On Stranger Tides Page 23


Thatch had never dealt directly with a loa, but he tried to act sure of himself as he contemptuously took the bottle. "Very well, ghostling," he said, holding it up to the sun, "show yourself!" His tone was scornful, but his mouth had gone dry and his heart was thudding hard in his chest.


At first all he could see were blurry flaws in the crudely blown glass, but then he saw movement in there, and focused on it - and for an instant he thought the bottle contained a featherless baby bird, swimming with deformed wings and legs in some cloudy fluid.


Then there was a voice in his head, jabbering shrilly in debased French. Thatch understood only some of it, enough to gather that the speaker was not only demanding chicken and rum, but protesting that it had every right to those things, and to as much candy as it wanted, too, and threatening dire punishments if any of the formalities of its invitation ceremony weren't performed with the greatest pomp and grandeur and respectfulness; and there'd better be no laughing. At the same time, Thatch got an impression of great age, and of a power that had grown vast ... at such great personal expense that only a fragment of the original personality remained, like a chimney still standing in the heart of a furiously burning house. The senile petulance and the terrifying power, Thatch realized, were not contradictory qualities - each was somehow a product of the other.


Then it became aware of him. The tirade halted and he could sense the speaker looking around in some confusion. Thatch imagined a very old king, startled when he had thought he was alone, hastily arranging his robes so that they draped properly, and combing his sparse hair forward to cover his baldness.


At that point Gede evidently called Thatch's words up from memory and paid attention to them, for the voice in the boy's head was suddenly back, and it was roaring now.


"'Ghostling'?" Gede raged. "'Bungo houseboy'?"


Thatch's head was punched back by something invisible, and suddenly there was blood on his nose and mouth. He reeled a couple of steps backward and tried to fling the bottle away, but it clung to his palm.


"Thatch is your name, eh?" The voice ground the inside of the boy's skull like a grating-blade being turned in a coconut.


Thatch's belly imploded visibly - blood sprayed from his nose and he sat down hard. A moment later all of his clothes burst into flame. The boy rolled, blazing, toward the stream, and though along the way he jerked with the impacts of a couple more invisible kicks, he managed to splash into the water. "I'll tell the Baron," said the voice in his head as he floundered, still unable to get rid of the bottle, "to treat you special."


Thatch got his feet under himself and crawled up onto the bank and sat down. His hair was scorched to the scalp and his clothes looked like curtains dug out of the wreckage of a burned-down house and blood was running down his forearm from his bottle-clutching hand, but he didn't tremble as he held the thing up to the sun and grinned into its glass depths. "Do that," he whispered. "You pitiful goddamn pickled herring."


The light dimmed, and suddenly he was dry and upright and walking, and he was Jack Shandy again. The spatters of blood on the bridge's paving stones were less frequent - perhaps the injured crawlers had bandaged their wounds - but when he crouched to touch one smudged patch of wetness, he recoiled in horror. It was actually still warm. Again, louder now, he heard a wheezing gasp from ahead.


He looked up, and all at once he knew why he had thought he'd seen this bridge before. Here were the two bleeding crawlers, almost underfoot now; the white hair of one was matted with gleaming darkness, and the other figure, younger and slimmer, was trying to crawl without touching to the ground his right hand, the fingers of which were bent and blackly swollen. The lights of the city of Nantes were flickering and dim, and Shandy knew that these injured people would not be seen by some helpful wayfarer, but would have to crawl all the way back to their room, and their comfortless beds, and the ever-present marionettes.


Shandy ran ahead and then crouched in the path of his father. One of the old man's eyes was hidden by dirt-caked blood, and Shandy knew that was the eye he would lose. The old man's face was taut with effort, and breath hissed through the fresh gaps in the line of his bared teeth.


"Dad!" Shandy said urgently as his father's ruined face hitched closer. "Dad, you've inherited a lot of money! Your father has died, and left his estate to you! Get in touch with the authorities in Haiti, in Port-au-Prince!"


Old Francois Chandagnac didn't hear him. Shandy tried twice more to convey his message, then gave up and moved to the other broken crawler, the one that was twenty-one-year-old John Chandagnac.


"John," said Shandy as he crouched in front of his remembered, younger self, "listen. Don't abandon your father! Take him with you. Go to the trouble, you ... you goddamned wooden choirboy!" He was choking, and tears were running down his older, bearded face as if to match the blood that streaked the younger one. "He can't do it alone, but he's not going to admit that to you! Don't leave him, he's all you've got in the world and he loves you and he's going to die alone of cold and starvation, thinking of you, while you're comfortable in England and not thinking of him ... "


The crawling figure was unaware of him. Shandy, already kneeling, lowered his forehead to the paving stones and sobbed harshly as the image of his younger self crawled right through him, as insubstantial as a shadow.


A hand was shaking his shoulder. He looked up. Davies' haggard face was grinning down at him, not without sympathy. "You can't collapse now, Jack," the old pirate said. He nodded past Shandy, ahead. "We're there."


Chapter Fourteen


The bridge was gone, and belatedly Shandy wondered if any of the others had ever seen it. Or had Hurwood, for example, seen the whole thing as a walk up an impossibly long church aisle? Now they were on a muddy slope, facing down, and Shandy could feel icy moisture seeping through the knees of his trousers.


He looked around a little wildly, his earlier panic returning, for something felt very wrong, very disorienting, here - but he could see no excuse for the feeling. The mud slope curled away from them on either side, and, squinting in the dim light, he saw that the edges of it curled back in and met, some distance away; it was a slope-sided pit, and water spouted and splashed way down there at the bottom. The sky was a blanket of eerily fast-roiling clouds lit from above by, presumably, the moon. He glanced around at his seven companions to see if they shared his unease. It was hard to tell. Beth had regained consciousness - Shandy wondered when - but was just blinking dazedly, and Bonnett was as expressionless as an embalmed corpse.


"Onward," said Hurwood, and they all started down.


Though he several times slipped and slid in the mud, Shandy found himself oppressed by the idea of how solid the earth itself was. It gave him a feeling like claustrophobia, in spite of the high, churning clouds.


Then it occurred to him - seven companions? There should only have been six! He hung back and identified the laboring figures below him: there was Blackbeard, and Davies, and Bonnett, and Beth and Friend and Hurwood ... and no one else. That was six. Shandy scrambled after them, and then just to reassure himself he counted the figures ... and again got seven.


There was a smell, too, like stagnant water and ancient plumbing. A night for terrible smells, he reflected. The thought reminded him of something, and he worked his way over toward Davies. "Speaking of disagreeable smells," Shandy muttered, "I thought you weren't supposed to do resurrection magic on the land."


"Miss the hot-iron smell, do you?" the pirate said quietly. "But no, Jack, they ain't doing any of that kind of magic here; they're just getting their souls ... adapted ... so they can do it later, somewhere at sea." The slope flattened out now, and they were able to stand up straight without being braced for a fall. "No," Davies went on, "they couldn't do one bit of it here - have you ever felt such solid ground? Makes everywhere else feel like ... just big rafts."


That was it, Shandy realized - that was what had been bothering him. This place gave one no sensation of motion. He'd never thought a place on solid land could seem to be moving, except during earthquakes; before today he'd have laughed at anyone who claimed to be able to feel the motion through space of the planet Earth. Now, though, it seemed to him that he had always been fundamentally aware of that motion, albeit as unthinkingly as the way a fish is aware of water.


Copernicus and Galileo and Newton, he thought, would find this place even more disturbing than I do.


They had all reached the level area except Bonnett, who was slowly bumping his way down the slope in a sitting position. "How many of us are there?" Shandy asked Davies.


"Why, uh ... seven," the pirate answered.


"Count."


Davies did, then swore in alarm. "You and Bonnett and Thatch," he said quickly to himself, "and the three Old Worlders, and me. That's seven. Right, and there's nobody else. Whew, for a moment there it did look like eight, didn't it?"


Shandy shook his head unhappily. "Count again, fast, and you'll get eight. Do it slow, naming each one, and you get seven."


Davies counted again, darting a finger at each dim silhouette, once quickly and then once again slowly - and when he was done he spat out a weary obscenity. "Jack," he said, his voice tight with a disgust that Shandy thought concealed terror, "are our eyes bewitched? How can there be a stranger among us who becomes invisible only when we count carefully?"


Shandy didn't even try to answer, for he'd taken a closer look at the Fountain. He had already noticed that the water, though being flung high into the air, was oddly thick, seeming to slap more than splash when an upflung mass of it fell, and that it was the source of the dim phosphorescence as well as of the stagnant smell, but now he could see faces in the agitated liquid - hundreds of faces forming one after another as if the Fountain was a mirror spinning in the center of a crowd, and each briefly appearing face was contorted with fear and rage. Though repelled, he took a step closer - and then saw the swaying curtains of palely colored light, like a moving Aurora Borealis, that streamed away upward from the whole expanse of the Fountain and played silently across the face of the clouds far overhead, seeming to be the force that kept them churning.


Hurwood stepped up beside Shandy. The old man was breathing shallowly and quickly. "Don't anyone look around," he said. "Everybody just ... keep looking wherever you are looking. The thing we need to talk to cannot appear if too much attention is paid to it."


With a chill Shandy realized that the thing Hurwood sought must have been the extra figure that he and Davies had kept coming up with in their counting.


Somebody nearby whispered something, and Shandy expected Hurwood to demand silence, but then the one-armed sorceror was answering in a language Shandy had never heard, and he realized that the whisper had also been in that language, and that the whisperer was not one of their party.


The alien voice spoke again, more firmly but still very softly, and it seemed to Shandy that the speaker was right at his elbow. Shandy was obeying Hurwood and staring straight ahead, but peripherally in the dimness he could see someone beside him - Davies was on his other side ... was this their mysterious whisperer? Or just Bonnett? Or even Beth? Shandy was strongly tempted to peek.


The voice stopped. "Eyes front," Hurwood reminded everyone. "Close them if you'd prefer, but no one is to look around." Then he spoke again, more tensely, in the other language, and when he finished Leo Friend added a phrase that was obviously a question.


The soft, unplaceable voice answered, and spoke at some length, and Shandy wondered how long he could continue staring straight ahead. The thought of closing his eyes in so horribly motionless a place as this made his belly go cold, but even holding still was becoming unbearable.


At last the voice stopped, and all at once Hurwood and Friend were moving. Shandy risked a squinting glance their way. They were hurrying toward the shore of the pool around the Fountain, and when they got there they walked right into the viscous fluid and crouched in the shallows to dip some of the stuff up in their hands and eagerly drink it. Then they waded back up onto the muddy ground, and Hurwood spoke again.


The answer that came a few seconds later was very faint, perhaps because people had shifted their gazes. The voice spoke only a few syllables.


Instantly Hurwood and Friend dug into their pockets. Hurwood produced a pocket knife, and Friend finally just yanked a pin from his powdered wig, and at the same moment each of them jabbed himself in a finger and shook blood onto the cold mud.


The blood spatters hissed where they fell, and then it looked to Shandy as if two clawlike hands had burst up out of the mud, but a moment later the things stopped moving and he realized they were plants - spindly cactus-looking things, but conspicuous in this desolate landscape. Shandy now noticed a third plant, farther down the shore, but it was withered and stiff.


Then Blackbeard strode forward, and, though Hurwood reached out to stop him, in two long strides the pirate-king was ankle deep in the pool. He scooped up some of the liquid and drank it, then walked back out of it, bit his finger and shook off some blood. Again there was the hissing and the eruption of the mud, and a moment later another spiny plant had sprung up, a few yards from Hurwood's and Friend's.


The pair of sorcerors stared at him, an identical surprised and slightly alarmed expression on their faces, but then Hurwood just shrugged and muttered, "Nothing to be done."


The one-armed man spoke again, and was again answered by the faint voice, though now it sounded to Shandy as if it were coming from the other side of the group, beyond Davies.


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