- The Anselm VersesThey say there’s a man
at the end of the Earth…
who knows why the world was made,
and why it’s been broken.
Part One: Ruminations
Even though crossing the Jade Sea was forbidden, oars, long and sturdy, plunged deep into its ash gray waters, pulling the small ship Messenger through the flotsam and jetsam ruin that drifted around her. One dark figure prowled the swaying deck as pale waves broke against the weathered hull. The hired crew, twelve men in all, glanced up from their constant rowing, as the dark looming captain paced back and forth. He sensed their growing desperation, and curiosity, and chose to ignore their uneasy stares. High above—high enough to make a man dizzy as he rowed, the clear blue sky was being swept away by curtains of dark cloud spanning a vast horizon.
All around them was the floating ruin of similar ships, even much larger and stronger ones than the Messenger. Like dead bodies on a carrion field of slaughter, their hulls, broken and worn from years of decay, lay like white bones on the sea. Broken masts reached out from the water, resembling skeletal fingers, while their tattered sails began to flutter on a rising wind. The man in black tensed, sniffed the salty air, and detected the faint scent of death on an easterly breeze.
With a rushing swirl of black cloak, the dark figure strode to the prow of the ship and stood there like a ghost himself. The breaking waves sprayed him with their miserable chill, as he grabbed hold of the ship and absorbed the thickening air, and the mist rising over the gray rolling sea. He sensed the presence of things unseen, things better left unspoken for the present moment. He didn't need panic, not here in this forsaken place. The cloaked man nodded to the hesitant crew, and with a few more powerful strokes, the ship vanished into thick, green sea mist.
“What do you sense Capt'n? Are we close?” One of the rowers asked from below, no longer able to contain his fear.
"Keep rowing." The dark captain replied.
"Keep rowing." The dark captain replied.
The island lay ahead. Somewhere close, so close he could feel it in his bones. After all these years...there was nothing that was going to stop him from returning now. Not the skeletal ghosts haunting the chill breeze, and certainly not the fear of the Island itself. Draped in his thick, black cloak and tall, buckled leather boots, Court stood at the Messenger's prow, defying the elements like a man closing in on his destiny. He gathered his wits and glared into the deepening fog, ignoring the soft groans of ghost ships brushing past the Messenger's sides.
This was where the World had been broken ten years ago this very day. The Great War between the Garai and the Nocturne Empire had raged for a hundred years across these seas, locked in an unending battle. It didn’t bother Court that he was sailing through the war’s graveyard of ships on the very anniversary of its final battle. The trouble was that he felt the rift ahead. Any attuned Garai soldier could have sensed the power of the rift growing, a disturbance that sent shivers through his very soul. That was the real tragedy of the war, its lingering fingerprint.
And the rift was what made this place forbidden.
“Prepare for landfall.” Court said, glancing over his shoulder at the men.
They looked down and chanted low spoken, mournful prayers. A few tried in vain to glimpse something resembling the haunted Island through the fog. But it was all to no avail, as the fog had deepened and the air was growing colder, tearing their eyes. Some minds turned to their children. Others thought of their women whom they'd likely never see again. They had all known, despite being blinded by Court's gold, that this voyage could be their end. But he would protect them; after all he was one of the Garai, if not the last, and the rowers knew what that meant. Court was a very special kind of soldier, weapons master of this world and the next.
What Court's connection was to this island, no one knew. Strange it was, thought his crew, how he now hunted this place like a man possessed. Back home in fair Anselm it was rumored he'd gone mad in the war. A broken man, alone with his dark memories, Court was the sole surviving veteran of the last battle, and the rift created during it. Court’s black cloak fluttered in the gale, and the rowers could imagine him fighting out here years and years ago: younger, brash and powerful. Ever since the war had ended, stories and songs had echoed in taverns and gathering halls about those epic battles. From all accounts, the destruction had been terrible and vast, and some believed, as did Court, that psychic hatred had opened the rift—a strange gash in time that grew ever larger as time progressed.
Without any warning they saw the dark towering cliffs of the Island rising high above them. It was sorcerous how it had appeared from nowhere. All about the ship were jagged rocks stabbing up from the water like chipped, rotten teeth. This was the Island Court sought, the ancient stronghold of their enemy. The rowers imagined the fortress in its prime, teeming with militant activity. But now it was just another ruin of the war. Soon the dark sands of the beach rushed forward, and the sounds of swirling sand and rock came beating up from beneath the Messenger’s creaking hull. By the time the rowers could stand up to moor the ship, Court was already waiting for them upon the beach.
“How’d he do that?” One of the men whispered.
“It’s Garai magic.” Another shrugged,
“I wager we’ll see more than that before this day’s ending.”
Court held his eyes closed, listening to the whispers of the men. He heard the murmur of the tide behind him and the creaking timbers of his ship as the rowers anchored her on the beach. Behind his senses the rift was wailing with the voices of the dead. Court fought the urge to withdraw his silver flintlock pistol that hung off his belt, or tear his cutlass free and slash it against the looming cliffs above. He opened his eyes and breathed in slowly, smelling the dredge of seaweed and refuse lapping against the shore.
Court turned to face his men. They had been watching him nervously, thinking that they had followed a madman to hell. Court held a strange look in his ashen gray eyes. He did look slightly mad, unshaven, with his scars and wild locks of hair falling out of his fur-lined hood. Even so, there was some comfort in knowing that he had been here before, and had survived all the island's fabled horrors.
"Stay near me." Court said sternly, drawing out a silver pistol from the dark of his cloak.
"But where are we headed, Capt'n?" One of his men squealed anxiously.
"Toward the voices." Court grimaced, looking above.
They followed his gaze like marionettes to the dizzying heights above, shrouded in cloud and gloom. It looked as if rain might fall, or lightning might suddenly explode over them. It looks just as it did when I last fled these ruins, Court noted. Then he began walking the beach, heading towards a tremendous dark crack in the cliffs. The beach itself was scattered with debris, and relics from a hundred years of war at sea. There were bottles and bones half buried in the wet, dark sands. There were pieces of ships tangled in seaweed, and rusted bits of their cannons and rigging. One of the men caught sight of a tattered black cloak like the one Court was wearing, a pale white skeleton arm dangling from its shredded folds.
“The Garai.” One of the rowers nodded with a whisper at the corpse.
To be continued next week...