The Flags of Castor Island is another story set in the Modern Realms. This was based on a dream I had a while ago so as a result it's pretty mind screwy. Hope you enjoy it.
The Flags of Castor Island
A Gravis Grayslate Story
By Jack Harvey
“The flags,” Gravis said, somewhat mystified, “they look as though they could have been made yesterday.”
“And yet they were strung up centuries ago,” came Thorof's guff voice to his right.
Gravis did not turn as he responded. “I detect no magic.”
Thorof nodded, and returned to help Blessed tie up the boat.
The crisp, triangular, blue and white flags, held aloft on a long cord, flapped in the wind. Gravis' eyes followed the line up, as it disappeared into the mists.
“Interesting isn't it?” boomed a voice from behind him, and this time Gravis did turn. “They say that the mountain was used for funeral processions. That the Aether would march to the top of the mountain like a pilgrimage and watch below as hundreds of burning ships would take their dead to the heavens.
Gravis nodded, though he knew most of the myths already.
Castor Island was a foggy dreamscape on the northern coast of Avalon. It was not difficult to get to, but the government had classified it off limits. The island was predominantly a narrow mountain, hundreds of leagues tall, it's summit theorised to once have been a ceremonial site for the long dead Aether civilisation. Few had been able to decipher the island's mysteries, even in these enlightened times.
Many had scaled the mountain, and many had reached the top, but none had come back down with anything save the vaguest of information. Most returned amnesic, with little memory of that which had unfolded, while others would return with their minds fractured, as though what they had witnessed had driven them mad.
But still men came, for legend had it that the peak lies on the borders between the realms and the heavens, and if one can scale the foggy cliffs, the gods, or whatever powers dwell there, would grant an answer to any question they are posed.
Sometimes the lonely or the desperate are willing to take the risks.
That is what brought these three men here. First was Michael “Blessed” DeMonfort, a popular dwarvern travel writer best known for scaling the mountains of both The Everwinter and The Spine. The other two kept their reasons closer to their chests. Thorof Teethsmasher, an unexpectedly intelligent Orc from a family of nine siblings, and the only one not to follow them into the mercenary business. Finally, Gravis Grayslate, a dark elf, from a culture often ostracised for their hedonistic ways. Even with their eccentric personalities, he would be seen as a strange bedfellow.
Gravis had kept to himself for the journey by boat however, and Blessed was willing to accept help from anyone who'd scale the mountain with him. The elf pulled out a revolver from his waistcoat and checked the loaded cylinder casually.
“Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no!” Blessed came striding over, a fatherly tone to his voice. “We shall not be taking weapons with us Mr Grayslate.”
“Are you that confident for our safety Mr DeMonfrot?” Gravis looked down at the dwarf.
“Quite the contrary Sir. Castor Island houses no native life that would be hostile to us, but it is well known that the journey can put great strain on the psyche. The last thing I want is someone pulling out a weapon in the heat of an argument.” He nodded to the boat. “Tie it with the rest of the gear. It will be quite safe.”
Gravis had no cause to cross his comrades this early in their endeavour, so he did as he was commanded. As a dark elf he was adept in the powers of death magic anyway, but he had always been hesitant to wholly rely in it.
“And another thing,” said Blessed, “Are you sure you wish to make the journey in that... attire? It is an overnight trip sir.”
Blessed was referring to the fact that while he and Thorof had dressed accordingly for a two day hike, Gravis had still insisted on coming in his best waistcoat and slacks. Mercifully he had brought the appropriate boots and coat, but it was still far from ideal.
“He'll manage,” said Thorof, “won't you Gravis?”
The orc was behaving oddly familiar for a man who had barely said a few words since they had met. Gravis nodded all the same, “I will.” He pulled a cigarette from a silver case, and offered it to the others. Thorof partook, Blessed didn't.
Before long they had secured their packs, and began marching along the mossy flat ground towards the mountain's incline, flags flapping in the wind.
Gravis' pants burned against his legs as he strode uphill, and though he was over one hundred and fifty years the dwarf's senior, he tried not to let pride affect him when the stocky dwarf strode ahead once more. In an effort to slow him down, Gravis had struck up a conversation, which he tried to dictate whilst panting for air.
“You've scaled The Spine,” he gasped, “A far greater hight than this. Wasn't that enough? Why this? Why now?”
Blessed smiled, and sat on a rock to let the elf catch his breath. “It had to be done,” he shrugged. “My readers want to know. They want to know, at the very least, what is at the top of Castor Island.” He beat his chest, producing a hard sound indicating the journal he kept in his jacket. “Whatever happens, even if this journey drives me mad, I shall at least have something written down.”
He pulled open a skin of water and took a sip, then offered it to Gravis. He was grateful for it, even though elves had a slower metabolism than dwarves. Thorof looked off into the fog, ignoring Blessed's chatter, as if he'd heard it all before.
“And what about the authorities?” Gravis asked. “Us being here isn't strictly legal you know?”
“Pish posh!” Blessed waved a stubby arm. “A trespassing charge at best. A man of my calibre, they'll just slap me with a fine. They'd probably even waver it, after all, if this gets published it'll deter the curious from coming over here themselves.”
Gravis nodded again, feeling oddly the student in this relationship.
Blessed slapped his knee. “Now come on, we've only just begun. Rest too long now and your legs will seize up, and the journey will be all the harder.”
With that the two men rose to their feet, blood rushing to their heads, and carried on.
The ground was grassy and wet because of the fog. Visibility was low as the group traversed the cliffs on the east side. Gulls circled overhead, the island's only form of native life. Gravis felt his gut wrench as he looked down and saw the fog obscured waves crash against the rocks. They were high enough now that one wrong slip could be fatal.
Still, Blessed tried to keep their spirits up. “So, Mr Teethsmasher, or may I call you Thorof?”
“First name will prove fine Blessed.”
“Ah yes, the surname doesn't seem to suit you in all honestly. Take that as a compliment.”
“Tell me. How does an Orc from a family of mercenaries come to have such a refined manner as yourself?”
Thorof was quiet for a few moments. At first Gravis assumed that Thorof wanted to remain secretive about his past. Gravis, after all, was the same. Though when he saw the Orc's large jaw hang low, it was more in frustration. Thorof looked tired. “Not yet,” He said finally. “Now is not yet the time.”
“Suit yourself,” shot Blessed, a little insulted.
“Well how about you Mr DeMonfort?” Gravis said, to diffuse the tension. “That's hardly a traditional dwarvern surname now is it?”
“No,” Blessed laughed jovially, scaling a series of rocks. “No it is not. Would you believe that I have a little human blood in me.”
“It wouldn't surprise me.”
“Yes indeed. My great grandfather was a member of the Lyon nobility. Met my mother during the Industrial Revolution. She worked as an engineer you know? Was bringing the steam train to the mainland.”
“Of course, you, more than anyone else here should know what happened next Mr Grayslate. I do believe you would have lived through it”
A sly look ran across the elf's face. “I was but a boy back then, and we dark ones had our own problems.”
“Oh indeed,” Blessed laughed again, “But you need not worry Mr Grayslate. I harbour no such prejudices against your people, and neither I expect, does Thorof.”
“None,” the orc said simply.
“Were most of the realms so open minded.” said Gravis grimly. “In answer to your original question,
yes, I recall the collapse of the continent's monarchies.”
“My great grandfather was left with a choice, return to Lyon and remain forever exiled from his wife, or stay with her, forfeiting the chance to return to his lands and titles. In the end, he chose love over duty, and now nothing remains of him but the family name.” He turned and sat on another rock. “And that is why, each generation, my more traditionally named dwarvern peers name us 'Blessed'”.
Gravis smiled again. It was a good story, and he more than anyone else loved a good story, but once again he caught Thorof staring off into the mists carelessly.
They didn't say anything for a few moments.
“And you, Mr Grayslate,” Blessed said. “What answers do you seek on Castor island?”
Gravis turned and looked at the dwarf.
“I have my reasons Blessed. That is all you are permitted to know.”
Blessed sighed. “Enigmatic. Very well, let us continue.”
The three men made small talk as they scaled the west side of the island. It was a smooth incline, but it was not easy. The grassy patches soon started to clear away until they were on nothing but a rocky path. The fog was getting denser and soon they could only see a few feet in front or behind them. The view of the sea was now long obscured.
Gravis regretted his choice of attire, but reminded himself that he hadn't gone through a day in his life without looking appropriately dashing, and he wasn't about to start now. He ran a hand through his wavy hair and felt sweat on his brow. Thorof and Blessed were out in front now, half obscured by the mist. If he slowed down there was a real possibility that they could disappear and he might never find his way back to them.
He strode on, pulling a hip flask out of his inside pocket and took a swig of brandy. A fools errand to be sure, but it made him feel better. A dark elf was never content unless he could enjoy himself at least once per day.
Over the last couple of hours Blessed's optimism had begun to wane. Thorof had remained as tight lipped and professional as always, but Blessed, having begun to complain about his joints, threw a few barbs at himself about getting old. Each laugh became more forced than the last.
After spending about an hour scaling the base of the mountain proper, Blessed decided it was time to rest up and prepare for dinner. Blessed pulled out a host of sandwiches made of thick bread, and a series of pork pies. He shared the provisions out amongst the other two. Gravis pulled a flask of smooth dark coffee from his pack. Just the smell of the beans as he opened it was enough to bring him to his senses.
“Amazonian,” Thorof said, without looking over.
“That's right,” Gravis nodded. He always bought the specific blend from a specialised seller when he could. “How could you tell?”
Thorof smiled, his massive under-bite surprisingly sly. “Call it a hunch.”
Gravis took a sip of the dark liquid. There was something about Thorof. Something he was unsure of.
They had scaled most of the mountain in silence. It was dark now. Cold. The three men huddled round a fire as they camped out in a small cubby hole in the rocks. Blessed had roasted rabbit for them, but despite the rest and the food, all three felt drained and demoralised. They made small talk as Blessed passed around the brandy.
“Forgive me if this is a personal question Gravis,” he said as he poured out a cup. “How difficult do you find it being a dark elf.”
Gravis didn't say anything at first.
“You ask that as though it could be summarised though one man's experiences.”
“I wasn't implying that everyone of your race was the same,” Blessed said defensively, waving his hands in the air. “I merely wanted to know what trials your day to day life entails.”
Gravis took a swig of brandy and felt the warm liquid tear its way down his throat. He'd rather not discuss his people's plights with outsiders, they had done little to earn his trust. But here and now, miles from civilisation, they might as well have been the only people in the realms left alive.
“It's not difficult, mostly. It's easy to hide who you are.” He looked down. “You're a dwarf Blessed, I imagine you worship your ancestors regularly.”
“I do,” he nodded. “Even the human ones.”
“And you have that...” he snapped his fingers, “Festival every year. Right?”
“The tribune, yes.”
Thorof's eyes flicked quickly between the two men.
“Well imagine all that culture, all your traditions, both grand and trivial. Imagine you couldn't partake in any of it, because the society around you deemed it unseemly.”
Blessed took a swig of the brandy and winced. “Well, I see what you mean, but the dwarven festivals don't tent to involve fooling around with anybody and everybody.”
Gravis rose to his feet.
Blessed said, on the defensive again. “I wasn't implying... It just slipped out!”
“For the record, I haven't bedded man nor woman for decades.” Gravis' voice was calm, but it was building. “But the fact that you tell me you hold no such prejudices and then trivialise my people's culture to be about rutting like common animals is an insult I will not permit.”
Blessed smiled, tried to show that he wasn't intending to be cruel. It didn't work. Thorof remained seated.
“Our people's art goes further than you could possibly imagine dwarf. We understand beauty in ways other cultures only brush aside. We rebelled against an empire for what we believed in. We face persecution on a good day, and execution on a bad.”
“Gravis, I meant no offence. Please, sit.”
But Gravis didn't sit. His voice deepened, and his eyes glazed over. Blessed couldn't say for sure, but the fog itself could have grown darker.
“I have lived through centuries of unreconciled crimes against my people dwarf.”
“Gravis calm down.”
“Calm is a privilege I give far too readily,” Gravis shouted. “I could kill you with a word!”
“But you won't,” said Thorof, setting an equilibrium to the camp as though Gravis and Blessed's disagreement hadn't even happened. “You won't.”
Gravis wasn't calmed though. “What do you know of what I will and won't do Orc?”
Thorof took a swig of tea from his cup. “Because you haven't before, and won't now.”
“What do you know of me Orc? We've been together but a day.”
Thorof put down the cup. “I know you better than you think Gravis. Sit down. It's time.”
Gravis wasn't sure of where Thorof was going with this, but there was a gravity to his words that
made Gravis forget his anger. He sat.
“This isn't the first time I've scaled Castor Island.” Thorof said.
“You've done this before?” Blessed said, ecstatically. “Why didn't you tell me?”
Thorof looked up. “This isn't the first time I've scaled Castor Island with you either.”
The two men were silent, trying to decipher what it was Thorof was trying to say. Finally Blessed broke it. “I don't understand.”
“You wonder how an Orc can be as educated and gentlemanly as I? Truth be told I wasn't always this way. I was just like my brothers, a hired thug. One day a man came to hire me. You, Blessed. You needed two men to join you on your trip to Castor Island and you could only find one, so you hired an Orc that was too stupid to know what he was getting into.”
“You approached me.” Blessed said, practically a whisper.
“Because I grew tired of waiting,” he took another swig of tea. “Let me finish.”
The two men didn't interrupt again.
“So, one morning, looking for work, I was hired by Blessed DeMonfort to help him scale Castor Island with him and Gravis Grayslate. We did. We got to the top, to the ruins of the Aether's alter or whatever in the hells it is, and then, I'm gone.” He tapped his hard skull for emphasis. “I'm back in my bed at home. It's the following morning, like nothing ever happened.”
Blessed was about to interrupt, but then thought better of it.
“So I'm thinking it was all a dream, or I'd hit the drink and the drugs too much over the weekend. Weeks go by. A month maybe. Then Blessed DeMonfort comes to me again. Same deal, no memory of what went down. So I scale Castor Island with him and Gravis Grayslate. Again. It plays out identically. We get to the top, and I wake up in bed again, the day after the last I remember. A few more months go by, and It happens again. And again. Sometimes only days separate it, sometimes years. But time and time again I keep waking up on the day we go to Castor Island.”
It took a while for it to sink in. The realms were home to many fantastical things, of gods and monsters, but what Thorof was explaining was unreal.
“So what are you saying Thorof?” Gravis asked. “You're from the future and you keep getting taken back. Or are me and Blessed losing our minds?”
“I don't know,” he said quickly. Clearly Gravis had asked this of him before. “Every time I've asked, you seem to be up to current affairs. It's almost as if this day is sliding through history with me.”
“So why do you come?” Blessed said, a fear in his voice. “Why don't you just stay away?”
“Because I need answers. Because I know, deep down, If I can only remember what I see at the summit, I'll know why I keep getting brought back here.”
“How do I know this is true?” Gravis shot at him, accusingly. “How do I know you're not just making this up?”
“How would I know about Lileth otherwise Gravis?”
The elf's face dropped. It was as though he had been hit over the head with a rock. His eyes glazed over at first. Blessed wasn't sure of the significance of the name, but he could tell that it clearly meant a lot to Gravis.
“What do you know of Lileth?”
“I know you love her, but you are not in love with her. I know she is like family to you, yet you are not related. I know you'd give your life for her, though you hope it would never come to that. I know you're closer than lovers but you'd never be intimate with her, nor she you. I've been up this summit with you more times than I can remember Gravis. We've talked about your hopes and dreams, your fears, your follys, but the one thing I've never gotten out of you is what it is you hope to find at the summit of this mountain. I'm willing to bet it's got something to do with her.”
Gravis didn't say anything. He nodded, clearly Thorof knew everything he needed to to show Gravis solidarity. There must have been something between them for him to have opened up in this hypothetical past.
“Extraordinary,” said Blessed. “Absolutely extraordinary. This must have something to do with the unique qualities of the island. I must write this down and record it for my book.”
Gravis didn't say anything, just looked Thorof in the eyes and listened the sound of flags flapping in the wind.
The three men had risen early. Gravis and Blessed were a little unsure of what to make of Thorof's revelation, and, query it though they did, it became abundantly clear that Thorof had an answer for every one, but could shed little light on the mystery.
Having expended their curiosity, the men completed the last leg of their journey in complete silence, and before long the difficult rocks soon began to level out, as a clearly designed path began to present itself.
The all encompassing fog began to dissipate, as grey and silver walls came into view. They were at the summit at last, with what appeared to be a large roofless theatre or alter waiting for them.
The structure had the characteristic design of all Aether ruins, of a metallic sheen embellished with sly ridges of glowing red rock. The flags that had led them all the way to the top were tied round a series of poles. It was eerily silent, save for the flags.
“Incredible,” said Blessed, who almost immediately pulled out his journal and began sketching things down. Seconds later he ran over to what appeared to be some kind of balcony or viewpoint. “Ah yes. The theories could be correct. You can see straight down to the shoreline from here. Perfect if you wanted to watch a burial at sea.”
Gravis wasn't here for a history lesson however, and he turned to see Thorof running his hand along the wall, trying to determine if it was metal or stone.
“Ringing any bells?” Gravis asked him.
“Nothing,” said Thorof.
Blessed was talking to himself still, rambling about the possible purposes of the structure. Gravis looked up, his eyes following the string of flags. They raised higher and higher, until Gravis was
looking immediately up. The flags spiralled off into the mists above.
“What are the flags tied on to?” Gravis asked to nobody in particular.
The wind picked up, drowning out his voice.
Blessed didn't seem to hear him, still thinking out loud and writing notes into his journal. Though there was a rabid intensity to it, not like Blessed at all.
Thorof by contrast was still tracing the wall with his hand. He turned. He had to shout over the sound of the wind. “What?”
“The flags.” Gravis shouted “What are they attached to? They just seem to get higher and higher. But there's no support beams or poles or... well anything.”
Thorof shouted something back, but Gravis couldn't hear him over the wind. No, it wasn't the wind. It was something else. A low moaning drone, at first, accompanied by what sounded like singing, or screaming, it was hard to say. Gravis' eyes were locked into the foggy sky now, trying to stay on the spiral of flags.
He could hear Blessed, still talking, but it was more like babbling now. Thorof had fallen to the ground, though when and why, Gravis couldn't exactly be sure. All he cared about now was the sky, the flags, where were they going?
The sky seemed to get lighter. The sounds grew louder, clearer.
“What are the flags tied on to?!” he shouted like a mantra. He couldn't even hear the sound of his own voice.
The fog began to part, and something, something beautiful and terrifying came towards him framed by the flags.
“Ahhgh!” Gravis screamed as he came to.
He was back on the sand, by the boat. He wasn't sure how long he'd been out for. He craned his head back, trying to take things in. He could hear the gulls circling overhead. It was probably midday, but it was hard to tell with the ever prevalent fog.
As he got to his feet, Blessed came marching over, that warm fatherly smile back on his face.
“Ah,” he said, clasping a hand around Gravis' waist. “You're back.”
“What happened?” Gravis rubbed his eyes instinctively, though he felt no fatigue.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” he laughed, “What do you remember?”
“I remember...” Gravis closed his eyes and thought, trying to piece the last few days together as tough they were a fleeting dream, “I remember getting to the alter, or whatever it was. I remember you talking about how you could see down to the sea. Little all else after that.”
Blessed smiled and tapped his journal as he had done many times before. “Got a lot of stuff down, a good sketch too, but it quickly descends into meaningless gibberish. Still enough for the readers that's for sure.”
Gravis looked around in confusion. “What time is it? How did we get down here?”
Blessed shrugged. “Couple of hours. There are few answers to be had on Castor Island it seems.”
Suddenly Gravis realised that the Orc wasn't with them. “And Thorof?”
Blessed didn't say anything at first, just nodded towards the boat. Gravis followed him, and he could see the once proud Orc tied down, a vacant look in his eyes.
“I just hope he got whatever answers he sought.”
Gravis put a hand over his mouth. “What will you do with him.”
“Take him back to his family,” Blessed said with a tone of regret in his voice. “If they won't have him then It'll be to the nearest institution I imagine.”
The two men took stock for a moment. So much lost and so little achieved it would seem.
“Time to go then I suspect.” Blessed said, and started to board their transport.
Gravis nodded and made ready to embark, when suddenly he felt a sharp pain in his side.
Something had found it's way to his inside waistcoat pocket.
He turned away from Blessed, and out came an intricately decorated cube. It was brassy in colour, and segmented as though it were some kind of puzzle.
“Are you alright there Gravis?”
He quickly spirited the cube away and turned. “I'm fine. Shall we?”
Blessed nodded, and though the two made way to end their adventure, Gravis got the feeling that his journey was only just getting started.
Copyright Jack Harvey 2015