The wild-eyed sea captain dropped to his knees on the snow-white beach and savoured the caress of the cool wind on his sun-ravaged face. Closing his eyes, he let the rush of triumph consume him entirely.
Three of his haggard crewmen and the rowboat they dragged onto the sand were all that remained of his Arcturian clipper and her crew of eighty-five that had disembarked from the Heliopolitan Starport at Fey Denlar.
How long had it taken him to get here to claim the Glass Grimoire: the prize of prizes? More than a year to be sure — but the specifics now eluded his ruined mind.
He fell into the hot sand and wept. His crewmen, having secured the landing craft, dared not approach him. Instead, they sat on the beach to watch the remaining third of The Bytorasawyer — their home and their curse — slip beneath the Cartigian Sea.
The sailors whispered to one another about starting to look for wood but decided instead to stay where they were lest they incur the wrath of their now-wretched master.
The captain regarded the tree line of the tropical island. Blue pines, 200 feet tall, lined the beach. Were it not for the heat and the murmur of the surf, he could have mistaken the scene for a memory of his childhood in the Northern realms of Plaxus Main. The thoughts of his youth fanned the fire in his heart to a roaring flame. He put a hand on the Culduran cutlass at his side and launched his emaciated, nearly naked form to its full height.
With failing vision he scanned the beach and spotted the peninsula roughly a mile distant. It appeared to be about ten feet across and stretched about a quarter-mile out to sea. At its farthest reach, a solitary pine clung to the rocks. Bent seaward by the wind off the island’s mountains, it pointed like a gnarled sea-hag’s finger out to the sea.
Without heed for the crewmen sitting behind him in the sand, he took the first step in the last leg of his journey toward his destiny. The pain of the scars of battle, the agony of thirst and starvation, and the torture of a conscience fragmented and rotten by the things he had done to get to this moment were forgotten. Now, there was only his future — the glorious future of one bold enough to finally possess the Glass Grimoire — a future of vigorous health and unlimited power.
Out on the peninsula, his hunger for his prize took him in earnest. Were moisture available to his dehydrated body he would have wept tears of joy, would have slobbered like his lost ship’s beloved mastiff while he scrabbled frantically across the rocks on bleeding hands and knees.
When finally he came upon the tree, no capacity for pain or suffering remained. There was only a vacuous kind of ecstasy — and a sensation entirely new to him, touching gently, enticingly, upon the fringes of his mind.
Squatting, and slack-jawed now, finally, he regarded the mysterious, ancient tree with the awe of a religious zealot come face-to-face with his god.
It had grey bark that was not quite silver in that glorious, subdued patina of heirloom armour, ancient and proven. Though it was said to be old beyond reckoning, it was thin and whimsical in form. Working up the courage to reach out to a low-hanging branch, the mariner found the needles to be soft to the touch. They were a green that reflected the sea, but with an inclination of the eye or a change in the light of the sky they could also take on a cool tinge of iridescent blue.
Then, the gentle touch he had felt encroached inward through a slow-swelling madness. Reluctantly at first, he accepted it into his mind, for it was soothing and inviting.
And he knew then that the mind that was touching his was the legendary intellect of The Grimoire itself.
Through the wonder that had replaced the ecstasy, he now felt that it was sharing with him. Kindly, politely, it began urging him to stop being who he was. It appealed to him to forsake his delusion of self — the delusion of all humanity. The sea captain’s mind began to sing with notions he had never before even begun to entertain: no beginning or end, no here or there, no me or you, no us or them.
And though he was at peace in his mind, he began shaking violently. Walking became difficult on the uneven footing of the rocky ground. His vision tunneled to a pinprick. Then, beneath the ecstasy of victory mingled with the grace of the mind now in his, a subtle fear emerged deep within.
He struggled over the rocks and around the ancient pine to stand with his back to the sea. Some portion of his mind, perhaps the small sliver that was still him, reflected on the beauty of the ocean for the last time. And then he saw it.
The Glass Grimoire.
It was embedded in the tree about four feet from the ground. A glass rectangle with slightly rounded corners, it was roughly the size of a deck of cards, though stretched along its height. A thin border of grey metal rimmed the flat glass. It was much smaller than he imagined it would be.
It appeared as though the tree had grown up around it, embracing, nurturing and protecting it over millennia. He thought on this. Perhaps the mind of nature coveted the vast arcane knowledge contained within the Grimoire as fiercely as did as the minds of gods and men. Now that knowledge, and all the power that came with it, would be his.
He reached to The Grimoire and felt it connect with him even before his finger touched the glass. There was an otherworldly chiming sound that was almost mechanical.
Then he — at least heas he had regarded himself since childhood — was gone.
The sensation was not unpleasant. In that instant he was everyone, everywhere, everywhen. There was a blinding — or was it totally illuminating — light. Then there was nothing — or was it everything — just with all the borders removed?
The only witnesses to the end of the captain’s quest were the whistling blue Cartigian seabirds. And caring not at all about what had transpired, they saw the decrepit waif of a sea captain transformed instantly into a cloud of sparkling white sand that was borne upon a swirling breeze to be laid upon the beach with the rest.
The crewmen who had not dared disturb their master’s final triumph experienced the same momentary peace before they too became sand upon that beach.
Within the tree, beneath the rectangle of glass known for millennia across the multiverse as The Glass Grimoire, a small symbol appeared: a stylized fruit. It was grey in colour and rendered to convey that a bite had been taken from it.
The Grimoire did not belong to this brave captain or his men. It belonged to another man: a man who would not be born for another eight thousand years.
For a few more seconds, the bitten-fruit icon remained behind the glass.
Then, the quiet chime sounded again and it was gone.