The sand slithered as if it were alive.
Leos knew it was the wind, tugging rivulets of dust in its wake like whipping snakes, but even so. The land here was bad, hostile. They should never have come.
“Aren’t you glad we came, Leos? Glad!” Agris plodded up the slope behind him, two heavy sacks atop his broad shoulders and a grin splayed across his battered face. “What a land… landscape.” The big man’s smile widened with the achievement of getting the word out, despite his impressive array of verbal tics. Artemis had painstakingly taught it to him a few days before.
“Huh.” Leos hauled his own sack onto his back and looked suspiciously at the sand. “I don’t think I’ve ever been glad of anything, ever.” He peered over his shoulder at the old man labouring up the hillside behind him. Leos lowered his voice. “Especially not of the day we met that old prick.”
Agris grunted and shook his head, but strode on past Leos and through the scrub. He hardly seemed to be breaking a sweat. Leos envied him. Half of his own skin seemed chafed raw from rubbing against wet cloth.
“Young Leos!” Artemis was not far behind now, gripping his heartwood staff tight but showing no sign of fatigue. Leos hated being called ‘young’. He was at least twenty-three, as far as he knew. He turned and watched the crazy old coot as he approached, stopping every few strides to examine a bush, or listen for animal calls.
As he drew level, Artemis held out something wrapped in pale cloth. “Soon you will see why we left the horses behind at the well, and why I brought these.” He pressed the object into Leos’s palm. “You’d better tell our large friend there that he should halt before the ridge. The Sea lies just beyond.”
The red staff dug into the sand, and Artemis resumed his climb, robes flapping in the wind while the sand wriggled around his feet.
Leos whistled and waved for Agris to stop his ascent to the ridge, and when satisfied that he wasn’t going to tramp merrily over it, teased open the cloth.
He had seen the dark eye-shields before, at the court in Tanagra where he and Agris had signed their contract with Artemis, but had not been allowed to touch them until now. They were circles of glass, somehow smoked or darkened and fixed to a leather strap that could be placed around the head and tightened, so that the world did not seem so bright to the wearer’s eyes. Leos had failed to see the point. “If I wanted to be half-blind,” he’d said, “I’d simply close one eye.” He’d thought it sounded clever at the time. Artemis had smiled and said nothing.
Further up the slope, the old man passed another set of the eye-shields to Agris, and then stopped to dig another pair from his satchel. “Place them on, please, like so.” He pressed the dark circles to his eyes and tightened the strap at the back of his head. Leos did the same, then helped Agris when the big man’s fingers seemed ill at ease with the fastenings.
They turned to the ridge, just a few strides ahead of them now. Dust was billowing over it, lit from beneath as if the sun were setting, though it was still high overhead.
“Everyone set?” said Artemis. “Then let’s have a look at the Sea.”
Together, they scrambled up the slope until a sudden wave of light broke over them and Leos was forced to squint and cover his eyes despite the eye-shields. He parted his fingers and peered through, until gradually his eyes adjusted to a new world. The land looked as if the sun had melted from the sky and pooled on the ground, the painful brightness stretching flatly for miles. In the distance was only a blue haze.
He could hear Agris giggling next to him, a reaction that could have any number of meanings. Leos thought that either the big man was pretty angry or pretty impressed. Artemis was staring out at the Sea and smiling.
“Merciful gods!” whispered Leos. “All this from sorcery?”
Artemis shrugged. “No-one knows the true cause. Some say a mountain fell from the sky. Others that a great forest stood here, before the conflagration that turned the sand to glass, but that’s nonsense. It was a desert before it became the Sea. War seems the most likely explanation. A sorcerous war that left no-one the victor. Or an experiment, perhaps. Either way, such power was released as to transform the land; enough to melt sand to glass for many leagues from here. None has ever reached the centre of the Sea; at least none that have returned.”
Agris stopped giggling and instead adopted a throaty chuckle. Leos edged away from him a little.
“Happily, our destination lies much closer,” continued Artemis. “Not far from the edge at all. Only two days at a brisk pace.”
“Two days carrying all this shit?” said Leos, hefting his sack meaningfully. “And ‘brisk’ sounds a mite ambitious.”
“Well now!” Artemis gave an elaborate wink. “That’s why I have one more gift for you.” He patted Leos on the shoulder and beckoned for Agris to follow him as he shuffled over to a copse of stunted, wind-warped trees. He peered into the twisted stems and branches. “Good! It’s still here. Young Agris, if you would be so kind as to employ your hatchet?”
Moments later the thicket was trimmed to reveal a mound of sand and cloth. Agris dragged the cloth away to reveal a small wooden sledge, the runners lined with highly polished iron. Together, he and Leos dragged it onto the ridge and then down to the edge of the Sea. The heat had made the wood somewhat brittle, but it was serviceable enough. It held their sacks easily; tools, food, water enough to last a week if rationed.
“How come that sledge was there?” asked Leos as Artemis joined them.
“This isn’t the first time I have visited the Sea of Glass,” he said with a smile. His hand tightened on the staff.
“And what happened to the crew you came with last time?”
The old man stared at the shimmering horizon of the Sea as if he hadn’t heard. “Well, let’s make a start, shall we? The sooner we are done, the sooner you will have your money, and you’ll be able to return to Tanagra without fear of the bailiffs.” Artemis strode off across the Sea, cloth boots whispering on the smooth surface.
“This thing you’re looking for better bloody well be there!” Leos called to the old man’s back.
He exchanged a look of concern with Agris, and then the two companions followed with the sledge, their hobnailed boots skidding in all directions.
Leos lay on his thin blanket and shivered. During the day the Sea was scorching, hot enough to burn the eyes and blister the skin. At night, it was cold enough to chill bone. It didn’t seem to bother Agris, who was sprawled awkwardly on the sledge, his bulk draped across the piled mass of their supplies. His snores rang through the silence of the Sea. Artemis had wrapped himself carefully in several layers of cloth and slept with his head on his satchel, cuddling his staff like a lover. He too seemed peaceful enough.
It was only Leos who found himself unable to sleep in the eerie expanse of nothingness. Fully awake, and needing to piss.
“Damn,” he whispered, hauling himself up and carefully picking his way across the moonlit glass a respectable distance from the others. He had no wish to repeat Agris’s mistake earlier in the evening, which had forced them to move camp.
He’d only taken a dozen steps when he realised someone was watching him.
In the distance a small figure, perhaps a child, stood quite still on the glass. In the moonlight the child’s skin looked as pale as milk, though its hair was dark and shining. It seemed to be wearing a hide of some sort, though its legs and feet were bare. Leos watched the child and the child watched him, neither moving. Leos’s breath smoked in the cold desert night, but no mirroring plume came from the child’s mouth. Leos raised a hand and waved, feeling absurd, though he couldn’t tell why. The child raised its hand and waved back.
Leos turned to call to Agris, and then reconsidered. He turned back, but the child was gone. There was only pale glass, stretching in all directions.
“Small, with pale skin?” Artemis stalked across the glinting surface of the Sea, back straight, eyes narrowed behind the smoky shields.
Leos nodded. “It was there, and then it was gone. It could have been a waking dream, but I doubt it. It’s never happened before. I don’t have that good an imagination.”
Agris made a sound like a lizard being crushed under a heavy stone, which Leos supposed might have been a laugh. His partner heaved on the sledge, dragging it across the glass and leaving a trail of scratches in its wake. The grating noise had been a constant companion through their trek, though as usual Agris seemed oblivious.
Artemis rapped his staff on the ground thoughtfully as he walked. “The people here, the ones living in this place when the Sea was formed, they were small. Like us, but child-sized. Another type of human. Sounds like you saw the ghost of one, perhaps.”
Leos sighed. “So I’m either seeing things, or being haunted. Just when I thought I couldn’t hate this place more.”
“Now now, young Leos. These are the tales you’ll tell your grandchildren, when you are my age!” Artemis pulled a compass from within his robes and studied it for a moment. “We are slightly off track. This way, my lads!”
Leos adjusted his eye-shields, then trudged after him. “Not much chance of grandkids if I end up rotting my life away in a debtor’s prison,” he grumbled. “We nearly there yet?”
As afternoon began to fade into evening, something took shape on the horizon. Four tall, upright structures that all seemed to be the same height. Towers, Leos thought. Four tall towers, marking the corners of a square. An old fortress, the walls gone. He slapped Artemis on the shoulder, rather harder than he should have considering the age of the man, though it seemed not to bother him.
The old man smiled. “And?”
Leos pointed. “Is that where we’re heading? Please tell me yes; I’m sick of this Sea and the nothingness in it. And having to wear these bloody eye-shields all day.”
Agris sighed happily. “This place isn’t so bad, Leos. So much space makes a man think, think. There’s so much to see in the world. Would it be so bad if we never, never went back?”
Leos felt a splinter of sadness in his gut. Agris had spent a lifetime fighting and had nothing to show for it but a formidable collection of scars and head injuries. That and survival, which was nothing to be sniffed at, Leos supposed.
Artemis nodded. “It does make a man think, Agris. And yes, Leos, that’s where we are headed. It used to be a castle, before the Sea formed. The towers are the Silent Sentinels, and there used to be a great wall between them, with no way through. They were built to protect the greatest treasure of the people who lived here.”
“Aha!” Leos tapped his boots on the glass happily. “So that’s it. Treasure enough to make three bold and brave companions the richest arseholes in the land, eh?” He paused thoughtfully. “I hope it’s still there.”
“I’m sure it is,” said Artemis. “I’m the only person who knows about it, I believe. And you two now, of course.”
Agris grinned and giggled once again. “This treasure buried, is it? Buried?”
Leos looked questioningly at Artemis, who nodded. “That’s why you are here. Can’t expect an old man like myself to dig through thick glass, even if the effort would make me rich as a king. Instead, we can all be rich. Share and share alike.” The old man raised his staff and then bowed to them ostentatiously.
Leos and Agris exchanged grins, though what passed for a grin on the big man’s face curdled Leos’s stomach a little.
“Let’s get to it, then!”
They picked up their pace.
The Sentinels were as tall as twenty men, constructed from regular blocks of dark black stone with white veins running though. Each was intact, unblemished, with no doors or windows. Artemis spent a few moments admiring them while Leos and Agris swallowed some water, and then Leos watched him pace from the corner of each tower to the one diagonally opposite, dragging behind him a long iron spike he had retrieved from the sledge.
When both lines were drawn, Artemis led the companions to the point where they crossed, and handed the spike to Agris.
“The ancient scrolls I have studied state that the treasure was placed in the middle of the Sentinels, an equal distance from them all. It should be somewhere near the intersection of these lines.” The old man wiped the sweat from his forehead and pulled out his waterskin. “Off you go, boys. I’ll be in the shade over there.”
Agris fetched a pair of wooden mallets from the sledge and they took it in turns to hammer the spike into the surface of the Sea, sending bright, sharp chips high into the air. After the spike had gone two hand lengths down into the glass it sank into something soft beneath. They began to widen the hole, breaking the glass into chunks and then carefully piling it up a short distance away. The sun was sinking on the horizon as they finally exposed a bare patch of sand that, Artemis declared, had not seen the sun for over a thousand years.
Leos slipped into the hole and began to shovel the sand out with his gloved hands, rooting around for anything solid. He shivered as his fingers grasped something that felt like a tree root, and then he carefully began to wipe the sharp grains away.
It was long, thin, and twisted, running down into the sand. Hard, brown leather, Leos thought at first, until he saw some tiny toes and realised that he held a withered leg in his hand. He jerked back and looked up at Artemis, who was watching him carefully over the top of his staff.
“It’s a body! Old, dried up like a cave corpse from the deserts.”
Artemis nodded, his eyes bright. For a moment he hardly seemed an old man at all; more like a child on his birthday. “Uncover the rest!” Then, more hesitantly: “Do you feel fine enough, Leos? No… pain, or discomfort? The scrolls mentioned some… protection.”
“Nope,” said Leos, brushing away more of the sand to reveal the rest of the small, desiccated corpse. “Just annoyance that we came here looking for treasure and find some shrivelled-up dead prick instead.” He lifted the child-sized cadaver out of the hole and passed it to Artemis, who cradled it awkwardly in one arm.
“I’ll help, help.” Agris reached for Artemis’s staff, but the old man jerked it back.
“That’s fine,” he muttered.
Agris looked at Leos, who shrugged.
“I bet you weren’t expecting that to be the greatest treasure of those other humans? If in fact it is, and we haven’t just dug a hole in the wrong place. Right?”
“No,” Artemis whispered. “This is just what I expected.” He turned away.
Leos hauled himself out of the hole, only for his face to almost collide with the pale white face of the child he had seen the previous night. He stared at the pallid, flat features before him; the flattened nose, thin lips and pale green eyes, all framed by a thick mess of dark purple hair. The child — though it wasn’t a child, not really, he could see that now from the weathered yet feminine face — raised a finger to its lips as if hushing him.
Leos looked at Agris and gave a strangled squeak, but when the big man turned he only regarded his partner with his usual puzzled expression. The pale girl was gone.
Artemis was already rushing to the sledge, the corpse cradled in his arms. “We should go,” he called to the others. “If we leave now we can cover a few leagues before we need to camp.” He wrapped the withered cadaver in an empty sack and carefully tucked it into the sledge. “Leave the tools,” he said. “We don’t need them anymore. We have what we came for.” He gazed at the sack, his face creased into a smile. “All we’ll ever need.”
Someone was driving a spike into Leos’s head. Again and again it struck, the force and pain shaking through his body while he squirmed and moaned. Knock knock knock.
He opened his eyes to the swirl of stars above the Sea, his body covered in sweat in the cool night air. He swore softly and turned on his side in a vain attempt to get comfortable.
Another white face loomed in front of him, similar but not the same as the one he’d seen a few hours before. Leos gasped and made to cry out, but a thin hand, ashen as the moon, swept in front of his face and seemed to snatch his cries away before he even made them. The bright, fierce eyes of the girl held to his, and he understood. After a silent moment she nodded, and pointed one long finger to the other side of the small camp.
They had camped in a spot where the remains of a building protruded from the Sea; a shattered wall and broken staircase that wound up to over twice Leos’s height. Agris had chosen to sleep at the base of the wall in case the wind picked up, and Leos could see his booted feet sticking out from behind it. Moving slowly towards the wall was a tall, slender man dressed in black, eyes narrowed in concentration as he stepped carefully, silently along the glass. In his hand, something glinted sharply in the moonlight.
Leos drew a pair of his daggers and hauled air into his lungs.
His partner was on his feet in an instant, the confusion on his face quickly replaced by fury when he saw the stranger and the knife he held.
The man lunged, but Agris was quicker than he looked, as a score of corpses could testify, were they able. He batted the blade from the stranger’s hand and aimed a meaty fist at his head, only for it to pass harmlessly by as the man ducked.
Leos watched in astonishment as their assailant leapt backwards, flipping over onto his hands and then springing back to his feet. He spun and ran, snatching Artemis’s staff from the ground. He turned to face Agris once more, and Leos swore as the slender form of the stranger resolved itself into the familiar grey-haired figure of Artemis.
Agris had picked up his scimitar and was advancing carefully, his boots unsteady on the glass. Leos began to hurry towards him, but Artemis lunged scorpion-quick, the staff whirling to strike Agris’s arm, leg, and head all in the space of a moment. With barely a grunt he crashed to the ground.
Leos threw a dagger and was gratified to see Artemis flinch in pain as it scored his arm. He moved forwards warily, ready for Artemis to advance in turn, but instead the man spun and sprinted to the sledge, snatching up the bundle of cloth that contained the small cadaver. Artemis ran, feet whispering across the glass.
Leos gave chase, but his boots couldn’t grip the sleek surface so well, and he cursed as Artemis increased the distance between them. Instead, he moved to Agris and crouched by him, examining the large welt on his friend’s forehead where the staff had struck. Agris was dazed but breathing normally, and seemed to be muttering obscenities under his breath.
There was movement out on the glass, and Leos looked to see the pale girl standing, arms outstretched, face tilted to the sky. A wind blew, bringing with it the scent of grass, and trees, and wood smoke. From the darkness, another girl walked to stand by the first. Together, they knelt and placed their palms on the glass. The ground shuddered, and Leos started as his boots began to sink into the Sea. He grabbed Agris by the shoulders and hauled him to the broken stairs.
The Sea rippled. In the distance, Artemis stumbled to his knees. The cadaver sack slipped from his hands as he tried to right himself with his staff, though the sack seemed to float across the surface of the Sea rather than sink.
Artemis was less fortunate. The staff plunged into the molten glass and he followed it, arms flailing.
The land seemed to shudder, and the Sea was solid again.
Leos tapped it gingerly with the pommel of his dagger, then stepped onto the reformed surface. The two girls were gone. He saw that the sledge’s runners were locked tight in the glass, and cursed.
He tramped carefully across to where Artemis had been, and where now there was only a small bump on the surface of the Sea.
He grinned as he saw Artemis’s face, that of the young stranger once again, jutting out from the glass, his head tipped back at an angle. The man’s body was a smoky smudge beneath the Sea.
“Played us for fools, eh?” Leos looked over at Agris, who was staring vacantly at the moon and prodding at the wound on his forehead, and coughed. “Well. Played me for a fool, eh? That staff of yours worked a treat. I really thought you were an ancient, dried up old arsehole. Got most of it right, even so.”
Leos walked to the sack, which sat undisturbed on the smooth glass. He peered inside to make sure the leathery remains were still there, then slung it over his shoulder and returned to where Artemis’s face was grimacing at the night sky.
“Who’s the fellow in the sack then? Someone important, I’m guessing.” Leos slid a stiletto from his belt and let the point hang over Artemis’s eye. “Come on now, you can tell me. I’m all ears.”
The trapped man swore, then sighed.
“I don’t know his name, or much about him. But he was a king, a great sorcerer who ruled a land thousands of leagues across. Even now, his remains hold tremendous power if used correctly. I need them. I have debts of my own to pay. The kind that can’t be paid with coin.”
“And you brought us along to shield you from any… protection, was it?”
Artemis groaned and shifted under the glass. “I had to be careful. The people that constructed those towers, who ruled this land… they had great skill. Power beyond belief. How could I know what steps they took to protect their king? I couldn’t take the risk myself.” He grimaced. “You would have done the same.”
“Maybe.” Leos looked off across the cold expanse of the Sea, at where the girls had stood not long before. “Did you consider that maybe the Sentinels were there to protect the world from the king, and not the other way round?”
“What difference does that make?” Artemis eyed the blade dangling from Leos’s hand. “You don’t have to do this, you know. I didn’t choose this path. My contacts need the cadaver, and they are important people. We can still travel back to Tanagra, all share in the wealth.”
“Nah.” Leos waved the dagger. “You want it quick, now? Or you want to wait for tomorrow, and the heat?”
Artemis’s throat clicked as he worked his mouth. “Not now. Not now.”
Leos nodded. “Fair enough. Well, we’re going to dig out the sledge, and then we’re going to put this sorcerer-king back where we found him. If you’re still breathing when we pass by, we’ll have this conversation again.”
Back at the camp, Agris was chipping away at the glass around the runners of the sledge with his hatchet. “He wants to burn up in the sun,” Leos said. “Seems worse than what I offered, but still.”
Agris nodded, then handed Leos the little axe. He slipped his scimitar from its scabbard and looked over at Artemis. His face twitched. “Back, back in a moment.”
Leos hacked at the glass, his thoughts on the bailiffs and how he and Agris might pay off their debts, now that Artemis had turned out to be a backstabbing shit.
In the distance, he heard Agris giggle. He was pretty sure what it meant this time.
In the early morning light they placed the shrivelled body in the hole, and piled the chunks of broken glass back on top.
“It’ll be easy for someone else to get him out,” said Leos quietly. “But not much we can do about that, I suppose.”
Agris sucked disconsolately at a waterskin, then slung it onto the sledge. “Not much water… left now. We’ll have to be careful on the way back. And lucky, lucky.”
“Aye.” Leos heaved a sigh. “Another job with nothing to show for it. I don’t think our luck is up to much at the moment, ‘Gris.”
Agris nodded, then wandered to sit in the shade of one of the Sentinels. A few moments later he was snoring roundly.
Leos looked again at the pile of smashed glass atop the hole. “Sorry about that,” he said, to no-one in particular.
When he lifted his eyes, one of the pale girls stood on the far side of the grave, a crooked smile on her face. She opened her arms, and from the towers walked three other white girls, striding silently over the Sea. They stood together, facing Leos. They were all alike, but subtly different in hair or eye colour, the shape of their mouths. Sisters, perhaps.
Leos swallowed heavily. “He’s best left buried, eh?”
One of the girls knelt on the glass and stretched out her hand to the pile of broken debris. In moments it had gone and the surface of the Sea was intact, the hole vanished.
“Thanks,” said Leos a little hopelessly. “Well, I’d best wake my friend over there, or we’ll never get off the Sea alive. We’ll leave you in peace.”
One of the girls held out her hand, then curled her fingers to beckon Leos forward. Not knowing what else to do, he followed. She led him a few steps towards one of the towers, and then crouched. Her hand stroked the surface of the Sea, setting it rippling. The girl motioned for Leos to reach in.
Leos knelt and tentatively pushed his hand into the glass, which was now as cool and wet as a river, and through to the sand beneath. His fingers brushed against something hard.
He grasped it and pulled, slowly dragging it free of the sand and through the watery glass.
A circle of gold, big enough for a child’s head.
The pale girl bowed before Leos, grinning widely, and then walked back to her sisters. They turned to regard Leos again, then raised their hands to the sky. Clouds that had not been there before darkened the sun, and moments later a soft rain began to fall, hissing lightly on the Sea. The girls each walked their separate ways, one to each Sentinel, stepping through the stone walls to vanish from sight.
Leos looked at the golden circlet in his hands, drops of rain beading on its glistering surface. He had little experience of handling treasure, to his continual dismay, but he was pretty sure the gold was worth enough to pay their debts with some to spare. Maybe even enough to buy a small plot of land, start a little farm. Smiling, Leos tucked it under his shirt.
Beneath the Sentinel, Agris was still asleep, his mouth open to the rain. Leos made sure the sledge was ready, then crossed to the big man.
“Come on, ‘Gris, ‘fore you drown.”
Agris rumbled awake, then frowned up at the sky.
“Rain? Ain’t supposed to rain here, is it?”
“I suppose every dry spell has to end sometime.” Leos patted his chest, feeling the gold beneath the cloth. “I reckon ours might be nearing its end, too.”
“Well, let’s go, go.” Agris picked up the rope to drag the sledge. He looked about at the featureless expanse of the Sea, and his brow creased. “I can’t tell now the sun’s gone. Which way is it?”
Leos turned a full circle, then looked at the flat, grey sky. The wind whipped rain in his face. The Sentinels remained silent. Leos sighed. Every time it seemed that things might improve, the gods emptied their chamber pots over him.
“Why do we bother, Agris? Why?”
Agris ignored him, instead staring at the surface of the Sea with a look of bemusement. “We sure scratched the glass up, dragging… this sledge all the way, all the way. Seems a shame, almost. A shame.”
Leos grinned and slapped Agris on the arm, though it was like skinning his fingers on stone.
“Agris, I don’t care what everyone else says; to me you’re a genius. Come on. We can follow these marks back to the shore.” He set off, enjoying the coolness of the rain.
Agris’s brow furrowed. “Why, what does everyone else say?”
As he walked, Leos felt the weight of the gold against his chest, and thought of those who had sent Artemis, who sought the power of the dead king. It seemed unlikely that they would just give up when their hireling failed to return. Perhaps, he mused, the circlet wasn’t given as a reward, but as a retainer. Payment for services yet to be rendered.
Leos decided that the bailiffs and the farm could wait. He and Agris had a new debt to be paid first.