Both ships had sunk. Not entirely. They hadn’t disappeared beneath the waves. It was too shallow for that. The Eternal Infinite had gone down rear-end first, and its prow was now sticking straight up. The other ship had fallen onto one side, leaving the keel and part of the hull exposed. Both were ablaze.
Without them, getting back to the mainland would be a pain. By which I mean it would be impossible. There might be something to salvage after the fires had run their course, but building a raft out of the wreckage didn’t look likely. We would need an alternate form of transport.
As we rowed around the island, my last glimpse of the islanders on the beach was one of bloody carnage. They had clearly missed breakfast, and were making up for it now.
It’s easy to judge (and fun, too), but once you make the decision to eat the flesh of people, I guess it’s just meat. Just fat and protein and gristle. Like any meal.
At least it kept them busy. I was sure they’d seen us abandon ship and slip into the water. None of them seemed very interested now that lunch had been served.
Considering how rarely anyone came here anymore, I wondered where they got their regular protein from. Was human flesh considered a rare delicacy? Or did they eat each other?
Two fantastic questions I would go out of my way to avoid finding the answers to.
I had other problems to contend with. The crew of the Eternal Infinite and Royn’s masterless posse were in the two rowboats, along with me and Damicar. The other twenty-six men from Captain Edman’s ship were in the water around us. Some were hanging off the back boat, kicking to help speed us along. Others were doing their best to keep up.
In all, including myself, we numbered forty people. That was a lot of ready-made meals to hide from the local gastronomes.
That was assuming we all made it ashore. There were bound to be things in the water that wouldn’t mind a nibble first.
The goal was to get on the island, avoid getting into an altercation with the local population, get to the shrine and take whatever was there, and then find a way off this rock.
It was a lot to accomplish, while also keeping all these men from realising they were working for a clueless idiot. On top of that, I had to be ready to deal with whatever the island had in store for me.
I had certain tools at my disposal, but I wasn’t exactly a master craftsman with any of them. Wesley was probably going to have to pull my fat out of the fire at some point. Probably literally.
My brain was treating it like a challenge. A game. Because that was the only way I could cope with it. Ignore the blood, think of it as a puzzle. Where does the next piece go?
It was a lot easier dealing with this stuff when I had a warm bosom to bury my face in at night. I don’t think love is a thing involved in procreation. You can fuck someone you don’t feel the need to hold hands with. Love is more to do with having someone who’ll hide you from the world for a little bit, so you can face going back out there.
I no longer had that. I had Royn, sitting next to me. I patted him on the back and gave him a supportive nod. He didn’t nod back.
The cove wasn’t too far. I would have missed it if Welsely hadn’t pointed it out, whispering, “Over there,” in the back of my mind.
A small inlet tucked in between tall cliffs led to a white sandy beach and a small clump of vegetation. Wesley was right, you couldn’t get to it from land. That didn’t preclude the islanders having their own boats, though. They could have their own airport for all I knew. Where the sandwiches cost an arm and a leg.
Everyone made it to shore. The swimmers were drenched and staggered to lie flat on the sand, exhausted. We hurried further up the beach, carrying the boats with us, eager to get to the safety of the treeline. Royn wasn’t much help, really dragging his feet.
Once we were hidden from sight, everyone felt a little better. We were probably still in all sorts of danger, but sitting in a bush had a comforting quality to it. I parted the thin branches with my fingers and peered out at the waves lapping at the sand. Sunsets would probably look lovely from here.
I gave everyone, including myself, a few minutes to catch our breath. Then I made my way to the rear, where the greenery met the cliff face. There was no way to climb up, but there was an opening. It wasn’t very wide, one person could get through at a time, so easy to defend. It had cobwebs across it which meant no one had passed through here in a while, and that there were probably spiders waiting to pounce.
“Okay,” I said. “You guys, find some wood. You and you, dig us a fire pit. We could also use some shelter. Chop down a couple of trees if you have to. Someone put up some temporary shade for Mrs Somya, she looks like she burns easily. I need guards on that tunnel entrance at all times. Keep your weapons handy. If they come through there, we can keep them bottled up. Couple men watching the water, too. If they come that way, we’ll have to face them head-on. Let’s get going.”
No one moved.
Most people, I think, have had to work for someone who was a dick. Whether it’s the boss at work, or just some project where someone has to be in charge, you’re going to encounter people who handle authority by bullying others and being aggressive to people.
I don’t know if you’ve ever had a chance to be the boss yourself, but there’s often an urge to not be that kind of person when you get to call the shots.
I’m not going to be a shit to people. Not only is it unprofessional, it’s completely unnecessary. I can get better results from people by treating them with respect.
A completely understandable reaction. And one that always fails.
Of course, if you get lucky, you might have a group of reasonable individuals with a basic level of competence and no personal issues they need to act out in public. There’s always a chance, if you believe in the multiverse theory of parallel worlds where all possibilities occur, no matter how unlikely.
But a weird thing happens when you treat a large group under your stewardship with kindness and understanding. They start taking the piss.
Whether it’s because they’re used to a different kind of leadership, or they’ve been brutalised to the point of no return, they will take advantage of you, turn up late, not finish work on time, talk about you behind your back, and blame you for any problems that arise due to their personal lack of ability.
Being nice in the workplace is seen as being weak. It just is. The guy who shouts at people, forces them to work late, makes them redo stuff that isn’t good enough, is hated, but respected, because he gets the job done (which he does).
The guy who’s supportive and lets people go home early to pick up their kid from school is liked, but considered an idiot (which he is).
There’s something in human nature that makes people tolerate being shat on, as long as it means they get to shit on someone somewhere down the road. If you break that cycle, it freaks them out.
“I took all that abuse, and now you want to make this a safe working environment before I get my turn behind the wheel? That’s not fair!”
Be a bastard, and people will complain... while doing what they’re told.
I mention this because when you have forty people on a small bit of coast, it’s important people know their place. Appealing to their better judgment and inherent decency will not get you very far.
I took out my sword and stuck it in the sand, hilt within easy reach. Everyone could see it. I wasn’t that keen on using it. I wasn’t entirely sure how I’d activated it. More than likely it took my life force the same as my healing did. Every use was probably a few more years off my life, which was fine. It would only be the crappy years off the end — miss me with that grey shit, bro.
It’s not in my nature to force people to do what I tell them. Bending them to my will is very tiring. Most people aren’t that flexible. If you don’t do regular stretching, something’s liable to snap.
“They’re going to eat us,” said one of Royn’s guys, “aren’t they?”
I realised they weren’t being defiant, they were scared. That’s why all those tendrils had attached themselves to my shield. They wanted me to protect them. Bunch of wusses. But it’s the boss’s job to keep morale high.
“No, they’re going to eat him.” I pointed down at Royn, who was taking a timeout. Damicar had placed his head next to the body. “We’re going to prepare Royn’s body with the finest ingredients and most delicious spices, and then we’re going to invite the islanders to a taster night. C’est magnifique.” I put my fingers to my lips and kissed them.
Pale faces stared blankly at me. I was used to it.
“You want us to cook the young man?” asked Mrs Somya, helpfully cutting to the chase. She had her pots and pans clutched tightly.
“Damicar will take care of that,” I said. “The rest of you just need to keep a fire going, and stay alert.”
“We will do as you say,” said Captain Somya. His men, at least, would follow orders.
“Firewood, and lots of it,” I said.
One of Edman’s men stepped forward. He was a big, muscular man who was trembling. “We don’t, um, that is to say, we don’t have to eat, um…” He looked at Royn lying at my feet.”
“No,” I said. That also needed to be taken care of. Luckily for me, I had a whole ocean to use as a larder. I waded into the water and put out the call. I gave it my all. I was going to impress the fuck out of these rubes with my fish and loaves routine. Well, Damicar could take care of the sea biscuits, I’d sort out the fish.
It took a couple of minutes, and then something moved through the surf. It was big, a shoal of fish. I raised my hands and called them forth, right onto the beach. Once I got really good, I’d get them to jump out of the water already filleted.
It wasn’t a shoal, it was a shark, about the size of a mid-range Mercedes. It leaped out of the water mouth first, at least six rows of teeth. With my battle-honed reflexes at their peak, I immediately wet myself and threw myself on the ground. The shark sailed over me, and landed on the beach, thrashing around.
“Golden God be praised,” I said, shaking all over. “GG everyone, GG.”
They all responded with cries of GG and set about bashing the shark’s brains out. It screamed in outrage. I didn’t blame it. There’s no honour in one-sided fights, just winning.
With actual food on the menu, the men seemed a lot more relaxed about the whole idea of human hors d'oeuvres for the party I was planning to throw.
Now that everyone had their work assignments, I found a quiet spot and sat down. Even though I had Wesley to guide me through the tunnels, I wanted to check them out for any nasty surprises. And the best way to do that was by leaving my body and having a good look around.
I had the time. I had all the time, in fact. No reason to rush around playing it sight unseen. I could explore every part of the island without risk of harm.
That wasn’t entirely true. The dart that had hit me in the shrine had been able to affect me directly in my other state. Whoever had set it up, knew how to affect things in the adjacent world, which meant they could have left other traps for me. But I would just have to be careful.
At least I had my sword and shield now. If I could find a piano made of the same stuff, I could spend the next ten thousand years teaching myself to play. I’d come back a great jazz pianist, and then all the people who wanted me dead would finally have a valid reason for doing it.
I left my body and floated to the tunnel entrance. I could have gone up and over the cliff, but I’d have to leave through the tunnel when I wanted to go to the shrine later, so I needed to check it out first.
Inside, it was dark. I made a ball of light. The tunnel went into the cliff at a slight upward slope.
There were no turnings, no other tunnels to worry about. One long tunnel.
I didn’t see the opening until I reached it. There was a cover over it, made of sticks tied together to make what looked like a wicker door. I floated through it and was in a clearing. The tunnel had emerged from a rock wall, or maybe the base of a mountain. In front of me was a village.
It was shacks and huts, and some larger buildings on stilts so you had to climb ladders to enter them. No people, as far as I could see. I floated up a bit so I could get my bearings. The water was the first thing I saw, then the shipwrecks. From that, I worked out the rough direction of the shrine, and then headed for it.
When I got there, I saw it from the front. It was much more impressive, with decorative designs and a large archway with no door. Inside was a single room with a woman sitting cross-legged like a Buddha. She had no vines coming off her. Her eyes were closed, and her simple white sarong was a bit more modest than the One Million Years BC look the others had gone for.
I expected her eyes to jump open, but they didn’t. She was solid as a rock. I even poked her. My finger went through her body.
There was no sign of any magic gift shop, but Wesley would know where that stuff was. I had done my due diligence and figured out the route. From the cove to here was more or less a straight line. We just had to get through the village.
“Are you a god?”
I didn’t say anything for a moment. The voice hadn’t come from any particular direction.
Conventional wisdom says, when someone asks if you’re a god, you say yes. But I’d met a number of gods, and it wasn’t really anything to boast about. “Um, no. Not really. Are you?”
“No. I am the priestess of the shrine. I can feel you are near. Can you feel me?”
This was how sexual harassment suits got started.
“Are you female, mid-twenties, curly brown hair, good complexion like you’ve spent your life running around an island eating lots and lots of protein?”
I floated down to take a closer look at the woman sitting on the floor. She was attractive, you know, for a cannibal.
“Did Arthur send you?”
Now she had my attention. “You know Arthur?”
“Yes. We await his return.”
“That’s right,” I said. “I’m here to prepare the way.”
“Then I am yours to do with as you wish.”
I don’t mind women being fresh, but come on. We hadn’t even been properly introduced. I mean, let’s maybe flirt a little, show me around your altar, let’s go to a couple of ritual sacrifices, see if we gel. Don’t treat me like a piece of meat. That you intend barbecuing over an open flame.
It wasn’t just the cannibal thing. I wasn’t sure if I was ready to go out with someone so soon after my break up. Although the cannibal thing was a factor I couldn’t entirely ignore. I’d feel awkward asking my cannibal girlfriend for a blowjob. What if halfway through she got peckish?
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