The Skybound Sea

Page 20

The archers took only a few opportunistic shots, shouldering their bows and racing atop the wall after their fleeing pink targets as soon as they moved out of range. But there were always more archers and ever more arrows.

Precise shots, Kataria noted. Hungry shots. Little wolves of metal and wood. And like wolves, they came from all sides.

She glanced over to the side. The kelp had thinned out, giving way to another, stranger forest.

Coral formations rose out of the sand and into the gray sky. Jagged blue pillars, spheres of twisted green, great cobwebs of red thorns, and sheets of yellow blossomed like a garden of brittle, dead gemstones.

It might have been beautiful, had each formation not been host to yellow eyes lurking in their towering pillars, green feet perched upon the colorful branches, bows bent and arrows drawn.

They ducked, weaved, hid where they could, tumbled where they had to. Arrows snarled overhead, jagged tips reaching with bone-shard barbs. They darted behind one of the twisted bells to avoid a volley. The arrows struck, sent the misshapen metal wailing, screaming, weeping, laughing, grinding sound against sound in a horrifying cacophony.

Kataria clamped hands over her ears, shouted to be heard. “How far back are they?”

“I don’t care!” he shouted back. “Just keep going until we can find someplace to hide!”

She glanced over her shoulder. The tide of Shen seemed a distant green ebb. They had checked their pace, pursuing with intent, not speed. They were up to something. Or maybe lizards just weren’t meant to run on two legs.

“Must be the tails,” she muttered. “We’re bound to lose them soon. For a bunch of crafty savages, you’d think they’d have a better plan than just chasing us and—”

“Damn it, Kat,” Lenk snarled. “Why the hell would you say that?”

She didn’t have to ask. The moment she turned, she saw it, looming overhead, its gray so dark it stood out even against the cloud-shrouded sky. The monolith statue stood upon the wall, palm outstretched, a symbol of a great, unblinking eye set within its stone hood.

While it certainly didn’t seem to object to the cluster of Shen around its feet trying desperately to push it over and onto the road below, Kataria picked up her speed.

“Stop!” Lenk rasped. “We’ll never make it!”

“Yes, we will! Just go faster!”

He did go. Faster than her, even. Their breath became soundless, coming so swiftly and weakly it might as well not exist. Their legs pumped numbly beneath them, forgetting that they were supposed to have collapsed by now. They had nothing left to give but the desperate hope of passing before the statue fell.

Whatever god it was supposed to represent, though, the monolith appeared unmoved.

By their efforts, anyway.

The collective heaving of ten Shen proved to be far more persuasive.

The monolith tilted with a roar of rock and the wail of wind as it teetered and pitched over the wall, plummeting to the road below. She felt the shock of it through her numb feet, coursing up into her skull as the old stone god smashed against the rock below, sending a wave of pulverized granite dust erupting.

His legs desperately trying to remember how to stop, Lenk skidded into the great stone eye with an undignified sound. He came to a rasping, gasping halt.

Kataria did not.

With an almost unnerving casualness, she leapt, racing up his back, onto his shoulders, leaping off of him like a fleshy, wheezy stepping stone and scrambling atop the statute’s stone flank. She turned, looked down at him as he scrambled to follow her, failed to even come close.

She clicked her tongue. “Okay, so I was halfway right.”

Had he the breath to respond, he probably would have cursed her. Had he the energy to lift his sword, he probably would have thrown it at her. She didn’t watch him for long, though. Her eyes were drawn down the road, toward the advancing Shen horde. Archers continued to slither out of the coral forest to join the tide, bows added to the throngs of clubs and blades raised high and hungry for blood.

But even that did not hold her attention for long.

Her ears did not prick up at the sound, for she did not hear it. She felt it, in the nothingness of the mist. Determination. Compassion. Hate. Anger.


He was out there, somewhere. Somewhere close. Watching her, even now. And his were not the only eyes upon her.

But the Shen were also close. And growing closer. Stay and chase them off, she thought, and the greenshicts would come and kill Lenk. Leave to chase off the greenshicts and the Shen would kill Lenk. Neither option was attractive.

But then he decided for her.

“I can’t make it,” he said, finally finding his breath. “You have to go.”

“Right,” she said, making a move to leave.



“I didn’t mean it! I was trying to be noble!”

“Ah . . .” She looked at him and winced. “Well.”

And Lenk was left staring at an empty space she had just occupied. Had he breath to speak, he still wouldn’t have had the words to describe what he felt just then.

Someone else did, though.

“Told you,” the voice whispered.

Don’t be an asshole about this, he thought in reply.

“More important matters, anyway.”

The voice was right. Lenk knew that the moment he heard the hissing behind him. Breath coming heavily, sweat dripping from his brow, Lenk turned around very slowly. But he was in no hurry.

When he finally turned to face them, the Shen were waiting.



“I have been looking for you . . . for a long time.”

Sheraptus’s eyes burned as he cast his stare upon the scene below. Forgepits burned, alive with the sounds of metal being twisted into blades and breastplates, audible even from his terrace. The sound of creation carried so far.

“You are not pleased to see me again,” he closed his eyes, whispering to his guest behind him. “It is hard to blame you.”

Another scream rose up from below as another slave, one of Those Green Things, was shattered beneath an iron sole. The cargo the slave carried fell to the ground, splashing in the red life that seeped from its many, many cuts.

“But that seems like an eternity ago. Since then I have found . . . questions. I don’t like them. A netherling knows. We are born from nothing. We return to nothing. There is only bloodshed and fire in between. There are no questions that do not have this answer.”

The sikkhuns howled with wild laughter as the dead slave was hauled by a female to their pit and tossed in. Their hunger was a thing alive itself, the gnashing of their jaws and the ripping of scaly green meat, the cycle of life to death, death to nourishment, nourishment to life.

“But there has to be more,” he said. “It was simple in the Nether. There was nothing. But here? The slaves barely put up a fight when we came. All this green, all this blue . . .”

He swept a hand to the face of the sprawling forest, scarred by an ugly sea of stumps. Its lumber had been hauled to the surf, turned into the long, black ships bobbing in waters stained by soot and blood and scraps of flesh.

“They didn’t even fight for it. Why? Is there simply more of it that they can take later? But if there is more . . . who made it?” He clenched his fist, felt the anger burn out his eyes. “Metal does not take shape without fire and flesh. Ships do not construct themselves. This? All of this, someone had to have made it.”

He shut his eyes, felt the fires smolder beneath his lids as he drew in a deep breath and exhaled.

“That’s why I asked them to find you, specifically, out of all of your small, weak race. I wanted to find you . . .”

He turned around to finally look at his guest. A pair of beady eyes mounted upon tiny stalks looked back. The crab scuttled across the plate, its chitinous legs rapping upon the metal. It would go one way, find its path terminating in a long fall from the pedestal, move another way, find a similar conclusion, try the other way.

It was almost as if it wasn’t even listening, Sheraptus thought contemptibly.

He swept over to the plate, plucked the crustacean up gently in his hands. It had taken time to understand how to take something so small without crushing it. He had practiced. And upon his palm, the crab scuttled one way, felt the palm’s width end, scuttled the other way.

“And you waste it all,” he whispered. “You and Those Green Things and the pink-skinned overscum . . . you have all of this, and you simply move about. You do nothing with it.” He turned his hand over gently, watched the crab flail briefly, then right itself upon the back of his hand. “Why?”

He found his ire at the crab’s silence boiling. Not that he expected it to simply up and start talking, but it could at least do something different. He jabbed it with a finger, pushing it around on his hand.

“Do you simply not know what to do with it all?” he asked. “Does the sheer vastness of it all overwhelm you? Or do you simply choose to do nothing with it?”

It scuttled to escape his prodding finger, flailing as it found itself upon his palm again. And still, he tormented it.

“And why are you even here? What are you supposed to do? If you have no purpose, then how can you—”

He hissed as he felt a sting shoot up through his finger. The tiny pincers released him almost immediately, leaving little more than a bright red slash across the digit and a distant pain that grew to nothing in the blink of an eye.

In the next blink, his fingers had curled around the thing. He spoke a word, felt his eyes burn, felt the crown burn upon his brow. The flame coursed through his palm, licked his fingers. His nostrils quivered with the scent of cooked flesh.

When they uncurled, a tiny black husk smoldered in his palm. He turned his palm over, let it drop to the terrace floor. It shattered, splitting apart into tiny, burning slivers, quickly sputtering out into thin wisps of smoke.

“There,” he said. “There!” He turned to the other end of the terrace, thrust a finger down at the floor. “Did you see that?”

Xhai blinked vacantly. Her brow furrowed as she looked down at what had once been the crab. With a snort, she looked up, shrugged, leaned back upon the terrace’s railing, and crossed a ruined arm over a healthy one.

“So fragile,” Sheraptus whispered, turning his attentions back to the black stain. “Why did they make it so fragile?”

“If it’s weak, it’s weak,” Xhai replied. “Just the same as any other overscum or underscum. Why do they do anything they do?”

“Precisely,” he murmured. “Why? Why were they made? Who made them?”

“No one did. From nothing to nothing.”

“That’s for netherlings, certainly . . . or is it?”

Xhai’s face screwed up at the notion. He didn’t bother to note the look of genuine displeasure across her face as he looked at her.

“Who’s to say we weren’t also made?”

“Master . . .” she said, taking a step forward.

“But this thing . . . it was made fragile. And we . . . were made strong.” He tapped his chin. “The Nether made us strong.”

“The Nether is nothing.”

“The Nether is—”

“We are netherlings,” she said, her voice rife with more force than had ever been used with him. “We are not called that because we were made. We are strong because we are netherlings. For no other reason.”

He recoiled, feigned a look as though he had just been struck. Almost instantly, her visage softened. No, he corrected himself, Xhai was incapable of softening. Her face . . . twisted, looking as though it were trying dearly to find the muscles to look wounded.

Just as she always did whenever he looked hurt. She was so predictable, especially when it came to him. If he flinched, she was ready to kill. If he sighed, she was ready to kill. If he looked at something, she tended to assume he wanted it killed and thought it might just be easier to let him say otherwise if he wanted it alive.

The more he looked at her, the more genuine his frown became. It was a crab he saw. A crab tall, purple, and muscular, but a crab, nonetheless: without purpose but to move, to pinch when prodded, and just as fragile.

Perhaps, then, netherlings were not made. Perhaps everything came from nothing, scuttled about without purpose until they died. Perhaps this all came about for no reason.

Perhaps . . .

But then why were trees here, if not to be made into ships? Why were slaves here, if not to serve? Why was there so much of it? And why was he, and only he, wondering any of this?

“Master,” Xhai whispered, edging closer. “You seem . . . well, we are to leave for Jaga soon. You said. Is your time not wasted by thinking on this?”

The invasion. To bring down Ulbecetonth. Enemy of the Gods. And the Gray One That Grins.

“Perhaps,” he whispered. “Purpose is not given . . . but discovered.”


He turned to her, smile broad, eyes bright.

“Bring me the human.”

It had not once occurred to her to pray.

Not when she had awakened, bound and bruised upon the deck of the ship, her companions absent and probably dead. Not when she had been marched bodily across the great scene of fire and death that was the island’s shorefront. Even when her captors had intentionally lingered near the great pits from which bestial laughter rose between sounds of bones cracking and meat slurping, not once did she look to the sky.

Not to heaven, anyway. She did look up, once, and found her gaze drawn to the terrace overlooking the blackened, blood-stained beach.

And eyes alight with fire had looked back.

Sheraptus had offered her nothing more than a stare. No jagged-toothed smiles, no wretched leers, nothing to boast about what he had done to her, of what he would do to her.

He stood. He stared. That was all he had to do to make her look at the pit and think whether it might be better to simply hurl herself into the jaws of whatever lurked inside.

But the netherlings had been upon her before she could consider it seriously, wrenching her arms behind her back, hauling her past scenes of corpses and flame and smoke and blood, into somewhere vast and dark.

After all of that, the dead bodies, the suffering so thick in the air it made it hard to breathe, the cackling laughter of those things in the pit, and him, she did not pray. Even as the cell door groaned and slammed shut, no light but what seeped from the cavern mouth so far away, she couldn’t even think to pray.

Not until she had become aware that she was not alone in the cell.

Not until she had met Sheraptus’s other victims.

After that, it was easier.

Blessed Talanas, who gave up His body that mankind might know, the old words came flooding back to her now as she strained to concentrate over the sound of sobbing in the darkness, know this and always that I never ask You for myself, but that I might ease the pain and mend the wounds of body and soul.

“He doesn’t always come,” the girl whispered. “Not always. Sometimes, he comes by and stares through the bars and I can just . . . see his eyes in the dark.”

Her name was Nai. Asper had gleaned that much after a few hours in the dark. They had begun in silence, all queries as to their location or what the netherlings had in store for them were met with quiet whimpers and nothing else.

Asper did not press her. She had met victims before, wives beaten by their husbands, children who knew things of suffering that grown men did not, people for whom speech was agony. People who didn’t want to be reminded that they were still people.

She had waited.

And eventually, the girl had spoke.

“And sometimes, he doesn’t do anything. He’ll just—” Nai continued, her voice so shaky it frequently shattered to pieces in her mouth. “He just stands there and he’s watching me and he . . . then he . . . he turns around and he leaves and says nothing. Nothing. Never.”

“Ah,” Asper said.

Weak words, she knew, but she had nothing else to offer. She had no idea what Nai looked like in the darkness. Asper was quietly grateful for that; it meant Nai could not see her shake as the girl continued to describe her imprisonment.

She had been snatched, apparently, from a passing merchant ship. The netherlings had rowed up beside them during a calm, leapt aboard, and did what they do best. They took nothing, the carnage upon the decks seemingly wrought only for the opportunity to spit on the gutted corpses.

Nai hadn’t been sure why she had been spared. Not until they dragged her to the island, past the laughing pits and the Gonwa bleeding out on the sands, not until they threw her in the darkness. And by the time she had run out of prayers, she wished she lay unmoving on the deck with the others.

Asper had listened to her. To all the torments visited upon her, to the chains affixed about her wrists, to the times she had tried to fight him, to the times that had only made his smile broader as he forced her to the floor.

Each word sent her bowels churning, her heart quaking. Each word told her of horrors and tortures at Sheraptus’s hands she had only narrowly escaped. And with each word, Nai’s voice became more distant as Asper fought the urge to shut her ears and break down.

But she withheld her tears. And she did not block out Nai’s voice. And she listened. Not to know what would be visited upon her, not to try to think of a way to avoid him and his leering grin. But for the fact that Nai had nothing else but words, and Nai had to speak.

She listened.

And she prayed.

Humble do I pray and humble do I ask, she thought, mouthing the words in the darkness, I know that I am weak and have nothing to give but give freely as You once did for us.

“Then sometimes he just takes you,” she said, voice wracked with sobs. “In the middle of the night . . . or the day. I don’t know. I can’t see the sun anymore. He comes and he just takes you and you fight him and . . . and you hit him and you bite him and he just . . . he just . . .”

But as You give freely, and as You have told us to give freely of our time and our love and our bodies, I beg You give unto me, she prayed, give that I might do the will and restore that which is lost. Please, I beg—

“He laughs. Like it’s the funniest thing in the world. He takes his hands and he forces you down and—”

In the name of—

“He says things. He says words. They don’t make sense. And there’s a light. And you can see his teeth and he’s smiling and his eyes are big and white and he’s just so happy and . . . and . . .”

Please, Talanas, just . . . please give me the strength—

“He makes you scream.”

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