Monday, January 28, 2008

Part 3: The Fortress

Court's dirty, scratched hands found light, and grasped the final ledge of the crack as he pulled himself up from darkness. A black dusty tangle of cloak and limbs, he flopped down and rolled to his side to catch his breath. His eyes were squinted, as he peered at the dim halo of the sun burning behind the curtains of cloud overhead. By the Gods it's freezing, Court grimaced, and pulled his arms over his chest. He felt a cold, sharp tingle on his face, and opened his gray eyes to the gray sky. Here the wind whipped, and snowflakes danced hypnotically beneath the low, somber clouds. A fresh dusting of snow was falling like powder onto him and the entire upper shelves of the island.

Two of his rowers slithered up out of the crack and came next to him, sweaty and pungent like the ocean. They gave a wary, bewildered glance to the snow falling all around them, and then turned towards Court. One of them, a muscular tattooed man with a large dagger on his belt sat down beside Court. He was still wheezing from the climb. The tattooed man gave Court a worried look, seeing the snowflakes catching in his hair and eyebrows while he stared meditatively above.

“The rest of the men are frightened, Capt'n...they say they won't come up here. Not for all the gold in Anselm. There's something...wrong, about this place, isn't there? Just like you mentioned earlier...only, it gets stronger as we go.” He said, as his eyes darted around nervously.

Even as Court scanned the area around them, they could all sense the presence of moving things. Gazing into the ethereal, Court alone saw what disturbed their souls. He winced, surprised by the many lurching shapes in the snowfall.

There were ghost soldiers watching them, even now, atop the gate walls and on the other side of the fissure they had climbed out of. Most of them were blurred, gray shadows. Their white haunted eyes peered at the three of them from beneath their shadowy helms. Some of these were cloaked, and seemed to wander about aimlessly. But these wraiths weren't what Court feared, for shadows cannot harm a living man. No, his fear was of the possible living remnants of the Nocturne army.

“What are your names?” Court said plainly, still staring at the ghosts wandering through the snowstorm.

“Adan, m' lord. And this is Cael.” The tattooed man said, pointing.

Court glanced at both of them in turn and then back to the sky. He seemed to be weighing something tremendous. A smuggler pirate, tattooed with superstitious symbols during his years in jail, and a lanky limbed thief with a cruel overbite, who smells of booze, so pale and sallow he probably hasn't left the tavern in five years. Alas, they'll have to do. Court released a weary sigh and gestured at something over his shoulder.

“Behind me is the gate to the Nocturne fortress.” Court murmured, “If you follow me you'll have a chance to redeem your pasts, and earn the fortune I've paid you. I came here, and brought all of finish what began ten years ago—to end the war.”

Court saw their eyes focus over his shoulders at the gate. The tall wooden doors, cracked open, now crusted with snow, overlooked the three men like a giant slit eyeball. Little better than ruins, it was a broken, ravished wall of massive stones hauled up from the shore and the ocean. It was pitted and scarred by the ancient cannon fire of the Garai fleet, no doubt rebuilt countless times over. At its highest point, it had once stood thirty feet tall.

From the dark folds of the fissure beside them, some heads of his other hired crew emerged, their eyes squinting. Court observed them, giving them the disapproving glare they had expected. Five of them were stout little men with a family resemblance, each with a thin wool cap their wives must have knitted. All the others were the usual assorted sea dogs, with faded prison tattoos of large breasted women on thick, hairy tanned hides. The looks on their grubby faces were of agreed mutiny, all scowled or stiff lipped. None of them spoke.

“So be it.” Court said angrily, standing on his feet again, “Stay in the crevice and wait for our return. And remember the deal: we all leave here together.”

The three men approached the crooked, towering gates. They saw Court's shoulders straighten from their previous slouch. He was suddenly taller, somewhat frightening in his raven dark cloak, as he seemed to gather some extra unseen power about him. As he withdrew his ornate silver pistol in his left hand, it flashed brightly for a moment and then went dark, as though awakening to it's furious past self. In his right hand Court unsheathed his cutlass with a swish, though this fine weapon did not shine, for the curved blade and hilt were all black.

The gates seemed to groan nervously at Court's approach as they steadily swayed in the freezing gale like quivering lips. The snow flurries in the wind continued to dust Court and his men, and were rising into piles where the wind swept it into the nooks of the wall. The entire island was quiet now, as if bracing for a blow. Above them, the ghosts glared anxiously and whispered curses. Court glanced up at them and gave them a wink with his left eye.

Court led them through the narrow opening in the gates. The snow was falling heavier, and the wind had slowed. The fortress was a freezing, haunted hell. Everything looked like the pale dead of winter, as the snow had piled on a fresh, crisp white blanket over the walls and down across the ground. The loneliness of the fortress was oppressive. It might as well have been never inhabited, for the silence was a deep and final silence, much as if they were intruding into a long forgotten tomb.

Once a tall and proud capitol, this fabled fortress had been a thriving war machine even the powerful Garai had feared. It lay now like the ruins of an ancient people. It made Court pause, and stare in wonder at what strangeness the rift had wrought on this fortress. Knowing that the Nocturne Empire had been a modern power made it all the more bizarre as they looked at the cracked walls, heard the audible crumbling of the barracks, all around the yawning, empty courtyard in which they stood. Court had expected plants to overrun the battlements and towers along the walls, but nothing lived here – not even mold or rats.

The unnerving snap of a crushed skull beneath Adan's feet startled him. In any other place the two would have laughed or told a joke, but here they couldn't shake the dread that gnawed at their own bones. Any thought they may have had at plundering treasure out of the Nocturne vaults was gone, and replaced by a sole wish just to escape with their lives.

“How could two entire armies just vanish? How did they really die?” Cael asked cautiously with his overbite.

“Shut it, you ugly lump,” Adan snapped, glaring back at him, “I don't want to know, and I don't think the Capt'n here wants to say.”

“Maybe it's just like the stories...maybe it's all real. Hell opened up and swallowed them all!” Cael grimaced.

“Something like that, yes.” Court said, surprising them with the calm presence in his voice. He still carried the painful memory of the consuming dark waves of the rift that crashed down upon him and his Brethren that night.

He was staring across the courtyard. Court's weapons were now stashed away, and his back was turned towards them. Through the white, blurry snowfall there were the tall, massive pillars of a palace, where Duke Aries Black had once sat at the throne of power over his vast island nations. A small, dense city with houses of wood and stone where families and aristocrats had once lived surrounded the palace. It was now a city of the dead. And the rift was there too, shaking Court's mind and soul. Come to me Court, you belong here with everyone else, it seemed to whisper to him. Outside the fortress, it was quiet, save for the groaning of the wind.

To be continued....

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