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After a minute or so Philippus realised he could still see where he was going. A glance at the rocky walls revealed that they glistened and twinkled with soft glows of iridescence. And then the sides and roof of the tunnel veered away from him as they stepped into a large cavern. Nadina stood, arms aloft faintly glowing herself, and turned as they approached.
“There are tiny creatures on this island, within this cave, that produce light from their bodies. I have asked them to shine for us.”
The gentle pale blue and green glow that suffused the cavern revealed an unusual object in its centre. A limp, reed-based vessel sat on rocks next to the stream of water that flowed through the cave. Micon peered at the object. “Is that supposed to be a boat?” He put his armful of goods down next to the craft and laid his hands on it, carefully testing the strength of the clearly ancient reedwork. “There’s a weird symbol here, you can just make it out. It’s like an eye with a squiggle underneath.”
Philippus dropped his tree in perfect timing with his jaw.
A golden glow surrounded the boat, it exuded power and majesty. And yet it also remained a tired, dusty relic of another age.
“Micon?” he called, warily.
“Do you notice,” he winced and tried again, “do you feel anything odd about this boat?”
Micon hovered his hand over the boat and concentrated. “I get the feeling that it’s very important. And lost.” He looked at Nadina, baffled.
“Not lost,” she said. “Stolen.”
“By Zeus?” asked Philippus.
“Naturally. This is the Sun Barge of Ra.”
“An Egyptian god. He sailed the sky in this boat each day, delivering the sun to the west. Zeus thought it would be hilarious to steal it and hide it here, where no sun ever shines.”
“I bet Ra would like to stick Zeus where the sun doesn’t shine,” said Philippus.
“We’ve already done it for him,” said Micon
Micon began an elaborate mime of eating and defecating.
“Oh right, yeah.” Philippus rubbed his eyes. “Is it just me or can anyone else see something weird about that boat?”
Micon squinted at it. “In what way ‘weird’?”
“I’m not sure. It’s just that at one moment it looks like an ancient wreck but the next it is the golden boat of a god. Except all of the moments are sort of happening at the same time.”
Nadina smiled. “You are seeing the memory of the boat, its potential as well as its present. The feast of gods has also affected you.” She joined Micon next to the boat and held her hand above it, feeling for some ancient power. “And now we will begin to prepare the Sun Barge for another journey.”
“What?!” exclaimed Micon. “We can’t use this to escape the island! It’s barely holding together on dry land, never mind at sea!”
The nymph turned to Philippus and retrieved the tree. “We will replenish it with life from my island.” She lay the tree on top of the Sun Barge, jagged trunk at the stern, battered top branches at the bow. Water dripped from the remaining leaves on to and around the Egyptian boat.
Micon’s gaze flitted from the boat to the nymph, who seemed to be in deep meditation. “So what happens now?”
She lifted her eyes and said, “We wait. I suggest you make yourselves comfortable. We will be here all night.”
“Fair enough,” replied Micon, “I’m knackered, parched and famished.” He rummaged in the pile of goods he’d been lugging around since early afternoon. “Anyone want a slice of War God? Good job we’re in a cool cave ‘cos another few hours in the sun and he’d be proper rank.”
Philippus lay on the cold, damp ground, wrapped in his cold, damp cloak. He had eventually managed to drop off to sleep; the exertions of the day had finally caught up with him. But now he found himself staring up at the cavern ceiling. A soft slithering noise had woken him from his fractured sleep. Something was slowly moving near by. His mouth went dry and his heart began pounding. Reaching for his blunt knife tucked into his belt he began to sit up. In the dim light he could make out the shapes of Nadina and Micon, both asleep on the floor next to him. He rose to his feet and stepped towards the Sun Barge. The slithering was coming from the boat. As he got nearer it seemed that the boat looked different, still the same general shape but sturdier. He reached out to touch the craft and immediately jumped backwards as if bitten. Whatever he had touched had moved. He peered closely at the tree he had chopped down and dragged across the island and rubbed his eyes. He could swear that it was almost pulsing. Fascinated, he began to walk around the vessel and promptly tripped over a long straggly root that had wormed its way from the severed trunk to the trickle of spring water that flowed through the cavern and out through the tunnel to the sea. Philippus held the root in his hands and could feel the water being sucked through it and into the tree trunk. Following the root from the stream back to the barge he could now see that the tree was slowly melding itself into the reed structure of the hull.
It was amazing, incredible.
Frankly, it gave him the willies.
It was as if the tree was performing some kind of necrophile act on the corpse of the reed boat, but at the same time becoming a permanent part of the barge, like a parasitic plant wrapping its tendrils deep into its host. Philippus shuddered. It was all a bit icky.
He wrapped his cloak tightly around his arms in the cool darkness and wandered around the gloomy cavern. Just to one side of the tunnel through which they had entered was a bundle of seaweed and rags and he bent down to examine them. As he pulled the trails of weed away the rags shifted to reveal a skull smiling up at him.
Philippus fell on to his backside in alarm and a wheezing hiss filled his ears, resolving into a series of hacking coughs. He looked around at Micon and Nadina but they were still fast asleep. A rustling, shifting sound came from the pile of rags containing the skull and his eyes nearly popped out of his head as two skeletal arms extricated themselves from the debris and began to push the skull and attached bony torso upright.
The skull slowly swivelled around to face Philippus, the blank eye sockets locking on to him.
“Charon?” said the skull, “is that you?”
Philippus slowly shook his head, incapable of speech.
“Well who the bleedin’ underworld are ya, then?” demanded the apparition.
Despite his terror, Philippus thought there was some nagging element of familiarity in the way the skeleton spoke. He swallowed and said hoarsely, “A s-sailor.”
The corpse leant forward and stared at him. “Bugger me! It’s Philippus!”
Philippus’s jaw bounced up and down a few times before he managed to squawk, “What?”
“It’s me, Xanthius! I got swept overboard in that storm, banged me noggin on somefin’ and then passed clean out. Did you go over too? That was one bastard of a storm. What happened to the ship? Did anyone else make it?”
“Errrrrr…” began Philippus, but then stopped because whatever he planned to say in answer to the questions always evaporated in the face of the horrific reality of talking to a skeleton of a former crewmate. In the end, he decided on a question of his own. “How did you end up here?”
“Dunno, mate. Prob’ly the storm and some kind of tidal surge or somefin’.” The skeleton sat there, grinning at him.
Philippus nodded. “Right. Yeah. So…” he said, and before he could stop himself, he added, “so how have you been, mate?”
“Good, good, thanks. Yeah. Pretty bloody good. Considering.”
“Considering…?” Philippus repeated, letting his question hang alongside Xanthius’s statement.
“Well, you know, what with being dead an’ all.”
“Right. Yeah. Now that you mention it…”
“You don’t seem surprised that I’m dead, then?”
Philippus considered this for a moment. “Well, surprised to see you here, yes. And surprised to be having a conversation with you, yes. But not surprised that you’re actually dead, no.”
“Do I look a bit rough then?” asked Xanthius, with a worried note in his voice.
“Um, a bit peaky, yes. Quite pale in fact.”
“Right, I’d better have a look at meself,” said Xanthius and with that the skeleton collapsed back in on itself. Moments later a spectral glow emerged from the pile of rags, bones and seaweed which resolved itself into a ghostly representation of a pale but fleshy sailor. It bent down and stared at the skull. “Oh, bollocks. It’s those bastard little crabs. Picked me clean as a whistle. Yeah, I can see that my current look is a bit of a dead giveaway. Ha! Dead giveaway, geddit?”
“Ha, yeah,” agreed Philippus. His initial shock had quickly given way to the reminder that, even if he was dead, Xanthius was a bit of a prat. And that was on a good day. Mostly, Philippus remembered him as a complete tosser. “So, how come you’re hanging around here? Shouldn’t you be trotting around the Elysium Fields by now?”
The ghost of Xanthius turned back to him and shrugged. “I dunno, mate. I saw that boat and reckoned it belonged to Charon and that he’d use it to ferry me over the River Styx but it’s been bloody ages and no-one’s turned up yet. So I’m stuck here.”
Philippus glanced down the tunnel. “Have you tried leaving?”
“What? Go for a walk? Nah, I thought I’d hang about here and wait for Charon.”
Philippus nodded. Xanthius always was a lazy sod. “But haven’t you been down here for weeks? Haven’t you got a bit, I dunno, bored?”
“Well, s’prising fing about being dead,” said Xanthius with a sniff, “is that you don’t care about time any more. No need to eat or drink or sleep or nuffin’. When somefin’ happens, that’s fine. When it don’t, that’s fine too. It’s made me very,” he stared up at the cavern ceiling for the right word, “centred. I could have done wiv dying years ago.”
“I can think of a few people who would say the same,” said Philippus aloud, instead of in his head where he had planned to keep it.
“Erm, yeah, you know, those odd cultists in that port we visited that time. Very into death.”
“I dunno who you mean. I prob’ly stayed in the taverna while you and that sap Micon went wandering off.” The ghost of Xanthius looked up at Philippus. “Hey, did he make it off the boat OK?”
Philippus nodded. He knew what was coming next.
“Blimey, the sap’s got more gumption than I thought. Where is he now?”
Philippus pointed at the two sleeping bodies next to the Sun Barge. “But he’s asleep and we’ve had a long day. We’ll do the introductions when he wakes up.”
But Xanthius was no longer listening. Re-inhabiting his skeletal corpse, he shakily stood up and began a wobbly, jerky walk over to Micon.
“Xanthius, hang on, let me speak to him first.”
The noise of their conversation had caused the sleeping duo to stir and Micon had just opened his eyes when a seaweed-encrusted skeleton thrust its grinning face into view and said: “Alright Micon? How ya hangin’?”
Philippus was quite impressed by the cavern’s acoustic properties because the screams were incredibly loud and the echoes seemed to last for ages.