As the monster’s breath grew closer, wetter, and warmer, and the worn leather of his shoes slapped against the ancient stone, a detached part of Arthur’s brain thought that, it being the new year and all, he might like to add Refusing to Steal Idols from Ancient Temples to his list of resolutions.
Arthur thought it was a great idea.
The golden monkey statue stared at him with its ruby eyes. It poked its face out from the crook of his arm like one of those purse dogs, only this one was worth roughly $7 billion.
The toe of his right shoe caught on a flagstone and for a brief moment, Arthur felt what it was like to fly--
Good thing, too, as he soared over an enormous scythe that swept down across where he’d have been like the pendulum of a devlish clock.
And then he smashed into the door.
‘Hnnnnng,’ he grunted and slid to the floor. His nose felt like a bag of glass, and behind him the monster hissed angrily. It ripped the scythe out of the wall at the root and chewed it to splinters.
Arthur reached a shaking hand to the lever at the side and pulled it towards him. Silently, the stone door pulled away and into the wall.
Beyond, the Forest of Gnashing Teeth frothed with birds and sunlight and the distinct absence of anything immediate that wanted to kill him. Arthur ran from the temple, jumping over the bodies of the thirty or so people he’d come with, all working for someone with money whose name Arthur couldn’t remember, who now, come to think of it, probably wouldn’t be paid--
He reached out to steady himself and realised the python he’d grabbed wasn’t ready for second base. It hissed, he stumbled, and just before the monster – who’d thundered out of the temple opening and re-crushed the bodies of the fallen – tasted the sweet nectar of Arthur’s life-force, poor gangly Arthur found himself tumbling head over heels down an embankment and cannonballing into the river.
Perhaps he’d add Learn to Swim to his resolutions, as well.
He burst out of the water with a startled gasp and heard the monster roar up above. It was thrashing its way closer to the river, using its tail to take down trees. His heart pounded. He gripped the idol.
Ahead, the sound of the water was getting louder.
Realization dawned on Arthur that things weren’t going well. His wet hands floundered against the rocks, with a grip about as firm as a fish’s. He splashed and fought, one-handed, and then began to hear the rumble of water in his ribcage, like an approaching train.
He began to think less about resolutions and more about miracles.
And when the claws raked his back and hooked on his rucksack, Arthur welcomed them like old friends.
His toes tipped out over the waterfall as the force of the muscled forearm yanked him back onto the bank of the river and slammed him an inch deep into the soft moss of the hill. The creature roared again, showing multiple rows of pearly teeth and lifted itself up on its hind legs for a pummelling blow that would surely inflict a bit of overkill on Arthur’s skinny, shivering body, when his hand slid round the idol like his childhood teddy and the ruby eyes flashed bright.
Arthur waited, in a permanent flinch, dripping onto the grass. He waited for the teeth, and the rancid breath, and wondered how long he would take to digest, and when none of it arrived, he opened one eye.
The creature crouched, muscles rippling, fangs bared, many sapphire eyes locked on Arthur and the idol, on the jutting slab at the edge of the falls, about to pounce.
Or, rather, something had stopped it, the instant before the attack.
Arthur looked around, and his flopping fringe sprayed water into his eyes.
He looked down, and the idol grinned back.
When he glanced back up, he saw that the eyes of the beast were following him, but it seemed it could do little more.
‘Ha HA!’ he shouted and stuck his bottom out and jived his hands. ‘Take THAT!’ He kissed the top of the gold monkey’s expensive brow. ‘This lil beauty’s going in a museum--’
Thunder cracked across the sky. Arthur looked up.
A cloud lolled by, all round edges and sleep. Then he felt the tremble in his feet, and it ran up his legs, and into the long fear of his spine.
In the split second that his mind connected the events that lead him to what was about to happen—the weight of the monster, the precarious nature of the falls—the earth split into a yawning smile and his stomach quadruple-back-flipped over his spleen, and the shrouded ground rushed to meet him.
No use wishing he could fly.
Again he slammed into the roaring water, and for a moment hung in weightless blue as he struggled to pull himself towards the surface. Then an explosion of diamonds, a school of frightened pearlescent fish—no, the monster had crashed into the water behind him, and the rush of agitated water helped to lift him to the surface.
The river swept him along so fast he barely had time to register the next turn or bend. He struggled to keep himself afloat, but at least he had both his hands, at least--
Behind him, he saw the monster, apparently unhappily buoyant, bobbing in quiet aggression not far behind him.
Arthur, heart pounding in his chest, the icy fingers of the water pulling at his legs and numbing his skin, felt himself falling into a panic. A boulder seemed to lunge at him from the right bank, another from the left. The river held his head beneath the water until he was sure he couldn’t hold his breath any longer, and then he’d break through, again and again, and this time he raised his head and saw--
Arthur didn’t see anything for a while, after the log knocked him unconscious. But he had such lovely dreams. None of them had rivers in them, or jungles, or teeth. He spent many days in gummy pink fantasies, where the scientific community had recognized his genius and everywhere ice cream was free.
It was a shock to wake up and see himself in a body cast, like an incompetent papier-mâché attempt at a person. The truth crashed into him then, the heavy weight of defeat, that weighed exactly as much as $7 billion.
‘Oh sir,’ the nurse said, running over. ‘Please don’t cry. You’ll get the plaster wet--’
‘He’s awake, he’s awake!’ a familiar voice cried. Out of the thin eye-slit of his pale prison, Arthur saw a bright, young face he only barely recognized, and only because of its most magnificent and ambitious mustache.
‘Reggie?’ he croaked. ‘Reggie MacDonald?’
‘Arthur!’ he shouted. ‘Thank god you’re alright! We’d nearly given you up for gone!’
‘You—why are you here?’
‘I told them only your very best friend could be trusted--’
‘You were—the intern--’
‘--to keep an eye out, and I haven’t left my post in seven days!’ he shouted. ‘Some of the other patients have complained of the smell--’
‘Madam--’ Arthur jiggled woefully in what he thought was the nurse’s direction. ‘Please—morphine--’
‘--and I won’t leave, not until you can walk again!’ Reggie said. He smiled and then took a step back, and looked to his feet and looked back at Arthur. One hand adjusted his salmon-coloured bow-tie.
‘God, what am I doing?’ he asked. ‘They made me promise to tell you as soon as you were awake. Arthur--’ he leant close and dropped to a whisper. ‘Your discovery--’
‘I know!’ Arthur cried, and his wail reached the cafeteria down the hall where they assumed he was being circumcised.
‘Of course, you must!’ Reggie cried. ‘The greatest discovery in recorded history!’
Arthur whimpered and looked at Reggie through watery eyes. ‘Huh?’
‘It’s such an honour to know you sir,’ Reggie said, and his own eyes shone. ‘They’re saying—well, it hasn’t been announced yet for sure, but—they’re some that are talking about... the Medal.’
In his immovable cast, Arthur gasped.
It would be months later, when the dust settled, and most of his bones had realigned, though his nose had a lot more character, that Arthur was able to present his find to the Adventurer’s Club in an international event in their grand ballroom. Everyone from the press was there, even that cad from Ragtime News, and every conceivable old codger still alive to have ever worn a pith helmet and swung a machete. The Club had broken out the good rum, and that was how Arthur knew--
The medal shone on his chest like a child’s dinner plate, bronze and beautiful, and creating a slight fracture in one of his vertebra, but Arthur had never been so proud. He stood in front of his discovery to take questions, where it had been placed on a raised dais at the front of the room.
Hands flew, and journalists were called on, and Arthur tried to answer as best he could--
‘And sir!’ Jimmy from the Times said. ‘Did you always know you would find it?’
Arthur’s grin immediately shifted to the serious face of a man who knows things.
‘Jimmy, man-to-man, I’ll tell you,’ he said, and knelt down to place his hand on his prize, ‘I always knew I would find the missing link, though I was sure I would die before I could get the beast back to civilization--’
The monster remained, bulging muscles, eyes wild, blue fur lightly pin-curled and air-dried, frozen in the moment before it pounced, still oddly warm, and smelling faintly of Eau de Cologne. The morning paper, under the headline ‘MAN’S MISSING LINK DISCOVERED ON LOST ISLAND’, acknowledged the sculpture was the finest piece of taxidermy the journalist had ever witnessed.