It wasn't rare on the Discworld for something to appear as if by magic and yet always seemed to have been there. Such events seemed to occur frequently, being notable as they happen and are quickly accepted or dismissed in favour of the next strange event (which tend to go hand in hand). Things like shops in back alleys that sell arcane treasures, or mundane items that masked the arcane treasures. Perhaps unexplained objects that just keep appearing until their purpose is revealed in a grand fashion at the height of chaos.
A small island in the middle of the ocean that never previously appeared on the maps however isn't so easy to spot. There have been such islands that were suddenly discovered that garnered the interest of those who found them, with typically bloody results. But such locations were always there, waiting to be found (or left alone, depending on your point of view). They were also fairly accessible and simple to quantify.
The island in question however was not so natural. It suddenly appeared in the Widdershins Ocean, between Fourecks and Nothingfjord. It was a strange crescent shape with a volcano in the centre, both ends rounding out instead of tapering. A bird flying overhead might describe it as looking like a croissant with fists (of course, said bird would be a seagull and if pressed for a description, would answer only with an irritated squawk).
All that could be said of the island's discovery was that the man who had reported its existence had returned home the last survivor of his crew, and had succumbed to both madness and pneumonia shortly thereafter. How he survived as long as he did was anyone's guess. It didn't take long for word to spread about this mysterious isle (as so often happens in tales such as these) and eventually word came to Ankh-Morpork, to interested ears sitting in a pub on a dark, stormy night (as so often happens in tales such as these).
"I'm setting up an expedition," said the wizard, a portly fellow with an incipient beard and a face none of the men he was addressing trusted. "The journey will be long and perilous, I will not lie, and we will need to sail around the continent to get there. Once we get to the Widdershins coast, we will then be going to a place never before seen."
"How do ye know it's there?" spat one of the others at the table. "If it's 'never before seen', that means nobody knows it exists, including you."
"Well, okay, never before seen by anyone in this part of the world. But word has spread-"
"And why the hell do you want us to guide you thousands of miles through dangerous seas and pirate-infested waters just so you can play tourist? You're a wizard. Why don't you just teleport or something like that?" There was grunting and laughter at the table. He knew there was little point in explaining to these types why teleportation was both dangerous and impractical. That and I don't know how to do it, he thought. Suddenly this meeting didn't seem like the greatest idea.
Mathew Gardon was not the most experienced of wizards. In fact he was still a senior student at the Unseen University, a man with a future if only he could focus on what he wanted to do. The problem was, he wanted to explore the world. Quite literally. He wanted to see every country, every continent, explore every inch of the Disc from Krull to the furthest edge of the Rim. One of his ambitions was to travel the whole Circumfence and publish an account of his adventures.
However, his ambition and skills did not exactly go well together. For all his desires, he did not have a practical goal to aim towards. At present he worked in the Library where he both studied and preserved old texts. Although creative, he often let his ideas fall in favour of getting drunk at one of the many local pubs and forgetting about them later. He wasn't a very physical type and found his main source of exercise was running, usually from an incensed professor or ill-tempered men whom he looked at the wrong way (or bumped into, or accidentally spilled beer on, or who just happened to hate wizards and there he was). He was good with potions and spells but only to a certain degree, in that he had thus far succeeded in not blowing himself into oblivion.
It was in fact on one the nights he was out having a drink that he overheard a pair of trolls discussing rumours of this new discovery and the doomed survivor. Having already downed two pints, he walked over and casually begged pardon for his interruption, wishing to know more about the tale. One of the trolls immediately pushed him by the face and onto the ground, telling him to bugger off and not intrude on private conversation. He took the hint but did his best to eavesdrop until they left.
Having a rough idea of where in the Disc this mystery land had been found and after checking the Library's atlas, he had come to the inn tonight and asked the barman if there were any sailing crews looking for long-distance work. The five opposite him had been directed to his table, attracted by the money that was being promised (he hadn't left the barman any other details to convey, to give off an air of mystique). None of them however had yet given their names. When asked, the apparent leader of the group grunted, spat on the middle of the table and told Gardon to get on with it. Names could come later. Three of the others seemed to be in agreement of not taking the wizard seriously, however the last, a dwarf, seemed interested enough to ask a less abrasive query.
"Just what exactly do you hope to accomplish by travelling to this mystery location?" he asked, not unkindly. "And is the money you are offering enough to cover provisions to last us until we return?"
"Excellent question," said Gardon. "We will discuss finances momentarily, but first the destination. We're going to an island, between the main continent and Fourecks. Last year, it was not on any map, presumed undiscovered. Until a man was found coming to port in Nothingfjord on an otherwise deserted trade ship. It is said that he and his crew were returning home when they saw this land in the distance and steered to investigate. Unfortunately, he was so sick that he had died before it could be determined what happened to the rest of his party." He paused for effect.
"What interests me is that when he was asked what was on the island, he would not say. He did have a map, however, one he made himself. According to what has been said-"
"Bah, we've heard this kind of crap before!" shouted one of the others. "A map to someplace 'orrible, like a lost world of monsters or tribes of cannibals."
"Maybe a tribe of cannibals that feed virgins to the monsters," said a third. "Shrieking blondes, I've heard they like."
"Yeah, and when this sailor was asked about it, he got so scared that he started screaming and moaning and shouting NO or some such blather," said the fourth, who proceeded to swill the rest of his beer.
"It's just another seaman's tale," said the first naysayer as the fourth let out a large belch. "A waste of bloody time from a wizard with an over-active imagination. Keep your money, it's probably not going to be enough anyhow. We all know how this goes. Piss off."
All four of them got up and walked back to the bar, a couple leaving more spit in their wake. Only the dwarf remained, who had stayed silent during the retorts from the other men. He had a knowing expression and beard almost the same length as his hair (which was already short). He took a sip from his ale and looked Gardon straight in the eye before saying, "Please continue."
It took a few days to assemble a party, thanks to the dwarf's connections. His name was Ash Halfpenny and he was unlike any other dwarf that Gardon had met before. For a start, he enjoyed travel by sea. He also preferred his surname not be mentioned outside of formalities, due to the myriad of "half" jokes that could be made (understandable), and had an exploratory attitude that was comparable to Gardon's own. Most dwarves were focused on steady work or accumulating gold (particularly the latter), however Ash was less concerned about precious metals as he was about understanding the world around him, viewing knowledge as a greater treasure. He too wanted to see more of what was beyond the confines of a certain city or society. The fact that he was far-sighted also gave him advantages to travel, despite disadvantages to something more traditional like mining.
As it turns out, he had already been to many places all over the continent Gardon wouldn't have expected. Although he wasn't too interested in wealth, he appreciated it enough to use it to his advantage. The Halfpennys were actually quite successful traders and open to Ash's wanderlust. As long as he brought back mementos for the family (preferably gold ones) they would support his indulgences. And he had been quite reasonable about them. The men at the inn had just returned from Hersheba and Ash had accompanied them, officially for trade but really to relish their cuisine.
The ship hired was called the Strath-Spey and it was agreed with the captain that they head out at the beginning of the next week when the weather eased, as the conditions when they reached the parts where the distance between land and Rim narrowed should by then be less difficult to traverse. It was a wise choice, as they experienced relatively smooth sailing through most of their journey. For all the talk of pirates causing a nuisance around Klatch, they even managed to avoid running into any of them. Except one, but they weren't aware of its existence. There had been a heavy fog that night and the pirate ship that had begun following them was caught in a whirlpool, ruining any chance of a grand emergence from the haze.
Cape Terror lived up to its moniker however, and it was astounding that they didn't find themselves going off the edge of the world. At least now Gardon knew what the Circumfence looked like and decided after much thought (and liquor to calm his nerves) that it was a journey he no longer wanted to take. By the time they reached Nothingfjord, two months had passed and they had impressively lost only three members of their crew. Two had perished on Cape Terror, one by a shark which had surprised them by jumping out of the water as the boat was leaning and snatched the man off the edge; the other was simply thrown overboard by the winds.
The last fell victim to a cultural misunderstanding in Genua, where they had stopped to gather supplies, which led to a severe pub brawl that nearly resulted in everyone dying. Thankfully this was resolved by Ash's proficiency in mediation. Most dwarves would resent being out of pocket so quickly but he felt lives were more important in this case.
Gardon looked on at the men who had joined him for this adventure. There was Ash, looking sagely into the distance and seemingly unconcerned that the waves were getting choppy. Three deckhands were making sure the ship ran smoothly, and the ship's captain was barking orders to ensure it stayed that way. These men were hired from the Nothingfjord port of Herrinsmelt as guides (and unofficially, to help to make up for the men previously lost). They were fortunate to even have them on board, as it quickly became apparent that nobody was going to readily assist them in getting to what they called "the Accursed Isle" without handsome remuneration.
Seems like I'm the only one accursed here, thought Gardon, as that was pretty much all he had left. He had paid for the ship's charter when they began this journey, which included Captain Hoek and his six crewmen, and all the provisions needed for the journey. Well, most of them. Ash had been gracious enough to co-finance to ensure eventual replenishments could be afforded but also made it clear that he was not an unlimited resource Gardon could mine from. Gardon himself had maintained the money was approved by his superiors at the University, although in reality, they were so busy trying to clean up a mess made in the High Energy Magic Building that they didn't notice he had helped himself to more than his entitlements. As the days passed, his confidence that his findings would justify his sticky fingers began to wane. He just hoped that nobody else noticed.
Nonetheless, he frequently felt the impression that he was to blame for all their mishaps. Although nobody had yet stated this for a fact, the cold looks, colder shoulders and mutterings of phrases like "useless bloody wizard" did not go unnoticed. The three original sailors that remained were currently below decks either trying to rest or making sure that their supplies were secure.
He thought about the men below, wondering when they would be joining the rest of the crew on deck. Captain Hoek's hints were becoming less subtle, after all. Arthur Chase and Owen Pym, two younger men of good character, had both expressed their excitement with sailing to an unknown land but were now less enthusiastic about the journey than when they had started. They hadn't quite been the same since the loss of the others, especially First Mate Stephan in Genua, but were enduring.
The only one that really concerned Gardon was Lugner, who was the very embodiment of scurviness. He was always cracking wise and making playfully aggressive gestures (if one could call them playful), looked like he never bathed unless it was in a sewer, and lately seemed more interested in spending time in the hold than in his other duties. Gardon secretly wished it was him that had died in the bar fight rather than Stephan (and almost suspected Lugner was the one who started it).
"Mr. Gardon," said Ash, who was suddenly beside him. "When you're done pondering, the Captain has requested all hands on deck and at attention. Nothing serious, I think he just wants to be ready for the storm that's going to catch us in an hour or so."
"Yes, of course," said Gardon. "Wait, what storm? Oh, those clouds in the distance? It doesn't look so bad to me."
"Yes, but if you were to take a closer look, you might see some flickering lights. There's one now. Might not look like much from this distance, but remember the Cape Terror squall. Not that you could forget it."
Damn, thought Gardon. The day wasn't exactly clear but there wasn't a sign of anything rough until now. So much for smooth sailing.
It wasn't as bad as the storms on Cape Terror but the Nothings were noticeably uncomfortable about moving forward into the fray. Their culture was legendary for sailing to new lands but that didn't mean they enjoyed waves of sea and sleet crashing into them as they held on for dear life. In fact, they were reticent to even discuss the isle and the map brought back by the reported survivor. Gardon had asked around at Herrinsmelt (with great difficulty, as only a few could understand him and vice-versa) before being able to get his hands on the map, relying on a reluctant Ash to pay for the favour. He then queried if anyone had tried searching for the island in the time since but received no answer, just well-wishes delivered with blank expressions.
They men they hired were named Alf, Olli and Svend, large men with wavy gold hair, beards to match and muscular frames that even a troll would find impressive. Their view of the wizard could be kindly be described as contempt. Captain Hoek, being originally from Uberwald, had less trouble getting their respect and seemed to be the only one they were willing to actively speak with, along with Ash, but only if there wasn't much else to do. The rest of the crew they ignored unless interaction was necessary.
After a few close calls with some lightning bolts and waves that threatened to capsize the ship, the storm suddenly cleared and within a few hours, the Strath-Spey found itself sailing the calmest waters it had experienced in several weeks, if not the whole journey. It was four days from when they left port to when they finally spotted land.
Thank the gods, thought Gardon. He hoped it was the land they were looking for. Months of seasickness, sunburn and overall lack of hygiene would be a small annoyance if they found themselves in the wrong place. He needn't have worried, of course. It was evident by the size of the land and the hard stares of their guides that they had reached their destination. He walked over to Ash and was ready to congratulate him, stopping only when he saw the suspicious look on the dwarf's face.
"What is it?" asked Gardon.
"I'm assuming that it's your island," Ash responded. "I must say the closer we get, the more uneasy I feel. I've never felt that way about new land before, but something about seeing it for real...I'm wondering whether we should have come."
"Don't say that! We've spent so much effort trying to get here, you can't tell me now you're getting cold feet. Just look at it!" He raised a telescope borrowed from the captain. "I think I can make out a mountain in the middle there. And cliffs. Our main concern should be finding a safe place to land."
"Well, we should be close enough to have a really good look at it by nightfall. Needless to say, we should wait until morning before trying to get ashore. Who knows what is waiting for us there."
"Who knows, indeed," grated Lugner, who had snuck up behind them both to give them an unwanted embrace. "What a sight. You don't know how long I've been itching to see this place, boys."
I bet that's not all that's itching, thought Ash, moving Lugner's arm off his shoulder. "We'll find out soon enough. In the meantime Rod, the wizard and I need to discuss matters with the captain."
"Sure thing, dwarf," sneered Lugner. He sauntered back to the cargo hold, snickering as he did so. Ash hated that face. It reminded him of the wharf rats that used the Ankh like a bridge rather than a body of water in which to drown. But who could remember a time when the river Ankh was a body of water? Certainly nobody in the city.
He and Gardon met Captain Hoek in his quarters, joined by Chase, whom the captain had promoted to first mate and appeared to trust the most.
"The Nothingfjorders don't wish to go ashore," said the captain, skipping pleasantries. "I managed to convince Alf as he was the only one who had to think about it; the others flatly refused. They will however stay on the ship and make sure she's ready for your return. I want to keep an eye on them and make sure they don't leave, so Arthur and I will be staying."
"Believe me, I do want to go ashore," said Chase, probably lying. "But my responsibility is to my captain and ship, therefore only Pym and Lugner will also be joining you. Much as I wish it different."
"I see," said Gardon, a look of disappointment crossing his face. "Captain, is there no way of convincing the others to join us? After all, the ship ought to be safe anchored and-"
"I can turn this ship around right now if I wanted to, Gardon," interrupted Hoek. "We are lucky to have made it this far and the last thing I want is to disappear on a strange land with my ship floating like a wraith in the distance."
"Yes, but...maybe we could have Lugner stay aboard? After all, he might be more use to you maintaining the ship instead of..." His voice trailed off, as Hoek's eyes narrowed into the hardest stare Gardon had ever seen.
"The men you are taking ashore are the men you get, wizard," said Hoek, barely above a whisper. "I know not everyone gets along with everyone but this is the crew you chartered, and this is my vessel. You're on board my vessel, don't matter who you are back home, because I'm captain. My word is final and if you have a problem, you can start swimming."
"The captain is right," said Ash, eager to ease the tension. "Five men ought to be enough and at the first sign of peril, we will turn around. We know nothing of this place and cannot take for granted that it is uninhabited, especially not with all the rumour surrounding it. As we were discussing before captain, perhaps we should wait until dawn before disembarking."
"Excellent idea. Be sure you are back before dusk, I don't to have to wait a night and send a search party the next day. Is this acceptable to you, wizard?"
Gardon had no choice but to agree. The conversation was over and done with before he had realized it. All he wanted now was to crawl into his bunk and wait until the next morning. He found himself taking a few healthy swigs of rum before doing so.
The next morning as they sailed closer to the island, they observed two sets of high bluffs that seemed to curve and go for miles around on both ends. There was a bay between these two bluffs that grew wider as the ship approached. They spotted a long beach with golden sands where the landscape was lower and the five men departed on the one of the ship's dinghies and rowed to shore.
Each them had a bag full of goods and equipment, except Alf, who had a large axe slung over his shoulder, and Lugner, who was carrying a box brought from part of the hold where he had been lurking about in between slacking off his duties. Gardon wasn't sure if the stench coming from his direction was from the box or Lugner himself. Maybe that's why Hoek wanted him off the ship, he thought darkly.
"What is it you got in there?" he finally asked. Lugner grinned with teeth that would make a dentist quit their job.
"Just a few necessities for exploration," he said. "Tools, equipment, a bit of lunch. All the things you need when arriving in new lands."
Lunch, thought the wizard. Definitely explains the smell. "Why not carry them in a pack? A box is cumbersome."
"Yeah, but it’s stable. Less likely to gets holes in wood than in fabric." He gave the box a slap. Gardon rolled his eyes and turned to focus on their ever-closer destination.
In the distance, they could make out the volcano that appeared to be overgrown with greenery. Perhaps it was dormant. This would certainly make it easier to study up close. Alf and Pym dragged the boat to shore as the others got out and paced around, stretching their legs and backs. Gardon wandered around the beach for a time, admiring the beauty that appeared before them while Ash stayed close to the boat, the same suspicious look on his face as before.
Alf noticed this, and walked over to the dwarf after giving the forest a quick look. "You don't trust this place either," he said. "I cannot say I blame you. This place, these trees...they look planted, not grown."
"That's what I was thinking," said Ash. "This place looks too perfect. Too silent, as well. I haven't heard any birds except the seagulls. Even they don't seem very interested in coming here. No insects, either. Normally I wouldn't complain, but it seems..."
"Odd," said Alf. "Maybe in the forest we may find some, or other wildlife. I cannot help but feel it is staring right back."
"So how long do you think it's been here, then?" interjected Lugner. "A year? A hundred? More or less? Maybe the gods just plopped it down overnight."
"First," sighed Ash. "It's an island, not a turd. Second, nobody knows how long it has been here. I shouldn't have to tell you that, considering it was the selling point of this whole venture. I'm hoping our esteemed Mr. Gardon might be able to solve that mystery, if possible."
"I'm hoping the same thing," said Gardon, catching only the very end of the conversation. "It looks like it has been here a long time but until we explore further, we're still speculating. Perhaps we should start?"
"I think it's charming," said Pym. "A new land seemingly untouched by civilization. We're so used to seeing everything built upon and farmed that we rarely take time to appreciate purity when we see it." Ash could tell the lad had never spent too much time away from cities. By all accounts, this was his first adventure away from home.
"Yeah, too quiet, I agree," said Lugner. "Let's make some noise, shall we?" And with that he pried open his box and dumped out the contents. Several dead and decayed rats fell onto the dunes, with a few that were barely alive looking around confused before scurrying away as quick as they could into the foliage, Lugner's feet swiftly providing guidance.
The others could only stare at him in shock until Gardon finally snapped. "Are you out of your bloody mind?!" he shouted. "Have you been carrying rats on board the ship the whole time? And what the hell are you thinking dumping them here? You could have infected us all with plague, you sick bastard!"
"Well, it's as young Owen said," sniggered Lugner. "A land seemingly untouched by civilization. I'm here to bring civilization. And you can't have it without a few good rats. I made sure to gather these beauties before we left Herrinsmelt. Fed them at first but when they tried getting out, I had to seal 'em up! Glad a few survived."
"I cannot believe this!" shouted Ash. "So this was your plan the whole time, or has the sun finally melted your brain? What was Hoek thinking in even bringing you? I should have let that brute in Genua cut your worthless throat."
"Aw, Halfpenny, that hurts," cooed Lugner. "But not half as much as this crowbar to your head!" The crowbar that was suddenly raised to strike was just as quickly on the beach. A dry crack was heard and Lugner shrieked. Alf had snatched Lugner's wrist and with seemingly no effort, broke it with a quick squeeze.
"I don't know if you're insane or just stupid," he snarled. "But as far I'm concerned, you can join your rats. This place was perilous enough without you introducing them. So do us a favour - run off and die, or swim back to your ship. I don't care which."
With that, he dropped Lugner onto the sand, who immediately scrambled away into the bush with a string of obscenities. The rest of them watched and when he could no longer be heard, regarded the pile of rats left behind. It was decided to put kindling around them and set them afire, before burying the flames with sand so they wouldn't spread. When they were finally ready to move out, it was proposed that since the rodents and their keeper had gone right, they should go left instead. A fine idea. Getting their bearings, Gardon led them into the forest with Alf bringing up the rear.
Pym took notice of every feature and shared a rapport with the wizard about the sights that surrounded them. He was also instructed to keep an eye out for any exceptionally exotic plants, which Gardon wanted to take note of and if safe to do so, collect. Pym was barely twenty but looked childlike as he revelled in the variety of colours of the flowers and trees they passed on their trek. The wizard began to wonder if he had seen any kind of forest before, excluding the parks found in Ankh-Morpork. But he could not fault the lad's enthusiasm. After all, it was not unlike his own. Perhaps this is what it's like to be a teacher with a star pupil, he thought.
Ash however was more interested in what Alf meant by the island being perilous and eventually persuaded him to speak.
"Your wizard friend was on the right track," he said. "There were two ships that were sent to this place not long after it was discovered. I knew the man who saw it first. His name was Klas. We sailed together once. He was committed to his work, as are we all. He was not the type to just make up stories, even if you gave him ale. So to hear him tell of this place..."
He was silent for a time but continued after settling an internal debate.
"Neither of those ships sent after returned. They had no maps but didn't need one, for the men considered this a test of the gods. That and their captains both had good memories and only needed to be told the general direction once. My comrades who didn't wish to join us, they do not scare easy. Nor I. It's not in our culture to be afraid. If we see a bear or a horde of enemies wielding swords, we answer with a roar and ferocity to make them regret their decision."
"I heard once you usually give enemies a warning first," said Ash. "Or is that a stereotype?"
"Er...yes and no. Depends on the moment. In any case, this place doesn't make sense. It should hold no terror for us. We're walking through trees and flowers and I am waiting for something to happen."
"I know what you mean," said Ash. "I live to see places like this, a paradise away from the mines and cities. Yet I'm expecting a giant lizard or ape monster to come charging at us from out of the foliage at any moment. So far all we've seen is trees, plants and a creek or two. Hell, the most dangerous things on this island are probably that maniac Lugner and his pets."
"I don't know about that," said Alf automatically. Both of them exchanged a look and laughed. Pym and Gardon didn't overhear this exchange, as they were too busy talking animatedly about their increasing discoveries, walking ahead of the others as they did so. They were returning now, encouraging the others to keep up.
It took them nearly two hours to reach the foot of the volcano and it was here they stopped to rest. They had trudged a gradual incline through thick forests with no clearings, and it was only here that one finally presented itself, with a decent view of their surrounds and to the sea. Ash had started making his own map to guess the island's size and so far estimated the area to be large enough to take a whole day to walk from one end to the other (or if one had a horse, one could probably circle the island in about four or five hours at a good pace).
After debating which direction to go next, they would try to get to the topmost end of the island before turning Hubwards. This notion was ruined however when young Pym made a rather poignant observation. Specifically, the possibility that Lugner might came back for the dinghy and either sabotage it or sail away with it, marooning the rest of them.
"If he did, I'm sure the captain would send Chase and the others back for us," assured Ash. He didn't mention Hoek's reluctance and hoped that it was just tough talk. "Besides, he has a broken wrist, so I wouldn't be too concerned about his rowing prowess. Right now, we are in no danger." Even he felt that last sentence was a lie.
"Should we keep going, Mr. Gardon?" asked Pym. The wizard wasn't so sure now. Although their journey had up to this point been largely uneventful, he also didn't like the feeling of Lugner being out there and posing a threat. He stood up to stretch and think of a decision when he felt a tingle in his neck. This wasn't a bug bite or circulation. This was intuition. He grabbed his staff and felt a vibrating sensation. Until now, his staff had spent the journey acting as no more than a glorified walking stick, so common with Gardon's appearance that it bore almost no need for mention. But it was throbbing now, in the way it would when unstable forces were in the air. Forces you tried to control or else you ducked for cover.
"We're going back to the boat," he said. The look of ill-concealed panic on his face made the others practically spring to their feet.
"What is it, Mathew?" asked Ash.
"I don't know," he said. "We need to go now. I have a feeling something bad is about to happen." He was right.
The tingling in his neck was suddenly felt by everyone in their bones. The ground was shaking, and within the mountain came the sound of a steadily rising growl. They couldn't see smoke yet but the feeling in the air had changed.
"Not to be crude," said Ash. "But I think we should start running like our bums were on fire and our hair is catching. Before it actually happens, of course." There was no argument with that logic.
They had only made forty yards when the smoke started churning out of the mountain, steadily blackening the sky. All made the mistake of looking back and all quickened their pace at the sight of the smoke, which was flecked with fire.
Elsewhere on the island, Rod Lugner had managed to make a crude cast for his arm using sticks and leaves when the volcano began to erupt. He had no idea how far inland he'd travelled but was now going where he believed was straight back to the beach. He tripped and fell on his lame arm a few times, cursing the Nothingfjorder and the dwarf. And the wizard. And the captain. He cursed them all for bringing him here.
It's not like this was the first time he had brought vermin to other lands. He did it as often as he could, usually in secret and under cover of darkness, which sadly was not an option in this case. Or maybe it could have been and he'd acted too hastily. He had no real motivation for doing so except to see if he could, and if so, he would be leaving his mark on whatever new part of the world he visited. He knew some might consider this aberrant behaviour but so was visiting a new civilization and announcing yourself to the people by killing their men and enslaving the woman and children. Happened all the time in history books, yet nobody has any objection to that.
In fact, he thought, if I see that Nothing son of a bitch again, I'm going to point that little fact out to him, before I drive a dagger into his eye!
His attempts to distract himself from the pain also distracted him from the objects falling from the sky, until one landed a few yards from him. It was a large ball of molten rock that seemed to exude malice. He darted away from it and started looking around for any others that may be coming his way. He didn't see the loose branch suddenly rise from the ground, causing him to trip and fly comically through the air. He landed face-first and as he took in the impact, a high whistling sound was heard above him. Struggling with the aches all over, Lugner managed to roll onto his back and saw the lava bomb hurtling towards him. He quickly rolled over a few more times before rock landed-
He opened his eyes. Slowly he lifted himself off the ground and saw the rock had missed him by inches. He let out a breathy chuckle that rose to shrieking laughter. It missed! Stupid, useless rock. Missed me! He went to kick it when he noticed the rock had legs. Legs that were wearing his trousers. And his boots. There was also a bubbling puddle of crimson seeping out beneath the rock and at that point, Lugner had never felt colder in his life. The pain was gone but was replaced by sensation of weightlessness. What felt like a dozen tiny needles suddenly pricked his left shoulder. He turned his head and found he couldn't scream. He could only-
How the hell did this happen? It's not fair! We just bloody got here, and it's so not fair!!
These thoughts were running through Gardon's mind incessantly, as he and the others ran as fast as they could through the bush, getting smacked by branches and trying to avoid tripping over their feet. Gardon thought about jettisoning his robe but it was much a part of him as his staff and his hat (even though that had long since flown off and was too late to recover).
They weren't even sure they were heading in the right direction anymore, as in the panic they had been split up several times and had to stop to quickly regroup before running away again. Lava bombs rained down around them sporadically and an avalanche of ashes had overtaken them, further distorting their sense of direction. Suddenly Pym yelped and was heard crying for help. Gardon hadn't seen where he had gone but was running to his voice now. When he found him, he almost wished he hadn't.
Pym was up to his cheekbones in quicksand, trying to dog paddle out of the mire. The look of desperation was almost too much to bear.
"Don't struggle," yelled Gardon. "You'll only sink faster! Hold still, I'll try to find a branch."
"No...the vines..." moaned Pym. "Look out for the vines..."
Too late, Gardon noticed several of the plants reaching for him and hoisting him up in the air. The vines were thick and barbed, and the more Gardon struggled, the more they would dig themselves in. He cried in agony and saw himself being carried over to the quicksand, knowing at any second the vines would uncoil and drop him in. Or at least they would have, if Alf had not appeared and hacked at several of them with his axe.
Gardon dropped heavily just on the edge of the pit, dragging himself away to avoid getting sucked in. He saw Pym's eyes staring back at him - the last features he saw before the boy was swallowed completely.
"Go," came the boy's voice from the muck. "Save yourselgggs..." Gardon screamed and tried to make a move for him, but was held back as a thickly accented voice implored him to move, there was nothing he more he could do.
"Yes there is!" he shouted, and pointing his staff at the quicksand, tried to invoke a spell that could possibly pull the boy to safety. Logical thinking interrupted this spur of the moment decision, as he remembered such spells required specific steps. One hadn't even sprung to mind when a large branch suddenly swung at him and knocked his staff out of his hand and into the mire, where it sunk almost immediately. The sound of the wizard's expletives was almost as loud as the cataclysm behind them.
Lava was pouring thick and fast from the summit, getting ever closer. The two men continued running as speedily as they could when they heard another yelp in the distance. They came across what was probably the biggest flytrap the wizard had ever seen, except whatever was struggling inside was definitely not an insect. Alf's axe flashed again and the mouth fell to the ground, severed from the stem. He pulled the plant apart and there was Ash, sticky but thankfully not worse for wear.
"I think I know why there's no insects around here," he sputtered, trying to catch his breath. "Didn't think I'd be one of them. Where's Pym?"
"History," muttered Alf. "And so are if we don't keep moving."
Ash cursed but allowed himself to be lifted up. He then sprinted off with velocity that took even the Nothingfjorder by surprise. As if on cue, more of the traps swooped in to try and snatch them from where they stood. Watching Alf's ferocity as he deflected the plants with his blade and hacked them to pieces made Gardon wish he could do more than lay curled on the ground. He wasn't sure but he swore that every time one of the traps was destroyed, the others hissed, until the whole plant was little more than oversized lawn clippings.
"Get up, wizard," shouted Alf. "I'm not here to hold your hand!" He took off after Ash and Gardon followed suit.
The further they got from the volcano, the more violent the flora became. Alf's use of his weapon against them as if they were an army of barbarians prevented him from being too badly damaged, but he knew he would need to catch his breath soon. Hopefully once they were in the dinghy and on the water he would be afforded such a luxury. They soon caught up with dwarf, who was almost doubled over trying to refill his lungs with air.
"Don't wait for me," he gasped. "Keep going. I'll catch up."
Gardon felt bad for leaving him there but didn't need to be told twice. He could smell the bush behind him burning and every breath he took seared. It wouldn't be long now before the lava overtook them, he reckoned. He suddenly grew nostalgic for nights in the Shades, particularly hiding in a garbage bin from a group of bloodthirsty thugs who resented that he had actually won their bet. The ground suddenly dipped into a ravine and Gardon tripped on protruding root, rolling down and crashing into the bottom. Ash nearly stopped to help him but the wizard waved him off.
"Go on, there's no time!" he shouted, his ankle burning with pain. The dwarf swore and ran off, sprinting at a pace that shouldn't be possible with legs like his.
Ash was doing his best to keep his head from falling off while rapidly checking around for further signs of danger. The last way he wanted to die was being slowly digested by an ogrish flower, or being incinerated by lava for that matter. Even death by shark was looking good by comparison. His dream demise was sensible, of course: lying in bed with his family around him, content that he achieved what he had wished for in life, knowing he left a great legacy behind for the children he had yet to conceive. Fine thoughts but ones that needed to be banished whilst the fact that he could die in the middle of nowhere was a very real probability.
After a few more pitfalls and epic battles with roots, vines and trees using their branches like arms, Ash and Alf reached the dinghy, which by that time was being literally swallowed by the beach. Ash stared in shock while the other turned and howled with rage at the island. The ground quaked as if in response.
"Ahoy!" shouted a voice from the waves. "Over here, you lot! You're not dying here today, I promise you!"
It was Chase, in the other dinghy with Olli and Svend rowing as close to the shore as they could. With no need for any further instruction, the two dived into the water, Alf keeping Ash afloat with one arm and swimming with the other. The water was a relief in Ash's mouth, never mind the salt. But given their luck so far, he expected they'd be caught in a rip at any moment. Large hands found them and pulled them out of the water, dumping them roughly into the boat. This was not the time to be gentle, after all.
"I thought you'd leave for sure," said Ash to Chase, with a look of relief.
"Nonsense," he replied. "We don't leave anyone behind. The captain was very specific about that. Not gonna lie though, you had us worried for a while." He winked and started when the volcano let out another boom. "Just what the bloody hell happened in there?"
"Exactly that," said the dwarf. "Trust me, you were better off not coming ashore."
"Wait!" screamed Gardon, as the dinghy rowed away from the beach. "Wait, please, I'm still here!"
His ankle felt terrible but he just managed to get himself out of the ravine and back to the beach. The journey had been a blur but now that he saw his salvation abandoning him, his mind was completely clear. And furious. He shouted and waved and cursed, and they were still ignoring him! Couldn't they hear him at all? Were they blind?
"Come back, you bastards! I can't swim!"
I SHOULDN'T WORRY ABOUT THAT.
Gardon squealed and did a perfect 180 pivot. What he saw was the sublime visual representation of an apocalypse: a burning volcano blackening the sky, a paradise on fire and standing directly in the foreground, a looming skeleton in a black robe with a glowing scythe gazing at him with two pinpricks of brilliant blue light in the sockets of where eyes should be.
"Gods damn this island!" cried Gardon. "How? When? Where?" He added with meek redundancy, "Why?"
AT THE RAVINE, WHEN YOU TRIPPED AND FELL. BESIDES TWISTING YOUR ANKLE, YOU ALSO FELL FORWARD IN AN INVERTED SOMERSAULT AND TWISTED YOUR NECK. AS TO WHY, YOU MIGHT HAVE NOTICED THAT THIS ISLAND IS A LIVING, BREATHING CREATURE. NO WILDLIFE OR INHABITANTS. NO NEED FOR THEM WHEN THE WHOLE LANDSCAPE IS SENTIENT. ERGO, ANYTHING THAT LANDS HERE IS PREY. I'D IMAGINE YOUR BODY WILL HAVE BEEN SUCKED INTO THE GROUND BY NOW, AS HAS HAPPENED WITH MANY OTHERS WHO HAVE FALLEN HERE.
Gardon thought about this. "Why didn't you take me when I died, then? Why did you let me get as far as the beach?"
YOU HAD AN OUT OF BODY EXPERIENCE. HAPPENS SOMETIMES. YOU DIDN'T REALIZE IT, OF COURSE. WHEN YOU WERE WAVING OFF YOUR FRIEND, HE KNEW YOU WERE GOING TO DIE AND SO LEFT WITHOUT YOU, A HARD DECISION IN THE MOMENT. AS YOU WERE OUT OF BODY AT THE SAME TIME, YOU PRESUMED HE WAS OBEYING YOUR WISHES. YOU WERE NOT PHYSICALLY DEAD, HOWEVER. THAT HAPPENED A MINUTE LATER. AS FOR ME NOT TAKING YOU, WELL, YOU WERE RUNNING AND I HAD MY HORSE'S SAFETY TO CONSIDER.
"Your horse? Oh, I see." Above them was a horse of perfect white, standing in the air as if on an invisible platform. Although patiently waiting, his face did have something of a nervous appearance. Probably from the other things in the air.
Death extended his hand. Gardon knew it was time but couldn't resist one more question before the fade.
"They say you're omniscient, that you can see the future. Will I be well-remembered? Can you tell me that?"
Death appeared to consider the question. It was difficult to get past that rictus grin.
RIGHT NOW, YOU ARE RATHER INFAMOUS AT THE UNIVERSITY FOR YOUR THIEVERY. IT DID NOT TAKE LONG FOR THEM TO CONNECT THE MONEY'S DISAPPEARANCE WITH YOURS. YOU WERE IN FACT FACING HEAVY PUNISHMENT SHOULD YOU HAVE BEEN FOUND, EXPULSION ONLY BEING PART OF IT. WORD WILL REACH THEM EVENTUALLY REGARDING THIS MISADVENTURE OF YOURS, AND YOU WILL BE SEEN AS SETTING AN EXAMPLE.
"Well, that doesn't sound so bad."
OF HOW NOT TO EMBARK ON SUCH JOURNEYS.
The scythe was swung and the soul collected before the conversation could be continued any further. Death shook his head. He turned to look at the eruption and thought he could hear laughter beneath it. Gods damn it, indeed, he thought. They would. The whole island was the personification of a being who rather than take the form of flesh, instead decided to take the form of a non-intrusive land mass. It could wait however, much like a carnivorous plant, for its food to come to it. Eventually, the other gods would need to deal with this scenario (presumably once they've dealt with the Ice Giants and whatever their indiscretion of the week was) and Death was happy to leave it to them.
Binky slowly descended from the area where Death had told him to stay. Although he could not be consumed, his horse was a different matter. And Death would not give up Binky to any God or similar being.
The Death of Rats scurried up Death's robe and onto his shoulder as he prepared mount the horse.
AH, MY LITTLE FRIEND. I PRESUME YOU GOT WHAT YOU CAME FOR?
SQUEAK, said the Death of Rats.
GOOD. LET US FIND A MORE CIVILIZED PART OF THE WORLD. I'M STARTING TO MISS THE SMELLS OF AN OVERCROWDED CITY. AND I HAVEN'T HAD A CURRY IN AGES.
The volcano belched its smoke into the sky, and as the Grim Reaper rode off into the distant clouds, the island settled. It was patient. And ready.