In any situation there are positives and negatives. In this particular case, even though I was faced with a crew of the undead in the service of a mad god who was constantly making my life a waking nightmare, it wasn’t all bad.
On the positive side, I had the ability to take control of these walking sacks of muscle via the vines growing out of their heads. I had done it before with a couple of guards back in the temple.
On the negatives side, I’d done it using the wooden sword which I no longer had.
Also on the negative side, one of them could be Joshaya in disguise. While I had hit on the brilliant realisation that I could identify Joshaya by the fact he wouldn’t have loads of vines growing out of him like a regular person, that just meant he had to stick to playing irregular people. Like a Shriner. These guys also only had one vine apiece.
One other negative to bear in mind was that I was going on a sea journey with these people. Nowhere to run when you’re on a boat. On top of which there was always the chance of a monster from the deep eating the ship; storms destroying the ship; mutiny, because it adds that sea voyage ambience every story needs; and of course scurvy, whatever the fuck that is.
So, good and bad on both sides.
“Aye, come on board,” said the captain. He sounded like a normal person, rather than the punch-drunk boxer you expect the recently reanimated to sound like. I wasn’t sure exactly how it worked, but they were able to regain some of their personality after a while of being resurrected. How much autonomy they had from their master, I wasn’t sure.
I walked up the gangplank, which wobbled precariously. The Eternal Infinite was a beautiful boat, coated in glossy black and white paint. I’ve played video games featuring pirates before (yes, that’s my reference point for seafaring matters), and the aesthetic tended to be rough and ready. Wooden planks that look like you’d get splinters by looking at them. But here, everything was very smooth and sleek.
The captain was dressed in a coat that had far too many brass buttons, but no hat. Although the blond wig did the same job, I suppose.
He was a large man, barrel-chested and with a wide face that didn’t really suit makeup, of which he was wearing an ungodly amount.
The undead in their normal state had horrible ashy skin and glassy eyes. They didn’t look all that much better with the wigs and heavy-handed paint job, especially not close-up, but it served as a distraction. You spent so much time trying to work out what kind of hair the wig was made of, you forgot to notice the soulless eyes of the living dead staring at your mortal flesh with envy.
“I am Captain Somya. We are ready to leave when you are.”
He was very polite and seemingly happy to let me be in charge. It had to be a trap.
Behind me, Damicar and Royn walked up the gangplank.
There were a number of crewmen — all wigged — running around doing whatever it is sailors do before setting sail. We didn’t actually have a sail, but the ship did have a mast; it was lying on the deck. Not sure it would do much good there, but I’m not a sailing man, so what do I know?
“How big is the crew, Captain?” I asked like I had any idea what I was talking about.
“Crew of twelve, plus four supplemental.” The good thing about the dead, they don’t waste time with chit-chat.
“The twelve are yours, and the other four?”
“Union Leader Royn has provided four extra men for this voyage.”
I turned to look at Royn. “Are you giving me four of your men to help out?”
Royn smiled and nodded. “No.” It’s a neat trick to be able to act the opposite of what you mean. The confounding skill of devious shits everywhere. “They will be under my command.”
“Oh, decided to tag along on this voyage of the damned? Not scared of the islanders anymore?”
Royn straightened his jacket and fixed his collar. “I have no intention of disembarking. I merely wish to witness this debacle for myself. If you truly are an emissary of the Golden God” —he gave Captain Somya a questioning look, which didn’t seem to get a reply— “then I would like to see for myself.”
Sure. Nothing to do with Damicar getting hold of some imaginary artefact that would make him the top dog.
“What about you?” I said to Damicar. “Ready to leave everything behind?”
Damicar looked a bit worried, but he’d been looking like that since I’d burned his home to the ground and ripped him free of the only life he’d known. He’d get over it.
“I am ready,” said Damicar, not sounding ready at all. “Can I see your food store? Did you get the things I asked for?” We all have ways of comforting ourselves. Mine was moving as far as possible from people trying to kill me, Damicar’s was coming up with new ways to cook an onion. Each to his own.
“Yes, yes,” said Royn. “The supplies have been loaded. You’ll have to sort the rest out with the ship’s cook.”
The two of them were quite the couple. Royn was normally very calm and collected when talking, but with Damicar he became irritated quickly and snapped like a teenager asked to do chores he’d already done.
I mean, if I walk in from the garden with bits of grass all over my trousers, and you ask, “Did you mow the lawn like I asked you?” then what do you expect me to say other than a long whiny, “Yeeeeeeeees.”
“How long will it take to get there?” I asked.
“Two days,” said Captain Somya.
The quickest way to the island would have been by dragon, but I didn’t have that option. Maybe I should have asked Flossie for a loaner, but the idea of relying on any of them for favours wasn’t very appealing.
I moved a little closer to the Captain. “Are you really Joshaya?”
There was no reaction in the Captain’s face. “No. But I have a message from him.”
“Oh?” I expected him to hand me a letter or something, but he didn’t have anything in his hands. “Where is it?”
“I’m to give it to you in private.” I didn’t like the sound of that.
He turned and started giving orders to his men. We shoved off using the ancient nautical technique of men leaning over the side with long poles and pushing at the jetty. We drifted away from the dock. The bigger ships were full of activity and sat deep in the water. How they got them away from the docks I couldn’t even guess.
Then we suddenly began moving. I looked over the side where oars were beating at the water in a steady rhythm. Were we going to row all the way? More importantly, was I expected to man the oars? I use the word ‘man’ for lack of a better one.
I was shown to our cabin by a pasty-faced sailor. It was quite cramped below decks, most of the space taken up by eight men with oars breaking their backs to get us moving. There was no big sweaty man with a bald head and one hoop earring banging on a drum, and no one whipping people to get them to work harder. Disappointing.
Despite that, they were in absolute sync with each other, sweeping the oars back and forth quickly and silently. The lack of noise was a bit eerie, but they were dead, so bonus points for adding flavour.
It was a tiny cabin, and I was expected to share it with Damicar. Royn’s was larger, but he had to share it with his sense of self-importance, so it must have been very cramped for him.
I had the top bunk, which was nice. The top bunk is the fun bunk, right?
There really wasn’t room to swing the proverbial dead cat below decks. The galley, which Damicar was keen to check out, was long and narrow, and if there were two of you in there, you couldn’t get past each other without someone being sexually violated.
The cook was an old woman who appeared to be blind and also to still be one of the living. We’d soon see about that.
“We go on a terrible journey,” were her first words to me. She was a cheery soul.
“Yes,” I said. “Probably won’t make it back alive. Shouldn’t slow us down much.”
She stared at me for a moment, which is odd when a blind person does it, and then cackled with laughter. “True, true.”
Her name was Mrs Somya, which I guess meant she was related to the Captain. I didn’t ask, I didn’t want to find myself in an awkward conversation about age only being a number, and death being no obstacle to love. She was old but sprightly, with streaks of silver in her voluminous black hair, spaced out so evenly you’d think someone had dyed it like that.
Damicar immediately began oohing and aahing over the pots and pans hanging from pegs.
I left him to it and made my way back to the deck. The water was black and still. It looked like a mirror. The oars made no noise as they slid in and out of it. Lanterns hanging off the sides provided light as we drifted towards a tunnel mouth. There were more lanterns strung around it, as there were around six other openings that I could see.
We had enough space to enter it fairly easily, though any mistakes in steering would quickly get us smashed against the sides. How the larger ships got through was a mystery.
Men stood on either side of the deck with poles to keep us from drifting off course. The wooden stick seemed to be an indispensable tool in this place.
We were in an underground network of rivers. If they led to other parts of Flatland, it would be a great way to get around without being spotted. Although it helped to have a crew of non-living sailors who never tired.
I don’t know where the other tunnels went, but ours ended in a large opening with daylight streaming through it. We came out of the tunnel, a sheer cliff face at our backs, the open sea ahead.
As soon as we were clear, the oars were pulled back in and sailors swarmed over the deck and grabbed ropes. The ship’s mast, which was lying on the deck, suddenly rose like it was on a hinge, the way they pull them up when they put a ship in a bottle, and sails and rigging were added in a jiffy. It looked like it had always been there.
As soon as the sails unfurled, they caught the wind, and we lurched forward. It had all gone very smoothly. This whole ‘people who know what they’re doing’ concept I was getting exposed to was very appealing. If the idea ever went public, I could see it being a winner.
Now that we were underway, there wasn’t much to do. Royn had found a deckchair from somewhere and was catching some rays. His four men stood around him with drinks and snacks. They were dressed the same, in expensive suits, but they’d cut the bottoms off their trousers. I wasn’t sure the tuxedo-and-shorts look would catch on, but I wasn’t exactly a fashion expert. I was wearing the same rags I’d been in for months. I really needed to update my wardrobe. Hopefully with magical armour that was ridiculously OP.
I made my way to the captain’s quarters to get Joshaya’s message. He had no issue with me going, otherwise he would have stopped me, but I still didn’t trust him to leave me unmolested.
Captain Somya stood up as I entered his cabin. It wasn’t very big, no large desk covered in maps. There was a bunk, a bedside cabinet, and a small chest at the foot of the bed. That was it. Very modest for a captain.
“I have been instructed to relay the message to you directly.” His eyes went a misty white, his body stiffened, and then his mouth fell open.
“Hello, Colin,” said a voice that wasn’t the captain’s, but which was coming from his unmoving mouth.
“Sorry I can’t be there with you, but I’m afraid I have matters that need attending to.”
It was like a recorded message, which was a bit weird coming out of a person, but I kind of preferred it. Like when you ring someone hoping to get their answering machine made flesh.
“In any case, greetings and welcome to the Eternal Infinite, a fine vessel with—”
“Can you fast forward through this?” I asked.
The captain blinked.
“...betrayal. We all go through parts of our lives where—”
“Not an excuse, but I think this story will help you understand what it means to be a god.”
“My dream is to—”
“Oh, fuck no. Skip ahead to where he says something about what he wants from me.”
There was a long, long pause.
“We still have an agreement. You promised to release the old gods under the temple, and I intend to hold you to it. But, I can see why you would want to visit Shrine Island first. I assume you have that woman with you, and she will ensure your safe return. Until then, Captain Somya and his men are yours to command. I don’t really have any use for them at the moment, and lounging around isn’t good for them. Watch out for his m—”
This time Captain Somya skipped forward without having to be asked.
“Just a warning, though. As you get further from Gorgoth, my connection with the crew may become weaker. If this happens, all you need to do is—”
“What?” I asked the open-mouthed captain.
His mouth snapped closed. “The message ends there. He ran out of time.”
All that waffle and he stops there?
It didn’t matter, I got the gist of it. Joshaya was scared of Wesley. The rest was all footnotes, and no one ever paid attention to those.
“Tell me Captain, are your men willing to fight?”
“We will do as you command.” Well, this was new. Willing, ready, and able. Able!
I had lost my old party, but I was now in possession of a small team of professionals. With two cooks!
The voyage went very smoothly. Two days of sailing with a following wind and good eating. It was like one of those luxury sea cruises, but without an outbreak of gastroenteritis. If ever I had the opportunity to show what I could do without a bunch of plebs holding me back, this was it.
On the morning of the second day, the island hove into view. A tropical paradise, with palm trees and sandy beaches. And around a hundred savages standing on the shore, waiting for us with hungry looks in their eyes.