“For this to work, we must act in unison. There can be no hold-outs.”
Part I: Spirits
For the FLINTLOCKS & FOLLY
Wind swept the white spray onto the deck, blowing it towards Samuel’s feet. He gripped the rail with one hand, staring out across the flat expanse of water. The Siofra cut a steady path through the waves, his bow rising and falling gently. Behind him the storm gathered.
Samuel watched the darkening clouds. They were grey like the belly of a wolf, with a faint green tinge at the horizon. A spark of lightning ran sideways through them. Samuel shook his head and disappeared below deck.
The cramped room was filled with people. A few of them were sailors, but mostly it was the party seeking passage between the continents. The glint of waistcoat buttons and the soft reflections of British silk flickered around the walls. A low murmur rose from the crowd. Samuel stepped through the open doorway.
Chikelu stood in the middle of the assembly. Her face was pouched and liver-spotted like an ancient leopard. Orange light flickered along her dark skin from the candles arranged on the floor. Her large orb-like eyes seemed to reflect the watching faces. Samuel tried to push his way towards her but the crowd was pressed too tight. He settled beside the window, arms crossed.
Chikelu raised a hand. The whisperings ceased. She opened her prune-like lips and the air seemed to be sucked from the room. “A fitting place,” she said, “to be having this ceremony.” Her voice was deep and solid. “Betwixt the two hemispheres, we shall summon the space between worlds, ours and the next.”
The man beside Samuel shuddered. Samuel grinned grimly, attuned to Chikelu’s ways.
“Who amongst you is ready to venture into the unknown?”
For a moment nobody moved.
A man in a skirted jacket stepped out, his square jaw thrust forward. “I am ready,” he said, his bovine eyes staring straight ahead.
The edges of Chikelu’s mouth twitched. “Nobody else?” she said, her arms spread wide, “Nobody wants to taste the power of their eminent selves?”
A woman stepped out, her lip trembling. “I will,” she said.
As Samuel watched the onlookers pressed forward, one by one, their chins aloft and their eyes wide as they declared themselves ready.
“Good,” said Chikelu softly, “because for this to work, we must act in unison. There can be no hold-outs.”
“Chikelu,” said Samuel, shoving aside the man in front of him, “there is a storm on the way. Can we be safe, with such a bad omen looming at our tail? This may not be the right time.”
“This is the only time,” replied Chikelu, “we are almost upon the world-line. If we hesitate, the opportunity will pass. The storm shall wait for us.”
Samuel looked at his boots.
“The time is now, Samuel.”
He felt eyes on him, glowing in the candlelight.
“Alright,” he said.
With a swift movement Chikelu conjured a crystal vial from the folds of her shawl. The tiny bottle glinted in the dim light, filled with a silvery liquid.
“Each of you will drink a single droplet, to prepare the body. Then we will sing, and the spirits within you will rise.”
The bottle passed from hand to hand. The liquid stung Samuel’s lips as he swallowed. His insides burned momentarily, a crystal fire in his blood.
Chikelu began to chant.
Samuel shut his eyes, head spinning. Animals danced in the blackness, shapes that twisted into formless light, beings of teeth and tails and flight. He could feel the blood pump in his ears like waves beating the side of the Siofra.
The singing stopped.
The bewildered passengers looked at one another, searching for changes.
Deep shadows had sunk beneath Chikelu’s eyes. With a wave of one arm she dampened the candles, plunging the room into darkness.
The clouds drew closer. Samuel stood beneath the main sail, watching the white wings of the Siofra carry them across the waves. His cotton shirt felt heavy, stiffened with salt and spray. Out on the deck he could see the man he had pushed the previous night, tripping as his coat tails got tangled in the ropes. He shut his eyes and tried to sense a presence within him.
“You think you’re one of us,” said a voice.
Samuel opened his eyes to see one of the crew, a skinny boy of about nineteen. The boy wore slops made from an old sail, and a tarred canvas hat. His lips were pulled back in a sneer.
“You think that you’re not like them,” the boy said, nodding towards the man on the deck, “because you don’t dress fancy or take on airs. But you’re not a sailor. You’re just another rich traveller.”
Samuel didn’t reply.
“I know what went on down there.”
A jolt ran through Samuel’s stomach.
“You were calling the devil to give you power; not that you’d share such a thing with a lowly sailor, mind.”
“What do you want, boy?”
“A sip of the potion, maybe.”
Samuel shook his head. “It won’t work now, not properly. The energy of the storm is near, and we’re too far from the equator. The transformation would corrupt you.”
The boy’s face twisted. “Look, if you don’t give me some of that magic, I’ll…” His face emptied of colour.
Samuel could feel flames licking the underside of his skin.
The sailor’s mouth fell open; with a cry he turned and ran.
Samuel stood for a second, confused. He felt his skin cautiously with one hand, and looked down into a puddle. He froze.
Beneath the billowing white masts was his reflection, curly hair beneath a woollen cap and dark watchful eyes. Yet the image was marred, with thick black lines like a woodblock print running along his face, encircling his eyes and etching fangs into his jaw. The lines seemed to pulse quietly, like blood along veins. He lurched backwards.
The man in the coat tails was approaching. He buried his face in one hand.
“Is there something wrong?” the man asked.
Samuel looked up, but the man didn’t recoil. He swallowed and looked back into the puddle; the mask-face was gone.
The red flag swung nearer. The other ship was close enough that Samuel could see figures moving about on its deck.
“They’re going the wrong way,” said a woman beside him.
He looked at her.
“The storm is behind us – they’re approaching – do they not realise they’re sailing into it?”
A high voice screeched behind them. Samuel turned to see two sailors restraining Chikelu. Though greatly exhausted from the ritual, the old woman kicked and twisted violently. “You fools,” she shrieked, “they’re coming for us.”
The sailor on her left rolled his eyes.
Another shout, from above.
Samuel looked back at the ship. The red flag was being brought down, replaced with a black one; a white skeleton, death, danced with an hourglass in one hand and a sword in the other.
The woman next to Samuel gasped.
A loud boom filled the air as a warning shot whistled over their heads. Across the water filthy faces were shouting, brandishing cutlasses and flintlocks.
“They have guns,” said the woman.
“But likely no gunpowder.”
Samuel felt strangely calm. He looked sideways at his companion; her lips were pressed together, her chin slightly aloft. There was no fear in her eyes.
Bullets tore through the air. Samuel felt to his knees.
Chikelu wailed. “It’s too late.”
The sky was darkening. Thunder rumbled through the Siofra’s bones.
With the rain came the pirates.
A man with oily skin leapt onto the deck next to Samuel. He bared his rotting teeth, slashing a knife towards Samuel’s throat. Samuel backed away, feeling something hot slide through his skin. The pirate stopped, his mouth-half open, and Samuel grabbed the knife and plunged it into the man’s chest. Spittle ran down his chin and he collapsed.
The wind whipped water into Samuel’s eyes. He blinked, the rain seeming to come from all directions. Something white spun through the droplets, like bodies made from lightning. The storm fell fast all around them.
Through the deluge came Chikelu’s screams. Samuel moved towards the sound, his hair slicked to his forehead. At the edge of the Siofra he saw Chikelu’s shawl flapping in the wind. Five pirates dragged her along.
Samuel leapt towards them. With a loud crack something collided with the back of his head. He pitched forward, hands grasping for the railing, and fell into open air. The icy waves engulfed him.
The sound of thunder became distant as water filled his ears. A thin trail of red traced his descent into the ocean, droplets spilling from his head. Ice cut into his bones, darkness eating the edge of his vision.
A deep pain burnt inside Samuel’s chest. White light pressed against his eyelids. He opened his eyes and saw a glimmer, like an animal coalescing in beams of light. The creature closed its jaws around his ankle, and he felt himself being wrenched upwards.