The Skybound Sea


Page 28



The netherling’s milk white eyes drifted to Nai. “Sheraptus?” she asked.

“Hurt.”

“Yes, yes,” Asper said, nodding vigorously. “Sheraptus! You know what—”

“Lucky,” the netherling said, turning to leave.

“What? No, wait! Get something! HEY!”

The netherling wasn’t listening. She simply turned around, pausing momentarily to regard the creature that had suddenly appeared before her. Tall, lanky, and possessed of a broad smile, he gently laid a gloved hand upon her shoulder.

“Hey,” he said, just a breath before a loud clicking sound.

By the time she had grabbed the hilt of her blade, blood was already weeping from her neck in great gouts. She didn’t make a move as he jerked his hand away, the metal spike protruding from his wrist glistening with her blood. She stared, speechless from shock. Also the hole in her throat.

And then she fell.

“Huh,” Denaos noted as the netherling’s blood pooled beneath her corpse. “That actually worked.” He pulled the blade’s hidden latch, drawing it back into his glove. “Should have said something more impressive.”

“Denaos!” Asper cried from behind the bars.

“Hello to you, too,” he replied, walking over. “Hey, if I had said ‘you’re working too hard,’ would that—”

“Open the door! Hurry!”

“Well, fine,” Denaos replied with a growl, kneeling over the netherling’s corpse. “If you’re in such a damn hurry. Just let me find the keys.”

“No time! Just pick the locks!”

The rogue looked up at her with a resentful glare. “Why would you assume I can pick locks?”

“I just thought . . . well . . . you’re a—”

“A man who is not a locksmith,” Denaos said, rifling through the netherling’s belt. “What’s the big hurry, anyway?”

“It’s—”

She suddenly realized that Nai hadn’t said anything for some time. She turned and saw a pair of glassy eyes staring up at her above blackened lips that no longer drew breath. She looked from Nai’s body to “her” lying nearby and saw the other prisoner also gone, as though she had simply been waiting for someone to leave with her.

Asper swallowed something foul.

“Nothing.”

The lock on her door clicked, the bars creaked as it slid open. Denaos stood in it, smiling broadly as he twirled a crude iron key around his finger.

“Granted, it would have been a lot more impressive if I had picked the locks,” he said, “but then again it would have also been more impressive if I had come riding on the back of a steed that travels by shooting fire out its . . .”

His voice drifted as he saw her, died completely when he met her eyes. She was quiet, still, barely breathing. And he saw the tremble, something held within her that seemed like it might burst if she did anything more than breathe.

So he held out his hand. She took it, stepped closer to him.

“Sorry,” he whispered.

“I know,” she whispered back.

“We can’t stay.”

“I know.”

He looked over her, to the two unmoving shapes in the shadows of the cell. “But if you want to . . .”

She squeezed his hand before stepping past him. “I don’t.”

Denaos nodded. “Then we need to be careful. There weren’t a lot of netherlings out when we snuck in here, but there’s a guard force left behind.”

“They’ve left, then,” Asper muttered.

“To Jaga.”

“To Lenk and the others, assuming they made it.”

“Right,” Denaos said, nodding. “It’s a big fleet, though, and Hongwe has a small, fast boat. We can still make it before they do.” He pointed down a corridor. “Now, just head that way, Dread should be standing—”

“Where? Here?”

“No, back at the . . .”

He didn’t even bother once he saw the wizard come walking up the corridor. No urgency was in his step, no breathlessness, nothing to indicate anything was the matter with anything but him. Dreadaeleon’s brows were knitted, his face set in a frown as he walked up to the cell.

“What is it?” Denaos hissed, reaching for a knife. “Are they coming?”

Dreadaeleon did not reply. He briefly pushed between them, peering into the cell. Without so much as a blink for the two bodies inside, he turned and walked back to the center of the room.

“Dread?” Asper asked, reaching out for him. “Are you . . .”

He warded her off, holding up a single finger for silence. Pursing his lips in thought, he cocked an ear up. In a few moments, a scream echoed out of the darkness. The boy smiled.

“Ah, there we are,” he said.

And, with a rather morbid spring in his step, he took off exactly the opposite way from the exit, disappearing into the darkness. Asper looked expectantly to Denaos. The rogue looked offended.

“Well, how am I supposed to know?”

With little choice but to indulge this particular madness, they followed, finding him walking resolutely into the chamber ahead. Asper kept her eyes on him, trying hard not to look at the blackened wall of the chamber with a woman-shaped outline.

“Dread,” she urged quietly, “we should go. I mean really go. You don’t know what’s down here.”

“That’s why I am down here,” the boy replied, looking around as if searching for something in the round chamber. “It’s not so much calling to me as just sort of sending out a thousand messages to anyone who will listen. I’m surprised you haven’t heard it. Though I guess it would be difficult, what with—”

Another scream, this one frightfully close, echoed through the darkness.

“Yes, with that. Anyway, I have to find out. You understand.”

He didn’t wait for a confirmation before he took off running down the corridor, deeper into the darkness. Asper looked helplessly to Denaos, who sighed and pulled a dagger out, gesturing with his chin.

“Go. Get him,” he said. “Be quick about it, though, I don’t want to be standing here forever.”

She nodded, took off after the boy. The corridor was darkness so dense she couldn’t even be sure she wasn’t about to collide into a wall. But she kept her pace steady, following the sound of Dreadaeleon’s voice as it echoed up through the darkness between screams.

“Ah-ha,” he said from up ahead. “That would explain it, wouldn’t it?”

“Man-eh . . . waka-ah, man-eh . . .” another voice replied, weary and rasping.

“Hang on, let me see if . . . no. They’re on there pretty tight.”

“O-tu-ah-tu-wa, man-eh. Padh, o-tu. Padh. Padh. Padh.”

“I guess it makes sense, though I am sorry.”

“Ah-chka-kai . . . ah-te-ah-nah . . .”

She couldn’t understand the words, but she recognized the voice. It had been screaming for hours now. And she knew the desperation held within it, a breathless echo of what Nai’s was.

Had been.

The thought of listening was unbearable. Though, as she rounded a corner and was washed over in a tide of bloodred light, it turned out to be infinitely more preferable to seeing it. But by then, she couldn’t look away.

A sweltering gallery of skin and iron met her. They hung in haphazard exhibit, choking on chains attached to the wall, strung up on every bare patch of stone. Some wept, some gasped, only a few screamed. More simply hung, staring blankly into the bloodred haze that drowned the cavernous chamber, waiting for death.

They were Gonwa.

They once were alive.

They were not dead, though. A few were, a few were close, none were truly alive. Collars of iron were shut tight around their throats, hanging by chains hammered into the wall. The green of their skin, the yellow of their eyes, all color was swallowed whole by the hellish red light that permeated the very stone.

She felt something brush against her shoulder and whirled about. Bleary eyes stared back, a withered hand groped the air blindly. The Gonwa looked shriveled, consumed, like a waterskin with a slow leak. It was muttering something, in no language she could understand.


She stepped closer. The Gonwa continued to grope the air, even as she stepped past it, unaware of her presence, barely aware of his. Her eyes were drawn to the collar, to the brief flash of color in the iron circle. A red stone, glowing brightly, positively brimming with crimson life.

“It’s how they did it, for the record.”

Dreadaeleon’s eyes were on the collar of another Gonwa, barely alive, a sac of flesh resembling a wet frock drying more than anything that ever walked or talked. He tapped the red stone, which chirped to light brightly.

“The stones, the netherlings wore them, the males,” he said. “It alters their magic somehow. Usually, there’s a price to pay, something in the body that has to be burned. They didn’t pay it. Thought it was the stones. Had it wrong. Doesn’t negate the cost.”

He reached into his pocket and fished out another stone on a thin black chain. It twinkled, growing brighter the closer it got to the stone on the collar, the two glowing like a pair of soft, bleeding stars. The Gonwa let out a groan. Dreadaeleon frowned.

“The price is still paid,” he said, “just by someone else.”

Behind her, a scream erupted. A Gonwa writhed, hanging limply from its collar, only enough energy left to let out an ear-piercing wail. The rest of it went somewhere else, wherever Sheraptus and his stones were. What was left was something that was a few drops of blood, a few shallow breaths, and a lot of useless flesh.

“Open their collars,” Asper said. “Open those up. I’ll . . . I’ll get water and . . . and . . .”

Dreadaeleon looked up. “And?”

“And I have to do something,” Asper shot back. “They’re alive. We know Gonwa. We have to help.”

“How? The collars are welded shut,” Dreadaeleon replied. “And there’s not a creature here left that I would call a Gonwa. There’s barely enough material to make two whole ones out of what’s left.”

“They aren’t material, they’re—”

“Still, doesn’t make sense.” He scratched his chin. “These are all advanced decays: muscle consumed, blood drained.” He pinched at a stray fold of flesh where a bicep should have been. “Burnt up, like kindling. For them to be this far advanced, they would have had to been casting spells all day and all night for months. But they haven’t been. They’re reckless, but not that reckless. These are being repurposed for something else.”

“Stop it.”

He glanced over to Asper, looking utterly confused at her horrified expression.

“Stop talking like that,” she said. “Like they’re things, like they’re . . . materials. They’re people. Living people, Dread.”

He looked from her to the creature before him, back to her and shook his head.

“Not anymore.”

Callousness on the battlefield was something she was used to. Emotions could easily get someone killed, as could sympathy. She had hardened herself to that long ago, told herself it was necessary that her companions act that way, that they step over bodies and calmly ram their weapons into the chests of the enemies who still lived.

But to see this, to see someone so cold, so callous, so blatantly not moved by the sight of dozens of creatures being eaten alive before his eyes . . .

Asper had no words. Asper didn’t want words. And Dreadaeleon stood, humming thoughtfully, as oblivious to her horror as he was to everything else.

He snapped his fingers. “Oh, obviously.”

Almost everything, anyway.

Before she could say a word she didn’t have, he was off, disappearing into another shadow at the far side of the room. She hadn’t even noticed it amidst the red light, only barely felt the urge to follow him. But he was still Dread, still the boy she knew.

And so, as dozens of bleary, blind eyes stared blankly at her, she walked past the gallery of sagging flesh and drained blood. Trying to ignore it. Trying not to hate herself for doing so.

The walls of the cavern grew rougher the farther back she went, in crude contrast to the smooth and worn walls of the previous chambers, like they had been gnawed away instead of carved by anything natural. They were bigger, cruder, and much, much darker.

“Dread?” she called out. “Where are you?”

He didn’t answer. Not her, anyway.

“Amazing.”

A faint whisper. A faint word. One she had a distinctly uneasy feeling following.

But she did, and as she did, a light grew at the end of the tunnel. It did not beckon, though; it glowed far too dim, far too harsh, far too purple for that. Rather, it warned, threatened, told her to take her friend standing before it and go. But whatever it said to her, it did not say to Dreadaeleon.

He stood at the center of it, a shadow within a shadow, staring up into darkness. What exactly “it” was, though, she wasn’t entirely sure.

It stretched out like a bruise upon creation, an ugly patch of purple and black that expanded in ways that made her eyes hurt: too high, too wide, too malformed. It was as though someone had simply jammed a jagged knife into the air and started twisting it and this was what bled out from existence.

It twitched like a living thing set in the vast iron frame that surrounded it. From the twisted metal rods boxing it in, hooks extended, piercing the vast nebulousness that it was, drawn taut in its chains, holding it wide and open, like a portrait on display.

No, not a portrait, she thought.

Portraits didn’t move.

In the bruise, the blood, she could see them. Images flashed with schizophrenic sporadicism inside it, as though it tried to see everything all at once. Here, it showed a forest with great, black columns for trees rising against a sunless sky. There, it showed long, quadrupedal creatures capering through shadow, laughing in the darkness. Here, fire and forges and the shattering of metal. There, the barking and howling of warcries and chants.

And everywhere, in every vision, in every space there was not darkness, were the netherlings. Thousands of them.

It was no portrait.

It was a gate.

“This is it, you know.”

Asper didn’t ask, didn’t even look at him. She could not bear to hear the answer, she could not tear her eyes away from the sight.

“It answers nearly everything about them, the longfaces,” Dreadaeleon continued. “Why no one’s seen them before we found them, why they don’t look like anything we’ve ever seen, why they have all those Gonwa back there.” He clicked his tongue. “And what they’re doing here. They were the first, the expedition.”

The vision in the gate sharpened, intensified, swept across a vast, plantless field beneath thousands of iron boots, over a sea of long, purple faces gathered in a cluster, up to thousands of blades held in gauntleted hands, thousands of eyes white as milk, thousands of jagged-tooth mouths open in silent, shrieking war cries.

“This,” Dreadaeleon said, “is the army that will follow.”

“Why . . . why didn’t they bring it with them?” Asper asked, breathless.

“Obviously, this . . . gate, however it works, it doesn’t have enough of whatever it needs to let more in. The Gonwa can keep it open, but not enough to let the rest of them out.” He hummed, scratching his chin. “Still doesn’t explain how they got here in the first place, though, without any sacrifices . . . unless, of course, Greenhair was right.”

“Greenhair?”

“Someone else had to have found them,” he continued, ignoring her, “someone else had to have let them in. And in exchange, they . . .” He sighed. “Ah. Demons. Undying. More fuel, obviously, to let the rest of them in. It’s brilliant.”

“It’s . . . horrifying.”

“It’s revolutionary. There are all sorts of theories out there about how the same power that lets us bend light to create illusions could be used to hide entirely different worlds. But they were wrong. The priests had it right all along. Heaven, hell . . . and something else, entirely.” He chuckled. “It’s amazing.”

“It uses people to work.”

For the first time, he looked at her. And even that was just a sidelong, dismissive glance.

“You just don’t understand.”

“Of course I don’t understand,” she snapped. “Not this . . . thing. I don’t care about that. I don’t understand how you can look at it and not think of the Gonwa, of the suffering, like . . . like you’re impressed with it.”

“It’s a gateway. An opening into another world. How can you not be impressed?”

“It’s not just that. The stones, the Gonwa, everything. People are dying and all you can think about is the stones!”

“Because they transfer everything! The physical cost! The toll! All the prices of magic! With it, I can—”

“It’s you! I don’t understand you.”

“Convenient,” Dreadaeleon said with a sneer. “Do you not care about me, either?”

“How the hell would you draw that conclusion?”

“Process of elimination, numbers,” he replied, voice as fevered as his eyes were as he thrust both upon her. “Lenk and Kataria. And for the past few days, you’ve positively fawned over Denaos like . . . like he’s . . .”

Asper held her fist at her side, held her gaze level, held her voice cold and hard. “If you try to guess, I will break your jaw.”

“And what? I don’t get to know? But he does?” He gestured wildly back down the cavern. “I’m the one with the power, I’m the one with the intellect and you’d rather share your secrets with some thuggish, scummy thug?”

“I don’t . . .” Asper stammered for a reply. “I didn’t . . .”

“You did. Because that’s how it works! Lenk and Kataria. You and Denaos. And what does that leave me? With Gariath?”

“It doesn’t work that way.”

“THEN TELL ME HOW IT DOES,” he screamed back. “Tell me how I’m supposed to figure this out when no one tells me anything and I have to figure it out on my own! Tell me what I’m supposed to do to . . . to . . .”

She watched him, spoke softly. “Go on.”

“No.”

“Dread—”

“NO.” He held up a hand, rubbed his eyes with the other. “Forget it. Forget everything. Look . . .” When he looked back, she saw a weariness that he had kept hidden from her, a dullness in the eyes growing worse. “You want to help the Gonwa.”

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