Deals with Devils
The tavern was rowdy, even by pirate standards. In one corner of the room, a small brawl had broken out over dice and cards, while in another booth, a young woman--obviously too drunk to care--was being repeatedly exposed by her male companion to all who would care to look. The Crow's Nest, situated off the coast of Sumatra, was a notorious den of illicit pleasures and the crew of The Lotus Blossom was well familiar with all it had to offer.
Guan-Yin stood in the entrance to the place for a long moment, letting the ambiance soak in. She was a remarkably attractive woman in her mid-twenties, Guan-Yin had been captain of The Lotus Blossom for only about six months but she'd gained quite a reputation during that time. Standing five feet, five inches, with long raven-black hair and an exotic appearance owing to a mixed French and Asian parentage, she was easy to spot, even in a crowd such as this.
"Guan-Yin!" a male voice bellowed. A moment later, a portly man with one eye came staggering drunkenly towards her. "How went the sacking of the port?"
Guan-Yin allowed the man to embrace her, wincing at the odor that wafted off of him. "We took enough to keep us fat and happy for a month or two." Pulling back, the pirate queen studied her old friend with an arched eyebrow. "Zabora, how much have you had to drink?"
"Who's counting?" the man laughed, putting an arm around her shoulders and guiding her towards his table. A couple of whores were tittering there, already plotting how to spend the money they were going to make off Zabora tonight. They regarded Guan-Yin with suspicion, hoping the girl wasn't about to steal their john from them. "These girls are Monica and Sue. Sweet things, they are," he said, gesturing towards the whores with a broad grin, which they readily returned. "Sit! Sit! Tell us all about your adventures, Guan-Yin!"
"I really can't," the girl replied, not taking the offered seat. "I'm supposed to be meeting someone. A black skinned man named M'Baku."
Zabora's smile faded at once and he picked up his half-empty mug of beer, downing the remainder quickly. "You shouldn't have dealings with him, Guan-Yin," he told her gravely. "He is dangerous ... and no one who has done business with him has come to a good end."
"I know that," Guan-Yin replied sharply, her beautiful features taking on an angry expression. Lowering her voice, she said "Four years ago, he sold a map to my father. The morning before he left my mother and I, my father told me that M'Baku had given the location of an island which was home to a rocky knoll in the shape of a human skull. He said there was enough treasure on the island for us all to quit living hand-to-mouth. He was going to make sure I became a Lady, Zabora. But my father never came back ... and my mother wasted away, praying for the day he'd return."
Zabora nodded, his eyes seeming to stare into the past. "I was good friends with your father, you know that ... but he was wrong to trust M'Baku's claims and promises. He probably sent your father straight into a trap."
"Perhaps," she admitted. "Or perhaps my father did find the island and there was an accident of some kind. Maybe his ship crashed on the rocks and he lives there still."
"You don't really believe that ... do you?"
"I don't know what I believe. But I've heard that M'Baku is back in the area and he's supposed to meet me here."
"I've never heard of an island with a skull-shaped area on it," Zabora said, rubbing his chin.
"Fernandez says that there is a haunted island in these parts, one that cannot be seen through the fog that perpetually shrouds it. If you don't know the exact location, you could float around it forever and never see it." Guan-Yin ignored Zabora's scent and kissed him on the cheek. "I'll be fine, uncle. I'm not the little girl you bounced on your knee, you know."
Zabora made an overly exaggerated gesture of looking Guan-Yin from head to toe and nodding with approval. "That is certainly true! You have filled out in all the right ways!"
Guan-Yin laughed and started to make a retort when she caught sight of a black man in African clothing sitting in the darkest corner of the tavern, his eyes watching her closely. His skin held a purplish tinge to it but his eyes were so white that they seemed to project outwards from his skull.
Zabora followed her gaze and hissed, "Don't go and speak to him, girl! Please!"
Guan-Yin ignored him and stepped past. She strode towards M'Baku with an almost catlike grace and she caught the eye of virtually every man in the room. Though none present had ever shared her bed, there was no denying the ferocity and passion she possessed ... and all the men assembled would have gladly given all they owned to spend but one night with her.
"So, was old Zabora trying to dissuade you from speaking to me?" the African said when Guan-Yin sat down across from him.
"I'm not surprised. He's staring daggers at me, even now."
Guan-Yin held up a small purse of coins and dropped them on the table before M'Baku. "I want the map you gave to my father. I'm sure it wasn't the only copy you owned."
M'Baku shrugged expansively. "Your father was a shrewd man. I was so very sad when I heard that he never made it home."
Guan-Yin pursed her lips, trying to stay calm. "The map," she repeated. "Do you have another copy ... and if so, how much do you want for it?"
M'Baku plucked up the bag of coins and opened the drawstring, his eyes widening. Inside were not only coins of the realm but also several rubies and sapphires. "This is the haul from your most recent plunder, I take it?"
M'Baku examined her with his eyes. "You should keep this money ... it's enough to buy you a new life on the mainland."
"I want to know what happened to my father. So unless you can tell me what happened without me taking the voyage that may have killed him ... I don't have much choice."
M'Baku closed the bag and dropped it into the pockets of his cloth robe. "I did not send him into an ambush nor did I betray his trust in any fashion. I sold him the map--and yes, I have another copy--but I made it quite clear about the dangers he would face. And you will be facing them too, unless you are wise enough to turn from this path."
When Guan-Yin said nothing, M'Baku knew that her mind was made up. He reached into the same pocket where he'd deposited the treasure and brought forth a map drawn on crumbling brown paper. Guan-Yin leaned forward as the African spread it out on the tabletop. Her heart was hammering in her chest as she saw the lines and symbols ... a series of notations on the top of the map gave the island's location as 2 degrees S 90 degrees E / -2, 90 off the coat of Sumatra. In the center of the island was a clearly drawn symbol of a skull.
For a moment it felt as if the entire tavern had gone quiet. All that Guan-Yin could hear was the rush of her own blood and the soft tones of M'Baku. "There are natives who live on the island," he said, "and they've been described as either of West African or Papuan descent. It is home to creatures straight out of history and myth, things that should not live in today's world flourish in this land of death. But it is said that a horde of treasure was buried in the mouth of the skull cave by none other than the dread pirate Hendrik Van der Decken."
Guan-Yin couldn't resist letting out a gasp at the name. Van der Decken had been captain of a doomed ship, one cursed to wander the seven seas for all eternity ... but when still a living man, he had raped and plundered his name into infamy. It was said that his horde was more than enough to buy a small kingdom in some parts of the world but that he'd continued to play the pirate because he enjoyed the killing.
"Have you ever been to this island?" she asked, the din of the other bar patrons beginning to re-enter her consciousness. She cast one glance over at the drunk women whose companion had been exposing her wares ... the woman was now on her back on the table, skirts thrown up over her waist and a crowd had gathered around to watch as a man--not her companion--rutted with her like an animal. The woman's eyes were barely open and a long thin trail of spittle was running from her lips down the side of her face. Guan-Yin shivered and looked away. Though she loved the adventure and the thrill of being on the open seas, there were parts of the pirate world that repelled her.
"No," M'Baku admitted, "but I knew a man who did. He's the only one I've ever personally met who claimed to have been there and lived. He said he and his men had gone there in search of the treasure and found nothing less than hell on earth. His captain was bitten in half by a two-legged lizard that walked like a man but was four times as tall. And the rest were dragged off to become human sacrifices by the tribesmen."
"And he's the one who gave you the location of the island?"
"Yes." There was a pause in the conversation as Guan-Yin studied the map in more detail. When M'Baku broke the silence, his voice had taken on a new note--one of admission. "I would like to go with you, Guan-Yin."
Guan-Yin looked as if she had just been slapped. "You must be joking. Why would you want to accompany me on this mission? And why in the name of hell would I want you onboard?"
"I have many enemies," the black admitted. "And the cost of paying off the debts I've accumulated is far more than the money you've given me today. I'd like to earn a share of the treasures on Skull Island."
"You've been paid in full," the pirate queen replied, narrowing her eyes. "My men would never agree to split their share with you, especially not after they learn I bought the map to begin with."
"You've heard the stories about my supernatural abilities," M'Baku stated. "Everyone has. There is some truth to them."
"And you'd use these abilities to help us?"
"Of course. I cannot sail a ship like yours on my own. I'd need you alive and well to get me to the treasure and take it back onboard The Lotus Blossom ... and I'd need you alive and well to get me back home."
Guan-Yin considered the offer. She didn't trust M'Baku and certainly didn't like the idea of sharing the horde with him ... but she couldn't deny that he might be useful. Though she'd never confronted the supernatural first-hand, like all seagoing people she'd learned that there was far more to the world than could be logically explained. Thus, she had no doubt that witchcraft existed in some form. "Can you prove your powers to me?" she asked at last.
M'Baku smiled, revealing a set of crooked and yellowed teeth. He looked as if he'd been expecting such a request. "Of course," he muttered with a soft chuckle. He brought forth a small handful of straw, sticks and powder, arranging them into a pyramid in the center of the table. Guan-Yin rolled up the map and put it away, her eyes never leaving M'Baku. If he was trying to trick her somehow, she wanted to catch him at it.
The African then waved his hand over the pile of sticks, which burst into flame quite dramatically. Guan-Yin wasn't yet impressed--such trickery would be easy to pull off, she reasoned. M'Baku then began to chant very softly, using an African dialect that the worldly pirate queen had never heard before. He began to gently sway in time to his words and a few people in the tavern began to take notice of him. Most shuffled away in mortal fear for their souls and lives.
Guan-Yin found her eyes wandering to the flickering flames, where shapes had begun to appear. She thought she could make a group of men ... savages ... holding spears and attacking another group of people ... and she saw herself with this second group. "Is this a vision of the future?" she asked breathlessly.
"A possible future, perhaps even a very likely one." M'Baku moved his hand over the fire again, causing it to jump and flare brighter. Now the images took on a new shape, revealing a massive skull-shaped hill. The smell of death suddenly filled the air and Guan-Yin groaned in disgust. It was an odor she'd become quite familiar with in her brief time on earth ... it was the scent of putrefying flesh. "Death," M'Baku hissed between clenched teeth. "Death awaits us all."
Guan-Yin started to rise when a final image appeared, showing a man with a flowing mustache and shoulder-length hair the color of gold. "My father," Guan-Yin whispered, her mouth hanging open and her heart beginning to flutter. She'd loved her father so much that when he'd failed to return home, she'd tried to shut the door on all the emotion she'd felt. Unlike her mother, Guan-Yin had become hardened by her loss, though she'd always held out hope for a miraculous reunion.
The image of her father shouted out his daughter's name and then vanished, the flames dying suddenly and without warning.
Guan-Yin snatched up M'Baku by his robes, pulling him close. "Bring him back! Now!"
"That may not have been truly him," M'Baku counseled, slowly freeing himself from her grip. "Sometimes these images are not meant to be taken literally. It may just imply that the answers you seek will be found on Skull Island ... it doesn't mean he still lives."
Guan-Yin regained her composure and nodded. "Be on the ship within an hour. We sail immediately." Without another word, she spun on her heels and strode from the sinful place. When she was outside, with the moon shining bright overhead and the sounds of water lapping at the shore in her ears, she reached up and wiped away a single, solitary tear.