Tales of the Ultrashark had drawn us to the tiny port town of Mongolith which lies on the tip of the Northern continent where it projects into the steamy waters of the Aberrian sea. The town was the link to the popular Holiday Archipelago which sprouted in a chain of beautiful tiny islands dotted with hotels, chalets and beach camps. Fear of the Ultrashark had kept us on the mainland for days, like the holiday-makers not already in their bathing suits on the islands. No one wanted to take us across the water with a genuine sea monster on the loose, indeed there was much grumbling from those whose vacations were being spoiled. Instead we absorbed the local gossip, examined the remnants of boats and the terrifying images captured of the creature.
That it was real we had absolutely no doubt. Dozens of small fishing craft had disappeared, as had the larger fish. Until the town finally prohibited swimming there was a steady stream of fatalities. The clearest picture of it, taken by a man on a fleeing vessel, showed a huge maw chomping through the hull and cabin of a fishing boat. We were eager to get closer to it, but still no amount of money (what little we could afford in bribes) would take us to sea. Of course, if we’d still had the university’s research ship we would have been out there already. But the Spirit of Inquiry lay in pieces at the bottom of the Invex Gulf. The creature was disappointingly elusive and we suspected it was prowling the (belatedly) safety conscious waters between the islands.
After six days of frustrated pacing of the beach and half-glimpsed fins our search was ended. A fisherman was found suffering from an hysterical fit. The constables followed his footsteps back down the beach and discovered the decapitated head of a gigantic shark specimen. They assumed it had been washed up with the morning tide. I mused that the enormous head – with a mouth wide enough to drive an omnibus through without scraping the roof on the cleaver-like teeth – had been tossed up the beach, since it lay some fifty feet beyond the tide’s reach. The fierce predator’s head had been severed by something even larger. The brief relief that its death brought was overshadowed by a very real fear of whatever had pushed it down the food chain. There was little doubt that this would be quite bad for the tourist industry, but for us this was gold. We took our measurements and records before the locals whisked the evidence away and transformed it into a gruesome tourist attraction.
We determined to charter a flight instead which could put us in the heart of the fragmented peninsula. Finding a suitable pilot and plane was difficult: you see, I travel always with my two companions, they are friends and colleagues from the university. The first, Harvey is a giant sentient millipede from the Southern Continent (professor of Diverse Biology) and the second is Maxwell, my black and white cat. Cramming the three of us in is often a challenge, though I admit that Maxwell is not the one who presents the problems. Our former aircraft (its lifespan was sadly too short to achieve a christening) had been destroyed while we escaped from the Bitter Forest. As with the Spirit, our employers had been lax in its replacement. Maxwell successfully found us an alternative, a somewhat reluctant gentleman predictably named Bob, whose aquaplane had sufficient space for Harvey to coil within.
The sea sparkled bright and clear from our high vantage and we were perkily alert for more anomalous monsters. However, the only shadows that marred the water were those of ordinary fauna: shoals of Goading Fish and the huge but harmless Rooted Jellyfish which are common in the Aberrian shallows. As we flew over the picturesque reefs and atolls our pilot grunted (more than he had so far uttered) and said he couldn’t get through to island control. This was unusual enough to set him grumbling about the safety of his “bird”. Our intention had been to set down on the farthest island and work our way back using the endless string of hotels and rustic ferries for transport and comfort. But the crackling radio and Bob’s rising anxiety about the silence from the islands prompted a reluctant change of plans.
Harvey, Maxwell and I held a brief conference. We agreed that we ought to proceed, but with perhaps a mite more caution than usual. Accordingly we requested that Bob set us down near the middle of the archipelago. That was when we caught our first glimpse of the thing that had casually snapped the head off the Ultrashark and spat it onto the sands.
We were passing over one of the larger islands with an apparently jungle-themed hotel dominating the shoreline, when fire erupted out of the complex. Billows of thick black smoke rose upwards as Bob banked the plane sharply to avoid being blinded. The smoke obscured our view but between the clouds we could see movement – a huge shadow within the murk darting back and forth across the island. We circled it, trying to get a clear view of the animal but it plunged back into the sea as the smoke began to blow away. Its length was swallowed by the deeper water.
The fire was short-lived, burning itself into a blackened smear. We could see no one on the beach, not even people running from or to the hotel. It seemed that our investigation might not be as merry or straightforward as we had hoped. But we are scientists (with the exception of Maxwell; he is an enthusiastic amateur) and mere discomfort would not impede us.
We chose the beleaguered island for our beginning (which Bob informed us was named after a local saint – St Balm’s). Although this appeared wildly foolish to our pilot we had our reasons. We knew the beast had been there so physical evidence ought to be widely available. There was also a good chance that it would not be returning if it had already denuded the island of life, and we would be able to pick up its trail. Clearly the creaure was dangerous and carnivorous and we preferred to be behind it than in its path.
I referred to my holiday guide. St Balm’s was the second largest island and sported two hotels: the beach front jungle-hotel and another set into the lightly forested centre of the island. There were also cabins dotted about and a range of recreational activities. It sounded lovely although none of it gave the impression that it would withstand anything with more teeth than the rain.
Bob touched down lightly on the sea and we splashed awkwardly onto the shore. We prepared for our expedition by piling Harvey high with the bags and packs Bob hurled from the plane. Bob declined the opportunity to wait for us and was in the air again almost before our feet left prints in the sand. He had promised to stay near the radio though and would keep an ear open for our inevitable cries for aid. We gave him an optimistic wave as he vanished into the distance.
We spiralled inwards from the shoreline, keeping an eye out for the creature while scouting for tracks and survivors. Every human structure, from kayaks to chalets had been destroyed and scattered violently. The beach resort had been pounded into the sand. Fragments of furniture and roof sloshed gently in the surf. We were somewhat shaken by the degree of devastation and flinchingly sifted through the wreckage, fearing what state the casualties might be in.
Following the trail that had been beaten into the forest we came to the flaming beacon which had lured us in. The fire appeared to have come from the hotel’s power generator which lay behind the main complex. It looked as if it had been stamped upon, rupturing the boilers. An avenue of smashed trees and flattened cabins led away on both sides of the smoking ruin.
Either fear of the Ultrashark had dissuaded the holiday makers from their annual vacations or the creaure we’d seen skulking into the sea had been disturbingly thorough. We found no survivors or even any bodily remains, beside a long red smear within a footprint. The beast’s tracks were plentiful and had provided most of our footpaths; Harvey and Maxwell measured them while I took photographs.
The creature, we surmised, had the gait and rough anatomy of a large aquatic reptile but was far larger than anything found even in the Southern Continent. Some of the clearer markings where the animal had paused before changing direction showed a length between forelegs and tail tip of fifty feet. We had no idea of its head shape as yet, though there were grooves in the sand where it might have ducked to graze upon its prey. Harvey expostulated that it was naturally at home on the bottom of the ocean where it would feed on anything that came within reach until the stimulation of the Ultrashark brought it to the surface. Maxwell considered it an interloper from distant waters. It was an exciting discovery and a number of papers were likely to emerge from its study.
Our intent had been to island hop with the ferries or local boat men, but there were no longer such facilities available. The detritus of boats and the buoyant stern of a ferry were visible from the beach. Some of the islands were only a few hundreds of feet apart (even less at low tide) so Harvey proposed that we travel on his back instead, as we had often done in the lakes of the Eastern Mood jungles. This was not the most appealing prospect but past attempts at raft building had met unfortunate ends. It was only a little water after all. I tucked Maxwell into his perspex box; he hates the water, but not as much as being unable to see.
That first passage between the islands was tense, but brief. Harvey’s light step skimmed through the shallow waters and up the next beach before we’d had time to truly unsettle ourselves. Harvey shook his articulated length dry and I released Maxwell onto the sound. Perhaps we’d find a whole boat on this island. Without an aerial view we had to trust that the creature was still ahead of us. On reflection it would have been the ideal time to unhook the radio from Harvey’s pannier and check whether Bob was still airborne.
Even now I find it hard to believe that a creature so large could move with such stealth. Indeed, the noise we heard, which alerted us to the imminent danger, was only the sound of water cascading onto wet sand. We turned; Harvey instinctively circled around us like a wagon train. We three watched the enormous head of the creature rise out of the water. It had a long broad snout with the appearance of a salamander or newt save the powerful jawline and rows of wicked teeth which gave it an alligator’s grin. Instead of eyes set into its head, it boasted a pair of mobile eye palps resembling horns. They rotated smoothly towards us with alien grace and its cave-like nostrils flared. Maxwell named it for us, in a low mewl of disquiet: “it’s a… a… a Colossal Death Newt!”
In pursuing and investigating unusual creatures we have found that there are three choices when confronted by what is supposed to be our quarry: make a great deal of noise to either scare it off or establish our dominance, remain terribly still and hope to be ignored, or flee. The decision is usually made instinctively, and quickly. This was no exception. As the rest of the Collossal Death Newt’s blue black bulk slid smoothly out of the sea and its mouth gaped at us, we ran. For fear of separation I scooped up Maxwell even though his nimble cats feet are quicker than mine, and tried to keep up with Harvey’s fluid scuttle.
Before we knew it we had reached the other side of this isle and pressed on across the narrow sandy spit to the next, on which we saw lights and smelled cooking meat. The resort was fully occupied and families ate, played and slept in a broad clearing ringed with chalets. We had no choice but to lead the beast into their midst as we bellowed at them to run.
The creature flattened trees and cabins under the weight of its low-slung body. Its locomotion appeared to confirm Maxwell’s newt thesis, although unfortunately we had little time to examine it in detail. Our fears about the former inhabitants of the first island were confirmed as it made a point of snapping up screaming holiday makers, or knocked them down with its long tongue and sucked them in over its teeth. From our selfish perspective the holiday camp gave us good cover and we were in the lead as we continued our escape, dashing from that island to the next.
The Death Newt’s progress was quite evident behind us – not only was it huge enough to be readily visible but the collapsing trees, buildings and panicked people scattering outwards pinpointed it perfectly. It seemed intent on eating every person in its path. While it was busy we hopped across to yet another island and fell to the ground for a moment’s respite. Harvey still bore most of our equipment in the saddlebags strapped across his shell. Several of the bags were torn and others had been left behind in our scramble, but we still had the bulk of the photographic kit, specimen jars, and food. Our rather feeble store of weapons – a rifle, a pistol and some caving explosives were also intact. How I rued the butchering of our armaments budget.
Most importantly the radio was still present, and dry. With some haste I hailed Bob. His voice was a tonic. He had returned to the mainland and reported what little he could to the authorities. They were now in the important governmental stage of dithering. Meanwhile, yet more smoke was visible rising from the Holiday Islands and its population was rapidly diminishing. I explained that we were now ahead of the monster – a wholly undesirable outcome and were in urgent need of assistance. Bob was quite clear that he wouldn’t land anywhere near the creature, but he would come and fetch us – if we made it alive to the Petits Dansons island, the closest to Mongolith.
There was only forward (or South as the maps will have it) left to us and even as we set off we could hear the monstrous newt’s earth shaking tread behind us. Our expedition had degenerated into a blind race across islands and splashing through waist-deep water. It was constantly on our heels, except for whenever we passed through a holiday village or hotel resort. Then the behemoth would ignore us for a few minutes while it hunted down the luckless vacationers with its terrible flickering tongue. I soon gave up stopping to photograph the carnage. As Maxwell pointed out with the grip of his claws, those brief distractions were all that kept us ahead.
By the sixth hour of our flight Maxwell and I were beyond exhaustion and had taken to clinging onto Harvey’s panniers as he deftly wove through the foliage. Evening was preparing to condemn us to night when we burst through a final stand of shrubs. Before us there was only open water, and perhaps only a mile away – the mainland.
Quite why its prospect seemed any more secure than the ravaged islands I do not know. The amphibious terror would be equally at home mangling the thriving shore of Mongolith – but the port-town positively hummed with safety. I would of course wish to be a very long way inland, but nonetheless… to be away from the sea outweighed even my desire for a cup of tea.
We were only minutes away from certain death (a mantra Maxwell had become overly fond of and purred stressfully under his breath). We had splashed and struggled across half the island chain, a bloody and broken trail of destruction behind us. I could hardly believe that we had made it as far as Petit Dansons; sanctuary, or at least the chance of it was less than a mile away – the mainland glittered with promise, seeming far nicer than when we left it only half a day ago.
On the other side of the island was a pool and beach resort which would distract the Colossal Death Newt for a while. The terrifying beast had taken a malicious delight in chasing us across the archipelago. Never assume that nature is merely predatory; we are not the only creatures capable of spite.
Harvey crashed to the sand, exhausted from carrying us while Maxwell took to a tense pacing of the sands. I tore the radio out of the pack and tried not to shout into it. In the loudest of whispers I called up our pilot and breathlessly explained that we had reached the rendezvous, barely. Wonderfully true to his word, we saw Bob’s plane rise from the mainland only moments later. My elation at the sight of his aquaplane competed with the raw fear swelling in my gut.
The next few minutes were an incomprehensible blur of nightmare. First came a familiar crashing behind us, and then Harvey vanished – ripped backwards into the tree line – all fifteen feet of tough chitin and mandibles disappeared scarcely leaving a groove in the sand. Maxwell and I backed into the surf, (he in my arms, his claws dug firmly into my shoulder after climbing up me) as the sound of Bob’s plane grew louder. We twisted and turned in the shallows, trying to keep both our saviour and nemesis in view.
The plane slowed, making ready to glide onto the sea before us. We were ready to dive into the water but he reared up and away. I feared Bob had lost his nerve, catching sight of the fearsome monster lurking in the trees with our dear friend Harvey. We could even see the expression of alarm on his face and then the whole plane was whipped out of the sky by a monstrous tentacle that jerked suddenly out of the sea.
We stepped wetly back onto the beach as the plane cart-wheeled over our heads and into the trees. A deep roar of pain and outrage shook the ground beneath our feet from which we inferred that it had struck our pursuer. I fell to my knees wondering what arrangement of organs enabled such an outburst, doubtless a consideration for another time. The Colossal Death Newt showed itself. That vast flat head rose up above the foliage, the jaws gaping to reveal the rows of devil teeth and the tongue tasting at the evening air. It lunged forwards and we saw the yellow aeroplane wing embedded in its neck. It looked furious.
I fully anticipated our deaths but a foaming and crashing of water tore our attention seawards once more. An even more appalling creature of tentacles and snapping beak was thrashing its way to land. It resembled a purpling heap of paella grown insane and to titanic proportions. Our attacker snarled from deep inside, and bunching its sinuous length, uncoiled in a sprint directly for the marine assailant. The creature’s feet slammed straight past us, so close that I could have reached out to touch it (had I felt any such desire to do so). The leviathans embraced in a deadly whirl of teeth and tentacles.
Maxwell and I were shocked, to say the least, by this turn of events. So much so that we felt compelled to watch as they smashed into each other. We were even more shocked when the trees rustled again and we quivered in anticipation of some new threat. Our relief was profound when we realised it was Harvey. That relief faded immediately that we saw it was only a part of him. Just his head and first three segments staggered between the trunks and drunkenly weaved towards us. He took a few paces and fell to the sand, ichor gushing horribly from his abdomen. He died in my arms, his mandibles clacking feebly.
The two monsters thrashed away behind us, foaming the water and tearing great chunks from each other that arced over sea and spattered onto the beach like a rain of gore. This was a fantastic opportunity for zoologists such as ourselves to witness a miracle of nature, a contest of kings. Reluctantly I also acknowledged that this might be our best opportunity to cross the sea. I had little doubt that whichever giant survived the battle, its next meal would be us.
With this in mind I cracked open Harvey’s helmet-like head by jamming my knife into the crease by his left eye socket. The armour split smoothly and I parted sacs of insectile fluids until I found what I was looking for. The soul-grub whimpered faintly as I cut it out of the gristly nest it lodged within. I patted it gently and folded it into a wax paper envelope. I bundled Maxwell (who did not entirely agree with my plan) into his case and tucked Harvey’s next incarnation in beside him. I unlaced my boots and placed them on the beach facing the sea. With a last fearful look at the raging titans I dove into the warm waters. Pushing my friends before me, I swam into the coming night.