Hot, white sand burnt the bottoms of William’s blistered feet. Waves broke behind him like the British guns crashing in horrific explosions against his ship’s hull from the night before. The Navy drove them from Nassau, and now hunted them. William’s hair draped in and around his face, painting it with sand and dried sea salt. He stumbled forward, exhaustion and dehydration clawing at his mind and body. It was amazing he escaped the Navy’s attack unharmed.
“William,” Robert called. The former quartermaster of their ship came towards him from the tree line.
“Yes?” William said, exhaustion in his voice.
“I found some water. Come quickly.” At Robert’s news William sprinted forward, ignoring his weakness. The forest before him seemed as a wall but yielded to him the moment he reached it.
Beyond the trees by no more than a hundred feet a shallow creek traversed. William knelt at the water’s edge. Its cool stream acted in contrast to the hot, Caribbean sun, now shaded by the multitude of plant-life around him.
“Oh, that’s good,” William wiped his mouth before standing. “Any idea as to where we are?”
“My guess: between Nassau and Cuba,” Robert said resting against a palm tree.
“Well that could be anywhere,” William’s voice rose uncontrollably.
“I’m sorry, but if you haven’t noticed, we don’t have a map. We’re marooned, stranded,” Robert snapped, banging his fist against the tree.
“There’s bound the be someone on this island,” William glanced around. Beyond the trees the island rose up into a single mountain commanding the sky around them. Yet they could see little of it from within the forest.
“Aye, as long as they’re not the bloody navy, we’re good,” Robert pushed himself away from the trunk.
“I doubt they’d be the ones here. If anything, there’s probably a group of natives,” William began following the creek upstream. He didn’t know why, but felt a compulsion to follow it. Everywhere else felt impenetrable, like something was guiding him towards the mountain.
Not long passed before they found an abandoned village. Nothing seemed burnt and no bodies laid about. The village was in essence pristine.
“At least we have some shelter,” Robert said, making his way to a nearby hut.
“Maybe we should make sure no one’s here,” William reached for his cutlass, but his hand came back empty. He must have lost it when he and Robert were cast overboard, being the last of the crew. The bodies of his dead crew-members flashed into William’s mind. He found it ironic that the captain and the quartermaster were the two to survive the attack, and no one else. Damn that. There are few evil ironies greater than the captain surviving and not his crew.
Robert raised his fists before rushing into the hut. A moment passed before he popped his head back out, “Nothing in here, looks deserted.”
William guessed the whole village was like this, seeing that all the huts appeared the same. William took a few steps forward, the compulsion he always felt when moving, never quite in control of his body, guided him forward.
A smoke stream wisp came into view where a few steps back had been clear sky. William sprinted to a nearby hut, and felt glued to its exterior, followed by Robert. He moved himself slowly, peaking around the corner. A lone man poked at a fire. He appeared to be European, maybe a colonist, but also like he came from the natives as well.
The man glanced up, looking around, “Who’s there?” William pulled his head back around the hut.
Robert revealed himself, hands up. “We mean you no harm my good sir,” he said.
“Pirates,” the man said. “I don’t have anything for you to take. Now be on your way.”
“Pirates?” Robert moved closer to the man, hands out and waving his peace. “We’re not pirates, do we look like such dogs?”
“All I know is that no ragged sailors are supposed to be showing up on my island,” the old man drew a dagger. Pointing it at Robert.
“Sir,” William came out from the shadows. A few options of what to say came to mind until he said, “We’re not pirates, but we are marooned merchants. Is there any way you can help us?” It was a bluff. Hopefully it worked.
The man seemed to think for a moment before saying, “Very well, now come. I have a cabin not too far from here. It’s well stocked,” the old man waved for them to follow. “As long as you two don’t steal anything we won’t have any trouble.”
William followed the man, who seemed to move slower than most others. Every so often William would have to turn around and wait for the man’s short steps to catch up, with Robert following close on the man’s heels.
“So, to where is it you’re taking us?” Robert said at length.
The man stopped in his tracks and froze. He whipped around, shooting Robert in the neck with a blow dart. Robert stumbled forward before falling to the ground. The sight stoned William’s feet. Before he realized it, a sharp sensation pulsated from his neck like an electric shock. He raised his hands to feel the spot. There he found a dart protruding from his skin. The ground came up to William. The man stood over him now, his face flickered for a moment between that of a man and that of one made only of a pair of floating eyes and a mouth. A fog began enveloping William’s vision until all he saw was the old man surrounded by blackness, to the final outline of a human skull.
William shook his head, grogginess made his head heavy. His eyes opened and a flood of light pierced them for a moment. At length his eyes adjusted to see he sat in a dusty cabin with a table and counter. On the opposite side of the room Robert was tied into a similar wooden chair, gagged and beaten. Robert raised his head wearily to William, eyes pleading for rescue. Not another crew member. Not someone he’s been through so much with. Not his friend. William jerked his shoulders and hands only to find he was tied and gagged as well.
The door opened, letting the sun shine through its entrance. The old man stepped in, carrying a basket. “I’m glad that you’re awake now William,” he set the basket on the table. Something metallic shinned from within it. The old man pulled his dagger from the basket. “Are you ready to play a game?” his voice sounded more sinister than the old pirate hunters that followed him into a tavern and gutted his friend in front of him, laughing the whole time.
William wiggled his head uncontrollably in an effort to escape. Something compelled him to keep moving, never stopping for a moment. A blunt object slammed against William’s side, sending him and his chair to the ground. “No, no, no,” the old man said as if speaking to a child, “we’re playing our game today.” He stepped towards Robert, the old man playing with the dagger. “How easy it is to kill such weak beings as yourselves. You’ve lost a point,” the old man sliced his dagger across Robert’s throat.
Robert wiggled and gargled. He screamed from underneath his gag as the man stabbed him several times in the stomach. The writhing sent Robert and his chair to the floor. His body contorted in horrific angles.
“Why?” William tried to yell. “I’m going to kill you bastard!”
“Come again?” the old man said, stepping over to William and removing the sackcloth gag, and pushing William’s chair back upright. “I couldn’t hear you over your friend’s death.”
“I will gut you, you coward,” William spat in the old man’s face. That old man’s sickening grin made William lurch forward despite his restraints, making his body that much more confined.
“This is the foulest treatment I’ve ever received from one of my players. I thought you Englishmen were proper,” the old man wiped away the spit with a neckerchief he produced from his basket. “Now do you want to play the game? Your friend didn’t, that’s why he was all bruised up. But I decided to be a nice host and give him a second chance to see if you’d play. But you didn’t seem to want to, so he’s dead now.” The old man pursed his lips as he said this, contemplating every word.
“What’s your game?” William said, his voice defeated.
“My game is nothing more than truth. You find out the truth of your existence, or you die. Simple enough, right?” the old man giggled to himself.
“The truth is simple,” William said, “I’m a pirate, sailing these waters stealing from the Crown and Spaniards, and any other damned merchant that comes my way. Need I say more?”
“Your existence, my existence, are nothing. We’re pieces in a game,” the way the old man said this made William shutter. It was so matter-of-fact, so emotionless, like the man didn’t care.
“You’re one of those people, aren’t you?” William mocked. He remembered these people back in England, always saying that the world was fake and all they experienced was something forced on them. They were all mentally deranged. this world was real, and nothing less.
The old man grinned, “You could say I am, but you’re going to be if you play my game.”
“And what do I get if I win?” William said.
“An escape. A catharsis if you will” the old man punched William in the forehead.
The sensation of flight enveloped William. Weird symbols surrounded him, moving swifter than anything he’d seen before that moment. The world collapsed around him, and the symbols grew closer. No longer were the chair’s restraints around him. William reached for any handhold he could, but his hands would pass through seeming walls, flowing like water all around him. Something smacked against William.
William opened his eyes to see an endless white expanse all around him. He pushed himself up from an unseen floor.
“William?” Robert’s voice came from behind. William turned to see Robert stumbling towards him, throat and shirt bloodied and face bruised. “Where are we?”
The sight of his friend made William rush towards him. Robert staggered forward, falling to the ground. Before he could reach the floor, William caught him. The weight seemed negligible, almost like he wasn’t even there, yet Robert was there in his arms and alive. Nothing made sense. It must have been something the old man gave him.
“Come, follow me,” the old man’s voice came.
William followed the voice to see the old man standing before them, staff in hand. “Who are you?” William yelled.
“A slave,” the man’s body jerked, became fuzzy, revealing those same symbols William saw moments ago. “Just as you are, William.”
“He’s lying,” Robert’s voice came faint to William’s ears.
“What are you?” William yelled again. This time he shook, teeth clenched. If William wasn’t holding Robert he’d charged the old bastard.
“Turn around, and see for yourself,” the old man pointed behind William.
Something urged William to peer over his shoulder. A moment of resistance prevented him from doing so until he pushed through and looked. A window stood behind him, no frame, not even a pane. Beyond it sat what appeared to be a man dressed in a simple shirt laughing nervously at William, or at himself. The man wore something on his head like earmuffs with a long stick protruding from one ear. William couldn’t turn away; his eyes couldn’t leave this man’s gaze. The old man was right, this was a game. Nothing existed.
I’d like to thank my good friend Marshall Tankersley for all his hard work in in making the cover art for my stories, Facebook pages, and Patreon. Without your talent this would be a very bland place to read stories. A special thanks to my Fiction 1 classmates and professor for helping me work on this story and figure out the heart of it. Finally, thank you to my patrons or supporting me, both current and future. Thank you all!