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The Amber Isle (Book of Never #1)

 

 

The Amber Isle

Book of Never

One

Ashley Capes

 

 

 

The Amber Isle: Book of Never

Copyright © 2016 by Ashley Capes

 

Cover: illustration by Lin Hsiang, typeset by VividCovers.

Layout and Typset: Close-Up Books & David Schembri Studios

 

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means including photocopying, recording, or information storage and retrieval without permission in writing from the author.

 

ISBN-13: 978-0-9925537-7-7

 

 

www.ashleycapes.com

 

Published by Close-Up Books

Melbourne, Australia

Chapter 1.

 

The drunk blocked most of the firelight in Petana’s only inn.

He staggered over to Never’s table. The man’s breath preceded him and it was not pleasant – in fact, nothing about the slob was. Some manner of bug leapt in his lank hair and his teeth were green stumps. Red-rimmed eyes squinted down at Never. A rather sharp-looking butcher’s cleaver hung from the man’s belt.

So much for getting a good night’s sleep somewhere warm.

“You’re sitting in my seat, stranger,” the drunk said.

Never lowered his cup. “Good to know.”

The man blinked and a frown formed. He placed his knuckles on the scuffed table; Never glanced away. Half the patrons of the Petana inn were on their feet. Talk of war in the south, of how one of the village cows had gone to giving sour milk, of bad weather coming – all of it stopped. Never sighed inwardly. Don’t do it, fellow. Please. If things got out of hand, the man might die. And despite the drunk’s demeanour, Never didn’t truly want that.

Futile.

The man leant forward and the stench of his breath thickened the air. Somehow, it was worse than the capital’s sewers. It also seemed something had died on the front of his tunic. “I said, you’re sitting in my seat. Move.”

“I’m really quite comfortable here; how about we share?”

His brow furrowed. Perhaps the man was unable to comprehend what was happening, how someone could refuse him. No doubt he was used to getting his way. Or at the very least, to people getting out of his way. Some of them fainting probably.

“Custom would suggest you get angry now,” Never offered.

“What?”

“Why don’t you sweep my drink from the table?” He smiled. “Or you could roar something obscene, that’s always fun.”

The drunkard finally realised he was being toyed with. He growled as he reached for his blade, raising it level with his face so it caught light from one of the torches. It did look wicked. “Last chance, funny-man.”

Never sighed. Another evening ruined – thanks to his own pig-headedness no doubt. Yet why couldn’t the drunk have chosen another time to stumble in? Just one night in a bed would have been enough.

And now this wreck of a man had ruined it.

One of the serving girls was gaping; spiced sausage and red peppers sliding to drip from her tray. Time to put an end to all the fuss. Never winked at her then whipped a knife free from beneath the table. He slapped the cleaver. The flat side of the weapon smacked the drunk in the face. The man blinked then dived forward with a growl.

Never had already slipped from the seat.

The slob crashed into the table, floundering and cursing. Never leapt onto the man’s back, eliciting a grunt, and grabbed a handful of greasy hair. He jerked the man’s head back with a grimace, placing his knife against an unshaven neck. Yet he did not draw blood; not if he could avoid it.

“You had to ruin things, didn’t you?”

“What?”

“Tell me, do you live here in the charming village of Petana then?”

“Get off me,” he gurgled.

“Don’t be a fool. Just tell me where you live and I’ll let you go.” Never glanced over his shoulder. The rest of the inn was standing now, men with hands by their own weapons and women with wide eyes – all save one woman in a green cloak with hood, who merely watched, arms folded. Curious. He addressed the crowd, pitching his voice to carry. “Worry not, good patrons, I will be swift. And because I’m feeling magnanimous – I won’t kill this poor wretch.” He wrinkled his nose and leant closer to the drunk. “Well, I probably won’t kill you, if you tell me where you live.”

He swore. “Why would I do that?”

Never kept his voice low. “Because you’ve laid waste to my plans so now I’m going to rob you when I leave – or perhaps I’ll kill you now and then rob you. You choose.”

“To the Burning Graves below with you.”

Never inched the knife in, drawing blood – just a trickle, but it was enough; his own blood stirred in response, veins bulging. Damn it. Always the same. Never gritted his teeth. No. None of that today. Or any other day, ever again, if he could help it. “Tell me.”

“Lone house. East end of the village.”

“Wonderful. Goodnight then.” He switched his hold to lock the man’s head in the crook of his elbow and applied pressure until the fellow went limp. Never stood back, hesitated. No way was he wiping grease on his own clothing. He found a relatively clear patch on the back of the man’s tunic to clean his hand. Gods, did the fellow bathe in slime? Never collected his pack from the splinters of the table and turned to the assembled folk of Petana.

“Is he alive?” The barman waved a skinny arm at a nearby patron. “Check him, Juan.” To Never he growled. “You wait there.”

A dark-bearded man rushed to the drunk, eyes narrowed. Muttering swelled – an unpleasant music indeed. A few men held weapons – mostly scythes or knives drawn from beneath tan robes with multi-coloured stripes. If he was feeling ungenerous, Never had to admit that the Marlosi fondness for colour sometimes cast them as somewhat child-like.

Irrational of him to think so, and there was certainly little child-like about their expressions. Or the steel they held.

“He breathes yet,” Never said. He moved toward the door and the barman stepped over to intercept. Never shook his head, pulling his cloak open to reveal a row of knives.

“Gum’s alive,” Juan announced.

“Fine,” the barman said. “Out with you then. Don’t want no trouble makers here anyway.”

“A pleasure.” Never strode from the common room and into the wind. The yellow glow from Petana’s windows didn’t penetrate too far into the night, and the dirt beneath his feet soon turned blue then black with shadow. Candlelight winked in about half of the homes he passed; the thatched rooves were unkempt hair touched with starlight, resting on squat heads thrusting up from the earth. The poetry of a village.

He was a fool for letting his temper get the better of him. At least none had died.

But Gum was still to pay for his belligerence.

He passed no-one on the street, pausing once to wrestle his cloak from a strong gust, then slowed at the edge of the village. A stand of trees encircled the southern end of Petana, beyond which lay the dark road that hopefully led to the coastline, but no lone house…unless…there, right against the trees.

A shack rather than a house, he decided upon reaching it. The roof was a nest of thatching; the door ajar. Never knelt in the entryway and removed the blue-stone from his pack. He rubbed it in his palms until warmth spread, a blue glow rising. “Wonderful.” He stood, took a breath and slipped inside.

The shack reeked of old sweat and rotten food – even holding his breath it was a slap to the face. He sighed, switching to shallow breathing as he stepped over crumpled shirts on squeaking floorboards. The bed was a mound of…unpleasantness and the table featured a half-eaten meal on a broken plate. The pale-blue glow set congealed fat to glistening.

Nothing yet.

A second room looked to be a hasty addition, and held a tall, locked cupboard. Never set the blue-stone down and removed his lock picks from a vest pocket then set to work. The lock soon clicked.

Inside lay a shining breastplate and helm inlaid with the charging stallion insignia of the Marlosa Empire. So the slob had a respectable past. How far he had fallen. Next, Never lifted a heavy dagger in an ornate sheath worked with a Hero’s Seal. He gave a soft whistle. The weapon would have personally been awarded to Gum by the Empress. Before she was driven from her city anyway. Never removed the blade. Beautiful condition. He took the dagger itself but replaced the sheath with a shake of the head. Whatever the drunk had done to earn such an honour, he deserved its memory at least.

Especially when times for the Marlosi were destined to become harder still.

“Now for the stash of coin,” Never murmured. Surely there was one somewhere. Moving back into the first room, he placed the blue-stone on the table and stepped over to the bed. If only he had a nice pair of gloves. He lifted the mattress, pushing it against the wall.

A small pouch lay in the centre of the floor, its drawstring tied.

He smiled. “There you are.”

Light flickered and he spun, Gum’s knife in hand. A dark figure stood in the doorway, stars and the faint glow from the village behind, waiting just beyond the reach of his glowing stone. “What are you doing?” A woman’s voice.

Never chuckled. “Robbing the owner of this house, of course.”

“No you’re not.”

“No, I am.” He bent without taking his eye from the figure and retrieved the pouch, untying it with one hand and emptying most of the coins into an inner pocket in his cloak. He grinned. “See?” Then he dropped the pouch back into position, which gave a sad clink.

“Put that back.”

“My dear, I could never do that.”

She shifted, reaching behind her back. The thin outline of an arrow appeared against the starlight. The creak of a bowstring followed.

“Last chance.”

He kept his hands raised and moved slowly toward his blue-stone, collecting his pack. The archer’s silhouette tracked him. “And now I have to leave. Since the hospitality of Petana is so lacking, I have to find a nice ditch to spend the night in.”

“I can thread your eye from here.” Her voice was hard but she sounded young.

He took a step closer. “You’re not a murderer, girl.”

“It’s not murder if I kill a thief. It’s a service.” She paused. “And I’m not a girl.”

“Very well, ‘young lady’, perhaps? Let’s say twenty summers or so?” He took another step and raised the stone. Her arrow was knocked and the bow at half-draw. Pale hands held the weapon – not a local then, and not with those green eyes either. And her cloak was green too. The woman from the inn? Beneath her cloak she wore a light blue tunic with no insignia, rank or sword. Not a Vadiya soldier either – how they hated everyone not knowing exactly their rank and family.

“Stop moving.”

He paused. What was that accent in her command? “Do people mistake you for the invaders?”

“How do you know I’m not Vadiyem?”

“Because your accent isn’t right for Vadiya.” Never shrugged. “In any event, I have to leave. People are following me and they’ll catch up sooner or later.” One more step and the arrow was inches from his chest. “Could you please move aside?”

“No. I’m keeping you here.”

“Not providing a service anymore?” He softened his voice. “Come now, we both know that if you were going to kill me, you’d have done it instead of announcing yourself.”

She drew the string to full stretch. “Sure about that?”

“Are you sure I care either way?”

She frowned.

Never put gentle pressure on the arrow, moving the bow aside. She let him, though her jaw was locked. Her expression wavered between frustration and curiosity. “You shouldn’t be doing this.”

“Killing in cold blood cuts both ways. Let me pass, you’re not ready.”

“Damn you.” She finally stepped aside.

“Thank you.” Never slipped out of the shack and into the trees.

 

Chapter 2.

 

The road that led to the coast wound through the trees, and Never kept a parallel course with it. The wood grew deeper than he’d expected – one of the joys of being new to a place. Although, if he were honest, the northern reaches of the soon-to-be-former Marlosa Empire weren’t all that different from its golden plains, weeks behind him now.

This part of the nation simply possessed more trees.

And brambles for his cloak.

The plains had harboured the same worried people, same stories of war and death chasing them up the roads. He’d passed refugees in straw hats and coloured robes, burdened by carts as they fled invaders from Vadiya or recruiters for the Marlosa resistance. Sometimes it was Empire soldiers, their bright breastplates flashing beneath a summer sun, charging by on sweating horses. Deserting the front line he was sure. Three months of fighting and no gains, the Imperial City occupied and the Sistina River under enemy control, it was a losing battle.

At least those few fools fleeing realised it.

Never paused; the joy of night – all that troublesome shadow blocking his view. Even with a risen moon, the path proved difficult to follow. His boots still slid across piles of damp leaves but at least he didn’t fall. Judging how far he had yet to travel was impossible, but it was probably a fair time to rest.

He slowed when the path fed into a small clearing. The Vadiya Steelhawks would still be half a day behind. More. Making camp was safe enough. He rubbed at his back. Gods knew he needed to rest. How many days running now? Eighteen?

Never cleared a space on the ground the dug with his blunt knife until he had a fire pit. He paused then. A rustle of leaves? He eyed the shadows between trees. Nothing. He gathered kindling, started a fire and sat before it as water boiled in his small pot. Herbs followed and then just a sprinkle of crushed batena taken from a tiny cloth bag.

The rare fruit was more sour than sweet but it would do the job; giving sustenance where little else was available from his dwindling supplies. And it meant less cooking – usually quite the chore. When the pot boiled, he moved it off the heat and poured the liquid into a battered tin cup, then warmed his hands around it. Embers popped while he waited for the brew to cool.

His first sip widened his eyes; that was the batena, but it didn’t last. Each mouthful gave less of a spark but it sated his hunger at least.

Another sound from the trees – only a rising wind. It stirred the flames then died away. He was jumping at ghosts. No-one from Petana would have bothered to follow him. Not the villagers and not the girl. If she had truly meant to kill him, she’d have done so back at Gum’s house. And the Steelhawks were disciplined but slow; all those weapons held them back. They wouldn’t be so close. If he could keep ahead, he’d soon be sailing to the Amber Isle and whatever answers it held. If it truly did hold answers. Never grimaced, throwing twigs at the flames. Over the years, so few clues had borne answers. No rumour, no library, no mystic; no-one knew what he was. No-one knew the truth of his origins.

Curse or blessing?

His brother would have called it a blessing. Never knew better. It was not a curse in the traditional sense. No, it was simply a part of him, and it kept him alive even as he hated it.

Footfalls approached.

Never dropped the cup and stood, a knife in each hand as he backed toward the edge of the clearing. Did he have time to –

Two figures burst from the path with shouts. In the flickering firelight it was hard to take their measure as they spread out. He kept his blades ready. “Good evening, gentlemen.”

“Save it, cursed one.” The first voice was raspy, the hard edges of a Vadiya accent clear. So, they’d found him. Surprising. And quite inconvenient.

“Keep your distance, it might be catching.” Never grinned.

The ring of steel being drawn crossed the camp as both men stepped closer, revealing pale faces. One was a typical Vadiya soldier – armed with sword, and chain mail visible beneath his grey tunic. The other was something else. He twitched as he moved. He wore no shirt, carried no weapon, just heavy gauntlets.

“Planning to beat me to death, then?”

The bare-chested man said nothing, but the soldier spat. “Commander Harstas sends ill wishes.”

“Delightful. Care to send a message back?”

The man did not answer. Never shifted his feet for balance. Time to even things up. He flipped Gum’s knife, caught it by the point and threw. The blade flashed in the firelight as it spun, but the soldier deflected it with his sword. Impressive in such poor light.

Never frowned. He drew another knife. Both men were more than they seemed. Two of the commander’s best perhaps – or the most hasty? They circled apart. Trouble. The shirtless one drew level with the fire-pit and Never hesitated. The man had scratched himself somewhere in the trees, a thin line of blood running along his pale shoulder.

Blood in Never’s own veins pulsed.

No.

And yet, things were about to get very dangerous indeed.

Never growled a curse and charged. Do it. Get it over and done with. This was the last time. He wasn’t going to die here, not when he was so close to the coast, so close to answers. One blade he flung at the soldier, forcing the man to leap aside; the other knife Never used to slice his own hand. He ducked inside the shirtless man’s strike, ignoring the pain in his palm, and slapped his bleeding hand over his enemy’s wound.

Even before he made contact his blood had reacted; veins straining beneath his skin. Now he shuddered as it surged forth to draw his attacker’s own blood free. The shirtless man stumbled. He swung a second blow but Never blocked it, free hand stinging from the gauntlet.

Never jumped back.

Blood ran down the man’s torso, but a thin stream connected the man to Never’s bloody hand. As if his own blood hungered more and more. And while his body didn’t actually take on all the blood from his victim, what wasn’t spilled invariably mixed with his own. And he couldn’t stop it yet. He had to be sure. His curse siphoned still more and the shirtless attacker fell to his knees, twitching as he weakened. Blood covered the clearing, sizzling on the fire, splattered on the leaves.

As ever, something of the one he murdered was drawn inside Never.

Shirtless Man – Witha – was from an island far to the south. As a child, Witha had mended nets while the stern face of his father hovered over him and – Never shivered when the images and impressions faded. Wait… something was wrong. Sweat formed at his temples and he took a step back, snapping his wrist to break the flow. The bare-chested man still bled; he had slumped across the leaves now, motionless in a midnight pool, but nothing else was the same this time.

A chill raced through Never’s body and he shivered, falling to one knee. A fever?

The mercenary had kept his distance during the draining, but now he crept forward, blade raised. “Now we have you, cursed-one.”

“Aren’t you a clever bastard.” Never gasped the words through a dark haze. Witha had been ill, gravely ill it seemed. Commander Harstas knew Never’s curse well then; his choice had been deliberate. Never had to admit, it really was a fantastic ploy, even if it was going to get him killed. In the past, if a sickness was transferred his body eventually burnt it off somehow, but this fever was strong.

The soldier raised his weapon.

Never scrambled away, falling back to the ground but the man’s sword stayed high and the fellow pitched back. He hit the leaves with a thud, the shaft of an arrow protruding from his chest.

Luck!

Unless…more trouble? Never twisted where he lay and cried out. His blood grew hot – surely it was boiling – as his body fought the fever. He writhed, beating the earth. Let it pass, Gods, let it pass.

“Where are you hurt?” Someone knelt beside him. He blinked through stinging sweat and swimming shadows but there were only flashes of pale skin and green.

The girl from the village.

His chest heaved. Why had she saved him? He flailed for her arm but the weight of his own limbs was mountainous and darkness drew close.

*

Never woke to birds chattering overhead, the scrambling of their claws on branches. His mouth was dry. He lifted an arm with a grunt, wiping at sweat on his forehead. Dawn light dusted the green foliage.

A pack stood across from the dying fire and two mounds of dirt – graves – rested at the edge of the trees, branches forming a triangle at the head of each. His attackers. Witha. Poor fool; another victim of the curse. Never groaned. Were the Vadiya so desperate to have revenge as to sacrifice themselves? For Witha at least, it had been a sort of suicide. He had to die for his attack to be effective.

No doubt Harstas had ordered it so.

Never rubbed at his eyes. His cut had already healed to a thin scar – one more to add to the scores of others on his hands. The curse’s pathetic way of compensating; small cuts always knitted themselves back together quickly. Too bad it didn’t work for sword wounds. A blanket lay across his legs; he’d obviously thrown it from his torso during the night. His own pack rested beneath his head and sleepy embers in the fire winked out as he rose to a half-sitting position.

What of the girl who saved him?

Never rummaged through the pack but everything was there; food, silver, cooking implements, all of it in place – even the hard scroll case at the bottom that held his map of the Amber Isle. More valuable than a King’s ransom. Or an Empress’.

Voices. He cocked his head. Distant, raised in disagreement. He strained his ears, holding his breath. Yes, there was a faint shout and a reply, then the voices hushed.

He twisted. The argument came from the rear of camp. Footsteps approached at a jog. Never rose to one knee, breathing hard, pausing as the clearing spun. When the dizziness passed he stood, pulling a knife. So, he’d not been stripped of his weapons either.

The footsteps slowed as they approached the clearing, and the archer from Petana’s inn came into view.

She didn’t reach for her bow, instead regarding him with hard eyes. She’d been one of the shouting voices; her cheeks were flushed and at her side, her hand flexed in and out of a fist. She didn’t seem aware of the action.

Never almost smiled – she was actually a lovely looking young woman, even when angry. Too young for him of course, but lovely all the same. And in the day it was easier to spot the differences between her and the Vadiya invaders – a silver necklace with a blue stone in its centre had come free as she’d run. The Vadiyem would never use silver for ornamentation.

“So, you survived,” she said.

“So it seems. I should thank you.”

She shook her head. “Don’t. I still might shoot you. I’ve seen what you are.”

“Have you?” He shrugged off the insult. “Well, it’s worse being me than looking at me, I assure you.” He gestured to the graves with his blade. “You buried them?”

Her eyes flashed with anger. “Of course.”

“I’m not judging you, just asking. I would have searched them for information.”

“You mean for gold.”

He chuckled. “I haven’t had much luck spending Vadiya coin in these parts lately, young lady.”

“My name is Elina, not ‘young lady’, understood?” She kept her distance, circling to her pack. Never watched but she made no threatening move.

“Let me thank you anyway, Elina. I do prefer being alive. Most days.”

“If you say so.” She rummaged through her pack, still facing him, and removed an apple. She took a bite, sitting back to stare at him, green eyes a little distant.

“You seem upset.”

“I am.”

“Ah.” No surprise she didn’t want to talk about it. Hopefully whatever it was wouldn’t come back to bite him. Best to keep an eye on the trees. Whoever she’d been arguing with might not have disappeared. And the Steelhawks would still be chasing him. The two from last night must not have rested for days. Quite the gamble; Harstas was persistent if nothing else.

Never knelt by his own pack and lifted a piece of hardbread, returning her look. There was more afoot here with the young woman. “Why did you save me?”

“I don’t know. I’m trying to figure it out.” She frowned. “Gum’s Hero Seal. Surely it is worth a lot more than what you took in coin. Why did you leave it?”

“Can’t a thief have some limits?”

“None I’ve known.”

“How many thieves do you know, Lady Elina?”

She paused, apple half-way to her mouth. “I’m not a lady.”

“Of course you are – that necklace is a tell – Hanik nobility. Maybe not a duchess, but you have land and a title I’d say.”

She stuffed the necklace beneath her tunic. “That’s not your concern, thief.”

“You’re quite far from home. How did you slip through the fighting? The Vadiya must have control of half the nation by now.”

“Again, that needn’t worry you, thief.”

“I see. Would it surprise you to know I have a name too? You can use it if you wish.”

“Fine.” She tossed the last of the apple into the embers and stood, swinging her pack onto a shoulder. “What is your name then?”

He stood. “Never.”

“What?”

“That’s my name.”

She lowered the pack. “Your mother called you ‘Never’?”

“No. My brother named me, as I named him.” He shook his head. Being so open probably wasn’t a good idea; he still didn’t know what she wanted. And yet, something strangely familiar drew him to her, as it had the first time he’d laid eyes upon her at the inn.

“That doesn’t sound like a Marlosa custom. In fact, you might have dark hair and dark eyes, the same tanned skin but you don’t quite look Marlosi.”

“It’s a long story.” He spread his hands. “And it was more than twenty years ago now. We were young.”

She frowned. “I don’t think I believe you.”

“The truth of the matter doesn’t hinge on your belief.” He grinned.

“Fine. What did you name him?”

“Ah, it would be unfair to reveal that.”

Elina sighed as she hoisted her pack again. “Very well, Never.” She took her bow and nocked an arrow. He tensed but she only moved to the nearest tree, turning back a moment. “I do not know if you are truly cursed, as they said…as I saw, and I pray to Clera that I have truly seen good within you, that I was right to save you, right to spare you now.”

“As do I.”

She slipped into the trees with barely a rustle of leaves.

 

Chapter 3.

 

The woods beyond Petana thinned at the coast, the wide dirt road dwindling to an overgrown path choked by a mess of drying weeds that barely clung to the colour green. Even the earth lay thin and grey. Below Never, the road dipped to a lighthouse of white stone, its roof of faded red tiles a clear marker of the Empire’s reach. Beyond stretched the ocean, glittering blue, dotted with distant islands. The afternoon sky above lay free of clouds – just another ocean of blue. A salty breeze cooled sweat at his temples.

He took another drink, returned the flask to his pack and rested fingertips against his neck – hot skin. Still! His body fought the illness off for a time, but it always returned. Sometimes he’d feel fine for an hour and then the fever roared back, slowing him. All morning it had been the same.

“Bastard.”

Harstas had devised quite the trap. The other Vadiya commanders weren’t smart enough. But Harstas was the kind of man who’d send Steelhawks and a poisoned slave to be sure. And all for a damn map none of the fools even understood. Harstas probably thought it led to buried Marlosa gold. Never shook his head. Maybe it was simple revenge. If he hadn’t killed so many of them escaping, he wouldn’t be in so much trouble now.

Truly, they were a dedicated pack of fools to chase him all the way from Isacina, and in the middle of a successful invasion at that.

Time to leave them behind.

He set off, boots thudding on rocky dirt. At the lighthouse he paused. The base was scrubbed clean but the rest, those pieces of stone that towered over him, were worn with weather. A small window rested high above.

A red stallion had been painted over the door; the eternal symbol of the Empire, and beside a small stone bench nearby rested a boulder set with a plaque of steel. Words were chiselled within – Northernmost Point of the Marlosa Empire: here we watch for our enemies.

“Cheery.”

He circled the tower. A well-used path of irregular-sized pieces of slate kept close to the pale stone, winding down to an old pier. Crushed stone and weed stirred as the waves lapped against the shore. The bulky supports of the pier stepped out into the water where a boat rocked, tied to the dock.

Never quickened his step, crossing the thick planks. Excellent, he could borrow the boat and be back in a matter of days. Wind whipped up and clogged his ears as he neared the dock; he paused to shelter his eyes with a hand.

The nearest island, first in the Grey Chain that led to the Amber Isle, was perhaps an hour’s sailing. More if he had to row the whole distance. Once he reached it, he could begin the crossing. Something of a crumbling land-bridge, the Grey Chain would take some work to cross, by all accounts.

Never lowered his pack into the boat then descended the ladder. Once settled, he reached up to untie the line.

Vibrations rumbled along the pier.

A man in a white tunic, his silvery hair wild in the wind, charged up the dock. His mouth was open, shouting obscenities no doubt, but the wind gobbled them up. Never tugged at a nasty knot, but it was stuck fast – too late, the man was upon him.

“Stop that,” he shouted.

“I’ll return it, old fellow.”

The man drew a long, thin knife. “This can de-bone you as quickly as the fish I catch, and you’re a fool if you think you can cut that line before I can make a throw.”

“I’m probably not as tasty, however.” Never kept his hands raised before his chest, palms out. The boat rocked a little but he kept his balance. If he needed to, he might be able to pull a knife. Maybe.

The fisherman gave a hard grin. “True enough. Well, are you getting out of my boat?”

“I’d really like to borrow it.”

He raised a silvery eyebrow, a chuckle escaping. “So it’s ‘borrow’ now that I’ve caught you?”

“Well, I never meant to swim back.”

“Since you’ll end up dead like all the rest of them damn fool treasure-hunters, I’ll still have no boat, whether you meant to bring it back or not.”

“Ah, but I’m not a treasure-hunter. Or a fool. I’m only looking for answers; so I’ll return. I can even bring you a gift if you like. A nice grey rock, perhaps?”

The laughter faded from his expression, replaced by a sadness that gave Never pause. The old man fixed his gaze upon Never, appraising him a long moment. He opened his mouth then closed it, as if struggling to find words, until his body seemed to sag beneath the weight of what was to come. “Listen. You want to bring me back something? Find my son.”

Never frowned. “Truly?”

“Aye. Borrow the boat but bring him home.” The wind eased and his hair fell back around his shoulders. “He should be here with me, tending the lighthouse. But he got it into his thick head to go with fools with more greed than sense. He went off looking for the mythical jewels of the Sea King.”

“I thought they were lost.”

“No matter, since they don’t exist.”

“But people search for them here often?”

“Two, maybe three groups a year. I just saw a ship sail to the chain three weeks back now. It’s them bone-headed storytellers and minstrels down south, feeding the lies.”

“When did your son leave?”

“Years ago.”

A long time. Never said nothing; one glance at the old man’s expression was enough. He turned to the distant island. “I will look for him.” Then back to the keeper. “I won’t promise to find him, but I will try to find an answer, so long as it aligns with my own search.”

“Is that so, stranger?”

“Yes.”

He stared down at Never. Finally he sheathed his blade. “It’s a kind offer but even were I to accept it, I’d still have no boat.”

Never withdrew some of the silver he’d stolen from Gum, holding it out in his palm. A scythe had been stamped on the face of each piece, catching the sunlight. “Take this to Petana to buy supplies while I’m gone. What is your son’s name?”

Still the man hesitated.

“And yours.”

“Call me Pabil.” He knelt down and reached for the coins, but gripped Never’s wrist instead. His knife was out again, poised before Never’s throat. “But don’t toy with me. Swear it now.”

He met Pabil’s eyes. “I swear I will try and find your son.” While he didn’t need another promise to keep he needed the boat. And more, there was a small part of him – the boy within – that couldn’t help wondering. What if Father had cared even as much as Pabil?

“Then thank you. His name is Javiem. Take my boat with my blessing, just bring it back.” He collected the silver. “And a word of advice.”

“Please.”

“There are things in the sea that live around the Chains. Sometimes in the water, sometimes on the stones. It’s been told that they can be driven away by music and song.”

Another hurdle. He sighed. “How will I know them? Have you seen these things?”

He shook his head. “Just something my father said when he returned.”

“Thank you, but I cannot sing.”

Pabil frowned. “Wait here then.” He jogged back up the pier. Never set to work, arranging his pack and hoisting the sail to half-mast. It snapped a little, but nothing to set the boat straining against the mooring. Stowed in a compartment beneath the prow was rope, hammer, nails and a small jar of tar. Generous stores of fresh-water stood beside a tightly bundled length of material, heavily waxed.

He found the oars and set them in the gunwale before taking a seat on the bench, resting an arm on the tiller to stare across the waves to the grey island. Creatures from the sea. Not encouraging. Nor was the idea of deterring them with song.

Pabil soon returned. He held a reed pipe, which he threw down. Never caught it and nodded. “This I might be able to play.”

“I hope so, for your sake – I certainly never could.”

“Do you know anything else about these creatures? Has anyone else seen them? I imagine I’d do well to avoid them.”

“My father told us only that and would never speak of it thereafter.” Pabil untied the rope and threw it into the boat. “No-one else has returned since I’ve been here.”

“Well, wish me luck,” Never said, pulling at the oars, slowly moving away from the pier.

Pabil cupped his hands to shout over the wind. “What’s your name?”

Never grunted as he fought the waves, then shouted back. “Never is my name.”

“Your real name, fool.”

“That’s it, Pabil.” He heaved again. The strain on his back and shoulders was starting already. No surprise, he hadn’t rowed a boat for years. Not since the trouble with the Kiymako in the east. Above and beyond that, there was the toll from the recurring fever.

“Fate smile upon you then, Never,” Pabil shouted. Never waved back and raised the sail to the top of the mast. It snapped in the wind and he tied it off, then pulled the oars in to rest.

Bless the wind.

In the distance, the hulk of the first island in the Grey Chain rose and he steered toward it, a smile on his face. Finally, tangible progress. Each moment that passed was another moment closer. There was a chance the Amber Isle would have little to reveal. No answers, only another frustration. There was always that chance. But it didn’t feel that way.

He was on the right path.

Gods, he had to be.

 

Chapter 4.

 

The afternoon wore down to a warm orange glow on the horizon.

Before him, the steep grey cliffs of the island grew, tall as castle barricades. He’d pulled the sail in and now rowed along the rock face, searching for a place to dock – and since there’d be no clues on his map, that meant being patient.

Finally, a rocky shore came into view, almost like a private cove. Only it was crowded with longboats and each had been hauled up the stones. Many lay on their sides, some had been placed within larger boats. He squinted. Several were smashed. By storms or something else?

Never rowed Pabil’s boat ashore, splashing into the shallow beach. Shard and pebbles crunched beneath his boots and he grunted as he dragged the boat up the stony beach before taking a long drink. He was sweating again – perfect.

The nearest boat was grey with age, worn by years of wind and rain. Its sail lay in tattered rags in the bottom. A nearby vessel was in better shape but its supplies, spare canvas and pitch were scattered across the rocks. The side of the hull bore a deep gouge, as though it had been hacked into.

Sabotage from other treasure hunters? Or, something worse. With only the lap of the ocean on stone to compete with Never’s breathing, Pabil’s story of the creatures that did not like music lay heavy on his mind.

He moved on; boots slipping on stone.

Each boat was the same. Ransacked and the hull hacked, any gear that might do for repairs scattered and broken. A hammer head was lodged in one mast. Rigging had been cut into tiny pieces and the sail was missing. He leant over the side. At the very bottom of the boat, in a pool of stagnant water, lay a broken necklace. A golden pendant shaped as a circle. He lifted it free; chill against his fingers. On one side the name ‘Petra’ was inscribed.

He replaced the jewellery and turned a half circle.

A cold place to die.

Water lapped at his boat, as if to draw it back into the dark forever. Beyond the wooden cemetery waited a gaping opening in the face of the island. From its shadow no movement, no sound, nothing.

Never returned to Pabil’s boat and removed the supplies before digging into the pile of stone with a hunk of wood. He didn’t manage to get very deep, but he stowed a few items beneath the surface, above the tide line, and hid the pitch in the wreckage of another longboat. Maybe it would be enough, maybe not.

Loading as much water as he could carry into his pack, he stood and climbed toward the opening.

Time to find out what the Grey Chain had to offer.

*

The shadowy opening was a natural cave of sorts. It led up via rough-cut steps that were smooth in places where water trickled down. Never climbed with hands pressed against the walls, several times he had to haul himself up, slipping in the dark and cursing beneath his breath.

The fever didn’t help.

When a glow appeared above, he scrambled free. Dying light spread across the top of the first chain. It was little more than a windswept stretch of stony earth, wide and open. Stunted trees clung to the barren island, several lining a depression. The island was no giant; he could see to where its edge dropped off and beyond it, the top of the next link in the chain and beyond it in turn, another.

His vantage point gave him a grand view. Centuries before, the Amber Isle must have been a peninsula. Now the archipelago between he and it had the look of a maze of standing columns of grey brushed with orange. Most were wide, some probably big enough to support a town, but just as many were dangerously thin-looking, even from a distance.

Damnable things – so many.

He set off. There was no path but at times the ground appeared to hold hints of a once-paved road, some of the stone had a regular cut or a suspiciously smooth and even surface. But it was always sunken and cracked. Twice he stopped to crouch over a discarded item – a buckle or a shoe, and once a rotting belt.

At the edge of the island he caught the last of the sunlight, running down the edges of other islands. Some were linked by arches of stone, as if the waves had lapped at the space between for centuries, patient, eroding. Other islands were linked by man-made bridges, rope and wooden affairs, loose ends of twine swaying in the breeze.

Never rested a hand on the nearest post. It was firm, wide as his chest, and had borne the weather of the strait well. He slid his hand to the rope. Damp but strong. He gave it a thump and the wood creaked.

Placing a foot on the first plank, Never put some weight on it. It held. He put a little more on and nothing creaked so he set out. Waves crashed below, choppy white. If he fell through, the fall would hardly kill him, but finding purchase on the steep sides of the nearby islands would be a problem. And that was if he managed to get his pack off before it pulled him to the bottom of the sea.

Or before he was smashed against the island walls.

Never wiped sweat from his eyes.

Was the bridge swaying or just his vision? He slowed, one hand on the rope. The sea breeze was cool but it wasn’t helping. He tore at the neck of his tunic. “Gods.” The fever was something else. When would it leave?

He couldn’t be sure how long it took but once his vision cleared, he walked on, reaching the next link in the chain of islands with a sigh, and with it, the sun finally winked out in the ocean.

“Spiteful ball of fire, aren’t you?” he muttered.

In the new darkness, enough was clear that he made it to a stand of trees, slipping between them to rest against a trunk, a mat of needles beneath him. Overnight the cold would be brutal. He needed something more than a grove. He could start a fire but would that attract whatever creatures were said to lurk around the islands? He moved deeper into the grove and found a dip in the earth, the needles still deep, but in the centre lay the charred remains of an old camp. Black and grey, not yet white.

Someone had camped here and not all that long ago.

Friend or foe?

He dug for the driest needles and threw them into the ashes, adding the few twigs and small branches he could find before opening his pack to fumble with the flint and tinder. His head cleared enough that he managed to start a fire, blowing on the needles and twigs, adding more fuel when it caught. Enough light was cast that he was able to find more wood and soon had his back to the blaze. The wind was slight in the trees and the soft crash of waves had faded.

He had his pot and batena over the flames and a stack of firewood sat beside him but now he strained his ears. Had there been footfalls in the trees beyond the range of firelight? How was it that people always seemed to be stalking him in woods of late? Never drew a knife, then another, rising slowly.

The creatures that Pabil had promised?

At a strange but somewhat familiar sound, he crouched beside a tree. Was it a hiss…no…sniffing! Closing at a steady pace. Never glanced at the flickering campfire. Once again, too late to hide his presence. He sheathed his knives and caught a low-hanging branch. His fever-tired limbs were slow to respond as he swung up a leg, missing his mark. He bit off a curse and swung again, climbing up to conceal himself in the fragrant needles.

Two men strode into view, one bent close to the ground; it was from him came the sniffing. The other man carried a spear, gaze swivelling around the empty camp. Both wore heavy cloaks with their dark hair cut close.

“Definitely someone here,” the standing man said, speaking Marlosi.

The other man straightened. “Told you.”

The spearman completed a quick circuit but the sniffing fellow entered at a slower pace, as if confused. “The scent doubles around a bit.”

“Of course it does, Peat.” The spearman glanced into the pot but did not touch it. “He probably needed firewood.”

“Well, he hasn’t been gone long.”

Spearman paused to shout. “Ho! May we share your fire this night?”

Never frowned. Were they planning something sinister? Trying to lure him into a false complacency? They had the look of treasure hunters; lean packs, worn clothing beneath their cloaks, unshaven. Well-armed.

Peat was turning back toward the tree. “Wait, I think…”

“What?”

He stopped, head cocked just so. “Thought I caught another scent but I’m not sure.”

Spearman spun his weapon into both hands. His voice grew a little hoarse. “Not more of those Godsforsaken things?”

“Not them, Luis. This is different,” he said. “Human but more.”

Never held his breath. Could Peat smell him? Was it his blood? And what did the fellow mean by ‘more’ than human? That was something he’d never been called before. Inhuman, cursed, freak, those names he knew well. But ‘more’ was a fair sight nicer.

“So human or not?” Luis asked.

“Don’t know,” Peat said. “Different somehow.” He took another step toward Never’s tree, sniffing. “Older.”

“Older?”

“I don’t know what it means either – only, I don’t think I’ve caught a scent like this one before. Maybe we should head back to the boat now. Had enough of this bloody place.” Peat stood directly beneath him now, the edge of the firelight illuminating a hand axe but casting shadows across the man’s face. Only his eyes glittered as he looked up.

Peat leapt back. “Gods, there’s someone up there.”

Luis ran forward. “Where?”

“Hello, gentlemen,” Never said. “Pleased to meet you both.”

Neither spoke.

“You can say hello if you wish. I can hear you.”

Luis answered. “What are you doing up there?”

“Watching. I didn’t want to be surprised by the creatures you keep mentioning.”

“So you’re a hunter too?” he asked. “Well, if you’re looking for the Sea King’s Jewels you should give up now and turn back, right Peat?”

Peat hadn’t lowered his axe. “Why won’t he come into the light?”

“Mostly because you’re standing in my way,” Never said.

“You smell different, stranger.”

“I trust that’s meant to be a compliment.”

Peat grunted. “How do we know you’re not like the creatures?” He turned to Luis. “I say we leave him up there and get going.”

“I don’t know, Peat. You know how those things like the night. Ferne was right, I think. They hunt in the dark, when we get tired. And I’m tired now. Wouldn’t it be nice to split a shift three ways?”

“Supposing we can trust him.”

Never leant down. “We could do this all night, but I’d rather not. I’m happy to share my fire and split a shift with you – if you’ll tell me about your search. And why you turned back.”

Luis slapped Peat. “See, he’s one of us.”

“There’s still the smell.”

Never sighed. “Look, I’m not a creature and I’ll prove it when I get down.”

Peat finally stepped back. “Fine. But just stay on this side of the fire at first, hear?”

“Good. I’m getting hungry.”

The two men moved back to the far side of the campfire and Never climbed down, muttering a curse when his grip burst a bubble of sap.

He moved to the fire and glanced at the men across from him. “So, as you can see, I’m rather human.” Peat still held his axe ready but Luis leant on his spear, seemingly relaxed. Peat had a broad face, Luis wore a thin moustache, and both expressions were tinged with relief.

Peat sat across from him and Luis followed. “You still have a strange scent, friend,” Peat said. “Though you look normal enough, have to admit.”

Luis snorted. “Come on, Peat – put it together. Dark hair, dark eyes, no accent, he’s a local boy, same as us.”

“Actually I’m from the south of our poor Empire – though I’ve been told my father was Marlosi.”

Luis nodded. “My uncle took a Quisa wife, a kind woman from a kind people.”

Peat shook his head. “We’ll all be taking Vadiya wives soon enough.”

“Any news from the south?” Luis asked. “We’ve been on the chain for weeks now and I keep dreaming that when we get home, things will be better. Especially now that we’ve had to give up a chance at the treasure; a damn shame too.” He grinned. “Foolish, aren’t I?”

Never smiled back. “Only if you believe it.” He checked on the batena, it had reduced nicely, and poured a cup, took a drink and passed it around. “Batena.”

Peat blinked. “You have batena?” He took a drink and straightened. “Must have cost two arms and a leg.”

“The last of it.”

Luis took a drink and exhaled. “That takes the edge off.”

Never leant against a log, drumming his fingers on his mug. “The resistance is still recruiting, refugees still swarm north and the Vadiya have the Imperial City. When I left Isacina they were tearing down the statues of Pacela and building those strange black columns.”

“Filthy bastards,” Peat said.

“So now you’ve come here, searching for the Amber Isle, hoping for a better life?” Luis asked.

Never nodded. “But it doesn’t look good.”

“Well, enough treasure hunters have tried and failed to set the odds against you there…” Luis paused, raising an eyebrow.

“Call me Never.”

“What?”

“My name is ‘Never’.”

“Odd,” Peat said. “Haven’t heard that one before.”

“Yes, but you won’t forget it, will you?” Never grinned.

“Suppose not.”

“So, you both risked those odds Luis mentioned?”

Peat took up the story. “We did. There’s this hunter from the mountains just south of the capital. Ferne. Last year he found the Hand of Dinae and sold it to the Empress.”

Never gave a low whistle. The Hand of Dinae, a glove of black diamonds, supposedly stolen from the palace by the master thief Cantimal. How had Ferne found such a thing? Cantimal was thought to have lost the glove in a great fire. “Impressive.”

“Ain’t it? Ferne used the gold to buy a ship and put out a call for hunters, claiming he had the secret to the Sea King’s jewels.”

Luis nodded. “I couldn’t believe it myself. Everyone knows the stories about the Grey Chain, the sea creatures and the maze. It sounded impossible, but imagine – the Sea King’s Jewels. Ferne only wants the Sea King’s Eye – we split the rest. We’d never have to go hungry a single day, ever again.”

Sea King’s Eye. The jewel which granted safe passage across the seas – with it, a captain could travel anywhere, bring back fantastical goods from lost lands, never fear a single storm or sea beast again. Or so the legend said.

An impressive catch, if it could be found.

“Dead folk have the same advantage,” Peat said. “We did the right thing by leaving.”

Luis shrugged.

Peat continued. “Ferne promised one hundred men. It began to sound a little better at that point.”

Never whistled. “How many did you get?”

“Only thirty-odd – but that was still the biggest group we’d heard of,” Peat said. “So we signed up and got out not long before the invasion hit. Nearly went back myself, but it was too late.”

“And out of those thirty there’s maybe ten left, right Peat?”

“Sounds about right.”

“The creatures?” Never said.

A nod, Peat’s hands tightening on his mug. “That and the islands themselves. A few went over the edge during a stupid scuffle, a couple on the bridge between the finger-islands and the rest from them damn creatures.” Peat spat. “Every day we’d wake up and another man would be gone, bedroll empty. We posted guards but somehow the creatures just kept finding a way.”

Luis sighed as he shifted, stretching his legs out before him. “They soon switched to taking the sentries.”

“On some islands we’d build up a big fire if there was enough fuel; huge, and that usually kept them away,” Peat added.

“Did you ever see them?”

“Luis did.”

He rested his spear across a knee. “It was only a glimpse on sentry duty. I heard them, mostly. Their feet slapped on stone. Webbed I think. When I turned, a pair were slipping back into the water. They had scales, glinting in the moonlight and they walked upright.”

“And they didn’t attack you?”

“No. No idea why they left but I’m happy about it.”

“And you’ve been heading back, ever since?”

“Haven’t hardly slept either,” Peat said.

Never paused. “Did you mean to sail back to the lighthouse in a long boat?”

“Ferne sent us in on longboats, why?”

“They’ve all been sabotaged,” he said.

Peat and Luis exchanged a glance.

“When I landed, I found a lot of boats ashore but they were wrecked; sails rended, oars broken and hulls smashed in.”

“Then we’re doomed,” Luis said. “Maybe we should return to Ferne.”

“Maybe not,” Never said. He explained how he’d hidden supplies. “They might still be there.”

“What about you, friend?” Luis said.

“Afraid I’m going further come tomorrow.”

“You know something we don’t?” Peat asked. “Because I’ll never set foot here again, not after what we’ve seen.”

“I have this.” He produced the reed pipe from an inside pocket. “I was told the creatures don’t like music,” he shrugged. “Maybe it’s true, maybe not.”

“You have a strange sense of humour, friend,” Peat said with a shake of his head.

Luis straightened. “Wait. Don’t be too quick to dismiss it, Peat.” He leant forward. “When the creatures disappeared that night, I was humming the Ballad of Stonefist.”

Peat didn’t seem convinced. “You saying you want to go back? Thought we’d gone over this.”

“Maybe we’d have a chance now, with Never’s pipe.”

“I don’t play well,” Never added.

“I do,” Luis said. He slapped Peat’s shoulder. “Come on – let’s try again. We can catch up to Ferne and the rest and have a real chance. We could open up that inn.”

“Only if it’s at the bottom of the ocean.”

“Care for some company?” Luis asked.

Never hesitated; both men were probably safer keeping their distance, and yet, six eyes were better than two by the sounds of the sea-creatures. He probably didn’t have a choice. He offered a smile. “Wouldn’t hurt.”

“Then it’s settled,” Luis grinned.

Peat stood. “Not for me it ain’t. I don’t want to be dragged into the sea, have my blood bubbling up after.” He nodded to Never. “Share first watch with me a moment?”

“Certainly.”

Luis’ shoulders slumped. “I’ll take the last watch then.”

Peat sighed. “Listen, I’ll sleep on it, Luis. That’s all I can promise.”

He nodded as he began to lay out his sleeping gear. Never stood, gesturing to the southern end of the camp. Peat joined him but said nothing at first, only staring into the darkness between tree trunks.

“I take it you want to ask me something,” Never said.

Peat sighed again. He kept his voice low. “Tell you something, really.”

“I’m listening.”

“I have a funny gift – you’re probably curious, right?”

“I am.”

“Well, my Pa used to joke that I was half-dog, but I could always sniff out a trail where folks had been. Told me his grandfather could do it too.”

“And me?”

“You smell old, like…something I’ve come across before. Recognise it now that I think about it. And I think you might be a good sort, even for a hunter, but it’s almost like your blood is too old. Ancient even. Makes you seem more than human. That sound strange to you?”

Never tried to keep his voice even; could this man know something? “It does.”

“Well, I caught this scent only once before, years back, mind you. In the old cemetery back in Isacina, you know the one on the hill, the one they moved all the imperial bones from?”

“The Gates of Ju-Anna.” Though how such carven stone gates would lead to the Goddess Pacela was up for debate.

“Right. Well, I smelled it there and the trail led to a man. He was digging a hole for a grave, dressed plain, like it was his job. I spoke to him and he seemed friendly enough, only he was funny-looking. Not Marlosi; he was pale. But not even Vadiyem or Hanek. White-ish blond hair and pale blue eyes to go with his light skin. Maybe you should find that man – I’m guessing you’d have much to talk about.”

“Thank you. I will.” Never looked to the ground, giving hope a moment to die in peace. The pale man was his brother – and Snow knew just as little as Never. Yet, what was Snow doing working as a grave-digger in the imperial city? “But I feel there’s more. I can’t see any harm in Luis hearing what you have told me.”

“True. I do have a question.” He paused. “Will you watch out for Luis? I’ve already made up my mind and I know that look in his eye. He thinks there’s hope here now, and maybe there is, but not for me. I’m going home. Maybe even to fight the Vadiya. But he’ll want to search on and I don’t want to worry about my friend.”

Never turned to face the man. Another promise? Hopefully not one he would come to regret – but if it gave Peat some peace…why not? He would have to be doubly careful to ensure there were no mishaps with his blood. “As long as he stays with me I will keep an eye on him.” He held out his hand.

Peat shook it and cleared his throat. “Thank you, Never.”

“And be careful on your way back – Steelhawks were following me.”

He grinned. “I’ll sniff them out, don’t worry about me.”

“Good. Go get some sleep.”

The rest of the watch passed in silence until he finally went to wake Luis. On his way to his own blankets, Never handed Luis the reed pipe. The man accepted it with a nod and stood before the camp, one hand on his spear.

The sounds of the night washed over Never as he lay back, waiting for sleep.

 

Chapter 5.

 

When dawn broke Peat was gone and Luis stood before the soft embers of the fire, spinning his spear in a pattern from hands to wrists as he stared into the trees.

“So, we survived,” Never said as he stood and stretched. He sucked in a deep breath, cold air reaching the bottom of his lungs. The fever remained, lurking like a shadow. At least he wasn’t sweating. For now.

“We did.”

“Did you have to play that pipe?”

He shook his head. “I thought he’d stay.”

Never rummaged around in his pack for the last of his apples, hesitating a moment before drawing them out and tossing one to Luis, who caught it with a nod of thanks. “He’s probably safer than we.”

“I hope so.” Luis took a bite.

Never kicked dirt over the fire then gestured toward the edge of the camp. “Lead on, Luis.”

The man took them quickly from the green of the trees and to another greying bridge, this one just as sturdy as the last. The large shapes of other islands, shrouded in sea-mist, stretched before them. “The bridges are in fair condition,” Never said.

“Most are, thankfully. Only a few that gave us a scare and none were too long.”

“Will we catch up to Ferne?”

“I’d say so. It was slow going at first but I know the path now.”

“Good to hear.” Exiting the bridge, Never detoured a pile of rubble. “What can you tell me about Ferne?”

“Big guy without a lot of tolerance. But he’s smart too. He must have a map or something, but I never saw him consult it. He knew which paths to take and how to avoid bad bridges, which links were dead ends. He got us pretty far before those creatures started attacking.”

“So you think the jewels are real?”

Luis laughed. “They have to be because my future’s pretty dim without them.”

Never nodded; he understood that hope. If there were no clues to his true identity in the Amber Isle then he’d hit a wall. A big wall. Every other avenue a dead end. And so he didn’t push Luis for more; the man had to be desperate, however, to take such a chance in coming to the Grey Chain.

By noon they’d crossed a dozen islands, many desolate stone peaks. There had been a gradual sloping down of the islands, the violence of the sea below growing until the white water was barely two feet from the stepping stones that stretched before them. Most were smooth. Some seemed no more than a few feet wide.

At least they weren’t wet, but who knew how long that would hold true?

“Thirty men crossed that?”

Luis nodded. “One at a time, anyway. Lost a fellow from Hanik here. Ready?”

“Guess I have to be.”

Luis grinned then leapt to the first stepping stone. He landed easily then leapt again, using his spear for balance as he neared the thinner stones. Never shook the tension from his limbs – or tried to – then ran and jumped. He thudded onto the first stone. Somehow, he kept balance but had to crouch to halt his momentum, a gasp escaping. Jagged rocks churned the water white below. A reef of sorts stretched around the thin path. No wonder ships didn’t simply sail deeper into the islands.

He took a breath and straightened.

Maybe they did further on, but not here.

He leapt to the next stone and spread his arms, a breeze rustling his hair. He blinked when his vision blurred again. Damnable fever. He waited.

“Ho, Never – are you well?” Luis’ voice drifted over the waves.

“A moment,” he called back before starting out again. This time he moved a little quicker, planning his next few jumps and using the forward momentum to reach the next stone. Finally, he reached a larger series of outcroppings and was able to make a running leap to clear the last stretch easily enough.

“Nicely done.” Luis caught his arm when he landed on the new island. Larger, it rose in uneven contours.

Never nodded his thanks and paused to catch his breath.

Luis frowned. “You’re sweating.”

“A fever. It’ll pass.”

“Sure hope so, you’re no good to me passed out.”

“Don’t worry,” Never said. “I’ve dealt with worse.” Although, maybe that was a lie. Most fevers he contracted burnt out within a day or so. Still, he wasn’t going to stop. Not now, not so close.

“Well, hope you’re better by nightfall. If Ferne is still stuck at the door, we’ll reach the party and they’ll expect you to hold your own if we’re attacked.”

Never motioned that they should keep walking. “Tell me about this door?”

“It rests in the rock face but nothing opens it. No key, no handle. The ram we built was useless.”

“No way around it?”

“Ferne says the Sea God’s Jewels are inside. That the maze within the island is where they lie.”

Not unlike what his own map claimed – a passage through the very maze Luis mentioned. Only Never’s map said nothing of how to open the door. “Maybe he’ll have opened it?”

“Five days at it before Peat and I left.”

“Ah. Now I feel really confident.”

Luis laughed, a deep, throaty sound that drew unbidden a smile from Never. “Don’t worry, we’ll figure it out – now that we have music, it’ll ease the pressure.”

They walked on. The hard rock of the islands rose up around them as they climbed a vague path. Never paused at a carving in the rock. Could it be? It was cut deep and filled with a substance that looked to have burned white into the stone.

A five-pointed leaf.

The very symbol Mother had once drawn in the dirt, showing him how the points matched up with her fingers. The same symbol found on his map. Never made a fist. Finally!

More carvings stretched beyond, running up the walls. Some were half-hidden by slabs of stone that had fallen, or been moved. Some of the steps he took were regular – again, a hint of an older civilisation? Or at least, signs of organised life.

“Have you ever seen carvings like these?” he asked Luis. The fever had eased again – typical of his body. Fight then rest, fight then rest.

“No-where but here. There are more at the door.”

Never trailed a hand over one as he passed, the ridges rough.

At the peak, he paused while Luis took water from his flask. More islands spread across the ocean, only now they were larger, the rope bridges wider. Trees grew on many. The closest even had the remains of a small hut pressed up against an outcrop. “What of that building?” he asked.

“Empty, and the only one I’ve seen in the chain. Must have been a mad fisherman.”

When they reached the hut, Never detoured to step inside the open doorway – once his eyes adjusted it was clear the stone had been set with some skill. Damp assaulted his skin. An old table crumbled against the wall and traces of cloth occupied another corner. An empty hearth sat black with forgotten ash. Thin fish bones lay scattered across the rocky floor but nothing to indicate who the owner of the hut had been. Javiem?

No way to know.

He glanced around, maybe there were other hints of life…Never straightened. In the distance, somewhere on their backtrail – was that a column of smoke? He shaded his eyes. Someone was following. More hunters late to Ferne’s call? Or had Elina decided to follow him after all? It didn’t seem likely.

But there had been more than one group of Steelhawks on his tail.

He swore, then picked up the pace, catching Luis at the next bridge. It was older and longer than the others, the wood white with years of salt. But the pylons were huge and the layers of rope thicker than his upper arms. Once, someone had gone to a lot of trouble to connect the islands. Bless them – he’d be swimming otherwise.

“We might have someone following us,” Never said.

“Who?”

“Vadiya soldiers, probably.” No need to mention Elina. “But they’re a ways back yet.”

“What do they want?” Luis asked.

“Revenge I’d say. Back in Isacina they tried to kill me and I wouldn’t let them.”

“Good for you,” Luis said. “Let’s keep ahead of them, then. Just watch out in the middle of this bridge, there are a few planks missing.” He pointed. “We lost another man here first time.”

“Any advice if we fall in?”

He grinned. “Grow some gills.”

“I’ll do my best.”

He followed Luis onto the bridge. The planks were firm beneath his feet but as they reached the middle a slight sway set his stomach to rolling. The bridge had sagged toward the water, though it was still a fair drop. Luis slowed. “Up ahead, see?”

Many planks were missing and more than a few were no more than stubs with jagged edges.

“Climb the rope,” Luis said. “We’ll go one at a time.”

“Sound thinking there.”

Luis probed the planks nearest the gaping hole then stepped onto the support ropes, their giant knots spread evenly. He gripped the guide rope as he stepped. Such was the thickness of the rope that his weight didn’t tip the bridge much at all. Never still moved to the opposite side to try and counter.

When Luis passed the hole he stopped to wait, moving to use his own weight as an off-set. Never stepped onto the rope. Steady. His pack made things interesting, but he kept a grip on the guide and was across in moments.

“Not too bad,” he said. “I was thinking –”

The bridge erupted beneath him. Sky wheeled. He flailed, hand snapping over the guide rope. Impact from Never’s falling bodyweight strained his shoulder in its socket. Water thrashed. Something dark rose from the depths below, streaming forth to slam into the underside of the damaged bridge. Planks buckled and Never gave a shout. He’d caught a glimpse of scales and a great maw.

“Hold on.” Luis was climbing to his feet, spear in hand. The gap between safe parts of the bridge had grown.

Never got his free hand onto the rope. “Pacela’s Heart, what was that?”

“Hold tight,” Luis shouted.

Below, the creature leapt forth again, rocking the bridge and knocking Never’s legs as it fell away, and tearing his grip free. Never growled as he caught the rope again. Luis was still stranded, unable to cross the gap while the creature lurked below.

Water stirred, now directly below his feet.

Never swung a leg up to the bridge, boot slipping from the rope. He swung again as the creature burst forth, jaw agape.

Steel flashed between them.

A gurgling hiss followed. Luis’ spear protruded from the creature’s head. It splashed back into the sea. Water sprayed Never and slicked his hands. He ground his teeth. Green blood fouled the sea below, spread by the waves even as he tried again to swing himself up to the support of the bridge.

Still he slipped.

The bridge tilted as Luis appeared above him. He caught one of Never’s hands and pulled.

Never’s leg hooked over the rope and he hauled himself the rest of the way upright, until he straddled the bridge. He gripped the support rope and half-crawled, half-dragged himself after Luis to the planks before he fell back against his pack, chest heaving.

Luis sat beside him, wide-eyed in his shock. Water dripped from his hair and moustache.

“Forgot about that fellow, did we?” Never finally said.

Luis frowned. “That…thing wasn’t there last time.”

Never chuckled in relief. “No matter. And thank you. I certainly owe you my life now, Luis.” Never only hoped he wouldn’t end up repaying Luis by accidently taking the man’s life one day.

“No debt, but do you think we could get off the bridge now? I don’t want to find out the hard way if there are more of those things in the ocean.”

“Good idea.” Never groaned as he rose. “And of course there’s probably more.”

Luis extended a hand and helped him up. “What makes you sure?”

“Trouble. There’s always more of it.”

 

Chapter 6.

 

Cold torches mounted on stakes were wedged into the stony earth that ringed the treasure hunters’ camp. It huddled against the rock face, appearing small, vulnerable. While other islands were visible in the choppy water, there was no bridge and the gap too great between islands. The end of the chain.

Largest of all the islands he’d set foot on so far; he’d finally reached the Amber Isle. Not that it looked any different to the others. Mostly barren and grey. Yet the answers he sought, they would be below, somewhere within the island itself.

Late afternoon sun lit a large green tent, around which lay bedrolls and stacks of what seemed to be dwindling provisions. On the edge of the camp, a sea breeze stirred the cloak of the sentry, while the rest of the treasure-hunters – four men only – crowded round a large blaze nearer the tent.

Luis waved to the sentry. “Ruveo.”

The short man had half-drawn his sword at the sight of them but re-sheathed it, though his dour expression did not ease. His hair was shaven close, exposing ears whose tips were wind-burned. “Luis? You’ve returned then.” He looked to Never. “Where’s Peat?”

“On his way home. This is Never; I thought he might as well join us.”

Ruveo narrowed his eyes. “What sort of name is that?”

“The one I was given.”

“We need more men by the looks of things,” Luis said.

Ruveo gave a short nod but said, “That’s up to Ferne.”

“Then we better go see him.”

The sentry stepped aside, grumbling as they passed. Never suppressed a sigh. Good. Another cheerful fellow with a grudge against everything. Such pleasant company was certainly an unlooked for boon on his trip. At least Luis was a good sort – what would Ferne be?

Luis hailed the group and once he convinced the treasure hunters of Never’s name, he asked after Ferne.

“In his tent,” one of the hunters said.

“Taking an afternoon nap is he?” Never asked.

The men snickered as they held their hands out to the blaze, but one shook his head. “He’s not fond of funny guys, newcomer.” A gap in his teeth winked black as he spoke.

“Spots is right, Never. I don’t think I’ve seen Ferne smile the whole time.”

“Maybe he’s ticklish but he just hides it well?”

Now everyone laughed, even Spots. Never grinned. It never hurt to get strangers onside early. Luis led him to the tent flap where he paused.

“Ferne, it’s me. Luis.”

A deep voice answered, a hint of surprise within. “What? Get in here.”

The lamp-lit interior was sparse; bed-roll and travel chest the only things of note. A large slab of stone served as a table, upon which maps were spread. A bear of a man stood over them, glaring as they entered. His bald head caught the lamplight and his beard was a black beast in and of itself. He wore an axe strapped across his back, daggers belted over a brown tunic.

Almost unassuming for a famous treasure-hunter, a class of folk Never had always found to be a bit more gaudy. But then, maybe it spoke to Ferne’s seriousness.

“Who’s this?”

“Never is his name. He’s a hunter. Peat and I ran into him on the way back.”

Ferne gave him a look of appraisal. “You can use those knives?”

“Very well.”

He grunted. “You know what you’re getting into?”

“The sea creatures?”

“No. The split.”

“Luis hasn’t had a chance to explain yet.”

“I take half and the rest is split between the group. And you and Luis count as one,” he said, glancing at Luis. “That’s the price of abandoning us. You don’t like it, then leave.” Back to Never. “How does that sound?”

“Generous.” Not that he really wanted the jewels but half split between six men was better than half split between thirty. On the other hand, one-sixth of nothing was still nothing.

“Damn right it is.” He looked back down to the map.

Luis made to leave, his expression dark, but Never lingered. “I must say I’m impressed, Ferne. You’re well-provisioned.”

He grunted. “Carrying it all over those bridges wasn’t easy. Nor gathering the capital in the first place. And I’d say it had been worth it, but that was before we lost most of the group to those filthy creatures. And we’re running out of food, so if you can fish, get to work.”

“Does the fire keep the sea creatures away?”

He glanced up, eyes narrowing. “Sometimes. Got any ideas?”

“Maybe. I hear they don’t like music.”

Ferne frowned. “Think I’ve got a minstrel in that chest?”

“I can play a little,” Luis said, producing the reed pipe.

“I never heard that about this place. It probably won’t work.” Ferne grunted. “But you’ll have your chance to try it tonight.”

Luis nodded. “Any luck with the door?”

“None.” Ferne said no more, returning to his maps once again.

Luis gestured to Never, before heading back out to the camp. “You might as well see it before it gets dark,” Luis said.

No more than a dozen paces across from the tent rested the door – solid stone in the outcropping; tall as two men, wide enough for a pair of carts to pass through. A faint line revealed where it would open, but no hinges, no handle, only a trail of symbols in an arch. Similar to those on the island earlier; like the ones Mother had used.

A blunted log lay to the side, most of it cut away for firewood. Impressive that the group had carried such a thing from one of the other islands.

“You recognise the symbols?” Luis said.

“They must be the key to opening this.” He glanced back to the tent. “Have you seen Ferne’s maps?”

“Not really. He doesn’t like anyone else looking. You think there are clues within?”

Never nodded.

“Then let’s hope he figures it out soon.” Luis had folded his arms, gaze directed across the water. He was tapping a foot.

“When will they attack?”

“At nightfall. Or with the moon.”

Never put a hand on his shoulder. “Then we better get you something sharper than that frown. Will anyone give you a weapon if you ask?”

Luis nodded. “Ruveo might. He got Fali’s spear as spare when one of the creatures took him.”

“Let’s find out and then get something to eat. I’m starting to feel weak from hunger.”

Ruveo still paced the rise. Luis asked after the spear and the man patted the purse belt at his waist. “It’ll cost you. Three silver pieces.”

Never raised an eyebrow. Not steep, but in a place where everyone depended on everyone else, it seemed a little…imprudent, ‘imprudent’ being a generous way of putting it.

“One,” Luis countered.

“Three or nothing. Three or have your new friend look after you.”

“You’re really going to demand money?” Never asked. “He’s good with a spear – the more of us the better, right?”

Ruveo glanced at him but did not answer. He turned back to Luis. “Well?”

“Damn it, Ruveo.”

Never raised a hand. “Let me.” He produced a gold mark and held it up between thumb and forefinger.

Ruveo’s eyes lit up. “I don’t have change for that.”

“Not a problem.” Never flicked his arm and the mark flew out, striking Ruveo in the throat. The man’s hands flew up and he coughed, bending down and scrambling about for the gold. Hardly a fatal strike, but annoying enough, no doubt.

Never grinned. “We’ll help ourselves then.”

“Bastard,” Ruveo gasped out once he had the coin in hand.

“Still lying by your bedroll is it?” Luis asked. Never thought Luis was doing a fair job of controlling his face.

“Take it,” he snapped.

Once Luis had a spear again his shoulders relaxed. He smiled where he stood beside Never, waiting as food was dished into bowls by Spots.

“Fish soup; not much else in it,” the man said.

Never sighed. “Better than chewing rocks.”

“That it is.” He paused between ladling the food. “Care for some advice?”

“Please.”

“Sleep light. Spread rubble around your bed roll, you might hear them stumble.”

He nodded. “Luis told me the sentries are being taken.”

“Aye.” He took out a silver, star-shaped pendant on a chain and kissed it. “Every day I thank Pacela when I actually wake.”

“Thanks for the advice,” Never said as he moved to sit on a rock before the fire. Luis soon joined him. He kept his voice low as he ate. “So, why are you treasure hunting if you’ve got gold to throw around?”

“Last of my gold, I’m afraid,” Never said. “And that’s exactly why I’m here. I tend to be a little too free with my coin. Besides, I owe you, remember?”

“Then we’re even now,” Luis said.

“Don’t sell yourself short,” he chuckled.

Darkness had truly fallen when Ferne appeared to eat, sitting across from them and pausing only to remind everyone to rotate the watch regularly. Spots went off to relieve Ruveo, who ate in sullen silence.

Before Ferne left, Never asked about the symbols.

“Some move but that’s all I know. I can’t read them. Could you?”

“No. They have the look of something…older than Marlosa.”

“I agree. Let me know when you’ve deciphered it – if we survive the night.” Ferne returned to his tent.

“Well, my spirits are certainly high now,” Never said. The men chuckled – except for Ruveo, and Never bade them goodnight. Maybe it was forced and maybe it did little to ease the strain in their eyes, but it was clear there’d been little to laugh about of late. He’d drawn a middle watch and getting at least some sleep before it was broken meant retiring early. He spread some stones first then stretched out his bedroll near Luis and lay back, the sprinkle of stars above winking out as clouds crept across the black.

Never set his breathing to a regular pattern and waited for sleep.

*

He woke to screams.

The wet slap of webbed feet echoed beneath the screaming and shouted commands. He shot to his feet, drawing a pair of knives. His heart thumped in his chest. Moonlight and the glow of the fire, along with smaller points from torches, lit the struggle. Man-shaped things fought the treasure hunters, or those who remained. Only two figures stood by the fire, back to back, blades flashing in the firelight.

Steel scraped on stone.

He spun. One of the treasure hunters grappled with a creature. Beyond, another pair slipped from the water. No spear, was it Luis or not? Never leapt forward as the hunter drove a knee into his attacker’s stomach. The creature hissed, stabbing the man’s shoulder with its hand.

Never slashed with his blades. Scales rebuffed his attack but the thing dropped the hunter and turned on him. A sloped face that seemed to melt in the very moonlight regarded him, its eyes thin and bright.

He flinched. Was it human or beast? Never reversed his blade, ducked its slash and drove the weapon into the neck. Cold blood spurted across his hand and the creature fell back, taking the knife. Never drew another. The creature stumbled to the stones and Never crouched by the hunter.

Spots.

A barb protruded from his shoulder and his skin was already cold. Gripped in his hand was the silver star of the Goddess Pacela.

More figures were piling up behind the wounded creature, slipping from the ocean to scramble up the stones. Too many. He slung a knife at the closest. The hilt cracked into its face and it fell to the ground. Yet it stirred immediately. He drew another knife, then swore, sheathing them both.

Instead, he grabbed Spots by the ankles and heaved. Dead weight.

Still more creatures crowded the shore.

“Luis,” he shouted over his shoulder. “Wherever you are, play that pipe.”

Never released Spots and retreated. The man was already dead. Or so he prayed. The creatures fell upon the hunter, dragging him toward the water. A few followed Never, who backed toward the campfire. Were the other hunters even alive? He turned and ran for the remaining men.

Shrill notes cut the air.

The creatures stopped. From all across the island a hissing rose. “Keep playing,” he shouted.

The tune emerged – The Ballad of Stonefist – unsteady at first, but soon enough the sound of the reed pipe soared into the night. The creatures were turning, shoving at each other, scrambling for the water. The slap of wet feet was a brief thunder, followed by splashing and churning and then only the sound of the pipe and Never’s panting.

 

Chapter 7.

 

Never stood before the door, arms folded.

A bright sun beat down, casting light but little warmth across the wind-swept stone of the island. The scent of smouldering ash filled the camp. Somewhere in the distance, a gull cried, a dim echo of the cries from last night.

“Well?”

Never glanced over his shoulder. Of all the hunters to survive the attack, why did Ruveo have to be one of them? Tedious fool that he was; the man glowered, as if such impatience would change anything. Ferne and Luis stood close by.

“I didn’t say I could open it – only that I had an idea.”

“And?”

“And what?”

Ferne grunted. “Time to share, Never.” He bore a long scratch down cheek and neck. Luis had escaped injury and even now, stood with spear in hand and reed pipe looped through his belt.

Never shrugged. “You said some of them move?”

“Slight depressions,” Ferne said.

“And you’ve pressed them all?”

“Of course.” He waved a hand. “Where are you going?”

He grinned; he’d seen a similar-principled lock back home, in the Quisa catacombs. Only it had been skulls set in the wall, not symbols. “Have you depressed them all at the same time?”

Ferne scratched at his chin beneath his beard. “Been here days and we haven’t tried that. Stupid.”

“Luis, give me a lift, will you?” Never asked.

The leader of the treasure hunters snorted. “Let me.” He bent down and linked his big hands. Never lifted his leg but paused.

“I apologise – I usually wipe my feet before standing on a person.”

Ferne’s expression was not one of amusement. Never stood, using his hands as guides against the stone when Ferne straightened. Despite the height of the door, he was able to reach the symbols. He applied pressure to one and it slid into the rock face with a tiny click.

“The others,” Ferne ordered.

Luis and Ruveo moved to the other symbols, faint clicks following.

“That all of them?” Never asked.

“Nothing’s happening,” Ruveo said. “This is pointless.”

Never thumped the wall. He’d been sure… There. A little higher – an additional symbol, a smaller, similar leaf. “Wait,” he said when Ferne began to lower him. “There’s more…” Ferne lifted him again and he reached for the fifth symbol with his free hand.

Another click – and something sharp jabbed his palm.

He jerked his hand back. A thin trail of blood trickled down the skin. Poison? The barb retracted and a grinding followed as the doors swung open to reveal a dark maw.

Ferne lowered him then slapped him on the back. Never’s jaw clacked. “Earned your half of Luis’ cut right there.”

“A pleasure.” He closed his hand. His blood felt as before, no worse, no better. Had the barb been a trap or something else? Had it once been coated with poison but over time…he frowned. Nothing to do except pay attention to his body.

If he fell in a heap twenty steps later, that’d be the first clue.

Luis was grinning but Ruveo only shook his head as he moved off to collect his belongings.

“Someone put bugs in his bedroll?” Never asked Luis.

“He’s always like that.” Luis shrugged but his eyes were bright. “We’re going to find the Sea King’s Jewels, aren’t we?”

“Maybe.”

Ferne was already back at his tent; he’d dragged the chest free and was rolling up his maps. Luis was repacking his own belongings, stuffing his thin bedroll into the bottom of his pack. His water flask followed.

“How much water do we have?” Never asked.

“Another week’s worth. Ferne tried to plan ahead.”

“We’d better hide whatever we don’t take. Those creatures won’t take kindly to whatever we leave behind, if the shore was any indication.”

“I’ll tell Ferne.”

By the time water and other provisions, including lamp oil, had been distributed, Never was tapping his foot before the opening. At least he hadn’t turned purple yet. Within could be the answers he’d been seeking since he was a boy; since learning just how different he was – thanks to the village bully. It was childish, as so many disagreements had been then. Fighting over a girl. Just one punch each.

But that was enough.

Once the flow began, he hadn’t been able to turn off the blood. He ended up covered in it. And the way she looked at him…worse than any dagger.

Only Snow had saved him from the mob of villagers.

Not that they’d been wrong to want him dead.

“Let’s get our treasure,” Ferne said, lifting his lamp and stepping into the darkness.

“No speech to stir our spirits?” Never murmured as he followed, Luis beside him. Ruveo walked rear, his own lamp casting conflicting shadows.

The passage ended in a set of broad stairs heading down into the chill darkness. Ferne took them without hesitation, footfalls echoing. Each step was worn in the centre. Little changed as they descended, the walls remained dark, featureless stone – only the cold smell of dampness grew.

When the stairs levelled off into a chamber with two adjoining passageways, Ferne paused.

“Any ideas on your maps?” Never asked.

Ferne shook his head. “They took us through the islands. But I have nothing for in here.”

Never nodded to a passage. “I say left.” He was sure the passages corresponded to his own map, which he wasn’t going to share with Ferne yet. Or even at all, just in case. But if the passages did, the left one would lead further along the island and eventually to the Amber Isle itself. The right passage was marked with a skull on his map. Not a good sign. He caught Luis’ eye, who remained silent, only offering a slight question with a raised eyebrow.

“I say right,” Ruveo said.

“Of course you do.” Never rolled his eyes.

Ruveo pointed. “Don’t do that; I won’t put up with it.”

Never grinned.

“Exactly like that. Don’t goad me, stranger.”

Ferne turned. “Shut up the pair of you. We’re going to the right. It will follow the lay of the island better.”

Ruveo made a satisfied sound and Never shrugged. “Lead on.”

He held back a moment, letting Ruveo close with Ferne, and strode along beside Luis. The spearman lowered his voice. “Why are you stirring him up?”

“He irritates me.”

“He’s pretty handy with his sword; I’d be careful.”

“I will.”

“Be serious, Never.”

“I’d prefer not to.”

Luis shook his head. “I think I like you, you know. I’d rather not have you dead.”

“We share the same goal, then, Luis.”

He kept his voice low. “What about your map?”

“Not sure I trust Ruveo.”

“Fair enough,” Luis said. “He claims he used to be a First Imperial.”

“Ah. So, a deserter then,” Never said.

“Might be. He certainly doesn’t like the Vadiya.”

“Few do.”

They walked on and something glittered ahead, reflecting lamplight, bright and flickering. When they reached it Never gave a low whistle. A thick vein of quartz ran down the stone, bringing light with it. An empty sconce was set in the wall directly in the middle of the vein, which was quite regular, as if it had been cut to order.

“Interesting,” Never said. “Another sign of civilisation.”

“Think we’re getting closer?” Luis asked.

“I hope so; it’s cold down here.”

Ferne walked on without comment, though his steps had a bit more snap to them. Never didn’t rush. The skull on his map meant trouble and whatever it was, best to let Ferne or Ruveo walk into it first.

Only his fear was unfounded.

Before long the trouble appeared; a cave-in. It blocked the passage with jagged heaps of crumbled stone.

Ferne swore, then turned and headed back the way they’d come. Never said nothing as a muttering Ruveo passed. It took some effort, but he managed it. Luis grinned, eyes shining in the lamp-light.

The left passage was longer. Twice they passed glittering quartz veins, the second trickling with water. It pooled in the sconce, flowed over the lip and into a black drain below, one he hadn’t noticed before.

“We might as well take a drink,” Ferne said. “What we’ve got has to get us off the chain too.”

“Is it sea water?” Ruveo asked.

Never cupped his hands and took a drink. Beautiful, clean. “It’s fresh.” He took another few mouthfuls and stepped aside.

While Ruveo and Luis drank, he moved over to Ferne. The big man was stretching his arms behind his head and rolling his shoulders, pushing at his elbows. His axe sat against the wall. “I’ve been meaning to ask, how are we getting the Sea King’s jewels off the island?”

“I’ll signal my ship.”

“Coloured smoke?”

He nodded.

“And where will they land?”

“At the cove, same place you landed, I’ll wager. I’ve sailed many of the islands, there are very few places to make landfall. I saw where people had tried to scale the walls of the islands. Bolts driven into the wall, as if they’d climbed from the ships. No idea whether they made it – but I know their ships didn’t. There’s many a wreck in the Grey Chains. As if the islands themselves don’t want us here.”

They soon walked on and this time encountered no blockage, only a short flight of stairs, this one leading up. Twice they ascended before reaching another chamber, this time with three passages leading from it. Again, all three headed in the same direction.

“Care to take a guess?” Ferne asked Never.

“Left again.”

“Why?”

“It feels right. I can’t explain it.”

Ruveo snorted but Ferne waved. “Maybe you should lead. You seem lucky.”

Great. Never raised his lamp and led the small group into the passage. The same stone walls, interspersed with quartz veins but none with water. No stairs, only a long, flat path that eventually terminated in a door – this one regular-sized.

The same carvings of interwoven leaves sat in the middle.

Never pushed on it and no click. He ran a hand along the edges, but no purchase. No handle, no keyhole. His map did not mention unlocking doors; it mostly showed a series of passages and choices marked with arrows.

But the five-pointed leaf rested within.

“Any ideas?” Luis asked.

The five points, woven into the curls of leaves and buds, were clear. As if they spoke to him. As Mother had done, he reached out. “Maybe…” He placed his fingers within and twisted. The symbol spun. A second click and the door began to slide open. Another passage lay beyond, more glittering veins of quartz visible in the distance.

Silence followed his discovery.

Ruveo broke it. His eyes were narrowed. “How did you know that?”

“Know what?”

“How to open the door. Same as outside. You figured it out. What’s going on?”

Never put on a frown. “You want me to close it?”

Ferne stepped closer. “I think you should answer his question. What have you been hiding from us, Never? You know something about this place?” He sighed as he folded his arms. “I don’t want to have to force you to tell but I will.”

“Not the best idea though, is it?”

Ferne’s jaw worked.

“For if I do know something, I’m helping you. If you want me to stop, I’ll let you figure out the other doors. They won’t be as easy as this one.” A bluff of sorts; he had no idea whether he could open the others so easily.

“I’ll raise your cut.”

“I’d rather choose when I tell you what, if anything, I know. We’ve done well to get this far, why jeopardise it now?”

He folded his arms. “Fine. Lead on. For now.”

“Thank you.” He moved through two more passages, choosing always the same direction – onward as per the map, until the next chamber presented a turn in addition to the forward path. He paused in the chamber to take a drink.

“Forward again?” Ferne asked.

“Not this time.” Never took a step but came to a stop. Had footsteps rung out, distant yet? From the passage behind them?

“I thought you knew where you were going?” Ruveo said.

“Do you hear someone following?”

“No, I don’t. Let’s just –” He stopped at Ferne’s raised hand.

Drifting up the corridor came the smacking of feet on stone. Wet feet. “Quickly, the creatures are following us,” Never said.

He strode down the passage, lamp high. A vein of quartz flashed by and then he turned another corner. It opened into a large, circular room set with a dozen arched openings. The spoked wheel, as shown on his map.

“Which one?” Ruveo asked.

“Rear guard, Luis,” Ferne said. “And keep that pipe handy.”

The spearman nodded.

Never paced before the openings. A giant relief of the five-pointed leaf symbol lay within the floor. His boots scraped over it as he paced. Counting, counting. Two from the centre left was the direct route but had more doors. Directly opposite their exit point was a longer way around, to the centre of the Amber Isle, but the map bore another foreboding skull within that passage.

Ferne stomped over. “Well, Never? Which is it?”

“Two paths we can take.”

“But?”

Luis called. “The creature is still following.”

“Just one?” Ferne glanced over his shoulder.

“Yes…wait. No. I hear more than one set now.”

Never pointed. “That way holds three more doors. I can probably open them, but what if one takes too long? Can we hold off the creatures?”

“We have the pipe,” Ruveo said.

“And the other passage?” Ferne asked, his heavy brows drawn together.

“On the map I memorised it was marked with a skull.”

“Map?”

“Yes.”

The big man grunted. “I don’t like either option.”

“The other passages were not marked.”

Luis moved into the room. “They’re close. Do you want me to play?”

“Do it,” Ferne said.

Never waved a hand at the other spokes. “I don’t like our chances if one is a dead-end.”

The first notes of the Ballad of Stonefist floated back. Footsteps faded.

“We have the pipe,” Ferne said.

The music stopped. “They’ve left,” Luis said when he returned. “From the first note.”

“Good.” Never headed for the passage second to the left. “Keep watch when I’m working on the doors.”

“Just worry about opening them,” Ferne said.

He’d barely taken a step into the opening when the echo of wet feet slapping on stone returned. Only this time, echoing up from the very passage he stood within.

“There’s more,” Luis called from behind. “In the other passages.”

Never dashed back into the hub of the spoke.

Footsteps echoed from every direction – from every passage save the one with the skull. Judging by the echo of feet, there had to be dozens of the creatures converging on their position.

“Play,” Ferne roared.

Luis already had the pipe to his lips. He played a faster melody, fingers dancing on the piece of reed.

The footsteps slowed…but then continued.

 

Chapter 8.

 

The rising thunder from charging feet eased but it did not stop. Luis’ song may have slowed them, perhaps turned a few away, yet still the bulk of the horde continued on. Slap. Slap slap slap. Slap slap. Slap. The wet sound of their feet beat an awful rhythm.

“We’re trapped,” Ruveo snarled.

“Then we fight,” Ferne said. He held his huge axe in both hands, his lamp on the stone floor.

“Or we run,” Never said. He strode to the opening marked for danger. “There are no footsteps from within.”

“Your skull passage?”

Luis checked the others, Ruveo doing the same on the opposite side of the hub. “The creatures are in all of them,” Luis said.

“Even the way we came,” Ruveo added.

“Play it again,” Ferne said. “A different tune.”

Luis tried and again, while the slapping lessened, it did not stop.

Ferne shook his head. “Slimy bastards are herding us down there.”

“So maybe we die there instead of the certainty of dying here. What do we have to lose?” Never asked.

“Don’t plan to lose anything.” Ferne took up his lantern. “Go then.”

Never charged into the corridor. Shadows thrashed on the walls and the thump of booted feet soon buried the slap of webbed ones. This passage was no different to the others – dark, smooth, room enough for two abreast, the uniformity occasionally broken by a vein of quartz and its glittering, filtered light.

“Do they follow?” Never called over his shoulder.

“Yes,” Luis shouted back.

A blank wall appeared ahead. Lit by a pair of quartz veins, it bore no markings, no symbols. Never bent by the floor and stretched to look at the roof, but there was nothing. “This looks rather grim,” he muttered.

Silence, until finally, “Ready your pipe, Luis.” Ferne had set his lamp aside once more, and stood with his axe held across his chest.

Ruveo was cursing. He kicked at a wall, but his blade was drawn. Hopefully he was as good as Luis claimed.

Luis took Never’s arm, fingers digging into the flesh. “Isn’t there something you can do?”

“Let me think.” He moved a sconce and cupped his hands beneath the flow, dousing his face with water. He blinked at the cold as it ran down his neck to soak his shirt. He took a drink this time and stared into the quartz, its surface rippling with water.

There had to be something… He straightened. What if…? Yes! A water-lock. Like in the Temple of Pacela beneath Isacina. He spun. The other vein bore no water, but featured a twin sconce. Never slapped the wall, splashing himself. “I have it.”

“Then do it quickly,” Ferne snapped.

He dumped his pack and tore a water flask free then emptied it into the dry sconce. It filled halfway.

The clap of webbed feet drew closer.

Luis’ pipe sang, and hissing drifted down the passage, but the feet did not stop. Never jammed the empty flask beneath the running quartz – holding his breath. Faster. Faster. His heart began to skip beats.

The moment the brim overflowed, he leapt to the opposite wall, shaking the flask until the sconce filled.

A deep rumbling followed.

Luis paused. “You’ve done it,” he cried.

Stone ground against stone and the blank section of wall began to rise. Bright light burst from below. “Hurry.” He shielded his eyes and crawled beneath the opening slab.

Beyond lay a bright room, open to the sky and sunlight. Only its walls were lined with quartz veins, dazzling to his blinking eyes. His feet clacked on a hard surface as he stumbled forward, the others pushing after him.

“How do we close it?” Ferne shouted.

“Water,” Never cried as he dashed to a mirrored set of sconces. He snatched a flask Luis offered and held it over the dry sconce. “Another.”

Light stretched into the darkness beyond. At the edge of its limits, figures stumbled forward. Ruveo appeared, emptying his own flask. The sconce filled and the door stopped, then groaned back toward the floor. The creatures appeared in the passage, their sloping faces tinted green, scales dull in the quartz light.

Never drew a knife. “It’s nearly closed.”

“Don’t let them through,” Ferne ordered.

The door was a bare foot from closed when the first sea-creature slapped against stone. A splayed hand scrambled for purchase, seeking a foot or leg. One of the long barbs flashed in the light and then the door crunched down. A gurgled scream followed. The severed arm pumped green ichor onto the glossy surface of the floor.

Never dropped his water into the sconce and Luis slumped against a vein. Ruveo rested his forearm on the door, head on his arm as he breathed. Only Ferne moved around, a hand trailing the walls.

The light darkened. High above, clouds moved across the sky. When they passed and the sun returned, the glint of quartz winked down at Never. Even the floor was lined with it and the stripes in the stone walls were almost like the bars of a great, beautiful prison. Evenly spaced, cut to a regular size.

There were more sconces, some of which ran with water. A good thing, since they’d spent enough of it to need refills. Only the sound of everyone catching their breath and the trickle of water remained. Even the creatures had fallen silent – or left. And good riddance to them.

Never closed his eyes. The trickle of water grew, as if splashing into a pool. A pool? He opened his eyes. How many of the veins ran with water?

Ferne swore. “There’s no door.”

“What?” Ruveo turned.

“We’re trapped again,” Ferne said. “Gods be damned, Never. I thought you’d saved us but instead you’ve landed us in deep water again.”

Water? A chill swept over him. “Deeper than you think, perhaps.”

“What?”

“This room is filling with water.”

The big man glanced down and then around, expression darkening.

Luis stood. “We could try the sconces?”

“Which ones?” Never spread his hands. “The bars of quartz cover the room – even the roof. They’re everywhere except for where we stand.”

“Try one,” Ferne ordered.

“There must be another way,” Never said. And the damn map had tried to warn him too. Ruveo retrieved his flask and held it beneath the flow. He approached the nearest sconce and filled it up. Never paced. His footsteps soon skipped water; a thin layer rested atop the floor. At least, at its current rate, there was time to think of something.

“Well?” Ferne growled.

“I’ll try another,” Ruveo said. He moved around the room with Ferne, filling sconces while Never continued to pace. He drew a knife and spun it in one hand. He had no idea where his lamp was but it hardly mattered.

Luis joined him. “Have you got an idea?”

“Not yet.”

He grinned, patting Never on the shoulder. “Well, I’ve got faith in you.”

“That’s one of us, at least.”

“No, I’m serious. You’ve got us this far and you got us out of trouble before. You’ll do it again.”

More rumbling from deep below.

Never stopped pacing. Ruveo and Ferne had tried all the sconces and moved away from the wall as each began to shudder. A series of stone clunks followed as the sconces disappeared into the wall.

Water gushed forth.

“Wonderful.”

Ferne and Ruveo burst into argument, each assigning blame. Never resumed pacing – or splashing, as within moments, the water had reached his ankles.

“How’s that idea coming along, Never?” Luis asked. He was wiping his hands on his pants, repeating the motion.

“Don’t rush me, dear Luis.” But fast or slow, it didn’t make much difference. The well of clever ideas had dried up – or, rather, it was drowning. He’d exhausted them getting everyone into the death trap. Another cruel joke courtesy of the Gods? How vicious, their sense of humour.

“Break the ceiling.” Luis said. “Climb us, we’ll stand on each other’s shoulders.”

Never frowned up at the ceiling. They’d probably reach it – but it wouldn’t work. “The quartz will be too strong.”

“We should try.” His eyes were wide.

“You go last then, you’re the lightest.”

Luis nodded, moving off to explain his plan to Ferne. The big man agreed, bracing himself against the wall. Never climbed up next, then Ruveo. The man dug his boots into Never’s shoulders but he ignored the pain. It was worth it if they survived. Luis climbed up next, the stack wobbling a moment.

“Hurry it up,” Ferne said. “Water’s at my knees already.”

Never craned his neck. Luis was visible between Ruveo’s pant legs. The spearman had drawn a heavy knife. He smashed the pommel into the quartz. The sound rang out.

“Anything?” Ruveo asked.

“No.” Luis gave it more whacks, rocking the tower of flesh and bone, a faint chipping sound echoing in the chamber. He soon stopped. “It’s too thick.”

“Get down then,” Ferne growled.

Once Never stood back on the floor – now waist deep in water – he un-slung his pack and opened it. At the bottom, wrapped in oiled cloth and sealed in a hard case lay the precious Amber Isle map. Would it survive the water?

He snorted. Would he himself?

He tucked the map in his belt and left the pack and its provisions to the water. The sconces were soon submerged and the rushing sound eased, hidden beneath the rising pool. Within moments he was treading water. Ruveo swam around the chamber, searching the walls, his expression dark. Luis still held his spear in one hand and Ferne was glowering up at the ceiling.

The rising water quickened; as if more sconces had opened or more water rushed in from below. The ceiling approached as the surface-water drew him up.

“Gods be damned,” Ferne shouted.

A fine sentiment, Never decided. Damn everything.

He was so close to the truth! Only to fail now? No. The water pushed him close enough that he could touch the quartz and he drove his fist up, striking the smooth surface again and again. Blood covered his knuckles but he kept on, even as the water continued to rise. A strange hissing followed but he didn’t stop. Just another phase in the drowning, no doubt.

His punches finally slowed when the water reached his neck but he screamed one last blow as water closed over his head. In the silence, cold invaded his nose, ears and eyes. Nearby, the others struggled to beat against the quartz, to no avail. A black mist of blood trailed his hand.

Bubbles exploded around him.

He flinched, but found himself powerless, forced upwards, gaining speed, as if the water below shoved at him. Something was…the quartz…where had it gone? Water pushed until his back hit something sharp.

He screamed and bubbles burst from his mouth.

And then he was free, cast up and out from the chamber to tumble across hard quartz. He sucked in air where he lay, staring up at the open sky. The stinging pain in his back gradually returned. He propped himself up on his elbows, wincing at the movement.

Water still pumped from an opening. Luis was already free and Ruveo pulled himself out before turning back to haul Ferne up. They stood, coughing and spluttering until a cracking sound split the air.

A huge slab of quartz broke, dumping the two back into the chamber.

Never started forward, as did Luis, but the opening was large enough that the treasure hunters simply climbed free again. Everyone was smiling. Luis laughed and even Ferne nodded to himself as he stood on the outcropping of stone that ringed the quartz. Water continued to rise, near to spilling over the edges.

“What happened?” Ruveo asked.

“I have no idea,” Luis said. “Pressure from the water weakened the quartz? Maybe there was a fault line?”

“And you hitting it with your pommel set it off?”

“Or Never’s blows.”

Never shook his head. “I’m not that strong.” But once he’d checked on the cut on his back he kept his hand out of sight.

But something had happened. His blood. What had the hissing sound been? Had his very blood been…eating through the quartz? Had that exposed the fault line? Or the door to enter the Isle, the one that stabbed him, had it responded to his blood?

It didn’t matter now – it only mattered that the others knew nothing.

“Look at this.” Ferne’s voice was quiet. He faced away from the chamber below; the water from which was still climbing. Never joined him, stepping carefully along the edges of the quartz, then up to the stone embankment.

The grey sea stretched below, crashing into a reef that ringed the island. Piled among the jagged stones were boats. Hundreds of them. Some were old and withered, coated white with brine, others still holding enough colour to suggest recent grief. Longboats, small boats, even the hull and headpiece from a ship – it was so dense that Never could imagine walking across it and barely touching water. A few masts stood, leaning or broken in half. On one, a tattered scrap of rag stirred in the sea breeze.

Everywhere he turned, more boats. They ringed the entire island, sometimes extending dozens of yards. Like a second, vast graveyard for boats.

“What is this?” Luis whispered.

“The reason no-one sails so close,” Ferne said.

“What do we do now then?” Ruveo asked, his tone almost disinterested. Tediously pragmatic, was Ruveo.

Never shaded his eyes. No islands stood close at hand, none even bore the hint of a bridge. The sides of the peak they stood upon were steep, but it was their only chance. Swimming back down into the chamber to try and open the door was madness.

“We go down there and find a way to light a fire. And pray Luis didn’t lose that pipe –I doubt the sea-creatures have finished with us.”

Luis raised the reed. “It’ll need to be dried out. Will it work this time?”

“No idea,” Never said.

Ferne spat. “Let’s go down and find out – I’m cold.”

 

Chapter 9.

 

The climb down the peak was unpleasant but a cave at the bottom was a fine reward. It looked out across the small wood, sea crashing beyond, and offered a clear view of any who approached. On this island, that meant sea-creatures.

“Inventory,” Ferne said. He stood in his undergarments, clothing lain out to dry on the rocks around the cave mouth.

Never had his cloak and jacket out there.

Luis raised a hand, counting off the items he listed. “We have Never’s knives. That’s one each but I can use mine to make some simple spears. I can’t fire the heads unless we get a blaze going. We have water if we want to climb up and get it, but nothing to store it in. No food but I still have the pipe.”

“Think it’ll work?”

He shrugged. “Did it seem something was driving them on, down there?”

Ferne nodded and even Ruveo mumbled agreement.

“They were different,” Never said. “Older maybe.”

“How can you tell?”

“The scales looked thicker, the faces more formed. Slightly.”

Ferne nodded. “First priority – food. Luis, take Ruveo and search the wood. Bring back fuel too.”

“What shall we do then?” Never asked.

“Scout and talk.”

“Very well.”

Never joined Ferne as he crossed the uneven ground surrounding the cave, angling away from the wood. A broken path, or the echoes of one, led toward the faint roar of the ocean. They paused at a flat site, where stumps from columns continued to crumble into the ground. He bent by the base of one to brush dust from the familiar symbol of leaves, carved in miniature.

“A temple?”

Never nodded. “Surely. It sits on a position overlooking a good deal of the island.”

He followed the trail down toward the water, which waited below a sheer drop. More boats crashed apart on the reefs. Just like on the opposite side of the isle. And just like on the other side, the wooden boneyard stretched around the island as far as he could see. Ferne joined him and shook his head. “See that squared hull, directly beneath us?”

“Old Vadiya ship.”

“Right.”

“People have been meeting their doom here for a long time, it seems.”

“They have.”

Never spun the knife he carried – his favourite, with the bone inlay. “Think we’re any different than the fools who’ve come before us?”

“We have you, don’t we?”

“Flattered.”

“Think it’s time you told me how you know what you know?” Ferne’s beard was still dripping.

Never sighed. The man did seem to be running short on patience. And it wouldn’t hurt to share a little truth, after all. If he didn’t keep practising, he’d forget how. “I memorised this.” He held up the canister. “A map I stole from beneath the Imperial City.”

Ferne raised an eyebrow. “Impressive.”

“It was a feat,” he said with a grin. “But there’s nothing on it that helps with being stuck above the passageways.”

“How close are we?”

“To the centre of the Amber Isle?”

“To the Sea King’s Jewels.”

Never lifted an eyebrow. “Assuming they lie in the same place.”

“My sources say so.”

He shrugged; the jewels hardly mattered. “The spoked chamber was a matter of three doors away from the heart, according to the map.”

“Damn creatures.” Ferne spat again. A wind picked up, stirring his hair and the matt of fur that covered his chest. Never shivered. His clothes had better dry quickly; he wasn’t going to climb everywhere half-naked. And to add to it all, a sweat had formed at his temples despite the soothing breeze. Welcome back, fever – you were missed.

The big man started back toward the temple, this time heading for the higher ground beyond. It was rockier, spotted with stunted bushes of deep green that grew close to the ground, as if huddling down, cringing away from the elements.

“How did you hear of the map?”

Never climbed a steep slope. “Two thieves in the city were drinking at the Water-Petal. Talking about it. Know it?”

“I do.”

“One of them heard of a map that supposedly carried secrets of the Amber Isle – not the way to it, but within. He thought it was hidden in the library beneath the palace and he was right. I followed them in and took it first.”

“Sneaky bastard.” There was a hint of admiration in his chuckle.

Never shrugged. “They were dead at the time, so neither noticed.”

Ferne cast a glance at him, pausing at the top of the rise.

“The Vadiya killed them. I barely got out alive myself.” There’d been a lot of swearing and cursing during his escape. But it was their own fault for failing to watch the waterways. Still, Harstas and his Steelhawks hadn’t given up. They were persistent at least. Although, little chance they’d reach the Amber Isle.

“Bastards are everywhere,” Ferne said.

Never nodded as he turned a half-circle. Out on the water, something caught the afternoon sun. He took half a step forward. Sails. Still distant, but their course appeared to be circling the Chain. He gestured. “Your ship?”

Ferne squinted. “I don’t think so. The sails look wrong.”

“More treasure hunters?”

“Could be. Enough have tried.” He shrugged. “Let’s keep looking.”

Never gave the ship another look. Stay away, fellows. He moved on, turning to a new ruin on another spacious, levelled-off area. “There.”

He hurried over, Ferne’s heavy tread following. A low stone wall sloped away to nothing, but beyond, in the centre of what might have been a large square, sat a well. Its own wall was worn down but there was a suggestion of water below in the darkness. Where did the water come from? The Amber Isle was beyond mysterious.

He tapped the stone with the hilt of his knife. “A way back into the passages below?”

Ferne’s expression wasn’t one of confidence. “I say we keep looking.”

Never scooped up a rock and dropped it down. A faint splash returned. “How about we eat first then come back?”

“Good idea.”

*

Their meal comprised of roots and berries; not the most filling of feasts, but once their clothes were dry enough they headed up to the ruins in the evening light, which suited Never. Better than struggling to start a fire and waiting for the creatures to return.

“Search for a way back to the tunnels,” Ferne said.

The others spread across the ruin as Never checked the well. The depths remained black. No way to know whether it eventually led down to the passages or not. He toyed with another rock as he leant against the ruined stonework. Still, it wouldn’t take long to find out. All he had to do was climb down and check.

If the ruins were of a sophisticated keep or castle, then the owners would have built access passages for maintaining their water source, which would have been scarce on an island, precious even. It had to collect somewhere. He dropped the stone inside and hoisted a leg over the small wall before glancing to the others. Ferne was close by, moving between narrow walls, his head visible over the crumbling stone.

“Ferne, I’m going to check the well.”

The man paused. “Waste of time.”

“I’ll be quick.” He grinned when Ferne waved a hand and moved on. Never climbed over and searched for the first rung with his foot. He paused.

Where was the splash? First time he dropped a stone there’d been a splash. This time, nothing. Had calling to Ferne masked the sound? It didn’t make sense, but then, it didn’t matter. Unless something had changed below.

He stepped down, testing each rung.

He’d find out soon enough.

Darkness grew around him until the light was a small white circle high above. The sounds from the passage of water had grown as he descended and he stopped when his final footfall found air. The water was close. He swung around, one arm still holding the rung, and strained his eyes.

Only the faintest wisps of light graced the water’s surface. Damp stone walls rose around him but across from the narrow flow waited a darker opening…it might lead to a dead end.

It might lead back to the maze.

Best to tell the others in any event. He started back up.

Water erupted.

Never spun. Something dark snapped around his ankle. It pulled, tearing him from the ladder. He shouted when his head struck stone, then cold water swallowed him.

 

Chapter 10.

 

Never woke to a golden light and the streaming sound of water, chill stone beneath his back. His head throbbed and blood raged beneath the surface of his skin; the damn fever hadn’t let up. An amber dome towered above. Both ceiling and walls gave off their own warm glow. The Amber Isle…

He struggled his way to a sitting position, wincing at a stinging pain in his shoulder, then froze.

Scores of sea-creatures surrounded him.

All silent. Some stood in large groups while others stood alone, their sloping faces still. Bright eyes glittered with fear. His own had to mirror theirs. Never twisted slowly. More rows of the things. There was no way he could escape.

And yet… He was actually alive. What had happened in the water? Had they brought him here? Gods, why? And why did his shoulder sting? When he touched his shoulder his hand came away sticky with blood. The creatures nearest flinched back.

Never pushed slowly to his knees.

On the floor behind him lay a blood-covered sea-creature. Red mixed with green ichors that coated the body, appearing a deep black in the dim light. His curse saved him? Figure it out later. Time to leave.

Never stood and the sea creatures fell away, emitting wet gurgles.

He took more blood from the wound in his shoulder – no doubt from a barb – and smeared it across both hands. He lifted his arms and stepped forward. The creatures parted in a ripple of green scales. Some stumbled over one another in an effort to stay back. How long would it last? His veins tingled and his pulse leapt, but the further he moved from the body the less he’d be able to call upon his blood. And without an open wound on any of the creatures…but they didn’t know that. Never parted the crowd, boots squelching.

He crossed a huge room, ringed by many-chambered amber walls – not unlike the inside of a bee-hive. Only the chambers were larger and green figures lay within some; the rest obviously sharing the floor with him as he walked.

A creature hissed as he passed. He spun, hand outstretched. A drop of blood flew from the tip of his finger. The hideous things threw themselves to the ground.

“Back,” he shouted. “Stay back.”

He quickened his pace, not a run, but swift steps nonetheless. The same five-pointed leaf symbol covered the stone he crossed. At the rear of the chamber waited a large archway and a passage beyond. Once inside, he broke into a jog. He flashed by empty chambers, all lit by the same sourceless glow, before stopping at stairs.

This was the Amber Isle. He’d found another part of the puzzle – only to discover it full of hideous sea-creatures. “Gods, how you taunt me with glimpses of my goal,” he whispered.

For now, safety. He started up the stairway but paused on the first landing. More stairs led up into darkness. But to either side a corridor, leading around the central chamber. He ran along one, ignoring scrambling from within openings. His feet crunched fish bones and scattered scraps of clothing. When he reached a series of empty chambers he climbed into one and inched forward to peer down on the creatures.

They had gathered, two of the larger ones waving and hissing at one another. As he’d guessed, there had to be near to a hundred, maybe more within. Stone benches lined the room, set out in the spoke of a wheel, something he hadn’t noticed during his bloody walk.

All the spokes led to a darkened altar, sunken beyond where he’d lain. An oval-shaped door stood behind. He squinted. Marked with the now-familiar five-pointed symbol. Surely the secrets he needed would lie beyond that door. He swore, exhaling as he did so.

A soft hiss answered.

Never wheeled.

One of the creatures stood in the passage. Only it was a third of the size of a regular one. A child? Never raised a hand, crawling forward. It backed away, raising its own webbed hand. Its movements were calm.

He drew level and still it did not flee. He backed several steps toward the stair. The child flexed its hand and a barb snapped up, between forefinger and thumb. It glistened in the glow.

“Stay away,” he said.

The thing hesitated, but not from fear it seemed, but rather, confusion. Never slipped back to the staircase and climbed another flight, where he paused at the next landing. A fresh set of passages provided access to what must have been sleeping chambers.

Never climbed again, passing more landings until reaching a new room whose regular stone walls were lined with quartz veins but also huge levers and iron wheels with giant teeth – but no doors. He pored across the rock-face. Nothing, no sconces, no openings. He dashed to the stairway and held his breath, peering down.

The child was climbing the steps.

For now, none of the other creatures followed.

How was he going to solve the riddle of yet another dead-end room? If the child tried to attack him, he’d have to kill it. Or at least incapacitate it – if he could. Kicking it down the stairs might work but if nothing else, such an act would surely bring the wrath of the other beasts down upon him, blood or no blood.

Never strode back to the nearest steel lever, clutched it with his good arm and yanked down, leaving a smear of red.

Something ground together deep within the isle.

He ducked back to the stair. The child was one flight away. It showed no sign of slowing, but nor was it moving any faster. Its sloping face appeared curious, thin points of light in its head fixed upon Never. He swallowed and dashed back to the lever. Something was happening, but what? The wheel with teeth began to turn, dust shaking free as it gained speed, but nothing else changed. He reached for another lever.

A panel of stone ground open beside the first lever.

Never leapt through the opening, coming to a halt at another wall. He stood inside a large steel box. “What is this madness?” He thumped the wall then spun. The child had reached the top, its black eyes bearing the same curiosity as it reached out.

Another lever!

He wrenched it. Gravel screeched as the door closed. His sigh was interrupted when the box began to descend. Slowly at first, it soon picked up speed. Never gripped the sides but the steel box slowed before crunching to a halt.

Then nothing.

If he pulled the lever again, would he be opening the door to dozens of sea-creatures? Or would the box rise again? He checked his hands. Most of the blood had been wiped free and his shoulder was congealing. He reached for his belt and a knife – and swore. The canister and map were gone. Lost in the well? Maybe it didn’t matter – he’d memorised it.

Never flipped his knife up and sliced the inside of a palm, sheathed the blade then pulled on the handle.

The door slid open with a crunch as he drew his dagger again.

Sea-creatures were scattered across the domed room, most congregating around the distant stairs. One of the larger creatures bent by its fallen…brethren. Never crept forward. He’d have to bluff his way past that one. Or strike it down. Better to do it quietly; he still had to open the door behind the altar.

Keeping to the soft glow of the walls, he slid toward the altar.

Only a few more feet.

The nearest creature rose from the body. Its half-melted face flapped as it gaped at him.

“Remember this?” Never waved his bleeding hand at the thing, which did not step back but nor did it move forward. Bad sign. Earlier, every single one of them had been keen to get away. The vast majority of the things were still near the stair. One or two of the others were watching him, frozen in place, but he had time if he could open the door.

And if the door led where he hoped.

The moving box, as much as the glow and the sconces, were clear signs of a great civilisation from the past. Who else but such a civilisation would know the secrets of the world – blood curses included.

Hopefully.

He would have uttered a prayer but that would have been like spitting into the wind.

Never moved to the door. The sea-creature took a step after him. Never shook his head at it, splaying his fingers and easing off some restraint. Blood twirled in his palm, arching toward the body nearby, but he kept it in check. Now the scaly thing fell away and he grinned.

“That’s more like it.”

Opening his stance to face both creature and door, he pressed on the central symbol. The door swung open without grinding or scraping. Could it be that simple? Never stepped inside and waved to the mute creature before pushing it shut again.

Darkness.

He waited. The door did not reopen. Did they not understand what to do with it? Or were they afraid to follow him? He moved along the passage with hands outstretched. The cold air stung his cut but it would close soon enough.

Amber light glowed in the distance.

Its source was a smaller domed chamber with a single door and twin spiral stairwells at opposite ends of the room. The walls were possessed of the same luminescence as the altar room. He trailed his fingertips along the stone and shuddered when his blood reacted –a tingling sensation coursing through his veins.

He stepped back. “A good sign.” The answers he sought were nearby, surely.

The door first. A new symbol – two interlocking leaves. He pushed on the markings, with both hands. No click this time. Never crouched by the seams of the door. No clues. He ran hands across the entire surface, leaving behind marks of blood, pushing and prodding to no avail. He traced the five-point pattern but nothing slid or moved.

He glanced at a staircase. Worth a look.

He took the steps two at a time, twisting upward, until the fever had him breathing hard. An alcove waited at the top and beyond stretched rows of wooden shelving, only it was treated with something – a resin?

He paused to wipe sweat from his brow.

The shelves extended, a dozen deep to his left and right. Smaller markings set on each end-piece had the look of reference numbers – only the symbols were unfamiliar, a mixture of curls and slashes. No language he’d ever come across before – not even beneath the Imperial Palace library, and he’d snuck into it enough times to be certain.

He reached for a book and raised an eyebrow when he had to drag it out with two hands – the thing was made of quartz! Beneath the heavier cover, thinner ‘pages’ of the clearest quartz were covered in the mysterious language. Further, parchment – or something pale – had also been sealed between each page, allowing the words to standout against a backing, which was in turn sealed in by another layer of the mineral – a second page. “Wondrous.” The words would never fade. Ingenious.

He replaced the tome and tried another, then a third from a different shelf. All written in the same indecipherable language. The knowledge of ancients at his finger tips. Yet unattainable. They might as well have been at the bottom of the ocean.

Never searched the room and found only more shelves. He returned to the small chamber and took the second staircase, which led to a series of sleeping quarters – almost like a barracks. Or, judging by the size of each empty room, a monastery. No furniture remained and no doors either, but many rooms possessed a circle of distorted light in the ceiling – no doubt another quartz-sealed window, these pieces obviously much thicker. Not all offered light. Many rooms were dark and in one, a partial beam of light extended into the room. Perhaps stone or dirt half-covered the top of the quartz-plugged shaft.

Another door sealed the passage. “You better be hiding something,” Never told it. He pushed on the symbol and it clicked as the door swung open.

Another staircase.

He folded his arms at the steps. “More of you, I see.”

Never started up the winding stair, taking slow steps and pausing often. His blood continued to boil as it fought the fever. The staircase led into darkness only. He used the wall as a guide as he climbed. It was probably asking too much of the gods for a steaming plate of roasted beef to be waiting at the top of the steps. Most likely it would be another set of stairs.

Instead, light above resolved to yet another room – only this one was dominated by a huge vein of quartz – easily half the width of one of the walls. A skeleton in faded rags lay slumped against the base, jaw agape. Across from the skeleton rested a collection of rubble, piled up against a door. Whoever had died here had been trying to lock themselves in – or keep something out.

Was this Javiem? Never had no way to be sure but as he crouched by the skeleton, something about the cut of whatever cloth remained, made him think perhaps it was. A hammer and chisel lay beside open hands. On the rough stone floor, half-concealed by the tatters of shirt, was a single word – a second unfinished, a mere single stroke. Never twisted his head.

“Midnight.”

And that was all. The room had a single stone bench across from the giant vein and naught but the rubble before the door. Never sighed. The door beyond the altar room needed to be opened. There had to be something beyond it. Something more – not the Sea King’s Jewels, but more answers. The map had been marked with a room beyond the altar – not the library above. He had to open that door.

Something ‘clinked’ – the sound of stone on stone.

He moved to the rubble.

From beyond, still faint, the sound of stone striking stone. Luis and the other hunters? Or something else?

“Ho, Luis,” he shouted.

No response, but the faint cracking continued. Never bent to the rubble and hurled the first piece of stone away. It crashed against the wall. Where had Javiem found all the broken stone? Never climbed the heap and tossed more rock aside, straining with a large piece. He kept digging, flinging smaller pieces aside and dragging bigger hunks to tumble down the pile.

He paused to wipe his brow, blinking heavily.

More sweat. The fever raged now. Perfect timing. Just as he was beginning to shrivel from thirst. He tore strips from his cloak and wound bandages around both hands to continue clearing the door.

The whole time Never worked to remove the scree, the sound of rock striking rock from beyond the door continued in an irregular rhythm. When he finally had the door free he paused. If it swung inward, it wouldn’t open far thanks to the debris, but if it slid aside as some of the others…but there was no symbol.

Did the leaf lie on the other side of the door?

He thumped the stone. “Ferne?” No answer. “Ruveo? Is that you, you unpleasant bastard?”

Nothing but the steady crack of stone on stone. He kicked the door and slumped onto the pile of rubble he’d moved.

If the sounds beyond the door were digging, then all he had to do was wait.

And keep an eye on the stair below.

 

Chapter 11.

 

Never jerked awake.

His chin had slipped off his hand; he blinked at the soft luminescence produced by the quartz. Smart, Never. Smart. Doze off in the lair of the sea-creatures. Yet he was alive and the sound of digging was much louder. Closer. He stretched, kicking out kinks in his legs, then moved to the door.

“Luis? Ferne?”

The sound of stone striking stone stopped. “Never?” Luis’ voice was faint.

“Can you open the door?”

“You’re alive.” There was shock in the man’s voice.

“Hence our conversation, old fellow.”

“We’ve nearly got the door free,” Ferne said. “Can’t you open it from inside?”

“No symbol.” A curse drifted through the stones; he agreed. “I found the inner chamber of the isle. If you hurry up, I’ll take you there for the price of a water flask.”

More rocks clinking and cracking and then silence.

“Trouble?” he asked.

Luis shouted. “Where do we press?”

“Place a finger within each point of the leaf and push or twist.”

A loud click. Never stepped back as the door swung inwards, revealing starlight beyond three shadowy figures. Luis, Ferne and Ruveo entered, a soft rain following them. Each looked worse for wear but Luis grinned at him. “You’re a lucky bastard, aren’t you?”

“I am that.”

Ferne clapped him on the shoulder and paced the room. Ruveo gave a short nod.

“Good to see you too, Ruveo.”

“So what happened?” Luis asked.

“I was sure the well would provide a way in and I was right – a sea-creature dragged me into the water. I hit my head and when I woke I was near an altar in a honeycombed chamber. The creatures sleep down there.” He gestured toward the stair. “Must be a hundred at least…but I don’t know how they open the doors with those webbed hands.”

“How did you escape?” Ruveo asked.

Ferne rose from his examination of the skeleton. He made no mention of the carving, only adding his own voice to that of Ruveo’s. “Luis has the pipe. What did you do?”

He shrugged. “Turns out they don’t like human blood. Or, my blood.” He didn’t elaborate.

Ruveo frowned. “What does that mean?”

He pointed to the cut on his shoulder; already the flow of blood had stopped. “When I touched this and my hand came away bloody, they scattered. They watched me, but only one stood its ground.”

“That makes no sense whatsoever.”

He gave the man a look. “And those things down there make sense? Doors without handles and hinges, do they make sense?”

Ruveo pointed. “What are you hiding from us?”

“I believe him,” Luis said, his voice quiet.

“Do you? And why’s that?” Ruveo said. “Because he got us inside? Bah, doesn’t mean anything. Ferne?”

The big man had been stroking his beard. “Never, we can still help each other… Or we can gut you now and take as much of your blood as we can carry down there.”

Never grinned – maybe it was bravado, maybe the beginnings of fear. Things could quickly turn sour if he wasn’t careful. “I don’t remember my blood opening doors all by itself, do you? Nor, for that matter, you memorising my map – which is lost in the well, by the way.”

“Just tell us,” Ruveo snapped.

“Luis, remember what Peat said about me?”

He nodded slowly. “That your scent was old. That it was like nothing he’d encountered before. Human but more, were his words.”

Never looked to Ferne. “Ever had reason to distrust Peat?”

“None.”

Ruveo threw his hands up. “That’s your answer? You claim you’re not human?”

“Leave it be,” Ferne said. “Peat was always right. Never, what do you mean? I’m willing to listen.” The man folded his bulky arms. “Only, I hope I like what I hear.”

Never pursed his lips. Two blades against one…and they’d all die if it came to knives, even Luis if he tried to help. Damnable fools. He had to give them something. For while there was always anger in Ruveo, Ferne’s patience had clearly worn out. “I’m human enough – I’m just cursed. But I think the Amber Isle holds a secret about the past, the people who created this place and who use the leaf symbol. I think I’ll learn something about my past. I suspect my heritage lies here.”

Silence.

Ruveo burst into laughter. “You think you’re a descendant of whoever made the Amber Isle?”

“Better than a descendant of swine.”

Ruveo’s laughter stopped. He drew his knife – Never’s knife. “Say that again.”

Ferne stepped between them, eyebrows drawn together. “Enough.” He raised a hand, thumb and forefinger close together. “I’m this close to the Sea King’s Eye – I won’t have you two ruin it for me.”

Ruveo backed away, muttering beneath his breath.

“Never, what does your…suspicion have to do with evading the sea-creatures?” Fern asked. “Do you think they obey you. Is that it?”

“No. I think they’re afraid of my blood, my curse.”

Ruveo spat. “There he goes again. What curse?”

Ferne waited.

“I’d rather not have to give a demonstration. One of you might get hurt.” He’d tried something similar in the past and it had not ended well.

Luis stepped forward. “I’ll do it.”

Ferne glanced at Ruveo. “Any objections?”

The man waved a hand.

“Very well.” Never stepped across from Luis and hesitated. There was a risk but it was best if Luis volunteered, that way there wouldn’t be any mistakes. He could control it. This time, he would control it. “Make a small slice on your forearm but don’t come any closer and get ready to staunch the wound.”

Luis took a breath and drew his knife. He made the cut, crimson welling on his skin.

“Stay back.” Never cut the back of his wrist. Blood rose. His veins had already begun to stir the moment Luis made his cut. He eased his grip on the blood’s thirst and a trail of blood rose, stretching toward Luis.

The spearman fell back.

Gasps rose from the other hunters.

Never clenched his muscles but his blood snaked forth, searching for Luis. He ground his teeth, holding it a moment before snapping his wrist. The flow broke and his blood splattered to the stone. Even accidently taking a little from Luis would have started something dangerous.

On the floor, his blood slid toward Luis a moment then came to a stop.

Luis clamped his free hand over the cut. His face had paled. “My blood seemed to surge toward yours,” he said.

Never nodded. “Unchecked, I can drain a man in moments.”

Ferne’s eyes were wide.

Ruveo’s face was twisted into loathing. “You are cursed.”

Never sneered; how typical of the man. “Congratulations, Ruveo – your eyes function perfectly.” He glanced to Ferne. “I drained a sea-creature and now they fear me. So if you want to find the Sea King’s Jewels, about which I do not truly care, I can help you while I search for answers. Otherwise, we can go our separate ways at the bottom of the stairs.”

“No. We can work together.” Ferne moved to the stair and spoke without turning. “Luis, Ruveo?”

“Fine with me,” Luis said. His eyes were a little wide but he still offered Never a smile as he bound his cut with a strip of rag.

Ruveo sneered. “Only while we’re on this island.”

“Good enough,” Ferne said. “Lead on, Never.”

“I don’t suppose anyone has any water first?”

“There are puddles outside from the rain,” Luis said.

Never stepped out into the dark. The sky glittered above the sea, which was barely visible on the horizon. A flash of light between nearby rocks revealed a puddle – it didn’t look too clean but it was better than nothing. He exhaled and stood a moment before lowering himself to drink. Another close call. But everyone had survived, that was something. He had controlled his blood once more. That was more than something.

He returned to Javiem’s chamber. “Down we go. Slowly in the dark.”

At the bottom Never led them quickly by the cell-like rooms, outlining his guesswork about the light, then finally down to pause in the amber glow before the door and its leaf symbol. “According to the map, this leads to the treasure room. Down that passage behind us, is the door to the altar room where the sea-creatures gather. We should keep an ear on it.”

Ferne nodded. “But you can open this?”

“Not yet.”

Ruveo snorted.

Never gestured to the door. “Well then, step up and let’s hear your brilliant idea. No? Nothing?”

“Shut-up,” Ruveo said.

“Careful, you’ll start a battle of wits with that comment, my friend.”

Ruveo swore and stomped along the passage; hopefully to stand rear guard.

Ferne was frowning. “Stick to the job at hand, will you?”

“Of course.” He pointed to the interlocking leaves. “This isn’t like the other doors, there’s no point that twists or allows pressure in the symbol. I think the lock isn’t within.”

“Here?” Ferne turned in the chamber. “The walls are featureless.”

Luis examined the ceiling as best he could. “Not much up there. Nor is it practical.”

Never nodded. “Agreed. That monastery bunker and the altar room nearby suggest at least some traffic to this room in the past.”

Ferne snapped his fingers. “The altar.”

Never chuckled. “Why didn’t I think of that?”

“Don’t worry, you still have to open the door. And that’s if I’m right,” he added.

“Let’s find out.” Never headed down the dark corridor, pausing where Ruveo waited. “Can you hear them?”

“No. Why?”

“The altar is the key to opening the door,” Never said. “And it’s out there.”

“You’re sure?”

“No,” Ferne said. “But we have to try.”

“Here’s what we do then,” Never said. “I open this door and we run for the altar. It’s close. You hold off any sea-creatures and I look for a way to open the other door. If you’re in trouble, call. I’ll set my blood loose.”

“Sounds safe enough. For you,” Ruveo said.

“Very well. We’ll use the curse on your blood then.”

Ferne grunted. “Enough. No point holding off – let’s move.”

Never pressed the symbol and stepped back, letting the door swing open. Amber light flooded the passage. Never dashed into the domed room and across to the altar, stepping down to it. His boots squelched, sticking as he walked. He chose not to examine the slush too closely. The altar was cut from quartz – no surprises, but it was stained green and red. Silver patterns had been obscured by the muck, the edges barely catching the glow. He felt around its sides for a symbol.

“Anything?” Luis hissed.

The three stood guard around the altar, knives ready.

“Not yet.”

“Hurry it along,” Ferne said.

Never paused. A glimpse of leaf-symbols beneath the trail of grime. He pushed on it and a deep click echoed. A moment later, a second, softer click. “Found it.” He stood. Beyond Ferne, the door to the passage was sliding closed, swinging inward. It would seal them within the altar room!

“No.” Luis dashed forward to lean against the door, but it pushed him back as it slid shut with a thud.

“They’re coming,” Ruveo called.

Never threw a curse over his shoulder. Sea-creatures were moving into the room from the main stairs. They strode with purpose, the hissing breath echoing in the chamber. A tall figure led the group. Perhaps a dozen, with more slapping of webbed feet coming from higher up on the stairway.

Ferne strode to brace himself before the altar. “You better do something, Never.”

Never slapped the symbol again. Two distinct clicks and now the door was sliding open. “Check the other door,” he shouted. Luis slipped into the hall. He returned within moments.

“Closed,” Luis said.

Then it was one open and one closed, but not, it seemed, two. “Help me with the body.” He waved Luis over, lifting one end of the dead sea-creature. It was still slick with ichor. He grunted; arms straining at the weight.

“Hold them a moment,” he said to Ferne and Ruveo.

The first few creatures were already closing as Never crab-walked the body to the doorway and dumped it. “Help them,” he told Luis before sprinting toward the altar. Ruveo and Ferne had engaged the nearest of the sea-creatures, slicing and ducking swipes from barbed hands. Ferne landed a cut on the lead creature then leapt back.

Their numbers were increasing.

Never knelt by the symbol. “Get ready to run for the door,” he shouted. Once again, he sliced his own wrist and blood strained beneath his skin. He thumped the symbol and sprang atop the altar, arm outstretched.

“Now!” He released control and blood shot from his arm to strike the leader in a red spray. The sea-creatures scrambled back as the bigger figure stumbled. Ichor streamed from its chest, mixing with Never’s own blood.

He fell to one knee at a wave of dizziness…

All he knew was water.

Wavering, cold, sharp. The ebb and flow of it. The light of the moon on the surface. The caress of bubbles. Then, animal rage at intruders on his island. The thrill when a barb struck home. The weight of a comatose body dragging behind him; the difficulty in gripping the fleshy limbs. Laying the bodies across the altar –

“Never.”

He blinked as the amber room came into focus. Luis was dragging him from the blood-covered altar. Never flinched back, breaking the red flow. The sea creatures had receded and now the leader’s body lay in place of the first. He fought the stream of blood, clamping a hand over it and tensing up, as if to seal off his veins.

“Step over,” Luis said.

One after the other, they squeezed through the door, which was jammed by the body of the first creature. Never managed a grin; just as he’d hoped. Luis started leading him down the hall but Never stopped. “Pull it free. We have to seal the altar room.”

“Can you stand?”

“I’m fine, just do it.”

Ferne and Ruveo appeared as Luis leapt to the door and bent by the body, cursing as he tugged on it. “It’s caught.”

Ruveo and Ferne charged forward. Ferne knelt and hacked into an arm with his knife. When the body finally came free, half remained with them and the other half on the far side of the door as it swung the rest of the way closed. Safe. Never leant against the stone, breathing hard. The fever had eased, but the taint of the sea-creature blood was almost as unpleasant. The walls appeared as if through a thick film of water.

He shook his head until it cleared.

Ruveo returned. “Well, that was all for nothing.”

“What?”

“The door is still closed,” Ferne said.

“No.” Never shot up. He’d heard a second click at the altar. It had to be open. Or be unlocked at the very least. Never dashed to the symbol, jaw clenched as he slapped his hands against the surface and pushed. A click and the door slid open to a dark passage. “There.”

 

Chapter 12.

 

Ferne strode into the shadows, head shifting left then right. “Help him,” he told Luis.

Never accepted an arm from Luis, and together they followed Ruveo into the dark. The passage stretched beyond the limit of light left by the amber walls at their back.

“That was disturbing. And maybe even impressive,” Luis said.

“My curse?”

“It saved us, Never.”

At a cost.

“Do you still feel weak?” he asked.

Never nodded, or what passed for a nod. “But more than that. Ruveo’s reaction.”

“Don’t worry about him. He’s like that.”

“Which is like most people who discover my true nature.”

“I don’t care.”

“Bless you for it, Luis.” He paused to catch his breath again. “But what I meant was that you have to watch a person like that – if he doesn’t see me as human, he’ll have less trouble betraying me. Which means all of us.”

“I’ll watch him, don’t worry.”

Ahead, Ferne and Ruveo became silhouettes against a cool blue light. They split apart, disappearing.

Never stopped when he reached the light thrown from the typical quartz veins; it bounced off something wondrous. A sea of jewels covered the floor. Brilliant white diamonds and sapphires in every shade of blue, from those pale as the sky to fist-sized pieces richer than the sea. A walkway of stone encircled the room and split the middle of the floor like a stone bridge between the gems.

Ferne and Ruveo were knee-deep in the jewels. Luis moved away to walk the perimeter, shaking his head in what had to be disbelief. “There are chips in the quartz here,” he said.

No-one answered; they were too busy with the jewels. The treasure, as the map promised, but not the treasure Never sought.

But there was an alcove.

He strode along the walkway. There had to be something beyond the arch – it had to be the last secret.

“I shouldn’t have doubted you, Never.” Ruveo was trailing diamonds between his fingers, letting them tinkle back into the piles. His eyes were almost as bright as the treasure.

“I hold no grudge,” Never told the man. And it was not a lie – he’d long grown accustomed to such misconceptions when his true nature was revealed. And a bit of fear was probably prudent.

Ferne climbed after him, placing a hand on his shoulder before Never could reach the entryway. “What about the Sea King’s Eye? Did your map mention it?”

Never shrugged. “In the pile? The next room?”

“Let’s find out.”

The next room spread around a central column, upon which rested a square shard of quartz set with a dark, golden piece of topaz.

“It is here,” Ferne cried. He took the Sea King’s Eye and ran a hand over the surface, spinning it to examine from every angle. Never moved directly to the walls. Faded pictures were painted on the surface. He traced them back to the side of the entryway.

The first depicted a pair of figures facing one another in sleeveless robes. Male and female. Each held a knife. In the next panel both had made an incision in their wrist and blood spun between them in a dark twine. Even with the age of the images, the slight difference in colour for his blood and her blood was clear – different shades of tiny inlaid rubies, twisted like rope.

He ran a thumb across one of the scars in his palm.

The third image showed the two figures apart and a new female with a knife. In the next panel the heads had crumbled from the wall, but the same exchange of blood occurred. He stepped to the next and the next and in all pictures there was never an indication of death or pain. New players entered and left and eventually the robed people began to meet other peoples. Those with pale skin; those with darker skin and always in different states of dress.

The green and brown, precursor to Hanik peoples? And the gentle curves of the swords at one belt – the Kiymako?

The next image was broken. Only feet and the hints of robes remained. A breath caught in his throat. He traced the broken stone. Fresh, regular cuts, as if from a chisel? Someone had been here, recently. How recently, he could not tell. But the chips and broken parts of the other images appeared natural. Or at the very least, ancient, the breaks near to matching the colour of the walls.

Not this piece.

Who? Who had been here? Had one of the treasure-hunters survived? Cut a jewelled piece of stone from the wall? Where then, were they now?

In the final image two of the robed figures sat enthroned high above a mass of different peoples. In one hand each, again, they held knives but the other hands held open books marked with five-pointed leaves. Each face was calm, benign. The throng of people stared up, adoringly.

“Quite an image,” Ferne said.

Never blinked. Luis stood beside the hunter, smiling. Never gestured. “Indeed. They obviously saw themselves as rulers of mankind.”

“Looks like they were.”

“Perhaps for a time.”

“So you’re really a descendant of them?” Luis’ eyebrows were raised.

“Possibly.”

Ferne jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “The pictures suggest so.”

He shook his head. “I remember my mother before she died – we lived in Quisa, my brother and I and her. No-one in our family ever mentioned the curse before…before we learnt of it.”

“And your father?” Luis asked.

“I don’t remember him.”

Ferne clapped his shoulder. “Seems like your ancestors were once rulers – you come from exalted stock.”

Never said nothing.

Luis laughed. “Isn’t this what you wanted? Take heart.”

“Luis, your cheer is a beacon.” He smiled; the spearman had a point. His search for secrets had borne fruit. Only…he could have laughed, he could have wept. How dissatisfying – and how predictable – that the answers he’d gleaned led only to more questions. Always more questions!

Twenty years of searching and now, what? Twenty more ahead? “I have answers but they are incomplete. Why wouldn’t my mother name us? Who and where is my father? If I am a descendant of these people, what led to their downfall that no-one speaks of them today? And why has my family hidden itself? I do not even know where to look next.” He clenched a fist. “You can see how I’d be somewhat disheartened.”

“The Forests of Hanik,” Luis said. He pointed to the final picture. “Those people there – look. They remind me of Hanik folk.”

Never peered closer. Standing on the dais below the enthroned figures but above the adoring crowds, were smiling figures with pale skin whose robes were forest-green. He hadn’t noticed them before.

“Could just as easily be Vadiya,” Never said.

“Maybe,” Luis said. “You could keep looking around the Isle.”

“Not with our scaly friends lurking about.” And perhaps he already had the most valuable secret the island had to keep. And capital. He’d have to take a few diamonds – passage to Hanik or Vadiya would not be cheap. At least that was covered.

Maybe a smile wouldn’t hurt.

Ruveo leapt into the room. Sapphires slipped from his clothing, as if his pockets were overflowing, but he held a long bone. “I found this in the jewels. It’s human.”

Ferne frowned. “Are there more?”

Jewels stirred in the next room.

A pair of man-like shapes were rising, jewels trickling from broad shoulders. When the tinkling of diamonds stopped the things stood seven feet tall – covered in jewels from head to toe. He gaped. Covered? No. The shapes were made of jewels. The toes themselves were buried in the piles of diamonds but the faces were no more than indents, grooves where mouth and eyes ought to have rested.

Once they had formed, they fell still.

“Gods. What now?” Ruveo asked.

“They aren’t doing anything. They’re just standing there,” Luis said, glancing from figure to figure.

Never waited. Still no movement from the towering jewels. Were they sentinels? Why rise now? “I don’t like this.”

“They’re not moving. Let’s leave before they change their minds,” Ruveo said.

“Wait.” Never held up a hand. “Too many surprises in this place.”

“We can’t stay here forever, can we?” Ruveo stepped onto the trail around the edge of the room, eyes locked on the sentinels. Never spun his knife in his palm, taking comfort in the familiar action. “This isn’t a good idea, Ruveo.”

The man offered no response. Instead, he crept along the wall.

And the guards offered no movement.

Jewels glittered.

A sapphire slipped from a pocket in Ruveo’s pant leg. It hit the stone walkway and bounced into the heap. Ruveo froze. The guards remained still.

“He’s going to make it,” Luis said.

Ruveo drew level with the nearest figure, a good ten feet from where it stood, and the strange hulking sentinel of jewels did not even twitch, nor did its face shift. The hunter stared long at the thing before taking another step.

Colour flashed across the room.

Never crouched, shielding his face as jewels sprayed off the walls. In the silence that followed there was only the tinkling of diamond and sapphire bouncing along stone. He lowered his arm. The sentinel no longer stood in place, instead it was re-forming, as if liquid, rising up to resume its shape and stillness.

A heap of bloodied flesh, cloth and bone lay on the walkway, blue sapphire stark against the mess. Blood splattered the walls, as if thrown by a violent wind.

Nothing remained that could be called Ruveo.

Someone wretched. Never turned from the blood as his own bile stirred. Ruveo had hardly been a pleasant man, but such a fate… He could not look away from the sentinel. What manner of creature lurked within the pit of jewels before him? The second sentinel had not moved during the attack. Gods protect them, how could they escape? Such guards were too fast.

Ferne was breathing hard, his face pale beneath his beard. Luis had stumbled back into the pictography room. Never kicked the wall. He stormed over to the final image. How smug they now seemed, enthroned above everyone. To the Burning Graves with them.

“Is it all for death, then?” he shouted. “Is that all you’ve given me?”

The image remained silent.

“We cannot give up.” Ferne moved into the room, the Eye still in his grip. “There is reason here, just like with the rest of the Isle.”

“You think so?” Never snapped.

Luis sat with his head between his knees.

“Yes.” Ferne remained calm.

Never shook his head, but he began to pace. It might be so. But he would not test it himself. “All that can be certain is that Ruveo was safe up until the point where he passed the sentinel.”

“How can you be sure?” Luis had raised his head.

“Because he was able to use the walkway. A jewel hit the pit as he walked, yet that thing didn’t move until he attempted to pass it.”

Ferne was nodding along. “It didn’t strike until he tried to leave.”

“No, Ferne.” Luis dragged himself up. “Until he tried to leave with the jewels.”

Ferne frowned at the Eye.

“We need to be sure,” Never said. If nothing else, he would exhaust every possibility before becoming a pile of shredded meat and bone. “I’m going to try something.”

He left the room and knelt by the pit, eyes on the sentinels.

Ferne and Luis waited behind him. “What do you have in mind?” Ferne asked.

“I want to cast a jewel beyond them. See if they react. If so, we can assume the sentinels were put here to keep the treasure – and the Eye – safely in this chamber.” He ran a hand through his hair, maybe to stop it shaking. “And, I hope, that so long as we carry no jewel, we will not be attacked.”

“Testing that last part is a big risk,” Luis said.

“It is.”

Ferne still held the Eye. “I cannot give this up. Not now that I have it.”

“You may have to,” Luis said.

“For years I have searched and planned for this.” His voice hardened. “I cannot.”

“Is it worth dying for?”

“By the gods it is.”

Never shrugged. “We might all die yet.” He drew his knife and lowered it toward a jewel, giving it a flick and snatching his hand back. The sapphire clinked down a small heap. Neither sentinel stirred. He grinned. Stupid of him to grin at death – but then, what other choice was there? Weep? No, better to go laughing. “Think I was fast enough?”

“No,” Luis said.

“Good. My confidence is rising again.” He lowered a hand into the pit and withdrew a large diamond. Still the sentinels did not move. “The theory holds true thus far.” He stood, giving each man a look before throwing the jewel.

It flew straight for the exit – right up until the first sentinel flashed into movement, a hand-of-jewels snatching the diamond from the air.

He took a breath. Gods, the thing was fast.

“Another test.” Never took a handful of jewels in each hand, and hurled them forth. Both sentinels splayed into tendrils, snagging jewels from the air with hideous speed. He straightened. “Take heart, gentleman. This we may be able to use,” he said.

“Do you really think you can distract them?” Ferne asked.

“Perhaps – but there’s one more test.” Never stepped onto the walkway opposite to Ruveo’s remains. He paused. If he was wrong, terrible things were about to happen.

“Are you sure about this?” Luis asked.

“I’d bet at least two-thirds of my gold on it,” he said.

Luis gave a weak laugh. “And how much gold do you have?”

“Right now? None – but imagine I do.”

He took another step. No movement. He pulled in a breath and held it as he moved around the wall, taking the opposite path to Ruveo. Drawing level with the sentinel, he paused to extend just his hand. If he was wrong, he could live without one hand. Probably.

Nothing.

He inched forward, a single step landing close to the wall. And then another.

“You’re past it,” Luis cried.

Never exhaled. It was true. He continued until he’d reached the other side, then took a few steps down the hall. Several bloodied diamonds lay on the stone. Perhaps there was a limit to the distance the sentinels could reach but he did not touch the gems.

He returned, unable to repress a shiver when forced to turn his back on the sentinels.

“So what now?” Luis asked.

“Easy. Empty your pockets and walk out,” he said.

“I cannot leave the Eye,” Ferne said.

Never extended his hand. “I have mostly enjoyed knowing you, Ferne.”

“Help me and I will make it worth your while,” he said. “With the Eye, no wealth will be denied me.”

“I don’t desire gold; you have nothing I need.”

Ferne smiled, the first one Never had witnessed from the man. “I have a ship.”

Never hesitated.

“How about passage to the Hanik woodlands?”

He hung his head a moment. “Fine. Luis, you stay with me. Ferne, line up near the sentinel.”

“What are we doing?” Luis asked.

“I’m going to be in the middle, heaving jewels as a distraction. You’ll be doing the same from behind Ferne.”

Ferne frowned. “Will that work?”

“I have no idea,” Never said. “There are diamonds in the passage, so I assume there’s a limit to their reach. And it’s not the whole pit we need to distract, just the mass of the two sentinels; that’s the part that moves. It might work.”

The big treasure-hunter slapped him on the back. “It’s a better idea than I have – which is nothing.”

Ferne crept along the walkway, stopping at a point close to level with the sentinel. Even the muscles in his neck were strained where he stood, waiting. Never scooped pile after pile into his arms, motioning for Luis to do the same, before he walked into the central walkway. “I’m going to aim for the furthermost corner from you,” he told Ferne. “I’m hoping I can draw its bulk there.”

“And me?” Luis asked.

“Throw between the sentinel and Ferne.”

He nodded. Never grabbed his first handful. “Ready?”

Ferne gave no answer but his eyes were locked on the shadows leading to freedom.

Never met Luis’ eyes then nodded. “On my command.”

“Ready.”

“Go!” He cast a heap of stones at the corner. Jewels exploded, blocking his view, but he kept throwing, bending to the pit and throwing more until he heard a shout, the words indistinct.

He stopped.

The hail of white and blue faded.

Ferne stood in the mouth of the passage, waving his arms. Blood flowed from a gash in his forearm and from his thigh that had been slashed up and down, but he was upright. “Never, you’re a clever bastard, you know that?”

 

Chapter 13.

 

Never climbed the last stair and turned back to help pull Ferne up into Javiem’s room. Moonlight fed the vein, a soft glow. The treasure hunter walked with a limp and was now covered in makeshift bandages but he still carried the Sea King’s Eye – and despite the grimace he gave when he lay against a wall, an almost-smile graced his bearded face.

Luis paced, slow steps around the room.

“I’ll take the first watch,” Never said. He re-tied the bandages on his own hands – even the pieces of cloak he’d used to shift the rubble had not protected his hands from cuts inflicted by the diamonds below. “We should try and sleep before figuring out a way off this island.”

“We’ll make a signal fire,” Ferne said. “The White Wing will approach then.”

“And break up on that graveyard of a reef out there,” Never said.

“We’ll think of something.”

Never sat against the door with a grin. “Good, because I’m all out of ideas – your turn to save me, got it?”

Ferne chuckled as he lay back, closing his eyes.

Never glanced at the spearman. “Luis?”

“I’ll lie down soon. I just need to walk for a little longer,” he said.

Never nodded and rested his head against the smooth door, facing the staircase. So long as nothing tried to climb it, all would be well.

The night wore on.

When he began to blink, Never stood to stretch. The hunters were sleeping on the stone floor, breathing evenly. Never crossed the room to listen at the stairs. Nothing. The doors must have been keeping the sea-creatures at bay. Did they not know about the switch on the altar? Or how to open the doors with the symbols? Surely they had some inkling, some way to move about.

But for now there was no sign of them and he needed air.

Never returned to the door and opened it. Cool air poured in and starlight with it, the sky mostly covered by cloud. Empty stone stretched down to the sea, a black mass with tips of white. Never leant against the door, allowing himself a view of the sea and the stair.

Years of searching and more to come. No clear answers but more questions. Rulers of mankind? And he was what, a descendant? At the least, surely, bastard half-breed. It explained the blood but little else. And they’d used their blood to transfer knowledge, if those books in the pictographs were apt symbols. And there was nothing to suggest the curse was something so volatile and insidious.

And yet…the books. It all came back to the books.

Maybe he wasn’t a freak, a perversion of nature. Just as his brother had always claimed. We’re gifted, Never. Not cursed. You’ve got it wrong – don’t be so hard on yourself. It’s a gift and all that’s left to do is figure out why, to discover what to do with it.

“And have you found something, brother?” he whispered.

Cloud shifted and moonlight spread across the island – and was brightly answered from the ground. Never straightened from his slouch. Another symbol. Only this one was part of the island itself, as if imprinted on the stone. He stepped closer.

The very rock shimmered in response to the light, forming the familiar five-point leaf.

And then it died as the cloud smothered the moon.

Was that what Javiem meant when he carved ‘midnight’ into the floor? Had Javiem been the one to visit the treasure-room below? Had he almost escaped, crawled back up and died of his wounds? There were no rubies or any other jewels on his skeleton, that much Never was certain of. Someone else had defaced the murals, it seemed. And escaped the sentinels. Sadly for Pabil, there was little Never could tell the man.

He returned to the room and closed the door before waking Luis.

“Already?”

“Sorry to say.”

Never lay down on the softest part of the stone floor he could find – which could have been anywhere, it was all terrible – and closed his eyes.

*

“So what do we put in it?” Never asked, shielding his eyes from the sun.

Before him, on the stretch of stone near the woods, a bonfire pumped heat into the air. Branches smouldered, leaves crackling and shrivelling. Luis dumped another heap of dried vines onto the flames, sparks leaping. It’d taken all morning but they finally had a blaze big enough to do the job – save for one more ingredient.

Ferne turned from the sea, snapping his fingers. “Rose-bark.”

“Here?”

He shrugged. “It’s a coastal tree. Look, see?” He pointed. “The thin leaves at the edge of the wood. And we need a lot.”

Never looked to the woods and sighed. “You’re lucky your leg is hurt,” he said.

“I don’t feel lucky,” Ferne replied.

Never grinned as he joined Luis. The air was cooler within the treeline, the hardy trees digging deep into the rocky earth, roots spread wide. It made for an open wood.

“These,” Luis said, pointing to a stand of the twisted trees. Their limbs ended in thorns, the thin leaves almost like needles. The trunk was covered in dense bark which came away easily as Never stripped it back. He took sparingly from each tree – who knew if he’d kill any in such exposed conditions.

Back at the fire, he dumped the bark onto the blaze and stood back. The flames lowered a moment, then a thick, purple-ish smoke puffed into the air. It rose into a thick column when Luis added his armful.

Ferne clenched a fist. “That’s the way.”

“I’ll get some more,” Luis said. Never joined him and by the third pile they had a serious plume of purple-tinted smoke choking their small part of the sky.

“Will it be enough?”

“It better be,” Ferne said. “I’m paying that rat of a captain enough to stay close to the islands.”

“Then now we wait,” Never said, sitting on a nearby rock.

He only had to wait an hour before a ship appeared in the distance, it’s white sails bright beneath the noon sun. When it cast anchor he stood, unable to stop a big smile. Time to leave. Finally.

“How do we warn them about the reef?” Luis asked.

Never swore. The reef. He pulled his cloak free and banked the fire, once, twice, a pause, twice again, varying his movements and using the smoke to create the signal for caution. Would it be enough?

Flags on the mast answered and a long boat was lowered, but what measures could they take? They didn’t know the dangers. Never didn’t even know the dangers, not truly. The boat graveyard was difficult to understand – with all the wrecks, why had so many continued to row to their deaths?

The longboat turned and started to pick up speed as it approached the reef. Never shielded his eyes. The men were rowing hard but not racing – and yet, the longboat was still increasing its speed.

Shouts echoed across the water. Several oarsman lifted their blades, yet the boat continued to race toward the reef.

“Something’s propelling it,” Never said.

“There,” Ferne pointed.

Webbed hands flashed in the water beside the boat, grasping at the oars. Sea-creatures. The scaly bastards meant to drive the longboat onto the reef. Some of the sailors were beating at the water with their oars, others rowing against the force of who knew how many creatures dragging the boat forward.

Shrill notes cut the air. Luis stood at the edge of the water, the reed pipe in hand.

Never caught his shoulder. “We need to be closer.”

Luis nodded. They ran to the green vines growing over an outcropping and started down, Luis first.

“Careful down there,” Ferne shouted.

Never nodded as he followed Luis. The vine creaked beneath his hands as he dug his boots into the cliff-face. The crash of waves grew as he neared the bottom.

“Watch your footing,” Luis said.

Beneath him waited a jumble of wood; planking and the butt of a mast, even fragments of oars jutting between tips of jagged reef. He put pressure on a stack of wood and it creaked but held.

“We’ll have to pick a path,” Luis said.

Never scanned the debris. Enough of the wood rose and fell with the waves, that slipping through would be a death-trap. If a large piece of wood moved after he fell, it could seal him beneath the surface.

The sailors were fighting off the sea creatures but the boat had yet to crash.

Luis leapt across the wreckage, using the largest pieces as stepping stones. Never followed, spreading his arms to keep balance. Halfway to the edge of the cemetery the wrecks had spread out enough that Luis paused on an outcropping of rock. He lifted his pipe and played a melody, fighting the wind.

But it was enough.

Green hands slipped into the water. Enough stopped their kicking that the sailors could land heavy blows. Oars snapped and shouts rose but one of the sailors was able to slow their advance enough that they smacked into a broken hull with moderate impact.

“Keep playing,” Never shouted. To the boat, he cupped his hands. “Can you come closer?”

One of the sailors waved. “We’ll try.”

Never looked back to the cliff-top, where Ferne waited. Getting him down would be difficult, but he’d leave that to the sailors. The boat crept closer, men driving it through the piles of wood as best they could, casting pieces aside until they rested before Luis, who didn’t stop playing.

“Ferne is injured,” Never said. “Can you help him down?”

An oarsman nodded. “We’ll manage.”

“What is this place?” another asked.

“Nowhere to linger,” Never said. The wood shifted beneath him with the tide and he stepped for firmer footing.

The piece of decking snapped.

He crashed through with a cry. Cold water enveloped him, bubbles and splinters flashing in the dark. Never swam for the surface but the shifting roof of wood blocked him. He thrashed, tearing at the pieces but for every one he moved, another slid into place.

Something caught his leg.

He kicked it free, but the grip returned. In the dark, a sea creature loomed. It had him, both hands wrapped around one leg. Its mouth worked, gills flaring beneath a silver chain, whose star-shaped pendant caught on a shaft of light from a gap in the wood.

He frowned as the creature pushed him up, shoving from part of the reef. Never’s lungs strained as he tore at the wooden ceiling of what could become his tomb, before finally breaking the surface. A hand grabbed his own and he was pulled free, the creature giving another push from below.

It was enough to climb onto a rock, gasping and spitting water. He rolled onto his back, chest heaving. One of the sailors was speaking, face concerned. Never nodded, assuming the question was about his welfare.

Luis played on, eyes wide, but a smile of relief appeared between notes.

“Someone get Ferne,” Never said, shaking water from his ears. “I’ve had a gutful of this bloody island.”

The sailors laughed, helping him onto the longboat, where he collapsed against the bow, murmuring an apology to the man on the tiller.

Somehow, he was safe – so long as Luis played, it seemed.

Yet unease remained.

The silver necklace and pendant of Pacela. Had the creature stolen it from Spots?

Or had Spots become the creature?

 

Chapter 14.

 

The wind was brisk against his face, but he leant on the rail and closed his eyes as the White Wing cut through the glittering ocean. Captain Jonaas’ bark dominated the deck, burying the creak of ropes and thump of bare feet on wood. He was apparently well-satisfied with his payment – and none too curious about the traces of blood left on the diamonds and sapphires. It seemed the secret of the Eye would stay with Ferne, and the few jewels – still a small fortune – those that killed Ruveo and trickled into the passage beyond the pit, had been rendered as payment for passage.

“So where will you go now, Luis?” he asked.

The treasure hunter paused. “I hear Hanik is nice in summer.”

Never grinned. “With two weeks at sea, you’d miss a bit of it.”

“I can make that sacrifice.”

“You don’t want to take your share back to Marlosa and find Peat? Open that inn?”

Luis sighed. “With the Empire collapsing? I hope he’s safe but I don’t know. And I let Ferne keep my share – I couldn’t keep the jewels. Knowing what they’d been used for.”

Never gave him a look. Not something Never himself was going to do, but it was still admirable. “So you want to help me look for answers that might not exist?”

“Why not?” He slapped a hand onto Never’s shoulder, the one without a wound. “You still have to save my life at least once.”

“So getting you out of the jewel pit doesn’t count?”

“Hardly. You had to save your own skin too.”

“There are worse vices to have.” He looked across the water – in the distance dolphins were leaping into the air. “I don’t think we discovered all the secrets of that place, you know. Like the water trap – where did it all come from? It wasn’t sea-water.” And the giant five-pointed symbol glowing on the stone at midnight – that, too, a mystery.

“I don’t think we’ll find out, Never.”

“You’re probably right.” He glanced back toward the receding Isle, shrouded in sea mist. If Luis did travel with him, would the man survive whatever was to come? Could he protect Luis? Could he take such a risk with another’s life again? “Have you travelled the Hanik forests much?”

“A few times. My grandfather once told me a story about a people who hid in the forests by turning into trees. Maybe they were your ancestors? They seem to value the leaf as a symbol?”

“True. Though I wonder if we won’t have to find someone in the Silvery City to answer my questions. The royal library is said to be the greatest in the known world.”

A shout came down from the nest. “Yellow flag sighted portside.”

Captain Jonaas cupped his hands. “That blasted Vadiya ship again?”

“Looks to be, Captain. It’s giving chase. Gaining.”

Jonaas spat. “Not a chance. More sail. Move,” he roared at nearby sailors.

“That sounds like trouble,” Luis said.

“Exactly what I’m looking for after such a relaxing stay on the Amber Isle.”

The Vadiya ship was gaining, little by little.

“Definitely the same ship, Captain,” the man aloft shouted. “I see a boar on the mainsail.”

Never leant over the rail, straining his eyes. A boar? Harstas. Damn him. Never’s eyes were no match for a telescope but that was word from the nest. Had that been the same ship he and Ferne saw from the top of the Isle? Somehow, the Gods had put Harstas on Never’s tail again – even if the commander might not realise it yet. The Vadiya had been busy hunting Marlosi ships since the invasion, but what were the chances the White Wing would end up chased by Harstas’ boar? But then, it was exactly the sort of thing the gods enjoyed.

A bit of fun at Never’s expense.

He rolled his shoulders as he stared across the waves. He had to admit, life was dull when things were too easy. And maybe he now had a chance to pay Harstas back for the stunt with the poisoned assassin.

“Think that ship’s going to be a problem?” Luis asked.

“The captain believes we can outrun them.”

“Good – because I’m not a great swimmer.”

Never folded his arms, gaze still on the as-yet-distant ship. Distant for now, but Harstas was gaining. Just how fast was Jonaas’ ship? Would they even reach Hanik in one piece? “I sympathise, my friend.”

And so the tide turned against him once more.

[* *]

A Note from Ashley

 

Hi! I hope you enjoyed The Amber Isle and thanks for reading.

 

I’d like to ask if you could help me out by leaving an honest review of the story at your place of purchase? Long or short, good or bad, it all helps!

 

You can also receive a free copy of A Forest of Eyes (Book 2 of Never’s continuing adventures) if you sign up to my newsletter where I’ll send you a copy upon release.

 

 

Ashley

[* *]

Acknowledgements

 

Right away I want to thank my wife Brooke for the support and the hard work you put in to help me with all my stories, and The Amber Isle is no exception.

 

To all the writers and readers who helped me at any stage of this one – whether it’s the writing, editing, production or promotion stage! Definitely CJ, Tess & Rebekah and also Jeff, Aderyn, Angela, Deborah, Feren, Michelle and also the ever-awesome Catherine and Maddalena, you’ve both supported all of my books so far which is above and beyond!

 

And to two more awesome folks who toil behind the scenes but deserve more spotlight – to my editor Amanda J Spedding for helping me once again to see what I could not see! And David Schembri for once more lending a deft hand when it came to formatting the ebook.

 

Finally, thanks so much to Lin Hsiang for the fantastic cover of Never searching within the Isle and to Vivid Covers for nailing the text!

 

 

Ashley

 

About Ashley

 

Ashley is a poet, novelist and teacher living in Australia. Aside from reading and writing, he loves volleyball, Studio Ghibli and Magnum PI, easily one of the greatest television shows ever made.

 

You can find him online at Twitter or on his fiction blog, City of Masks and at ashleycapes for poetry. As if that’s not enough, you can also sign up to his newsletter for free books, competitions, giveaways and sneak peeks of forthcoming titles!

 

Also by Ashley Capes

 

Fiction

 

The Fairy Wren

A Whisper of Leaves

Crossings

Somnus and the March Hare

 

Book of Never

1. The Amber Isle[]

2. A Forest of Eyes[]

3. River God (forthcoming)

4. The Peaks of Autumn (forthcoming)

5. Imperial Towers (forthcoming)

 

The Bone Mask Trilogy

1. City of Masks

2. The Lost Mask

3. Greatmask (forthcoming)

 

Poetry

 

7 Years

old stone: haiku, senryu & haibun

between giants

orion tips the saucepan

stepping over seasons

pollen and the storm


The Amber Isle (Book of Never #1)

  • Author: Ashley Capes
  • Published: 2016-05-04 08:50:15
  • Words: 31911
The Amber Isle (Book of Never #1) The Amber Isle (Book of Never #1)