In the Lair of the Crocodile

By

Shree Raman

 

 

The rapping resumed, this time signaling a definite note of urgency. The rusted iron chain that bolted the door shut began to rattle vigorously as the person on the other side began pounding with what appeared to be desperate force. Robert steadied his nerves. If death had descended upon him, he would rather meet it on his own terms. He focused his thoughts on the plane of fire and his right fist became enveloped in mystical flame; harmless to the caster but deadly to mortal flesh. Thus prepared, Robert waved his other hand and the door burst open instantly, only to reveal a bewildered and agitated Reynolds. Upon recognizing the sturdy form of his trusted manservant, Robert let out an audible sigh of relief, allowing the flaming nimbus enveloping his fist to vanish. “You must forgive me, Reynolds, but I expected the worst. I thought that I had already been unmasked and that the governor had sent his own personal guardsmen to quickly dispatch me. So tell me, do you bring good news?”

Reynolds made a perfunctory nod before standing up again and sweeping his grubby hands nervously through scraggly, receding gray hair. “I have found someone who might be willing to escort you out  of this city. But he demands a steep price.” He then paused, as if on the verge of saying something else.

“Out with it,” Robert said tersely. He suspected that Reynolds was afraid that he might expose himself to his master's ridicule if he were to utter the statement that he had suddenly decided to withhold even as he had been on the cusp of voicing it. A foolish notion to entertain, considering the respect with which Robert held the instincts of his ever reliable manservant. Over the years, he had come to trust the older man's unerring ability to foresee any potential trouble ahead. Perhaps things might have turned out differently if he had decided to seek out Reynolds's advice before choosing to ally himself with those incompetent fools. Unfortunately, his greed had gotten the better of him and he had allowed himself to be deceived by their glib and eloquent assurances. He was as much to blame as them.

Reynolds cleared his throat peremptorily, jolting Robert out of his bitter reverie. “As I said earlier, my lord, I have found someone willing to bear you to safety. He says that he can take us both to Cadin. As your Lordship is well aware, that's neutral territory and the Empire has no jurisdiction over it. Our captain demands a steep price, though. But that's not what makes me mistrust him.”

“Well, what does?” replied Robert, intrigued. Under the previous governor's lax regime, the port city had become a haven for various smugglers and pirates. It was all too easy to deduce from Reynolds’s clearly distressed demeanor that he had been approached by one of those shady individuals.

“I feel uncomfortable around the man. I don't know how to explain it, but just being around him made my skin crawl.'. Reynold's usually impassive face expressed his apprehension all too well. His right cheek trembled slightly as he spoke. In any other man, it would hardly have been any cause for notice, but in Reynolds it made for a disconcerting sight.

Robert nodded. “I can understand your concern, my loyal servant. You are afraid that once he has collected his fee from us, he will simply dispose of us en route, leaving our corpses to the sharks. Or he might simply betray us to the new governor.’.

A grim chuckle escaped Reynolds’s lips in response. “With all due respect, I do not fear the latter, my lord. If there is any truth at all to the stories that I have heard about this rather ominous individual, then I am highly skeptical that he would be insane enough to actually assume that the governor would be willing to come to any agreement of him. In fact, one would not be amiss in concluding that Lord Jerome’s hatred of this particular buccaneer far outweighs any antipathy that he might have toward you.”

Robert snorted, his incredulity all too evident. “And how would that be, seeing as how I am the one who attempted to depose him and replace him with his more pliable uncle?”

Reynolds shrugged nonchalantly. “I suspect that it might have something to do with the fact that a few years ago, this very same corsair was responsible for torturing Jerome’s son in the most horrendous manner.”

Robert’s eyes widened in astonishment. “Are you jesting with me?” he asked incredulously.

“Most certainly not, my lord. About fifteen years ago, Lord Jerome’s son was in charge of an expedition to harvest timber from some of the islands still populated by the savage natives. If the popular account is to be believed, this outlaw sea captain instigated the natives into flaying alive the governor’s son. The unfortunate young man’s hide was affixed to one of the palm trees on the coast in order to dissuade other companies from dispatching woodcutters of their own.’

“Then in that case, what is he doing here?! He must be insane to court death in such a flagrant manner!”

“I believe that he has only now gained an inkling that Lord Jerome is currently the supreme authority of this island. As you can imagine, he is eager to make his departure as quickly as possible. Nonetheless, his crew are in urgent need of weapons and money. Naturally, he found your offer tempting.”

Robert frowned as he considered his options. If the intelligence supplied to Reynolds by his underworld informants was indeed accurate, then his best chance in flight lay with seeking passage with this infamous, bloodthirsty pirate. And it was not like he had any objections to dealing with such a character. Over the decade that he had spent establishing his reputation as one the city's preeminent noble traders, Robert had developed a profound contempt for notions of morality that were far removed from the reality of life in this gritty part of the Empire.

As far as he was concerned, piracy was simply another means of enriching oneself in this desolate corner of the world. Morality was a notion invoked by the weak and naive to assert their right to exist when confronted with their natural superiors. It was the destiny of the pitiful masses to constantly seek succor in the anguished prayers that they directed at the gods to avenge the wrongs inflicted on them by the wealthy and powerful.

Robert, personally, had no use for such delusions. Man was a predatory being by nature. If the gods found rapaciousness in humans so objectionable, they would never have endowed humanity with such impulses to begin with. But alas, the hypocrites had finally begun to make their influence felt. A few years ago, succumbing to the pressure exerted on him by the self-proclaimed men of the faith, the foolish emperor had decided to outlaw the enslavement of the brutish savages who were indigenous to these islands.

The previous governor, well aware that enforcing such an absurd edict would wreck the local economy, had refused to criminalize the sale of native slaves. Without the armies of toiling native slaves on the vast coconut plantations owned by Robert and his fellow nobles, it would be impossible for the colony to remain economically viable. It was little surprise then that the previous local administration had turned a blind eye to Robert’s own role in silencing the self-righteous fools who had sought to implement the dim-witted emperor’s ruling. Unfortunately, the latter, in a monumental act of stupidity, had decided to replace Robert’s old friend and patron with Jerome, a fellow imbecile who was actually committed to enforcing the new imperial dictate. And so it was that with great reluctance Robert had found himself embroiled in a plot to overthrow that insufferable cretin.

“Very well, I leave tonight. Let him know that he will only receive the full amount once I have reached my destination safely.”

Reynolds nodded in acknowledgment.

A few hours later, Robert watched apprehensively from his window as the waves dashing themselves against the jagged, forbidding rocks of the shore began to take on a russet hue. Dusk was approaching and it would soon be time for him to depart. He desperately hoped that their new ally had chosen not to betray them to Jerome. An abrupt knock interrupted his tortured reverie, announcing the arrival of the ever dependable Reynolds. Wordlessly, he slipped on his cloak, taking great care to drop the velvet hood around his face, obscuring his feature. With Reynolds in tow, he strode out of the dingy tenement.

As the sky darkened, he and his loyal manservant began to make their way clandestinely toward the harbor. Every few steps, Reynolds scanned their surroundings apprehensively, his fingers straying toward the hilt of his sword at the slightest sound. This was a dangerous part of the city, home to the numerous gangs that operated within the seedy waterfront district.

At the harbor their mysterious savior would be awaiting them. In the stultifying embrace of the ebon night, they gradually made their cautious way toward the pier. No sooner had they sighted it than their nostrils recoiled in revulsion, unable to endure the stench of raw sewage assaulting them. Despite himself, Robert desperately fought the urge to expel the contents of his meager dinner. It was evident, now, how the slum-dwellers of the waterfront disposed of the waste from their latrines.

“It’s not the most fragrant smell, my lord. But I can assure you that I’ve smelled far worse.” This mysterious voice elicited an oddly petulant sigh from Robert. Despite his heartfelt hope that their escape would proceed smoothly, it appeared that they had been unfortunate enough to be intercepted by one of the governor's minions. As if in response to Robert’s thoughts, Reynolds immediately unsheathed his short sword. Robert was not unduly worried in the presence of this probable foe. Reynolds was as adept with a sword as Robert was with his incantations. A single assassin on his own stood no chance against both of them.

“Show yourself,” he ordered in an almost bored tone. “If I have to kill you, I’d rather do it as swiftly as possible rather than allow you to distract me from more pressing concerns that I have to attend to.”

A hoarse laugh followed, which he found strangely discomfiting. For a moment, Robert’s insolent composure wavered. There was something distinctly inhumane about the voice of the stranger. Its harsh, sonorous tone reminded him of an enraged alligator that he had dispatched once with the aid of a heavily armed hunting party. The agony of the scaly predator in its death throes had done nothing to diminish its sheer wrath. He flinched involuntarily as the memory surged in his mind, entirely unbidden. He could hear it again, the frantic screaming of one of his huntsman as the wretched man was ripped asunder by the monstrous jaws of the humongous reptile.

Out of the shadows a scrawny silhouette detached itself from the enveloping darkness and stepped forward to address Robert. “It is your contact, my lord. I am the mariner Gurad Sorgan. I believe that your manservant has contracted my services in order to transfer you to a more secure locale.” Robert held his lantern aloft to illuminate the face of the notorious pirate whose ferocious depravity had terrorized the crews of merchant vessels for so long. He found himself staring into eyes that glittered a deep yellow, reflecting the flickering flames cast by his lantern. Distorted by the feeble light exuded by his lamp, the pupils of the infamous pirate seemed reduced to bare slits. Robert fought hard to suppress the shudder that threatened to convulse his spine. Again the image flickered in his mind, the cold yet malevolent gaze of the brute as it made a final desperate attempt to seize him in its jaws and carry him to a watery demise in the dank, foul waters of the marsh. An unctuous smile flashed across Sorgan’s face, revealing misshapen, discolored teeth that protruded from his thin, leathery lips. “I see that my reputation precedes me, my lord. I assure you that you will be safe from the clutches of that most odious governor whilst you are aboard my ship.”

Robert cast a discreet enchantment that immediately overcame his unease. A spell designed to instill a powerful sense of confidence and security in its recipients, it seemed perfectly suited to the current situation at hand. Robert had not the slightest doubt that he was in the presence of a dangerous man. It would not do to display the slightest sign of weakness or trepidation in the presence of such a predatory individual.

His self-possession synthetically inflated by the recently performed incantation, he greeted his dubious savior in a voice that radiated breezy arrogance. “I am most pleased to make your acquaintance, Captain Sorgan. Now without any further pleasantries, I would like to embark upon your ship. As we both are aware, my life and by extension the generous reward that you’ve been promised, rely entirely upon your ability to take me beyond the reach of the governor’s tender mercies.” Sorgan responded with a sweeping, elaborate bow. “As my lord wishes. Please wait while I summon the boatswain,” he replied in an exaggeratedly oily, fawning tone.

An almost imperceptible frown creased Robert’s forehead. The sheer impudence of the man! To find himself in a situation where he had to resort to soliciting the help of a floating cutthroat would have struck him as an absurd, surreal notion in better days when he had been one of the wealthiest and most powerful nobles on the island. Searing rage inflamed his heart as his thoughts turned toward the accursed nemesis who had been responsible for a downfall that had almost been as spectacular and meteoric as his earlier ascent to power. That bastard would pay one day for what he had done, even if it took Robert his entire life to inflict his vengeance on his tormentor. But for now, it was mere survival that would be his overriding priority. Wordlessly, he clambered into the little coracle that bobbed with the incoming tide, beckoning for Reynolds to follow suit. Under these less-than-optimal circumstances, he had little choice but to entrust his safety to this mercurial corsair.
 

He awoke the next day to the gentle swells of the waves. Robert had spent the previous night drifting in and out of a tortured sleep. As he rubbed his eyes blearily, he cast a glance at his surroundings and involuntarily shuddered with revulsion. The interior of his cabin seemed to embody the recent hardships that had come to strongly characterize the past few tumultuous months of his life. The entire room reeked of a staleodor mingled with the fetid stench of urine that had been exposed to the elements for too long. In fact, the entire room seemed to exude a powerful miasma so thick and palpable that he had constantly found himself battling the urge to retch. It was almost as if the stench of his cramped little cabin was a conscious, malignant presence intent on suffocating him.


A sharp little rap on the door caught his attention. Before he could so much as invite his visitor to enter the cabin, the door slammed inward, revealing the unsettling visage of Gurad Sorgan. The man’s disturbingly reptilian features contorted themselves into a crude approximation of an unctuous smile. Once again, Robert felt no small amount of trepidation as those disconcerting yellow eyes fixed him with a predatory, unwavering gaze.

“And how does my Lordship fare today? I trust that your Excellency had a most enjoyable slumber?”

“I must admit that the salubriousness of your lodgings on board leave much to be desired,” Robert replied with a disdainful grimace. “But unless I am mistaken, you did not rouse me from my sleep for the sake of mere pleasantries.”


An expression of sardonic amusement flitted briefly across the pirate’s face before it once again resumed its usual obsequious expression. “I see you enjoy coming straight to the heart of the matter, my lord. That is always an admirable virtue, especially in a lord of your distinguished stature. I must apologize then for being the bearer of bad news. I’m afraid that your voyage will take longer than I had originally anticipated.


An intense wave of suspicion immediately surged in Robert’s heart, involuntarily causing him to contort his face into a furious scowl. Had Sorgan’s greed gotten the better of him? Robert would not have been unduly surprised if the cutthroat pirate had decided to hold him hostage in the hope of securing a generous ransom. If that was indeed the case, Robert would have absolutely no qualms about demonstrating to the wretch just how dangerous a mage he was. Meanwhile, Sorgan continued with his preamble, apparently oblivious to the turbulent doubts that his blasé words had engendered within his suspicious, incessantly vigilant guest.

“I’m afraid that we have run out of freshwater. Unless you’re a rather rare sort who finds salt water refreshing, I would recommend that we make our way to the nearest island in order to replenish our supply of freshwater.”

Robert snarled in illl concealed vexation. He’d had about enough of this glorified bandit’s impudence. “Very well. But let me assure you that if you entertain any notions of betraying me, it will end on a grim note for you.” Holding his right fist aloft, he smiled mirthlessly as it immediately became enveloped by a blazing inferno. He had been reluctant to demonstrate his prowess as a mage, fearing that Sorgan would have refused him passage aboard his vessel. But at this point, he had lost all patience with Sorgan’s insolence. Robert would demonstrate to that insufferable pirate why it was important for filth such as him to respect his natural superiors.


Sorgan’s eyes narrowed in response to Robert’s flamboyant yet menacing display of magical powers. “I feel so insulted by your lack of trust in me, my lord. While I am merely a humble merchant captain, I am as scrupulous as any noble, honoring any promises that I make. In accordance with the arrangement that I made with your Excellency, we will resume our voyage once we have replenished our supplies.” And with those words, Sorgan executed a bow so obsequious and groveling that it could only have been intended as an ironic insult. And then he strode away with a slithery gait that was disturbingly reminiscent of a large lizard ambling along on its belly.

Robert fought hard to repress an involuntary shudder as he found himself pondering the inexplicable nature of Sorgan’s reaction. Rather than displaying the naked fear that he had anticipated, the pirate's eyes had instead evinced a hungry anticipation. The unsettling yellow slits radiated an avariciousness so raw and primal that Robert felt his confidence and self-assurance rapidly ebb away. Once again, he found himself experiencing a potent, visceral sensation of dread that painfully bored into his spine. Even the most murderous and vicious marauder would have been reduced to a trembling wreck after witnessing this display of his mastery over some of the most lethal magic known in the Empire. And yet Sorgan had not betrayed the slightest sign of alarm. Robert found a powerful unease settling over him. At this point he was utterly convinced that Gurad Sorgan was more than just a mere pirate. What insidious secrets did that vile creature know that made him contemptuous of Robert’s magical prowess?

Robert found no respite in the embrace of slumber that night. As his tormented mind gradually drifted into the realm of dreams, he found himself immersed in a murky, stagnant lake, struggling desperately to stay afloat. The tendrils of weeds entrapped his limbs, preventing him from swimming toward the distant shore. Even as he found himself struggling frantically to escape from their malevolent clutches, a massive pair of scaly jaws grabbed him in a deathlike vice and dragged him into the dark, ebon depths.

The following week that elapsed as the ship made its way into the sprawling interior of the vast archipelago exacted a tremendous toll on Robert in both mental and physical terms. Leaving the sea behind, they entered a lengthy estuary that was interspersed with numerous small islands. Robert’s frustration at what he regarded as a most inopportune detour was further exacerbated by its sheer arduousness. Plagued by the incessant hordes of relentless mosquitos that gorged with abandon upon his blood, Robert chose to isolate himself in the relative sanctuary provided by his otherwise dismal and cheerless cabin with only Reynolds for company. Even the pirate crew grudgingly made concessions to the presence of the myriad vampiric invaders, opting to daub themselves with a black grease that reputedly deterred the mosquitoes from attempting to get intimate with them. Robert, however, could not abide the revolting, stomach churning stench exuded by their choice of mosquito repellent, and politely but firmly declined their generous offer to anoint him with the tar-like substance.

Sorgan alone remained unperturbed by the mosquitos, choosing to deal with their unsolicited attention by plunging into the fetid, muddy waters of the estuary, all but oblivious to the presence of the occasional bull shark that would sometimes swim alongside him. His nonchalance however, did absolutely nothing to put Robert at ease. His sole source of comfort was the presence of his ever steadfast manservant. Reynolds was always by his side, doing whatever he could to make his master’s journey somewhat more bearable. Moreover, Reynolds seemed to share his master’s mistrust of Sorgan’s crew. He had taken to wearing his short sword whenever he and Robert had to leave the malodorous refuge of their cabin, even for the most seemingly mundane of purposes. It gratified Robert somewhat to observe that his ever vigilant servant had no intention of displaying any signs of complacency where his master’s safety was concerned. He could sleep more peacefully at night, secure in the knowledge that there was at least one man aboard the ship to whom he could entrust his life.

One sultry afternoon, the ship cast its anchor some distance away from an island. Sorgan had decided to stop here in order to replenish their supply of water. Taking advantage of the opportunity to leave the stifling confines of the ship momentarily, Robert and Reynolds embarked aboard one of the skiffs paddling toward the shore. The vista that greeted them was a rather congenial one. The beach made for a rather inviting sight, consisting as it did of a long swath of golden sand that sparkled in the mid-day heat. His nose too felt reinvigorated by the sweet fragrance that wafted toward him from the lush fruit trees that clustered abundantly around the beach. His pleasure at beholding the island’s verdant beauty was rapidly replaced, however, by a less pleasant sensation. For a few fleeting seconds, he felt his skin tingle in a most disconcerting manner. Then, as quickly as it had materialized, the odd sensation vanished. Robert swiftly dismissed it from his mind. The physically gruelling nature of the voyage had evidently exacted a toll on his physical senses.

As they progressed rapidly toward the shore, a native canoe appeared in their line of sight. A muscular, well-built native warrior gestured to them from the prow of his vessel, beckoning to them with an authoritative air to halt.

As Sorgan’s own skiff approached the canoe, however, the warrior’s mien underwent a dramatic transformation. A reverential expression of awe mingled with deeply felt foreboding flashed across his face as he quickly lay prostrate before the ragged looking pirate and his motley crew. Robert found himself experiencing a powerful upsurge of undiluted astonishment, albeit one that was laced with a powerful undercurrent of sordid disgust. Had Sorgan misled these natives into revering him as a powerful sorcerer? While Robert found himself pondering this question, Sorgan begun to address the warrior in terse terms in the language that was indigenous to these islands. With an openly adoring gaze directed at the corsair, the native warrior began to hurriedly paddle toward the shore, calling out in loud piercing tones.

Robert was somewhat familiar with the tribal dialects of these people, having initially built his fortune as a slave trader. The savage had mentioned something about a ceremony that was to commence soon. What on earth was he talking about? Robert found himself feeling extremely perplexed.

As if aware of the fact that Robert had been paying attention to the exchange between him and the islander, Sorgan turned toward him, flashing him a crooked smile full of discolored, decaying teeth. “Our native friends have invited us to their feast. The festivities will last a few days so you will have plenty of opportunity to acquaint yourself with his lovely island. But the islanders are very particular about their religious taboos being observed. So your servant will have to leave his sword behind.” Robert immediately opened his mouth in protest, but one glance at the unyielding expression in Sorgan’s alien, sinister eyes was enough to demonstrate that he would not be dissuaded.

For the first time in his existence, Robert experienced something akin to panic. As its icy tentacles began to seep into his heart, he closed his eyes momentarily. But his moment of fearful indecision faded as rapidly as it had materialized. If Sorgan had some kind of treachery in mind, it was essential that he didn’t succumb to blind terror. He had not become the most powerful noble in these parts by being a craven coward. Having regained his composure, he began to assess the situation in a calm, analytical manner. In his current situation, it would be suicide for him to attempt to resist Sorgan’s order. Perched precariously in the skiff, he would be vulnerable to a well-aimed dagger thrust. So it was that he gestured to Reynolds to hand his sword over to the islander and adopted a meek, passive posture while the skiff continued to sail toward their destination.

Once they had reached the shore of the island, most of the crew remained on the beach to guard the ship. Sorgan and the other remaining pirates gestured to Robert to follow them into the forested interior. They began to follow the course of a river that surged into the green vastness of the jungle. After they had put some distance between themselves and the rest of the crew, Robert decided to strike. He began to cast a spell discreetly, one that if successful would allow him to subtly influence the pirate's mind and accordingly persuade him to renege on his previous decision to accept the hospitality of the islanders. A mage as well versed as him would be able to perform the incantation silently, thereby refraining from drawing the attention of the pirates. But no sooner had he begun to mentally chant the first line of the spell than he sensed the presence of some potent, eldritch force. He could not see it but it was tangible nevertheless. Every muscle in his body began to writhe in agony as searing pain enveloped him, threatening to shatter the very fabric of his mind. Unable to endure the crippling affliction any longer, Robert unleashed a guttural, ear piercing scream and collapsed to his knees, causing the boat to roil precariously in the surf.

“It’ll only get worse. Stop the spell now. The local spirits of this island don’t tolerate your type. Ignore me and your mind will turn to mush. You’ll be a gibbering imbecile for the rest of your life.” Through the haze of unendurable pain that enveloped his mind, Robert heard Sorgan’s rasping voice as if from a vast distance away. Desperate for the harrowing anguish to end, Robert abruptly ceased the enchantment and looked blearily in Sorgan’s direction. He was greeted by the sight of the hideous pirate grinning triumphantly. To Robert’s torment, the foul marauder resembled a crocodile more than ever.

“You wizards are all the same. You think that just because you can cast a few spells, everyone else will do your bidding. But let me assure you my lord, that there are forces out there that make you understand just how insignificant you truly are.”

Dismay quickly faded away to be replaced by burning wrath. “What treachery is this? Why have you brought me here to this infernal place?! Did some enemy of mine throw you a few scraps to buy your complicity?” he hissed between teeth clenched with rage.

Sorgan ignored him this time, a calm, almost bored look settling upon his disfigured face. “Ok, boys, truss him up. We don’t want to disappoint the true ruler of this island by arriving late.” Responding instantly to Sorgan’s lazy, insolent drawl, the pirate seated directly behind Robert jabbed the back of his neck with a dagger. Robert glanced at Reynolds with a desperate plea in his eyes. Now, in this critical moment, he required the help of his faithful manservant more than ever. He inclined his head toward the foul corsair and made a fervent gesture with his hands. Needing nothing further in the way of instruction, Reynolds sprung into action immediately. If Sorgan had assumed that Reynolds was helpless without his sword to rely on, he was in for a rude shock. In a single fluid movement, Reynolds grabbed the neck of the corsair who had dared to menace his master. Unleashing his powerful muscles, he snapped the hapless man’s neck with a loud, audible crunch.

For a moment, the pirates wavered, hesitant to engage in mortal combat with a man who had proved himself to be a deadly adversary. But a furious scream from Sorgan was enough to dispel their lingering fear of Reynolds’s martial prowess. Mustering their courage, they converged upon Reynolds, thrusting at him viciously with their daggers. Even as a corsair blade embedded itself in his abdomen, Reynolds grabbed the throat of yet another pirate who had ventured too close, and quickly dispatched him.

Robert, for his part, had taken advantage of the diversion to make a speedy escape. Although accustomed to an opulent existence, he was nevertheless in excellent physical condition. Sheer desperation enabled him to rapidly put some distance between himself and his pursuers. As the clamor of the grisly battle quickly faded away from earshot, a scream issuing from an all too familiar throat told him that Reynolds had finally succumbed to the assault of the pirates. When he had reached the safety of the next island, he could think about recruiting a replacement for Reynolds.

As he forced his way through the thick foliage and undergrowth, he caught a glimpse of the sea. Once he had left the vile island behind, he would have his erstwhile tormentors at his mercy. As he pushed through the verdant curtain and onto the open beach the sudden wave of sunlight blinded him.  Robert kept running, being sure to keep the furious footsteps of his enemies behind him. Tearing off his shirt as he moved Robert soon found himself in the cool briny embrace of the sea.

Having been an avid diver in his younger days, Robert was an accomplished swimmer. With powerful strokes, he began to swim swiftly toward the neighboring island. Even as he left his pursuers rapidly behind, he could begin to feel the waning of the insidious power that had left him enfeebled mere moments ago. It seemed as if he would be in full mastery of his magical abilities once he was no longer in the immediate vicinity of the foul place behind. Robert stopped swimming forwards and turned to face his foes who were swimming furiously in pursuit of him. As he bobbed up and down in the gentle tide, the familiar presence of self-assurance began to settle over him. He felt free of the island’s oppressive yet ephemeral inhibition. Robert allowed himself to be carried to the crest of a silty wave. Looking straight at his pursuers, he cast yet another spell. But this one was of a radically different nature. The time for temperate responses was well past. Summoning all his power, he unleashed a stormy explosion of raw magical power at his pursuers. As he exhaled with convulsive force, a massive whirlpool marred the surface of what had been a tranquil sea moments ago. Encapsulated within the protective barrier that he had invoked for himself, he watched with grim satisfaction as Gurad Sorgan and his infamous crew were dragged down to their watery demise.

Or so he assumed. A mere moment later, he noticed a dark silhouette in the water rapidly advancing toward him. Elation was rapidly supplanted by wary caution. Was that a shark headed in his direction? Reflexively, he invoked a spell that would enable him to breathe underwater for an extended period of time. Then, without a moment’s hesitation, he immersed himself beneath the azure surface, determined to identify the nature of his potential assailant. What he saw next virtually left him frozen with pure, unalloyed terror. A crocodile of horrific size sped toward him like a monstrous, terrifying harpoon. Its eyes gleamed with pure, undiluted malevolence, radiating an aura that that seemed disturbingly familiar. Before Robert could even begin to chant a defensive spell, its horrific head rammed into his ribs with crushing force. As searing agony consumed his body, Roberts field of vision turned black. Unconsciousness swiftly overcame him.

Robert awoke to the smell of incense. As he opened his eyes, he beheld a vast crowd of native islanders gathered around him. Their swarthy faces bore expressions of blissful rapture. Swaying gently from side to side, they began to chant in unison. Robert found himself utterly astonished. Why was he still alive? It was an extremely atypical crocodile that would refrain from devouring its prey. And just as intriguing, how had he ended up among these savages? And what fate did they have in store for him?

An impish laugh interrupted his dazed musings. His attention utterly engrossed by this incongruous sound, he looked straight ahead, only to find himself looking at the nauseating visage of Gurad Sorgan. Understanding rapidly dawned upon him. “You were that crocodile, weren’t you? What manner of hell-spawned fiend are you?”

Gurad cackled once again in that disconcerting manner of his. “So quick to condemn what you do not understand. I am no fiend. I was once a normal mortal like the rest of the miserable wretches that infest this world of ours before a great spirit of the wilderness took it upon himself to reveal my true nature to me. And now I am liberated from the revolting hypocrisy that is so characteristic of humankind. But my story should be of no concern to you. Aren’t you the least bit curious about what we have in store for you?”

Robert had resolved not to reveal the slightest sign of the despair that had set upon him. Death was all but certain now. But that was no reason to give this abomination the satisfaction of seeing him plead for his life. “I’m assuming that you and these filthy savages are intent upon sacrificing me to some demon god. A plague upon whatever insane deity thatspawned a nightmarish monstrosity like you.”

A look of mock outrage appeared upon Sorgan’s face in response to the mage’s contemptuous words. “I feel so insulted by your harsh, thoughtless words! You call me an abomination. But surely you must be aware that it is the human race that is the true abomination. You spawn like rats and despoil the sanctity of nature simply to feed your insatiable lust for power and riches. And those rare groups of humans who actually continue to revere the true masters of our world are so condescendingly dismissed as savages by the likes of you.” He made a sweeping gesture toward the assembled islanders before continuing with his riposte. “But redemption will soon be thrust upon you whether you want it or not. The spirits of the island have decreed a glorious fate for you.”

Despite the overpowering combination of fear and rage that had totally consumed him at this point, Robert nevertheless felt his curiosity piqued by the monstrous pirate’s cryptic words. “What do you mean, demon?”

Sorgan flashed an inscrutable, deeply unsettling smile at him. “Don’t you agree with me that predation is ultimately what underpins this world of ours? Plants feed various animals which in turn are preyed upon by yet other animals. As for humans, they prey upon one another. You yourself are a predator who ravenously feeds off the enslaved labor of the unfortunate islanders who have been sold to you as slaves for the sole purpose of toiling on your massive palm oil plantations. I too am a hunter who feasts upon those merchant captains who have grown wealthy from devouring the unwilling labor of these islanders. After all, isn’t it how you merchant princes have made your fortunes? Namely, by using the native denizens of these lands to extract the rich commodities of their ancestral islands? And ultimately, when all of us succumb to death, nature itself consumes us, putting our moldering remains to good use.”

In response to this seemingly irrelevant preamble, Robert gritted his teeth in rage and contempt. “So you are a philosopher now, you accursed monstrosity? Come to the heart of the matter instead of infuriating me with your tedious gibbering!”

“Your arrogance amuses me, my lord. In your current situation, most men would be begging for their lives. But it is precisely this quality of yours that made me decide upon you as the perfect choice of captive.”

As Robert's eyes widened in astonishment and incredulity, Sorgan gave a tacit nod. “Yes, I came specifically for you. You are infamous in these lands as the ambitious wizard with plans to carve out an empire for himself someday. Sheer avarice and greed fuels your very existence. That makes you perfect for the purpose of this ritual. Add the fact that you’re also a mage of considerable power and your fate was sealed the moment that I heard of you. But in truth, you should thank me. I am going to elevate you from your grubby existence to a truly glorious destiny. For once in your miserable life, you will actually make a personal sacrifice on behalf of a cause that is so much more profound than the petty thirst for riches that has hitherto dominated your mind. You should feel honored, really.”

Turning to the assembled throng of natives, he gestured for one of them hand him something. A flint dagger was quickly thrust into his hands. Then, with a final look of cool amusement at his unfortunate victim, Gurad Sorgan proceeded to slit the throat of the wretched wizard. As Robert’s blood spurted out in a frenzied torrent, his teeth clamped down convulsively. Sorgan continued to watch impassively as the sorcerer’s life ebbed out of him.

As Robert’s spirit departed his bleeding corpse, it lashed out with unbridled rage and unleashed all its magical power in an explosion of utter fury. Summoning all its strength, the spectre unleashed a wailing shriek of rage that reverberated throughout the jungle canopy. The incessant shrieks of the island’s numerous monkeys and parrots abruptly ceased, replaced by a brooding, ominous silence. For the first time in his long existence as a predator of humans, Sorgan felt his cold heart quail. In the next instant a human form appeared, entirely immersed in crimson flames. Then, before he could even comprehend what had happened, a scorching fireball engulfed his face. His primal scream of the utmost excruciation resounded throughout the jungle, presaging the apocalypse that was to come.

Secure now in the embrace of death, the vengeful revenant no longer found itself bound by the insidious mystical bonds of the island. Summoning all its power, the shade of Robert summoned one final incantation to destroy those who had lured it to its untimely demise.

Raw magical essence in its most lethal form cascaded everywhere, consuming all that it touched. Islanders screamed in horror as their flesh literally began to melt off their bones. Those closest to the epicenter of this magical conflagration watched with helpless anguish as they turned into blackened skeletons within mere minutes. As the skin on the lower half of Sorgan’s face began to dissolve in giblets, he stoically shut his eyes, certain in the knowledge that the spirits would not abandon him to the vengeance of the murderous fiend. His faith was soon vindicated as ecstasy of the most blissful kind suffused his mind and body alike in that sublime moment. The intense, unbearable pain of moments ago was utterly obliterated. Meanwhile, the sea surrounding the island began to churn violently. Out of the tumultuous waves arose vast serpentine forms.

There were no less than five of them. Each of them was a titanic sea serpent that towered far above the diminutive humans clustered on the beach. Vast shimmering scales covered their bodies, each of them emitting a lustrous gold sheen in the russet-tinged twilight. Their heads resembled those of humongous alligators and were crowned with vast swept-back horns. Their eyes were enormous green orbs that sparkled like vast emeralds in the light of the rapidly descending sun. Drawn by the potent life force of the slain wizard, they heaved their leviathan, ponderous coils upon the island and began to converge upon the crocodile man with a slithery grace and speed that belied their massive size. Opening their immense, gaping maws, they unleashed a torrential deluge of water that submerged everything in its wake. The raging specter of fire gave vent to a final blood curdling wail as its very existence was extinguished by the onrushing wave of water. Dissipating into pure magical energy, its lingering remnants were quickly inhaled into the giant nostrils of the serpents.

Energized by their gluttonous repast, the five spirits of the sea began to intertwine their tremendous coils with one another, swiftly amalgamating and merging to take the form of a gargantuan dragon endowed with five heads. Sorgan immediately dropped to his knees, closing his eyes as tears of sheer bliss trickled down his leathery cheeks. His purpose had been accomplished at last, and the god of the island had finally been reborn. After what seemed an eternity, he opened his eyes. The god was gazing out at the horizon, all but oblivious to his presence. Sorgan cared not. He knew what his divine master expected of him. The ancient prophecy would soon be fulfilled and the islands would once again be a blessed utopia, ruled by the god. That was all that mattered.

 

The End.

About the Author

S. Shree Raaman is a history graduate who was born in Singapore where he still resides. Having spent a considerable period of time in Australia, he has had the misfortune of acquiring an odd accent that combines the Singaporean intonation with the Aussie one, hence rendering his speech incomprehensible to most people. On a more positive note, he has an enduring interest in history and philosophy. Having grown up in the Asia-Pacific region, he naturally possesses a desire to accumulate as much knowledge as possible about the historical origins and roots of Indian, Chinese and Middle Eastern civilization. As far as his philosophical interests go, he enjoys exploring the role that ethical considerations play in our modern, consumerist society. The latter area of interest often manifests itself in the fantasy fiction penned by him.

Shree is a volunteer member of Excursion's editorial staff.