The Forest of Gueth rustled in the uneager morning breeze, and it tickled the ears of the antelope as it munched arrogantly on the leaf of a plant, without giving much thought to how the plant felt about being eaten.
If the plant could talk, it would probably have said: Hey, you brown shitbag. I haven’t been standing here, absorbing sunlight and being all green and shit for the last three months just so you could come snack up on me whenever you feel like. Get your teeth out of my life!
But that plant, like every other plant, could not speak, so it said nothing.
There was a low rumble, and the antelope could have sworn that she felt a tremor pass from under the earth and vibrate through her hooves. She gave the equivalent of an antelope-y shrug and resumed munching on the exasperated plant.
There was a serpentine roar (what a snake’s hiss would sound like if it had a little bass added), and this time the antelope pricked her ears, which were promptly burnt off.
Deciding that the loss of her ears had ruined her appetite, she jogged off into the nearest clump of bush, a few seconds before a shiny-faced, wide-eyed and panic-stricken young man burst into the clearing.
Hot on his heels – literally – was a dragon. The dragon was seething – again, quite literally – burning everything in sight, everything but the object of its rage*.
The man crashed through a bush, trampling underfoot the plant the antelope had been eating only minutes before, and he kept half-running, half crashing through various spiky and potentially poisonous vines.
Just as he was quite sure he was going to make it out of the Forest of Gueth without a horrible tan, he kicked against a remarkably smooth and well-rounded pebble and came crashing down.
He turned slowly to see the dragon, cheeks all puffy from brewing a new fireball, ash spewing from its nostrils as its own eyes watered from the acrid stench of its fumes. The bronze-plated scales of its claws gleamed malevolently and it threw its head back in a grand show of power.
The man closed his eyes and cried to the Mankh**, praying for a speedy death (and also chipping in a quick supplication for the preservation of his testicles from the heat from the foul beast), and hoped his soul would fetch a good price in the Soul Exchange Market***
“Stop being a cunt”, he heard the pebble say, but since the man knew pebbles do not speak, he realized that he was nearing that last-minute madness people probably felt right before they died.
“Oh, Mankh, I am losing my mind in the face of the beast!” he cried.
“Stop being a cunt,” the pebble repeated, firmly this time, and the man peered at it curiously, and the dragon stopped arching its back to peer at the pebble curiously too.
The pebble lay there, round and curiously patterned, a dull color found in the mouths of chronic pot smokers.
Then a neck extended, and four tiny limbs, and the pebble…stood up. The dragon was startled, and blew a puff of excited smoke at the pebble.
The pebble didn’t quite like fire in its face. The pebble was annoyed.
Turning to the man, it asked, “This is the bitch that is making you pray like a cunt?”
The man was too busy sweating to make any coherent response.
The pebble turned to the dragon, which had reared its head, ready to spew the flames within its gut at both man and rock.
“Fire breather,” the pebble began. “Come hither. Shuddering snakes, Wicked Wasps. A larynxless dragon within my grasp…”
There was a flash, and the man could see nothing for a fraction of a second, and when everything had cleared up, the pebble and the dragon stood there. The dragon was, if anything, angrier than it had been a few minutes ago. It hated any form of bright light that wasn’t coming from its mouth. It bared its mouth to spew its inferno…
…and hiccupped instead. It tried a few more times, spewing ashes and nothing more.
The dragon, decidedly embarrassed, ambled off, but not before casting a reproachful glance at man and pebble.
The man wept, and thanked the Great Mankh for postponing His Soul Exchange date. He turned to the pebble, which was still looking around for more dragons, and picked it up rather clumsily.
“How insolent!” the pebble yelled. “I shall turn you into a puke bowl!”
“You saved my life, talking pebble!”
“What the fook? A pebble? Is that what you call me? Of all the ignominious, assuming, pompous, short-sighted and utterly…what’s your name?”
“My name is Dood. I am from the village of Adoooooran. My father and my mother live in…”
“Okay. Shut up. Which way is it to Benway?”
“Along the path to Adoooooran, pebb…er, sir.”
“Good. Just perfect. I am going to Benway. Can you carry me there?”
“Okay,” Dood replied, wondering what the pebble planned to do in the City of Benway.
Dood walked – with the pebble in his hand – in awkward silence for a while, whistling colorlessly to pass the time.
The pebble sighed. “Okay. Stop. Please.”
Dood smiled apologetically. “I am sorry. I can’t help whistling when I am curious. Can I ask what you are going to Benway to do?”
“To anoint a new Watcher.”
Dood hopped on one foot in excitement. He knew the legend of the watchers. He knew the watchers were people appointed by The Mankh to solve some problem that the gods were generally too embarrassed to handle themselves. The legend of the watchers was so old, no one believed them anymore.
No one, that was, except Dood. “So you are a messenger of the Mankh?”
The pebble grunted.
“Sent to appoint a new Watcher?”
“So for how long have you been on this journey?”
The pebble coughed out a reply. Something that sounded like “weaks fears.”
“Sorry. I didn’t hear that quite well.”
“Six years.” The pebble was suddenly shy.
“Six years! Six years. Six yeeeeeeears,” Dood whistled.
“Look, okay, I am a tortoise. I have been traveling as fast as I could since I was given this mission. Don’t judge me.” The pebble blushed even further.
Dood nodded solemnly, then whispered, “six years.”
He squinted at the sun. Just ahead of the hill, he could make out the huge signpost:
WELCOME TO THE CITY OF BENWAY
(Not a good place if you’re dying to do anything)
Long live the king (literally)
“We’re almost there,” he said casually to the tortoise.
King Throvian sat down and stretched in front of Death. His lush red robes softened the hardwood table he sat on, preventing him from having blisters on the royal buttock – a buttock that had begun sitting on soft surfaces since its first watery stool.
A maid came in, bearing two cups of tea in a tray. The king took his, and waved the maid towards Death. She stood in front of Death, pensive, and he (Death, that is), found it quite amusing.
“No, thank you,” Death drawled. “I am diabetic.”
King Throvian laughed heartily as the maid left the dungeon. “You know, I always find it hilarious that you of all people should be diabetic.”
“Yeah, well.” Death shrugged. “I over-indulged in sweets when I was younger. And the wages of sin is…”
“…Death”, King Throvian finished for him.
“Why are you here, Throvian? To get entertained by your favorite jester?”
Throvian smiled. “Yes, that, and also to ask you if you wanted anything.”
Death’s eyes gleamed cold underneath his hood. “Yes. My scythe.”
“Ah. I fear that may not be possible.”
“And this is because…?”
“You see, people have gotten used to the idea of not dying. It’s been fifteen years, Fred. Fifteen. If I release you, you’ll go and claim those lives and it will be bad for business.”
Death blinked. “Life and Death work together. Release me. You are upsetting the balance! This is bigger than you think…”
The king laughed, and stood up. “Sorry, friend, but no can do. I must go tend to kingly duties right now. This talk has been most refreshing, dear Fred.”
“My name is not Fred.”
“You’re funny, Fred. Have you considered stand-up?”
The gate of the dungeon shut, and Death was plunged back in darkness. Just like I like it.
When I get out of this pit, he thought, I will take the old goat first.
Death had a plan. A big plan that would make him famous once more. He salivated as he thought of the glory, the awe with which people will speak of him once he broke free.
All he needed was one more visit from King Throvian’s first son, Gismuth.
The tortoise squinted at the azure sky and sniffed the air in disdain. Dood had dropped him off a few minutes ago, and he had sat there, in front of a pile of oddly shaped sticks.
He hummed under his breath. “I am now at the City That Never Dies…reveal to me the next watcher that I may go and anoint him…”
He closed his eyes and waited for the sticks to align. Usually, the randomly strewn sticks rotated and angled themselves to spell out the name of the next watcher. He was counting on the magic following the same pattern since he practiced it several years ago.
He opened his eyes to see the sticks tampered with by the Forces.
Then shut his eyes.
And opened them again.
He muttered an expletive little children aren’t permitted to hear until they start accepting sweets from the local pedophile.
There on the floor, spelled in sticks, was the unarguable name: D O O D.
The tortoise rolled over on his shell, pointing all four limbs to the sky, retracting four claws on each limb to leave the middle one standing.
“ Ye gods, this is for you…fook you!”
*Sort of like those Hollywood bad guys shooting at the ‘actor’ of the movie. This has led movie reviewers and critics to come to the conclusion that bad guys in movies are, by default, very bad shots, and it has also led to the creation of popular statement, “actor no dey die for feem”
**The Mankh is the Head God in charge of the other gods. Most people do not know that gods spend most of their lives (yes, lives, because all gods die eventually) drinking wine and ogling the nymphs, occasionally breaking to slur something which the humans below scribble frantically on stone and call a new “Commandment”. The Mankh had been voted Head God because his wine cup was decidedly more glittery than the others’, it was said, and a nymph said ‘yes’ to his advances. Can you believe that? A nymph actually said yes to a god!
***The Soul Exchange Market is a real thing. Death, the “Reaper” (He hates that name, by the way…always preferred The “Combined Harvester”, since he did his work at an alarming speed, but the council of gods had not yet gotten round to approving his name change for, you see, all that wine won’t drink itself) collected souls for The Mankh, who sold them to the other gods, who bought them, because souls are glittery and make you feel good about yourself as a god.