The captain was a squat, stern man with skin that was centuries old and hands that operated so quickly and deftly they clearly existed outside of time. Standing on the prow at sunrise and sunset muttering at the sea, fingers tracing the air furiously, he seemed to tame the waters by entering into some complex blood pact with them. Nights I wondered what he was sacrificing, and why he found my passage worth it. But he kept a formal distance between himself and the rest of the crew, and it was many days until he spoke his first words to me.
The serpentine man had seemed to know immediately where the old man was, and his concern was apparent, even on his inhuman, leathery face. He drew me a map to the shore, and managed to communicate the urgency and secrecy that was needed in his godless, guttural tongue. Somehow, before his voice nauseated me completely, he described the seafarer I was to seek in halting phrases. Days later I found the man walking the pier, his body almost imperceptibly aflame, wisps of smoke licking his frame. The snake had drawn a symbol on my map which sent the man into hysterics, had him race onto a nearby ship and gesticulate wildly at the captain. Moments later the crew was assembled and we were casting off, the man on fire becoming a speck of burning coal as we made our way into the waters.
It was an impressive ship, an unnaturally calm sea, and a crew that seemed to operate as a single organism – we practically flew those first few days out. I became friendly with the sailors that seemed most forthcoming, that seemed like they’d served on this ship for many years and knew more of the infinite captain. Even after a few rancid drinks they divulged little. Instead more than one asked why I was after the old man, which was more difficult to answer than I expected. “Wait a few nights, until we are further out to sea,” they repeated. “The captain will speak to you.” Unable to make myself useful, I spent most of my time at the prow, staring ahead for any break in the brackish muddle of blues and greens. Early one morning I thought I saw a giantess at the edge of the horizon, seemingly connecting the water and the clouds, but soon she was out of sight and perhaps a hallucination. The other days were less eventful.
Somewhere in our second week adrift I awoke on a black night to a bass vibration so overwhelming my bones felt like they were coming apart around the marrow. Stifling my scream, I stumbled to the deck. There was something enormous far below, its gravity pooling all my blood to my feet. Body blanched, I crawled to the silhouette of the one man on deck, standing arms akimbo at the prow. The captain. He eyed me patiently until I nearly fainted at his feet, then sat himself cross-legged in front of me. Unable to articulate the dozen questions I had at once, I mouthed a garble of words. He nodded with somber empathy. “That,” he said, pointing first at me and then gesturing to the depths below. “That is who we seek. We will not get her attention here. But it is frustrating that our paths are crossing already.”
“Do you… not feel that?” I stammered. “You seem unaffected.” Then I noticed the ship’s silence. We were the only two awake.
“None of us do. Most do not.”
My questions about the source of the torturous vibration went unanswered. He parried with talk of the night, the crew, the ache in his joints and what it said about the weather tomorrow. His voice was coarse but somehow gentle, and he frequently paused mid sentence, either gathering his thoughts or adding a dramatic pause. He was clearly deft at conversational acrobatics, so I took pride when I finally somersaulted us back into talking about the old man. He was more forthcoming about him than I expected.
“For someone to evade an entire world hunting them, that is a great feat. Even now, this crew thinks we are racing to ensure his capture. The planet has bent its will to his captivity. It’s been this way for a long time, but now that he has been spotted in our time and country, the hunt is reaching a fever pitch.”
“But who hunts him?”
The captain leaned his back against the side of the ship. “Her,” he stated with finality, pointing vaguely to the sky. “Though the mandate seems to come from the planet itself. Most don’t understand why they seek him, only that they are famished for his capture. There are very few that know exactly why. And even fewer that question their craving.”
“And yet you seek to rescue him. Are you and the serpentine man the only ones who don’t want him dead?”
A wheezed chuckle. “Nobody wants him dead. Only captured. She will take care of the rest.” He gesticulated vaguely to the clouds again. “And there are three of us trying to save him.” A nod towards me. “Or perhaps more, scattered around the world right now.” A bird seemed to catch his attention and he followed it with his eyes. Then he looked down at me, as if seeing me in focus for the first time. “There is something he must finish. It is important. Perhaps the most important thing to happen in our age. And he is close.” Now his tone changed completely. “But it looks as if he lost, this close to the finish. This place we are headed, where you will try to seek him out. Did the snake tell you about it?”
“He led me only to you, said you had more information.”
An amused snort. “He knew all too well. Didn’t want to be the one to tell you. It is – ” At this we both noticed the complete placidity of the sea – it could have been a lake – and utter stillness in the air. For a moment we felt frozen. Whatever strange sensation snaked up my spine, I could tell he felt the same. He then shook his head abruptly. “I will wait until we are closer to speak of it. For now, let us busy ourselves with mundane things and not think too far ahead. Good morning.” And with that, the day broke.
We reached the island three days later, though judging by the levity of the crew, it was not our ultimate destination. The moonlight made the white sands glow, and the thick woods ahead seem even darker. Setting foot on the shore, I forgot how much I missed stable ground. The crew busied themselves preparing a meal and a campfire, and said nothing as I continued past the shore to the line of trees. I traced the trunks carefully with my hand, a quiet murmur rising and falling from within the forest with each caress. There was something to this island. A candlebug emerged from the thick, flitted around my body, winding circles around it, hovered at my eye line and then awaited patiently until I followed it into the dark. Past the tangled border the woods were a bit more sparse, made movement possible. The candlebug bobbed in the air a few feet ahead of me, slowing to account for my hindered speed. Soon we came to a still river and I found myself wading waist-deep amongst mangroves, the forest’s hum swelling deeply somewhere ahead of us.
The hut was built atop a bed of ancient mangroves with thick roots full of bulbous knots, and sat at the edge of an otherwise barren tributary. Finding no ladder, I hoisted myself up the mangrove roots and negotiated a path amongst them. A knock on the old wooden door produced nothing, so I gently pushed it open.
A shadow sat on the far edge of the one-roomed hut and bade me enter and close the door behind me. I did as much, then waited in perfect silence as my eyes became accustomed to the dark and finally I saw the witch staring straight into me. Gnarled and still with a lop-sided wickedness, I held her gaze for some time until there was only darkness and our breathing. Finally I watched her mouth slowly gather itself into a broad grin, the rest of her face unmoving, her eyes penetrating further. Silence, a more tense waiting, and then an ominous grinding as she creaked her jaw open until her mouth was impossibly agape. To look into the blackness of her throat seemed death, so I averted my eyes, waiting for demons to crawl out of it. Instead there was a voice – clearly not her own – childlike, polite and tender. “You have come with a question. Please ask it.” I stared at the hole and saw no one. The witch seemed absent, a cocoon for whatever was speaking to me. Her arms hung limp at her side and her head leaned lifelessly on the hut wall.
I opened my mouth to ask what she meant, but instead a voice within mine blurted, “Is he their savior? Or a slaughterer?”
Her voice again. “Ah. You hope the former but fear the latter. And yet you press on.” I slunk closer, peering into the putrid cave of her mouth which now emanated blackness. Nothing. “It is not yet relevant.” My eyelids hovered at the edge of her lips. “Now go. You must find him. There is no one else.” I whispered more questions directly into the void, but the voice retreated into the witch, who began to stir. I fled at once.
The journey back to shore was a confused wade and stumble – I didn’t find my way out of the forest until dawn and the crew were moments away from sending a search party. We boarded the ship and were on the open seas again in no time. Soon I had found my perch on the prow once more, and was staring out into the distance, hoping in vain for another island. To my surprise the captain appeared above deck and made his way to me, leaning over the prow at my side in silence. The sternness in his face had been replaced by a different rockiness. He was my co-conspirator, but the world was a terrible place and his face shielded him necessarily from it.
“We will be arriving in three days, if the wind continues treating us well.” He seemed to speak more to the water than to me. I turned to him. “It was clear that the island wasn’t our destination. Now that we are closer, can you tell me where we are going? Where exactly are we heading?”
“You are going to rescue the old man.”
“Yes, that much I know. Rescue him from what?”
That night he translated a few of the old man’s stories.