The Skybound Sea

Page 30

Another word that bothered Gariath. “You speak the name like you’ve been saying it for a long time.”

“We have stories of the Rhega,” Shalake replied, head turning down a bit. “And only stories. You are the first we have seen since the war.”

“A war . . .”

Gariath remembered. The bells, the monoliths, the destruction on Jaga. The bones, the corpses, the decaying weaponry on Teji. The spirits. The ghosts. The Rhega.

Grandfather . . .

“What kind of war?” he asked. “Who did the Rhega fight? How did they die?”

“I am the warwatcher. I lead the battles. I swing my shenko. Mahalar holds the stories.” He eyed Gariath’s injuries. “Also, the medicine.” He turned about, began to stalk down the road. “Come, Rhega. We will tell you.”

“Tell me what?”

“Everything we can.”

He watched Shalake a moment longer. Then, a stray scent caught his nostrils. The familiar odor of fear and lust and pain and anger that always came with humans. It hung in his nostrils for a single desperate moment, almost overpowering as it cut through the thick air before disappearing.

Back down the road.

“You have something else you need to attend to, Rhega?”

Gariath looked down the road for a moment before turning.

“I have nothing.”



Beneath the world, between earth and hell, the differences between life and death seemed more trivial.

The chasm stretched out into a vast trench beneath the highway, a great and cavernous maw into which the sun was swallowed and promptly digested in a stomach of stone and sand.

Here, the signs of battle hung like afterthoughts, a bad dream that could never really be forgotten: corpses entangled amidst the phosphorescent kelp, bones layering the earth, weapons shattered into shards, and the bells, hanging from cliffs, half-buried in sand, swaying delicately and precariously from nooses of kelp and coral.

In the stillness, silence. In the darkness, death.

And still, there was light.

The luminescent violet glow of the kelp and coral was made all the more vivid by the lack of sunlight, painting the sands the color of a dying sky, giving the skeletons an insubstantial flesh, casting a thousand different hues in the reflections of a thousand shattered weapons.

And still, there was life.

Or supposed life, anyway.

They hung; like lanterns, like mirrors, or perhaps like stars that had fallen too far and had forgotten how to get back home. But they hung, in quivering and undulating blobs, thick as jellies, weightless as feathers, their tendrils hanging from viscous bells to brush against the sea floor and caress the hollow cheekbones of the dead.

A beautiful sight, Lenk would have thought as he darted between their reaching tentacles, had he not been struggling to keep footing and breath alike. He would have to make a note to come back and reflect on the beauty when he wasn’t running for his life.

Somehow, the interesting things only ever seemed to crop up when someone was trying to kill him.

And this time he had not the sense to notice the life around him. Because this time he had not the sense to think beyond a single word.

Run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run . . .

“Turn around, fool,” the voice hissed in reply, trying to wrest control from him with an icy, unseen grasp. “Turn and fight.”

No sword, no sword, no sword, could be anywhere, anywhere, can’t see her, can’t hear her, run, run, run, run, run—

“There is nowhere to run.”

Before him, a world the color of a bruise stretched into infinity: great wreaths of violet kelp swaying upon a carpet of sand and bone. Behind him, a world of refuse ran with no end in sight: skeletons of many creatures spread on every spike of coral and swath of kelp with artistic abandon.

Around him, nothing but darkness, offering no escape. In which anything could hide. Including him.

He ran toward a crop of kelp, weaving himself into the folds of it, trying to disappear amidst the violet plantlife.

“This cannot save you,” the voice whispered. “Not hiding. Not running.”

“Kill them. Kill them all.”

“Hate them. Want them to die.”

“They want us to hurt. We can’t. Not anymore.”

“There is only one way out,” the voice spoke: louder, colder, clearer than the others.

They scratched at his skull, it gouged deep furrows in his eardrums. Theirs were a thousand gnats buzzing in his ear, it was a cricket chirping on the surface of his brain. They growled, hissed, whimpered. It commanded.

“Kill. Kill them both.”

“Shut up, shut up.” He only barely spoke, his voice forced in slivers between his teeth. “She’ll hear you.”

He stared into the chasm, from shadow to shadow, darkness to deeper darkness. The sunlight was forgotten, only the narrowest sliver slipping through. The violet glow of the kelp was no honest light. It revealed nothing, only served as another source of shadows, to make the darkness deeper, an absolute blackness in which she hid.



The air stirred above him. A shadow fell over him. He whirled about, choking on a shriek, and saw nothing. His eyes drifted up to the creatures circling in a shadowy halo overhead.

The rays slid calmly through the air, as unperturbed by the darkness as they were by the terror bursting out of him. Their tails swayed like the kelp they wound through, their fins rippled like wings too dignified to flap. They flew. Artistically. Hypnotically. Not vultures presiding over a pit of death, but doves, too elegant to be moved by the corpses staring up at them with envious, hollow eyes.

It would have been nice to fly away at that moment, Lenk thought, up out of the chasm and into the sky until he couldn’t see the land anymore.

But he was down here. Somewhere beneath the land. With her.

The air stirred.

Beside him.

He had a moment to see her face, a mask carved out of green, hard lines and all points. He stared at her, mouth scrambling for a word, eyes searching for a way out. She stared at him without a snarl, a growl, so much as a blink.

She almost seemed to smile, like she was thinking of a pleasant summer day, as she casually brought a sharp-edged tomahawk over her head and aimed for his skull.


One of them had yelled it. He didn’t care. He threw himself to the side, a bright spurt of red bursting as the tomahawk gave his arm an envious caress, the metal whining spitefully as he pulled himself to his feet.





They shrieked, pounded at his skull, clawed at the bone, trying to dig their way out. His head swam, mind pounded to ground meat by the screaming. He couldn’t hear, couldn’t think, could barely see. There was too much noise, too much cold.

Perhaps it was because of it, the madness, the pain, that he could feel a brief touch of warmth, hear a voice too close, too kind to be down here. Perhaps that was why he listened.


Panic propelled him. He flew across the sand as the rays flew overhead, bones crunching beneath his boots, kelp shuddering at his passing, light appearing, reappearing, disappearing as he rushed through the chasm, trying not to think of the greenshict behind him.

He didn’t.

She wasn’t behind him anymore.

He caught glimpses of her out of the corner of his eye. Her muscles shimmered in the flashes of light as she swung, leapt, tumbled through the air, hand over foot, kelp to coral. She flew, effortlessly leaping alongside him, over him, between the light and into the shadows, in the air, on the ground, running across the sands before him, slipping behind him as he stumbled through the darkness.

She was everywhere, every movement blending together. Every shadow held her, every twitch of movement was her as she stalked him, chased him, laughed at him without words.

He tried to track her, tried to watch her, tried to tell which shadow was hers and which was his. The kelp shook violently around him, its glowing fronds a riot of light. He lost himself in the darkness, unsure where he had been running, which way she had gone.

Then she came out and made it all abundantly clear.

Leaping from the darkness, her shadow sailed over him. He felt her feet wrap around his throat, their thumbs crushing down on his windpipe as she tumbled, landing on her hands and snapping powerful legs up and over to send him hurtling breathlessly through the shadows.

He left that breath in her grip, his blood on the sand, didn’t bother to pick up either as he pulled to his feet and continued running, trying not to let her impassive stare look deeper into him than it already did. His body fought him every step, fear fighting the cold in his blood, each one trying to hold him.

“Fight,” the voice urged. “Turn and FIGHT.”

Can’t, he thought back. No sword. Can’t kill her. Can’t fight. Kataria betrayed me. Left me. Can’t fight. No point. Run. Run.

“We don’t need her. We don’t need any of them. We can do this. With or without a sword.”


A pain lanced his arms, shooting down into his wrists, draining the warmth from his palms and freezing the blood in his fingers. He looked at them, watched the fleshy hue of his hands slowly be replaced by something cold, something dark, something gray.

“I can save you.”

The color drained from his extremities, the gray crawled up his arms. His breath grew frantic and came out on cold, freezing puffs of air.

“I can make everything stop hurting.”

Icy talons sank into his skull, numbed thought, numbed action.

“Just . . . stop . . . fighting.”

He screamed. For the cold seeping through his body. For the voice snarling in his head as he shook it violently. Mostly, though, for the sound of feet-with-thumbs padding up behind him.

Panic was as good a remedy as denial; the voice slipped from his thoughts, if not from his body, as he continued to rush through the chasm. The sound of the greenshict behind him faded, but that meant nothing. She could be anywhere, in the kelp, in the coral, in the shadows, even right in front of him.

Actually, he thought as he skidded to a halt, probably not in front of me.

Another forest stretched out before him. A forest of pale, thin tendrils, hanging like unknotted nooses from the darkness high above. The jellylike creatures hovered serenely overhead, either oblivious or uncaring to the eerie curtains they had laid down beneath them.

Lenk happened to catch a hint of movement: a stray fish, something that had lost its way and found something much worse, hanging limply in the grasp of one of the tendrils. It coiled about the body and dragged it up into the shadows to be consumed, preserved in the creature’s bell-like body like a frog in a jar.

A crunch of sand behind him was all it took to break his hesitation and send him flying into the mess of tendrils. He was bigger than a fish, including them, he thought, and whatever they could do couldn’t be worse than what she could.

He thought that right up until he felt his flesh on fire.

They stung, bit, did something to him that he couldn’t see. But as he weaved his way frantically through the tendrils, he could feel the agony of tiny cuts nicking his arms, tiny venomous burns sizzling on his flesh. They conspired, grouped to attempt to overwhelm him.

Fear turned out to be a pretty good solution for that, as well.

The pain lingered, but only lingered. No fresh agonies visited him and when he looked up from his mad rush, he saw the tendrils behind him. And only the tendrils. They swayed with the same gentle impassiveness, as though he had never even run through them. Certainly, she hadn’t followed him.

Had she?

He squinted into the shadows, trying to see his pursuer. She hadn’t. She hadn’t even come to the edge of the tendril curtain. There was no kelp for her to climb, no way through except the way he had come.

Did she just give up?

Perhaps her ears were long enough to hear thoughts, for her retort came in the whine of steel and the shriek of air as a tomahawk came hurtling through the darkness straight at his head.

Fortunately, he felt the air erupt from his lungs before he could feel his head cloven from his shoulders as someone tackled him to the earth. Unfortunately, he didn’t have the sense not to look at his rescuer.

“You,” he hissed.

“Yeah,” Kataria replied. “Nice to see you, too.” She took quick stock of his wounds and stings. “What’s left of you, anyway,” she said, reaching out to touch his face.

“Don’t,” he said, batting her hand away. “Contact with shicts isn’t exactly working out for me today.”

“You can’t blame a shict for these. What did you expect you’d get, running through a bunch of jellyfish?

“Jelly . . . fish?”

“The sailors back on the Riptide said their touch is dangerous and needs immediate treatment.” Her hands went for her belt. “Hold still a moment.”

His eyes went wide with alarm. “Wait, what are you doing?”

“The sailors also told me what the treatment was. Stop squirming.”

“No, you stop whatever you’re about to—”

“Look, I’m not going to—”

“There is absolutely no way I’m going to let you—”

“Damn it, Lenk, I am trying to help you, so would you just hold still so I can piss on you?”

“Get off, get off, get off, get off, get off!”

“Fine,” she said, hopping off before he could hurl her off and holding out a hand to him. “We shouldn’t stay here long, anyway. I don’t know why Inqalle isn’t following you, but it won’t last for long.”

Ignoring her hand, Lenk clambered to his feet. “You know her name?”

“All their names,” Kataria replied. “They’re shicts.”

“So are you.”

She affixed a glare upon him. “Don’t.”

“I won’t. I shouldn’t have. Any of it.” He glowered at her, saw the hilt in her grasp. “You have my sword?”

“I found it earlier. I’ve been trying to track you down since.” She held it out to him, snatching it back as he lashed out a hand for it. “What do you plan to do with it?”

“I don’t know. I was intending to kill the thing that’s trying to kill me, but I suppose I could just turn it on myself before you can say anything more stupid.”

She stepped back. “That won’t be necessary.”

“Like that,” Lenk grunted, reaching for the weapon again.

“It doesn’t need to be like that. They’re . . . I can talk to them. I can reason with them. They think they’re protecting me, saving me from you. I just need to tell them that—”

“Liar. She consorts with them. Kill her.”

“No,” Lenk growled.

“I don’t know, maybe I can just say . . .” Kataria said, searching for an answer in the darkness.

“Strike her down. Kill her now. Remove one less threat.”


“It’s a misunderstanding. I can make them see. No one has to die here today—”



He clutched his head, scratched at his skull, tried to pry out the icicles digging into his brain. His scream was violent, his howl wretched, the tears in his eyes frozen upon his cheeks.

“Traitor!” he screamed. “You left me to die! You led her to me!” Shrieking turned to snarling. “No, can’t do this. Not yet. Run. Hide. Don’t want to do this.” He choked on the voice coming out of his throat. “I can’t . . . I can’t . . . I can’t . . .”

She did not move. She took no step forward, reached out with no gentle hand as he cowered beneath something she couldn’t see, covering his head from a gaze that wasn’t there. Nor did she run, resisting every instinct and shred of common sense that told her to.

She stared. She held back tears of her own.

“I didn’t betray you,” she said softly.

“You didn’t choose me, either,” he said.

“I couldn’t. I can’t.”

“Neither can I,” he said. “Any of it.”

“Then . . .”

He rose. He turned to face her. Halos of frost ringed his eyes, but he was impassive. His skin looked drained, colorless, as though all the life had seeped out of his body and into his eyes. And they, bright and vivid and full of something cold, held her captive as he approached her.

He reached out. The fine hairs on her belly rose as his fingers brushed against her midriff, disappearing to encircle around her waist. They returned with a sword held firmly in hand. She could feel the chill from his lips, cold as the steel in his hands, as he spoke.

“Then don’t.”

It hurt to walk away from her. His body rebelled, unseen frozen digits trying to wrench his muscles into their control. And accompanying each twist and jerk, the voice screeched.


He had no voice to retort with, no words to refuse. Every ounce of his being was focused on holding back what was inside him.

“Don’t turn your back on her!”

He sighed, dragging his sword in the sand as he pressed on, trying to ignore the voice.

“Either of them.”

“LOOK OUT!” Kataria screamed.

He turned and his blade turned with him. The steel saw his foe before he himself did. It whirled up, caught the tomahawk crashing down in a spray of sparks.

The greenshict trembled, holding the weapon in both hands as she tried to drive it down, to break the deadlock and finish it. But her eyes were calm, her lips were still even as the rest of her trembled; she took no pride in this.

He glanced over her shoulder and saw her opposite in Kataria’s face. She glanced from him to her and back to him, eyes wild and confused, hands fumbling between her bow and nothing.

“She can’t help you,” the voice snarled. “She never could.”

It ate the color in his hands, turned his flesh gray. The greenshict’s eyes widened at the sight of it, at the sensation of him pushing back. His blood ran cold in his veins, wouldn’t allow him to feel the strain of the deadlock.

“I can.”

His body twitched.

“I will.”

The blade snapped forward.

“We will survive.”

The metal embrace parted with a shriek as he lashed out a sloppy blow, not entirely sure who was driving it. The blade itself went wide of flesh as the greenshict twisted out of its way, but he snapped it back, caught her on the chin with the hilt. She reeled and he struck again, snarling as he drove the pommel of his blade against her face.

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