The Skybound Sea


Page 19



“This is the fourth one we’ve seen today. What’s odd about this one?”

“They were all over the place on Teji, mounted like siege engines. This one’s a ship’s ram. What are they doing here?”

“Same thing they were doing on Teji,” Kataria said, shrugging. “Standing around, being ominous.” She adjusted the satchel on her back. “This is the only way in and we’ve been following the wall for hours. You had all that time to ask stupid questions.” She clapped his shoulder as she moved forward. “Now, we move.”

She took the lead. And he followed.

Again.

Kataria could never be called “shy,” what with the various insults and bodily emissions she had hurled at him. But she had never really seemed interested in leadership roles. Possibly because it took up time that could be spent jamming sharp things into soft things.

Yet she easily pushed past him. She looked at him expectantly before sliding down the other side of the pillar. Like he was supposed to follow.

It made sense. Her hearing was sharp, her eyes keen. If anything was going to leap out of the mist to kill them, she’d know long before he would and might tell him. And yet, he couldn’t shake a suspicion that came from her newfound confidence.

The voice wouldn’t let him.

“She does not fear you.”

I don’t want her to fear me. He thought the thoughts freely as he moved to follow her. It was a little refreshing to hear a more familiar madness.

“You do. And you are right to.”

All right, humor me. Why?

“Because you want her to know what she did. You want her to feel pain.”

I don’t.

He left it at that. He tried not to give it any thoughts for the voice to respond to. Futile. He felt the cold snake from his head into chest as the voice looked from his thoughts into his heart.

“You do.”

He slid down the pillar, found Kataria standing at the edge of its rocky base. A network of old carnage stretched before them: splintered wood, jagged stone, a bridge of gray and rot that led to the monolith’s improvised entrance.

“Looks clear.”

Lenk took a step forward. Her hand was up and pressed against his chest. Her eyes were locked intently on his.

“It looked clear right before Gariath was swallowed whole.” She shrugged the satchel off, handed it to him. “I’ll go first.”

He wasn’t quite sure what to think as she hopped nimbly from rock to rock, lumber to lumber across the gap of sea. Fortunately, he had someone who did.

“She turns her back to you.”

Lenk hopped after her. She’s just confident.

“Careless.”

Protective.

“Stupid.”

She’s hardly stupid.

“We are no longer talking about her.”

He followed her silently across the rocks, trying to keep head as silent as mouth.

Kataria nimbly skipped across the stones and wreckage ahead of him, canny as a mountain goat. But his eyes were drawn to her feet, how they slipped, just a hair’s breadth, with each step. She was getting careless, distracted by something.

It would be a small effort, barely anything more than an extra hop and an outstretched hand. A gentle shove and—

Stop. He shook his head wildly. Stop that.

“Delusional.”

What did I just say?

They wound their way across the precarious footing, onto the shattered hull of the ship, over the stone god’s shattered face. As they squeezed through smashed ribs, Lenk paused to note just how odd it was that this was his second time doing this.

They had been everywhere on Teji. The giant fish-headed beasts littered the beach amidst the wrecked artillery and rusted weapons in numbers so vast as to paint the sand white. Their skulls had holes punched in them with boulders. Their limbs had been twisted beneath splintering shafts.

A war, the Owauku had said, between the servants of Ulbecetonth and her mortal enemies.

A war that had reached all the way to the Shen.

And, as he crawled beneath a fractured collarbone the size of a ship’s plank, Lenk began to wonder which side they had been on when the walls broke.

And, as he emerged from the hole, set foot upon finely carved stone, he found that the list of mysteries surrounding the Shen grew obnoxiously long.

The highway stretched out before him, behind him, around him, wide enough for ten men to walk abreast of each other as it wound between the two great walls rising up on either side of it. The bricks of the road were smoothed to the point that they would have shined if not for the shroud of gray overhead and the black splotches staining them. Pedestals where statues had once stood marched its length, host to stone feet without bodies, stone faces amidst pulverized pebbles.

A battle had obviously raged here. What kind of battle, he had no idea. Because for all the blood, all the destruction, there were no bodies.

Only bells.

He had seen them before: abominations of metal hanging from wooden frames by spiked chains, so severely twisted that they looked like they might not even make a sound. They did, of course. He had heard it before. He still heard it as he looked at them now. It still made his head hurt.

The mist did not spare him the sight by politely obscuring it. It lingered at the edges of the wall, wispy gray fingers like those of a curious child peeking over. But it never came farther, as though out of respect. However old the mist was, the stone was older. However long it had been here, the road had been here longer.

That raised questions. He had enough of those.

Where is she?

That one, in particular.

“Lurking. Waiting. To kill you.”

That answer, too, was tiresome.

If only because he had thought of it before the voice had.

“Kataria!”

She had been waiting for him to call. She never heard his voice anymore. She felt it instead, in the tremble of her ears. Far away, right beside her, it sounded the same.

Not always comforting, but familiar. Distinct. His.

Ordinarily, “revolting” would have followed on that list. She was past hating herself for coming to anticipate his voice. She knew the feel of it as she knew the feel of sweat on her skin.

She felt it now. Not as pain. Not as pleasure. But a slow, coursing ache that moved down her stomach, sliding from bead of sweat to bead of sweat, clenching muscle, pinching flesh. Not pain. Not comfort. Not anything she had felt before. But she could not let go of it.

And that was why she forced it off of her now. That was why she tuned out his voice, shut her ears and her skin to it. That was why she listened to the nothingness, felt the silence instead. This was an ache she wanted to hold onto.

And to do that, she would have to save him from her people.

She shut her eyes and reached out with her ears into the nothingness. For only in the nothingness could she hear her people. Only in silence could she feel Naxiaw.

Even if he didn’t want her to.

The Howling had been weaker lately. On Teji, it had been a wild thing, roaring and raging inside her like a maddened beast. But she had been uncertain, doubtful then, yearning to feel a shict and feeling nothing instead.

But now it competed with his voice, raked at her with claws, bit at her with fangs, tried to coat sweat with blood. It might have been her choice that she felt Lenk’s voice stronger, that the roar of instinct grew ever more faint.

Never faint enough to completely shut her from Naxiaw, though.

Hatred. Determination. Compassion.

Fleeting emotions. Guarded thoughts. She didn’t know what they were thinking, what their instincts were saying. She didn’t know where they came from. She knew only from whom they came.

Greenshicts.

They had followed her to Jaga.

And they were close.

Close enough that, when she felt a hand placed upon her shoulder, she whirled about with canines bared and a hand upon her knife.

Lenk didn’t look particularly surprised at the reaction. Between the times he had tried to take some of her food and the times she had elaborately described how a scalping was performed, she supposed he had seen her teeth enough times for the shock to fade.

“Why didn’t you call back?” he asked.

“Too dangerous,” she didn’t entirely lie.

“I suppose that makes sense.” He glanced around the road, eyes slowly sweeping its stained ground. “Not too smart to go around scream . . .” His eyes drifted to the ruins of an inner wall. “Scream . . .” His eyes settled on the great gashes that split the inner wall into rubble. “Screa—”

His eyes rose up above the inner wall. And up. And up.

“That’s . . . uh . . .”

“A forest,” she sighed, rolling her eyes. “You’ve seen them before.”

“That’s a forest of—”

“Seaweed.”

“Yeah,” he said, “but where’s the sea?”


Rising into the gray sky above, barbed leaves quivering, the kelp stood tall and swaying ponderously. That they moved without a breeze was not as unnerving as was how easily they did it. They did not quiver as a branch in the wind might. Their sway was fluid. Eerily so.

“Like they’re . . . in a sea. Without water.”

“It’s also denser than a damn rock and it goes on forever,” she said, gesturing down the road with her chin. “Stay here.” She hefted her bow off her shoulder, began to stalk away. “I’ll go search for an opening.”

“Wait, wouldn’t it make more sense for me to go, too?”

“I move more easily alone.”

“Since when?”

“I always have. I’m just not humoring you anymore.” She growled, already stalking away. “Stay here and guard the supplies.”

She had taken only two more steps when he asked it.

“Why?”

Barely more than a whisper, the question was not for her. She should have pretended she hadn’t heard it. But he would never have believed her. Not with the big, pointy ears that drooped dejectedly as she turned around.

“Why what?”

“Why are you going off alone? Why do you keep going off alone? Why do you turn your back to me?”

She winced; not a good answer.

She sighed; a worse one.

“Stay here.”

“I need to talk to—”

“JUST STAY HERE.”

Sprinting away was not the best answer, either. But at least it got her far away fast enough to ignore whatever he said next. He’d have more questions and her answers were only going to get worse from there.

Like there’s a right answer, she thought ruefully. What are you going to tell him? “Hey, stay here while I go try to find the greenshicts I hung around with when I still kind of sort of maybe wanted to kill you. I’ll bring you back a snack.”

Her belly lurched into her throat. She swallowed it back down on a wave of nausea.

Not that the truth is much better. Go on and tell him it hurts when he looks at you. Go on and see what happens when you tell him you know he wants to hurt you.

She sighed, closed her eyes.

So, that’s settled. Running away was the right answer. You can’t help if it’s still a terrible one.

She looked up to see the wall of kelp rising taller, swaying slowly, freakishly.

Terrible and useless.

The inner wall was all but powder. Nowhere near as thick or as strong as the outer, it had crumbled to a thin line of shards that valiantly tried to hold back the kelp forest. Not that it was needed; the kelp was a wall unto itself, green and vast and utterly impregnable, marching endlessly along the road.

It was a sign, she knew. An omen sent to tell her that she should go back, talk to him, tell him that she was trying to protect him, that he made her hurt, that she wanted to hurt, that she knew he wanted to hurt her.

Riffid didn’t send omens.

But Riffid was the goddess of the shicts.

Kataria was a shict . . . wasn’t she?

She sighed, rubbed her eyes. This was stupid. Maybe she shouldn’t go back. Maybe it would be easier to just sit here and wait for something to come along and kill her and save her the trouble.

Not likely. She cast a glower about the highway. For the home of the Shen, you’d think there’d be more—

Her hand shot up, thumped against her temple, trying to beat that thought out.

No! NO! Do not finish that thought. You know exactly what will happen if you do.

She settled back on her heels, drew in a sharp breath. The kelp swayed silently. The mist boiled silently. The stone watched silently. She released it.

There. That wasn’t so hard, was—

Her ears twitched, then shot straight up at a sudden sound.

“Oh, come on—” she snarled under her breath.

Anywhere else, it might have been a murmur lost on the wind and never heard. Here in the silence, the sound of a bowstring being drawn was so loud it might as well have been using a cat as an arrow.

Hers was just as loud as she whirled around, arrow leaping to string as she aimed it upward.

The Shen squatted, bow drawn on her, high upon the wall. Not so high that she couldn’t see the malicious narrow of the lizardman’s yellow eyes or the glint of the jagged head at the end of a black shaft.

It stood frozen upon the wall like a green gargoyle. Its lanky body was breathless, unmoving, rigid with the anticipation of the ambush she had just ruined. Muscle coiled beneath scaly flesh banded with black tattoos. Nostrils quivered at the end of a long, reptilian snout. It did not move. As though it hoped that she might simply forget it was there if only it sat still long enough.

She wasn’t sure why it hadn’t shot yet. Maybe it wasn’t sure if it was faster than her, had better aim than her. Or maybe it was waiting for something else.

“This isn’t fair, you know,” she called up to it. “I didn’t even think your name.”

The Shen’s tail twitched behind it, the only sign it was even alive.

“Can you understand me?”

It said nothing.

“Look, I can admire anyone who can sneak up on me.” Her ears twitched resentfully. “Even if you are all the way up there. So, one hunter to another, I’ll give you this.” She gestured with her chin. “Walk away. You’re not who I’m looking for and this is an ambush you don’t want to waste. Come back later. I’ll be distracted. You can take another shot at me then.”

A low, throaty hiss slithered between its teeth. Whether it understood her words or not, the creak of a slackening bowstring, if only by a hair’s breadth, suggested it recognized intent. She returned the gesture, by an even scanter hair’s breadth.

It stood still.

Just a breath longer.

In another breath, it had dropped its bow and reached for something at its waist. In one more, her bow sang a one-note dirge. No more breaths came after that.

Its eyes didn’t go wide, as though it wasn’t particularly surprised that this had happened. It didn’t grope helplessly at the quivering shaft lodged in its throat, merely grabbing it purposefully and snapping it with one hand while the other clenched whatever it was at its waist. It met her gaze for a moment and she saw in its yellow stare something determined, unfazed by death.

And then, it pitched forward.

She hurried over as it struck the stones with a muffled thump and lay still. It was most certainly dead, unless its spine had always bent that way and she just hadn’t noticed. But in death, it still stared at her, still resentful, still clinging to that resolve.

Just as it clung to the item in its hand.

She leaned over the lizardman, reached down, prised apart its clawed fingers with no small effort. And there, curved and cylindrical, she saw it.

“A . . . horn?” she muttered.

Another question. Another complication. Things never got less complicated when walking lizards were involved. And now she would have to go back to Lenk and tell him all about this.

“KATARIA!”

Assuming he didn’t come to her first.

She saw him rushing toward her. She heard him curse through fevered, rasping breath, felt his voice like a knife in her flesh. His legs pumped, his eyes were narrowed, his sword was drawn.

And bloodied.

The arrow was nocked before she even knew it was in her fingers, raised before she knew whom she was aiming at. It was so instinctual to draw on him. So easy to see him as a threat.

So easy to just let go of the arrow and—

No, she thought. Not again.

She lowered the weapon and sighed as he came charging toward her. She closed her eyes as he came within reach of her. She grunted as he shoved rudely past her and kept running.

She furrowed her brow, opening her mouth as if to call after him. No words came, though; she was far too confused.

“SHENKO-SA!”

Right up until she heard the warcry, anyway.

The Shen came surging up the highway in a riot of color. Lanky green muscle trembled beneath tattooed bands of red and black, weapons of bone and metal flashed in their hands, yellow eyes grew gold with fury at the sight of her.

Great webbed crests rose from their scaly crowns, displaying colorful murals tattooed on the leathery flesh. Giant fish on some, serpents on others—various peoples in various stages of dismemberment seemed a rather popular choice.

They bent at the waist, long tails risen behind them as they picked up speed, raised their weapons, and howled.

Like hounds, she thought. Big, tattooed, ugly hounds. With weapons. Sharp ones. She glanced up the road. Why aren’t you running, again?

If her head couldn’t form a response, her feet did. And they spoke loudly and in great favor of screaming and running away. She agreed and tore off down the highway, folding her ears over themselves to block the sound of a dozen warcries growing louder.

She saw Lenk a moment later, the young man leaning on his knees and trying desperately to catch his breath. She opened her mouth to warn him, to tell him that they were close enough behind that he had to keep moving.

“YOU SON OF A BITCH!”

That wasn’t a warning, but it made him move, regardless. He sheathed his sword and took off at a sprint, falling in beside her.

“You could have warned me,” she snarled between breaths.

“Did you not see me running?” he screamed back. “What, did you think I was just that excited to see you?”

“You had your sword drawn! I didn’t know what was happening!”

Her ears pricked up at a faint whistle growing steadily louder. She leapt and the arrow cursed her in a spray of sparks and a whine of metal as it struck the stones where she had just stood.

“How about now?” he asked. “If you’re still confused, they’ve got more arrows.”

And in symphonic volleys, the arrows wailed. They came screaming from atop the walls, making shrill and childish demands for blood, skulking in clattering mutters when they found only stone.

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