Throne of Leaves – Book of Never (8)

Preview draft, Chapters 1-6

– 31 October 2021

Chapter 1.

Never lit his lantern with a spark of crimson-fire then set it upon the nearest shelf, deep orange flickering to red across the walls, their amber luminescence mixing with the blood. When he trailed a hand along the stone and quartz, the same thrill of Amouni magic lingered.

Unsurprisingly, the library in the Amber Isle had not changed. Its resin-coated shelves were protected from the elements, the words in the heavy books protected by quartz pages. He let the liquid fire flare a little, raising his arm to add more light.

Enough to read by – and now, two books that needed to be read, now that he’d found and unlocked the five-pointed puzzle that hid them within the walls.

He lifted the first, heavy tome free. The Forgotten Ones. Would this one, finally, hold at least a few clues about Arkenon, God of the Malecaphera? Never turned each heavy page carefully but did not have to read too much to find Arkenon mentioned… yet as a footnote only.

It is claimed in the Origin that the Malecaphera, before they vanished, worshipped a dread God Arkenon. Others believe this may have been another name for the Grand Poise. Whatever the truth, few relics of the religion remain, save for what is preserved in the Temple Trivium.

Never lowered the tome.

Finally.

A clue. It might not be reliable, but it was more than he’d found so far. And while the book raised several questions about unfamiliar terms, the biggest problem was clear. Such a Temple might not exist any longer, let alone still hold supposed traces of the ancient religion mentioned in the book.

Steel clattered from somewhere within the isle.

Sea-creatures again? Never closed the book and set it down with a sigh. During the first few encounters since his return to the Isle, nearly two weeks ago now, he’d been gentle enough but if they were seeking him once, they weren’t going to receive a warm welcome.

Or, they would receive an exceedingly warm welcome.

He strode through the passages, some lit by the shimmering quartz veins, others his crimson-fire, following the five-pointed leaf symbols until he reached the many-chambered altar room with its domed roof and amber walls.

There, the sea-creatures shrank back in the openings.

None challenged him and the floor was empty, the red and green smears upon the altar just as dark as when he’d last checked on the room.

Never let the globe of crimson light flare, covering his entire forearm a moment, and the sea-creatures scuttled further away, the smack of webbed limbs echoing somewhere from the sleeping chambers above.

It didn’t seem to be the creatures at all.

Which meant the sound must have come from somewhere else… beyond the hidden door, which stood open, exactly as he’d left it? Had one of the sea-creatures headed down toward the jewel pit?

Another crash of steel against stone.

From just that direction.

“Surely not.”

Never quickened his pace but cut the crimson-fire before he reached the passage. No need to give his position away, if he hadn’t already.

But when he reached the sea of pale blue fire from the jewel pit, it illuminated a woman dressed in a leather vest beneath a yellow cloak. The light gleamed on glass buttons that had been sewn into her jacket – a constellation. Her blonde hair bore a streak of woven white ribbon. Quisoan?

She knelt at the far end of the jewel pit, one hand upon her knee, skin pale, muscles defined by the hard shadows thrown by gleaming jewels. Her lantern and pack lay nearby, pack bulging with enough provisions for a long stay, it seemed.

Some of the way along the path between the glittering gemstones rested a few scraps of shredded steel and a handful of jewels.

Something she’d tossed forth, no doubt.

The Guardians were still.

That she’d reached the Amber Isle alone suggested she was capable enough, and she’d obviously not been fooled by the trap either. More than a typical treasure hunter?

“The guardians within are faster than you or I,” Never said when he reached his side of the pit.

She rose with widened eyes, steel-tipped staff extended.

But her gaze quickly narrowed. “Who are you?” Her accent seemed to suggest that she was from a Quisoan tribe but her cloak, belt and boots were more of Marlosi design. And there was her use of a staff, not a typical Quisoan weapon.

It was also clear, even frowning at him, that she was beautiful. Which hardly meant he could lower his guard. “I am Never, a traveller.”

She did not lower her weapon. “Sounds like you know the isle well.”

“A little better this time around,” he said. “Hunting for treasure?”

“I think I’ll keep that to myself for now, stranger.”

Never sheathed his blade. His crimson-fire was but a heart-beat away if needed, unlikely as that was, considering the jewel pit between them. “Could I offer some advice?”

“Only if it’s how to deal with whatever’s lurking beneath those jewels.”

“Gladly, but this pit is not the only threat here.”

“Those creatures? They pose no threat to me.”

“I don’t doubt that, since you’ve made it this far, but I imagine your boat is missing by now.”

She pointed her staff at him. “Are you saying that you’ve done something to my boat?”

“No. The sea-creatures will likely have sabotaged it by now; they did the same to me last time I was here.”

“Is this some trick?”

“Not at all.” Never said. “If you don’t trust me, see for yourself. But if you want to do that, you have to leave any jewels behind that you’re carrying. You’ve seen what the Guardians can do.”

“I cannot give them up.”

“Then you cannot pass.”

Her jaw was clenched. “I must.”

The word was almost a hiss of determination, rather than desperation that might have suggested greed. Hard to really be sure. Whatever the reason, there was no point pressing her. And more importantly, what reason existed to simply let her die?

None.

The Guardians had to be stopped again.

“Give me a moment.”

“I don’t think I have much choice.”

“Trust me if you can,” Never said as he strode further down the passage. Once out of sight, he lowered his voice. “Guide.”

A figure robed in gold with arms bare appeared, the head of a stag regarding him this time. A familiar flat voice. Master.

“I asked for the Guardians to rest. Why are they moving again?”

They cannot rest always. You created them to always watch.

Never sighed. “Make sure they are resting now.”

Yes, Master.

Never strode back up the passage to the jewel pit and crossed the walkway. “It is safe to leave.”

The woman’s expression of doubt eased when she saw him draw near, and while her first step was hesitant, she continued with only a final glance at the pit of jewels.

At the other side she paused to thank him, though suspicion lingered. “You don’t seem interested in the treasure. If you can stop those… things, you could have taken it all, surely?”

“Other treasures have caught my eye,” he replied.

“Such as?”

“Knowledge,” Never replied with a faint smile.

“I see.” The Quisoan woman hoisted her pack and started down the passage. “Thank you, stranger. And fare you well.”

“Huna ic sanwe vidawon,” he said. Stars watch over you.

“Keda,” she replied after a slight pause.

And you.

Chapter 2.

Never stood upon stony earth beneath a darkening sky, where the five-pointed leaf had once glowed, soft crash of the waves reaching him. Long ago now, when he’d first visited the Amber Isle. He nudged a small stone with the toe of his boot. Long ago? Perhaps not decades… but so much had happened since that the memories weighed like years.

The ground lay dark, no hint of the bright Amouni symbol visible where the sea air reached him upon the cool, spring breeze of dusk. He folded his arms. Would night need to fall for the silver to return? Or would his own ‘tattoo’ trigger it sooner?

There had been another treasure in the hidden books – an explanation for the tattoo at last.

And it was time to test what he had learned… if he could.

Reaching the Isle had not been as difficult this time, thanks to his wings… but every hour, every day he spent upon the island was more time for King Oleksan to poison the land on his path to Arkenon.

Or whatever his end goal might actually be.

The decay that lay in Oleksan’s wake left wide swathes of wilted grass and plants, spotted with black and yellow, or drained to grey, and melted snow or twisted stone and a terrible, lingering scent of honeyed mould. The bones of animals caught within were frames of powdery grey or a faintly purple hue, there had not seemed to be a clear pattern. An entire village in the Vadiya mountains had been swallowed up by the bleak decay too, with no trace of survivors, just crumbling stone and withered wood.

Mounds that had once been people.

A true terror had been unleashed upon the world. The chill it left lingered, and Never clenched a fist, the birch patterns dim. “And I should of have stopped it happening.”

Footsteps approached and he turned.

The treasure-hunter appeared from Javiem’s cave, staff in hand, a frown upon her face. She moved easily, even with the weight of her pack, which now doubtless included more than a few diamonds. “You were right about my boat – assuming you weren’t responsible yourself. It’s gone.”

“That’s how they add to their number, by trapping people here.”

She leant on her staff. “You don’t seem very worried.”

“I’m not.”

“Why?” She crossed the space between them, closing enough to strike with her weapon if she wished, though it didn’t seem likely.

Instead, she set her pack down and lifted one of the Amouni texts free, the heavy glass catching the slowly setting sun. “You have no boat of your own and you’re not interested in the jewels but if these books are what you came for as you claim, you have no way to take them from the Isle, unless you plan to fly.”

“They are invaluable, true.”

“You’re avoiding my question.”

“I suppose I am,” Never said with a nod. “Have you come to seek my help?”

She set the book down. “I have an offer.”

Never raised an eyebrow. “Are we negotiating?”

“Yes. You can obviously escape this place somehow – take me with you when you leave. I will repay the debt with something rare and valuable.” She gestured to the white ribbon woven into her hair. “I suspect you know what this is.”

He nodded. The weave was part of a rare Quisoan gift, usually used to restore or help things grow. Many tribes carried traces of the gift, but the powerful Weavers he recalled from his youth were able to do much more, even improving their own strength. “That is generous.”

“That’s not all I’m offering,” she said, a fierceness appearing in her gaze. “I’ll kill you if you try to betray me.”

“Seems a little much, to be honest.”

“Not to me. Do we have a deal?”

Never regarded her a moment. Speed was important. He was ready to leave for now but carrying both books and the woman such a distance? Fatigue would wear him down by flight. But if the Amouni magic was anything like the Guide’s power to travel a river course, surely yes. It shouldn’t matter who or what he brought along.

It was untested magic, however.

But since the Amber Isle contained no river nor could Guides travel the ocean, leaving the woman behind was a death sentence.

“We do, but here are my terms,” he said. “First, I’ll take one diamond. Second, tell me why you came here and third, your name. Finally, I want you to keep what you learn about me to yourself, mostly for your own safety.”

The treasure-hunter folded her arms. “Are you trying to impress me?”

“To be honest, you should be impressed already, considering how I saved you from the jewel pit.”

She smiled. “Get me off this island and I’ll be impressed.”

“And the rest of my terms?”

“My name is Rikeva,” she said. “And I was here for the Sea God’s Eye, or anything of great value, it didn’t really matter. But I have enough jewels now.”

“A classic motive for visiting this place, but why risk your life by doing so?”

“Ask me again when we’re safely away from here.”

Never shrugged. “Very well.” Again, it probably didn’t matter so much, truly – he didn’t need to know in order to save her. It might have helped him decide if she was a threat but it didn’t seem likely. 

She reached into an inner pocket and withdrew a large diamond, tossing it across the space between them.

Never caught and lifted the jewel to the light, orange refracting in a pleasantly dazzling way, then lowered the precious stone. It would certainly be useful. “Thank you.”

“Are you sure that’s enough payment?”

“It is.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t ask for more.” Rikeva shrugged. “I can’t figure you out, stranger.”

“Call me, Never,” he said. “Ready to leave, then?”

“Very well… Never. I am curious as to where you’ve hidden your boat.”

Never bent to place the jewel within his pack, wrapping it in a spare cloak so that it would hopefully not scratch the quartz books.

“I have a different method in mind, but you have to take my hand and trust me, as it will be unusual.” And untested in the current Age too, since Snow hadn’t seemed to be using symbols… “Can you do that?”

“No boat? I’m starting to regret our agreement.”

Never glanced at the sunset – hardly anywhere near midnight, but surely dark enough for the light to appear within the stone? Darkness was no requirement according to what he’d read, but it might go some way toward convincing her. He strode across the open area but the exact location of the five-pointed leaf was hard to recall…

Silvery light rose from beneath his boots.

Rikeva strode to join him now. “What is this?”

“The magic we’ll use to escape.” He flipped a knife into one hand and used the point to prick his forefinger, then knelt down and traced the outline. Hissing gold followed his movements. A shiver ran through his body – part from the Amouni magic, part excitement.

After so long, the truth. The symbols were for travel and as Ascended, he could use them. Since the forasa symbol activated as the book described, success was all but guaranteed.

“There are no Quisoan or Marlosi Arts like this.”

“Agreed.”

Rikeva was not precisely frowning, but her expression still suggested concern. “How does it work?”

Never pulled the neck of his tunic down enough to reveal the tops of his tattoo. “This symbol, and my blood, is what allows me to use the forasa symbols. I can take us to the nearest symbol on the mainland.”

Some of the doubt was easing, replaced by what might have been creeping awe. “You’re claiming such a vast power?”

“I am,” he said. “And that’s part of why I want you to keep my secret.”

“I don’t even know if I believe it,” she said, but still nodded. Up close, a light dusting of freckles was visible across the bridge of her nose.

“Then I’ll make sure everything is clear for us to travel,” he said. “I just need a moment.”

Never closed his eyes and instant lines of spreading silver stretched before him like branches, connected to scores of flower-like pods. Few ended without other branches, the majority offering connections in various directions, meaning he could move to and from most forasa symbols to most others.

The nearest was, presumably, somewhere on the northern tip of Marlosi… yet some were so faint, so distant that they were not visible at all, just vague, feathery touches against his mind.

Other lands? Beyond the farthest reaches of the ocean…

Or just the limits of his current position on the Isle?

“Is it ready?” Rikeva wore her pack now, staff looped through the straps. “What do I need to do?”

“It is,” he said, stepping away from the symbol. And hopefully it was true. “Just take my hand. And don’t let go.”

The Quisoan woman held out her hand. He took it with a nod. Calloused but warm, a little thrill passed through him. How long had it been since he’d actually touched another person, even incidentally?

But the isolation had been worthwhile, especially if the forasa worked – researching the Burnished King and the dark god would be swifter, more so even than what he could manage with wings.

Never stepped back onto the five-pointed leaf.

Silvery light glowed from the throat of his tunic, blazing bright enough to blind him and Rikeva’s grip tightened before the light changed to a golden flare.

Chapter 3.

When the piercing light cleared, Never found darkness lit only by a glow beneath his feet, and a few slivers of warm light from above… a cave or cavern?

Rikeva slumped down and Never caught her. “Are you all right?”

She groaned as she rubbed at her temples. “I think so… for a moment there I was sure that my joints had been disconnected. I couldn’t move.” Rikeva removed her pack and stood, testing her legs a moment. “Is that normal?”

“It is.” Or at least, there was a possibility. Perhaps for those without Amouni blood, travel was more difficult. No way to be sure, since she was probably the first person without Amouni heritage to use the forasa symbols in centuries. “Forgive me for not mentioning it. It passed quickly, right?”

“It did.” She moved slowly, searching the room as she spoke. “It looks like we’re not on the Amber Isle anymore, as you promised.”

“Is that grudging approval, I hear?”

Rikeva chuckled. “Maybe once we’re out of here.”

Never set his own pack down and examined the room. As his eyes continued to adjust, something resolved before him – a shrine? A low, rectangular alter set before a tall alcove. Within stood a robed figure carved of stone, wings folded around the body. The face was welcoming, a soft smile on the lips.

Amouni, obviously.

He leant closer, running a hand along the side and back of the altar, and then the statue, but found no hidden switch or lever.

“I think this used to be the entry,” Rikeva said.

Never joined her at the wall opposite the shrine where a triangular pattern in the floor led to a pile of rubble, the larger pieces jammed with smaller hunks to create a solid slope, sealing any escape.

Rikeva kicked the rock pile. “Looks like we need to try another symbol.”

“Perhaps. That might depend on where you plan to head from here. We’re in the foothills of the Trieta Mountains. The next nearest is probably closer to the Twin Villages.”

“Wrong direction.”

Never grinned. “Then get ready to keep another secret. Maybe take a few steps back too.”

Rikeva did so and Never draw a dagger and made two small cuts to his hands and let the crimson-fire free. A gasp echoed in the shrine but he focused on the rubble – best not to hold back, since the extent of the cave-in was not clear. Hopefully he wasn’t about to overextend himself, because the fire would need to be quite hot.

Searing flame shot forth in a bloody flare. It splashed across the cave-in’s surface but he narrowed the streams. The beams of crimson-fire soon changed as he forced more heat into the fire, becoming a pinkish white. Rikeva retreated toward the statue.

Never did not let up – stone was melting, a tunnel forming swiftly.

Perfect. And yet, he did have limits. Hopefully the cave-in wasn’t going to test them; it all depended on just how deep the cave rested before the landslide. But he kept the crimson-fire roaring until all resistance ended.

He let the flames die away and sucked in a few deep breaths.

Light poured down a long tunnel, something they’d have to crawl along – once the melted stone cooled, little tendrils of steam still rising.

“You’re the one they talk about, aren’t you?” Rikeva asked, staring at him, voice a little hushed. “The Winged Hero of the War.”

“They do say that, yes.”

She shook her head in what might have been disbelief, but instead she thanked him and murmured to herself. “There is hope.”

Never moved to the altar and sat, dragging his pack up beside him. He found his flask and took a long drink. Despite the weariness that settled across his limbs, he was by no means exhausted – a relief.

“I must ask you something, Never.”

He nodded.

“My horse is back at the lighthouse and I cannot afford to return so far; I don’t have time. Can you truly fly?”

“I can.” There seemed little point keeping that secret now; she knew most of them already. But whatever her next question… well, the answer he gave would depend on what sort of delays it might create. Even with his new-found speed, thanks to the forasa, visiting a town or city and gathering information was first priority.

“Will you take me south to Red Ridge?”

Red Ridge… an old settlement and not a single step out of his way… in terms of direction, at least. “I will.”

She made a fist but gratitude filled her voice. “Thank you.”

“Who are you trying to save?” he asked, certain of his guess before he spoke.

“My family. My tribe – all of the tribes.”

Never lowered his flask. “The decay?”

“Yes. It destroys all it touches, plant, tree, animal or woman,” she said. “None know from where it came but it appeared overnight, bursting from the very earth, cutting through the camps. We are afraid to count the dead.”

Never pushed down a surge of guilt. Too long searching the Isle. “But someone is trading in a cure?”

“Only something that can stave off death. We hope long enough for a cure to be discovered.”

“I am seeking the source,” he said. “And I will end whatever it is.”

“In time to save the tribes?”

“Yes.”

Her expression did not reveal what she thought of his claim. “A mighty promise. Even for a hero of the war.”

“I know.”

She moved to the tunnel and extended a hand within, and obviously the stone had cooled enough, since she retrieved her pack, shoved it in and crawled after. “It’s not too bad.”

Never followed with his own pack. The passage was tolerable, even if the surface hadn’t cooled fully.

When he crawled free, it was to meet a darkening sky above and thick shadows between trees of sweet-scented pine, their needles almost purple. An overgrown trail led down, eventually no doubt, toward level ground but the forasa seemed fairly high in the hills. The faint echo of water reached him from somewhere nearby.

Melted stone spread across the edges of the old landslide, one which seemed as much solid earth and stone as anything else. An old slide, then. Who knew how long the shrine had been buried?

“How does this work?” Rikeva asked. “Because I think I might be expecting too much – can you carry me and both our packs?”

“I doubt it,” he said. “But we can take the river.”

“Without a boat?”

He shook his head. “No, but with more magic.”

“Oh.”

Never led her down the trail, pushing through the undergrowth to an animal trail when they neared the water. Old pine needles were met with piles of broader, grey leaves from the Boar Shrub and then to the twisting stream that leapt and bubbled between tree roots.

“I’ll call for help,” Never said before lifting his voice. “Guide?”

A figure flickered into view, knee-deep in the water, its blue robe unmoved. The head of a fox regarded him. Master.

“Take us close to Red Ridge.”

Of course.

Rikeva glanced between Never and the Guide. “Well. How does this one work, then?”

Never held out his hand as he explained. She was quickly growing accustomed to Amouni magic. On the outside, at least. “It’ll take us near enough that you shouldn’t have to travel on foot too far. Expect darkness and streaking colours, this time.”

“Thanks.”

Once again, her hand offered a welcome warmth.

He reached out to the Guide then and darkness surrounded them, streaking purple, white and blue surrounding them.

No sooner had it begun than it seemed it was over – Never found himself standing on the banks of a stronger river, though its name escaped him. Darkness had fallen now, so some time at least had passed, but there was enough light to make out a nearby crossroad with its weathered signpost.

“I’m dry,” Rikeva said, running a hand through her hair. “Another surprise.”

“Better than the forasa, at least.”

“Agreed.” She reached up to untie the white ribbon but Never raised a hand before she could finish.

“Keep it, please. The jewel is plenty.”

Rikeva lowered her arms. “Are you certain?”

“I am. Orunawe.” Gratitude.

She smiled. “In my tribe we say Orunawea. You sound like you spent time somewhere in the south?”

“We followed the Twin Blade constellation.”

“Ah,” she said as she checked the ribbon in her hair one last time. “Thank you again, Never, Winged Hero of the War.”

“Good luck.”

Rikeva offered a wave and set off at a jog, heading toward the crossroad and a winding path which led into the hills. Somewhere beyond waited Red Ridge, something of an oddity in Marlosi, as though a God-sized shovel had carved a hunk of land free – different to the Cracked Plains, since it was not barren.

Never watched the Quisoan woman for a moment before letting his wings burst free and leaping up into the darkness above.

Chapter 4.

The muted yellow fire of a town glowed below Never as he tilted his wings. The warm spring breeze flowing across his skin was almost enough to make completing an extra circle of the town worthwhile but instead, he found a nearby stand of trees and thudded down.

Not the best landing. Easy enough to blame the weight of the pack if anyone had seen him – but he was alone on the outskirts of the small town. Hard to recall, but it was likely the town of Cagila, being only a little further south than the mighty crossroads at Golden Plains.

Hopefully, it would boast at least one inn, since a bed would be most welcome.

Once he had information.

Never strode through the long grass beside the road and then and along the paved surface, nearing the town swiftly.

Cagila was not large and no wall encircled it, but there stood a clear division between stone and mud brick homes, with a wooden shack in turn sitting on the outskirts. Most chimneys bore striped weathervanes, dark and moving only gently.

The sweet scent of night-blooming Wisamin swum through the night to reach him, and he drew in the scent, but no-one else was out enjoying the air. Windows were shuttered, golden candlelight slipping free but no sounds with inside – even up ahead, past a shadowy well, no raised voices of laughter or anger, no singing, no music.

The entire place seemed empty.

But it was not, for glimpses of shadow moved between the curtains.

At the inn’s painted door of blue, the hush of lowered voices reached him. Were most people within then? For safety? Some manner of town meeting? He climbed the single step and pushed the door open.

Inside a warm room, stone walls covered in bright cloth hangings and lit by the fireplace, all heads turned to face him. Eyes widened in concern, presumably since no-one knew him – and toward the back, two of the locals even slipped into a passage. Whether it led to their rooms or outside, they moved quickly indeed, tunics of banded yellow and red fluttering as if caught in a gust.

The warmth in the common room seemed bolstered by the scent of beef and spices but few faces seemed to be enjoying their meals; small groups sat huddled over their plates or cups, men, women and children alike. Empty tables were dotted about, as if more folks usually ate at the inn of an evening.

Before Never could step within, a short fellow stood and approached with a glare. “Stop. Where have you travelled from?”

Never frowned. “Petana.” Which was close enough.

Apparently a favourable answer, since at least some tension left the room. Most of the people returned to their meals, a few waving for the man to sit. “Let him in, Yogan,” the innkeeper said from where he leant across the bar, his white beard reaching easily to his stomach.

Others did not seem to agree by their glowers, but they did not join in.

Yogan spun. “He could be lying – like the other one!”

Murmurs of assent rose.

The innkeeper straightened. “This is my inn and he is seeking shelter.”

A third speaker stood, a woman with a streak of grey in her dark hair. “But Cagila belongs to all of us, Uncle.”

“I know that, Ginara.”

“I do not mean to cause suffering here,” Never said with raised hands. “I only seek news. And rest.”

The woman continued. “Then answer, do you have a thirst? Difficulty moving your limbs? A grey pallor to the eyes?”

“No.” He glanced at the closest table of patrons. “And as for my eyes, you can no doubt see them from your seat.”

The man nodded. “It’s true.”

Ginara exchanged a look with Yogan. The short man seemed angry still and worry was clear in her own eyes, as though the proof she’d demanded was not enough to overcome her fear.

A figure appeared from the hallway; robed in the pale yellow of Pacela, sprig of juniper sewn over the breast bearing two branches. He blinked upon seeing Never, then moved to the centre of the room. His frown was deep. “It is our duty to help this man, surely?”

Yogan spun. “Like we took in that other one? Look what happened there, fool!”

The old innkeeper folded his arms. “Maheo has healed plenty of us. If he says so, the stranger stays in this inn, Yogan. My inn. I hope you remember that.”

“Fine.” He pointed at Never. “You’re leaving tomorrow, right?”

Never raised an eyebrow. “Lucky for you I’d already decided that, friend.”

“We aren’t friends, stranger,” he snapped.

“Consider me convinced.”

Maheo the priest raised an arm, a friendly smile on his weathered face – though he was not so old. “Come, sit beside me, traveller.”

Never joined Maheo at one of the empty tables, setting his pack at his feet. “I appreciate the welcome.”

“Of course.” As the muted conversations resumed, the priest lowered his voice. “I wish it had been a better one, Hero.”

Then the blink had been one of recognition, before. “Have we met perhaps?”

“Not precisely, but I recall you from Temple,” he replied. “I admit, I am relieved to see you here.”

“By the sounds of things, I should be relieved to see you. You’ve had success helping the people of Cagila?”

He nodded. “Some, three here have recovered under my care. Two in neighbouring villages.”

“That is wonderful.”

He glanced away a moment. “Well… I am one of few that Jardila has found since the land was cursed. Pacela has blessed some of her servants with knowledge and skill with healing in the past… but it is not clear why some of us have been found to possess a higher aptitude.”

“But this sickness cannot be stopped by other means? Does anyone know the source?”

The priest sighed. “There are rumours of cures but the few I have examined were false. We suspect something in the south. Let me show you.” He called to the innkeeper. “Lorenza, do you have your map?”

The fellow bent beneath the bench a moment, then brought over a scroll tied with faded red ribbon. When he unfurled it upon the table, it was with a look of warning. “This is no piece of scrap, hear? Don’t either of you go messing it up by marking it.”

“Of course, Lorenza.” The priest used his finger to trace a line that started in the Folhan Ranges then ran east, curving up to loop around Olecsa. Next it ran straight toward the Evache Lakes in the far south, where the priest stopped. “This is the path it seems to have taken. Some believe it is an attack by Vadiya, bitter about losing the war. Others a curse from various gods and yet more talk of Pacela turning her back on us but all reports suggest that it stops at the Lakes. Or that there is something there,” he said as he tapped the three lakes on the map. “At present, the curse hasn’t spread everywhere but far too many towns have simply been swallowed by the decay.”

The Evache Lakes… why there? What did the Burnished King seek? And even with all the death and suffering so far, things could get far worse. “I will go there tomorrow. What of the illness itself, tell me what happens?”

Maheo rolled the map carefully, actions heavy. “It seems that close exposure to decaying fields and even buildings can be enough. Certainly ingesting food that grows too near or drinking water. So far, I do not personally believe that the sickness can be caught from another person but the decay creeps across the land slow but steady, spreading forth from the tainted highway it has created.” He paused, closing his eyes a moment. “I am so thankful that you have come.”

Somehow, the man’s trust was heavy weight but equally inspiring. “I will find a way to stop this,” Never promised.

The man nodded, wiping at his eyes.

“What about a cure? I have heard that some medicines can stave the illness off for a time.”

“Yes, some old remedies that include venom from the golden viper seem to offer temporary relief – sometimes only a matter of days, however. I have heard that there is someone near Red Ridge who has had more success but for those I saved here, it was due the Goddess’ gift.”

Never only nodded. Nothing should be ruled out, but whatever magic the priests could wield, it probably did not come from the long-absent Gods. Not that it mattered. Only that it worked. “And the people here were infected due to… food?”

“No. They were travelling, forced to flee the cursed earth in the south.”

“Lucky you were here, then.”

Maheo spread his hands. “High Priestess Jardila sent us out, the moment she knew – so I’d like to think her wisdom and compassion had a larger role, Amouni.”

“Never is fine,” he said with a smile. “And that sounds about right, your leader is certainly both those things.”

“I do not wish to speak out of turn, but she would no doubt appreciate your thoughts on whatever you discover in the far south.”

“Absolutely.”

Footsteps approached the inn – someone running. Murmured conversation within the common room hushed once more, shoulders tensing and parents moving their children closer.

When the door burst open, a young man with wide eyes called for the priest. “It’s the traveller. Father, something is wrong.”

Maheo stood. “Tell me.”

Yogan slapped his table. “He’s not coming here.”

“I will go,” the priest said without even glancing at the fellow.

Never followed – Yogan warning them not to get too close. No-one tried to stop them either, and Maheo’s status or ability was obviously enough to assuage even the most vocal in the inn of whatever doubts they harboured.

In the darkened streets, the priest led Never over well-trodden paths and beyond the ring to the wooden home he’d passed earlier. When the priest paused, hand on the door, rasping breaths snuck through the wood. “Have you witnessed the very worst cases?”

“No.”

“I fear I can do nothing for him now – the decay had nearly covered the poor soul already, when I left to take a meal.”

“I will help if I can.”

Maheo opened the door with a creak to reveal a lantern turned low, very faint, right beside a figure on a bed. It was barely enough to see a… shape upon a bed, a barrel of water nearby.

His breathing was strained and tiny creaking sounds came from him, combined with a dry scent, like old stone – it filled the space, despite an open window.

Maheo brightened the lamp a little. “Stevan, I am here.”

Never’s vision adjusted; Stevan was a gaunt man, skin seeming patterned with thin fractures, not unlike crumbling stone of grey… but his eyes were feverishly bright.

An unsettling mix.

“Father… please… end this.” His voice was a rasp of desperation, constricted as though his jaw no longer moved properly. “I am… still suffering… it does not end.”

Never made a fist. What could possibly help the poor fellow? It was worse than he’d imagined, even after seeing the ruined villages and stone ghosts that remained. Was this something that even Amouni blood could change? Never drew a blade and sliced into his palm before joining the priest by the patient’s side, waiting with a handful of blood.

Maheo knelt but did not step too close – raising a hand to halt Never. “The floor,” he said softly.

Never squinted. There too, decay spread – dry, lichen-like colours covering the floorboards, spreading from where they ran down the leg of the small bed. Did it almost sparkle in the lamplight?

The priest leant closer, murmuring something before he paused – then he inhaled, breath rasping.

As he did, a grey smoke rose from Stevan, drawn into the priests’ lungs.

Never took half a step forward but Maheo shook his head. He leant to one side and coughed a hacking cough. Something splattered against the floor.

Was that the gift from Pacela? To draw forth the maladies himself? And what was the cost to Maheo?

“It’s no use, father,” Stevan said. And though his cheeks regained much of their colour, enough for him to speak clearly, the grey returned steadily.

Maheo wiped at his mouth, discarding the cloth. “Forgive me, Stevan. I had hoped… “Let me try,” Never said.

The priest nodded and Never leant over to let his blood drip onto the skin of the man’s arm…

The dark liquid disappeared, soaked up almost too fast to trace.

And nothing.

Never tensed but the gasping from Stevan did not change and nor did his skin, no matter how hard Never glared. Another curse left behind by the Gods, or his ancestors, whoever – he could not heal.

“Please,” Stevan said. His arm trembled, grinding like slate, as if to reach out for someone, for reaching for anyone, it seemed now, for his eyes no longer burned and instead, had turned to pale grey orb.

“Forgive me,” Priest murmured again, but this time extended his hands over the man’s face. Wind stirred, slipping into the small room, and the lamp flared in a small burst of gold… 

Stevan’s breathing eased to silence.

Father Maheo’s shoulders slumped then. “He is at rest.”

“You eased his pain.”

“Yes… but it was spreading faster than I hoped. Never, I do not know if it is true but I have heard stories –”

Never placed a hand on his shoulder. “I can burn this place to ash, yes.”

He swallowed. “Can you control the fire once it starts?”

Twin globes of crimson-fire sprung up around his hands. “I can.”

Chapter 5.

By the time he departed the inn the next morning, doubts from the people of Cagila about exactly how he’d controlled the fire so perfectly were dampened by relief, even Yogan seemed happy enough overall, since the spread had been stopped.

The crimson fire appeared to have been enough to deal with an isolated part of the decay, but would it be enough against a Plague King? And more, nothing had been enough to save Stevan the traveller that – a person so many in Cagila had reduced down to something to be shunned, isolated and eventually destroyed. Fear drove their actions. Stevan had posed a threat but did that mean he didn’t deserve compassion?

Maheo and a few others had granted that – mercy too, with a display of Pacela’s power that Never could not recall being possible. Not that he’d ever truly paid much attention to the religion – or any of them for that matter, save to plunder their myths for clues about his ‘curse’.

Bitterness lingered as he followed the road out of town, dust stirring with each step.

Powerful wings and rejuvenating blood, crimson-fire, a long lifespan, knowledge of a dead language, a hand like birch – none of it could reverse what the Burnished King was spreading. Answers had to lurk somewhere but he’d already spent too long searching… other towns were surely faring far worse.

And Oleksan was doubtless hard at work –

Something small struck his back.

Never turned, hand on the hilt of a dagger but it was a young girl in a blue smock, running toward him with waving hands. “Wait, please!”

“Do you throw pebbles at most people who visit your town?” he asked, even as he smiled down at her.

The girl’s cheeks were a little flushed, as though she’d ran hard, chasing him some distance from Cagila, but her eyes were wide with worry. “I couldn’t catch up and I had to find you before you left, I’m sorry, Mister. I had to run really fast.”

He didn’t mention that calling out from the beginning might have worked just as well. “Is something wrong?”

“Well…” she hesitated. “You left your pack with the priest… I didn’t know when you were coming back and I really needed to speak to you. And he said you’d be able to help.” She was talking fast, still trying to catch her breath.

Never knelt and unhooked the water flask from his belt. “Here.”

She took a big drink and smiled. “Thank you.”

“So, take your time. What’s your name?”

“Gia.”

“Can you tell me what’s wrong, Gia? Did Maheo send you?”  

“No, it’s my doll.” She pulled a rag doll from where she’d stuffed it down the front of her smock. It was multi-coloured fabric, with beads for eyes, bright flaxen hair and a big smile. “Can you fix her? He said you could.”

He hesitated. “I’ll try.”

“Thank you!” Gia thrusted the doll forward.

Never took the soft toy. “Wait, who said I could….” He trailed off.

Something old had taken residence within the doll.

That was very clear, now that he held the toy. A gaze fell upon him too, ice-like, boring through his chest to clench itself around his heart, a presence that had little curiosity and a vast impatience, an iron will to destroy.

Scurry on, Amouni, toward yet another colossal failure.

Never clenched his jaw against the pain and the presence, the somehow-rotten voice ringing in his mind. “Who are you?”

“It’s the one who said I had to find you. He said he’d leave Kat, if I did,” Gia explained.

Oleksan, known as the Lord of the High Peaks, the Relentless Wave and the Burnished King. The doll remained motionless in his trembling grip. And I offer a warning; you must realise that I am the tide and you are drifting wood before me.

“Save your poetry, Oleksan.” Had the King come to strike? His power was nothing to dismiss, even at a distance… yet if he wanted to attack, why bother speaking first? Why reside within a rag-doll, why send a child to do his bidding?  

Each miserable step draws you nearer a soon-to-be-forgotten grave. Abandon this path and go not the way of your ancestors.

Never lowered his voice. “Is that all?”

You will see, in time.

And then the doll was merely a doll. Just soft, beloved fabric. Never exhaled heavily, then handed Kat back to Gia. “All better now.”

Gia hugged Kat, then threw her arms around his neck. “You did it!”

Never almost smiled. Perhaps things weren’t so dire – for the Burnished King might well see him as a threat, since he’d chosen to take the time to taunt instead of attack. As Oleksan claimed, time would reveal the truth of his actions.

“I’d better get home now,” Gia said.

“Before you go, will you make me a promise?”

She nodded.

“If he uses Kat to speak to you again, go to Father Maheo at once.”

“I will.” Gia set off at a half-jog, half-skip.

“What an age to be,” he murmured as he started walking again. To have such abandon and joy… impressive during a troubled time.

Without any real rivers to speak of nearby, the best choice was the forasa, returning north. For the moment, it seemed no travellers were abroad, though it wasn’t too early for them. Would all roads be quiet thanks to the spreading decay? After the happy voice of Gia the swaying gold of the wheat seemed awfully quiet.

But whether or not a stranger would witness his flight, it was time to make up some ground.

Never let his feathers slide free and launched himself into their air, pumping his wings hard to climb. Much easier without the pack, and save for lingering traces of worry following him from Cagila, the flight was enjoyable. A fresh breeze to contrast warmth from the still-rising sun coupled with a sense of action, of closing in on his goal.

By the time he landed at the cave mouth, Never half-dove through the smooth tunnel into the shrine, where he leapt upon the silver symbol.

Branches and pods spread before him in bright lines.

He skipped over many, more than he’d expected to find, and this time, something had changed… the pods bore names. Amouni words; names for places, some familiar and others not – Isacina wasn’t so different, Ijakenna, but much further south waited the Blue Mirror Lakes. Lovely enough for a name, and doubtless the Evache Lakes, but to be certain he’d have to visit.

Never reached out and the light flared to gold.

When the glow cleared, grey replaced the light – grey everywhere, with a pungent scent of rotting wood so strong that he gagged.

Flee!

Never slapped a hand over his mouth and nose as he stumbled forward, feet crunching through whatever he charged across – puffs of dust ring with each step, and too late, the grey cleared in time to reveal a wall before him.

He crashed through the rotten timber, tripping through the rubble beyond and thudding to the ground.

The wall had been far too brittle.

Never climbed from the clouds of dust with a clenched jaw. The decay was everywhere! He charged through the jagged ruins of a building and into a sunlit street where he dusted off his clothes, pausing to spit, the very taste somehow just as grey as the dust. Was he already poisoned? His Amouni blood hadn’t reversed the decay for Stevan, but could it be resisted at least?

Or was it already too late?

Adrenaline surged through his veins.

He ran along the street for open space, somewhere, anywhere, passing low stone walls of stone and bleached wood, all of it seemingly ready to shatter at a touch. Inside the buildings, and sometimes spilling into the street was a powdery debris… things that were once furniture and clothes, other possessions?

And by the human-like shapes to some, people too. Smothered beneath the weight of an endless decay.

He slid around a tumbling well and then between two homes to find a modest palisade, it too worn down, as though centuries had hit it in a single moment.

Such was the force of the Burnished King’s passage.

Had a single thing been spared?

Never slipped between the barricades and skidded to a halt upon the withering grass of the hills – there! A pond within a stand of olive trees. Nothing like a lake, but deep enough.

He whipped off his cloak and boots, but at his belt both hands had transformed into clubs. “Idiot.” Never forced himself to slow down and was soon flinging his tunic aside too, and then his pants and once naked, he waded into the water at last.

Weeds swirled around his calves as he strode to the pond’s centre. The cool water only covered half his chest, but it was enough. Never sunk down, dunking his head and thrashing about – even shouting to wash out his mouth in a roar of bubbles.

No way to know if it would be enough but it was better than nothing – and travelling in tainted clothes was out of the question.

Never surfaced and wiped at his arms, pulse easing with relief. He sloshed his way to the bank, where the grass was still green and healthy. And while the trees and pond lay in the decay’s path where it spread from the crumbling town, it was not moving visibly.

He spread his arms to let water drip from his body.

“What a fool,” he muttered.

Obviously there had always been a chance that any forasa symbol near the Lakes would be in the path of decay. The reward for haste was so often disaster.

Would his luck hold?

Testing the strength of his Amouni blood had not really been on the cards but if the answer was favourable… The best thing to do was keep a close watch on his skin, or a loss of flexibility in his limbs.

That, and find new clothes.

The pile of discarded garments was already paler, as if being leeched as he watched. “Damn.” His knives were likely ruined as well.

Across the grassy stretch before the mounds of grey, the small town remained painfully silent. Just like the mountain village in Vadiya. Nearer the road, at the edge of the stumps of buildings stood the remnants of what was probably a horse and cart.

And inside, how many had died?

No-one deserved such a cruel fate. Never glared along the withered path of the Burnished King, where it wound into the hills.

Oleksan had to be destroyed.

Chapter 6.

Never hovered high above the green hills, a mighty streak of decay running through them, leeching colour from all it touched.

At times, the trail of withered grass and blighted earth ran parallel with the highway but cut across just as often. In the end, both paths met an enormous wall that encircled the entire lake system along one side, leaving the dark of the Folhan Ranges as a barrier to the west.

Penned within, three lakes glittered, brilliant blue in a picture of calm.

No sign of any King, of any forces, any magical disturbance or even hints of movement within the fishing villages that clung to the shores either – and nor were the buildings pale and deathly, instead each appeared untouched.

A puzzling detail.

But the wall was what he studied, angling his wings to catch shifting currents – it was almost enough to forget the chill that ravaged every inch of his exposed skin.

Mist clung to the barrier, enshrouding it in wisps and swirling trails, some sections so heavy as to be pure white. Elsewhere, a simmering darkness behind the mist was clearer. Was the wall of earth or stone? Something else, something unnatural?

He swooped lower, closing enough to see more of the shimmering surface not unlike scales.

An arm of mist shot forth.

Never banked, and the streaking tendril of mist flew wide, clutching at nothing. He swung around, beating his wings and put some distance between himself and the wall once more, but there was no second strike.

Had the Burnished King sensed him somehow?

Was the veil sentient?

If nothing else, the vast wall and its strike further confirmed how important the Lakes were to Oleksan. It also suggested that the Temple Trivium waited somewhere below. In years of wandering, there had not been any reason to go diving; no rumour or legend suggested anything of value lurked below, but Oleksan had rushed into Marlosi and headed south, and he was clearly not encouraging visitors.

“I’ll be seeing you again,” Never told the Burnished King as he turned away.

There was little he could achieve without more knowledge and without help – a lot of help.

He ascended high enough not to be seen but details below were clear enough. He needed a new town, since the forasa at the withered village was too risky. A detour to a place with clothes would have to be the first order of business, then came finding a river or a forasa symbol.

Heading north offered towns and smaller cities before the Broken Plains and in turn, the city of Olecsa – but that destination would be a last resort. Another option would appear first, like the collection of fishing ports and hamlets a little further east, nestled by the Sol Seas, if needed. Once, early in the search for a cure to his ‘curse’, a rumour of twin Sirens with magical voices led him to that coast… of course, finding nothing had been no surprise.

At least the people there had been mostly friendly.

Yet he did not have to travel so far as the Broken Plains before spotting a town resting in the shadows of a long depression – and by the giant, stripped pavilion in the centre, it was Jonvai.

Cheer did seem lacking however, as scores of campsites and temporary structures of wood and canvas surrounded the modest walls – a shanty town had encircled Jonvai.

With the poisonous path of the Burnished King lying not so far south west, perhaps it should have been no surprise. Those who’d sought refuge in places like Jonvai would be full of doubts and fear, with no idea when or even if their homes could be restored, their lives returned to. Their needs would probably put a strain on the people of Jonvai, resentment and violence would spread, and all thanks to the Burnished King.

The same tragedy would be occurring in plenty of other places.

“Maybe everywhere, if I fail.”

Never began his descent, seeking a good rooftop. The tallest building would be the best choice, considering the afternoon still offered plenty of light, but the bigger homes didn’t tend to leave washing unattended, strung across lines between homes or upon poles on the rooves.

And surprising someone inside, naked save for his feathers, on his way to steal their clothing, wouldn’t win him any favours.

Never tilted his wings toward the pavilion.

If there was a place anywhere in the small city that a man wrapped in black feathers would not draw too much attention, it would be the Sabre’s circus, with her performers, animals, costumes and illusions.

He circled overhead, squinting down at the yard behind the bright, striped pavilion of pink and white. Animal cages lined high walls of stone and wood, leaving space for a wide, grassy clearing with pens and storage sheds. At present, there was no-one moving around – the cheers and music from within the pavilion meant most performers would be busy.

Good.

He swooped down between two empty cells, feet slapping against the hard earth as he landed, and glanced around. Only one figure, someone shovelling feed from a cart, his back to the yard as he laboured.

Never wrapped both wings about his naked body and approached the pavilion – a large tent flap granting access to an empty ticket stand. Further within, a single figure stood obscured by the glow and cheers from the performance.

A distracted attendant? Most welcome. Never crept to a curtained off area, slipping along a narrow corridor to a dressing room where he found racks of clothing – costumes, really. Unguarded… and all unsuitable, truly, but unguarded was the more important detail. “So be it,” Never said as he reached for a pair of pants that were criss-crossed black and white.

He stepped into them with a grimace – they fit well enough, but there was nothing close to unobtrusive for his torso; bright feathers or pink, red, blue or yellow tunics lined with glass beads. Perfectly reasonable for performers… but not quite hardy, traveller’s garb.

Voices neared.

Never snatched at something purple and slipped from the pavilion.

Outside, he strode to his previous hiding place between cages and knelt to struggle his way into the… silken blouse. Never sighed. It was not a good fit but at least he hadn’t torn it, though a flash of guilt gave him slight pause; it was a precious item to have stolen.

Movement on the wall above caught his eye – just a grey cat coming to settle above him. It rested its head upon forepaws and stared down, yellow eyes bright. Too bright? Its tail swung gently; it did not seem fevered or feral.

Why didn’t you visit me, Amouni?

He froze. The putrid voice in his mind had come from the cat. Oleksan once again. “That was a large wall for someone who claims to want visitors.”

Then be assured that I can send someone to greet you. The animal did not break its gaze.

“Namely?”

Simply wait. Or run and be found anyway.

Never straightened. “Too afraid to come out yourself, then?”

Alas, my responsibilities are many. But stay vigilant and you may even see my servant approach; he may not speak but I am assured of his commitment to your destruction.

The cat shuddered into stillness then, eyes closing as its fur turned mottled and then deteriorated further, reduced to a powdery heap. Far too quickly the whole animal had became a mere pile of dust.

And unlike the last visit, this one left a chill.

Exactly what had been sent out and from where?