Here’s an extract from the second book in the Firebird Chronicles series, The Nemesis Charm, published in May 2016 by Our Street Books. Buy a signed copy!
The Yarnbard hurried through the woods, dodging the dark trees. He was struggling to keep up. Ahead of him, the Storyteller leapt agilely over crooked roots.
Above, angry clouds spiralled into a vortex.
Around the Yarnbard, the trees tapped and creaked. It was as if they were threatening him.
Panting, the old man clutched his pointed hat, his kaftan dragging along the ground. The night was making him feel out of sorts. There was something unnatural about these woods, something that crept over him, twisting through his mind.
Why had the Storyteller brought him here? Couldn’t they have stayed on Fullstop Island?
He dragged his staff behind. It bumped over the uneven ground, threatening to get caught in the low branches.
A lightning fork split the air and the trees flashed into view. Spiked branches reached forward, as if warning intruders. The Yarnbard could see gnarled faces in the trunks.
‘Why are we here, Storyteller?’ the Yarnbard wheezed, ducking under a low branch.
‘All in good time,’ the Storyteller called over his shoulder.
The Yarnbard was Ambassador to the Storyteller. He represented him on Fullstop Island. He had spent his whole life serving this man, a man who had the power to create and to change stories. He trusted him totally. But tonight there was a seed of doubt in his mind.
It’s this place, the old man thought. I have to get out of here.
He stumbled, tripping on a root. As he stopped to shake himself free, the Storyteller disappeared into the thicket ahead.
Leave now, the trees snarled.
‘It’s as if they’re trying to block our path,’ the Yarnbard muttered, ‘as if they’re moving.’
‘They are,’ the Storyteller called back. ‘Just keep your eyes on me.’
The old man tugged his kaftan free from a twig. The branch snapped and he felt the forest wince with pain. He forced himself onward.
Suddenly, the trees gave way. In front, there was a wall. It appeared abruptly, stopping the Yarnbard in his tracks. The trees pressed right up to it, their branches piercing the crumbling stones, dead ivy having weakened the structure.
The Storyteller was ripping tendrils away from the wall. Underneath, the Yarnbard could see decaying wood. It was a large door, hidden by the forest.
‘Help me with this,’ the Storyteller said, panting.
The Yarnbard joined him, pulling foliage away with his staff.
‘What is this place?’ the old man asked.
‘This is the Tower of Janus.’
The Yarnbard had heard the name. The Tower of Janus was a ruin that stood at the centre of Turnpoint Island. It had once been a place where great councils had met and judges had sat. But legend said that an enchanter, unhappy with one of the decisions made in the tower, had cursed it. The tower had crumbled and the army that defended it had been turned into trees.
Another flash of lightning revealed knotted eyes fixed on the old man. The trees were scared. He could hear them crying out as they ripped the vines away from the door.
Don’t do it!
Do not enter this fortress of fateful choice.
The noise in the Yarnbard’s head was deafening.
As soon as the Storyteller had exposed enough of the wooden entrance, he grabbed an iron ring and heaved at it. The old man joined him and together they prised the door open. When the gap was big enough, they slipped through, into the tower.
At once, the noise that had been assaulting the Yarnbard ceased. The tower was eerily silent.
The two figures moved slowly into the fortress.
They were in what once must have been the Great Hall. It was long and thin with two doors, one at either end. The outer wall was intact, but there was no roof and the floor was now a carpet of grass. There was nothing in the hall apart from a stone chair that stood in its centre. Carved into the side of the chair, a bearded face stared at the two intruders with sharp eyes.
The Yarnbard and the Storyteller edged towards it.
‘What are we doing here?’ the Yarnbard asked again. He felt as if the carved face was watching him.
The Storyteller spoke, his voice hushed. ‘There is a sickness moving through our world.’
‘Yes,’ the Storyteller sounded worried, ‘a living death. Those who have been infected cannot be woken. Fullstop Island hasn’t felt the full force of this scourge yet, but it’s on its way, seeping slowly through the sea. I’ve had report from the king of the Basillica Isles. Many in his territory have already fallen. No doctor has been able to treat them. They have even had to turn the great city cathedrals into hospitals.’
By now, the Storyteller and the Yarnbard had almost reached the centre of the hall. The eyes of the face carved into the stone chair still watched them. As they moved behind it, the Yarnbard could see that there was a second face carved into the other side of the throne. It looked towards the door in the far side of the hall.
‘But why did we have to come here, to Turnpoint Island? Why did we need to leave Fullstop Island for you to tell me this?’
‘There is someone I want you to meet,’ the Storyteller said, ‘somebody who would not be welcome on Fullstop Island.’
As he spoke, a man, who had been hidden by the chair’s thick stone sides, stood from the throne. He was tall, imposing, his face covered with a black, silk scarf. He wore a tricorn hat and had two pistols strapped to his belt. He held a black box. It looked rich and heavy, encrusted with jewels. Moonlight glinted from the hammers of his pistols. In the darkness, it looked as if death himself had decided to walk with them.
The Storyteller stopped, his eyes fixed on the man.
‘No,’ the Yarnbard stuttered, stepping backwards. He recognised this man, or at least he knew what he was. He’d seen pictures, heard tales. This was a Dark Pirate, and Dark Pirates were banned from Fullstop Island. ‘What’s happening here? I…I can’t…’ he tripped over his kaftan, almost falling.
‘Desperate times call for desperate measures, Yarnbard.’
‘But this…? It’s forbidden.’
The Storyteller spoke calmly, his eyes still fixed on the man in black, ‘I needed somebody who would be able to follow the sickness to its source and be immune to whatever curse oozes through the sea. Who else could I have sent other than a man who laughs at death, who has already stepped beyond the life of the land, and embraced the unknown of the sea?’
The man by the stone chair inclined his head.
‘But Dark Pirates are…?’
‘Forbidden, I know.’ The Storyteller raised his voice. ‘They are forbidden because they are feared. And they are feared because they do not let us hide from the path that each must ultimately take. But I will not stand idly by while this sickness takes hold of our island. Especially as…’ the Storyteller’s voice trailed away.
‘Especially as what?’ the old man asked.
The Storyteller struggled to speak. ‘It’s my princess, Yarnbard.’ His voice was choked. ‘She has already fallen under the spell of the sickness. We’ve only been married a year and…’
‘She is asleep? She cannot be woken?’
The Yarnbard went to open his mouth, but no sound emerged.
‘The fever threatens her life. She has been visited by every doctor I know. Each has examined her, but there is no agreement as to what her treatment should be. I need to know what’s happening out there.’ He signalled to the Dark Pirate. ‘This was the only way.’
The old man stared at the cloaked figure and then looked back to his friend. He could see lines of worry on his face. He paused for a moment and then, reluctantly, gave a shallow nod.
The Storyteller turned back to the man in black. Holding out his hand, he said, ‘My friend.’
The Dark Pirate stepped forward. ‘Storyteller,’ he growled, grasping his hand.
Above, the sky cracked with thunder.
‘So you have returned.’
‘I always return.’
The pirate spoke with a thick accent.
‘You sent word that your investigation had been successful, that you have located the source of the sickness?’
‘I believe so. But I do not think you will be happy with what I have discovered.’
The pirate stepped forward and placed the black, jewelled chest on the ground. Crouching, he pushed open the clasps and slowly opened the lid. Inside, the box was lined with black, velvet cushioning.
The oil-like clouds slid apart, and for a moment silvery light fell on the object resting in the box.
The Yarnbard stepped backward.
The pirate watched the men’s reactions. ‘Do you know what this is?’
The Storyteller nodded.
‘It is one of the Trésors de la Mer,’ the pirate continued. ‘Treasures of the Deep, created by Dark Pirates. It is known as…’ A bolt of lightning forked from the sky, hitting the ground. The pirate didn’t flinch. ‘It is known as a Nemesis Charm.’ As he spoke, thunder rolled across the ocean, fading into the distance. ‘And do you know how such an object is made?’
The Storyteller nodded again. He looked grave.
The pirate’s voice was low. ‘Nemesis Charms are chiselled from the rock of a Threshold – a doorway between realms, between worlds.’
The Yarnbard stuttered, ‘But Thresholds are myths – legends to ward people away from dangerous waters.’
‘That’s what the people of the islands would have you believe. But Thresholds are no legend, old man. Dark Pirates have known of their existence for generations. Such doorways are our dominion.’
Stooping, the pirate carefully lifted the Nemesis Charm. He held it out towards the two men.
‘I carved this myself, from the rock of a deep cave on an island west of the South Bookend Isles. I believe the cave to be a Threshold. And I believe that Threshold to be the source of your sickness.’
The Storyteller and Yarnbard stared at the charm.
The pirate lowered his voice. ‘Listen.’ The word seemed to echo along the ancient walls, as if each brick of the tower were repeating it.
‘The charm is calling. Can you hear it?’ The Dark Pirate stepped towards them. ‘It calls, just as the cave from which it was hewn calls. It calls the one who must cross the Threshold.’
‘Cross the Threshold?’ the Yarnbard stammered. ‘But the legends say that once a Threshold is crossed there is no return, that whoever crosses such a doorway is stepping into the mouth of death itself.’
‘Indeed. Crossing a Threshold is dangerous. It is not something to be undertaken lightly. There are only two ways to pass through such a doorway. Firstly, the dead may pass through, those for whom life is only a memory – the wraith or fantôme, the exanimate or cadavre.’
The Yarnbard shot the Storyteller a dark look.
‘The second requires preparation. Only those chosen by a Nemesis Charm can undertake the preparation. They must spend a night in the presence of the charm and allow it to do its work. It is a long night, a dark night, but if they come through it – and it is an if – but if they come through it they will be ready to enter the mouth of the cave. They will be ready to cross the Threshold. Without such preparation, no Mortale can step through such a doorway and live.’
Thunder rumbled overhead and the first big drops of rain began to fall. The pirate moved closer.
‘Lay your hand on the charm. Listen to its call.’
The Storyteller reached out.
Nervously, the Yarnbard followed his lead.
As the old man’s hand connected with the cold rock, his bones were pulled towards it. The charm grabbed with magnetic force.
The Yarnbard’s fingers throbbed.
The tower vanished and a voice filled his thoughts. It was full of terror.
‘La Negro Horreur, oui, follow the sound, the sound in the sea…’
He saw a ship ploughing through dark waters.
He heard the ocean churn with a whisper, as if the whole sea was filled with the voice.
He saw a volcanic rock, dark and craggy.
In the rock’s cliff was a face. It loomed over the dark waters. It was the face of a skull.
He saw men, Dark Pirates, climbing the volcanic ledges.
He saw them standing before the mouth of a cave, wide and black, hammers and chisels in their hands.
He felt them strike the rock, chisel the stone, shape the charm that his fingers now touched.
And then he felt as if he were being pulled, pulled into the darkness, drawn into the cave.
The cave was calling.
It was calling someone.
It was calling them to enter the blackness.
And then, with a shudder, he heard a name…
The Yarnbard pulled away.
‘No,’ he yelled, stumbling backward. ‘What is this?’
The pirate fixed the Storyteller in his sights. ‘If you are to discover the source of the sickness, these two must cross the Threshold.’
The Yarnbard felt as if his legs were going to buckle.
‘But,’ the pirate said to the Storyteller, ‘it is your choice.’
Anger flicked through the old man’s eyes. ‘Tell me you are not taking this seriously!’
The Storyteller didn’t reply. He looked from his friend to the pirate. The choice was stark. He saw his children, the Yarnbard’s apprentices. He saw them laughing, happy at the academy. Then, he watched them step into the cave, into that place of no return.
The Yarnbard stepped forward. ‘You can’t allow this. They are your children!’
But images of his princess, pale and sickly, flooded the Storyteller’s thoughts. This island, with its skull rock, was the cause of her pain. It was the cause of so much pain in their world. So many had already fallen to the sickness. How could he allow it to continue to spread? The choice was unbearable. He closed his eyes, stilling himself.
What should I do? he asked.
He waited in silence. Rain fell, running down the deep lines of his face.
After a moment, he opened his eyes. Slowly, he turned to the Yarnbard and signalled to the charm. ‘It is what must be done. Sometimes we must lose in order to find.’ His voice was heavy with sadness.
The pirate began to lower the Nemesis Charm back into its box.
‘The apprentices must make the journey.’
The old man turned away.
The Storyteller moved towards his friend. ‘I would like your help, Yarnbard. If we are to…’
‘Help?’ The Yarnbard span back. ‘I cannot believe you are even asking me to consider it. They’ve only just settled. It’s only been a year! To send them on this quest is tantamount to…to robbing them of everything…of their lives!’
The Storyteller was silent.
The Yarnbard pointed at the pirate. ‘You trust this man?’
The Storyteller spoke slowly. ‘I trust that this is the way we are being led. I am sure of it. I would like your help, old friend. But you have a choice, just as I do. If you wish, you may turn back and exit by the door through which we entered. You will go alone. I will not judge you. But if you choose the door ahead, we will exit together and the decision will be made.’
The old man shook his head. He had always been sure of the Storyteller, always carried out his instructions, but this…
He stared from the pirate to the black box.
‘Please,’ the Storyteller whispered. ‘I believe this is necessary. I would not ask if it were not. We must find out what is through that Doorway, we must find out what the source of this sickness is. The lives of many in this world depend on it…the life of my princess depends on it.’
‘And the lives of your children?’ The old man’s words cut the air.
The Storyteller stared at him.
‘Do you trust me, my friend? Do you trust that I work everything for the good?’
The Yarnbard stared back, his eyes fierce. His mind rebelled. It told him to run, to leave that place and exit the way he had entered. But somehow, despite the pull he felt to leave, to wash his hands of the whole dark business, he knew his decision had already been made. He had made it the very first day he had chosen to serve the Storyteller.
Outside, the trees tapped the shattered window frames, as if clamouring to say, I told you so. I told you so.
Without speaking, the Yarnbard gave one sharp nod.
‘Thank you,’ the Storyteller whispered.
Silently, the carved face that watched the door through which they had entered closed its eyes and the second face awoke.
The Yarnbard knew what he had to do. Stepping forward, he knelt and picked up the black box. He would face the future, however dark. He did trust the Storyteller and there was no other decision he could make.
He lifted the box and began to carry it towards the door in the far side of the hall. He could feel the Nemesis Charm inside. It was breathing, whispering…
As he carried it, a tear rolled down the old man’s face. It mixed with the rain and fell to the ground, seeping into the earth of the Tower of Janus. The choice had been made. There was no going back.