331: New Model Army
How much scepticism is too much? Did I always have to assume everyone was against me?
Short answer: yes.
Long answer: what the fuck is wrong with you, haven’t you been paying attention? Of course I have to prepare for the worst possible outcome. Now brace for impact.
But it’s very tiring constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop, always looking for the worst in people. Especially when you keep finding it.
It wasn’t like my paranoia was completely without evidence. My expectation that people would turn on me was based on my reality. Not just recent events, but throughout my life.
I didn’t necessarily blame anyone. It wasn’t like I offered very much in the way of a desirable alternative. I provided temporary accommodation while the permanent residence was being readied.
“What’s your name?” I asked the priestess of the shrine.
“I am Richina. They call me the Fire Bird.” Her voice was light and friendly. She had already offered me her services, with heavy sexual undertones.
Maybe that wasn’t fair. Just because a girl is pleasant to a guy doesn’t mean she’s foaming at the gash.
Yes, I’m putting it in vulgar terms, but that’s the best way to think of it if you want to see things clearly. Don’t pretend it’s something it’s not.
Maybe when she said, “I am yours to do with as you wish,” she did actually mean it sexually. Maybe she didn’t. The truth was, I was heavily backed up and in desperate need of release, and it was easy to see everything in sexual terms under those conditions. I’d spotted a well-endowed coconut tree on the way here. I was thinking about asking for its number later.
“When you say you’re mine to do with as I wish, could you be a little more specific?”
A joke’s not funny once you explain it, and flirting stops being sexy as soon as you ask for written consent.
“I mean I will pleasure you in whatever fashion you choose.”
Still felt a little ambiguous to me.
“My womb is throbbing in anticipation.”
Women, they just can’t give a straight answer to a straight question.
“Why do they call you the Fire Bird?” I asked her, changing the subject.
“The priestess of the shrine is the flame that protects this island.”
Not exactly the most explicit explanation I’d ever heard.
“Can you fly?”
“Can you set things on fire?”
“I feel your name is misleading.”
There was a pause. “I don’t recall asking for your opinion.”
That was better. If you’re going to find out if someone is to be trusted, first you have to piss them off. If you can’t handle me at my irritating worst, you don’t deserve me at my only slightly more tolerable best.
I took a moment to look around my surroundings. The interior of the shrine didn’t have any other exits. No doors, no stairs. It was a big open square, with Fire Bird sitting in the middle. There were flowers and plants in pots along the walls, and some petals strewn around the priestess’ feet. That was about it.
If there were any magical amulets and wondrous gewgaws here, they were either well hidden or cunningly disguised.
“When will you arrive?” she asked. She almost sounded like she was looking forward to it. Very suspect.
“Soon. I’m just over the road. Got a few friends with me. Just wanted to check if it was cool to bring them with. Only, you know, there’s the small problem of your people trying to eat us.”
“They wouldn’t do that.”
“No? Could you have a word with them about it, to make sure? Maybe get it in writing?”
“I’m sure it will be fine. Just tell them you’re here to see me.”
“Richina, right? The Fire Bird.”
“I suppose you eat people, too.”
There was an awkward pause. Then an awkward continuation. “You like it, do you? Human flesh, I mean.”
“You sound like you don’t approve. It is no different to any other meat.”
Technically, she wasn’t wrong. It offended the senses, but then so did watching someone eat with their mouth open. If, back on the beach, they hadn’t been ripping into Captain Edman’s body with their teeth, but had set a table and used knives and forks, with napkins tucked under their chin, would it have still seemed so horrific?
The answer, of course, is yes. It would have been even more appalling. They probably ate in the American style, cutting up the food first, and then switching the fork to the right hand like savages.
“Most other meat can’t hold a conversation,” I said, instantly regretting it. If that was the deciding factor between whether or not to eat something, I was walking a thin line.
“What would you suggest we do with our dead? Burn them to ashes? Bury them in the ground? What good does that do anyone? At least this way they provide for their community, as we all will, eventually.”
She had a point. A person’s life has little relation to their corpse. I’d seen monsters eat people. It was horrible, but it had little to do with morals. Food is dead things. People find it hard to wrap their heads around, but it’s true. Like someone once said, not picnic basket, picnic casket.
And you couldn’t claim it didn’t provide a healthy diet for the islanders. They were positively reeking with vigour and vitality. Bright eyes, strong teeth and nails. All the evidence suggested people meat was finger-licking good;and it wasn’t just their own fingers they’d be licking.
“Does it tastes like chicken?” I was curious.
“No. I don’t think so… I forget. I have been fasting in preparation of this moment. I have been waiting a long time, meditating. I thought I might never hear another voice.”
Was that how she was able to communicate with me, some kind of deep trance? I didn’t know how long she’d been fasting, but she had plenty of meat on the bone. She wasn’t skinny. Which is always a difficult thing to tell a woman without it sounding like you’re calling them fat. For some reason, thin is seen as more attractive. Not by men. By insecure women and gay advertising executives.
It’s not a coincidence, I think, that black men like their women more on the thicc side, and the black community are also the group least targeted by advertisers. The day they fix racism will be a sad day for plump ladies everywhere.
Richina had no vines growing out of any part of her body. None of the islanders did. Was it easier to see people as meat when you weren’t connected? I didn’t have any vines growing out of me, but I was still repulsed by the idea of eating a slice of roast buttock. Or was it just a matter of time?
“How did your people get here?” I asked. “Did Arthur bring you?”
“Yes. A long time ago, now. He asked us to watch over his home, and await his return.”
“And he told you I would come?”
“No. Not exactly. But he said there would be others who I would know because they would be able to speak to me like this.”
“He didn’t mention his wife? He didn’t mention Wesley.”
“Wesley. Yes. I think I remember.”
“She’s with me. Wesley. I brought her here.”
“She’s here? Wesley?” Something had clicked. She sounded much more excited about Wesley than she had about me. “You must bring her here. Oh, why didn’t you say so earlier? Hurry.”
I had quickly been relegated to person of no interest. Which was fine. I was much happier accepting Richina’s eagerness to see Wesley as genuine. The only slight problem was that Wesley would be in my body.
“Okay, I’ll go get her, but you’ll make sure we’re off the a la carte menu?”
“Okay, calm down, I’m going. Ta ta for now.”
I floated out of the shrine, but didn’t bother going back through the village. I could just as easily make my way to the cove overground. The jungle posed no obstruction, and the cliff was just a gentle drop as I came down near my body.
Everyone was as I had left them. I re-entered my body, and they sprang to life.
“I spoke to the priestess in the shrine,” I quietly mumbled to myself.
“Priestess?” said Wesley.
“She says Arthur brought these people here. I’m not sure why. She wants to see you, though. He must have mentioned you, she recognised your name. I think there’s a good chance they won’t eat us. Not unless we piss them off.”
“We?” asked Wesley.
“I’ll try to keep my mouth shut.” It was a fair cop. “He isn’t here.”
“Yes,” said Wesley, sounding a little sad. “But all hope is not lost. I’d like to talk to this priestess.”
Wood was quickly gathered to start a fire, and the shark I’d caught (sort of) was being hacked to pieces. I made my way over to Damicar. Mrs Somya was sitting on a log someone had rolled over there for her. One of her son’s crew stuck a large palm tree frond in the sand to provide her with shade. Royn’s body was taking a nap behind her.
“I need to go say hello to someone,” I said. “Shouldn’t be long. Or I might get killed, in which case don’t wait up.”
Damicar looked up at me from his notebook. Maurice 2.0? “Can you get me this.” He ripped out a page and handed it to me. It was a list of groceries. “Those are all the herbs I’ll need. I’ve included descriptions. They should grow around here, it’s the right sort of climate.”
“I’ll see what I can do.” I folded up the paper, and put it in my pocket.
“Young man,” said the ship’s cook. “Young man, come here.”
I went over to Mrs Somya. She was clutching the doll of her son to her bosom. Her sightless eyes seemed to be looking right at me.
I leaned in. “I’m here.”
She grabbed my collar, and jerked my face next to hers. I was being very popular with the ladies today.
“I wanted to thank you. The doll… it is more precious to me than you can possibly know.”
“Oh? Does it have magical powers?”
A tremor of surprise flashed across her face. I could see it because she had my nose practically inside her ear. Smelled like lilacs.
“Yes, it does. You knew, huh? Well, well. Let’s keep it our secret. My boy, he is in the grip of powerful forces, but one day they will weaken, and I will reclaim him.”
“With the doll?”
“Yes. It is bound to his soul. They cannot have him, not while I have this, not completely.”
Some kind of soul puppet? I didn’t know what it was good for, but there was no harm in it. Well, actually there was a lot of potential harm — playing with eldritch forces, tempting diabolical spirits to this realm, risking the eternal soul of someone you loved — but nothing out of the ordinary.
“Do you think you could make some more?” I asked her. “Just as a backup.”
Mrs Somya cackled lightly. “Ah, I see, I see.” She was blind and I was fairly sure she had no idea what I had in mind, but the cackle helped made her sound like she knew everything.
I left her to her cackling and went over to the captain.
“I need you and a few of your men to come with me. We’re going to talk to the islanders. Should be safe. More or less.”
“As you wish,” said Captain Somya, unfazed. Dead people were highly underrated as employees. I was learning a lot about the kind of people I wanted working for me.
I left instructions for everyone, mainly to carry on doing what they were doing, and led a party of the undead into the tunnel in the cliff.
My usual ambivalence towards leadership was beginning to wane. It was all about who you were leading, I was starting to realise. Imagine going into a fight with fearless walking dead on your left, and ravenous cannibals on your right. Let’s see you find objections to that set up in your Geneva Conventions.
You wouldn’t even need to bring supplies. The dead hardly ate anything, the cannibals ate the enemy. No need to take prisoners. If I could get my shit together and convince Richina to accept me as the interim leader, until Arthur returned, I could make this island my base. Maybe drag the two shipwrecks out of the bay and make one medium-sized ship out of them. The islanders had built all those huts, they were probably handy with tools. I could use the ship to go on supply runs to get Snickers and Pringles at two in the morning.
The idea of encountering my old party with an escort of cannibals made me smile. Talk about shock troops. My personal guards wouldn’t need weapons, just some salt and pepper in holsters hanging off their belts. Maybe some chilli sauce strapped to an ankle for emergencies.
The tunnel led right to the village, so I had to assume the islanders knew about it. It was a lot more cobwebby than I remembered. I must have floated right through them without noticing, but it also meant it hadn’t been used in a long time. Maybe they’d forgotten about it.
They hadn’t. There was a group of islanders waiting for us as we emerged. Very white teeth, I noticed.
There were no words of welcome. But no threats, either. And no one licked their lips, which was the main thing. They stood in a group, maybe twenty or thirty of them, silently watching us.
The huts looked smaller this time. Small squat buildings crowded around the tunnel exit, making it hard to see where to run.
“We’re here to see Richina,” I said, like I was talking to a receptionist. “She’s expecting us.”
There was no obvious sign they knew what I was talking about. A couple of them sniffed the crew, but didn’t go any further. Bringing spoiled meat had been the right thing to do.
“You know, Richina? Fire Bird?” I said.
This time there was definite recognition in their eyes. They parted to let us through.
The village was much more lively this time. Kids and old people were present. They stopped to watch, many joining us on our march through the jungle. They walked alongside us, all the way to the shrine. They stopped at the entrance as I walked in. So far, so good.
In the middle of the shrine sat a skeleton. The bones were bleached white. The head had a few strands of curly brown hair still attached. Her modesty was covered by a frayed sarong. So far, not so good.
“Hello?” I called out. “Richina?” My words echoed around the room. There was no reply. Looked like I was a little late.
I left my body. This was how I’d met her. She should be able to talk to me here. “Hello? Richina? Are you there?”
“Hello,” said a voice. “Can you let me out? I seem to be stuck.”
She was trapped in this place. She was a lot like me, I realised, looking for some kind of release.