The Skybound Sea


Page 33



It spurred her, just as she spurred the beast forward into a headlong charge. And it came, in a shrieking, warbling, cackling ball of bone and blood and fur.

“She looks angry,” he said.

“They all look angry,” Denaos said between grunts.

“I mean really angry.” It was at that moment he noticed something wrapped around the rogue’s hand: a chunk of stone hanging from a chain. “What’s that?”

“I grabbed it when she threw me off,” he replied.

“Well, give it back!”

“It doesn’t work that way!”

“Will you just push harder?” Asper demanded, huddling defensively behind the rails of the boat. “She’s getting closer!”

“Why is it all on me?” Denaos snarled, shoving violently. “Why can’t your sea-tramp sing harder?”

The earth exploded under the sikkhun’s feet, the sun refused to shine off the massive blade held high above the netherling’s head. Teeth, claws, and a tremendous wedge of metal grew ever closer.

And yet, that seemed not quite so important to Dreadaeleon anymore.

His head hurt.

Or at least, it started as just a hurt. Pain became searing in but a few moments, blinding in another few. Too much pain to be from any cause within him, even as strong as the Decay was. It was magic.

A lot of it.

Coming very close.

Very quickly.

Just like the shadow that had appeared over the netherling and was growing immense.

Just moments before the entire beach exploded in fire.

Something struck the earth hard, scorched the sand into smoldering, blackened clumps as the impact sent it flying through the air like offal from a volcano’s craw. The impact sent the boat flying from the rocks and into the sea amidst a hail of black and red, between curtains of steam as the fiery debris crashed into the water.

Through the veils of rising vapor, over the sides of the vessel, Dreadaeleon peered. He saw the corpses first. One of them was the netherling, the other was the sikkhun. Both had been splintered and blackened beyond recognition and lay smoldering amidst the fields of fire that stained the beach.

Against the carnage, the figure was scarcely noticeable: a scarecrow of a shadow rising against the flames, looking as though he might be consumed by them at any moment. But as Dreadaeleon stared at him, at the rounded head, at the familiar coat, at the red, burning eyes, he felt the pang of familiarity.

“Bralston?”

Followed shortly by the pang of terror.

The blood painting the man’s face and neck were unmistakable, even blackened and steaming as they were. The crimson power burning through his eyes was as bright and vivid as the fires burning around him. The electricity dancing at his fingertips, the thrust of his fingers, the gape of his mouth—

“GET DOWN!” he screamed.

It was hard to tell which was worse: the thunderous cackle of the lightning bolt shearing overhead as they hit the deck of the boat or the cry of rage that tore itself from Bralston’s throat that guided it. Dreadaeleon was more inclined to think the former, given that it twisted and lashed the boat, cracking off shards and tearing out splinters as it wildly thrashed about like a living thing.

It dissipated after a long time, too long for it to have been normal. The air smelled torched and the latent electric chuckles in the sky stung at the boy as he peered up. Bralston stared back, murder in his eyes, and soon to be on his lips and springing from his hands.

“What the hell was that?” Denaos demanded. “Even for a wizard, that was insane!”

“There’s no words,” Dreadaeleon muttered. “No gestures. He’s just screaming. His Venarie isn’t being guided at all, it’s just sort of . . .” He made an all-encompassing gesture. “This.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning row until you puke, idiot, he’s about to cast again!”

The rogue and lizardman began to paddle furiously, shoving their tiny vessel farther and farther away. They hadn’t even come to vomiting when Bralston opened his mouth once more and screamed.

His voice came with ice, a deluge of frost that lay over the sea like a blanket and froze the water beneath it. A serpentine trail writhed across the surface of the sea, chasing the pitifully slow vessel. That itself wasn’t much concern, Dreadaeleon noted.

The fact that Bralston was raising his foot over it, was.

It came down with a crash of thunder and the ice shattered. The sheets of frost broke and clashed against each other, great white spikes bursting up, following the bridge of frost that was now forming beneath the vessel itself.

The gesture was instinctive, the word seemed perfectly natural. Dreadaeleon thrust his fingers at a downward angle and spoke aloud. The cobalt electricity sprang to life and danced from digits to water. A tiny blue worm against the great serpent of frost, it charged across the water, bursting to crackling life as it struck the impending wall of jagged ice and splitting it in twain.

The pain that followed was not natural, collapsing to his rear end was not instinctive, but he couldn’t help either. Asper caught him, eased him down, though neither her eyes nor his ever left the smoldering shore.

“Faster, faster,” Dreadaeleon urged, “oar faster.”

Bralston’s bloodied mouth gaped. His eyes went ablaze. But in the instant he turned about and noticed them, so did Dreadaeleon.

“AKH ZEKH LAKH!”

Their war cries were audible even so far from the shore. Black against the fire, the longfaces came barreling through, undeterred by flame or fear. Blades aloft, they rushed the lone figure on the shore standing over the charred corpse of their companion, without fear, without hesitation.

And, very soon after, without skin. Bralston’s fire leapt from his hands, raked those closest to him. He twisted, turned the jets of flame pouring from his palms as he turned his feral yell upon them. They continued to come, they continued to die, he continued to howl.

That would stall him for a time.

Hopefully long enough to prepare for a future as ashes and spit.

“What was he doing?” Asper asked. “He was on our side yesterday.”

“He didn’t look well. And he certainly wasn’t acting well,” Dreadaeleon replied. “He was using power like it was nothing. He’ll burn himself up before the day’s out if he keeps doing that.”

“Something must have happened to him to make him do that, right?”

“Whatever it was that made him bleed like that, yeah.”

As if by suspicion, or perhaps instinct, eyes turned slowly to Denaos. The rogue was already staring at them, as though expecting such silent accusations. And, just as easily, he pointed a finger at them.

“Racists.”

“Racist against whom?” Asper asked.

“What did you do back there?” Dreadaeleon pressed, suspect. “Back on Teji?”

“What makes you think I did anything?” Denaos demanded, offended. “Are there really not enough things trying to kill people that you automatically think I did something?”

Asper looked somewhat disappointed. “He has a point.”

“Besides, you’re missing the important bit,” Denaos said. “I’m coming to appreciate just how unique a problem this is to us, but we’ve got bigger concerns than the screaming lunatic wizard who sets the earth on fire.”

“He speaks true,” a voice lilted from the water. Somewhere, within the current, Greenhair spoke. Somewhere, beneath them, she began to guide their vessel forward. “The longfaces go to Jaga, just as Jaga begins to stir. Your friends are poised to be crushed between fates.”

She’s saying that just to get them to believe her, Dreadaeleon thought. She’s not concerned about us . . . oh, damn, thought-reading. Uh . . . uh . . . bat guano!

If the errant thought fazed Greenhair, she didn’t say anything. The water moved like a living thing, a sea of blue and white hands that slowly tossed their vessel from grip to grip. Denaos and Hongwe released the oars, unable to resist the artificial tide.

“Sheraptus . . .” Asper whispered. “He’s gone to Jaga, too?”

“It’d be a safe bet,” Denaos said. He fixed eyes on Asper, his fingers twitched. “Look, there might be another—”

“There isn’t,” the priestess replied. “Lenk and the others are there. We have to try to warn them, at least.”

“‘Try’ is a good word for it,” Hongwe muttered. “The Shen rule Jaga. They aren’t going to care about what you want to do. If you can even find it, they’ll bury you there.”

“Water heeds no rule,” Greenhair burbled from below, “there are other ways in.”

Note that she didn’t say anything about the burying part, Dreadaeleon thought. Or anything about that whole ‘Jaga begins to stir’ thing. She’s not telling us something . . . and that something is probably going to kill us.

It was hard to panic at that thought. Between that something in it, the invading longface army sailing to it, and the bloodthirsty lizardmen already on it, Jaga was looking like a pleasing prospect.

The chances of him dying before the Decay could get him were increasing.

Small comfort.

Growing smaller.

TWENTY-ONE

STARLIGHT

AND SHADOW

He called it a man.

There might have been better words for what he stared at, but they were words that he didn’t know or that had not been created yet. But while he called the thing that sat in the darkness across from him with crossed legs and palms upon his knees a man, it was more than that.

His eyes were nebulous and fluid, a river of blue that flowed through like a living thing, drowning pupil, drowning white. It was the only movement from the man. He did not breathe.

There was much wrong with him, Lenk thought, enough that he shouldn’t be called a man. And yet, Lenk had to call him a man. For, save the eyes, he looked exactly like Lenk did.

And Lenk knew his name.

“You,” he said.

The man did not speak.

“I think I’ve finally figured out how you work.” He cleared his throat. “To a point, anyway.”

The man listened.

Lenk made a gesture like he was about to strangle whatever he was about to say. “See, I think you’re just one big hallucination . . . or something. You’re something in my head, that much is obvious, and you twist things so I see them as you do.”


The man stared.

“So, these things that you tell me don’t really happen. I make them happen because you make me make them. You take my emotions and . . . twist them, somehow, into something worse than they are. You made me think Kataria would try to kill me. You are a lie.”

The man spoke.

“No.”

“Then what are you?”

“Important.”

Lenk rubbed his eyes, sighed into the darkness. “I can’t do this anymore.”

“What?”

“The threats, the commands, the cryptic mutterings . . . I can’t. I don’t want to.” He met the man’s stare. He did not blink. “I’m not going to. Not anymore.”

The man blinked. Behind him, a horror of fire was born in the darkness. Images of burning farmhouses and corpses falling beneath wandering shadows flickered like shadows cast by a candle. They shifted to dark chambers, dark waters, and six golden eyes peering out from bloodstained liquid voids. They shifted to a distant figure staring with forlorn green eyes before fading behind a veil of fire.

All moments he should have died.

All moments he was saved thanks to the man in front of him.

“You would be dead without me. I saved you, I preserved you, I kept you from falling into the shadow.”

“And at what cost?”

“Do not pretend to be confused. You call cryptic that which is obvious, you deny that which is inevitable. You know that without me, you will die. Your hand, her hand, someone else’s hand; it does not matter. You will die. I cannot allow that. There is no choice.”

“You say that, but . . .”

Lenk faltered a moment as the man’s eyes intensified. A cold fire smoldered behind his stare, too bright to be drowned. It burned through the darkness, brighter than even the flames roaring silently behind him. It forced itself upon Lenk, sought to bow his head, to break him.

It did not.

He did not.

“You couldn’t make me do it.”

“What?”

“I heard you. I heard every word you said. I had the sword in my hand, above her head.” He tried to feel the weight of it in the darkness. “She wasn’t moving. You were screaming at me, along with the other voices, and I could . . . I could understand it, but . . .”

He looked up at the man. He looked into his burning, flowing, bright-blue eyes. He smiled as though he were pleased.

“With everything, all of what I felt and all of what you told me, you couldn’t make me kill her.”

The man’s eyes widened. They grew wide enough to see further, to see into the future, to see the words that would fall from Lenk’s lips only a moment later on a breathless sigh that had been held in for years.

“You can’t control me.”

“Don’t.”

“You have no power.”

“You need me.”

“You can’t do anything.”

“She will kill you.”

“To her.”

“They will kill you.”

“To me.”

“You can’t just—”

“To anyone.”

“WE STILL HAVE TO—”

“No.”

“LISTEN—”

“No more.”

There was darkness.

There were better words for what it was, that profound emptiness that is left behind when something great and terrible is gone. There may never be such a word created for what he felt when he stared at the space where the man had sat before the flames and the shadow. But he called it darkness.

And he fell into it.

A shadow.

Light.

And then another.

First one, and then the other, in an endless, silent tide. They circled beneath the light, chasing each other with no particular hurry. Their wings were water, black flesh that rippled with silver light as they wove their way between the stars peering through a hole in the world.

Somewhere in the chasm, the earth had opened up overhead. It had let just a hair too much light in for the kelp and coral to be comfortable and they shied from it, lurking in the shadows, while the stars overhead peered through, watching what he watched, watching the two rays circle each other overhead with no particular care for what he did or if he ever rose from the sandy grave upon which he lay.

For some time, neither did he.

And so he lay there, as he had lain there since he had awoken. It wasn’t that he couldn’t rise. He felt light, unbearably so, as though he might be carried away with whatever tide wasn’t there that carried the rays so effortlessly through the starshine.

But standing seemed a daunting prospect.

“You can get up now.”

Daunting as it was, though, he looked up from the sand, stared past his chest, past his stomach, between his feet. She sat not far away, beneath the stare of the stars, beneath the envy of a frond of wafting, purple kelp.

Light and shadow painted her. The naked skin of her shoulders glowed silver against the light, twisting against the black bands encircling her, spitefully chasing the starlight away as the starlight chased it, in turn.

Like the rays.

He could see her eyes. They were bright and green, like a thing that shouldn’t be growing down here in the dark. They weren’t looking at him. She stared at the sand. Her ears twitched, she pointed to them.

“It’s how I know,” she said. “You breathe differently when you sleep and when you’re awake. I can hear it.” She smiled sadly. “I know that about you.”

He came to his feet. It was hard. The earth kept moving beneath him and the sky was going the opposite way overhead. He stood between them, trying to keep his balance, trying not to get dizzy as he stared at her and her shadows and her light.

“Is that you in there?” She tapped her temple.

“Yeah,” he said. His words felt too light on his lips, like he knew he would need the breath he was giving away for them.

She nodded.

“Are you afraid?” he asked.

She nodded.

“Do you believe me?”

She looked at him now. Her eyes flashed, stared past him, through him, around him. The color was too much, too bright, too vivid, too full of . . . something. It threw him, upset the balance of light and black. He swayed, did not fall.

He stared back.

Did not blink.

“I shot my brother,” she said. “I stepped over my sister’s body.” She turned back to the sand.

“For me?”

“Not for you. Not entirely. They were something I wasn’t. You were when I realized it.”

“Why?” He felt a pain in his neck, the question hurt to speak.

She shook her head.

“You’re all I have left.”

The pain grew sharper, twisted in his throat at the question he dreaded to ask, the answer he was terrified to hear.

“What if that’s a mistake?”

She looked at him. Her eyes were no less bright as they hardened.

She rose. She stood before him. The stars painted shifting stripes across her face, turned it into a mask of silver and black. Her hair drifted in a breeze that wasn’t there, licking against the lobes of her ears, sending them twitching.

Her belly rose and fell with each breath. The shadows moved with her, tracing the contours of her muscle, drawing a circle of perfect pitch about her navel. The finer hairs of her body shone translucent beneath the silver, alight where the shadow’s hands did not slide across her belly as it rose, gently; fell, gently.

She breathed. She lived. Her body moved as the earth moved and the sky moved and the world moved and everything moved around him.

Except her eyes.

So he stared into them. And he clung to them to keep from falling.

“Then I’ll keep beating you unconscious until it isn’t,” she said.

She stood there. Her body trembled. Her eyes did not. She waited for him to do something. For him to fall dead at her feet. For him to kill her instead. For him to turn away and leave and fade into something else entirely.

The silence hurt his ears. There was something in his mind, something he had trouble hearing. It had no words. It had no language.

He stepped forward, just to hear the sand crunch beneath his feet. And at that moment, the world moved a little too much one way, the sky too much the other. He fell.

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