The Skybound Sea


Page 14



“I . . .” Denaos replied. “I don’t . . . I don’t . . .”

“And I . . . don’t . . .”

The boy shot out a hand. Vast, invisible fingers seized Denaos about the waist. The boy clenched it into a fist. The fingers wrapped, tugged at Denaos’s body, pulled him across the sand.

The boy flung his hand in an overhead pitch and shouted.

“CARE!”

And Denaos flew.

He knew this was the right thing, of course, to fly to the aid of a companion and rescue her from the same fate he had failed to rescue her from just nights ago. This was a good, moral thing to do. Reasonable.

Didn’t stop him from screaming, though.

He came to a stop amidst a crash of bodies, hurtling into the netherlings as they had plucked up bows to return fire upon his companion. They tumbled to the deck, a tangle of limbs and a mess of metal.

Denaos liked to think they hadn’t even noticed the blade slipped into their jugulars, at least not until he rose from the heap of purple flesh and walked away on red footprints.

He caught sight of Asper first, awake and wide-eyed and silent against the jagged knife pressed to a throat laid bare. Xhai second, impassive and dead-eyed as she clenched hair in one hand and a hilt in the second. Both saw him, both spoke to him, one with words and one without.

“This isn’t going to work,” Xhai said.

“Sure it will,” Denaos said, advancing slowly. “You hate her too much to kill her like this. You’ve got too good of a reason to cut her throat open.”

Xhai said nothing. The hard lump that disappeared down Asper’s throat, gently scraping against the blade as it did, as her eyes grew ever wider, suggested his confidence was not entirely shared. And still, Denaos advanced.

“You’re not going to kill her,” he said. “Not when you can do worse. Not when you need to show me there’s worse.”

Xhai narrowed her eyes. Asper let out a faint squeak, more than ready to lose a few locks of hair and not quite sure she wouldn’t just find the blade planted in her belly later. And still, Denaos advanced, smiling.

“And because you’re not going to kill her,” he said, growing closer, “this is where the last corpse falls. This is where you and I die,” he said, rushing forward, “this is where—”

Whatever he was going to finish that thought with, he was sure, would have sounded better if he wasn’t forced to tell it to the hilt that rose up and smashed against his mouth. Asper’s sudden leap to her feet and snarl of challenge, too, would have likely been more effective if Xhai had not simply jerked down hard and sent her into the deck by her hair.

And he would have felt worse about all this, of course, had his head not suddenly assumed the properties of a lead weight: dense, senseless, and utterly useless for anything but lying there.

“Not this way,” Xhai growled as she hoisted him up and over her head. “Not so easily. And not because of her.”

He was vaguely aware of her carrying him to the railing. He saw, vaguely, the shape of Dreadaeleon throwing his arms backward. He felt, vaguely, the sensation of air ripped apart as the sand erupted behind the boy and an unseen force sent him sailing through the air toward the ship, eyes glowing and coattails whipping.

“Should have killed me before,” Xhai snarled. “That would have been better.”

It was then that Denaos was reminded that lead weights had at least one more use.

Her arms snapped forward and he flew, tumbling senselessly through the air. He didn’t hear Dreadaeleon’s cry of alarm, barely even felt it when he collided with the boy and the two went crashing into the surf.

He only really rose from his stupor when he was aware that he wasn’t breathing. Everything was forgotten: Dreadaeleon, Asper, Xhai, whichever one of them had sent him into the sea. He could think only of escape, only of air.

He scrambled, flailing against a shapeless, shiftless tide. It was by pure chance that he found the sky and gulped in a thick, rasping breath. It was by dumb luck and a lot of kicking that he managed to find the shore, crawling out in sopping leathers and hacking up seawater onto the sand.

After a moment, as he balanced precariously on his hands and knees, it all came back to him: breath, sense, Asper . . . and how exactly he had managed to fail so many times in one day.

It seemed as good a time as any for Dreadaeleon to rush up and kick him in the side.

“You useless moron,” the boy snarled, delivering another sharp kick that sent him rolling onto the ground.

Denaos winced, clutching his ribs and wondering when, exactly, the boy had found time to develop any kind of muscle.

“You know,” he settled for saying, “I liked you better when getting angry just made you urinate uncontrollably.”

“Why didn’t you do something?” the boy demanded, drawing his leg back. “Why didn’t you attack her?”

“Complications.”

“You just stood there,” the boy snarled, kicking at him again.

“Hung there,” Denaos said, arms shooting up to catch him by the foot, “by my throat, in the grip of a woman whose size is only rivaled by her philosophy in terms of lunatic things that should not be.” He twisted the ankle, brought the boy to the ground. “What about that does not sound complicated to you?”

“Why did I use you?” Dreadaeleon muttered, kicking away and scrambling to his feet. “I could have saved her by myself. I could have stopped her.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“I don’t know,” Dreadaeleon said, rubbing his head. “There was an itch . . . on my brain, or something. Something talking in my head, I don’t know.”

“Next time, just say ‘complications.’” Denaos pulled himself to his feet. “Makes you sound cleverer.”

Dreadaeleon didn’t seem to be listening. Dreadaeleon didn’t seem to be doing much beyond pacing, watching the ship disappear beyond the horizon, a black dot vanishing. Denaos followed his gaze, wondering, perhaps, if he had been lucky enough to be underwater when Asper had started screaming.

After a moment, Dreadaeleon seemed to come to a decision.

“I’m going after them.”

“Uh huh,” Denaos said, rising to his feet.

“They can’t get too far on oars alone,” the boy said, turning around sharply. “Bralston has a wraithcoat, he can—”

Denaos was up, standing before him in the blink of an eye. “No, he can’t.”

“Yes, he can,” the boy replied sharply, trying to maneuver around the rogue. “Just because you’re too much of a coward to do anything doesn’t mean he won’t.”

He had just found his way past the man’s bulk when a hand shot out, clamped his shoulders, and spun him about. He stared into Denaos’s stare, something harder and colder than had ever been offered to him.

“Think,” the rogue said. “And think hard. Bralston is concerned with a netherling that he thinks is dead and with taking you away from here. Which of those sounds like he’s going to be giddy to help you?”

Dreadaeleon’s eyes narrowed with suspicion. “How did you know he—”

“You’ve been rehearsing speeches at the lizardmen for a day now,” Denaos snapped. “Some of them do speak our language, you know, and they speak it to anyone who will listen.”

“He’d want to go after them, regardless,” Dreadaeleon said. “He’d want to track them down, to finish them off. They served a renegade, a violator of the Laws of Venarie.”

“He would, yes,” Denaos said. “Without you. He’d kill them. He’d rescue her. Do you want her to see his big ugly face when he bursts in to save her? Or do you want her to see—” he stopped shy of saying “us,” “—you?”

Denaos knew his logic had been accepted, as flimsy as it was, the moment he felt the boy shrug his hands off. He turned and stalked toward the shore, staring at the point where the ship had vanished.

“Then we need a way to pursue them,” he said.

“That seemed a nice trick when you flew off the beach,” Denaos replied.

“That was pushing,” Dreadaeleon said. “A momentary inspiration. We use magic to hurl things around all the time, turning it on an unmovable object would naturally propel us forward. But it’s limited and it’s strenuous.”

“You didn’t look strained.”

“That’s good,” Dreadaeleon replied. “You just keep contradicting me and I’ll sit here using my vast intellect to consider how to help Asper before she’s reduced to chunks of sopping meat. This is a great plan.” He rubbed his temples. “And they’re out of sight now, and we don’t even know where—”

“Komga.”

The resonant bass of Hongwe’s voice drew their attentions to the Gonwa as he stalked forward, spear in hand, with a trio of lizardmen behind him.

“Ah,” Dreadaeleon said, lip curling up in a sneer. “Thank goodness the cavalry has arrived, with sticks and rocks, just in time to be of absolutely no use.”

Hongwe gave a distinct snort of indifference as he stalked past the wizard and crouched down alongside the shore, staring intently at the surf as though he could track the ship through the waves.

“I came when I heard the longface escaped,” he said solemnly. “When the first longface burst from the caves of Komga, she brought down six of us before we were able to put enough spears in her to kill her. When the next twenty came, we were forced to flee, to abandon our families to their mercies just to save ourselves.

“What the island is now, is not our home,” he said. “It vomits smoke and fire. It is full of metal and there are no more trees. Our families are dead, even if they walk among the living, still. They are not ours anymore.”

“The netherlings have a base there, then,” Denaos said, raising a brow. “And you know how to get there.”

“I do,” Hongwe said, rising. “I have canoes to take you there, as well.” He turned and began to stalk away. “On the far side of the island. They will make it there by nightfall. We will arrive by dawn. They are faster and their lead grows each moment we—”

He paused, looking over his shoulder to note that neither human had begun to follow him. He furrowed his scaly brow.


“There is a problem?”

“Well, no,” Denaos said, “I mean, not really . . .”

“It’s just that, usually you warn about the danger and the fact that no one has ever returned,” Dreadaeleon said, shrugging. “I mean, you make a big deal out of it, usually.”

He scowled at them. “This is my home that I speak of. These are my kin that I wish to avenge. This is your friend they have taken.”

“Oh, no, I get that, really,” Dreadaeleon said. “It’s just, you know, surprising and all . . .”

Hongwe sighed. “Would you like me to offer some sort of warning?”

The two men glanced to each other. Denaos sighed, rubbed the back of his neck.

“No, I guess not,” he said, hurrying to catch up, “I mean, Asper probably would hate us for it.”

EIGHT

THE WORLD’S MASK

Three hours after they had left Teji, they had found the mist, and the world that Lenk knew ceased to have any meaning.

It had been dark when they arrived. The sun had slipped quickly away from them, unwilling to watch. The water was a deep onyx, the sky was indigo, and the distant trees of Teji’s greenery could not have been diminished even in the dying light.

The mist did not come out of nowhere, did not come rolling in with any flair for the dramatic. It was there, existing as it always had. It didn’t shift as they came closer, didn’t see a need to impress them. It had been there long before they arrived. It would be there long after they were all dead.

Lenk wasn’t sure how long they had been in there. Time seemed to be another one of those things that the mist didn’t see a need for.

Everything within the mist was gray, a solid, monochrome mass that hung around on all sides. Not oppressive, Lenk noted; it couldn’t be bothered to be oppressive, just as it couldn’t be bothered to recognize nightfall or moonlight or any sky beyond its own endless gray.

The sole exception was the sea. The mist still recognized it, as an old man acknowledges an old tree, impassive and careless for the world going on around it. And, as such, it was granted the privilege of being the only source of sound within the mist: the gentle lapping of waves as the ship bobbed about upon them, the soft hiss of foam dissipating.

The squish of blood-tinged insect innards being shoveled out over the railing in handfuls spoiled the mood slightly.

He fought down his revulsion and watched Kataria’s plan in action. With her fingertip to forearm coated in glistening, sticky ichor, the shict seemed to have no such squeamishness. With a sort of unnerving mechanical monotony, she reached into the bucket and hoisted out another handful of bug guts to pour over the side and add to the long line of floating innards they had left behind them.

She nodded at the ensuing splash, brushing her hands off as though that might make a difference.

“I’ll let that stew for a bit and then shovel in the next load,” Kataria said, turning to him. “Hopefully there’s enough here to work, otherwise we’ll just start tossing anything else that’s pungent and moist and see if that takes.”

Lenk stared at her for a moment. “So, do you sit around thinking of precisely the right words to horrify me or do they just come to you?”

“It’s been a long trip,” she said. “I’ve had time. But that’s not important.” She gestured to him with her chin. “How’s the shoulder?”

Well, now that you mention it, Lenk said inwardly. It feels amazing. Despite having attempted to cauterize my own wound and opening myself up for severe infection, I feel absolutely no pain or so much as a stiff kink. As well it might, what with the voice in my head chanting “you will feel no pain,” over and over.

He blinked as she stared at him expectantly.

Probably shouldn’t say that.

“Agreed,” the voice chimed in from the back of his head.

That wasn’t meant for you.

“Tell her nothing. She does not need to know. She does not need to hear. She will die. Our duty will go on.”

“So . . . what?” Kataria asked after the long, noisy silence. “Stupefied silence means . . . good? Bad?”

“Fine,” he said.

“Good. We’re going to need it for the plan.” She turned to Gariath, who sat beside the rudder, claws meticulously working on something in his lap. “And that.”

Despite the vow he had made to himself never to let his eyes get anywhere near the dragonman’s lap, Lenk couldn’t help but peer over. A spear, long and thick and made of unreliable-looking wood, lay upon Gariath’s kilt. A knot, thick and inelegant, occupied his attentions as it trailed from the rope pooled about his feet.

He seemed neither particularly interested in the job he was doing, nor the people looking at him. That fact emboldened Lenk enough to speak, albeit in a whisper.

“I don’t know how comfortable I am with a plan that puts an uncomfortable looking piece of wood in Gariath’s hands,” he whispered to Kataria.

“You don’t trust him?”

“The circumstances of this and the last time we were in a boat are pretty similar. You’ll recall he had a spear that time, too. And that ended with us nearly drowning.”

“He tried to kill you,” the voice whispered, “he’s done it before. He will do it again. So will she.”

“True,” Kataria replied, scratching her chin. “And yet, each of us has almost killed everyone else at some point. I guess I have a hard time holding that against them anymore.”

“Point being, that’s always been by accident,” Lenk said.

“Lies,” the voice countered silently.

“Or by some other weird happenstance,” he continued, trying to ignore it. “Gariath is nothing if not direct. There’s no telling what he might do.”

She cast a sidelong glare upon him. “Men who frequently go into raving, violent fits for no reason are in a poor position to accuse others of unpredictability.”

“I’d rest easier,” Lenk spoke a little more firmly, “if I knew exactly why he’s here.”

“You told him to come.”

“Like that’s ever been a factor in what he does.”

“Well, you wanted him here.”

“Yes, but why—”

“Because he can pound a man’s head into his stomach.”

“I wasn’t finished,” he snapped. He cast a glare over his shoulder, to the dragonman that had yet to look up. “He’s been fascinated with the Shen. He didn’t try to stop them when they attacked us nights ago. I mean, they tried to kill us and he wants to . . .”

“Kill us,” the voice whispered. “Betray us.”

“He’s going to . . .”

“Destroy us. Murder us.”

“He’s . . .”

“Weak. Treacherous. Going to die. We’re going to kill them.”

“He . . .” Lenk felt his own voice dying in his throat. “Kill . . .”

A pair of hands seized him, pulled him around roughly.

Lenk had never felt entirely comfortable under Kataria’s gaze; her eyes were too green, they hid too much and searched too hard. When they looked over him, seeking something he had no idea whether he even had, he felt naked.

And now that she stared at him, past him, searching for nothing, seeing all she needed to, he felt weak.

“Don’t,” she said, simply and sternly.

“What?”

“Don’t,” she said. “Whatever you’re thinking, no. It’s not. It never was. Don’t.”

“But you can’t—”

“I can. I will. Don’t.”

“But—”

“No.”

He nodded, stiffly. The world was silent.

Until Kataria looked to Gariath, anyway.

“How’s it look?” she asked.

The dragonman held it up, in all its jagged, rusted glory, and gave a derisive snort. “Third most useless thing on this ship.” He set it to the side. “Fourth if I use that bucket of slop for holding something.”

“Like what?” Lenk asked.

“Whatever’s left of you, if we spend another hour out here doing nothing.”

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