The Skybound Sea

Page 31

Bone snapped. Teeth fragmented and fell like snowflakes. A mouth filled with blood. A body struck the earth.

The assault was broken as an arrow flew wide over his head. He looked up and saw Kataria holding an empty bow and full eyes. He wasn’t sure which of them she had been shooting at, or how she expected such a sloppy shot to hit anything. And from the looks of it, neither was she. Someone was, though.

“Kill her. KILL HER NOW.”

Not a request. Not even a command. It was a statement of fact, one that turned his eyes upon her, one that moved his feet forward, one that raised his sword above his head.

That which was in Kataria’s eyes was something he could not describe. Despair and fear were evident in her tears, anger and impotence in the clench of her teeth. But there was something else there, in the long, deep breath. Relief? Lament? Regret?

Whatever it was, it consumed all that they both had. She stood, unable to move. His blade held, unable to fall. The voice was screaming at him in words he could not understand.

But it could not move him.

A flash of color out the corner of his eye caught his attention. First green, then, as the female inhaled and spat, red. Thick, viscous red for a moment. And then, nothing but bright, searing pain.

He screamed through burning lips, raked fingers blistering across a face that burned beneath the spatter of venomous blood. It clung to him spitefully, coming free from his face with great effort and greater agony. Through half-blind eyes he could see flashes of movement: a struggle, a limb raised and ending in a glistening tomahawk blade, stilled and trembling as two arms so pale and puny as to look like straws of wheat trying to hold back a tree wrapped around it.

Kataria cast a desperate stare over the greenshict’s shoulder and screamed something to someone, unclear to him.

The greenshict understood and made her disagreement known as she reached up, seized Kataria by her hair and pried her from her shoulder like a pasty tick. With a look between contempt and apology, she hurled the smaller shict to the earth and scowled up at the fast-fading form of Lenk as he fled.

He was limping. His vision was swimming. His body was breaking down. And the voice was still screaming. Screaming to be heard over his pain, over his fear, over the other voices in his head.

But he had nothing left to give them, any of them. No more blood to spill, no more thoughts to consume, no more will to keep going. Behind him, Kataria was still there. She would always be there, always with eyes full of despair and uncertainty. Before him was darkness, emptiness, a long empty road he would simply walk until he could die.

All around him was death. Bones littered the floor. His sword hung from his hand weakly, fell to the earth. Above him, caught in the kelp, a bell hung precariously, swaying along with the purple weeds that suspended it. A cathedral, he thought, singing sermons to skinless people who had seen the same emptiness he had seen and chose to stay here.

Perhaps, he thought as he collapsed into a nearby copse of kelp, they had a point.

She came a moment later, walking calmly into the clearing, unfazed by her elusive quarry or the ruin that had been her face. As though it was just an inconvenience to be missing teeth and weeping blood onto the earth. She slowly swept the clearing for him, searching.

Perhaps the pain distracted her more than she let on. Or maybe she knew what he knew, knew that he had nothing left in him, and was waiting for the inevitable discovery. He didn’t at all doubt she could hear his thoughts with those ears of hers.

Those big . . . pointy . . . ears.

His eyes drifted up to the ceiling of the cathedral of sand and kelp and bone, to the bell hanging above.

And he burst out of his hiding.

If he died, he died. That would be it. But for now, he was running without knowing why. For now, he was leaping to the kelp and trying to haul himself up. For now, he was giving more than he had, for a reason he didn’t know, trying to accomplish he wasn’t sure what.

For the thousandth time in his life.

She was upon him, loping after him silently as he ran, leaping after him as he climbed. Her tomahawk slashed, always catching the heels of his boots as he scrambled up into the kelp, hand over hand, coral over weed. With a snarl, the only she had spared for him thus far, she reached out, caught his foot.

He winced, swung his sword.

Not at her.

His steel struck the bell. Or grazed it, anyway. It was a glancing, sloppy blow. But the bell shook as though it had been waiting for such a touch for centuries. The kelp tore, the bell shifted and swung.

And sang.

It reverberated off itself, metal upon metal, keening a long, lonely wail. Its metal screeched, howled, whimpered, cackled, gibbered, sang an off-key song like it feared it would never sing again, a thousand iron emotions it had been keeping inside it unleashed in a horrible cacophony that hurt Lenk’s ears to hear.

Though not nearly as bad as it hurt his foe.

She fell like a stone, hands free of tomahawk and kelp and pressed fiercely over her ears. Her ruined mouth gaped in a long, shrieking scream as she collapsed to the earth, her skull a bell unto itself, the sound pounding against ears, bones, brains, sending her vision spinning and her body writhing upon the sand.

She looked up through eyes rolling in their sockets. For a moment, she saw him. And then she saw his blade, growing closer.

He fell upon her, sheer luck being all that he could attribute to the blade being pointed downward as he did. It was gravity that struck and drove the steel into her chest. It was his weight, leaning upon the pommel, that jammed it deeper. It was his exhaustion, his agony, his pain that made him stare into her eyes, that made him hear her as she whispered on a dying breath.

“Worth it. For her.”


It was Lenk who said that.

Whether it was Lenk who fell backward off of a corpse and staggered to his feet, whether it was Lenk who shambled farther into the darkness and didn’t dare look behind, even he wasn’t sure.

She found him after combing amongst the dead.

After stepping over the body of she who was supposed to be her sister, after picking between the skeletons, after following the blood and weariness and dead voices in the darkness, she found him. Standing amongst the dead as though he belonged there.

Talking to the dead.

“I can hear you,” he whispered. “I can hear you, but I’m just so tired and you really don’t seem to be listening to me. What’s that? I’m saying, you couldn’t do it. When the time came, you couldn’t make me do it. That’s my entire point. You aren’t as strong as you think you are.”

She didn’t turn away from him. Didn’t so much as blink. This was a choice she had made the moment she’d had the opportunity to shoot him and let it go, as she had so many times before.

“They’re not going to answer, you know,” she said.

He didn’t look at her. “I know.”

“You don’t have to keep talking to them.”

“They keep talking to me, though. I’ve asked them to be quiet so many times.”

“Then stop asking them.”


“Stop begging them.”

“I can’t—”

“I know,” she said. “I know you can’t.”

His shoulders slouched, his head bowed. When he spoke again, it was a voice that was cold. “More trickery. Can’t tell us what to do anymore. Betray us eventually.”

He was tensing, fighting something inside him, losing. She did not run.

“I know, I know,” he whimpered. “And that’s why we have to kill. Always kill. The others spoke of traitors, betrayal, they know. That’s why they scream.”

“You want to kill me.”

He said nothing.

“Then go ahead.” She threw her bow aside. “I won’t fight you.”

He spasmed, as though he had just swallowed a knife. He clutched at his head, trying to dig out whatever was going through it right now. The scream that burst from his lungs was something beyond his, beyond whatever voice he had spoken with before.

And when he turned to face her, his eyes were bereft of pupil, of white, of anything but a blue that froze over with fury.


He hurled himself at her without purpose, nothing but hateful screaming and frenzied flailings. She looked into the eyes in his face, saw hate, vengeance.

And she did not run.

She merely stepped to the side.

He almost flew past her, would have if she hadn’t caught him by the throat. Her forearm wrapped around his neck, pressed against his windpipe as she jerked back with a snarl.

He flailed, clawed at her arm, kicked wildly. He collapsed to his knees, drawing in sharp, rasping breaths that grew steadily weaker. But even so, the fury inside him didn’t relent. Neither did she.

“Liar,” he choked, “lied to me, said wouldn’t fight.”

“I won’t fight you,” she replied. Her forearm tightened around his windpipe, drew his head close against her in an intimate hatred. “But this isn’t you. This is something else.”

She pulled harder. He grew weaker, his body limper. The fight left him along with his breath.

“And if you can’t fight it, Lenk,” she said, “then I will.”

When he hung limp in her arms, helpless and lifeless, she released him, easing him onto the sand. She turned him over gently and looked into his face. His face. Slack as it may be, it was his face with mouth hanging open, his eyes that were shut tight.


No one else.

Her ears pricked up at the sound of padding feet. Naxiaw emerged from the shadows, eyes steady, face calm. He looked at her, searching for something inside her. She looked back, offering nothing. Whatever he found, though, he nodded.

“That must have been difficult, sister,” he said.

She looked down at Lenk. “He isn’t dead. Not yet.”

“I saw. You used the lion killer on him.”

“It was supposed to be painless,” she said, skulking over to collect her bow.

“Maybe mercy is more respected in your tribe. The s’na shict s’ha have no use for it. We left it in our homes when we went to go cure the land of this disease.”

“Uh huh.”

He stared down at Lenk’s unconscious body, studying it. “The way he fought, his eyes . . . I suppose it is the nature of the disease to mutate. Find an antidote for it, the disease becomes more resilient, virulent. This one . . . he is something I have not seen.”

“He was a rare case.”

“Was.” Naxiaw slid his Spokesman stick into his hand. He raised it high above his head. “Turn away, sister. I wish you no more pain.”

“Me either.”

The air whistled. The sand crunched softly as the stick fell from his hands. It took a moment for him to realize what had happened. He still didn’t understand when he saw the arrow shaft quivering in his leg. Not even when he looked up and saw her drawing another one, aiming it at him and releasing.

It struck him in the shoulder. Now he bled. Now he knew.

And he screamed.

“INFECTED!” he roared, clutching the arrow in his shoulder. “You’re further gone than I thought, sister. Put the bow down before your cure becomes even more—”

“There is no cure, Naxiaw. Not for what happened to me.” She spoke without a quaver in her voice as she calmly nocked another arrow. “And there’s no such thing as no more pain. For anyone.”

“So you intend to kill me,” Naxiaw snarled, gesturing down at Lenk. “For this? For the thing that killed Inqalle? Your sister?”

“She wasn’t mine,” Kataria replied, drawing the arrow back. “I’m sorry she died for me. I’m sorry you bleed for me.” She took aim. “I’m sorry, Naxiaw. You don’t have to believe me. But I do.”

“Think of what you’re doing, sister. Think of what your tribesmen would say.”

“What they’ve always said. What I never understood.”

“They will hate you. They will hunt you.”

“I know.”

“They will kill you.”

“That, too.”

“Stop being so damn calm about it, then.”

“I can’t be angry. Not about this, no more than I can be angry about the dirt and the sky and the dead. This, what’s happening here, is not something I can help. It simply is.”

He snarled. “Do it, then. Kill me, as he killed Inqalle, as you kill Inqalle’s memory.”

“I don’t want to. And I won’t. Because you’re going to leave.”

“Leave?” He backed away, hunched over like a wounded animal. “Leave this unavenged? Leave my sister’s body here?”

“No. You can take her body. You can come back and kill me someday. You can kill every human in the world and however many tulwar, couthi and other people it takes to make you happy.”

She stepped over Lenk.

“But this one belongs to me.”

What passed between them, as their eyes met and narrowed upon each other, was not the Howling. But it was something. Something that made him realize, made her stronger. And for the first moment since they had met, they understood one another.

He turned and stalked away, into the darkness. “Your father would hate you for this.”

She lowered the arrow as he retreated. “And my mother?”

He did not answer. He was no longer there. He was somewhere far away, where shicts were. And she was not.

“Naxiaw?” she called into the darkness.

And it did not answer back.




For a long time, Dreadaeleon did not look at either one of them. Denaos bore a scowl so fierce that the boy didn’t dare risk having it turn on him. Asper’s despair was so deep that he felt it might swallow him up if he even looked sideways at her. Fortunately, both their agonies were directed at the sight on the beach before them.

Still, it seemed like someone should say something.

“So, uh,” he said, “that’s bad, right?”

“In the grand scale of things?” Denaos asked, shaking his head. “Not so much.”

“And in the immediate?”

“Yes, idiot, it’s bad.”

Like calling me names is going to help, Dreadaeleon thought resentfully. But he supposed there was little that would.

Their boat sat, snugly ensconced between two rocks, the sand beneath its rudder and its tail end only just brushing the water that had, this morning, been keeping it afloat. Like it was testing the water before it was ready to go and get them the hell out of here, Dreadaeleon thought.

Either way, there it was. Stuck in the rocks. And the water was there. Receded from the shoreline. There was little to do about it.

“Gods damn it!”

Except that.

“Hongwe, you scaly, slithering idiot.”

And that.

“Why the hell wouldn’t you tell us the tide was going out?” Denaos demanded of the lizardman standing beside them.

“You go to an island full of longfaces to rescue a friend that was probably dead. I thought you had enough to worry ’bout.” He inclined his crested head to Asper. “Good that you’re alive, though.”

“Uh . . . thanks?” Asper replied.

“Then why wouldn’t you move the boat?” Denaos asked, tone growing sharper.

“I did,” Hongwe protested. “I moved it behind these rocks when I saw longfaces on the beach. The tide left before they did. It’s not my fault.” He thrust a scaly finger at Denaos. “You weren’t supposed to take this long. ‘In and out’ you said, ‘very quickly’ you said.”

“I was trying to sound like I knew what I was doing,” he snarled. “I didn’t actually know how we were going to do any of that.”

“Then I’m not sure why you’re upset that things aren’t going as you didn’t plan.”

“I . . . but . . .” With words failing him, he turned to his second most tried-and-true method of conflict resolution. “You!” he barked, shoving Dreadaeleon fiercely. “Fix it!”

“How?” the boy asked.

“Magic it out. I don’t know.”

“I could try shoving it out, yes, but that would rip up the boat.”

“Can you lift it out or something?” Asper asked.

Yes, absolutely, he thought. I mean, it’ll speed up the Decay in my body, make me die quickly, and I’ll probably come spurting out of two or more orifices as I do, but at least it’ll be more humane than sacrificing a stupid lizard for a magical gem of untold power and wonder that could actually, you know, cure me.

“No,” he said.

“Why not?”

He blinked and said with a straight face, “The flow of magic is just a hair too whimsical today.”

She stared at him for a moment before sighing ruefully and looking away.

She believed that? I can’t believe she’s that dumb. Or does she just think that whimsy is something that would be a problem for you? Maybe she— He stopped himself, rubbing his temples. Keep it together, old man. Netherlings all over the place. Now’s not the time. You can still come out on top.

How? he demanded to himself. How can you possibly do something about this? You’re drained. You’re dying. And she’s . . . she doesn’t think anything of you. But him . . . him she thinks is just so . . . so . . .

His temper flared inside him and he instantly felt wearier. Even thinking an outburst drained him. He rubbed his eyes and sighed.

The netherlings had to be halfway to Jaga by now, he reasoned. Little choice, then, he reasoned. He had to do something to get them off the island. There was a way, he knew, not a good one, but there were no good ways out of it. And so he chose the one that wouldn’t end with him soiling himself.

Look, he thought, not to himself, I know I called you some bad names and I said that about you earlier, but . . . if you’re listening to this, I could use you right about now.

He heard steel sliding out of a sheath. He heard Asper curse. He heard Hongwe mutter something reverent in his own language.

Greenhair had come faster than he expected.

He looked up and saw the siren rising out of the sea, striding out of the surf, the salt and her silk clinging to her pale body like a second skin. She wore a knowing look on her face as though she had been waiting for him all this time.

Like she knew you were going to mess everything up, given enough time.

“Do not chastise yourself unduly, lorekeeper,” the siren replied liltingly.

Ah, right, she reads thoughts . . . or just mine?

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