The Skybound Sea


Page 32


“No.”

“Then you probably know that you shouldn’t come any closer,” Dreadaeleon said, eyeing the dagger flashing in Denaos’s hand, “at least until I can explain why you’re here.”

“Explain the presence of the woman who betrayed us and sold us to a bunch of longfaces who would eagerly finish the job if they knew we were fifty feet away from them?” Denaos flipped the blade in his hand, drew his arm back to hurl it. “Let me save you some time.”

“Wait!” Dreadaeleon cried out.

He jumped up and wrapped his own scrawny arms about Denaos’s, hanging from it with all his weight. Lamentably, he wondered if that would do any good.

“You can’t kill her!” he cried out.

“I assure you I can,” Denaos grunted in reply as he shook his arm and tried to dislodge the boy, “and with amazing efficiency and minimal mess, once you let go.”

“She can help us!”

“Hold on,” Asper said to Denaos before looking at Dreadaeleon. “All right, Dread, we’re listening . . . how can she help us?”

“I . . . don’t actually know.”

Asper nodded considerately. Then she looked to Denaos. “Just use your other hand.”

“Lovely,” the rogue quipped, flipping the blade to his free hand.

“The lorekeeper does not speak false,” Greenhair replied, apparently not at all concerned about the fuss, or the knife, directed at her. “You are in need of much that I can grant.”

“Such as something fleshy to sink this steel into?” Denaos asked. “I quite agree.”

“Look,” Dreadaeleon attempted to protest, “ordinarily, I’d agree, but we’re on an island full of longfaces with a stuck boat and a bunch of other longfaces marching—”

“They’re on boats.”

“—sailing—”

“Oars.”

“—oaring to kill our friends. Point being, options are limited.”

“Options are never so limited that we have to deal with the monster that sold us to other monsters.” The coldness of Asper’s voice betrayed just how much fury she was trying to contain.

“Look, I know she—”

“No, Dread,” she continued with a tempestuous calm, “you don’t know. You can never know and I hope to whatever god watches over you that you don’t ever have to know what she did to m—” She caught herself, bit her lower lip. “All you need to know is that she did something terrible, to all of us, and that if you try to stop Denaos, I’ll try harder to stop you.”

His reply was a gaping mouth and an expression both hurt and befuddled; somehow, he suspected that might not be enough to persuade either of them.

“You are unwise to make yourself deaf to the lorekeeper,” Greenhair spoke from the surf. “You are not so out of options that you cannot yet avoid bargaining with me. But every moment you waste, the longfaces draw closer to that which they seek, the earth groans as something claws at it from below and the sea goes silent . . .”

She turned her distant gaze out to the waves, her voice a whisper that merged with the hiss of the surf. “It fears to speak, lest it interrupt. You cannot hear it, and I am grateful for that, but someone out there is singing a song that once filled blasphemous chorals. Someone out there is calling. And many, many are answering.

“Distrust me. Loathe me. Fill your head with images of my entrails on your hands. I do not blame you.” She turned to them again and her face was cold porcelain. “But you won’t forsake your companions. Not when fates rush to crush them. I have looked into your thoughts. I know it to be so.”

The glares didn’t dissipate. The tension didn’t, either. But the knife slipped back in its sheath and Asper turned her cold stare away. Denaos muttered and shoved the boy off of him.

“Well, so long as you already know all of that, we can skip the part where we pretend not to need your help.” He cast a sneer at her. “But, given that you can read thoughts, have a good look at this.”

He narrowed his eyes on her, bit his lower lip, assumed a look of such concentration that it appeared he might pull something. She stared back, blinked, and then recoiled, aghast. He offered an ugly smile in reply.

“Yeah,” he said with a black chuckle. “Just remember that.”

“So, how exactly do you plan to get us out?” Asper asked.

“The tide is stubborn, set in its ways. I can coax it back, but only for a short moment. Not nearly long enough to let your vessel slide out naturally.”

“So all our sliding will fall to the unnatural,” Denaos said. He reached out, clapped Dreadaeleon on the shoulder. “You’re up, boy.”

Dreadaeleon felt something shift inside him and his cheeks filled. Trying to hold back the look of disgust, he swallowed the bile back down.

“Right,” he gasped afterward, “just . . . just let me . . . you know.”

“What? Now?” Denaos asked, incredulous.

“Now what?” Asper asked, slightly less so.

“Nothing,” Dreadaeleon insisted.

“She might as well know,” Denaos said. “I mean, she’s going to.”

“Know what?” Asper asked.

“That he’s—”

“Did I not just stop you from killing the only woman that’s going to get us off this island?” the boy snarled, cutting him off. “Have I not proved my vast, vast, vast intelligence by stopping you from doing something exceedingly stupid yet again? Do you think you can find enough comfort in my almost terrifyingly expanded mind to trust me when I say it’s nothing?”

“Uh . . . I suppose . . . yes?” Denaos answered sheepishly.

“Fantastic. I’ll be back in a moment.”

A graceless exit, he knew as he tried to keep himself from bursting into a full sprint up the dune and behind a large rock. Yet it wasn’t half as graceless as spewing out a pile of vomit that may or may not start moving of its own accord once it hit the ground. And his hasty retreat would bring about far fewer difficult-to-answer questions, anyway.

Such as why so much as a hard slap could make him feel like his body was crumbling beneath itself.

He fought to keep himself from collapsing, bent at the waist, hands on his knees, heaving into the dirt.

One good push, old man, that’s all it’ll take. Just a quick heave, a splash of bile, wave goodbye as it goes off to find its destiny, then you’re fine. Well, you’re dying, yeah, but you’re still fine in the immediate sense. And it’s the right thing to do. Now the lizardmen are all nice and safe and you’re dying and you should have told her, oh my Gods, you should have said something, should have used them, but she was so . . . so . . .

Calm down. He smacked his lips, threw his esophagus into his throat. Just go with it. Out with the bad, worry about the rest later. Just so long as you don’t have to puke in front of two women at once. Once more now. Make it good.

He tried again, heaving and heaving, forcing himself to retch. Nothing came of it but a lot of hot air and a thick, panting sound.

A very thick panting sound. One that persisted long after he held his breath.

One that steadily grew louder.

With the instinctive knowledge that he was being watched, he looked up slowly. No eyes stared back at him. But if tongues could stare, the big, pink thing quivering between two rows of giant, sharp teeth certainly would be.

To look at it, the thing’s jaws seemed so terrifyingly huge as to have left no room for anything else, let alone eyes. A blunted, vaguely wolflike head squatted atop powerful shoulders from which long, muscular legs ending in curving claws dug into the sand. A long body ended in equally powerful haunches, a bushy tail slapping at the sand behind it as it stared at Dreadaeleon.

With its tongue.

The longface female, clad in black armor, her sword hefted up over her shoulder and staring at the boy with a morbid grin framed by white hair cropped cruelly short seemed almost a redundancy.

He took a step backward. The sand shifted under his feet.

The creature’s mouth closed, head tilted curiously to the side. Six knife-shaped ears, three to either side of its great, eyeless skull, snapped open like a twitching, furry fan. Its blind gaze followed him as he continued to backpedal, as he stumbled once, as he turned around and ran.

“ZAN QAI YUSH!”

The first thing he heard was the netherling barking a command.

The second thing he heard was the crunch of sand beneath giant claws.

After that, all that remained was the beast as its jaws gaped and it loosed loud, long peals of laughter.

He came flying over the dune and down the sands a moment later— tumbling, really, like a bird whose leather, boneless wings couldn’t lift it from the ground. Sputtering through sand and sick, he tried to shout a warning to his companions below as they cast confused stares up at him.

That didn’t matter, for a moment later, his panic came rampaging over the ridge.


The sikkhun was not any more graceful than the wizard had been as it came crashing onto the slope of the dune and sliding down in a frenzied, gibbering mess. Of course, Dreadaeleon thought as he reached his companions, grace probably didn’t count for a tremendous lot when nature compensated with teeth the size of fingers.

“Gods damn it,” Denaos spat, “why the hell couldn’t you have just held it?”

“I’m sorry! I didn’t know!”

“How could you not?”

“Shut up and move!” Asper shouted.

The sikkhun came barreling forward with great, shrieking laughter as the companions scattered in every direction. Its head swung back and forth, ears wide and twitching as it tried to pick one, its grin as wide and toothsome as a child in a sweetshop, all but heedless of its rider jabbing her spurred boots into its flanks.

Only a swift, metal-handed blow to the back of the beast’s head caused it to settle on a target. Its ears curved like a bell, its head swiveled, and amongst the many cries of alarm, it picked out the loudest. With a giggle and a flurry of sand, it took off.

After Asper’s shrieking form.

The earth trembled under its great weight, the sand spat every which way as it tore itself across the beach after her, tongue lolling, rubbery lips peeled back in an excited smile. Only a moment before they snapped shut with a resounding clack of disappointment did Asper hurl herself out of its path. The rider cursed, her tremendous blade spitefully swinging and narrowly missing Asper’s head as the priestess scrambled to her feet and tore off in the other direction.

All right, old man, this is it, Dreadaeleon told himself. You almost let it out. It’s do or die now. She might see you vomit, she might see you expel fire from your urethra, but she’s in trouble. You’ve got to do something . . . as soon as you can get up, anyway.

It was a bigger difficulty than it seemed. When he had hurled himself out of the beast’s path, it felt like he left both his guts and his dignity behind. Breathing was a challenge, standing an ordeal. Being actually useful seemed an impossibility.

And yet as the beast circled about, gave another cackle as though this were a particularly fun game, and took off after Asper again, he knew he had to do something.

A minor spell, then, he told himself. Something that won’t seem beneficient, but will ultimately change the course of the battle. Yeah, then she’ll think you’re just so clever. That’s it. Just think of something to confuse it . . . to baffle it. Like an illusion. That’ll work . . . despite the fact it has no eyes son of a bitch, you’re useless.

“Will one of you morons do something?” Asper screeched as the beast closed in on her.

Damn it, old man, later. LATER. For now, something . . . anything! Think . . . the magic might kill you, but if you don’t . . . He thumped his head. Damn it, damn it, damn it. What would Denaos do?

He got his answer as the rogue came running up to the beast’s flank.

Oh.

He threw himself across the creature’s back, nimbly scrambled up to take a seat behind the rider and wasted no time in bringing a dagger up to her throat. The rider interrupted the impromptu assassination with a quick jerk of her neck, smashing her skull into Denaos’s face and sending him nearly toppling.

The dagger fell from his hand as he flailed to keep aright, grasping wildly at the female’s neck before a firm elbow dislodged him and sent him rolling into the sundered wake of the sikkhun.

Ah, well there you go, that wouldn’t have worked, anyway.

A small consolation that grew smaller as the beast closed in on Asper. She suddenly skidded to a halt, whirled around and extended her left hand out, as though she expected the beast to halt immediately . . . or explode at the sight of her palm?

Whatever it was she expected, it didn’t happen. She thrust her right hand out, shaking it wildly at the creature. When it didn’t bother to stop at that, either, she threw herself out of the way.

“What the hell was that?” Denaos screamed at her.

“I don’t know! It worked last time!” she shrieked back, hopping to her feet and resuming to run.

The priestess turned sharply, wildly, trying to throw it off, but lost a little more distance each time.

And he watched on, helpless.

No, no, he thought. NOT helpless. You can do something. Up. Get up! You can do this. You can do this, old man. You just need to think . . . thinking is hard with all this noise. He rubbed his ears. What is that? Is someone singing?

Someone was.

Greenhair’s lips barely moved, but a song too pure to be tainted by language flowed from her mouth into his ears. He instinctively reached up to clap his hands over them, remembering how such a song had put him under once. But this song flooded his skull like water, sent his brain bobbing gently. Thoughts flowed, coursed without pain. His bowels steadied themselves, strength returned to his legs and he found standing a less daunting task.

Lovely, he thought as the song filled his mind, his ears.

He blinked.

Ears.

He sighed.

You really are stupid, aren’t you?

Asper turned sharply again, veering toward him. Calmly, he stepped in as she sped past him, walking directly into the beast’s path. Its ears pricked up at the sound of his footsteps. Its mouth gaped with an excited cackle. It picked up speed, spurred on by its rider’s snarling command.

He spoke a word. The electricity came painlessly, leaping to his fingers and dancing from tip to tip. He raised his hands to either side as the beast drew closer, ears brazen and fanned and quivering. It drew close enough that the sound of its laughter hurt his ears.

And then, as he brought his hands together in a clap, he returned the favor.

Electricity sparked, cobalt flashed, and the sound of his hands clapping became the sound of skies crashing with thunder. It echoed across the beach, drowning out song, screams, and laughter alike. The beast’s wailing laughter dissipated into simple, feral wailing as scarlet plumes erupted from the creature’s ears. They folded in on themselves and it began to swing its head wildly, the thunder lodged in its ears like a parasite it couldn’t get rid of.

Dreadaeleon smiled broadly, closed his eyes and waited for Asper’s cries of adoration and Denaos’s begrudging admiration to reach him.

“MOVE, IDIOT!” the rogue cried out.

He didn’t really care about the admiration, anyway.

“DREAD, IT’S NOT STOPPING!” Asper screamed.

He opened his eyes.

Not that it did him a lot of good. The world erupted in a bright light as something hard struck him in the belly. When he regained breath and sight, the world was moving sporadically beneath him as the sikkhun snarled and shook its head, trying to shake off a new, obnoxious passenger.

Its longfaced rider seemed to share its sentiments. Her snarl was twice as fierce as she pulled back her blade and swung it wildly, missing only due to the beast’s own shifting, swiveling skull as they charged across the beach.

Dreadaeleon would have been alarmed. Dreadaeleon would have been terrified. He might even have been screaming if he hadn’t found his mouth suddenly and unexpectedly full.

And then empty.

Vomit spilled out of his mouth and into the air like a glistening yellow-green kite. It splattered across the beast’s shoulders, onto the rider’s hands, into the rider’s face. There was no disgust, only annoyance, and only for a moment.

After that, just pain.

The bile began to sizzle, steam, hiss angrily. Whatever it was that the Decay did to him it did to his humors and now did to them, turning acidic in a brief moment.

The sikkhun let out a shriek of agony and bucked hard, sending rider and wizard flying into the air. No sooner had Dreadaeleon struck the earth than he found hands on his arms, hauling him up and flinging him over a shoulder. Half-blind from pain, the siren’s song left him, he groaned.

“Who? Denaos?”

“No,” Asper replied as she hefted him like a particularly sickly sack of potatoes. “Sorry, but he’s trying to move the boat.”

“I saved you, you know.”

“With vomit. I saw. Very impressive.”

“You weren’t supposed to see that part. Sorry.”

“It’s fine.”

“I was supposed to be the—”

“Can you just shut up for now?” she asked. “Please?”

Just as well, he thought. The next word in that sentence was going to have been something he had digested earlier. That didn’t make the indignity of being hoisted and shoved into the boat any more bearable, though. Denaos and Hongwe stood at the helm, oars in hand, shoving at the rocks, trying to dislodge them.

Greenhair’s song lilted, the water rising about her ankles, coaxing the water to flow up to the boat as she had coaxed clarity through Dreadaeleon’s mind.

She makes water move, he thought. In the blood, in the mind, in the loins. That’s how she does what she does. Good trick. I should ask her about that. He glanced up at the beach. Assuming that isn’t what it looks like.

It was.

The netherling was up, on her feet, at the side of her flailing mount. Its thrashing lasted only as long as it took her to bring her fist against the side of its head. A crack of bone, a shake of its jowls and it was smiling broadly as she hauled herself up onto its back.

Netherlings, in his brief experiences with them, were not renowned for possessing a vast panoply of emotional expression.

It all tended to be variations on rage, as was on her face now. But those had been natural rages, something they simply did. The fury twisting her face into a mass of scars and lines was something personal.

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