After a restless night, struggling to find some comfort on the harsh forest floor, Alvez woke with a start, the welcome warmth of the dawn sun on his face. Silently he cursed himself for falling asleep and gave thanks when he saw the shrouded body still remained at its place of rest. Whatever was going to happen did not yet appear to have commenced, although he hoped they would not keep him waiting too much longer. To his relief the four natives returned to the clearing only a short time later. On this occasion however they were accompanied by a tall, thin man of middle years, dressed simply in long, white, flowing robes of the type he had seen worn by some holy men. But you do not look like any holy man that I have ever seen. An icy chill ran down Alvez’s spine as he looked upon the man: his skin was unnaturally pale, almost translucent, except for that around his eyes which was smudged black, creating the impression of two bottomless hollows. And, where there should have been hair, dark images of tattooed serpents wrapped themselves around his skull in sinuous swirling patterns, their mouths gaping wide.
At a slow, stately pace the holy man approached the body, in his hand a flaming torch. Alvez took a deep breath to steady himself and watched and listened intently as the group began to slowly circle the boy’s body, heads bowed reciting mysterious incantations in low, rhythmic tones. After some time, the group stopped and the holy man held his torch high above his head and turned to face the rising sun. This is it. Alvez crept closer straining to hear what the man was saying, straining to hear in which direction the dead made their final journey. So engrossed was he in fact in trying to hear the holy man’s words that he did not see the four natives light the funeral pyre and it took a moment for him to register that flames were beginning to lick around the boy’s body. Without thought Alvez broke cover and charged forward.
The funeral party watched in dismay as Alvez frantically kicked earth over one section of the flames and lunged forward to grab the corpse and drag it free of the pyre. Drawing his small axe, he skilfully slashed the ropes which secured the shroud and the boy’s body rolled clear. Coughing and spluttering Pukunati sat up and Alvez dragged him to his feet.
‘Are you injured?’ asked Alvez urgently.
‘No, no I don’t think so,’ stammered the boy.
‘Quick then, we must go,’ urged Alvez giving the dumbfounded cortege a warning look before bundling Pukunati back toward the trail, ‘I have the answer.’
‘I thought you’d forgotten about me,’ grumbled Pukunati as he hoisted the main sail and took a last look at The Island of the Dead.
‘Of course not,’ soothed Alvez absently.
‘All night I lay there, I was freezing.’
‘It was cold,’ agreed Alvez, ‘I certainly struggled to get to sleep.’
‘You slept?’ fumed the boy, ‘you were supposed to be watching over me.’
‘I closed my eyes once, for a brief moment.’
‘Then you let them set me alight,’ cried the boy.
‘They set the wood alight,’ corrected Alvez, ‘you were fine. Anyway, at least that must have warmed you up a bit.’
‘Warmed me up? Warmed me up! My hair was singed,’ exclaimed Pukunati, ‘look,’ he said pointing to his blackened cap.
‘It will probably grow back,’ replied Alvez as he looked up, and watched with satisfaction, as the sail caught the breeze.
‘What do you mean, probably,’ exploded Pukunati.
‘It will grow back,’ reassured Alvez.
‘Are you sure?’ demanded the boy.
‘Yes, I am sure,’ replied Alvez, although Pukunati noted that his tone seemed to lack the conviction of his words, ‘anyway, more importantly,’ Alvez continued cheerfully, ‘we got what we came for.’
‘So why do the spirits of the dead travel west then?’ asked Pukunati grumpily, ‘why not north or south, or even east?’
‘Many years ago, I heard tell of an island,’ replied Alvez, ‘an island which lies some weeks west of here. An island which some hold sacred. If I remember correctly, it is called Sankta. The holy man sought to send your spirit westward and I believe it is to this island it would have journeyed so it might depart this realm.’
‘It nearly did depart this realm,’ observed Pukunati.
‘Nothing,’ grumbled Pukunati, ‘and you think this island, what was it? Sakta? is where we’ll find Booth’s treasure?’
‘Sankta, and I fear it will not be quite that straightforward,’ replied Alvez, ‘but we shall see.’