The Skybound Sea


Page 27



The voice said nothing.

The voice didn’t need to say anything.

He tried to walk with messier, louder steps, tried to hum a tune, tried anything that might be loud enough to drown out the sound of his own thoughts.

But he couldn’t shake the thoughts from his head any more than he could shake his eyes from Kataria as she continued to wind her way through the coral. He couldn’t stop wondering. Why she wouldn’t look at him, why she acted the way she did, why he never even asked her once to justify herself.

Even if he knew it was because he was afraid of the answer. Death—his by her hand, hers by his—was a fear fast fading against another: the fear that he might live through it all.

The fear that the tome would be found, that he would save the world, get paid, shoulder his sword, and look, with an easy smile painted by the light of a setting sun, to his side.

And not see her there.

He didn’t want to think about that. And he was terrible at humming. And so, he pressed on, and tried not to think.

He wound his way through the coral, following the distant crunch of his companions’ fading footsteps. They had stopped altogether by the time he saw daylight again as the sand faded beneath his feet and gave way to thick, gray cobblestones stacked neatly upon each other.

Kataria knelt upon it, studying its surface. She glanced up at his approach and instantly tensed, eyes narrowing. He stopped in his tracks as her eyes bored into him, as her body grew taut, ears pricking upright. She rose, walked toward him. He took a step back.

It wasn’t until after she had walked right past him that he realized his hand had gone to his sword.

Easing his fingers from the hilt, he turned and saw what she saw. The path behind them was completely bare of fish, of kelp and, most notably, of dragonmen.

“Where’s Gariath?” she asked.

“Off doing dragonman things?” Lenk replied, shrugging.

“What are dragonman things?”

“Whatever he wants them to be, I guess.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “I don’t know. I said some things to him earlier. He might have taken them personally.”

“If he had taken them personally, he would have twisted your legs until you could pick your teeth with your toes.” She waved her hands dismissively toward the road. “We don’t have time for this, anyway. It’s not like he’s never done this before and it’s not like there’s not more important things to worry about.”

Lenk glanced down at the stones beneath his feet. “Right. Another highway . . .”

“Half of one,” Kataria corrected.

Lenk followed her gaze and frowned. The great scar of stone, jagged and curving, frowned back.

The other half was simply . . . gone, replaced by the vast nothingness that yawned open beside it. A jagged edge of stone embraced a seeping edge of darkness like a lover, marching beside each other through the reef to disappear around a bend in the distance. The highway and the chasm, hand-in-hand, stretched into endlessness.

The reef grew up around it, over it, encroaching upon it as though it were an embarrassing blemish that it hoped to hide behind wild color. As well it might, the highway was thick with the signs of war: burnt banners on shattered standards, bloodstains painting the pavement amidst fallen weapons, and more of the twisted bells, lined up in a chorus hanging silent, some teetering over the edge.

And yet, as black and foreboding as it was, the grotesqueness of the highway only made the chasm beside it more alluring. From however far below, kelp grew, the color of a bruise the moment before it darkens. It shimmered, almost glowing as it wafted, reaching out of the chasm with swaying leafy fingers as though it sought to pull itself out to join the rest of the reef.

And against the vivid purple, the darkness of the chasm was all that much more absolute. And it was the darkness that drew Lenk’s eyes, a familiar sensation, uncomfortably distinct, alarmingly close.

As he peered into the darkness, something peered back at him.

“She’s going to kill you.”

“What?” he whispered back.

“I didn’t say anything,” Kataria replied. “Though I might as well.” She pointed down the highway. “We follow this as far as we can, then. It looks like it’ll go on for a while.”

Lenk could only barely hear her. The voices returned, clearer, bolder, and much, much louder.

“Lead us to die.”

“Betrayed us. All of us.”

“Should do something. Why didn’t I do something?”

“Do what?” he whispered.

“Follow it,” Kataria replied, blinking. “It’s a road, isn’t it? It has to lead to somewhere.” She clicked her tongue. “And if I’m at all clever—”

She paused. He blinked.

“Something wrong?” he asked.

“No . . . I just kind of expected someone to insult me before I could finish that thought. Anyway . . .” She thrust a finger toward the horizon. “I’d guess it leads there.”

In the distance, rising over the reef like a colossus, the mountain stood wearing a halo of clouds. But even at this distance, one could see that it was carved, lined with twisting aqueducts down which blue veins of water ran.

“If I were to hold onto a book full of weird, mysterious gibberish, I’d hold it there,” she said. “And if it isn’t there, we’ll be in a better position to find where it might be.”

“It doesn’t make sense,” Lenk whispered. “All this stonework and there’s only Shen and fish here. Who made it?”

“Not right. Nothing right here.”

“Danger. Danger all around us.”

“A trap. We walked right into it.”

“That’s kind of beside the point, isn’t . . .” Kataria’s voice drifted away as her ears went upright again, sweeping from side to side, listening.

He waited for her to look back, to look at him. She did not.

“What is it?” he asked.

“Traitors. Everywhere.”

“Want them to die. All of them to die.”

“She’s going to kill you. You’re going to die.”

“It’s nothing.” Her ears focused forward like shields, she began to walk down the road. “Stay here.”

“If it’s nothing, then why shouldn’t I come?”

“Gariath might come back, just stay here.”

“Gariath doesn’t need me to wait for him.”

“It could be a Shen ambush.”

“We haven’t seen the Shen in ages.”

“Maybe a carnivorous fish or something.”

“What?”

“The point is I don’t know.” She growled. She bared teeth. Her ears flattened against her head. And still, she did not look at him. “Just stay here.”

The fish had scattered. The purple kelp swayed. Silence settled over the reef as she trotted off.

Thus, when Lenk shouted, she could not pretend to not hear.

“NO!”

His voice echoed. Across sky. Across sea. Across shadow. It fell into the chasm, rose up again on voices not entirely his own. Kataria didn’t seem to notice that as she turned around to face him.

Not when Lenk had his sword drawn and pointed firmly at her chest.

“No more of this,” he said, solid as his steel. “No more leaving. No more listening.”

Her gaze did not waver from his. Her ears did not lower. Her bow did not drop from her hand.

“Let me explain,” she said softly, as though she spoke to a beast she did not dare flee from.

“Lies.”

“Reasons.”

“Excuses.”

“NO! None of that!” he screamed. “No more lies. No more silence.” His blade trembled in his grasp. “I . . . I need to know, Kat.”

“Traitors.”

“Lied to.”

“Pain. Blood.”

Kataria’s hands lowered to her sides, slowly. And she did not look away.

“No,” she said, all trace of soothing gone, “you don’t.”

“Don’t say that. It said you’d say that, so don’t. Say that.” His eyes were quivering in his skull. “I need you to tell me. Why you abandoned me. Why you want me to die.”

“I don’t,” Kataria replied calmly.

There was no great conviction behind the words. She did not scowl at him for the accusation. He did not apologize for saying it. Everything she was seemed to bow at once, a heaviness setting upon her with such force that it threatened to break her.

“But,” she said softly, “I did.”

“TRAITOR!”

“DIE!”

“BLEED!”

“Why?”

Lenk couldn’t hear himself talk. The voices howled, roared, smashed off one another, off of his skull, crushing, crashing, echoing, screaming. And beneath all of them, running through his thoughts like a river, it spoke on a calm, icy whisper.

“I told you.”

“I don’t know,” Kataria whispered.

“What?”

“I DON’T KNOW!”

Her head snapped up, teeth bared in a snarl, ears folded against her head threateningly. But these were lies, betrayed by her eyes wet with tears.


“I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know,” she said, shaking her head. “Because I couldn’t hear the Howling, because I didn’t know what my father would say, because I didn’t feel like a shict, because you’re a human.” She thrust a finger at him. “You’re supposed to be a disease, Lenk. It’s supposed to be easy to hate you.”

Her breath staggered. Her body shuddered. Tears fell down her cheeks.

“But . . .”

A silence hung in the air. Lenk waited, shut out the voices, shut out everything, as he waited, waited for her to say something.

“But you still left me,” he whispered. “But you still wanted me to die. You. You wanted to kill me.”

“I wanted one of us to die.”

“Why?”

“Why do you think, Lenk? Do you think the ears are the only thing that makes us different? I am a shict. You’re a human. To look at you the way I looked at you . . . to stand over you like I did, to . . . to . . . have done what I did, it was sick. It was diseased. I was infected. They don’t have words for what I feel.”

“And,” he spoke softly, sword lowering a hair, “what do you feel?”

She did not answer. Not with words. She looked at him. With tearstained eyes, with grief, with pain, with anger, with something else. She looked at him.

And he knew.

And he lowered his sword.

“And now?” he whispered. “Why do you want to go away now? Why do you want to leave again?”

“Because I’m afraid.”

“Of what? Of this?” he snarled, gesturing to himself. “Of me?”

“Of you, yes,” she snarled back. “Because I hear the way you talk and I see you talking that way to people that aren’t there. So yeah, I’m afraid of you. And whatever’s wrong with you and of whatever it’s going to do if I’m not there to protect you.”

“I don’t need protection.”

“You do. If you didn’t, I wouldn’t be trying to do it all the time. I wouldn’t be keeping one ear out, listening to you talk to whatever’s inside you while I keep the other ear out for them.”

His sword lowered farther. He stared intently at her. “Who?”

“Them,” Kataria said. Her ears twitched, rose up. “The greenshicts. My people. They’re close. I can hear them. I don’t know how close, though, and that’s why I have to—”

“TRAITOR!” he screamed, taking a step forward.

“Lenk.”

Someone spoke. Outside of his head. Outside of his air. Outside of everything. Close, familiar, so much so it made him ache that he could only barely hear it over the din inside his head and heart.

“Don’t.”

“Tell me why I shouldn’t.”

The voices said nothing. None of them.

Kataria said nothing. Kataria did not look at him.

“Tell me how to make it stop.”

He tried to heft his sword, found it too heavy. He tried to breathe, found his throat closing. He tried to look at her, found his vision swimming.

“Tell me.”

No answers. No lies. No truths. No voices.

“Please.”

Only Kataria. Only her tears. Only her stare that he could no longer bear.

He turned away from her. And then, and only then, did someone speak.

“No.”

It reached out of his skull, into his heart, into his blood. It clenched at him with icy fingers, twisted his muscles, sent his fingers tightening against the hilt.

“She must die.”

He opened his mouth to protest, to scream, to apologize to Kataria for what was about to happen. But he had no voice outside his head.

“If you cannot . . .”

His arm rose of its own accord. His foot turned him. His eyes went wide as he felt himself, his blade, pointed at Kataria.

“I will.”

Kataria did not back away, did not look away, only whispered.

“Lenk . . .”

“Kataria . . . I’m so—”

He paused, saw the shadow falling over him, growing larger.

And then he felt the stone.

It struck him from above like a boulder, smashing him to the road beneath him. He felt them: large, powerful hands pressed into his back, hopping off. He saw them: landing before him on five fingers, green as poison, walking away. And when he looked up, he saw the long, lean legs they were attached to.

From beneath a green brow, between ears long as knives and marked with six ragged notches to a lobe, two dark eyes burned holes in his forehead. From down on the stone, she seemed to rise forever, body like a spear with muscles drawn tight behind bared green flesh covered only by a pair of buckskin breeches. Her mohawk crested above her shaven scalp, exposing the black tattoos on either side of her head.

“Greenshict,” Lenk whispered.

“She betrayed us! KILL THEM BOTH!” the voice howled.

“Get up, Lenk! GET UP!” Kataria cried.

All of them were silenced. Kataria by the elbow that lashed out and caught her in the belly, driving her to her knees with a grunt. The voice by the sudden rush of fear that seized Lenk. And Lenk himself by the sight of two large, sharpened tomahawks sliding into the female’s hands.

“Stay still, kou’ru,” the greenshict said calmly. “I can make this quick.”

“So can we,” the voice growled inside him. It seized him once more, forced him to his feet, forced his blade to his hand.

The female smiled, baring canines that would look more fitting on a wolf than anything on two legs, as though she had been hoping this would be his answer. She slid smoothly into a stance, hatchets held loosely, as though she had been born with a blade in each hand.

Something inside him tensed, raised his sword, forced him into a defensive posture. Something inside him forced his eyes to search her stance for weaknesses, tender points to jam a sharp length of steel into. Something inside him smiled.

It never came to blows.

For as soon as either of them took a step forward, the road quaked beneath them. The rock shook, granite shards skittering across the pavement as something struck the stone.

Something below.

Something big.

It struck again, pounding against the road’s supports. There was a crack of stone, a groan of old rock. Cracks formed beneath their feet, growing to tremendous scars in a single breath. In one more breath, Lenk looked at Kataria. She looked up, reached a hand out, said something.

He couldn’t hear her over the sound of stone shattering. And in the next breath, he fell into darkness below.

“LENK!”

Her voice was swallowed up by the chasm, as it had swallowed him. Her reach was woefully short. And her eyes, tearful and useless, could not see him.

“Do not look, little sister,” someone whispered, far away and far too close. “Inqalle will handle it. Avaij will protect you. I will watch you.”

She heard him, knew where he was immediately as she looked up to the coral. Naxiaw stood, face set in a blank, green expression, arms folded over his chest. He watched her, impassively.

She could not think to send the Howling back at him. She could not think to scream at him, to beg him to recall Inqalle, to ask him for anything. She let him watch her.

As she stood up.

As she walked to the edge of the chasm.

As she jumped in.

SEVENTEEN

THE FURNACE

Asper stared at her hand.

Twenty-seven bones, seventeen muscles, five fingernails, all spackled onto a wrap of flesh and fine hair with what she had convinced herself was a grand design stared back. She stared at it with the kind of anticipatory intensity that one awaiting a visitor might stare at a door, as though her hand would simply open up and show her what else was dwelling inside it.

Her hand was not answering.

“What,” she whispered, “is wrong with you?”

No matter how many times she asked.

“Hurt.”

Fortunately—in the absolute loosest sense of the word—she had more than enough to keep her occupied from such thoughts. Nai lay beside her, unmoving but for her lips.

“Hurt,” she whimpered again.

Asper rushed to her side, as she had every time the girl had opened her mouth. But with no blankets, no water, not so much as a stray bandage with which to even pretend to be doing something useful, there was little the priestess had to offer her.

“Please,” she whispered, “not now.”

Except prayer.

“Just a little more,” she whispered, uncertain to whom. “Not yet. Not yet.” She received only one answer.

“Hurt.”

“Damn it, damn it, damn it,” Asper cursed. She forced trembling eyes to trembling hands, looking from her left to her right and back again before shaking them. “Do something!”

“Hurt.”

Medicine was absent, Gods were lacking, cursed arms from hell were surprisingly unhelpful. Asper looked around her cell, trying to find anything that might have the barest chance. She found nothing but a pair of unmoving bodies. No help. Nothing but a single thought.

What would Denaos do?

“Hey! HEY, UGLY!” she screamed as she pulled herself to the cell door.

The netherling appeared from the gloom, long face staring between the bars with either incomprehension or anger; it was hard to tell with them.

“Listen, heathen, we need help,” Asper said, gesturing wildly to Nai. “She’s about to die. I need water, cloth . . . something.” The female stared back blankly. Asper snarled, pounding a fist against the bars. “You filthy purple stool-sucker, listen to me.”

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