The Skybound Sea


Page 11



But he had not come to survey the damage; there were always more warriors. Rather, he had come seeking something else.

What it was, he wasn’t entirely sure. Why he felt drawn to it, he was only barely certain. That made his ire rise.

But it was here, amidst a rotting feast uneaten.

And so he slipped across the floor, searching. In the stagnant pools of water that remained, in the flock of the crushed and beaten and drained of blood, he found something.

Not what he was looking for.

Cahulus. Male. Once, a loyal and devoted member of his inner circle, brother to the other two loyal and devoted members. Once, reckless with his nethra, hurling fire and spewing ice with whimsical abandon. Once, in command of the warriors sent to take this fortress.

Now, dead. The gemstone he once wore, like the three set in Sheraptus’s own crown, was gone.

Dead. With eyes sunken into rotted flesh, with a dried torrent of blood staining his filthy and salt-stained robes, with his lower jaw lying eight feet away from his face.

Dead.

Like the rest of them.

Like the ones back on his ship that was now at the bottom of the ocean.

The ship from which he had escaped. The ship he had survived. And they hadn’t.

“Good afternoon.”

The Gray One That Grins spoke clearly, as always. His voice was soft and lilting, bass and clear; music that slid easily out between teeth as long as fingers. His voice did not echo; music that Irontide did not want to hear.

He turned to regard his companion. Thin and squatting upon long, slender limbs, the light of the sinking afternoon sun painted him black against the gaping hole that wounded Irontide’s granite walls. His namesake teeth remained starkly visible.

“It is afternoon, isn’t it,” Sheraptus observed. “It was morning when I came here.”

“Apologies. It was not my intent to keep you waiting.”

“Accepted, with full gratitude, of course.”

Sheraptus never had cause to cringe before. Hearing his own voice, echoed a thousand times and welcomed into the deathly halls, was certainly a poor cause to have now.

The Gray One That Grins tilted his head. “Your voice betrays discomfort. Pardon the observation.”

“And your notice compounds it,” Sheraptus muttered, waving a hand. “Apologies. It’s this place. It reeks of death.”

His associate tilted his head again, thoughtful. “I suppose it might. I really hadn’t noticed.”

Sheraptus glanced down at Cahulus, who looked like he found that hard to believe. Then again, it was hard to gauge the expressions of a man with half a face.

“Oh,” the Gray One That Grins said. “You look and see the corpses.”

“There are so many of them.”

“I had thought such things would not perturb you.”

“I merely see them.”

“Ah. The issue is, at last, uncovered.”

“Surely, you are not blind to them.”

“A lack of sight, fore or current, has never been attributed to me. Rather, I see somewhere else when I look upon these halls. I see somewhere long ago, somewhere much more preferable.”

He rose, suddenly no longer squat, but frighteningly tall. He became more so as he straightened his back with the sound of a dozen vertebrae cracking into place, a sickening eternity between each. Upon spindly shadows for legs, he walked down the hall.

“This was where the tapestry walked,” he said. “A long and decadent thing of many names and deeds, each one exaggerated as a tapestry should be. It walked between pillars, each one carved from marble in the shape of a virgin, holding flame in hands unscarred.”

Sheraptus found himself watching the space where the Gray One That Grins had just been, or where he was about to walk. Never did he look at those long, thin legs. Never did he even think about looking higher.

“That’s where it ended.” A long sliver of a finger pointed at the far wall. “That’s where the altar lay. That’s where I knelt in prayer, side by side with the woman that would come to be called Mother.”

“I misunderstand or you misremember,” Sheraptus said. “I was told this was a stronghold for overscum. Pirates, like the ones that allied themselves with our foe.”

“It was. After that, it was a house of prayer for that Mother again. Before that, it was a house of war for those who drove her from it. Irontide is but one more meaningless name. It has existed in a cycle: worship, then slaughter, on and off since its creation.”

Sheraptus looked to Cahulus. Then to the frogman beside him, the thing’s ivory skin stained pink with the rotting bundle of intestines split so neatly from its belly. Then to the netherling who still held the blade, even as the fragmented cord of her spine jutted from the shredded purple of her back.

“And now, a house of charnel.”

“There will be more. Possibly this one again. Such is their nature.”

“Demons?”

“Demons.” The Gray One That Grins’s laugh was less pleasant this time. “It is not a demon’s nature to destroy, but to reclaim. For them, it is a choice. The same is not said with any great conviction for humans.”

“Humans?”

“Humans.”

“The lack of specificity is dreadfully unhelpful.”

“Specificity?”

“Just learned it.”

“It is impressive.”

“Thank you.”

“You are welcome.” The Gray One That Grins tilted his head to the side, settled down on his haunches. “As to your complaint . . . how many humans do you know?”

Sheraptus looked again to the corpses for as long as he could stand. When he looked back to his associate, seated in merciful shadow, his face wore disgust and disbelief on either side.

“They did not kill this many.”

“Your warriors and demons killed each other, true. The humans did not kill this many.” His voice dropped. “But they have killed many.”

Many.

Sheraptus turned the word over in his head, contemplated every quantity that could bear such a title. How many had been in Irontide that were struck down by those overscum? How many had blood spilled upon the sand by their blades? How many had the humans sent to the bottom of the ocean when the ship was destroyed?

The answer was simple, and grim.

“But not me,” Sheraptus whispered.

“Pardon?”

“I survived.”

“You are possessed of immense power, as well as the Martyr Stones to fuel it and the confidence to wield it.” The Gray One That Grins’s voice dropped. “Your surprise at your own survival . . . concerns. As does your inability to deal with these humans.”

“You doubt me?” Sheraptus imagined the threat might have sounded more forceful if he could bear to face the creature.

“Apologies for dancing around the issue, but . . . my associates are concerned. They have insisted upon moving forward with your assault.”

“We have been gathering the forces necessary for pressing the attack. All our information suggests Jaga is not a place to be traipsed into with a few fists of warriors.”

“Information?”

“Specifically, the kind of information that comes from sending thirty warriors out and finding pieces of them washing up on shore days later. We don’t even know where the island lies, much less how many reptiles infest it or how well it’s defended.”

“Hence part of the reason for my insisting upon this meeting.” The Gray One That Grins swept a glance about the ruined halls. “Your insistence on meeting here, though, comes as a surprise.”

“It is difficult to explain.”

“To a man that cannot see the field of corpses before him for his seeing the past behind him?”

Sheraptus clicked his tongue. “I suppose I felt . . . called here.”

“Called.”

His voice was darkening with each moment. Sheraptus had never felt a twinge creep up his spine at that. Then again, he considered, his associate’s voice had never been anything but music before.

“It’s difficult to explain.”

“Attempt. I implore you.”

Sheraptus turned to face Irontide’s vast, corpse-strewn silence. He had not seen the battle, the knee-deep seawater that had since drained out of its wound, a fine layer of blood spilled over it with a peppering of ashes from smoldering demon flesh. Now, with stagnant pool and cinders scattered to the wind, he could still feel it.


There. In the darkness, there was something darker: a spot of blackness that might be considered for soot if it weren’t just too perfectly black, too utterly insignificant not to be noticed, as though it tried to hide from him. He felt it there, too.

“A sensation.” He tapped on the black iron of his crown. “Something . . . out there and in here.”

“One hesitates to point out who just complained about a lack of specificity.”

“It is like . . . a feeling, vague and fleeting,” Sheraptus continued, “something that is there, but not there. Knowledge without evidence.”

“You describe . . .” His associate’s voice was a slow and spiteful hiss. “A sensation shared by virgins who don’t bleed and men who swallow gold and excrete stool that is only brown. Do you now look to the sky and whisper quiet prayers to invisible creatures with invisible ears?”

“Gods do not exist.” A casual refusal; no thought, no conviction. “This is . . . was something like sensing a power. Nothing I had sensed before the island.” He furrowed his brow as he swept his stare about the gloom. “I felt it then, too. In the shadow of the statues there and when . . .”

He shut his eyes and, as happened whenever they stayed closed for more than a moment, he saw her again. Long and limber and writhing helplessly in her bonds, the scent of her tears cloying his nostrils and the sound of her shrieking drawing his lips apart. And, again, when he began to feel the swell beneath his robe, he looked into her eyes wide with fear, into a mouth jabbering nonsensical pleas to creatures that weren’t there.

And he sensed it again.

“We never told you.”

He turned. The Gray One That Grins was close now, too close.

“We never told you what led us to seek the tome, what led us to pry open the doors of worlds like a child pulls open closets, what led to us discovering the hole that we pulled your race out of,” he hissed. “The war.”

“Between mortal and Aeon,” Sheraptus replied. “Your invisible gods made creatures that did not obey them and your mortals fought against them. They are returning and you wish for my degenerate race to handle them.”

“I did not say ‘degenerate.’”

“Feel free to refute the implication.”

The Gray One That Grins chose not to. “The tome’s power is in its memory. Look into its pages and you will find confirmation of any tale that emerged from the war, the horrors that demons visited upon mankind. Go further and you will find the truth that there are simply too many atrocities in any war to be held by only one side. When demon tortured mortal, when Aeon enslaved mortal, mortal struck against demon in the most vile way he knew how.

“The monoliths.”

The great, gray statues that did not stand, Sheraptus remembered. Or rather, that had not always stood. They were still and calm on the beaches of Teji: robed figures with hands outstretched, arcane holy symbols in their hoods instead of faces. But they had not always been intended to be there; one did not mount iron treads upon a statue’s base for that.

“They are a product, a refinement of centuries of hatred for the Aeons,” the Gray One That Grins whispered. “Love dulls, awe blinds, only hatred hones. The mortals hated their oppressors, Ulbecetonth and her children, with such passion that fire and steel and poison and spit were not enough. The monoliths were.”

“And what are they?” Sheraptus asked.

“Children,” the Gray One That Grins said. “Some of them, anyway. Grandfathers and teachers and midwives, whatever they might have been as Aeons before they were called demons. All of them ground down by hate, mortared in hate, chiseled with hate, and sent against their parents and grandchildren and students and patients. The demons fled before them.”

He flashed a long, macabre grin.

“What demon would not? What would terrify a demon, after all, beyond its companions, its children, and its lovers being forever imprisoned in statues in the shape of the Gods that had cursed them so?”

“The monoliths are . . . underscum?”

“Were. Were weapons, too. Effective ones. They terrified the demons, broke their ranks and sent their immortal minions fleeing. They gave the armies of the mortals a fighting chance, but not enough to be truly successful.

“That was when they took more from the demons they captured. They ripped something from them and put it in something more mobile, more malleable: prisons of flesh instead of stone.

“Difficult, of course. Touch the demon to the head and the vessel will not obey. Touch the demon to the heart and the vessel will die. In the end, their hatred for the demons was strong enough to refine that process, too, and they were instilled in the arm.”

He held up a long, gray limb.

“The left one.”

Sheraptus narrowed his eyes, focused again on the sooty spot, the spot too small and too neat not to be noticed amidst the passive carnage.

“And what happened?”

Sheraptus spoke softly, distracted. His eyes remained on the spot too dark, too deep, a black spot painted by a stiff brush in a trembling hand.

“Gods create. And as demons run anathema to Gods . . .”

A spot. Not blood. Not flesh. Not ash.

“Well,” the Gray One That Grins said. “You are looking at what used to be one of your warriors.”

“I see many,” Sheraptus said.

“You see the one I’m talking about.”

“I see no remains.”

“You see all that remains.”

“There is nothing left.”

“You sound doubtful.”

“I have never been more certain,” Sheraptus said. He swept over to the spot and traced a finger over the darkness. It did not stir, did not come off on his hand. It was a scar upon matter, upon creation. “What exists is never created, never destroyed. It changes, it alters, it flows from one form to the next, but it can never be removed entirely.”

“You are utterly certain?”

“There is no certainty. It implies that I may be wrong. This is law.”

“You break law as a matter of sport.”

He drew a long, slow circle about the spot. It did not move. It did not react. It was not affected by him, his stare, his touch at all. It used to be a living thing. One that belonged to him. And now, it was this.

The Gray One That Grins did not lie.

“Gone,” he whispered reverently. “Utterly and completely gone. And this stain could have been . . .”

“It was not.”

“And the only reason it wasn’t . . .”

“Unimportant.”

“If there is pure destruction and anathema to destruction . . .”

“Enough.”

He rose. He turned. The Gray One That Grins was no longer in shadow. The Gray One That Grins was standing before him.

“Your will wavers. Your doubt grows. You prepare answers to questions that began the war that we seek to end.” His teeth gnashed with every word, jagged edges fitting neatly together with a firm snap. “We, Sheraptus. We pulled you out of the Nether. We showed you the sunlight. We promise you more, so much more, if you do what we require of you.”

He turned a head without eyes toward the wound in the tower’s side. Teeth too long bared in a snarl.

“We are out of time, Sheraptus. The sky has bled. The crown of storms rests upon a fevered brow.” The Gray One That Grins made a vile sucking sound between his teeth. “He comes. And he comes for her.”

His limbs moved like a tree’s, creaking and groaning like living things dying as he raised them. Sheraptus had no idea where the object in his hand came from, from what dark shadow that clung to the Gray One That Grins’s body like clothing it had been plucked from. But it was there: a single piece, a meaningless lump of granite, still and lifeless and held perfectly between two pointed gray fingers.

Sheraptus had no eyes for it, though. Nor did he have eyes for the sensation of a thin and sickly grasp about his wrist, fingers wriggling in between his fingers and prising them apart to expose a sweat-slick and vulnerable palm. He didn’t dare look down at that.

The granite felt a leaden life in his palm, a thing that squirmed against its shell and writhed against his skin, seeking a way in. It beat like a living thing, shed warmth as though it had blood all its own. It was alive.

He had no heart, no will to do anything but hurl it away, let alone ask what it was. But amidst the many things the Gray One That Grins knew, he knew this.

“Salvation,” he whispered through his teeth, forcing Sheraptus’s fingers closed over the stone. “Not from a god.”

He slipped backward, knees groaning and feet clicking upon the stones, a man who walked in and out of nightmares like a bad thought himself.

“To Jaga. To the tome. To kill, Sheraptus. Him and her. What you were created to do.”

Sheraptus stared into the darkness. He might have indeed been alone, left only with the dying sun and the dead bodies and the echoes that had died at the sound of his associate’s voice.

Pure destruction, he thought. It was here. It was there on Teji. It was there on the ship. Amidst my warriors, amidst the overscum . . . inside her. And they are all dead.

And I am not.

He dared not think further. He dared not dwell on the reason. He dared not contemplate what the presence of pure destruction implied.

He might not have been alone.

And so he closed his eyes and turned his thoughts outward. His crown burned, the gems set inside it smoldering on his brow as something awoke inside him. It snapped in the back of his head, awoke from an electric slumber with the faintest of crackles. It slipped from him and into the air, where it traveled on a bridge from his skull.

And sought the end.

SEVEN

RITE AND REASON

So, anyway . . .

His wrist twitched. The blade came singing out of its hiding place, all sleek and shiny and puckering up its thin little steel lips.

What exactly are you doing, anyway? You’ve got a throat you need to open, you know. Seems a tad rude to keep her waiting.

He pulled its hidden latch, drew it back into its sheath. It disappeared with a disappointed scraping sound.

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