The Skybound Sea


Page 26



“What is that supposed to mean?”

“What,” another voice, the only one he recognized, the one with ice and hatred said, “is what supposed to mean?”

As one of the few moments of pride for a man who could describe schizophrenia as routine, Lenk had always consoled himself by saying he had never truly felt the desire to bash his own head on a rock and try to find out exactly what it was in his skull that made him think it was at all logical to hope the disembodied voices would make sense.

But he supposed everyone had bad days.

His had gotten worse once he heard that voice. That voice that had spoken to him, rather than just having spoken. That voice that spoke to him like it knew him, rather than like it could command him.

He hadn’t heard it in his head or his heart. It spoke to him like he wasn’t insane. In a voice so comfortable, so familiar, so warm that it hurt that he couldn’t hear it anymore.

And that made him want to lie down and die quietly.

But, it wasn’t the first time he had felt that way. It wasn’t the first time he had tried to ignore it, either, as he shouldered his sword and trudged up the ridge to join her.

He found Kataria where he had left her, staring out over the ridge, slowly making up curses after she had long run out of real ones.

“Bloody, reeking, skunk-slathered balls,” she spat into the air off the ridge. “Maybe the best thing to do would be to squeeze through and come out on the other side as a pile of blood and guts.”

He didn’t have to ask. The small break in the forest of coral and kelp they had found had lasted as long as it took to find the small clearing. Past that, things got more complicated.

Before them, a jagged garden grew. Red thorns twisted over themselves in their eagerness to reach the companions. Jagged yellow fans twisted out of one another, rising like razor-edged suns. Pale-blue spears jutted out in clusters like the petals of flowers grown large on blood.

In those few gaps surrounding the clearing where the coral did not grow out with vengeful sharpness, kelp rose in walls of green, swaying impassively, unmoved by Kataria’s frustration as she continued to search for a way out that didn’t involve leaving behind several pounds of flesh and blood.

“It just goes on for miles,” Lenk observed. “Makes you wonder what the point of having the Shen around is.”

“I don’t know,” she spat back, “maybe so they’ll make you stop asking questions.”

“Oh.”

“By shooting you.”

“Right.”

“In the head.”

“Yeah,” he said, “I get it.”

He spoke loudly, clearly, trying to drown out the other voices.

“Want to kill us? US?”

“Make them suffer. Make them die.”

“Gods will understand. Had no choice.”

It wasn’t working.

He opened his mouth to speak a little louder before she held up a hand to silence him, head bowing with the weight of her sigh.

“Sorry,” she said. “That came out wrong.”

“How . . . how else was it supposed to come out?”

“Less . . . shooty.” She waved her hand at him, turned back around. “Look, just don’t talk to me for a while. I need to figure it out.”

“Figure what out?”

“How they got through here in the first place . . .”

She didn’t emphasize the word, didn’t so much as blink as she said it. All the same, his blood ran cold as he looked intently at her and asked.

“Who are ‘they’?”

She wasn’t listening. Not to him, anyway. Her ears did not twitch so much as turn on her head, sweeping slowly from side to side like her eyes. They would stop momentarily, fixed on some direction, and her head would follow. Whatever she heard, she wouldn’t tell him.

Someone else did.

“Going to kill us. Going to try.”

“Fear us. Should fear us. Will fear us.”

“Make them stop . . . make them stop . . .”

He resisted the urge to shake his head as he stalked away from her, noting with only mild relief that they faded the farther away he drew.

“She waits . . .”

Most of them, anyway.

“She will strike soon,” the voice, his voice, spoke in cold clarity. “She bides her time. She would strike you down. He would, as well.”

“Who?”

Absorbed in his own thoughts, he only realized Gariath was standing in front of him once he collided with the dragonman’s massive winged back. The young man staggered backward, snarling at his companion.

“What the hell are you doing there?” he demanded.

“Standing in one place, waiting patiently for someone useless to bump into me so I can hear him say something annoying,” Gariath replied without turning to face Lenk. “Or maybe just resting, having just spent a day lodged in a snake’s throat.”

“Or,” Lenk spat back, “maybe you intentionally got in my way just so you could beat me about the head with what you think is witty.”

Gariath cast the slightest sliver of a disinterested stare over his shoulder. “You’re touchy today, as well as stupid.”

“Why shouldn’t I be?” Lenk said. “I’m surrounded by . . .”

“Betrayers.”

“Murder.”

“Blood. Everywhere.”

“Coral,” he muttered.

“Probably not,” Gariath muttered. He held up a hand with a fresh cut upon it. “I tried breaking it earlier. It’s sharp and hard as teeth. If it is coral, it’s not the kind we know.”

“And we’ve got no way out. That’s what’s bothering me. Kataria’s acting strange, too.”

“So are you,” Gariath grunted. “And you were both strange yesterday. How is it any different today?”

“I’m not strange.”

“You can’t go forty breaths without being strange.”

“You’re not helping things. I’m a little . . .” Lenk hesitated to finish the sentence.

“Hate them.”

“Fear.”

“Never wanted this.”

“Wary is all,” Lenk said. “Everyone’s on edge. It doesn’t help when she’s staring out over the coral and listening to something no one can hear.”

“People who talk to something no one can see don’t get to be that picky,” Gariath replied.

“Some exception can be made for me,” Lenk replied, forcing his voice through his teeth. “Given that my only other company is the giant ugly reptile whom the other giant ugly reptiles treat like a god.”

Gariath shrugged, snorted. “Stupid.”

“Stupid? Did you see the way they looked at you? They would have ripped off their loincloths and castrated themselves right there if you had asked them to.”

Gariath grunted. “Thirty-two breaths. And it’s stupid because the Shen don’t have a god.”

“How do you even know that?” Lenk demanded. “How do you know anything about the Shen beyond the fact that they tried to kill us.”

“Not me.”

“Not yet.”

“Not ever.”

“You can’t know that. You can’t know them. What do you know about them that makes you think they won’t?”

“They are Shen.”

“And what does that mean?”

“Everything.”

“Nothing. It means nothing beyond the fact that they’re savages. Beasts. It’s a matter of time. You can’t even see it. But they’ll kill you. They’ll turn on you. They all will betray you and no one will be around to hear you scream.”

It wasn’t until he saw Gariath standing tense, hands tightened into fists, eyes narrowed sharply upon him, that he realized it hadn’t been his voice that had just spoken.

“They are Shen,” Gariath said. “I am Rhega. I have nothing else.”


“You have us,” Lenk replied.

“I have you.” Contempt strained Gariath’s laughter. “Tiny, stupid weaklings so numerous that they have the privilege to look at each other with suspicion. A tiny, stupid weakling telling me his life is hard because he cannot trust a tiny, stupid weakling because she listens to things other than him.”

He took a step forward, driving Lenk a step back.

“A tiny, stupid, pathetic weakling so obsessed with his own tiny, weak, pathetic problems that he thinks he can tell me I can be happy with nothing and that I cannot trust the only people I’ve seen in years that are even a little like myself.”

He leaned down, eyes hard, teeth harder. And fully bared.

“I have you. I have nothing.”

He turned away.

“Now, turn around and walk away before I run out of reasons not to break you in two.”

Lenk did not look away. Not immediately. “How many do you have?”

“One and a half.”

That did it.

Though he found little relief once he turned away from the dragonman. If anything, the voices grew stronger as he stalked down the ridge, away from Kataria and Gariath and into a small copse of thick, swaying kelp.

“Paranoid. Fearful. Felt the same way.”

“No one. Trust no one.”

“Only wanted them to like me.”

“I don’t need this right now,” Lenk muttered to himself, rubbing his eyes.

“You do,” the voice said. The others went mute, as if in reverence. “You deny those who would help you, those who are with you, the only ones who are with you.”

“There’s just so many talking all at once and all saying the same thing over and over and over . . .”

“Because you refuse to listen. Because they can help.”

“Then how do you explain the voice that contradicted them all?” he asked. “The one that said that it wouldn’t stop with her death?”

“There was no such voice.”

“I heard it.”

“I didn’t. You were hearing things.”

Lenk’s mouth opened, hung there as he searched for an answer, somehow never having quite anticipated that the voices in his head one day may question his sanity. Finding none, he closed his mouth, drew in a sharp breath and casually went about the business of searching for a rock sharp enough to bash his head open with.

As he searched for one that looked like it would hurt a lot in the row of kelp before him, he saw it.

Out of the corner of his eye: a flicker of movement, a rustle of leaves amidst the kelp’s trancelike swaying, a shadow sliding behind a veil of tuberous green, yet unaware of his presence.

His hand slowly slid to his sword. Not that he could tell exactly what dwelt behind the curtain of greenery, but be it Shen or worse, he had never found preemptive violence to have served him wrong before. Before the blade could even be drawn, though, the kelp shivered and the creature came out.

He tensed, ready for a Shen attack, ready for a demon to have somehow followed him here, ready for Kataria to be on the other side and ready to kill him, ready for absolutely anything but this.

But there it was.

Hanging in midair.

Like it belonged there.

A fish.

It did not fly, nor even float, so much as simply . . . be there, as if it were in water. Its translucent tail swayed back and forth, its fins wafted and wavered like elegant fans, its black-and-white striped scales glimmered as it hung, staring at Lenk with a glass-eyed expression.

As though he were the one with the problem.

It floated there for a moment longer, mouth opening and closing, as if waiting for Lenk to say something.

“Uh?” he grunted, squinting one eye at the creature.

Unimpressed to the point of offense, the fish swam about in a half-circle, offering a rather rude swish of its tail as it turned away from Lenk and vanished back into the kelp.

With the full knowledge that there was absolutely no way in heaven or hell he was going to ever not regret it, Lenk stepped forward. Knowing damn well that it was a bad idea, he slipped a hand through the veil of kelp and found no dense, forbidding forest beyond it. With the absolute certainty that staying back and waiting for one companion or the other to kill him was probably smarter, he drew in a deep breath.

And stepped through.

The air grew thicker, even as the kelp thinned out around him. There was no impenetrable hedge like there had been before and it was easy enough to make his way, pushing aside stalks of swaying leaves in pursuit of the fish. Nor was there any easy breath to be found here; the air didn’t so much grow humid as it seemed to debate whether it should drown him or not.

And yet, he pressed on, if only because it was harder to think with the thicker air and thus harder to hear any voices. And as he did, the kelp thinned out more and more until he emerged from the towering weeds at the edge of a shallow valley.

And as he cast eyes suddenly unable to blink over it, he finally found the words.

“Well, that’s alarming.”

They swam.

In great, shimmering rainbows of scales painted red and black and gold and blue and green, they swam. In twisting pillars of silver mouths chasing silver tails endlessly into the sky, they swam. In slow and lazy clouds of riotous color, over each other, into each other, against each other, they swam.

In the tens of hundreds. Through the air. With no water at all.

The fish were swimming through the sky.

And amidst the curtains of brightly colored scales, other life lurked. Rays, their fleshy fins wafting like wings, swam across the sandy floor. The shadows of sharks lurked at the edges, swimming gingerly between clouds of fish and seeking the unwary. Octopuses floated nonchalantly through the sky, colors changing as they passed in and out of the clouds of fish, as though defying the laws of reality was not worth giving even half a crap about.

The coral bloomed in all its twisted color and jagged splendor. The kelp swayed impassively in great clumps. Starfish clung to jutting rocks. Crabs scuttled across skeletal trees of hardened coral. Eels slithered in and out of dark holes.

Across the valley, an ocean without water sprawled.

And Lenk stood at its edge and watched, near breathless.

Not with awe. The sky, a shifting quilt of blues too deep to be sky and grays too thick to be clouds, roiled overhead. The air it offered was lead, weighing down his lungs as he breathed it in.

Between that and . . . this, whatever it was before him, he wondered if it might not be smarter to turn around, leave, and pretend it hadn’t ever happened.

“What in Riffid’s name . . .” someone whispered from behind him.

He turned and saw Kataria parting the kelp and emerging from the forest, Gariath close behind her. Both their eyes were fixed upon the sea of fish and sky before them as they came up beside Lenk at the edge of the valley.

She was saying something. Probably cursing. He didn’t care. He couldn’t hear.

He found his gaze drawn back to the valley, back to the endlessly shifting tides of scale and shimmer. What passed for a sandy floor was largely hindered by more coral, more exuberant and numerous than had been present before. Gaps of bare sand wound through the brilliant, jagged fans and reaching thorns of coral like worms through a corpse, their labyrinthine curves offering only the vaguest hint of safe passage.

His gaze continued past them, over them, drawn farther into the forest by a sense of foreboding.

It was faint. It was far away. It was at the dead center of the reef. It might not have even existed. But as he stared at it, he couldn’t shake the feeling of intimacy that came with it, as though far away, something was staring back at him.

And it spoke with terrifyingly pristine clarity.

“She is going to kill you.”

He shook his head and became aware that he was standing by himself on the ridge. With some indignation, he threw a glare down toward his companions, already heading toward the path to the trench.

“Hey!”

Kataria paused with an offensive dramatic sigh, looking over her shoulder. “Are you coming or not?”

“Sorry, I was just distracted,” Lenk said, gesturing over the reef, “what with the giant invisible sea of flying fish that should not be, and all. Have you seen this kind of thing before or . . .”

“It was impressive to begin with, but now I’ve seen it,” Kataria replied. “I’ve also seen giant snakes, lizardmen of varying sizes, giant black fish-headed priest-things, seagulls that look like old ladies, I could go on.” She shrugged. “I mean, this is weird, yeah, but we’ve seen and done weirder.”

“I was eaten by a giant sea serpent,” Gariath offered.

“Gariath was eaten by a giant sea serpent.” Kataria nodded, gesturing to him. “You don’t see him getting distracted.” She shouldered her bow, casting a wary glance around before trudging toward the reef. “Now, come on. It’s dangerous to stay out here.”

It was with some hesitance that he followed her.

Not for fear of the reef. Not even for fear of her. But for the fact that the moment he set foot upon sand, it came again. Between the crunching of sand beneath his feet, it whispered to him.

“She speaks truth,” the voice said. “She hurries you to your death. She will kill you. She will leave you to die.”

Lenk forced his voice low, burying it below a whisper. “Well, which is it?”

“You will die,” it whispered. “She will be the cause. You know this.”

“How do you figure?” He kept his eyes lower than his voice, staring at the ground as he stalked between the coral.

“Because you do not want to know.”

“You’re going to have to explain that one to me.”

“You do not know why she left. You do not know why she returned. You do not know why she goes ahead and leaves you behind. You do not know what she thinks, what she does, why.”

His eyes were locked on her back, ten paces ahead of him, as she wound her way through the reef, ducking under low-hanging branches, sucking in her belly as she skirted alongside a jagged, reaching crest. Her eyes were locked only ahead, her ears heedless of what he whispered, upright and listening for that which he could not hear.

“Why she will not look at you.”

He came to a sudden halt. Above him, the coral formed a spiny canopy of thorns through which the dim sunlight came in rays impaled. Around him, a school of fish, unmoved by his plight, slowly plucked amongst the coral with their puckered lips and glassy eyes. Before him, Kataria continued to press on.

Without looking back.

“Because,” his words cracked, not convinced of itself, “I don’t want to.”

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