The Skybound Sea

Page 22

“Wait! WAIT!” Asper called after him. “This isn’t what I meant! This isn’t what you—”

“It is,” Sheraptus said softly. “It makes perfect sense. Why would gods come unless called? Unless the need was great?”

“I didn’t do anything!” Nai wailed. The cloth of her slippers wore through in a moment and soon, she was painting the floor with her blood as her feet desperately scrabbled. “I didn’t. I DIDN’T! I’ve been good! I . . . I screamed! Please, no. Please, please, please, please—”

“Stop!” Asper cried out, hurling herself at him. The chains caught her, chuckled in the rattle of links as they pulled her back to the wall. “This isn’t what I meant! Stop! Stop!”

The metal of her manacles groaned, growing weary of her futile attempts. They tugged her back to the wall, pleading in creaking metal to spare herself the torment. She spoke louder to be heard over him, screaming wildly at him with all manner of pleas, all manner of curses.

Between the chains and herself, she couldn’t hear the sound of metal sizzling, of stone cracking.

Nai’s wailing ceased as he came upon her, looking her over with wide, glimmering eyes. She fell still in her chains, as though if she held just still enough, stayed just silent enough, he might move on. Even then, though, she drew in wheezing breaths, sniffling tears through her nostrils with each gasp.

Sheraptus stood there, hands folded behind his back, calmly studying her. Asper held her breath, watching, waiting, praying.

Humble do I pray and humble do I ask—

Slowly, he unfolded his hands, raised them up to frame Nai’s face delicately as she winced.

You who gave up Your body so that we might know—

His fingers splayed out slowly, each joint creaking as they did, like the long legs of great purple spiders, the tips gently settling upon her temples and cheeks.

I know I don’t deserve it, I know I doubted You but—

“Please,” Nai whispered.


Sheraptus smiled gently.


The glimmer in his eyes became a spark.


And he spoke a word.

Nai’s scream was lost in the violent, laughing crackle of electricity. Asper watched, eyes wide, yearning to be blinded by the flashes of electricity that leapt from his fingertips in laughing lashes, sharing some sick joke with Nai’s flesh that only it found funny.

“STOP!” Nai screamed, struggling to hold onto language. “STOP! PLEASE!”

“Don’t beg me,” Sheraptus said gently. “Them. You have to ask them to come.”

Smoke came in gray plumes, mercilessly refusing to hide the grimace of her face painted by flashes of blue, the shedding of her cloth as electric spears rent her garments. Asper could look away, to pray, to do anything.

And without thought, without prayer, without blinking, she began to walk forward.


“There we are,” Sheraptus cooed encouragingly. “Just a little more now.”

The flashes grew stronger, their laughter louder, their macabre jokes increasingly hilarious as they plucked at her skin. Hair smoked, stood on end. Her lips curled back to expose gums. A nipple blackened amidst a mass of twitching flesh.

The chains caught Asper, tried to pull her back. She continued to walk forward, unthinking, unfeeling. The searing of her wrist, she did not notice. The shattering of stone behind her, she did not hear.

“Louder, now, louder,” Sheraptus coaxed. “It can’t be too much longer now.”

What tore out of Nai’s mouth was without words, without emotion. It was the kind of raw, vocal bile offered up when there was nothing left within her. From deep in the darkness beyond the chamber, more voices lent theirs to hers, more screaming joining with hers.

They clashed like cathedral bells at first, each one striving to be heard over the other, before finding an agonized harmony, blending into a single perfect scream.

Asper didn’t even hear the chains break, nor did she hear the sizzle of burning metal as the manacle fell from her left wrist, scorched and blackened. She noticed her palm glowing with hellish red light, the bones black and visible beneath a transparent sheath of skin, only when she raised it up, extended it authoritatively, marched toward the black figure.

And wrapped it about Sheraptus’s skinny neck.

Instantly, the laughter stopped, the screaming stopped, the speaking stopped. The lightning leapt back into Sheraptus’s hands, which calmly lowered themselves to his sides, as though he had simply lost interest.

The only sign that anything was wrong was the sickening crack resounding in the silence as his shoulder popped out of place.

“What . . . what is . . .” he gasped for a moment before there was a faint sucking sound, his windpipe collapsing.

“I don’t know,” Asper said, tightening her grip. “But it was sent here for you.”

Something broke beneath him, a shinbone snapping, realigning awkwardly, and snapping again until his right leg possessed six different joints. He collapsed to his knees, body trembling as though it were about to come undone.

“You . . .” he rasped in great, inward breaths, “you . . . pure . . . destruction.”

Asper said nothing. The hellish red light of the arm intensified, grew fat off the suffering. Sheraptus held up an arm, watched it twist and diminish, as though something sucked the sinew right out of it until there was nothing left but brittle, marrowless bones.

“Only . . . gods . . . Aeon in . . . a human,” he rasped. “Gods . . . help . . .”

Snap. His knee erupted.

“Help . . .”

Snap. His arm folded in on itself.

“Gods . . .”

Creak. His neck began to—


She heard the cry, heard the iron boots crashing on the stone floor. She had been discovered, she knew, even without looking to see the netherling charging up the corridor, sword at the ready. Not yet, she knew; they might kill her, but not before she could kill him.

As the netherling approached, she flew her right hand out errantly, intended to catch a blow meant for her neck, to swat impotently at the netherling, anything to buy just a few more moments to finish what she had started. She expected nothing.

She certainly didn’t expect her fist to find the female’s ribcage.

And she didn’t expect to feel it explode beneath her hand.

The netherling fell backward, wailing and clutching her side. Asper felt her own grip on Sheraptus loosen as her wide-eyed attentions turned toward her right hand. Her wonderfully normal, uselessly normal right hand.

Upon whose palm a faint, white dot of light began to glow, like a great eye opening for the first time.

It stared at her and she stared at it, unblinking. Within it, she could feel her blood flow swiftly, perfectly, in perfect harmony with the beating of her heart. And even as it slowed, she felt the throbbing pain of her left hand diminish, its hellish red glow dim, only for the white pinprick of light to grow wider, the eye broader.

She blinked. It stuttered.

And then winked out completely.

She continued to stare at her palm, once again perfectly normal. She stared right up until she heard the sound of metal boots two steps behind her.

Xhai had come without warcry or concern, letting her fist speak for her. And Asper was sent reeling, succumbing to its argument as she flew across the cavern, struck the wall, slid to the floor.

Xhai was upon her instantly, boot pressed to her throat, digging its sharp heel into the tender flesh of her neck. She gurgled, pounding at her foot with wonderful, useless, normal hands once more. Xhai narrowed her eyes, pressed a little harder.


Sheraptus’s voice was barely a voice at all. More a suppurating gasp. His hand swept with no authority, but merely flailed.

“Not kill . . . her,” he rasped. “Take away . . . sent for me . . .”

Xhai frowned, looking from him to her.


He didn’t specify, Xhai didn’t ask. She reached down, seized Asper by her hair, and began to drag her away. The priestess didn’t care, her eyes fell to the girl hanging from the wall, whose blackened flesh still smoked, whose body still twitched.

Who still drew breath and whispered.

And through the pain and the confusion, Asper smiled as she was hauled into the darkness.

She was far away when Sheraptus made another noise, far too far to hear him chuckle to himself. Far too far to see him stare up, past the cavern roof, past the sky above, into heaven.

“Great suffering . . . still alive . . .” A contented smile came over his face. “You do listen.”




It began with one cry, an iron voice torn from a throat, somewhere amidst the bustle and bloodshed on the beach. And at one cry, one by one, they looked up.

The shaven-headed metalshapers wiped the sweat from their brows as they looked up from the white-hot iron in their forgepits. The slave drivers held their whips at bay, giving their scaly, reptilian drudges but a moment to lower their loads and bleed quietly as their taskmistresses looked up. The females hauling yet another broken corpse to the sikkhun pits stopped, looked up, smiled broadly.

And one by one, the cry was taken up.




They leapt from throat to throat, roaring over one another, accompanied by weapons thrust into the air, purple muscles flexing, howls of bloodlust. Even as the cries died down, the fervor did not. It filled the nostrils of the netherlings, drove their activities to frenzy.

The call had gone up. Bloodshed was close.

Hammers rang out nearly continuously as the shapers strained to finish just one more sword that they may start just one more sword. Whips cracked harder, forcing slaves to run instead of trudge as they hauled more and more loads. Bodies not quite dead—the weak, the starving, the ones that took just too long a break—were added to the corpses flung into the sikkhun pits to stoke the appetites of the beasts and drive their hunger-crazed, warbling laughter to ravenous cacophony.

The netherling war machine was a sight to behold, Yldus thought.

As it had been the first time he saw it. And the second time. After the forty-fifth, he surprised himself by realizing that one could grow tired of the sight of a bunch of females working themselves into a furious frenzy of snarling, spitting, and headbutting.

“Funny,” he muttered to himself.

“Which part?” his companion growled behind him. “The fact that the invasion of Jaga is leaving without me? Or the fact that it’s leaving without me because of you?”

He felt Qaine’s eyes bore into the back of his skull, neither he nor she quite certain what was keeping her from planting something sharper than a scowl there instead.

Still, he couldn’t help but smile as he turned to her. There was an honesty to her that he appreciated. Possibly because Qaine’s particular brand of honesty allowed her to speak openly at least twice as long as any other female before resorting to grunts and bodily functions to make her point.

“Consider it a favor,” Yldus replied. “This invasion is doomed.”

“All the netherlings we have, being sent to an island populated by more of Those Green Things,” she snorted. “There will be blood. There will be death. And I should be responsible for at least most of it.”

“You killed plenty just a few days ago.”


“And we lost no one. Jaga is different. We’ve lost more than fifty warriors trying just to find the damn place.” He cast a glower toward the cavern at the rear of the beach that served as their base. “And Sheraptus wants to send out three hundred, nearly all our sikkhuns, and all three males to try and find it again. I’d be insane to recommend taking one of the few Carnassials we have left when we’re liable to lose at least half of them.”

“That’s not why you want me to stay.”

He looked her over. She stood two paces away and a full head taller. Powerful arms were folded across a more powerful chest, a frowned scarred upon her long face, white hair cropped cruelly short refusing to flutter in the wind. He smiled gently at her. She snorted, spat, scowled.

An adequate summary of their relationship.

“Xhai is going,” he said. “Xhai is violently unstable.”

“And I’m not?” she sounded offended.

“You can grasp the concept of self-control. She can grasp the concept of killing anyone whom Sheraptus so much as looks at. Maybe Those Green Things wouldn’t hurt you, but Xhai would, and she will if you go.”

Qaine clearly wanted to protest, if the flare of her nostrils and narrow of her eyes were any indication. It was a sign of weakness for a female to admit being incapable of destroying anything short of a mountain, and even then, it would have to be a big one.

But Semnein Xhai was notably more insane than a mountain and had only been getting worse since she had returned from her brief captivity at the humans’ hands. And neither Yldus nor Qaine thought she would be any more reasonable after whatever ruckus had just happened in the cavern a few moments ago; Sheraptus had forbade anyone from entering to find out.

“Fine,” she grunted.

“It’ll be a disaster, regardless,” Yldus replied, staring down at the bustle on the beach and Vashnear standing at the center of it.

His erstwhile brother stood between the ships bobbing at sea, the red jewel about his neck glowing brighter and bloodier than the crimson robes he wore. His nethra sent him hovering a foot off the ground, only barely meeting the gazes of the females he presumed to command with sweeping gestures as he directed them and the cargo their scaly slaves carried aboard the boats.

“After all, Vashnear is involved.”

“Him?” Qaine scoffed. “He trembles at puddles of piss. Will he at least grow a spine for the invasion?”

Yldus frowned as a slave broke under a particularly fearsome crack of the whip. With a throaty scream, it collapsed, a globule of blood flying from its lacerated back to splatter upon the ground.

It was bad enough that Vashnear hurled himself a good ten feet away from the bodily excretion, even without the cringing shriek that accompanied it.

“Unlikely.” Yldus sighed, rubbing his eyes. “A male terrified of contracting a disease from the overscum is just one problem. Consider that our forces are diminished and that Sheraptus refuses to wait for more from the portal, the fact that an unstable lunatic will be leading them and . . .”

“And a male so spineless that he denies the force a much-needed Carnassial just to keep her from getting hurt?”

“Just so. Anything could be turned against us, especially Sheraptus. It was bad enough when he bedded the overscum females, but now he’s talking to them . . . when he isn’t talking to crabs. And he’s supposed to be leading us.”

“That’s why you’re not staying here,” Qaine replied, as soft as a seven-foot-tall female could. “His is the right to lead. Yours is to plan.”

“Indeed. My staggering intellect continues to burden as well as amaze.” He sighed. “We have the First, if nothing else. They can carry the rest.”

“Already, you’re sounding more stupid than weak,” she said, chuckling. “Glad we had this talk.”

“Keep talking like that and I won’t bring you back anything from Jaga.”

She grunted, pulling out a small gray fragment of stone attached to a thin black chain from beneath her breastplate.

“You already gave me this, which you were stupid to do.” She snorted, thrusting it at him. “Everything you could have taken from Port Yonder and you chose a pebble.”

“And I gave it to you.”


He rolled his shoulders. “It’s the only thing I’ve ever owned. Everything else belongs to Sheraptus. It’s mine to give away.”

“For stupid reasons.”

“Then give it back.”

She pulled it away defensively, glowering at him. He half-sneered, half-smiled.

“That’s what I thought.”

“Shut up,” she grunted, stalking down the dune. “I’ve got to go ready my sikkhun. If I’m going to stay behind with the high-fingered weaklings, I’ll at least ride taller than them.”

They descended the sandy slope, picking their way through the rocky outcroppings jutting from the dunes. Amidst them all, Yldus paused, drawing Qaine’s attention as he slowly surveyed the pillars.

“What?” she asked.

“It just occurred to me,” he said, beginning to walk again, “do you ever feel like it’s a little stupid to talk about our strategies and weaknesses so openly like this?”

“I think talking is stupid.”

Denaos peered around the stone outcropping. Risky, he knew; it was hard to hear anything over the sudden ferverous roar that rose up from the beach below, let alone the footsteps of two netherlings. But he caught only a glimpse of their purple backs as they disappeared into the activity below.

He turned, glanced to his companion expectantly.

“Did you get any of that?” he asked.

“No,” Dreadaeleon replied. “How would I? I don’t speak netherling.”

The rogue took a cautious step out into the open. “It might have been something important.”

“When have they ever said anything important?” Dreadaeleon asked, taking a less than cautious stumble after him. “I feel I should remind you that we’re not here to pick up the finer points of their conversation, either.”

“You don’t have to remind me,” Denaos muttered, stalking up the dune to a higher vantage point. “In fact, if you wanted to stop talking altogether, I wouldn’t object.”

“I’m just saying, since it’s your fault and all.”

“My fault?”

The boy rolled his shoulders helplessly, unable to deny simple fact. “You took the longface prisoner rather than just killing her, she took Asper prisoner, which brought us here.”

“I thought she’d have valuable information about the tome.”

“I refer you to my earlier point about netherlings and the relative value of their conversation. From what I was able to discern, the primary thrust of your interrogation was whether or not she could answer any question with a bodily function.”

“Yeah? Well, now we know she can.” The rogue snorted. “Regardless of whose fault it is, here we are.”

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