The Skybound Sea


Page 21



Just . . . please.

That wasn’t how the prayer ended. That wasn’t what she thought she would ask for. She lifted her hand slowly, that Nai might not know she was moving, and wiped the moisture from her eyes.

No tears, she told both Talanas and herself. She needs help. I asked for help. You can’t give me tears. I can’t give her tears.

Words, however weak, would have to be enough.

She opened her mouth to offer them, weak and plentiful, when she was cut off. A long, inhuman wail echoed from somewhere far away, like a long, vocal hand reaching desperately out of the darkness toward daylight.

They came intermittently, sometimes many, sometimes few, sometimes one long, lonely scream from somewhere deeper and darker. Asper had asked. Nai had clasped her hands over her ears, shook her head. Asper didn’t ask again.

Not about whoever those screams belonged to, anyway. She focused on the victims she could speak to.

Asper found her eyes drawn to the other girl in the cell. Or what she suspected was a girl. In the darkness, it was impossible to tell beyond the fact that Nai occasionally referred to the shaggy heap of disheveled hair and torn clothes as “she.”

And “she” hadn’t said a word since Asper had heard the bars slam shut behind her.

“What is her name?” Asper asked.

“I don’t know, I don’t know. She was here when they took me. I asked. I asked her. But she never told me. She just looked at me and told me that I was next and that I had to go when he came and that she couldn’t do it anymore and that she was sorry and that I could never stop screaming if I wanted to live . . .”

“She” didn’t move at the mention, nor at the hand that Asper gently laid on her. She didn’t respond to touch, she didn’t resist as Asper rolled her over. She didn’t even blink as Asper stared into a pair of eyes that resembled a broken glass: shattered, glistening, and utterly empty.

“What happened to her?” Asper asked.

Nai’s voice was a soft, dying whisper. “She stopped screaming.”

No one in heaven or earth could blame her for wanting to break down, Asper knew. No one would blame her for weeping, for shrieking, for pleading. But as she stared at “her,” this woman who drew breath and nothing more, she could do nothing but ask.

What is he?

She wasn’t sure whom she asked, who would answer her. She wasn’t sure why she only thought to ask now. But she had to know. She wondered who could do this. Not in the moral sense, but the physical. Who could so easily take a human being in his hands like a cup, turn her over and pour out everything inside her, then let her fall and shatter upon the floor?

What kind of creature had that power?

A god, she thought. They treat him like a god. The netherlings tremble before him. Nai speaks of him in whispers. And she . . . Asper looked down at the girl, who stared up at Asper, through Asper. He took her. Everything about her.

But there were no gods.

No one had answered her prayers.

She was still here, in the darkness, with an empty, shattered glass and a girl who had nothing but words. No one was coming. Not from heaven. Not from earth. There was no answer to her prayers.

There was only her.

There are no gods, she told herself. And if there are no gods, there is no one who can do this. Not to me. Not to anyone again. Gods can’t die.

She looked down at her left hand, tightened it into a fist. Beneath her sleeve, beneath her skin, she could feel it. She wore the agony like a glove, the pain welling up inside her a familiar one, a welcome one. One she hoped to share quite soon.

He can.

There was movement beneath her as “she” drew in a sharp breath.

It was something so small it would go unnoticed in anyone else. In a woman that hadn’t made a movement more energetic than a blink, it was enough to seize Asper’s attention.

And in the span it took her to notice the sound of heavy iron boots on stone floor, the door was already flying open. She could not see the tall, muscular women as they swept into her cell. But she could feel their hands, the cold iron of their gauntlets as they jerked her to her feet, wrenched her hands behind her back and hauled her from the cell.

She might have cried out. She might have even been tempted to concentrate on the agony in her arm and summon it against them. She didn’t know. It was hard to hear, harder to think with Nai’s screaming.

“No, no, no, no, no, no, no,” the girl shrieked. Asper heard her scrambling away from them, twisting out of their grasp, raking her fingertips upon the floor as they hauled her out by her ankles. “No, please, not again, not again, not again, I’ve been good, I don’t deserve this, please, please, please, please—”

Pleas, tears, screams. A singular, desperate sound that echoed through the cavern. It was joined by the screams from deeper inside, an endless, unrelenting cacophony marching alongside Asper as she was bodily dragged toward a distant halo of light at the end of the twisted corridor.

Within the ring of light, she saw it. A shadow standing tall, hands folded neatly behind its back.

And within the shadow, she saw them. A pair of lights, blood red and fire hot. Stars in hell.

The fear that had been bearing down upon her since she stared praying grew at the sight of him. It settled upon her shoulders. It pressed upon her neck. It ate the anger from her body, it drank the breath from her lungs.

But even beneath its weight, even through the half-formed prayers in her head and the pounding in her heart, she could still hear her curse herself.

Not now, you idiot, she snarled inwardly. Not in front of Nai. She gritted her teeth, felt her neck strain against the weight as she tried to raise it. He’s not a god. There are no gods. Not on earth. Look at him.

It hurt to move her head, hurt to even think about it. But she forced herself to do both.

Look.

She did.

He did not.

Sheraptus stood, head bowed beneath the black iron crown upon his brow, staring intently into his palm. With one long finger, he gently pushed about tiny black fragments in his hand, attempting to piece together a charred puzzle.

It wasn’t relief she felt to be denied his gaze as she was shoved past him. Her fear settled firmly upon her back and she felt extraordinarily heavy at that point. A sudden anger rose inside her, leaving no room for breath. That he could do what he did to her, to Nai, to the other girl, and not even look when his victims were paraded before him was . . . was . . .

She had no words for it. Only desires. Only a yearning to scream, a yearning to break free from her captor’s iron grip and lunge at him with an arm that throbbed with a pain she wanted nothing more than to share.

Those desires left her, though, along with the air in her lungs, as the netherling twisted her about, placed a palm upon her belly and slammed her gainst the wall of the round, cavernous chamber. Sense left with the wind and she scarcely even noticed her arms being raised so high above her head as to pull her to the tips of her toes. It returned, however, with the eager snapping of metal as manacles were fastened about her wrists and she was left to hang against the wall like a macabre piece of art.

Her captor stepped back, met her scowl with cold eyes and tense muscles, as if challenging Asper to give her a reason to use those gauntleted fists folded over her chest. The priestess offered nothing more than a glare. The netherling, denied, snorted and left.

Nai had more to give.

“Please no, please stop, please no, please stop,” she chanted the words, as though they would gain power the more she spoke them. “Please, please, please, please . . .”

The netherling holding her took no notice of her pleas as she forced the girl into a similar set of manacles on the opposite side of the chamber’s door. Nai seemed to forget Asper was there entirely, shaking her head to add gesture to desperate incantation.

And no one seemed to notice the murals upon the walls.

They were almost illegible, smeared by soot from torches haphazardly jammed into the wall, scratched by scenes of struggle or boredom-induced violence. But Asper could make out a few images: men marching to war against towering black shapes, green, reptilian things marching beside them. Amidst them all strode great stone colossi, dressed in robes, hands outstretched.

She had seen these before, she realized: the great stone monoliths upon Teji, as imposing in paint as they were in person.

They marched into oblivion, crushing black shapes beneath their treads, sending white shapes fleeing before their authoritative palms. She followed them as they marched across the walls, displaying banners of many gods, holding weapons high. They descended toward the back of the chamber, the mural lost in the darkness that was held at bay by the torches, save for but a few strands of crimson paint that stretched out of the gloom.

She squinted to see them, to make them out.

Are those . . . tentacles?

The scream that burst out of the darkness shook her back to her senses. An inhuman shrieked boiled out of the back of the cavern, echoed through her skull as it did through the chamber. She turned away, shut her eyes, instinctively tried to clasp her hands over her ears even as the chains held her tight, chiding her with a rattle of links.

They faded, eventually. She opened her eyes. The breath immediately left her once more as she stared into a pair of eyes alight with crimson fire not a foot away from her.

“How did this happen?” Sheraptus asked.

He thrust the blackened pieces upon his palm at her. It had once been a living thing, she deduced by noting the charred remains of a jointed leg, even if everything else was soot and charcoal.

She looked from the remains to him. She should have cursed at him, she knew. Spat in his face, maybe. All she could form, as his mouth twisted into an expectant frown, was a single word.

“Huh?”

“Why does this thing exist?” His voice was eerily ponderous, as though he were talking to the blackened husk and not her. “It was so small that I barely had to move my fingers, barely had to think and . . .”

He turned his hand over, let the fragments fall to ashes.


“It simply turned to nothing,” he whispered. “Why?”

The fire burning in his eyes could not burn nearly hot enough to obscure the glimmer in his stare, the sort of excited flashing of a boy with a new toy right before he accidentally breaks it. It unnerved her to see it, even without the malicious red glow that strained to obscure it. But she forced herself to look. She forced herself to speak.

“Because you killed it.”

He frowned, the glimmer waning, as though he had hoped that wasn’t the case.

“Why?” he asked.

For lack of anything else, she simply stared.

Is this it? she asked herself. Is this the man that thinks he’s a god? He doesn’t even know why he kills. He’s not a god. He has . . .

“Nothing.”

“What?”

She wasn’t even aware that the word had slipped out until he frowned at her. After she was, though, the rest came easily.

“You killed it because you have nothing else. You killed it because that’s what you do. You destroy. You hurt people.” She drew in a staggering breath, but the words came flooding out, impossible to stop. “Because whatever made you, they made you with nothing else but that purpose. You don’t know why, you don’t know how. You know nothing but pain, and without pain, you are nothing.”

It didn’t feel good to say it. It felt necessary, as necessary as the deep breath that came after she said it. It came into her lungs clean, despite the soot, the heat, and the suffering surrounding her. That felt good.

It would have felt better if Sheraptus hadn’t smiled broadly and spoke.

“Exactly.”

She recoiled, the very words striking her just when she thought he couldn’t say anything more depraved. He didn’t notice her reaction, he didn’t notice she was there as he turned around and made a grand, sweeping gesture.

“Created to destroy, created to kill, that makes sense,” he said to the cavern as he paced about its circular length. “Weapons need to be forged. Nethra has to be channeled. But this?” He looked down at the black, sooty smear on the floor. “What purpose is there in something so weak?”

His gaze drifted to Nai, hanging helplessly in her chains. Asper felt her bowels turn to water as though he had looked at her instead. Her feet scrabbled against the floor, the chains pulling her back, forcing her to watch helplessly as he reached out, a pair of long, probing fingers gently brushing against Nai’s cheek.

“What use is there for such a thing . . .” he whispered.

The fire in his eyes smoldered, painting Nai’s face crimson. She let out a soft whimper, daring not to speak, daring not to move as his fingers drifted lower, across her throat, toward her chest.

“I DON’T KNOW!”

It wasn’t a lie. She didn’t know the answer. She didn’t know why she screamed so suddenly. And she didn’t care. Sheraptus turned away from Nai, his gaze dimming to a faint glow. Asper watched long enough to see the girl go slack in her bonds again before turning to lock her gaze upon his and his upon hers.

“No one knows,” she continued. “The Gods don’t tell us when we’re born.”

“Then why?”

“Why what?”

“Why do anything you do?” he asked. “Why call out to gods if you can’t see them, if you can’t hear them and they don’t talk to you?”

“They do. We have scriptures, prayers, hymnals, ritual. They tell us how to live, what to do,” she paused to put emphasis on her next words, “why we shouldn’t kill and—”

“Those are not gods. They do not create, they were created.”

“By the Gods.”

“How?”

“They told us—”

“Then why do they not tell you now? What do these rituals and things do but ask more questions? Where do you get answers?”

“They . . . they . . .” The words came slowly, like a knife being drawn out of her flesh. “They might not give us answers. The Gods might not even talk to us.” She said it aloud for the first time. “They might not even exist.”

It hurt more than she thought.

“They do.”

Hurt turned to confusion the moment he spoke.

“Where else could all this have come from?” he asked, shaking his head. “We have no trees in the Nether, no sand, no oceans.” He sighed. “No gods. But here? You have everything. And for what? What does it do for you? What is its purpose?”

“Not everything has to have a purpose,” she said. “Some things are there not to kill or be killed, but simply to be . . . right? They are there to be protected, cherished.” Her gaze drifted to Nai. “The Gods can’t possibly watch over everything.”

“But that doesn’t make sense,” Sheraptus snapped. “If trees are not created to be made into boats, then why are they here? What is metal if not to be made into swords? If something is meant to be, why is it so fragile?” He resumed his pacing, rubbing his crown. “All things must be created for a reason. Everything must have a purpose. What is theirs?”

He whirled about. The fires in his eyes were stoked with desperation, leaping with such intensity that they seemed to engulf his face, leaving nothing but jagged teeth twisted in a grimace. He thrust a finger at her.

“What is yours?”

She wanted to look away, away from those eyes that had stared at her, away from those teeth that had grinned at her, away from that finger that had—

Look at him, the thought leapt to her mind unbidden. It resounded with conviction from a place she did not know. Look at him and know that he’s not what they think he is. It held her head high, even as it wanted to bow. Look at him and know that he’s not what he thinks he is. It made her draw in a long, clean breath. Look at him. And he won’t look at her.

“Perhaps,” she whispered, “it’s to tell you all this.”

The fires in his eyes waned. Between shudders of crimson, flashes of white broke through. And in them, she could see something that had been stained by flame for a long, long time.

Desperation.

Fear.

A hope that somehow, some way, everything that he was thinking was utterly and terribly wrong.

“How do you know?” he asked.

She shook her head, her chains rattling softly. “It’s never clear. Not without suffering.”

“Suffering?”

“Only with suffering comes understanding.” She closed her eyes, letting the truth of that settle upon her, atop the fear and the anger. “Great suffering.”

He nodded solemnly. That which she felt within her she saw within him as his eyes smoldered, sputtered into empty whites.

“They come to you with suffering,” he said, “when they are needed. That is why you called to them,” he hesitated before continuing, “that night.”

To stare into the white eyes of this man, as she had stared into the red eyes of the man who had violated her, should have been enough to destroy her. She should have collapsed, slumped in her chains, lost all will to raise her head again. But there was something in these eyes, something bright and vivid, that burned even more brightly than fire.

This man was no god. This man could be made to see what he had done.

She looked past him. Nai hung limply in her manacles, drawing in sharp, short breaths.

For her sake, Asper had to believe that.

“How much?” It was the edge in his voice that seized her attention, the glimmer in his eye that held it. “How much suffering before they appear?”

“I don’t—” She paused, reconsidered. “Much,” she replied softly. “There is much suffering, much regret, much penance.”

“And one cannot begin . . . without the other.”

In the instant he turned away from her, she saw it. In the corner of his eye, as though it had been hiding from her the whole time, there was a little too much of something. Perhaps it was too much of an eager glimmer in his eye, too easy a smile that came with too much knowing.

She saw it.

And in that instant, she knew that whatever had left him, it wasn’t cruelty.

“No,” she whispered.

Whether she had heard Asper or the sound of Sheraptus approaching, Nai looked up. What it took Asper until now to see, she found in an instant. Her face twisted up into a grimace, her hands clenched, she bit her lower lip so hard that blood gushed readily.

“No. No.” Nai shook her head, fervor increasing with each word. “No, no, no, no, no.” She was all but flailing as he approached her, her chains rattling wildly, her heels scraping furiously against the floor as she tried to back away. “NO, NO, NO, NO, NO!”

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