The Skybound Sea

Page 25

But his life had always been full of surprises. And he could do something about only one of them at that moment.

His sword was in his hand, raised as a feeble counter against the threat of the many weapons raised against him. Sturdy and red with Shen blood as it might have been, crude and jagged their weapons might have been, there as little argument his single blade could muster against their two dozen jagged, cruel-edged reasons as to why he should die.

If they were savoring that fact, they had taken an awfully long time to do so.

If they were waiting to see what he would do, they had to know by now.

And so, he had to ask.

“What the hell are you waiting for?” he snarled.

Beyond a collective flash of their yellow eyes, they didn’t reply. He had no idea if they even understood him. All the same, as a throaty, hissing murmur swept through them, as the crowd of tattooed scales rippled and parted, the Shen answered him.

One of them, anyway.

Their weapons lowered, just as their eyes went up to look at the newly-arrived lizardman. Towering over its brethren by a head wrapped in a headdress made of the skull of some fierce-looking beast and shoulders thick with muscle, the tremendous reptile stalked forward, unhurried.

A tail as long and thick as a constrictor snake dragged behind it. A club, big enough that it would take three hands of a human to lift and studded with jagged teeth of an animal long dead, hung easily from a clawed hand that led to a loglike arm that attached to a broad, powerful body thick with banded tattoos.

All red as blood.

One pace away from Lenk, the lizardman came to a halt. Its eyes melted like amber around two knife-thin and coal-black pupils, peering out from two black pits of its animal-skull headdress. It glanced at the tip of his sword, barely grazing its massive green-and-red barrel of a chest, only barely concerned with being a twitch away from impalement.

Lenk supposed that he might also be unconcerned were he a giant reptile wearing a jagged-toothed skull like it were his own and carrying a club as big as the tiny, gray-haired insect of a man the Shen faced.

“That’s not going to work,” he, for he certainly sounded like a man, said.

“I was, uh,” Lenk spoke through a cough, “hoping that you’d admire me for trying.” His blade quivered slightly as the tremendous Shen stared at him. “You know, be impressed with my valiance or something.”

The tremendous Shen tilted his skull-bound head to the side. “And then?”

“I don’t know. You’d all make me your king or something.” Lenk raised a brow. “Do you have kings?”

The Shen shook his head, sent bones rattling. “Warwatchers.”

“Fancy. You’re not going to be making me one, then?”



“You sound surprised.”

“Well, your green friends haven’t attacked me yet, so . . .”

“They were waiting for Shalake.”


The Shen tapped two fingers to his chest. Lenk sneered.

“Warwatchers get to talk about themselves in the third person?”

“I give you my name and your life, for the moment,” Shalake said. “Because I want to know how you got into Jaga. We have the reef. We have the walls. We have the Akaneeds. No one gets past all three.”

“If that were true, there wouldn’t be a whole mess of you waiting for me once I did get past them all.”

“And how did you get past them?”

The young man smiled feebly. “Luck?”

“Just luck,” the Shen growled.

Lenk glanced up over his shoulder, toward an empty patch of stone atop the statue where someone had once stood. Where someone had turned away and fled from him. Again. He swallowed something back as his gaze returned to the Shen.

“Just luck,” he said.

Shalake nodded with a slow, sage-like patience. His sigh was long, sent plumes of dust rising from the desiccated snout of his skull headdress. He hefted his tooth-studded club lazily.

“I see.”

And then he swung.

Shalake growled. He cried out. Shen hissed in approval. All sounds were lost to Lenk’s ears in a fit of panic as he flung himself to the ground. They returned in the sound of stone crunching, splintering, clattering upon his back and rolling to the highway. He looked up long enough to see Shalake pull his weapon free, a great gash left in the statue’s arm.

And then all thoughts were for the sword in his hand. He took the blade in a tight grip, tensed, and thrust upward. A morbid grin creased his face as he felt the steel eat deeply of flesh until it halted, gorged. That lasted just long enough to look up and see the sword’s tip hovering a finger’s length away from the Shen’s kidneys, a clawed green hand wrapped about the naked blade.

The weapon was ripped from him as the Shen’s foot lashed out and smashed against his chest. He slammed against the statue, all thought for his missing weapon going toward desperately trying to find missing breath.

Shalake seemed in no such hurry. Ignoring the blood weeping from his fingers, he tossed the blade aside as he hefted his club with all the urgency that smashing a roach warranted.

Robbed of breath and blade, Lenk was certainly not above scurrying away not unlike a roach. Though once he scrambled to his feet, he became aware of just why the Shen could afford to be so casual. The other lizardmen stood at the ready, weapons clenched and eyes fixated upon him; whether out of espect or morbid curiosity, their reluctance to join the battle clearly only extended as far as the half-circle they had formed.

He could see it in their eyes.

Which were slowly arching up, as though looking at something—

Oh, right.

The sweeping arc would have taken off his head if he hadn’t thrown himself to the side. That was small solace for the heavy, clawed foot that lashed out and drove a hard kick against his back, sending him rolling across the stone.

Small and fleeting, he realized as he crawled to his feet, trying to ignore the sound of his bones popping. He couldn’t take another hit like that. He couldn’t keep dodging. He couldn’t escape.

That left two options. One would be waiting for help. He looked up to the empty air above the stone statue.

“Foolish,” the voice said.

Agreed, he thought in reply.

That left the other option.

He stared at Shalake as the Shen hefted his club and narrowed his eyes to slits behind his skull headdress. Lenk drew in a deep breath.

And charged.

The patience was gone from the Shen’s eyes, as the laziness was gone from his swing. It sucked the very air from the sky; Lenk could feel the wind from the blow itself as he ducked low, ran beneath it, past the Shen.

The tail found him before he could find it, lashing out to strike him firmly against the chest. He embraced the pain as he embraced the tail itself, wrapping both arms around it. While Lenk wasn’t quite certain as to the specific implications of grabbing a lizardman’s tail, he was able to guess as soon as Shalake cast a scowl over his shoulder and roared.


He swung wildly in his attempt to dislodge the man’s grip. But his tail followed him with each movement and Lenk followed the tail, evading each wild lash of claw and club with tenacious grip and desperate prayer.

After a few snarling moments, Shalake stopped and Lenk felt the tail tense in his grip as the lizardman heaved, raising the appendage up with the intent of smashing it and its silver-haired parasite upon the ground. Lenk seized the opportunity and the lizardman’s loincloth at once, pulling himself up onto the creature’s back.

As one might expect of any reasonable reptilian horror, Shalake’s protests were loud, roaring, and interspersed with several clawing fits as he tried to reach for the man lodged squarely in the center of a back too broad for his arms to reach. With cries of alarm, several Shen rushed forward to help to be knocked aside by wild sweeps of tail and club.

While it hadn’t seemed like a particularly expert idea in the first place, stuck in the middle of the reptile’s massive back seemed an especially poor position to be in. Particularly once Shalake calmed enough to formulate a plan. The lizardman turned, lined his back up with the stone monolith and, with a snarl and snap of legs, backpedaled furiously toward it.

They struck with a shudder of rock, narrowly knocking Lenk from his precarious perch as he pulled himself up to the lizardman’s shoulders. The folly of that, too, became all too clear at the sight of Shen bows drawn and aimed for the target that had so generously made itself clear of their leader.

Arrows shrieked. An arm wrapped about his neck and pulled back hard. His head struck stone. Shalake tore himself free. In the blur of motion, the only thing that Lenk could even be vaguely sure of was that he wasn’t dead.

Even that was uncertain; he hadn’t expected to see those green eyes staring down at him again anywhere outside of hell.

“Kataria,” he whispered.

“Stay down,” she snarled at him, drawing an arrow back.

“You . . .” he said, trying to claw his way up, “you left me . . . again.”

“I came back.” She trained the bow upon the Shen. “And I said stay down.” Absently, she pressed her foot upon his chest, pinning him to the top of the statue. “Don’t make yourself any easier to shoot than you already did.”

He craned his neck up and saw her fire wildly down. The arrow found the thick flesh of Shalake’s shoulder, another found his calf, forcing him to the ground. The third remained drawn in her bow, a thin bargaining chip aimed at Shalake’s neck, reminding them what should happen to their precious warwatcher if their arrows left their bows.

And there she stood, facing down two dozen Shen and six arrows drawn upon her, with him under her boot, refusing to move, refusing to leave.

He looked at her, then to the Shen. Their fingers twitched, getting impatient around the fletchings of their arrows. She’s going to die.

“Good,” the voice whispered.

No, I mean, she came back to die. She came back for me and she’s about to die because of me . . .

“There is still no discussion here. Stay down and let her die, then we escape and . . . what are you doing?”

“What are you doing?” Kataria echoed, casting a growl out the side of her mouth. “I said stay down.”

Lenk ignored her, pushing her foot aside, crawling up to join her. He stared down the Shen beside her, as bows were trained upon him, as Shalake cast his amber scowl up at him. He stood beside her, refusing to listen, refusing to leave.

“Fool,” the voice hissed. “Why do we always make such progress and then you go and throw it all away?”

Lenk didn’t have an answer for that. Lenk didn’t have a plan for how to avoid the arrows trained upon him and Kataria. Lenk didn’t have any thought for survival, for betrayal, for anything beyond standing beside her.

Bows creaked. Angry hisses rose from the crowd. Fingers twitched. Yellow-eyed scowls were cast upward. Lenk tensed. Kataria pulled her arrow back farther. Somewhere in the distance, something let out a keening roar growing steadily louder. Lenk drew in a deep breath. Then paused.

Wait, he thought, looking toward the wall, what was that last part?

And then everything went terribly wrong.

With the scream of rock and the roar of sea, the wall exploded. Shield-sized shards of stone went flying on a red-tinged mist as the Akaneed tore through the wall with a great, keening wail that spat blood and froth, carried on a wave that roared alongside it, sliding it through stone, over stone, toward stone.

The impact shook the highway, sent Lenk and Kataria tumbling off the monolith, sent the Shen collapsing to the ground, sent all eyes to the great sea serpent sliding toward them. Mere paces away from the assembled pink and green skins, it came to a slow, sliding halt upon its side, the wave that had carried it onto the road slithering away and settling back, leaving its macabre delivery before them.

Understandably, all previous hostilities were forgotten as all eyes settled upon the vision of ruin before them. The Akaneed was no less majestic in death, but the awe it commanded now was one of red and black, of a skull smashed to bits so thoroughly that shards of bone jutted from the crown of its head, of teeth smashed through its lips, of two eyes dug out with wounds old and new, and of a pool of blood growing with the multitude of crimson streams pouring out of its gaping maw.

Its jaws that now twitched and moved as though they still had some life that had not yet leaked out onto the road.

Two red hands reached out, pushed back the upper jaw and then the lower jaw, as though opening a gate. Gariath crawled out of the beast’s gullet, tumbling out and onto the blood-pooled ground. With a sniff, he rose to his feet, flicking his hands clean of gore even as the rest of him glistened with a cocktail coating of thick, viscous fluids.

He emerged from between the curtains of shattered teeth, gently splashing in the pool of blood beneath him as he did. He paused six paces away, suddenly aware of the crowd, stunned into silence, eyes upon him. He stared back, his black eyes expressionless. Then, he glanced over his shoulder at the dead serpent, then back to the crowd, and grunted.


“Rhega . . .”

The word echoed among the Shen, from mouth to mouth, as the lizardmen rose to their feet, their yellow eyes wide and locked upon the dragonman.

“Rhega . . .”

And from foot to foot, the movement followed. They began to back away, slinking into the coral forest beyond the shattered inner wall. Their bodies twisted and contorted, slipping easily into the brightly-colored, fossilized foliage.

“Rhega . . .”

It continued to whisper, long after they had gone. It continued to echo, long after Shalake had followed them and paused, looking over his shoulder with an expression hidden behind his headdress. It continued, long after they had left them: the man, the shict, the dragonman, and the giant, dead Akaneed.

Lenk didn’t even bother for it to finish before he turned on Gariath with a furrowed brow.

“What the hell was that all about?” he demanded.

Gariath blinked, looked back to the Akaneed, then to Lenk. “What, is that a joke?”

“They looked at you like you were like . . . like . . .”

“Yeah,” the dragonman grunted. “Because I am.”

“And they just tried to kill us,” Lenk snarled. “And you . . . and they . . .” He reached down, plucked up his fallen, blood-slick sword. “I should . . .”

Gariath folded his arms over his chest, every patch of his flesh dripping with the life of the beast he had just crawled out of. “You shouldn’t.”

“Look, can we do this somewhere that doesn’t reek as much?” Kataria asked with a sigh. “The Shen are gone, but the smell of this thing is still here. I’d just as soon be far away from both, if that’s all right.”

“And you!” Lenk snapped, whirling upon her. “You . . . left me.”

Her expression went blank. Her voice went soft. “I did.”

He found himself stricken into a dumb silence at that, followed by an equally dumb question. “Why?”

“Because I wanted to come back to you.”

“That . . . doesn’t . . .”

For but a moment, he saw it. Without frown, without a crack in her voice, it happened. Her eyes glistened. With tears that might have been mythical, they were gone so quickly.

“I know,” she said, shouldering her bow. “There’s a break in the forest up ahead. We can get through there and plan our next move.”

She stalked off. Without so much as a question, Gariath began to follow her. Lenk fell in line beside him, casting a sidelong glower.

“I still don’t like it,” he said.

“Okay,” Gariath grunted.

“I don’t like how they look at you.”

“All right.”

“And if it turns out you look at them the same way, you know what I’ll do.”

“Uh huh.”

Lenk nodded grimly as he sheathed his sword on his back. He would have said nothing else if not for the involuntary curl of his nostril. He eyed the viscous coating of fluids upon Gariath’s flesh.

“So, uh,” he said, “do you need to . . . wash? Or something?”

“No,” Gariath replied without stopping. “It was a gift.”




He set foot upon the sand and took not a step farther.

The clouds slid across the sky in a slow-moving tide, drowning the sun. What little light made it through served only to paint the earth with shadows that waxed and waned. The world continued to move, oblivious to his eyes upon it.

And yet . . .

“I know you’re there,” Lenk muttered.

And the world muttered back.

As though his words had lit a candle inside his head, they came back. Fluttering like little moths on whispering wings, he felt their voices in feathery brushes against his ear.

“Traitors,” they growled. “Traitors everywhere.”

“Plotted against us,” they hissed. “Jealous. Envious.”

“Didn’t want this,” they whimpered. “Never asked for this.”

“Seen them. Everywhere. Coming.”

“Want death? Give them death. All of them.”

“Blood. So much . . . blood . . .”

The more he listened, the clearer they became. The clearer they became, the more he listened.

And as he did, he found his eyes drawn up to the ridge, to the naked and pale skin of a slender back that was turned to him. To long, twitching ears that couldn’t hear the voices.

The voices that grew louder when he stared at her.

“Traitors. Closing in. Kill them all.”

“They hate us. Fear us. Good reasons. Make them suffer.”

“Why do they make us hurt them? Never wanted to kill anyone. No choice.”

He waited for them to say more. He waited for them to speak just an octave higher, to speak just a little clearer, to tell him what to do to make them go away. To make this terrible pain that grew in his chest whenever he looked at her go away.

As he looked at her now. As she didn’t look at him.

And they said nothing. The light extinguished, the moths flew away on their whispers. He held his breath for fear of missing a precious word over the sound of his own exhale. Air and patience ran out as one.

“Well?” he asked.

And, in a voice that whispered into his ear with a humid breath, the wind answered.

“It won’t stop, Lenk.” It spoke, in a voice uncomfortably familiar, uncomfortably close. “Not with blood.”

He blinked.

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