“Fate is a callous thing. An infinite, cyclic machine that moves and ever-moves until all is swallowed or forgotten. We try to measure it, try to understand it, only to fail in fantastic fashion. Then we explain away our incompetence by pretending it is all part of some great mystery. What a lark. Give it long enough and it will show you the truth. That our relationship with life in all its wonder is a one-sided love affair, where we press our faces to a clock and imagine it as a form of intimacy. That it is the minute hand, the hour and the second, stretching in every direction beneath our breath, crumbling mountains and turning tides. And that we are spectators, wondering at our own reflections and nothing beyond. What fools we must seem, standing with our noses to the glass while the hands revolve around us, over and over. Stubborn. Oblivious. Champions of willful ignorance, forever missing the point.
Are we truly so helpless to alter the course of time? I’d never thought to consider it. But as I sit here writing what is likely to be my final correspondence, I’m forced to wonder whether things might have been different if only I’d traded the mystery for clarity of vision while I still had the chance. If only I’d bothered myself to step away from the glass for even one, blighted moment.
We found it, my friend. We found it and it is NOT what it seems. It’s bigger, and the truth of it terrifies me in ways I am willing to admit to none but you. The things I have learned… the things I have seen... They would baffle and amaze the greatest of our scholars. They would put my every discovery to shame.
They would paint fools of us all.
Truth be told, none of that matters anymore. I didn’t see this for what it was until it was too late. There is only one way out for me now. Since I’ve neither a fox’s intuition, nor an Ancient’s soul, I can only guess at the ramifications of what I am about to do. And I know that wishing alters nothing.
Perhaps my course has already been set.
Perhaps the clock itself is untouchable, regardless of where I stand.
But if I cannot change it for myself, I must at least try to change it for you, my friend. For Secora, may her Banners ever wave. And, most of all, for my son.
My little Marshall.
Will he ever forgive me for this?
It is my dearest hope that I will one day be able to ask him in person.
But should Fate will differently, please tell him…”
Masguard’s quill froze above the parchment. Tell him what? Garrulous and clever though he may have been, here at the end, the otter captain found he had nothing to say. Nothing that would matter. The boy on the other side of the world didn’t want another speech regarding duty or the fate of the Secoran kingdom. He wanted his father.
And that was the one thing Masguard couldn’t give him.
What a failure was he?
He had discovered more lands than any explorer before him, met every mythical creature in the book and many besides. He had brought kingdoms to their knees and lords to his service. He had pulled the most dreadful artifacts the world had ever seen from the very brink of Oblivion itself. And for what? To disappear into the annals of history as someone who might have mattered? What was the point of his success if it prevented him from offering even that small measure of solace to the only family he had left?
Dropping his quill, he pressed his palms to his eyes.
Masguard the Relic Hunter. Masguard the Bold. For all his titles and accolades, he was now a long-forgotten voice. A nondescript explorer with no account for wandering and no excuse for fame. Maybe it was a strange form of justice that had him turning at last into what he had always been, deep down. Masguard the ghost.
“The crew’s ready whenever ye are, Cap’n.”
Masguard looked up to see a grungy marmot standing in the door of his cabin. The quartermaster’s habit of intruding unannounced had become a welcome discourtesy over the past few months. So few of his crewmembers had any remaining interest in conversation. There was too much they didn’t wish to say aloud. Too much they didn’t want to hear.
“Silent as ever,” the marmot shrugged.
“Thank you, Fender,” Masguard lifted his quill and resumed toiling over the words on the parchment. “I’ll be along shortly.”
If Fender should have taken that as a cue to exit, he was kind enough to ignore it. Moving instead to stand over his captain’s desk and peer down at the paper with unabashed interest, he said, “Ain’t exactly how this li’l adventure o’ ours was ‘sposed te turn out, eh?”
Masguard sighed, leaning back in his chair. His shoulders were slumped in something very like defeat. “I know. Believe me, I know. But if we turn back now…”
“Dumb things will happen, Cap’n. We got that,” Fender finished for him. “Don’t make it any easier.”
“No, I don’t suppose it does.”
The two were silent for the longest time, staring in separate parts at a ship that was practically rotting beneath their feet. With only a skeleton crew remaining, the sound of the open sea overtook the vessel with little resistance. It creaked and moaned as the waves bullied it about, whimpering with all the strength of a fragile old woman. In a way, Masguard supposed, that’s exactly what it was.
Don’t give up on me just yet, old girl, he thought. We’ve a few miles and one more task yet to complete.
“There’s still the matter o’ the demon on deck.” Fender bit his pipe, expressionless.
Masguard rolled his eyes. “Must you call him that?”
“Jus’ saying, if I’m out te meet me doom, I’d rather not do it wi’ him o’er me shoulder, yeah? Still gives me the willies, an’ I ain’t the only one what feels that way.”
“Fine, fine. I’ll talk to him. We have an outstanding matter to discuss anyway. Just let me finish up here and I’ll meet you on deck with the… the…” Masguard furrowed his brow and rummaged through his desk. “Where is it?”
Fender was slow to respond and looked uncomfortable when he said, “Same place it’s been since I walked in here, Cap’n. In your hand.”
At that, Masguard felt a chill creep up his arm. He suppressed the urge to swallow and looked accusingly to the relic in his palm.
The blasted thing would be the death of him yet.
Wincing inwardly, he whispered, “For what it’s worth, Fender… I am sorry. For all of it.”
Again, Fender shrugged, this time a little slower, a little more deliberately. “We’re with ye, Cap’n. Always have been. Always will be.”
Masguard could only nod in response as his Quartermaster left.
After putting the final touches on his letter, the otter captain tucked the relic into the pocket of his burgundy coat and turned his focus to a very different item; one seated prominently on his desk.
“Are you ready to finish what you started?” He smiled wryly as he hefted the stone carving in both hands and turned to leave his cabin. “Neither am I.”
On deck, he made his way to the fore of the ship, avoiding eye contact with his crew wherever possible. When he arrived at the prow, he spent several long moments looking over the mist before addressing himself to the feathered mass atop the bowsprit.
“Lovely weather today,” he said to the great bird without turning to face him. “I imagine one could almost see their own hand held before their face, if they concentrated quite enough.”
The massive creature shifted beside him, causing the timbers beneath his talons to shiver in complaint. “I told you before, Wanderer. These mists are not of my doing. I cannot lift them, not even for you.”
Stoic as any carving, immovable as any mountain, Ustim reminded Masguard of the monumental statues of Secora Tor. Cold stone and intimidating, representing the strength of a protected and enduring society, they lined the streets of the capitol city as a warning to all that the land beyond had survived far greater threats, and had prospered besides.
He made a nice feature on the ship.
It would be a shame to lose him.
“The fog is the least of my concerns, I’m afraid.”
The great bird shook his grey-black feathers and turned on the bowsprit, sending a tremor across the whole of the ship. Tipping his head to levy an avian eye at the artifact in Masguard’s hand, he nodded slightly in understanding.
“I see.” He said simply in his accented tone.
Setting the stone artifact on the wide rail before him, Masguard seemed not to concern himself with the possibility that the thing might fall into the sea below. Holding Ustim’s gaze, the lost explorer pulled his most cursed find from his pocket and held it in his palm, outstretched in offering toward Fender’s demon.
“You’ve earned a final chance to do with this as you will. Consider it payment – or, repayment, as the case may be.”
The great bird looked down at the thing with such longing that Masguard thought his heart might break.
At length, Ustim met his eyes. “No, Wanderer. I have lived free of its grasp for far too long. No longer can I delude myself into believing that it still belongs to me, or to anyone. I must let go, whether I want to or not. Someday, you will do the same.”
Masguard was silent for a long moment, stunned. “But…”
“It is in your hands now. For that, I thank you. For that… I am sorry.”
The captain scoffed before he could think better of it. In an effort to conceal his blunder, Masguard pulled the letter from his coat and a chain from around his neck. “That aside, there is one thing more I would ask of you before you leave my service. If you would do me the honor.” He added the last part belatedly.
The creature echoed something that may have been a laugh, though it would have been difficult to say for sure.
“These items….” Masguard began hesitantly. “It is imperative that they reach Constance Prideaux in the capitol city.”
“An errand?” The massive bird looked offended. “You cannot do this yourself?”
Masguard chose his tone, and his words, carefully. “No. I cannot do this. Because I’m not going back. Not yet.” And possibly not ever, he would not say aloud. “Please.” He continued at length, when Ustim made no move to comply. “It is more important to me than you can imagine. More important than anything I’ve asked you to do.”
Maybe the creature saw the truth in his words. Maybe he was simply taking pity on a desperate father. Either way, Masguard was grateful when he relented and took the items in a massive claw.
“I do this,” Ustim said, “And we are finished. My debt is cleared.”
Masguard smiled humorlessly. His look was difficult to read when he agreed, “Ustim, you do this… and I promise… you’ll never see me again.”
Slowly, deliberately, the unknowable bird straightened his spine and stretched his feathers. His colossal tone softened as he glanced back over one shoulder, saying, “That… would be regrettable.” With a forceful motion of his wings, Ustim shot from the bowsprit, leaving only a shadow and a farewell in his wake. “Hunt well, Wanderer.”
“Yeah…” Masguard said to the space before him, where Ustim had been, knowing all too well that his words went unheard. “You too.”
When he was sure of the silence that followed, Masguard lifted the artifact from the rail and threw it into the sea with all his might. There, it sunk like the stone that it was, drawing the mist into the sea behind it like the tail of an unnatural comet. Through sediment and current and years, the artifact would drift – at times dragging across the ocean floor as if by invisible hands. Eventually, it would come to rest in a little-known cove off the Bannered Shore, a world and a lifetime away from the explorer and his forgotten ship, never having heard Masguard’s final words.
“Gate and Key and cursed destiny. May Fate carry you to the hands for which you were meant. I pray that you are found before it’s too late.”
Fender watched the scene unfold with regret and no small amount of distaste, saying as if to himself, “Better to pray that it’s never found at all.”
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