The Skybound Sea


Page 18


And earth cried out without language behind him.

ACT TWO

FORGOTTEN SKY,

RISING SEA

TEN

IF MADNESS

ISN’T THE ANSWER,

WHY DO WE EVEN KEEP

THE VOICES AROUND?

The Aeons’ Gate

Reef of Dead Men (might not actually be reef name, but much more impressive sounding than whatever lizard trash they call it)

Fall . . . summer? I really can’t tell anymore

I think the voice in my head might be lying to me.

And this perturbs me for a few reasons.

The big one is that I’m finding the fact that a giant red lizard who respected me enough to say my name like it wasn’t a curse being eaten alive by a giant sea snake is not as joyous an occasion as I had hoped it to be.

I’m not sure how to feel about that.

Of the many profanities I would use to describe Gariath, “reliable” was never one of them. Though he might have limited his attempts to actively murder us to the single digits, he never really gave a damn about whether we lived or died. Couple in the fact that he came with us to seek out the Shen and this paints a rather bleak picture.

Summation: a lunatic dragonman who once threatened to reverse-feed me my own lungs, who abandoned me and left me to die at several occasions—most of them recent—and who sought contact with creatures possessing a vested interest in jamming pointy things into soft parts of my anatomy is gone.

And this isn’t making me happy.

Maybe I just miss his conversation?

Or maybe the prospect of going into a forbidden island of doom from which no man has returned without the benefit of having a murderous reptile at my side is proving daunting. I mean, there certainly are giant, murderous reptiles out here. They just happen to be lurking in the mist.

Along with Gods know what else.

The mist goes on forever and the walkway goes with it. Or rather, walkways, since there are just a few more than way too damn many of them out here. Barely any of them go anywhere, most of them leading to shattered bridges, pillars whose tops are littered with bones, or shrines with statues long smashed.

I should probably be more respectful. Clearly, something happened here. Clearly, it was big. Clearly, a lot of people died and a lot of things were smashed. But I can’t help but think in terms of practicality. How are we to find anything in this? It’s like a giant web of stone built by a spider who thought it’d be much easier to simply annoy its prey to death.

We walked until nightfall. Or what I think is probably nightfall. It might also be morning. The mist won’t tell me. It doesn’t matter. I won’t be sleeping tonight.

I see them in the mist. Some of them are moving, some of them are not. There are statues there. Robed men, gods for faces, hands extended. They were on Teji, too, mounted on treads like siege engines. Here, they’re on the bows of ships. Sunken ships. Some are crashed on the pillars, some are tossed on their sides like trash, some look like they’ve been sinking into the sea for years . . . centuries, probably.

Those aren’t the moving ones.

The moving ones make noise. Wailing, warbling cries in the mist, like they’re talking to each other. Not human. Not that I’ve heard. If they know we’re here, they’re not talking to us. Or not to me, anyway. I see Kataria stop and stare out there sometimes, like she’s trying to listen.

That’s when those noises stop and the other ones begin.

These ones are voices. Not the usual ones, mind. They’re . . . hard to hear. Like whispers that forgot what whispers are supposed to sound like. I can’t understand them, but I can hear them. Sometimes the other way around. They are . . . calling out.

Maybe they’re like us, got lost in the mist somewhere way back before language had words and are still trying to find their way out.

Maybe I should count myself lucky that I’ve only been lost for a day.

Or two days? It’s hard to keep track, what with no sleep, no sun, and the whole fear of being disemboweled in my sleep . . . thing.

I should ask Kataria.

I should ask Kataria when she wakes up.

I should kill Kataria now.

It would be easier right now, when she can’t fight back, when she can’t look at me, when she can’t . . .

It’s hard to think.

And I can’t think of anything else.

Voices in the head will usually do that: make a man single-minded. And I can’t help but feel angry at her, like I want to hurt her, like I should. Like the voice tells me I should.

But it doesn’t tell me that. It isn’t threatening me. It isn’t demanding I do anything. All it does is talk . . .

It talks about that night on the ship. It talks about how she looked me in the eyes and left me to die. After that, everything is me.

I’ve gotten close. I’ve raised my sword. I’ve seen how my hands could fit around her neck. But every time I do, I remember why it is I wanted to cry and I think . . .

. . . there must be something else. Why did she abandon me? I never asked. I tried not to think about it. She never told me why. She looked me in the eyes. She left me to die.

I remember she looked sad.

And I remember the woman in my dreams, telling me it won’t stop if I kill her, telling me that I can’t listen to the voice. And then the voice starts screaming. Not talking, screaming. It tells me all about her, what she did, what I must do. And I still remember the woman and I still remember Kataria and I still want to cry and die and kill and fight and drown and sleep and never have to think again.

. . . like I said, I try not to think about it. Too much.

She has to live for now. She’s got the skills for tracking and the senses for getting us out of here and to Jaga and to the tome. The tome that we need to find again. The tome that the voice wants me to find again.

No.

That I want to find.

Me.

I think.

Too hard to think.

Too hard to kill Kataria.

Should have killed Asper first.

That’d have been easier.

ELEVEN

SLEEP NOW,

IF NOT SOUNDLY

He had just closed his eyes when he caught the scent. It cloyed in his nostrils: silk, orchids, perfumes for wealthy women that fought and failed to quell the natural aroma of femininity. Stars. Candle wax. Violet skies.

He wanted to sleep.

His eyelids had just begun to tremble when he caught her voice.

“No, no,” she whispered, a light giggle playing across her words. “Don’t.”

“Don’t what?” he asked.

“Don’t open your eyes.”

“Why not?”

“Because the world is ugly,” she replied. “And thought is beautiful. Whatever you’re thinking of right now is infinitely more beautiful than whatever it is that awaits you when you open your eyes.”

“And if I’m thinking of something ugly?”

“What are you thinking of?”

You, he thought. How much I miss you. What kind of life I’ve led where I couldn’t be with you. Whether I was wrong all this time and there are gods and there are souls and mine will wander forever when I finally die, far from your arms, and how much more that fact terrifies me than the other one. Always you.

“Nothing,” he replied.

“Simply nothing?”

“Nothing is simple.”

“Precisely,” she said. “And because nothing is simple, nothing is beautiful. There is nothing more beautiful. That’s why your eyes must stay closed and you have to hold onto that.”

“To what?”

“Nothing.”

“That doesn’t make sense.”

“It doesn’t have to. It’s beautiful.”

“I’m opening my eyes now.”

And when he did, there was nothing. There was no ground. There was no sky. There were no trees and there was nothing to burn and turn to ash. There was nothing.

But her.

And her head in his lap. And her black hair streaming like night. And the ink drying upon her breasts. And her smile. And her scent. And her. Always her.

“Did I not tell you?” she asked.

“You said nothing would be as beautiful as what I was thinking.”

“And?”

“It is.”

“Then I was right.”

“I can’t admit to that.”

“Why not?”

“Because then you’ll be rubbing my face in it all day and night and I’ll never get any sleep. Not that it matters, anyway, I’ve got to be going shortly.”

“Where do you have to go?”


“I have to go after that man. He killed a lot of people.”

“Maybe he had a good reason.”

“There is never a good reason for killing that many people.”

“How many have you killed?”

“I don’t want to talk about this right now.”

“Then you shouldn’t think about it so much.”

“It’s my duty to think about it.”

“I thought your duty was to uphold the law of the Venarium.”

“It is.”

“Is he wanted by the Venarium?”

“No.”

“Then you can take the day off, surely. We can sit here and think about nothing until we have nothing left, and then we’ll have nothing to worry about.”

“He killed people.”

“So have you.”

“He nearly destroyed Cier’Djaal.”

“Perhaps he didn’t mean to.”

“He could have killed you.”

“You could, too, if you wanted to.”

He sighed deeply, shut his eyes. “Stop this.”

“Stop what?”

“Trying to get me to stay. I can’t.”

“You have to.”

“Why?”

He opened his eyes and beheld her smile. Her teeth were painted bright red. Another thick droplet of crimson fell and splattered across her forehead, another falling upon her eye, another upon her lips, until her face was slick with blood and her scent was copper tang and sour life.

“Because,” Anacha said, “you’re dying.”

Bralston opened his eyes with a gasp and felt the air whistling through his neck. He stared down at the earth glistening with his own blood. He pressed a hand to his throat. He felt sticky life on his palm.

Cracks in the seal, he thought. It’s not holding as well as suspected. That would explain the fainting . . . and the massive blood loss. No one ever said gaping throat wounds would be simple. Don’t laugh at that. You’ll bleed out. Apply another seal. Quick.

His spellbook lay flung open at his side, several pages torn from its spine, red fingerprints smeared across those that remained. He forced his hand steady as he reached down, tore a page with two fingers. The merroskrit came out hesitantly, eventually demanding a second hand to pull it free.

It wasn’t meant to come out easily. Wizards were meant to think carefully before using it, emotion never guiding the decision. Emotion caused disaster. Bralston didn’t have enough blood to decide if this was ironic or merely poetic.

He pressed the page to his bloodied throat, situated it firmly over the wound, as he had done the last three. The cause would need to be dire to use even one.

Ideally, this was just dire enough.

His voice had bled out onto the sand. He had no words left to coax the fire to the hand he pressed over his throat. All he had left were screams.

And so he screamed. The fire came, bidden by anger rather than will, shaped by agony rather than discipline. With only emotion to guide it, the fire seared his throat with furious imprecision. It branded the merroskrit to his flesh, over the cracks in the seal, shutting the blood back in his throat where it belonged.

For now.

His hand came back smoking, tiny curls of flesh sizzling into plumes of gray smoke upon his palm. Running out of skin was never a problem he thought he might encounter, but here it was. Merroskrit could overcome an inanimate host easily enough and adapt to it, but it lacked the willpower to adapt to a living one. Eventually, his body would reject it.

He was going to die.

This was certainty. The seal would hold only for a while. Two days, if he was lucky.

Two days. One to plan the rest of his life. Another one to live it.

If he was an average, ignorant person who prayed to the sky, anyway. Librarians could not take an entire day to plan, even when they had more than two to spare. Librarians were meant to act.

And yet, emotion had killed him once already.

Logic and duty demanded the pursuit of the criminal Denaos. One day to track him down, one more day to make him pay for the life he failed to take. It would satisfy the emotional urge, as well. Everyone would be happy. Everyone not on fire, anyway.

And yet, some part of him that did not yet lay glistening on the sand wanted something else. A day for poems, a day for letters, a hundred pages long for a single person. Penned in ink, blood, mud, it didn’t matter. Folded into a hundred paper cranes and sent on a breeze to one person in Cier’Djaal.

Back to Anacha.

Then find a nice, quiet spot, lie down, and die.

Over there, perhaps: beneath that tree. Lovely spot to rest forever. Maybe she would come visit his grave someday. That would be nice.

Maybe she would tell the Venarium what had happened to him. Maybe they would nod solemnly and come back to harvest his body and give him the honors that his duties demanded. The heretics had been slain. The law of the Venarium had been upheld. He would be harvested, turned into merroskrit, and his name would be written down in the annals of the finest Librarians to have served.

He could die a happy man.

And another man, who had murdered hundreds of people, would live.

And Bralston knew what his choice had to be.

Two more pages came out of his spellbook. Ordinary paper, nothing special but for the words he smeared upon them in crude, red lettering. One of them contained much: many names of important men, many thoughts summarizing many events. Many words.

The other contained just five.

He folded them both as delicately as he could. The cranes they became were sloppy, slovenly things, wings askew and heads insane. The words he spoke to them were gravelly and agonized, incomprehensible even in a language already incomprehensible.

But he spoke them. And they flew. They rose shakily into the air, wobbling precariously as they sailed over the treetops and disappearing with not much hope for success into the sky.

Bralston rose to his feet, drew a deep breath. It was ragged, like knives in his neck. He shut his eyes and felt his coat spread out behind him. Its tails rose, forming into leathery wings and flapping silently.

In his mind, he could sense it: a quivering, trembling power, like a flame stirred by the beating of a moth’s wings. Dreadaeleon’s strength, waxing and waning with the Decay that coursed through his body. He was moving farther away.

Chances were good that Denaos was with him.

Like his cranes, Bralston rose shakily into the air. The magic rushed through him like a river, crashing where it had once been flowing. It was hard to control, harder without words to guide it.

But he flew.

As he must.

TWELVE

GODS WITHOUT

WATER

The statue rose from the sea.

A stone god with stone hands, its face lay in fragments about the hem of its robe, leaving nothing beneath its cowl but a mass of shattered granite. The ship that had so valiantly carried it to its fate lay crushed behind it, broken deck straining to keep it from drowning along with the rest of the vessel.

It shifted in some slight, imperceptible way. It sighed, as it had doubtlessly sighed for centuries.

It was an old god who had been crumbling as long as the mist had been here. But its hands were still strong, still whole, still stone.

It needed nothing else.

Its palm broke through the great, gray wall, parted it like a curtain and left it to crumble alongside it face. It was a testament to its strength.

Almost as strong a testament as the shattered ribcage wrapped around its wrist.

Whatever the beast had been, it had never been a god. It lay before the statue, sprawled in the parted stone curtains, skeletal claws sunk in the rock in a long-ago effort to resist the statue’s stone palm. It still screamed now, from shattered ribs and out a skeletal mouth, into eternity.

And past the wall, past the bones, past the stone monolith, Jaga lay exposed.

Maybe not, Lenk thought with a sigh. “Exposed” isn’t really the word for Jaga. Nor “welcoming” or “convenient” or “not conducive to bodily injury, decapitation, and possibly castration.”

He pursed his lips, pulled them apart with a thoughtful pop.

Of course, that’s not one word, is it?

But many years and many blades had taught him to consider everything, even if there technically wasn’t any evidence that the Shen had any fondness for castration.

There was no evidence that the Shen would live on an island surrounded by a giant wall, either. There was no evidence that a race of canoe-paddling, club-swinging, loincloth-clad lizards had the time, skill, or patience for crafting such a formidable defense, let alone decorating it so elaborately.

But there it was: an eternity long, a god high, and brimming with depictions of noble men marching defiantly into the sea to be greeted with a riot of fish and coral before falling like children into the arms of a woman, vast as the wall she was carved into.

Traitor.

He cringed. They came again. Not his thoughts. Burrowing into his head.

Liar.

Murderer.

Blasphemer.

He closed his eyes, tried to breathe deeply. It was harder than it seemed.

Kill.

Destroy.

Unseat.

It never worked anyway. Talking didn’t, either. But it was at least harder to hear them over the sound of his own voice.

“Kind of odd, don’t you think?” he asked.

“What do I think?”

Kataria’s breathless voice came ahead of her as she clawed her way to the top of the pillar. Her scowl burned beneath the satchel of supplies and quiver upon her back as she hauled herself up.

“I think that every time I wonder if I might be wrong to think you’re an imbecile, you go and make such a monumental observation as noting that this whole adventure might contain some things that might be considered odd.”

“I mean it’s odd even for us,” Lenk replied, gesturing at the centuries-old carnage. “Where did this wall come from? The Shen couldn’t have carved it.”

“Why couldn’t they have?” Kataria asked as she wrung out her hair. “We don’t know anything about them beyond their attitudes toward our heads being attached to our bodies.”

“They couldn’t have built it because there’s no way a race can grasp the finer points of mass masonry projects while the concept of trousers still eludes them. And what about this?” He waved his hands at the monolith and the ship struggling to keep it from sinking. “What is it?”

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