The Skybound Sea

Page 16

The shict stood her ground, bracing with her legs spread and feet firmly against the bow as she leaned back and held on tight. He slid into her stance as he collided with her, the rope slipping out of his hands briefly.

She let out a sharp cry as she was jerked forward, looking as though the thing would pull her over at any moment. He snatched up the rope again, feeling it gnaw angrily at his palms as he struggled to regain his grip.

“Hold on!” Kataria shrieked to be heard over the roar of waves beneath them and the bellowing of the Akaneed before them.

“I am!” he cried back, seizing the rope and holding it tightly.

“Hold on!” she screamed again.

“I said I was!”


“That’s not as helpful as you might think!”


It became clear she was talking to Gariath about the same time it became clear that they were about to die.

A great rock face, jagged and gray, came shooting out of the mist, seeming to have risen out of the very ocean just to stop them. It passed them with a breathless scream as Gariath snarled and jammed hard on the rudder, angling them out of the way and denying stony teeth a meal of more than a few splinters.

More came out of the endless gray on stony howls and wordless whispers as they sped past, until it came to resemble less a sea and more a forest, with granite trees rising up around them in great, reaching number. Kataria continued to cry out commands, Gariath continued to grunt and to strain against the rudder.

And in the shadows painted ashen against the mist, Lenk thought he could see things other than the stone faces. Great, man-shaped things that rose from the water and extended thick hands as if to ward off the mist. Thin, skeletal arms reaching out of the sea with tatters of flesh hanging from their knobby and broken fingers.

What are those? He squinted his eyes to see more clearly. Masts? Ship masts?

“Down!” Kataria shrieked as she fell to the deck.

Yes, he thought as a yardarm yawned out of the fog directly in front of him and struck him squarely against the chin, ship masts.

The rope tore itself from his grasp as his hands became concerned with the matter of checking to see how many pieces his jaw was in. One, fortunately, albeit one with a few splinters jutting from it.

“Up,” a voice urged him through gritted teeth. “Up!”

He looked to Kataria straining against the rope, barely holding on. He scrambled for it, but as he rose to his feet again, something stopped him from reasserting his grip.

“Let go,” the voice whispered inside his head. “Let her fly. Let her die as she let you die.”

“Lenk!” Kataria cried, pulling hard against the rope.

“Let her go. Turn upon the other traitor.”



He began to miss the silence.

And yet the voice was soft. His muscles were burning, his head was warm. He felt no chill. The voice didn’t command. It had seen her betray him, heard him call out to her, watched her turn her back on him. In some part of him, free from the voice, he wanted to let go.

Such a flimsy thing, so weightless. It would be such a trifling matter to let go. And who could blame him?

The voice did not repeat itself. It didn’t have to.

The ship buckled under a sudden pull. She hauled herself backward. He felt her crash against him, felt her muscle press against his, felt her growl course from inside her to inside him.

He felt her warmth.

“I won’t let go,” she snarled, perhaps to him. “Not again.”

She didn’t.

Neither did he.

Not that he wasn’t sorely tempted to as another great rock came shrieking soundlessly out of the fog.

“Right,” Kataria screamed as the rock grew closer. “RIGHT!” She screamed as the ship drifted into its path. “GARIATH, YOU—”

In a wail of wood, her curse was lost. The rocky teeth bit deeply into the vessel, smashing timbers and sending shards screaming. They cowered, but did not let go, holding onto the rope only narrowly keeping them from flying off in the haze of splinters and dust.

When they cleared the rock, they had left the railing and most of the deck with it. Water began to rise up onto the deck as the boat shifted awkwardly with its new weight.

“What the hell was that, Gariath?” Lenk cried over his shoulder. “She said ‘right!’”

“I know,” the dragonman snarled, as he rose up and picked his way across the slippery deck. “I chose to go left.”


“I’ve just been choosing which way to go on my own.”

“Kataria’s been calling out—”

The dragonman stopped beside him and held a hand up, the rudder’s handle clutched firmly in it . . . the rest of it somewhere else. Lenk looked up, bulging eyes sweeping from the shattered rudder to the violent mess that had once been the vessel’s stern. When he looked back to Gariath, the dragonman almost looked insulted.

“Oh, like I’m not justified in ignoring her,” he snorted, tossing the useless hunk of wood overboard. His snort turned to a snarl as he reached out and seized the rope. “This was getting obnoxious, anyway.”

His strength was all that allowed them to hold on as the vessel, without rudder or hope, went sweeping wildly across the sea. Rocks flew past them, some avoided, most not, each one claiming a piece of their ship.

Yardarms and masts of dead ships cropped out of the water with increasing frequency. Statues of great robed figures rose up around them, hands outstretched before them. The mist began to thin, giving sight to something in the distance.



Jaga, he thought. It worked. He could hardly believe it. Kataria actually managed to—

He should have known better than to think that.

Where the crop of rock had come from, he had no idea. Unlike its massive and braggart brothers, this one rose shyly out of the water, extending just its jagged brow above the surface as if to see what was going on.

As it happened, that was more than enough to completely ruin everything.

The boat all but disintegrated beneath their feet, the rope torn from their hands as they came to a sudden and angry stop. Three voices cried for it, six hands scrambled, trying to seize it, trying to seize anything but air as they went tumbling haplessly through the air alongside planks and splinters to crash into the water.

What followed was a confusion of drowning voices, sputtering commands and flailing limbs all centered around a singular, urgent need.

“Out!” Lenk cried. “Out of the water!”

His vessel bobbing haplessly around him in pieces, his attentions became fixed on the distant outcropping of rock. It rose up from a base so jagged and insignificant, it might as well not be there. But he stood a better chance on land than he did flailing in the water.

As good a chance as one typically stood against a colossal sea serpent, anyway.

He kicked his way to the great pillar rising stoically out of the sea, scrambled around its base as he searched for a place to hoist himself up amidst the jagged rocks.

And yet, he found no jagged rocks, no insubstantial footing. Slick, sturdy stone greeted his wandering grasp, a small landing, more than enough for a man to stand comfortably upon, grew out of the rock’s face. It was smooth, too smooth to be natural. Someone had carved it.

He might have wondered who, if a clawed hand wrapping around his neck hadn’t instantly seized his attentions. Gariath didn’t seem to care, either, as he callously threw the young man out from the water and onto the landing. He hauled himself up afterward, spreading his wings and shaking his body, sending stinging droplets into Lenk’s eyes.

“Watch it,” Lenk muttered.

“If you said less stupid things, you’d have credibility to resent me when I called you stupid,” the dragonman replied crisply, folding his wings behind him.

“Would you call me stupid less?”

“No. But I might feel a little less good about it.”

Lenk opened his mouth to retort when his eyes suddenly went wide, sweeping over the sea.

“Where’s Kataria?”

The first answer came with an uncaring roll of Gariath’s broad shoulders.

The second, slightly more helpful answer came from the bubbles rising up beside the landing. A sopping mess of golden hair, frazzled feathers and sputtering gasps emerged moments later. With some difficulty, it made its way over to the landing and hooked an arm onto the stone. It looked up at them, the only thing visible through the mess of wet straw being an angry, canine-bared snarl.

“Help me, you idiots,” Kataria snapped. “I didn’t go back to get your stupid supplies so I could die for them.”

She seemed less than annoyed when Gariath took her by the arms and hauled her effortlessly from the water, callously dropping her and the stuff she carried to the landing. Steel rattled upon stone, a blade sliding away from her to rest at Lenk’s feet like a waiting puppy.

“You . . .” he whispered, reaching down to take it by the hilt with a slightly unnerving gentleness, “went back for my sword.”

“You’re useless without it,” she muttered. She rose up, kicked a sopping leather satchel toward him. “And these are useless without you.”

“The small bag?”

“It looked important.”

“There’s no food in it,” he said, looking at her askew. “There’s nothing in them.”

Except my journal, he thought.

She stared at him intently, as though she could stare past his befuddled eyes and into his thoughts. She snorted, pulling wet hair behind her head and callously wringing it out.

“Important to someone, then,” she said.

“Right,” he said, voice fading on a breeze that wasn’t there.

It wasn’t lost on her, though; her long ears, three ragged notches to a length, twitched with an anxious fervor, swallowing his voice. Her entire body seemed to follow suit, the sinew of her arms flexing as she twisted her hair out, naked abdomen tensing, sending droplets of salt dancing down the shallow contours of her muscle to disappear in the water-slick cling of her breeches.

And amidst all the motion of her body, only her eyes remained still, fixated. On him.

Absently, he wondered if it was telling that he only seemed to notice her in such a way before or after a near death experience.


He startled at the sound; Gariath’s voice felt something rough and coarse on his ears. Almost as rough and coarse as his claws felt wrapped around his neck. The dragonman hoisted him up, turned him around sharply to face them: a narrow set of steps, worn by salt and storm, spiraling up around the pillar of rock.

“Right,” Lenk whispered, shouldering sword and satchel alike, “stairs.”

Nothing more need be said; no one needed a reason to get farther away from the water. The mist thinned as they followed it to the top, though not by much. When feet were set upon the smooth, hewn tableau of the pillar, it was still thick enough to strangle the sun, if not banish it entirely.

Perhaps the light was just enough to let them see it clearly. Perhaps there was no mist thick enough to smother it entirely from view. But in the distance, still vast, still dark, loomed an imposing shape.

“Jaga,” Lenk whispered, as though speaking the name louder might draw its attention.

“It doesn’t look like an island,” Kataria said, squinting into the gloom. “Not like any I’ve seen, anyway.” She shrugged. “Then again, I’ve never seen an island with a walkway leading conveniently to it.”

True enough, there it was. However narrow and however precarious, a walkway of stone stretched from the end of the pillar into the mist toward the distant island.

“I’ve never heard of a giant rock that had such a neat and tidy top,” Lenk replied, tapping his feet upon the hewn tableau. “Nor ones with naturally occurring staircases, either. Not that it wasn’t nice of them, but why would the Shen carve any of this?”

“They didn’t.”

There was an edge in Gariath’s voice, less coarse and more jagged, as though he took offense at the insinuation. As Lenk turned about, met the dragonman’s black, narrow glare, he felt considerable credence lent to the theory.

“And how do you know?” the young man asked.

“Because I do,” Gariath growled.

“He knows them,” the voice whispered, gnawing at the back of Lenk’s skull, “because he is them. Your enemy.”

“Well, he would know, wouldn’t he?” Kataria muttered. “Ask a question of reptiles, get an answer from a reptile.”

“He betrayed you once for them.”

Lenk shook his head, tried to ignore the voice, the growing pain at the base of his head.

“The Shen wouldn’t build this,” Gariath said, “because they are Shen.”

“What?” Kataria asked, face screwing up.

“He doesn’t even bother to lie to you.”

“If you don’t know, then you don’t need to know. They didn’t build this. Do not accuse them of it.”

“He defends them.”

“Why?” Lenk suddenly blurted out, aware of both of their stares upon him. “Why are you defending them?”

“He is one of them.”

“How do you know so much about them?” Lenk asked, taking a step toward the dragonman. “What else do you know about them?”

“He will kill you, for them.”

“Why did you even come?”

“You were going to die without me,” Gariath replied.

“And? That’s never swayed you before. But you wanted to come this time, you wanted to see the Shen. You haven’t stopped talking about them, since—” The words came out of his mouth, forced and sharp, as though he were spitting blades. “Since you abandoned us to go chase them.”

One didn’t need to be particularly observant to note the tension rippling between them; that much would have been obvious by the clenching of Gariath’s fists as he took a challenging step forward.

“Consider carefully,” he said, low and threatening, “what you’re accusing me of.”

“Betrayal,” Lenk replied.

“And that forbids someone from coming?” He cast a sidelong scowl to Kataria. “You chose poor company.”

Lenk caught a glimpse out of the corner of his eye. Shock was painted across the shict’s face, fear was there, too, each in such great coating as to nearly mask the expression of hurt. Nearly, but not entirely, and not nearly enough to draw attention away from the fact that she did not refute, contradict, or even insult the dragonman.

It hurt, too, when Kataria turned her gaze away from him.

“Not about her,” the voice whispered. “Not yet.”

“This isn’t about her,” Lenk said, turning his attentions back to the dragon man. “This is about you and what you came for. Us . . . or the Shen?”

Gariath’s earfrills fanned out threateningly. His gaze narrowed sharply as he leaned forward. Lenk did not back down, did not flinch as the dragonman snorted and sent a wave of hot breath roiling across his face.

“Always,” Gariath said, “it has always been for—”

The mist split apart with the sound of thunder and the gnash of jaws. Teeth came flying out of nothingness, denying man and dragonman a chance to do anything before they came down in a crash. A shock ripped through Lenk, sent him crashing to the earth, and when he found enough sense to look, Gariath was gone.

Not far, though.

Roar clashed against roar, howl ground against howl as the Akaneed pulled its great head back from the pillar and whipped its head about violently, trying to silence the writhing red body in its jaws. Gariath had no intention of doing such, no intention of a silent resignation to teeth and tongue.

And no choice in the matter.

The fight came to a sudden halt and Lenk looked up, helplessly, as Gariath squatted between the jaws. His muscles strained, arms against the roof of the beast’s mouth, feet wedged between its lower teeth, body trembling with the effort as he tried to keep the creature’s cavernous maw from snapping shut.

A moment, and everything went still. Gariath’s body ceased to quake. The Akaneed’s jaws grew solid and strong. The dragonman stared down from between rows of unmoving teeth and said something.

Then they snapped shut and he disappeared.

A single moment spared to cast a low, burbling keen down upon the two piddling creatures upon the pillar. A low groaning sound as it fell on its side, crashed into the ocean with an angry wave. A fading sound of froth hissing into nothingness upon the sea.

And Gariath was gone.

Lenk looked to Kataria. Kataria looked to Lenk. Neither had the expression, the words to fit what they had just seen.

And still, they tried.

“Do we . . .” Kataria asked, the words lingering into meaninglessness.

“How?” Lenk asked, the question hanging between them like something hard and iron.

And it continued to hang there, solid as the rock they did not move from, thick as the mist that closed in around them, unfathomable as the sea gently lapping against the stone.




The water was warm. Too warm, he thought as it lapped up against his ankles. It was too warm for the season. It should not be this warm.

And at that moment, he did not care that it was warm.

He looked down at his legs, ghastly white and sickly, the faintest hint of webs between his toes, as though they had started growing and lost interest later. His eyes drifted to the legs beside him, limber and tan, healthy, all the little brown toes wriggling as they kicked gentle waves in the water.

It hurt him to think that his legs had once been so healthy, to think that they might still have been if not for the circumstances that had arisen years ago. But it hurt less to look at those healthy legs than to look into her eyes.

And it hurt more to hear her speak.

“So,” Kasla said, voice too soft, “what happened?”

A question he had asked himself every breath for the past twelve hours. He had been searching for an answer for at least as long.

At first, he looked for something that would make her understand, make her realize it wasn’t his fault, make her realize it was the Gods’ fault. But that one rang hollow.

Then he looked for something that would take all the blame, something that would make her feel pity for him, make her realize he was a man driven to what he did, not a man accustomed to making choices. But that one tasted foul on his tongue.

Then, he just hoped to find one that would let her look him in the eyes again.

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