The Terrible Mallard

Standard

“You must be Captain Vasquez.”

“And why, madam, do you presume that?”

“Because judging from their expressions, none of the people at this table believe a word you’re saying…but they’re all listening anyway because the story is just that captivating.”

Captain Vasquez glanced around the crowded table and smiled. She believed in her tales with such confidence that it did not matter whether anyone else did or not. She believed because they were true, mostly. The tale of the spineless cater-monkey was certainly true. And if not for the admonition of the preeminent jungle tribe that taking one of the animals out of the jungle would curse her and her family for seven hundred generations, she might have taken one as proof. They certainly weren’t shy creatures, and a few of them were curious enough to make it onto the ship of their own volition. The captain didn’t quite believe in the curse. But she did believe that the good people of the tribe would worry over her, despite her having nothing of value to trade with them.

The captain joined the stranger, who introduced herself only as Lady Morales, at a table in a sober corner of the portside tavern.

“Of what service can I be to you, my lady?” the captain asked as a server came to their table without having to be yelled down. Someone in that establishment must have recognized the noblewoman. She did give off an air of calm confidence, but that was hardly the mark of nobility. She wore no signets, crests, or emblems of lineage.

The only fine piece of accessory she bore was the cane she used to help her walk, though she seemed still a touch too young for such a thing. It was made of a rich red-brown mahogany shaft, an engraved silver collar, and a handle of polished black marble.

Lady Morales had for decades been an explorer and a scholar of some renown, though unlike others of her station and means, she had stayed away from the limelight. She suffered a serious mishap on one of her earlier expeditions, which left her with a permanent injury to her dominant leg, and the need for the cane.

But that did not dampen her desire to explore. She was a poor researcher and scholar, she claimed. But she had the means and the audacity to go out into the world and find things for the scholars and researchers to study. And those who showed particular promise, she would often bring into her employ. She had researchers working on all eight continents. When she mentioned that, she gave a wry chuckle, and it seemed that the captain’s table companion was finally ready to reveal why she had sought the captain out.

“We’ve managed to harness three of the seven fundamental forces of nature, Captain. Electromagnetism, the nuclear force, and ethereum. It’s only a matter of time before we master the others.”

“May I not live to rue the day,” Captain Vasquez said, noting the mead she’d just been served was of a finer grade.

“Would you deny your own race the victory of progress?”

“Not at all, so long as we make as much progress in being a decent race as we do in being a powerful one.” The captain raised her glass to the noblewoman and took a sip.

Lady Morales gave a concurring nod and pulled from her coat pocket an old map. She unfolded it and refolded it slowly so that the whole of it was not visible at once on the table. It had been sent to her by one of her researchers in Falkkisia.

“Looks like someone tried to burn it,” the captain said.

“That was an accident. There was a fire at one of the estates of the family who owned the map long ago. The fire was put out before much damage could occur, but one of the items that suffered was a book of maps that lay in the study of the lord. All the corners were damaged in some way, singed or altogether burned like this one. Luckily, the parts that were burned were not the interesting ones.”

With one notable exception, the drawing appeared to be an excellently accurate map of the world as it stood four centuries prior. That one exception, however, was enough to cast doubt on every other detail of the map that it did not share with other known sources.

The map depicted an entire continent that did not exist in reality.

“I had it tested,” Lady Morales said. “The inks, the paper. It’s authentic. There have always been legends here and there of lost continents. But something about this map, the lack of any labels, the detail about some of the continents that were not as well explored and known in that age, and even the style of it. It stands out. A bit too much perhaps. Despite the tests, I couldn’t get any cartographic historians to take it seriously. I did try to send some ships out there. If they found something, I would have followed. But no one ever found anything at all. Then, I came across this.”

From another pocket, she pulled a small, ragged-looking volume, and laid it gently atop the folded map. She said it was the log of a man named Jones, who was first mate of the ship that was the last to visit the continent before it vanished.

The first mate’s account said that the ship—the Sable Dragonfly—was commissioned by a rich merchant whom Jones referred to with a word that translated to “blowhard.” The merchant was a would-be explorer who sought to find a mythical treasure of profound significance on a neighboring continent that none visited, because it was guarded along its shores by various sentries. A magician in a tower guarded the northeast shore. Forbidding forests flanked this tower. In the southwest, there was a supremely tall statue of a giant head. The head did not face to the shore, however, for it did not need to watch the shore. The shore in the southwest was guarded by a natural breakwater of great mountainous spikes of earth piercing the ocean surface and jutting up to the sky. And so it went, all along the continent’s shores. The merchant asked the crew simply to take him ashore, for none who attempted to land had ever returned.

In truth, the man was no rich and harmless merchant, but a spy.

He admitted this to the captain and first mate as they drew closer to the forbidden continent. The spy had been dispatched by order of their sovereign on a secret mission to find out if the forbidden continent was planning to wage war or invade its neighbors. There were rumors of a new kind of weapon. A weapon forged not of metal, glass, or stone, but of magical elements. This weapon could purportedly change the nature of the elements, turning water into earth, air into fire. It could turn the surrounding seas to land, and the land to water, drowning all living things that dwelt on the surface. Destroying in one fell swoop, entire kingdoms, empires…continents. No doubt the rumors were exaggerated. How could any possess such god-like powers? And it was curious that any word, even if it was rumors, would escape the purportedly impenetrable continent. But there was enough suspicion that the neighboring continents had to find out what that was so they would not be caught unawares. The learning and studying of magic was widespread in those days, but so much knowledge was lost during the preceding ages of war and disease, that it was feared any in the world who retained such knowledge would have a marked advantage in future conflicts.

“There was only one port city on that side of the Falkkisian continent then,” the noblewoman said. “Long abandoned. The city’s full of dust and ghosts now. Its people were tough though. They were the only ones who would trade with the neighboring forbidden continent. They called it Soumough.”

“Some of what?”

Lady Morales shook her head and wrote out the name. “It’s from an old Falkissian word that means ‘doorway,’ which was strange. If there were any doors on the continent, they all seemed to be closed. Anyway, their ships were the only ones daring—or foolish—enough to brave the tumultuous waters of Breakship Channel. So named because…well, there is no need to explain.”

“Presuming this continent does exist, what do you expect to find there? Roaming dinosaurs? Ancient hominids still using spears to hunt game, speaking no language beyond grunts, and wearing no garb but a provocative covering of light fur?”

Lady Morales smiled. “What if we did find something like that?”

The captain peered at her. “There are unexplored regions of our world, and unmet peoples, regions that we actually know how to reach. What is driving you to this land?”

“To my previous point, I believe we began mastering the great forces of nature long ago, and we started with something that existed on this continent. I believe something went wrong, and Soumough was lost. Or perhaps someone judged that we were not ready to wield such power, and sunk the continent on purpose. Or hid it.” She held up the log. “This man witnessed the supposed end of the lost continent but not the means by which it ended.”

The captain frowned. “You believe that rumor people were spreading back then? About some weapon that could mix up the elements? You think that will lead us to harnessing another fundamental force?”

“The discovery of the continent itself would be monumental. It would be enough. But yes, I do believe there might be some truth to there being something else. Something…”

“That shouldn’t be tampered with?” the captain offered. But she gave a slight smile, as if to indicate that she did not believe there would actually be anything to tamper with. She hoped to be like the other captains that the noblewoman had sent out to find the lost continent, who no doubt went home with a large sum of money for not much effort. The noblewoman did seem the generous type, the type that was so heinously rich that she did not think to flaunt her status with fashions and baubles. Still, the captain had to act somewhat reluctant, if only to induce the noblewoman to sweeten the honey pot.

“Captain, I understand if you have doubts and questions. And if your answer is no, it’s no,” Lady Morales said as she rose. The captain rose in turn. “But I must know, either way, so I can make other arrangements if need be.”

“I just need to know how much it will pay and what kinds of dangers we should expect. And I need to know that you are not a spy, but just an explorer.”

~~~

Lady Morales had learned that Captain Vasquez had a skilled navigator, and that her ship, despite its whimsical name, was a respected ship of exploration, housing two scholars. The Terrible Mallard and its crew made their money by ferrying passengers, though rarely well-to-do ones, between home and remote locations that most other ships did not travel, not so much because of risk, but because other ways were more lucrative, and other ships were bigger and unable to fit where the Mallard could fit.

The noblewoman made note of every detail she could about the crew and the ship. The captain’s archaic custom of boarding last. The well-managed crew. The excellently maintained rigging and equipment. The ethereum-laced hull—an extravagance for even the finest of passenger ships, much less a rather small explorer vessel.

They used the map and the log of the Sable Dragonfly’s first mate to guide them, ignoring the compass readings, as had the crew of that fated last vessel to reach the forbidden continent. The stars too became obscured behind thick clouds. That was where the ethereum in the hull aided their journey, keeping the ship pointed in the direction they had set it, despite currents to the contrary.

They sailed to the location where the lost continent of Soumough should have been. They found nothing. The navigator was certain he guided them correctly, despite the malfunctioning of the compasses and the obscuring of the sky by overcast conditions. Lady Morales asked them to stay in the spot for just a night or two longer. Neither captain nor crew had any objections. The clouds were beginning to clear, and they might soon see enough of the stars to confirm that they were indeed in the right place.

That night, a strange fog rolled in, so thick and cloying that it almost seemed to stick to the skin. The captain hoped that it would burn away by morning. But the fog brought a strange kind of luminescence to it that kept them from knowing night from day, save that they had clocks aboard. It dampened all sound so much so that one crewmate could hardly hear another only a few feet away, much less could they hear the soft lapping of the ocean waters against the hull.

The next morning, the fog had indeed burned off, and the Terrible Mallard found itself trapped on land, halfway up a mountain.

***

They had found the lost continent, or rather it had found them.

But there was another problem. The continent was completely barren. The earth was dark, powdery black. Nothing appeared to be growing there. No animals could be seen or heard. No insects. They looked through their most powerful spyglasses and scopes to see what shores they might reach, and where they were most likely to see passing ships, so they could signal to them for aid. Either the continent was smaller than they had expected, or their spyglasses were suddenly far more powerful, for they could see every point of the continent from their vantage. They could see that Soumough was indeed devoid of life, and there was nothing to explore.

The crew spent the day on the ship, by the captain’s orders. They checked the hull for damage, and prepared supplies and what weapons they had. Sailors took shifts watching through every scope they had onboard, and they spotted a few ships passing the northeast shore, which was the closest to reach from their current position. The captain ordered everyone to stay aboard until the next morning. She hoped that they would find themselves back in the water, and if they did, she planned on sailing away as quickly as she could. But if the ship was still halfway up a mountain, she would send out a party to venture forth to the closet shore and find help if they could.

But the next morning brought them another surprise. They smelled it first. The smell of grass and loamy earth. Then they heard the hushed fluttering of leaves tousled by high breezes. Chirping and piping. There was life in the land. They looked out upon Soumough again, and found where they were on the map. The ship sat nestled in a cluster of small mountains. Forests ranged to the east, the west, and the north. When they felt tremors from the south, one of the sailors directed her scope to the southeast and saw the massive statue of an elongated head turning toward them.

“We’re really on the continent,” the captain said, aghast as she herself looked through a spyglass and spotted a great tower in the northwest distance.

***

Most the crew began to make their way down the mountain, carrying both of the ship’s lifeboats to the bottom of the mountain. They left a few of the crew behind, and they left the ship with anchors weighed, in case it should find itself in water again. Lady Morales was not able to help lift the boats, but she also needed no assistance descending, outside of her trusty cane. Most of the crew believed that the continent had risen from the sea. But Lady Morales was doubtful about that.

“’Where land is ocean and ocean is air, tread with caution. Tread with care,’” she said.

The verse was familiar to the captain. “’Venture deeply if you dare. Through all doorways here and there.’ It’s about Soumough?”

A crewmate shuddered and said, “Why are all childhood rhymes so troubling?”

“Because they’re meant as warnings,” the noblewoman said. “And that’s not all.”

Lady Morales pointed out a strange shadowy rippling of the sky and the land to the west. It coincided with an ominous depiction of a black hole or pit on the map within a forest of evergreens. According to first mate Jones’s log, this was another of the continent’s protections again invasion, for terrible creatures would rise out of that pit when provoked. All manner of creatures lived in and thrived in that forest, unharmed. But all it took to disturb the creatures’ slumber and stir them to action was the footsteps of a human being.

“I hope it’s just a legend,” the Captain said. “Because we have officially set foot on this continent.”

Not too long after that, one of the sailors almost fell off the mountain within the first hour of their descent. Luckily he ended up falling only a few feet, as a great tangle of roots caught him. They hadn’t seen those roots before, and one of the sailors claimed that they came out of nowhere, but even she thought she must have been seeing things.

The away party was silent for a while, only breathing and huffing as they carried the heavy boats down. The captain didn’t just think of using the boats to row out to a passing ship. She also didn’t want them to drown if they suddenly found themselves surrounded by water again.

When they reached the foot of the mountain, Lady Morales looked toward the northeast. “He knows we’re here. He must.”

“I don’t dare ask who,” the captain said.

“The magician in the tower.”

“I didn’t ask.”

“No doubt he wants this map back. Perhaps that’s why he let us find the continent.”

“Why does he want the map back?”

“Because it belongs to him. Did I not tell you that? His apprentice made it, and went with the crew of the last ship to visit. He helped them escape.”

“Mistreated, was he? This apprentice?”

“No, according to the first mate’s log he just didn’t like his master and wanted to thwart him out of vengeance for some slight.”

“Then it’s good that this magician is dead by now.”

***

They left one boat at the foot of the mountain, tethering one of the crew to it with whatever rope they could spare. They would explore as far as the rope would extend. Half of the away party rested in the second boat. After their rest, they would hoist it again and carry it to the northwestern shore.

There were theories among the crew. Some believed Lady Morales about the magician, though they did not think he was still alive. They wanted to leave the map and return to the ship, believing there was some lingering spell at play, and that leaving the map would make the continent sink again, and they would be able to return home. But most also agreed they should explore and see if they could find some treasures or rarities they might sell upon returning home. Or perhaps there were new types of fruits. The two scholars began exploring, noting, and taking samples. They had all been careful in how they dressed themselves in case there were foreign stinging or biting insects or animals that they had no treatments or cures for even with the ship’s relatively sophisticated medical store.

But they came upon nothing unusual, and everything they would expect in any typical forest or mountain, for a while.

***

The creatures looked like rabbits, only larger, with shorter ears, and oddly attentive orange eyes. They began to follow the away party, skittering along beside them, stopping and sniffing.

By the time they realized that the creatures were hunting them, the crew was surrounded. They were circled in a clearing by hundreds of the creatures, who skittered back and forth, watching, ready for some signal. The crew huddled together, back to back, with the noblewoman in the middle. She knelt to pick up some stones.

The sailors readied pistols, rifles, daggers, and knives.

At once, the hellish rabbit-things surged toward the crew, a few of them dashing to the sailors’ feet, some leaping up. They crawled up legs, digging with sharp claws, and piercing with needle-sharp teeth as they went. The crew’s careful attire gave no resistance. Someone fell, screaming, weighed down by dozens of the things. The rifle shots scattered the things at first, but the creatures soon realized that the weapons could only strike down one at a time. They surged forth again. Those bearing knives and daggers fared better, slicing through several of the creatures with a single swipe. The individuals were easy to kill, if only there weren’t so many.

Suddenly, something large thudded to the ground before the surrounded party. Again, the rabbit-things scattered. And this time, those that fled did not return. Another thud sent more of the things skittering away.

There were other creatures in the clearing. They moved quickly, and in the blur of the battle, it was difficult to see anything but the swiping of limbs and the whipping of tails, attacking the rabbit-things and chasing them away.

In moments, the clearing was once again clear. The hundreds of bloodthirsty rabbit-things had vanished into the forest. A few remained. One of them feeding from a vein it had opened in one of the crew’s arms. With a grunting cry, Lady Morales brought her cane down on the creature’s back, cracking its spine. With a last spasm, it fell still.

Those who were still standing fell to their knees to check on the fallen. Everyone was bleeding and bruised. And one crewmate would not rise, though she was awake and not too badly hurt. She stared up at the sky and said nothing. But before the captain could speak any orders, the crewmate spoke. She asked for a moment. As her fellow sailors helped her sit up, they were beset by a new ordeal.

One of the sailors in the lead puckered his face. “What is that sickening smell? It smells of—“ He put his arm over his mouth and nose.

“Honeysuckle,” the captain said.

“It’s overwhelming.”

“It’s them,” the captain said.

And they were surrounded again.

It was the creatures that had chased the rabbit-things away. Monstrous creatures, they stood on all fours, waist high to most of the sailors, but if they had raised themselves on their hind legs, they would have towered over even the tallest of the crew. The monsters’ bodies were long and lean, almost weasel-like, save that they were armored. They had long segmented tails. Small, leaf-shaped ears lay flat against their heads. Their eyes were shaped like dark beads, and two long front teeth dropped from the front of each tapering snout. They varied in color from dark orange to brown to a grayish blue.

One of the creatures padded forward gently. The battered sailors and the noblewoman reformed their circle around those who were wounded. They raised their weapons. The creature lowered its head and dropped something at the foot of one crewmate. It was a bundle of herbs. The monster backed away.

Another monster did likewise, dropping something that looked like a bunch of furry grapes at the captain’s feet.

One of the grayish-blue monsters padded forward with its head held up. It pawed at the ground before the offerings, then craned its neck toward the ground, its gaze trying to reach the wounded sailors who lay in the protection of the circle. The monster nudged the furry grapes toward the captain, then backed away.

The dizzying scent of honeysuckle began to fade.

The crew understood. Without words, they set aside their misgivings, and they worked according to the direction of the monsters, looking to the captain, who nodded her assent at each step. They prepared a salve and a potion in the pans and bowls they had brought for cooking. The captain declared she would try both on herself first, but one of the badly wounded sailors snatched the bowls away and tried the treatments on himself. Misgivings faded when both began to work.

The potion dulled the fiery pain from the bites of the rabbit-like things. The salve halted all bleeding and began to heal the wounds.

When the party was ready to continue, the monsters directed them toward the tower in the northeast. The journey should have taken days on foot, even without dangers and varying terrain. Yet before evening, the still-wounded but much-mended party was within sight of the tower. Better yet, they had somehow caught up with the second party, the one that was heading to the shore. The second party, which had encountered no dangers on their trek thus far, was shocked at the sight of their fellows escorted by the monstrous creatures.

They all continued on to the tower.

~~~

The magician appeared at the foot of his tower, which was draped with golden strands of what appeared to be silk, so delicate that it was near-invisible at a distance. He was young and clean-shaven, and the long hair on his head was as golden as the stuff that draped the tower.

Lady Morales was taken aback by his appearance, which was not what she expected from the entries in Jones’s log regarding the magician.

“The magician is a genial fellow,” he wrote. “Some of the crew are utterly charmed by him in other ways. He is handsome to look upon. His face is smooth. His skin the color of amber, smooth and without varied shades. His hair is uncannily black—no hint of brown or red, even in sunlight—and it falls in fray-less waves over his straight and solid shoulders. I would have expected a magician to wear the robes of a scholar or a priest. But he was dressed in the same kind of garb we wore. Forest-green tunic, dark brow trousers belted with leather, and of leather too his knee-high boots.”

The magician was golden-haired now, and he was alone. But when the crew of the Sable Dragonfly visited, there had been another man. The first mate assumed this other man was the magician’s apprentice, and called him so, though he admitted that neither the man nor the magician ever said it was so. And neither gave the crew their names, if they had any to give.

After a night of decent hospitality, the apprentice spoke in secret with the captain and the first mate, warning them that the magician meant to keep them in his thrall for the rest of their lives, so that they could not report back, and so more ships would not follow them. It took time for the magician to build up his powers of influence, and the visitors had—unlike the apprentice—the advantage of numbers. The apprentice urged them to flee back to their ships. When the merchant-who-was-a-spy asked him about the weapon, the apprentice told them the only weapon he knew of were the horrors that came from the pit in the westerly forest. Ugly creatures with a sickening stench.

The apprentice stole the magician’s map of the world, and gave it to the sailors, telling them they could use it to return to shore. There would be illusions they encountered that would make them turn back, but if they followed the map and trusted it, it would lead them off the continent, and show them how to return to their civilization. The magician’s influence extended some distance beyond the shores of Soumough. So they weren’t safe until they traveled past it, and for that they would need the map.

They escaped that very night. They heard the howling cries of those nightmarish creatures as they made their way out of the tower. But the spy wasn’t with them.

The captain told the crew to carry on, leaving first mate Jones in charge, while he himself went to rescue the spy. The apprentice too said that they would help the captain. For he had tried to escape with them, but realized he was truly trapped in the magician’s thrall.

As the first mate and the rest of the crew reached the shore, they saw a great burst of light from the top of the magician’s tower. And as they watched the tower collapse, a wave of water rushed toward them from inland. They boarded their ship and sailed away, using the map as guide.

~~~

“This is an unpredictable land,” the magician said.

Lady Morales broke free of her musings and walked forward. The captain followed, remaining just a step behind.

“We have learned the truth of that,” the noblewoman said. “It has at times protected us and at times harmed us. But that’s no different from any land.”

“There are things abiding here that don’t belong in your world.” The magician glanced at the armored monsters that had saved the crew and guided them to him. “Those leporine horrors that attacked you are not native to this continent. They come from the dark fissure. And these others come to herd them back.”

Lady Morales thought of that black hole on the map, and the rippling shadows she had seen in the west as they descended the mountain they had landed on.

“How did you find this land?” The magician asked Lady Morales, but it was Captain Vasquez who answered.

“We sailed over it and it appeared.”

The magician said nothing more on the matter. He invited them into the tower for rest and refreshment. He made no mention of the map, and neither did Lady Morales.

Over a surprising dinner of familiar food and drink, the magician spoke. Lady Morales had feared that he would ask them what they knew. That he would ask about their ship. But instead, he spoke of himself.

He had been watching the world for hundreds of years. There had been some rumors that he was more than just a powerful magician, that he was of celestial origin.

He did not remember how or why or from whence. But he did remember that he was cast far away, unable to control his course through the firmaments. When he landed in their world, he struck with such physical force that he created a great chasm, as would any heavenly body of similar size that fell to Earth. He accidentally wiped out all life in the vicinity of the chasm, and would have killed more beyond the continent, if he did not summon the remnants of his powers to stop it. And when he landed, he struck with such ethereal force that he tore a fissure, an opening, to another realm.

Over time, he tried to repair the maelstrom-like fissure. But he could not manage it. He observed the world he had landed in, and the people who lived in it. Many times did those people try to land on the shores of the continent. He allowed animals to return, plants, but he cast what spells he could to keep people from landing on the continent. He could not let them anywhere near that dark fissure. He found that the creatures who occasionally came out of it were harmless for the most part. They frolicked and returned to their home. But there were dangerous things that came out of the fissure too. Things that the magician had to drive back. Things that did not always leave. Animals instinctively drew away from the fissure. Or were chased away by the creatures that emerged, whether harmless or not. But people could overcome their instincts, even to their detriment. Their curiosity would be too great. What was more, they would study the fissure, and likely try to enter it. Though they might do great good with it, they might also do great harm.

There was no device or spell that caused the continent to sink. It was the magician, who had spent hundreds of years trying to close the fissure. He instead tore the opening wider. Not on purpose. He told them briefly of the last visitors he had entertained.  One of them had tried to attack him, and almost, though by accident, killed him. By instinct, the magician let loose powers from within himself that he otherwise kept suppressed. In doing so, he unwittingly killed his attacker and those who had tried to stop that attack.  He drowned the creatures who lived on the continent.

The magician had the power to restore the continent. Turn it back from water to earth. But he chose not to. For twice had he harmed it. He hoped that in time humanity would forget that Soumough ever existed. But he could not let it vanish altogether, not until that dark fissure was closed. The magician kept the continent hovering between the elemental states, for if it dissolved into the oceans, the fissure would spread across the world.

“You have harnessed ethereum,” the magician said at last.

The captain started.

“The Terrible Mallard,” Lady Morales said. She smiled and took a satisfied breath. “You sensed it.”

“Humans are delicate and mortal, it is true,” he said, and he seemed to be talking to himself. “But they also have spirits—that combination of soul, mind, and, heart. It is raw and unbridled. When encased in the mortal shell, it is limited. But it has great potential.”

The magician nodded to himself. He appeared to have forgotten that he was not alone. Then suddenly, he glanced at Lady Morales.

“And after all, I know you can be noble. Two gave their lives defending me from one.  It has been a long time since I’ve thought of that night.”

Lady Morales gave a nod of her head. She sat up straighter in her chair. She seemed about to speak when the magician rose from his chair.

“You may spend two days here, then you must return to your ship,” he said. “They will take you, if you’re not too squeamish to ride them. Go aboard and stay aboard as the fog returns. In one night, you will be in the sea again, free to go, free to return home.”

The noblewoman’s eyes widened. “What if I want to stay? Could I?”

The captain glanced at the noblewoman, but said nothing.

The magician raised his golden brow. “To what end?”

“I’d…like to study with you, if you’ll have me.”

The magician’s eyes grew thoughtful.  “I had an apprentice once. The last time a ship landed on this continent, he pretended to be my prisoner to trick the crew, and get them safely away. We hoped they would go into the world and spread wild stories about how barren and dangerous this continent was.”

Lady Morales gazed directly at him and took a step toward him. “You are powerful. And while I believe you are benign, I also want to make sure that we keep you on our side.”

The magician took a breath so deep that most in the room took two or three in the same span.

“You are right to worry,” he said at last. “I have already caused destruction in your world—without intention—but nonetheless. That is why I must keep the continent dissolved. And I’ve found it is easier for me to trap and send back the things that come through the fissure when they are trapped between elemental states. You would not survive such a life. None who inhabit this world would. So while I would welcome the aid, and…the company, I must protect your world and try to close the pit on my own.”

Lady Morales neither relented nor pressed. She merely asked the magician to consider her request for one night.

***

“You think he’s a god, don’t you?” the captain asked the noblewoman as they sat in one of the tower’s bedchambers.

“By some definitions he is.”

The captain paused. “And you mean to stay and be some kind of ambassador?”

“It’s our world, captain. Don’t you think we should have some hand in guarding it?”

“How? We couldn’t even hold our own against an army of vampirish rabbits.”

Lady Morales smiled.

“If you stay, he would have to keep the continent solid for you. Is that not arrogance, madam? You know more things will climb out of that pit. And not all of them will be as benign as those giant armadillo-rats. Even if he hides it, people will find it.  And you know all the most powerful governments of the world will start carving Soumough up like a feast-day chicken. That won’t make the prettiest of impressions on the magician. He might let us be destroyed by the fissure.”

Lady Morales held up her hands. “You’re probably right. But he won’t let me stay. You know that. I’ll have to help some other way.”

“He’ll be watching us,” the captain said.

Lady Morales nodded. “Watching us make use of the powers we gain, for good and for ill.”

“Maybe he’s waiting for the day when we will be ready to help him. Then again, may he’s lying. What if he isn’t mild and friendly?”

“He would have conquered us by now if that’s what he intended.”

“Maybe he was partly truthful and he did grow weakened when he fell to our world. He could be slowly regaining his powers or his energy, or what have you, before he strikes.”

“Well, Captain, I think one thing we can agree on is that we are far beyond our depth.”

Captain Vasquez smiled grimly at the nautical pun.

The next morning, everyone prepared to return to the Terrible Mallard. The pit monsters had even agreed to carry the boat back.

When the magician came to see them off, he surprised them by agreeing to let Lady Morales stay. But only if she surrendered the map to him so that none others may return, now that he had decided to let the continent remain solid. He had indeed known all along that she had the map. As for the Terrible Mallard, the magician promised to carve a channel of water from the mountains to the sea, and send a wave that would push the ship away from the continent and toward clear seas and skies, from whence they could find their way to some safe harbor.

The captain, for one wild moment, thought of seizing the noblewoman and taking her with them, so that the continent could melt away into the waters again. But she respected the noblewoman’s resolve. They were dealing with forces far beyond their understanding, but perhaps, that would not be so forever.

***

Captain Vasquez thought often of the voyage to the lost continent, where resided a magician who fell from the stars, and many other strange things besides. Though she kept a detailed log of that voyage, she never told the tale to others herself. But she also never swore her crew to secrecy. In fact, they told the tale many times, and she never denied it, even when no one would believe them.

And it was well that no one did.

 

Copyright © 2017. Story by Nila L. Patel.  Artwork: “Soumough” by Sanjay Patel.

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