The Skybound Sea


Page 17



And now that she asked, he gave up on that, too.

“I didn’t think anyone heard me,” he said, staring down at his feet. “I called out so many times and no one ever answered. I didn’t think there was any harm in just . . . doing it more.” He closed his eyes, felt the warmth lap around his ankles. “I started talking . . . to no one, when I sat beside my daughter while she was sick. I started asking questions, started telling secrets, I . . . I told them I was afraid. I told them I didn’t want to be alone.”

Maybe Kasla said something with her eyes. He couldn’t bear to look up and see.

“And then, when I said that . . . I don’t know, maybe I just said so much that someone finally heard me. It was too late, then, my daughter was gone. But they answered . . . and they told me . . . and they said I didn’t have to be alone anymore.”

He looked up, out over the sea. It was calm.

“So I went to the shore. I started walking into the sea. And I didn’t stop until I became . . .” He held out his hands, white and sickly. Not Hanth’s hands. “This.”

“You could have told me,” she said. “I would have understood.”

And then he looked up. He looked into her dark face under the bush of dark hair. It was pained, trying to figure out something and agonized that it didn’t make sense.

“I wouldn’t have, no,” she said with a sigh. “But you should have told me.”

“I should have,” he agreed. “I should have done many things.”

There were no stars in the sky. There were clouds. And when they shifted, a tinge of red could be seen within them. But the sky had been bled dry, of stars and of light and tears. Nothing was left.

And in the darkness, she spoke.

“Tell me why it has to be like this.”

“I already told you.”

“Tell me again. Please.”

Hanth pulled himself to his feet. The wood of the docks felt cold and splintered underneath him, sent tingling lances up through the soles of his feet and into his calves. But he cast a smile at her, as warm as the water, as he offered a hand to her.

“Because I made a lot of mistakes,” he said, gently helping her to her feet. “And the more mistakes I make, the less chances I have to make up for them.” Hand in hand, they began to walk to the end of the dock, to the vessel bobbing patiently in the water. “So when they come along, I have to take them.”

“I’m not a child,” she said, pulling her hand from his.

He winced. “I know.”

“Then don’t talk to me like one.”

“I can’t help it.”

“Because I remind you of her?”

He felt the shadow fall over them. He heard the low, guttural hiss that accompanied it. He sensed their eyes, their vast and empty stares, boring into the back of his skull. They were waiting for him, their claws twitching eagerly as they rapped upon the stone.

He did not turn around.

“Because I want you to forget this,” he said. “I want to hope, somehow, that one day you’ll just wake up and think everything has been a bad dream. This place, them . . . me.”

“I never will.”

“Maybe you can’t,” he said. “But I want to hope you can.” He looked at her, swallowed hard. “If I can’t have that—”

“You can.” Her eyes were glistening, reflecting a light that wasn’t there. “I’ll try to forget.”

He nodded, silently. To say anything else would be to give her something to hold onto. Something to cling to when she wondered about what had happened to him. Something to remember when she looked out over the ocean at night and wondered if it had ever been more than just a nightmare.

He could not give her any memories of him. He wasn’t that cruel.

So he gingerly eased her into the vessel. He checked to make sure that it was laden with food, enough to see her a few days adrift in the shipping lanes. He tried not to think about what might happen to her out at sea without him.

He untied the boat.

He watched it drift out onto the sea, away from him.

He watched her, trying not to scream at her, to tell her to turn around and stop looking at him. He watched her. She watched him. And neither of them turned around.

Not until she had vanished into the night.

It wasn’t enough. He could still feel her staring when he turned around to face them.

But he forced himself not to turn back around and see if he could still catch a glimpse of her. He forced himself not to look away from them as they stared down behind veils of blue light. He forced himself to look into their eyes, the black voids that hung like obsidian moons over their needle-toothed jaws wrapped around soft, feminine lips.

“You will leave her alone,” he said flatly.

Alwaysalwaysalwaysalonealone.

He saw lips twitch, heard the whispers inside his head. He couldn’t tell which one of the two was speaking. It didn’t matter.

Apromiseisapromisepromisepromise.

MotherDeepkeepsHerpromisespromisespromises.

Youknowknowknowthisthis.

MouthMouthMouthMouth.

MouthMouthMouthMouth.

It almost sounded like a word from a language he had never heard before, the kind of direly important gibberish he had heard only in bad dreams and fever-hot ears.

Mouth.

That was his name now. That had been his name ever since he had turned around. Hanth was the bad dream now, a half-word that she would remember for a scant few breathless moments before rolling over and going back to sleep.

Hanth should stay in those bad dreams.

The waking world belonged to the Mouth.

And the Mouth belonged to Ulbecetonth, as did the city.

“Take me to them,” he said.

The Sermonics turned about slowly, pressing their withered bellies to the wood and clawing their way toward the city on thin, gray nails. Their eel tails dragged behind them, their blue lantern lights bobbed before them. These were the angels that heralded his arrival, their whispers were the trumpets that announced his coming.

The Mouth of Ulbecetonth, Her will in mortal flesh, strode through the ruins of Port Yonder.

“Ruins” might have been too dramatic a word for the empty streets that greeted him, though. The buildings stood undisturbed, witnessing his procession with as much silence as they had witnessed the horrors hours ago. The cobblestones were clean of corpses, such valuable commodities having long been taken for more practical uses than decoration. The people and all their noise and fears and tears were gone and the stones weren’t telling where they went.

The Mouth closed his eyes as he walked and pretended that nothing had ever happened here.

It was easy. Until a pungent, coppery perfume filled his nostrils and he felt his foot settle in a cloying pool of something sticky and thick. He winced, tugging at his foot. It came free with a long, slow slurping sound that resonated in the silence, like a thick, wet piece of paper being slowly ripped in half.

It followed his every step.

It followed him to the temple, and the cluster of fear and quivering flesh assembled within its shattered walls.

The people of Port Yonder were massed within the former prison. And with its captive fled, they joined between the gaping cracks, beneath the sky of shattered stone, a sea of skin and tears that roiled with every wail, rippled with every sob, heaved with every plea offered to anything. To the godless sky, to the pitiless stone, to the creatures that guarded them.

The frogmen did not seem to hear. Packed into the cracks of crumbling stone, perched upon the smashed pillars, leering out from the darkness, they paid no mind to their mass captives. They showed no fear. Even if they could feel such a thing anymore, they would have had none of it. For even if their prisoners could rise up and break free of them, there was nowhere to run.

Beyond the prison, there was water and darkness. In water, in darkness, there were things for which there were no tears.

Out of the corners of his eyes, he could see their lights. And from the corners of his skull, in whispers, he could hear them speak.

Seethemyearningbeggingpleadingwailing.

Weepinggnashingcryingscreaming.


TalktothemtellthemsoothethembethereforthemHerwordsHerwordsHerwords.

NoliesnogodsnonothingHerwordsHerwordsHerwordsonly.

He ignored them, or tried to. He didn’t need to be told what was expected of him.

The whispers followed him into the temple, too loud to ignore, not nearly loud enough to drown out the sounds of the people.

The crying, the wailing, the weeping, the pleading, the cursing, and the silent people. All gathered together in a trembling pond of glassy eyes and gaping mouths, each one a little fish staring dumbly at the sky.

They didn’t seem aware of him, the man that had walked amongst them as neighbor a few days ago, the man that walked amongst them now as prophet. Their eyes were fixed on the heavens or staring back up at them from bitter puddles beneath their feet.

Only one bothered to look up at him, to scowl at him. Two men who shared neither gaze nor knowledge of each other. Two men who might not ever exchange more than a single word.

“Betrayer.”

And at that single word, the Mouth stopped. The Mouth turned and met the man’s scowl.

He tore the blade from his belt, the jagged sliver of bone clenched in one trembling fist, the scruff of the man’s tunic clenched in another. He pulled the man to his feet, tore him from the pond that wailed as though a finger had been torn from them each collectively.

Amidst the wailing, amidst the shrieking, amidst the many, many more words that the man shared with him, the Mouth pulled him to the edge of the pool, the liquid prison.

The waters stirred, black as pitch. And within, things blacker than pitch moved.

The Mouth shoved the man to the edge, sent him teetering upon it. The man craned his neck to turn a face, one that was just as indistinct and useless as the rest of them, upon the Mouth. And he shared one more word.

“Please.”

The knife moved with mechanical precision. One thrust in, one yank out. A moment’s exertion. The measure of a man, bleeding from the throat and falling, vanishing into water without a splash.

There was shrieking, there was wailing, there were hundreds of voices crying hundreds of names. None spoke louder than the Mouth’s, his hands thrown out wide and his face turned to heaven.

“SAVE HIM!”

The oddity of the statement turned their wailing to a burbling mutter. Or perhaps they wished to save the screaming for something more astonishing.

“Save any of us,” he cried again to heaven.

The skies remained still, without blood and without tears. He looked around at the silence, turned around, as though checking to see if he had missed something.

“Strike down this vile betrayer,” his voice lowered with his gaze, both sweeping over the crowd assembled before him. “Deliver justice to us, as we are promised. Deliver to us.” He lowered his arms to his sides. “Deliver us from the betrayer.”

He dropped the blade. It clattered on the floor, echoing in the silence, droplets of blood staining the floor.

“No one is answering,” he said. “No one is coming. No one will save us.” He smiled, bemused. “And I am the betrayer?”

They were staring now, eyes torn from the sky. Their mouths hung open, a glimpse of the emptiness within their bodies.

“I am the betrayer,” he continued, “yet you placed no faith in me. I am the betrayer, yet I never claimed to be your salvation. I am the betrayer . . .” He shook his head. “And I never asked of you anything.

“And them?” He pointed a finger to the sky. “They, who have promised you everything, demanded everything and given you nothing? They, who claim to be salvation and enlightenment and truth? They who let that man die? Who let you die? They are offered deals and promises and praise if only they come down and deliver you?

“I am standing in their house. I am speaking for their foes. I am speaking to their flocks. And they do as they have done when your coin ran dry, as they have done when your family went hungry, as they have done—” he choked on something, cleared it with a cough, “when your daughters died.

“Nothing. Your temple was too small. Your sacrifices were too meager. All that you gave was not enough. And after everything you’ve given, in your hour of need, they are not here.” He shook his head. “They were never here. No one is here but me.

“And Her.”

He turned, knelt beside the pool, stared into the darkness.

“And She is there, listening. And She is there, weeping for you.” He thrust his hand into the water and it rose up to meet him like a living thing, liquid tendrils rising up to caress his flesh, liquid lips suckling upon his fingers. “And She is there . . . for him, as well.”

He tore the man free from the waters, cast him silent and naked upon the stones. The man lay there, limbs trembling with infantile weakness, wailing through the words of a newborn. Arched upon his back and staring up at the world through eyes made of obsidian, drawing in breath between needlelike teeth. He reached his hands up to clutch his throat, healed of the wound that had been there and colored like bone.

“Someone listened to me,” the Mouth said, kneeling beside him, easing his hand away from his throat. “Someone saved him.”

And his eyes turned back to the pool, to the dark shapes rising from the water. Great webbed talons reached up, dug into the stone. Their emaciated bodies were hauled up, glistening with the water that slithered and danced across their visible ribcages and over their wide, white eyes. They rose on their long legs, their jaws gaping open as they stood, unmoving but for the claws they extended, dripping with something thick, something glistening with life.

“And someone will listen to you, too.”

The Mouth rose up, looked out over the sea of humanity. Their faces rippled, some twisting from fear to revulsion, some quivering with curiosity, others bubbling with awe as they looked upon the Abysmyths ringing the pool, as they looked upon the glistening substance dripping from their claws in oozing bounty.

“But this is a choice,” he said. “Your life belongs to you, for now. If you choose to take it and leave, then do so. Take your life, savor it while it is yours. Savor it before it’s taken from you by the armies that claim to protect you, by the priests who swear it is theirs to take, by the people who take it simply because they want it. Take up your life. Hold it in your mouths. Leave . . .”

He opened his arms wide, gestured to the beasts that stood behind him in silent, monolithic stoicism.

“Or give it to Her. To the only one that listens. Give it to Her . . . and feast.”

There was an eternity before they stirred, a familiar eternity he had felt when he had been presented the same fruits. The moment in which he stood bound and free at once, beholden to no one but himself and shackled by the tremendous fear that such freedom came with.

It had taken him an age to make a decision back then. But he had made it.

And, as a single soul rose from the crowd, a single woman with no more tears to give and no face that he knew, a single woman with an empty space beside her that someone should fill, he knew what their decision was, too.

In silence, they came forward. In silence, they walked past him. In silence, they took the Abysmyths by their claws, given no resistance as they let the gelatinous substance slide into their craws.

And then, the silence was over, yielding to the sound of smacking lips and slurping tongues, to the gentle moans of unexpected delight, to the wet gagging sounds of those unprepared. The silence was gone. The Mouth had been given an answer. The Mouth heard it.

It was Hanth who lifted his hands to his ears, trembled a moment, and then let them fall at his sides.

They were there before.

When light and sound meant things. Before song was bastardized with words. Before light knew how to cast a shadow.

They saw those things taken away.

By mortals. By stone. By heaven.

They had learned to live without them.

There was no light down here; the fires of the stone city above had been snuffed out and the moon turned its eye aside. There was no sound down here; the water did not know what sound was.

But there was life down here.

They watched it from four golden eyes as they swam in slow circles about him. The faithful moved over his great skin with their hammers, driving arm-long nails into him with soundless strikes that blossomed in fleeting sparks.

He did not complain. He sat there, amidst the rocks and the sand, free at last. Yet his heart was weak, beating faint. Free he might have been, but the years in his prison had left him with pain. Pain that left him numb to the nails driven into his skin and the sparks blooming across his body.

Far away, something stirred. Far away, someone spoke in a song without words, a language without meaning. They turned their twin heads to its source.

“Can you hear it?” they asked him. He said nothing and they frowned. The pain had left him deaf. “They did this to you. Shackled you in silence, with nothing but the thunder of your own heart to listen to.”

He spoke. His voice the last star falling out of the sky and leaving a black hole above the world.

“Ah,” they said, smiling. “You do not care about them. Only about Her.”

He demanded. His words the burbling and bubbling of the muck from which living things crawled.

“We hear Her. The faithful hear Her.” Their voice brimmed with sorrow. “And you do not.”

He asked a question. Somewhere, grass withered and an infant cried out in pain.

“We will wait no longer,” they said, swimming around. “We will not let Her suffer longer. The faithful must hear Her clearly. The world must hear Her rise. Let it be done.”

Somewhere within the mountain that was him, a light bloomed. A red light that the darkness did not understand, growing larger with each ominous beat of his heart until he was all sound, all light, everything.

“Rise,” the Deepshriek whispered, “Daga-Mer.” The faithful fell off of him, their white bodies and their hammers shaken from him like snow and ash as he stirred. He rose to his feet, the rocks shattered silently beneath them. He drew in a deep breath. He opened his eyes.

And the world was bathed in light.

He walked, over reef and rock, over sand and stone, the crush and quake of earth silent against the storm that thundered within his chest. He walked, and they followed.

In shadow, in whiteness, in a sea of blue stars, they followed. The Shepherds, the Sermonics, the faithful. His sons and his daughters and his followers, betrayed by the Gods, loathed by the earth and the sky. They followed him as he followed Her.

Daga-Mer walked with his flock. To Jaga. To Mother Deep.


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