The Skybound Sea

Page 23

He knelt down low upon the dune’s ridge, keeping most of his body hidden behind the sand. For all of ten breaths, anyway. It quickly became insultingly clear that not a single longface was going to bother looking up.

Not that they were particularly renowned for their curiosity, but the frenzy with which they worked, their focus hammered like rivets onto the metals they forged and the slaves they whipped, was unnerving.

Not that they weren’t before.

And yet, it didn’t become completely clear until he noticed them gathering. In knots of purple flesh and polished iron armor, they clustered upon the beach. Thirty-three to a group each time, sharpening thirty-three swords, stringing thirty-three bows, coating thirty-three wedges of steel with thirty-three vials of sickly green poison.

And they continued to gather across the beach, sands stained with blood, blackened by fire.

In thirty-three groups.

“Silf’s Sweet Daughters,” he muttered. “They’re mobilizing.”

“For what?” Dreadaeleon asked, creeping up beside him. “They need that many to go destroy Teji?”

“To destroy Teji, they’d need a strong bowel movement and a stiff breeze. They wouldn’t bring this many.”

“Then . . . what? Are they attacking the mainland?”

Denaos shook his head. “I don’t see any food in whatever they’re loading aboard the ships.”

“Do they . . . need food?”

“Of course they need food.” Denaos paused, furrowing his brow. He looked over his shoulder at the boy. “Right? They have mouths.”

“Those are used for screaming. I’ve never seen them eat.”

“Me neither. Huh.” He looked back over the dune, shrugging. “Okay, if we return to the mainland and it’s been completely decimated, we’ll consider the matter settled. For now, I’d say they’re about to attack a much closer target.”

“Jaga,” Dreadaeleon muttered. “Lenk, Kataria, Gariath . . .”

“Let’s focus on one companion in peril at a time here.”

Denaos swept his gaze over the beachhead, the words slipping out through his frown. He settled on the massive spike-ringed pit in the middle, on the two netherlings hauling a twitching Gonwa to the edge and tossing it in. The spikes shook, the gruesome laughter echoing off the metal as something within stirred.

“If she’s not already—”

“She isn’t.”

The boy’s face was steeled with determination, he knew without even looking. His lips would be turned downward in a perfectly curved frown, his eyes would be acting under the impression that the more squinted they were, the more intense he looked, and he would be trying desperately to convince himself and the world that he had a jaw.

Exactly the sort of look he probably thought he should have had in this kind of situation.

If you were an honest man, Denaos told himself, you’d tell him. You’d tell him you weren’t about to suggest that she was dead. You’d tell him that you know what Sheraptus did to her, what he’s probably doing to her now. You’d tell him he should look far, far worse than whatever it is he thinks he’s supposed to look like.

But Denaos was not an honest man. Not to his companions, not to his gods, and never, ever to himself.

“Yeah,” he said, “you’re probably right.”

Trying to ignore the feeling of self-loathing that came with saying that, he returned to surveying the beachhead. The two males stood out amidst the crowd with the bright crimson glow of the gemstones around their necks as they floated about, dictating to the clusters of females, sending them rushing eagerly toward the black ships moored in the surf, trampling the Gonwa slaves who continued to haul loads.

He wondered if, at some point, she might be among those loads, bound and bundled into the ship to be taken to whatever invasion they were planning. What then? Swoop in, die horribly, be dragged to the pits along with the other Gonwa bodies to be—

Let’s stop that train of thought right there, shall we? If you keep thinking of the pits filled with corpses and how she might be in there and how you’ll probably wind up in there and how whatever’s in there now is laughing and crunching and laughing and laughing and . . .

A cry went up from the crowd. A team of six netherlings came charging forward, a crudely-fastened ramp held between them. Denaos watched, unable to turn away, as they lowered it into the pit.

He dearly wished he could, though, long before the ramp began to tremble with the weight of something heavy climbing up it.

With a sudden howl, the creature tore itself free from the pit, scattering sand and netherlings alike as it tore the land apart to make room for its size. On thick claws, it paced in hurried circles, a great, square head sweeping back and forth across the beachhead. Muscles flexed beneath a pelt of rust-red fur, a bushy tail swishing as it loped around, netherlings scrambling to get out of its way.

It was searching for something, that much was clear to Denaos. Why it was having trouble finding it became clear the moment it turned its head toward his hiding place.

In the place of eyes were two indentations in the skull covered with thick, black fur. It couldn’t have seen him, Denaos told himself over thoughts that largely consisted of “oh gods” over and over. It couldn’t have seen him. It was blind.

That didn’t make it any less unnerving when the thing’s black, rubbery lips peeled back to reveal long, glistening rows of teeth in what was very clearly a smile in a very deliberate attempt to make him take off running, propelled by a jet of his own cowardice.

That option grew increasingly more appealing as six ears, three to each side of its head, split apart in a pair of pointed, wedge-shaped fans. The beast whirled about, canting its head to the side as its ears twitched, trembled, found something.

With a sound that was like a very sick hound laughing at a very sick joke, the thing took off at a gallop. It sent a pair of netherlings leaping out of the way before its tremendous shoulders bunched and uncoiled, sending it leaping through the air to land upon a nearby Gonwa slave that it dragged, screaming, from the line.

The feeding was gruesomely brief: a noisome tumult of flesh ripping, meat slurping, bones cracking between tremendous jaws. All punctuated with peals of gibbering laughter.

Denaos watched the grisly scene for as long as it took him to blink. He then rose up, turned around, walked away from the dune’s ridge, and looked to Dreadaeleon, who raised a brow at him expectantly.

“So,” the rogue said, “how set are you on saving Asper?”


“Hongwe’s just down at the beach with the boat, you know. We could be back at Teji by nightfall and have a few more hours to reflect on how lucky we are not to have our genitals eaten by giant, six-eared, eyeless horrors.”

“What happened?” Dreadaeleon asked. “What’s down there?”

“Well, damn. There are only so many ways I can say it, Dread.” He gestured over his shoulder. “Go take a look for yourself. They’re fairly preoccupied down there.” He cringed as a peal of wailing laughter rose up over the ridge.

“That might prove an opportune moment,” Dreadaeleon said, tapping his chin. “Barring distractions, I could probably do a fair job of scrying out Asper’s location.”

Denaos furrowed his brow, looking a tad offended. “You could do that the entire time? You could have just used some manner of magical weirdness to find her and spared me the sight of whatever it is I just saw?”

“The act of seeing where one is not meant to see is a bit more than magical weirdness,” Dreadaeleon replied sharply. “It requires a clear vantage, a delicate position and—”

“And what? The seed of a blasphemer? Because I’ll get to work on that and be done in six breaths if that’ll make this go any faster.” He whirled about, gesturing wildly over the ridge. “Hell, why are we even here? Why don’t you go down spitting out lightning and flying around like an underweight sparrow made of death like you did on Teji?”


“Even better, why don’t you just drop your trousers right now and work up a good, flaming piss that sets them all ablaze like you did a few days ago? Why are we here, skulking about like rodents?”

“I would have hoped that, in our time together, you’d grasp that magic isn’t so mystical that it can be just summoned up like that. There isn’t an opportune moment to—”

“There is never not an opportune moment to shoot fire out of your prick!” Denaos snapped sharply. “What is it, then? Back on the beach, you were nearly unstoppable. Days ago, you were pissing fire.” He stared intently at the wizard. “What’s going on with you?”

“It’s complicated,” Dreadaeleon sighed, rubbing his eyes. “And I don’t have time to—”

It wasn’t clear what he was trying to say when the boy’s body suddenly jerked, nor when his eyes bulged out, threatening to roll out of their sockets. Nothing was clearer when he snapped at the waist, leaning heavily on his knees as he loosed a torrent of vomit upon the ground to coalesce into a brackish green pool. Things were certainly disgusting, Denaos thought, and disgusting for a solid ten breaths, but whatever was happening to him didn’t become any more obvious.

That didn’t happen until the vomit drew itself together of its own volition, shuddered as if it were taking a deep breath and then, with a slow, leisurely confidence, began to slither off on a carpet of bile.

Denaos turned a slack jaw to Dreadaeleon, who merely wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and sneered.

“I’m dying, Denaos.”

“I see . . .” the rogue replied, his tone suggesting no real willingness to continue with this conversation, yet compelled all the same. “Of . . . what?”

“The Decay,” Dreadaeleon replied. “The barriers that separate the magic from my body are collapsing. I’ll slowly lose more control over both and, eventually, my skin will catch fire, my lungs will freeze inside my chest, and my nerves will splinter and erupt out of my skin.”

“Which will be on fire.”

“On fire, yes.”

“Well . . . that’s . . .”

The wizard affixed him with a glare. “That’s what?”

“I guess I just thought it would have a more impressive name?”


“Something like ‘the dragonblood,’ or ‘the frothening,’ or ‘that which explodes without mercy.’”

Dreadaeleon narrowed his eyes sharply. “I am going to explode. My frozen innards will fly out of my body and burst into pink and black snow and children will make snowmen with my kidneys.”

“I know, I know! I’m sorry! I just—”

“You just what? You’re just concerned about me being out here? Thinking I can’t handle it? Thinking that I’m totally powerless because my own body is rebelling against me and soon I’m going to be chopped up for spare parts and turned into a book because I’m far more useful in death than I was in life?”

“Those weren’t going to be my exact words, but . . .”

There was more to that retort, he thought, and it was going to be clever. But he said nothing more the moment he noticed the tears welling up in Dreadaeleon’s eyes, the moment he remembered the wizard was just a boy.

A scared, dying boy whose remaining fluids that had not just come out of his mouth were now dripping from his eyes in thin streams.

And he wanted something from Denaos, that much was obvious. A nod maybe, possibly a big hug and a weeping reassurance that everything was going to be fine and that they were going to rescue Asper themselves and Dreadaeleon was going to be proven a proud and powerful wizard over whom she would swoon after she told Denaos that everything he had ever done would be forgiven and he would go to heaven and he’d stop seeing the woman with the slit throat every time he stopped drinking.

But he couldn’t tell Dreadaeleon that.

Lying was a sin. An awfully convenient sin, given the circumstance, but Denaos couldn’t afford any more.

And what the wizard got was something different.

“I’ll go gather your vomit,” Denaos said with the kind of hesitation that suggested he had hoped he’d never have to say that.

What was that? Dreadaeleon asked himself as he watched the rogue stalk away. What was that look? What was that? Pity? He pities me? A lowlife, scum-sucking, barkneck like him pities me? He sneered, felt a salty tear drip into his mouth. Probably because you’re crying like a . . . like a woman or something. No, not a woman. She wouldn’t want you to say that. It’s demeaning. Stop that. Stop all of it.

He couldn’t.

Weak. You disgust me. You’ll disgust her. And when they hack you up, your pieces will disgust everyone else. You’ll be the only wizard useless in life and in death. Look at you, unable to do anything but sit here and weep. How are you supposed to be the hero? How are they supposed to respect you? How are you supposed to save her?

“You are not, lorekeeper.”

As odd as it felt to say, he knew Greenhair was standing behind him even before she spoke in her lilting tone. There was always something that preceded her arrivals: a feeling at the back of his head like cricket legs rubbing together, a sudden calm that washed over him, and the fact that she only ever seemed to show up when he felt a particular kinship with things that came out of livestock rectums.

As such, he didn’t turn around to look at her. He didn’t even speak to her, didn’t acknowledge her existence at all.

“You have exactly until I blink to leave before I roast you alive,” he muttered.

Or tried to, anyway.

“I do not wish you any distress,” she said, her voice a river flowing into his ears to pool beneath his brain. “But I do not think you are in any condition to be making threats.”

He half-smiled, half-sneered as he turned to face the siren. His attentions were instantly drawn to her head, framed by feathery gills wafting from her neck, a fin rising from a crop of hair the color of the sea, a pair of blank, liquid eyes staring intently at him. All the color and oddity framed a face that was expressionless. A serene, monochrome portrait: perfectly and terrifyingly empty.

“I’m always willing to make the effort,” he said, “especially when it comes to deranged sea tramps that have attempted to sell me to the very purple-skinned longfaces I’m surrounded by right now.”

Her mouth trembled into a frown. “I have never claimed to be incapable of regret, lorekeeper, nor mistake or misplaced ambition.”

“And which one do I owe this visit to?” He glanced over his shoulder at the sound of a distant warcry. “Because if you’re looking for another regret, just raise your voice a little.”

“I have no desire to draw the attentions of the longfaces,” she replied, averting her gaze guiltily. “I have . . . reconsidered my alliance with them.”

“Understandable, what with their constant desire to kill things.”

“It was their unique talents that drove me to seek them out,” Greenhair said, a tone of accusation creeping into her voice. “The tome is too much to trust to mortals, the chance that the demons might seize it too great. I could not take that risk, for the sake of my waters and beyond.”

“QAI ZHOTH!” a longface’s roar rose over the ridge.

“If you want to ask them something, I’d do it now,” Dreadaeleon replied, lowering his voice. “Before things get weird.”

“I was . . . mistaken. My faith in them was driven by their talent for slaughtering the demons. I did not suspect that their prowess might come from serving someone far darker.”

“Darker?” Dreadaeleon asked, sarcasm replaced by curiosity. “What do you mean?”

“I . . . was at Irontide when the morning rose, seeking Sheraptus. I had hoped to reason with him, to convince him to direct his attentions toward Jaga. I overheard dealings between him and . . . something. Something old.”

“The bad kind of old, I take it.”

“He spoke the first words to the Aeons. He was the one that spoke on their behalf, taking their words from the servants of the Gods just as they took their masters’ words. Azhu-Mahl, he was called in the darkest days. He, who was closer to heaven than any mortal, is alive and allied with the longfaces.”

“They do tend to attract some odd friends, don’t they?”

“LISTEN TO ME.” The porcelain of her face cracked, the liquid of her voice boiled in a bare-toothed snarl. “I can make no apology that would sate you, only tell you that I was wrong, in all things, and whatever sins I have wrought against you are nothing compared to that which is about to happen. Their allies, the old gray one, he is providing them with things that should not be.”

“The stones,” Dreadaeleon whispered, the realization dawning upon him instantly. “The red stones they carry. They negate the laws of magic . . .”

“And their venoms that eat through demon flesh,” Greenhair said. “They have more, worse, all of which can do much, much worse and all of which require the longfaces destroying Ulbecetonth.”

“How? Why?”

“I do not know yet.”


“I know only that, to stop them and the demons both, someone is required. Someone brave, someone powerful.”

“We have neither of those,” Dreadaeleon said. “My greatest feat is vomit that walks, the bravest among us is off chasing it, and both of us are a little preoccupied with something right now.” He turned away, looking back to the ridgeline. “Now, if you’ll just . . .”

Before he felt the chill of her fingers, her hands were upon his shoulders, resting comfortably as though they had always been there. And by the time he was aware of them, he couldn’t help but feel that they belonged there. They didn’t, of course; she was a siren, treacherous by nature, treacherous by practice. This was a trick, obviously.

A trick that felt cool upon his skin, coaxing out the fever that had engulfed his body for the past days. A trick that came out of her lips on a lilting, lingering song, flooding into his head to douse a mind ablaze with fear, with doubt.

“I will not, lorekeeper,” she spoke, words sliding into song, song sliding into thought. His thoughts. “I cannot, for I cannot do this without you.”

He felt it again, the itch at the back of his skull.

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