The Skybound Sea


Page 15



Absently, the young man thought he might have a harder time blaming Gariath for that. Thus far, Kataria’s plan had yielded nothing more than a lot of time sitting in the middle of a great, gray nothingness, learning the subtle differences in aroma between the thorax and the antennae of a giant dead cockroach.

Not that the efforts aren’t completely unappreciated, he thought as he peered over Gariath’s horns.

Dredgespiders, dog-sized and many-legged, glided in their wake. Heedless of the mist’s authority, they capered across the surface of the water, spinning great nets of silk behind them, which they used to trap the floating innards and spirit them away from hungry competitors.

“We can kill her right now,” the voice whispered. “Find Jaga on our own. Easier to infiltrate, easier to navigate. Without her. Everything will be easier without her. Her plan does nothing.”

His eye twitched. “You raise a good point.”

“Hmm?”

He turned back to her. “What, exactly, is your plan? So far, we’ve been doing nothing but hoisting guts into the water and waiting.”

“Oh, sorry,” she replied with a snarl. “I should have asked about your plan for finding the mysterious island of death shrouded in a veil of mist—” she paused, pointed up at their limp sail, “—with no wind.” She folded her arms challengingly. “Since we’re waiting and all.”

“Well, my plan was to bob in the water for eternity while contemplating the choices I had made in my life that had led me to agree to the half-cocked plan of a woman whose natural scent is somehow improved by the perfume of rotting, blood-tinged insect guts,” he snapped back. “Of course, since I had deduced this to be an integral part of your plan, I didn’t want to steal your glory.”

“The plan calls for bait,” she said. “Whether said bait is stunted, ugly, and sarcastic is not specified.”

“But this is?” he asked, making a sweeping gesture around him. “How could this possibly get us any closer to Jaga?”

“The plan does not allow for senseless inquiry!”

“It’s not senseless to question—”

“The plan will not be questioned!”

“Someone has to!” he all but shouted back. “I’ve gone this far on faith that you don’t deserve! I need to know something for me to think that any of this is going to work! Bait? Bait for what? Why does it have to have Gariath’s blood in it? What are we waiting for?”

His voice did not echo. The mist swallowed it whole, leaving only silence. A silence so crisp that it was impossible not to hear the sound of Gariath’s nostrils twitching as he drew in a breath and a scent upon it.

The dragonman rose, gripping the spear tightly as he turned and stared out over the water. Man and shict followed, three gazes cast out upon the long trail of bobbing, glistening guts behind them and the dredgespiders that danced amongst them.

For but a single breath longer.

All at once, the insects scattered silently, scurrying into the mist and disappearing inside its gray folds. The mist seemed to close in, as though the silence had grown too uncomfortable even for it and it sought to draw in upon itself. It was dense. It was dark.

Not nearly dark enough to obscure the roiling ripples in the sea, the massive black shadow that bloomed beneath them, the great crest that jutted from the water and followed the line of bait.

Quickly. And right toward them.

“The answer to all of your questions,” Kataria whispered breathlessly, “is that.”

It came cresting out of the waves, a wall of water rising before it. Through the mist and spray, they could see parts of it: the sharp, beak-like snout, the shadow-dark azure of its hide, and the single eye burning a bright, furious yellow through the water.

“Down!” Kataria shrieked, seizing the railing and holding on.

What else does one do when being charged by an Akaneed? Lenk thought as he followed suit.

Gariath, however, remained unmoving. He stood stoically at the rudder, baring the slightest glint of teeth in a small, deranged smile that grew broader as the great shape barreled closer toward them.

“I knew you’d come back,” he growled.

“Damn it, Gariath,” Lenk shouted. “I thought we were done with this! Grab something and get down!”

Apparently, lunacy was not something the dragonman was ever quite done with. He extended his broad arms to the side, a mother embracing a giant, roaring child.

“Come and get me,” he said to the sea.

And the sea spoke back, in a cavernous howl from a gaping maw.

The wave struck before the beast did, a great wash of salt that swept over the vessel’s deck and sent Lenk straining to keep from being washed away. Salt blinded him, froth choked him, he had barely enough sense to see if Kataria had held on, let alone for the beast rising out of the water.

The sudden shock that jolted the ship and sent him sprawling, however, was impossible to ignore.

One hand grasping desperately at the railing, the other pulled back a sopping curtain of hair to behold the sight of teeth. The rudder, the railing, the entire rear of the vessel had disappeared behind the great row of white needles, the wood loosing an anguished, splintering groan as the Akaneed’s bellowing snarl sent timbers trembling in its grip.

Lenk’s eyes swept the deck, soaking, choking and half-blind. Of their companion, there was no sign but the spear lying upon the deck, tangled amidst the rope.

“Where the hell is Gariath?” he bellowed over the cacophony of ship and serpent.

“How should I know?” Kataria screamed back.

“This plan is terrible!”

“THIS ISN’T PART OF THE PLAN!” she shrieked.

It wasn’t until Lenk’s sword was out in his hand that he took stock of the beast before him. From its thick hide, a single eye stared back at him, burning with more than enough hatred for the missing eye. That one had been put out long ago by the very dragonman that was now inconsiderately drowning somewhere overboard. They had met this Akaneed before.

His sword hadn’t been much use then, either.

The beast let out a reverberating snarl, its head jerking down sharply. The boat followed it down with a wooden shriek, its deck tilting up and sending Lenk’s legs out from under him and his grip slipping from the salt-slick railing.

He skidded down the deck with a cry, striking against the beast’s snout and kicking wildly against its slippery hide as he scrambled for purchase. Pressed against it, he couldn’t hear Kataria’s cries over the heated snort of its breath and the throaty rumble of its growls. He could see her, though, one hand clinging to the railing, the other reaching down futilely for him.

He clawed desperately against the vertical deck, ignoring the pain in his fingers, ignoring the red that stained the deck as he sought to jam his blade into it and haul himself up. He had just drawn it back when the ship buckled sharply again, sending him skidding.

The last thing he saw was the beast’s mouth open a little wider.

When it came crashing shut behind him, there was only a wet, pressing darkness and the stench of old fish.

He balanced precariously upon the stern of the upended vessel, the wood splintering, snapping beneath his feet as the timbers were ground between the glistening muscles of the beast’s gullet. They closed in upon him, pressing his left arm to his chest, closing in upon his head, growing tighter with each shuddering breath.

Above him, a gate of teeth had shut out sky and sound. Below him, a guttural growl rose from a black hole of a throat that drew closer with each shudder of the ship. His mind flooded, panicked thoughts tearing through his skull, incomprehensible, indistinguishable.

Why isn’t Kataria doing anything?

Except that one.

“She does nothing.”

And that one, though it didn’t really quite count as his thought.

“Sword.”

What?

“SWORD.”

The answer became as solid as the steel in his hand the moment he stopped looking up and down and stared straight ahead.

At the glistening wall that was the roof of the beast’s mouth.

He had a distinct memory of drawing the blade back, plunging it into a thick knot of muscle, and wrenching it free with a vicious twist of metal. Past the great burst of blood that came washing over him, the agonized roar that accompanied it, everything was a blur. The ship crashed back into the sea, his sword clattered to the deck as it upended. He did not.

There was a floor beneath him again, but it was sticky and writhing and reeking and shifting violently beneath him as the beast pulled back. He felt himself flying on a cloud of fine red mist, chased by a wailing, anguished howl across the sky that crashed into the sea behind him.

He was aware only of the water pressing in around him, of the need to breathe. He tore through it, finding the surface. When he broke, it was with a wrenching gasp.

Around him, the mist settled. The water lapped. The foam hissed and dissipated. Gentle sounds. Poor companions to the thunder of his heart and rasping of his breath.

“Lenk!”

The voice, too, was gentle and distant.


“Lenk!”

A poorer match to the sight he saw as he turned in the water and found Kataria, far away upon the ship, soaked to the bone and bow in hand. Her voice was far too soft for the frantic gestures she made.

“GET OUT OF THE WATER, MORON!”

That was more like it. Even better when he followed her pointing finger over his head and saw the great fin sweeping out of the mist and bearing down on him.

“Hopeless” was the word that kept echoing in his head as he kicked and pulled against the water, flailing more than swimming toward the woefully distant ship. He didn’t have to see the shadow in the water behind him to know his escape was futile; Kataria’s arrows, flying over his head in a vain attempt to slow the beast, did that well enough.

His body went numb with the effort, the exertion too much to keep going. He was tired, far too tired to scream when the water erupted in front of him.

Gariath, for his part, didn’t seem to mind. He barely even seemed to notice the young man as his massive arms and wings began to work as one, pulling him through the water toward the ship. Lenk thought to cry out after him, had he the voice to do so.

The sensation of a tail tightening as it wrapped about his ankle removed the need.

He was pulled behind the dragonman, feeling rather like a piece of bait as his companion moved swiftly through the water despite the added weight. He sporadically bobbed up and down, gulping down frantic air and misplaced salt as he rose above and fell below the surface with each stroke of the dragonman’s arms. He tried to hold his breath, tried to shut his eyes.

Because every time he opened them, he could see the gaping, toothy cavern of the Akaneed’s maw drawing closer, the vast column of its body lost in the depths behind it, the fire of its yellow eye burning as it bore down upon them. After the third time, he stopped trying to ignore it and simply waited to feel giant jaws sever him in half.

As it was, he heard only the sound of them snapping shut. He was hauled violently from the water, sputtering and coughing as Gariath hauled himself and his frail cargo onto the ship.

The dark shadow swept beneath them, the great wave following in its wake sending their vessel rocking violently beneath them as it vanished into the sea. Lenk strained to keep on his feet as the deck settled along with the sea, waiting for the beast to return.

After a moment of silence, he dared to speak.

“Is it gone?”

“No,” Gariath replied.

“How can you be sure?”

“Because it hasn’t killed me yet.”

While certain it made sense to Gariath, Lenk had neither nerve nor intent to ask him to explain. Instead, he looked to Kataria, breathing heavily and pulling wet hair from her face. She turned a wary and weary gaze upon him.

“You all right?”

“Relatively,” he muttered, sweeping an eye around the deck. “Did we lose anything?”

“One of the bags of supplies.”

“Which one?”

“The big one.”

“Oh, good. Just the one with all the food and the medicine, then.” He rubbed his neck, easing out an angry kink in his spine. “I assume we don’t need those. Not with your plan to guide us.”

“For someone who wants to find an island no one knows the location of, you’re awfully picky about how we get there,” Kataria replied, glaring at him. “We’ve still got that.” She pointed to the spear, tangled amidst the rope upon the deck. “That’s all we need.”

“Maybe it’s the concussion affecting my reasoning, but I can’t help but suspect that one needs slightly more than a rusty spear to kill a serpent the size of a tree.”

“How would killing it help us?”

His face screwed up. “I’d love to answer, but I don’t think I was prepared to hear anything quite that insane today.”

“The fact that we are not trying to kill something is insane?”

An unsettling question, he noted, one that would be far less unsettling had it not been accompanied by her stare. Eyes like arrowheads, hers jammed into his, hard and sharp and aimed at something he could not see in his own head.

Something cold and cruel that didn’t want to be seen.

“I need you to trust me.”

“I can’t.” The answer came tumbling out on a hot breath, on his own voice and no one else’s. He shook his head. “I can’t do that.”

“I know.”

She flashed him a smile, something old and sick and full of tears. She walked toward him slowly, hands held up before her, as though she approached a frightened beast and not the man she had kissed, not the man she had betrayed.

“I’m not going to apologize for it,” she said.

“I don’t want apologies.”

She was before him. He could feel her warmth through the chill of water. He could see her clearly through the haze of the fog. He could hear her. Only her.

“Then let me give you what you want,” she whispered. “Lenk, I—”

Her voice was drowned in the crash of waves and thunderous roar as the sea split apart before them. They cowered beneath the railing, a great wave sweeping over them and sending their vessel rocking violently. Lenk looked up and beheld only the writhing blue column of the creature’s body, the rest lost to the mist as he stared upward.

And, like a single star in a dead sky, a yellow eye stared back at him.

Absorbed as he might have been in the creature’s stare, Kataria shared no such fascination. He could hear her bow sing a mournful tune as she let an arrow fly into the fog, aiming for the eye.

“The spear!” she screamed over her shoulder as she drew another arrow. “The spear! Hit it! Hit it now!”

The deck trembled with Gariath’s charge, arm drawn back and splintering spear in hand as he rushed to the bow and hurled the weapon. It sailed through the air, rope whipping behind it before it bit into the beast’s hide with a thick squishing sound.

Undeterred by the length of wood and rusted steel jutting from its hide, the beast began to crane toward them, the eye growing larger. A curse accompanied each wail of arrow as Kataria sent feathered shafts into the mist.

And still, the beast came. Each breath brought it closer, taking shape in the wall of gray: the great crest of its fin, the jagged shape of its skull. Within three breaths, Lenk could almost count the individual teeth as its jaws slid out of the fog and gaped wide.

He wondered almost idly, as he brought his impotent sliver of steel up before the cavernous maw, how many it would take to split him in half.

If the answer came at all to him, it was lost in a fevered shriek of an arrow flying and the keening wail of a beast in pain. The missile struck beneath the beast’s eye, joining a small cluster of quivering shafts in the thin flesh of its eyelid.

“Didn’t think I knew where I was shooting, did you?” Kataria shrieked, though to whom wasn’t clear. “Did you?”

The Akaneed, at a distinct loss for replies that didn’t involve high-pitched, pained screeches, chose instead to leave the question unanswered. Its body tipped, falling into the ocean where it disappeared with a resounding splash.

“See? See?” Kataria’s laughter had never been a particularly beautiful noise, though it had never grown quite as close to the sound of a mule as it did at that moment. “I told you it would work! Damn thing’s not going to risk its only eye just to kill you.”

“I should have killed it,” Gariath muttered, folding massive arms over massive chest. “It deserved better than you.”

She sneered over her shoulder at him. “Maybe it just thought I was prettier.”

“What . . .” Lenk had hoped to have something more colorful to say as he stared out over the waves, “what was that?”

“That,” Kataria replied, “was the plan. To lure the thing out and then send it running. Any wounded animal will always flee to its lair.” Her ears shot up triumphantly. “In this case . . .”

“Jaga,” Lenk finished for her. His eyebrows rose appreciatively. “That . . . almost makes sense.”

“Almost?” she asked, ears drooping slightly.

“Well, what was the spear for?”

A faint whistling sound brought their attention to the rope sliding across the deck.

“Oh, right.” She bent down, plucking up the rope and sturdying herself against the bow. “Pick that up.” She looked past Lenk to Gariath, “Mind grabbing the rudder? This is the part I didn’t really think out.”

Lenk plucked up the thick rope. He opened his mouth to inquire but found reason to do so lacking. Everything became clear the moment he felt the tug on the rope and felt the boat move.

Questions did tear themselves from his mouth, though: noisy ones, mostly wordless, mostly curse-filled. If any answers came back, he didn’t hear them, what with all the screaming.

It was funny, he thought as he was jerked violently forward, but he had never before thought of arm sockets as a liability. As he was pulled from his feet and slammed upon the deck, though, he wondered if it might not have been easier if his arms had just been torn off and gone flying into the mist with the rest of the rope.

That thought occurred to him roughly a moment after he skidded across the slick timbers to crash against the railings and a moment before instinct shouted down rational thought.

Get up, it screamed. Get up!

He did so, staggeringly. And even when he found purchase, it didn’t last long. Even as the vessel tore through the water, pulled along by its unwilling, bellowing beast, the deck slowly slid beneath his feet. He was dragged forward, skidding across the timbers until he came chest-to-back with Kataria.

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