The Skybound Sea


Page 3



“We have to go,” he said firmly.

“The city . . .”

“It’s not ours anymore.” He tugged on her shoulder. “Kasla, come.”

“I can’t, Hanth.” Her voice was choked. “It won’t let me.”

He didn’t have to ask. He stared into the shadows. He saw it, too.

There was movement: faint, barely noticeable. He would have missed it entirely if he didn’t know what lurked in that darkness. Even if he couldn’t see the great, fishlike head, he knew it turned to face him. Even if he couldn’t see the wide, white eyes, he knew they watched him.

But the teeth he could see. There was no darkness deep enough.

“Child,” its voice was the gurgling cries of drowning men. “You return to us.”

It was instinct that drove Hanth to step protectively in front of Kasla, old instinct he strove to forget once. Logic certainly didn’t have anything to do with it; he knew what lurked in that shadow.

“And where are your tears?” the Abysmyth asked. “Where is your joy for the impending salvation?” It swept its vast eyes to the dead people lining the walls. “Ah. The scent of death may linger. It should not trouble you. They are free from the torments their gods saw fit to deliver to them.”

The demon moved. A long arm, jointed in four places, extended from the shadows. Viscous gossamer ooze dripped from its webbed talons.

“They were cured,” it said, “of many things at once.”

“Keep them,” Hanth said. “Keep the dead. Keep the living. The girl and I will leave.”

“Leave?” The Abysmyth’s head swung back and forth contemplatively. “To what, child? Do you think me so compassionless as to you let you run to a deaf and lightless eternity? To cast you from bliss?”

“I will keep my burdens.”

“What does a lamb know of burden? What does it know beyond its pasture? There is more to life. Mother will show you.”

It shifted. It rose. A painfully emaciated body, a skeleton wrapped in ebon skin, rose up. Its head scraped the ceiling. Its eyes were vast and vacant as they looked down upon Hanth.

“Mother will not abandon any of her children.”

He heard a scream die in Kasla’s throat and leak out of her mouth as a breathless gasp. Hanth met the demon’s gaze.

“Ulbecetonth is gone,” he said flatly. “And she’s gone for a reason.”

He began to step backward, forcing Kasla to move with him toward the door.

“She can have her endless blue. You and the rest of your faithful can join her. One hell’s as good as another.”

The demon merely stared. Its eyes were dead, unreadable. Hanth held his breath as he continued to back away with Kasla.

“You don’t belong here,” he said, “and neither does your bitch of a mother.”

The moment the demon lunged forward, he suspected he might have gone too far.

A great black fist emerged from the darkness and smashed upon the floor in a splintering crater. The demon’s head followed, a great fish skull, skin black as the shadows from which it came. It trembled to show the fury its dead eyes could not.

“You’re wrong!” it gurgled. “We belong here! We do! It was you who drove us out! You who rejected us!” It pulled the rest of its body out of the shadows, tall and thin and quaking. “We offer you everything and you deny us still! Call us monsters, call us beasts, call Mother a . . . a . . .”

Its voice became a formless roar as it burst out of the shadows, sprinting forward on long, skeletal legs. Hanth seized Kasla’s hand. Without a word, he hauled her toward the door, as fast as fear would carry them.

“You don’t even care!” it bellowed after them. “You don’t even care! Look at what you’re doing! You’ll ruin everything!”

They burst out the door, fled down the wet, sticky streets. The Abysmyth’s voice chased them.

“He comes! You’ll see! You’ll see we’re right!”

The roads were thick with stale fear and moisture. The heavens roiled and bled like a living thing. The city was bereft of humanity, but not life.

The frogmen came out in tides, pouring out of every alley mouth, leaping off of every roof, bursting from every doorway. Hanth swept his eyes about for escape and wherever they settled another emerged. They ran from reaching hands and needle-filled mouths.

Every egress was blocked by pale, hairless flesh. Every movement monitored and met with a shrieking chorus from the Omens flying overhead. Every word he tried to shout to her was lost in the whispers that rose from the waters beyond and sank into his skull.

“Can’tfleecan’tfleecan’tflee . . .”

“Nogodsnoprayersnoblasphemynothingnothingnothing . . .”

“Hecomeshecomeshecomes . . .”

And then, all noise from nature and demon alike, went silent before the sound.

A heartbeat. Like thunder.

A great tremor shook the city, sent them falling to their knees. There was the sound of rock dying and water wailing and skies screaming. Hanth tried to rise, tried to pull her up, tried to tell her she would survive, tried not to look to the temple.

He failed.

Cracks veined the domed roof, growing wider and wider until they shattered completely. Fragments of stone burst and fell as hail. A shadow blacker than night arose to kiss the bleeding heavens. The creature turned; a pulsating red light at the center of its chest beat slowly.

Water peeled from its titanic body, mingling with the red rain. With each tremor of its heart, roads of glowing red were mapped across its black flesh. It groaned, long and loud, as it rested its titanic claws upon the shattered rim of the temple’s roof. Its head lolled, eyes burned, jaws gaped open wide.

Daga-Mer, alive and free, turned to heaven.

And howled.

TWO

IN THE GRISTLE

Beneath Lenk’s feet, a world turned slowly. Not his world.

That world was back on dry land, back where the dawn was rising and people still slept in dread of the moment they would have to open their eyes. That world was full of traitors and fire and people who walked around pretending he had no reason to kill them.

That world was where he had slept for the last two nights with the sound of a voice in his head, a voice that whispered plots and told him he had no choice but to kill those people. That world was where he had fallen asleep last night.

He suspected he might be dreaming, still.

That would explain why he was standing on the water like it were dry land.

That world swirled beneath him. He had watched it all night. When he should have been dreaming of flames and betrayal and his hands wrapped around a slender throat beneath wide green eyes, when he should have been hearing something whisper in his head, something telling him those eyes would see nothing.

He had been staring at fish.

Beneath his feet, they stirred as the morning returned color to that world. Coral rose in bright and vivid stains. A fish came out, something drab and gray with bulging eyes and clumsy fins. If it were possible to waddle underwater, it would have done so, clumsily navigating over the coral that seemed all the bleaker for its presence.

It drew too close to a shadowy nook within the coral. A serpentine eel shot out, eyes glassy even as it rent the fish with narrow jaws. It gobbled up what it could before slinking back into its lair, leaving a few white chunks to drift up to the surface and bump against the soles of Lenk’s boots.

In an instant, he had seen hope, betrayal, and death. Fitting.

“How do you figure?” something responded to his thoughts.

A voice rose up from the water, something cold and distant. He didn’t blink; voices in his head were nothing new. This was not the cold and distant voice he knew, though. This was less of a cold blade sunk into his skull and more like a clammy hand on his shoulder.

“As near as I understand,” he said, “every day for a fish begins with them rising out of the water to go scavenge for food.”

“Is that hope or necessity?”

“Little difference.”

“Agreed. Continue.”

“Thus, to go out when one expects to find food and instead finding death . . .”

“Betrayal?”

“That was my thinking.”

“Counterpoint.”

“Go ahead.”

“If one could even argue a fish is aware enough of its own existence to feel hope, one might think it wouldn’t feel a great deal of hope by going into a world infested by things that are much bigger and nastier than itself with the slim chance of finding enough food to avoid dying of starvation and instead dying of eels.”

“That’s betrayal.”


“That’s nature.”

“I disagree.”

“Go right ahead.”

“I would, but . . .” He rubbed his temples. “Kataria usually tells me about these things. I’m sure if I talked it over with her—” That thought was cut off by a frigid, wordless whisper. “Look, what’s your point?”

“Hope is circumstantial. Betrayal, too.”

He stared down into the water, blinked once.

“I’m insane.”

“You think you are.”

“I’m having a conversation with a body of water.” He furrowed his brow contemplatively. “For the . . . fifth time, I think?” He looked thoughtful. “Though this is only the fourth time it’s talked back, so I’ve got that going, at least.”

“It’s only insanity if the water isn’t telling you anything. Is this not a productive conversation for you?”

“To be honest?”

“Please.”

“Even if I could get past the whole ‘standing on the ocean talking to the ocean’ . . . thing,” he said, “I’ve had enough conversations with voices rising from nowhere to know that this probably won’t end well. So just tell me to kill, make some ominous musings, and I’ll be on my way to kill my friends.”

“Friends?”

“Former friends, sorry.”

“Former?”

“Is that how I sound when I repeat everything? The others were right, that is annoying.”

“There’s no hate in your voice when you speak of them. You don’t sound like a man who wants to kill his friends, former or no.”

He didn’t listen to himself often, but he was certain he had spoken with conviction last night before he went to sleep. The conversation with another voice in his head—the one cold and clear as the night—had seemed so certain. They went over their plans together, again and again: find Jaga, find the tome, kill everyone in their way, kill the people who had betrayed them.

Betrayed them . . . or betrayed him? It was harder to remember now what they had spoken of last night. But his had been a voice full of certainty, full of justice and hatred and nightmare logic.

Unless that hadn’t been his voice.

A chill crept up his spine, became a frigid hand at the base of his skull. It gripped with icy fingers, sending a spike of pain through his body that did not relent until he shut his eyes tightly.

And when he opened them again, the world was on fire.

He was back on a ship full of fire and of enemies that lay dead on the deck, except for the one that held him by the throat and pressed a knife down into his shoulder. He was back in his world and he was going to die.

And she was there. Short and slender, her green eyes wild and feathers in her hair. There was a bow in her hands and a hand around his throat and a blade in his shoulder and an arrow on the string and blood. Blood and fire. Everywhere. And she did nothing.

He was going to die and she was going to do nothing.

That wasn’t how it ended. He hadn’t died back then. Someone else knew that, but not him and not in this world. In this world, something else happened. He ignored the hand around his throat and the knife in his shoulder. He got to his feet and she was watching and she was screaming and her throat was in his hands and it felt like ice. And he started to squeeze.

That hadn’t happened, either.

He opened his eyes. That world was gone. The water was back and talking to him.

“Ah,” it said, “I see.”

“You don’t,” he replied. “You don’t have eyes. You don’t have a face.”

“I can fix that.”

The water stirred underneath. There was someone looking at him from the floor of the sea. A woman, not a pretty one. Her face was hard angles and her hair was white. Her chin was too sharp and her cheekbones were too hard. Her eyes were too blue.

But it was a face.

“Better now?”

“You’re all the way down there,” he said. “How do I—”

And suddenly, he did. The water gave out beneath him and he was floating down, upside down. He could breathe. That wasn’t too alarming; this was the fifth time. That which should not be possible was only impressive when it was not possible. When it was not impossible, then it was not possible to be impressed.

He came to a halt, bobbing in the water as he looked into her face. She was smiling at him with a face that shouldn’t ever smile. Their eyes met and they stared. He asked, finally.

“So,” he said, “am I dreaming, insane, or dead?”

“Oh, Lenk,” she said, “you know you never have to choose.”

He had memorized the length of one knucklebone.

He used that to count down his hands. Three knucklebones across, six knucklebones down. Eighteen knucklebones, in total; possibly a few extra accounting for inaccuracy of the thumbs. If he counted the back of his hands, double that. His hands were as wide and long as thirty-six knucklebones in total.

He had dainty hands. That bothered him.

But all Dreadaeleon could think about as he stared at his dainty, disappointing hands was how much paper would be made out of his skin when he was dead.

It didn’t take long for the trembling to set in, the surge of electricity coursing beneath his skin. Three breaths before blue sparks began to dance across his fingertips. Three breaths today. It had been six breaths yesterday.

Getting worse, he thought. Can’t be too much longer now. How much do you figure? A month? Two? How does the Decay work, again? It begins with the flaming urine, ends with the trembles? Or was it something else? Reversal of internal and external organs? Probably. Dead with your rectum in your mouth. That’d be just your luck, old man. Still, better that you’ll be leaving soon so she doesn’t have to see you—

“Well?”

“What?” he blurted out suddenly at the sound of the woman’s voice. He grabbed his hand by the wrist and forced it out of sight.

Asper looked at him flatly. She pointed to the corpse on the table.

“I know she can wait forever, but I can’t.” She gestured with her chin. “Are you ready for this?”

He glanced down at his lap and took stock of his tools. Charcoal, parchment; he nodded.

“Are you?”

She glanced down at her table and took stock of her tools. Cloth, water, scalpel, bonesaw, crank-drill, needle, a knife that once made a man soil himself in fear; he blanched as she nodded.

“And how about you?” He followed her gaze up to the wall of the hut, to the dark man in a dark coat.

Bralston hadn’t moved from that spot—arms crossed over his broad chest, brows furrowed, completely silent—in half an hour. He didn’t seem to think Asper’s inquiry worthy of breaking that record over. His sole movement was a brief nod and twitch of the lips.

“Proceed.”

Clearly less than enthused with the command, she nonetheless looked to Dreadaeleon. “Here we go, then. Note the subject.” She looked down at the corpse. “What do we call this, anyway?”

It was female. It was also naked. Beyond that, the creature was rather hard to classify. It had two legs, two hands, all knotted with thick muscle under purple skin. Its three-fingered hands, broad as a man’s, were clenched tight in rigor. Its face was hardly feminine, far too long and clenched like its fists. Its eyes, without pupil or iris, had refused to close in death.

“A netherling,” Dreadaeleon said. “That’s what they call themselves.”

“Yeah, but necropsy subjects are usually categorized by their scholarly names in old Talanic,” she said. “This is . . .” She gestured helplessly over the corpse. “New.”

“True, they haven’t really been discovered yet, have they?” Dreadaeleon tapped the charcoal to his chin, quirking a brow. “Except by us. We could call it something slightly more scholarly.” He stared down at his paper thoughtfully. “How do you say ‘head-stomping bloodthirsty she-beast’ in old Talanic?”

“The subject shall be known as ‘Heretic,’” Bralston said simply. “The Venarium will make proper notation when I deliver the report.”

She fixed him with an unyielding stare. “Others interested in medicine might want to know what we discover.”

Dreadaeleon cringed preemptively. As a Librarian of the Venarium, Bralston was the penultimate secretive station to an organization whose standard reply to requests for the sharing of information typically fell under a category marked “crimes against humanity and nature.” And as a much meagerer member of the same organization, Dreadaeleon could but wince at Bralston’s impending reaction.

He felt more foolish than surprised when Bralston merely sighed.

“Netherling will do for the moment,” he said.

He was still surprised, though he suspected he ought not be. Bralston, curt to the point of insult, seemed to have a patience for Asper that Dreadaeleon found deeply confusing.

And unnerving, he thought as he noted the smile Bralston cast toward her.

“Proceed,” he said gently. “Please.”

Dreadaeleon took a bit more pleasure than he suspected he should have in Asper’s lack of a returned smile. She didn’t smile much at all lately, not since that night on the ship. She barely said anything, either. Only after the necropsy was requested did she even deign to say two words to him.

Another thing he took pleasure in. Another thing to be ashamed of. Later, though.

“Fine,” she said, turning back to the corpse. “Netherling.” She took up the scalpel between two fingers. “Incision one.”

Amongst the various descriptors she used for necropsy, “easy” wasn’t one of them. The scalpel did not so much bite seamlessly into the netherling’s cold flesh as chew through it, the incision requiring both hands and more than a little sawing to cut open. When it was finally done, her brow glistened along with the innards.

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