn’t going to stand for it.
“I’ll take myself!” I stormed out the door and strode down to the harbour. Animals turned to watch me – dogs, cats, sheep, a family of voles – but I ignored them. They weren’t real, and that meant they weren’t worth my time.
At the end of the quay, I leapt onto the nearest boat.
“Here, what are you doing?” a salamander said, sitting up in a deck chair at the front of the vessel.
“I’m sailing for England,” I declared, grabbing hold of a rope.
“Not on my boat, you’re not!”
“Just try to stop me!” I said, glaring down at him. No figment of my imagination was keeping me from home.
“So you’re a sailor, then?” asked a familiar voice from the harbour side. The otter was peering down at me, and I could have sworn that he was smirking.
“No, a carpenter,” I admitted. “But this is my dream, and if I can work out how to talk with otters then I can work out how to sail a boat. I just have to… to…”
I looked at the rope in my hands. I didn’t even know if it was connected to anything, never mind what it did.
“Come see something,” the otter said.
With a sigh, I climbed out of the boat and followed him through town, across a bridge, up a trail, and into the lighthouse. We ascended its circling stairs and emerged onto a platform below the light.
Looking out, I saw green fields and wide forests in one direction, endless blue ocean in the other, and below it all the most idyllic little town I’d ever seen.
“I don’t know what it’s like in Brighton,” the otter said, “but around here, life’s peaceful and pleasant, there’s plenty to eat, and, well, it looks like this.” He gestured with his little paws. “Maybe just stay for a few days, while you work out how to get home.”
I looked. Given what my real life was like, a little more dreaming might not be so bad.
“Alright,” I said. “Just a few days, then I’ll leave.”
“Of course you will,” the otter said with a smile.
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By Sword, Stave or Stylus
A gladiator painting with manticore blood.
A demon detective policing Hell.
A ninja who can turn into shadow.
Prepare to be swept away to worlds beyond our own in these thirteen short fantasy stories.
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