The Skybound Sea


Page 35



His eyes grew wide. Jaga held Ulbecetonth. And somewhere on the island, the Shen held the key to her cell. But for what? To release her? Did they even know what they had?

“She’s . . . coming closer.” He turned back to the girl. “You called me down here to warn me.”

The girl grinned.

“To warn you, to talk to you, to beg you,” she said.

“What for?”

“Not to die.”

“That’s kind of out of my hands.”

“It is not. Ulbecetonth is coming. The walls between her world and ours are weakened, she’s scratched them so thin. She is coming. And she knows you are here. She hates you. She will kill you. You can survive.” Her voice grew soft, fearful of itself. “If you let him back in.”

“No.”

“He can save you.”

“It’s not a he. It’s an it. An it that tried to make me kill my friends, filled my head with . . . with something horrifying.”

“To protect you. He only wants you to live. Your flesh is too weak.”

“It’s been strong enough so far.”

“It has not. You didn’t hurt the tentacle, did you? You couldn’t hurt her.”

“That’s not—”

“And you never could. He hurt the demons. He killed the Abysmyths, through you. Without him, you will die. And not by her hand.”

“What do you mean?”

“Look at your shoulder.”

He did. Even the unearthly blue light was not enough to mask the sickly coloration of glistening pink and blackening flesh from where he had attempted to cauterize his own wound. An infection, thriving.

“It was . . . it was fine earlier!” he said. “I didn’t even feel it.”

“He mended it. He kept you whole.” Her voice quaked, something else seeping in. “But you sent him away. You may not even survive long enough for Ulbecetonth to have a chance to kill you.”

“Then I’ll find the tome first, keep it from happening. They need that to summon her, right?”

The girl said nothing.

“Or . . . if worst comes to worst, I’ll just . . . leave. I’ll go somewhere else.”

“You had the chance to do that. You had a dozen chances to do that. You could do that right now, but you won’t.”

“He doesn’t command me! Neither do you!”

“No,” the girl said. “Neither of us. But you’re still here. You know what Ulbecetonth will do when she returns. You’ve seen what her children do without her. You could leave, you could leave it all, you could watch everything drown.”

He said nothing.

“But you won’t,” she said. “And you won’t survive without him.”

“I don’t believe in fate.”

“Fate and inevitability are not the same things.”

“I don’t believe in that, either.”

“Very hard to lie to someone who can look into your head.” Her sigh sent a cloud of fog across the face of her tomb. “Go, Lenk. The chasm ends soon, rises up to the place you need to be if you follow it. But you know you won’t get far without him.”

He stared at her. She stared through him. He glared. She grinned. He sighed, turned on his heel. He had taken two steps before he paused and asked without looking back.

“Who is he?”

She said nothing for a moment. When she spoke, her voice trembled.

“If you really want to know . . . ask me again. And I’ll tell you.”

He did not ask.

He walked away.

Trying to ignore the pain in his shoulder and the light that chased him.

TWENTY-THREE

THE FADING LIGHT

OF DAY

“Will you just wait up?” Kataria called after him from far away.

He wouldn’t, so he didn’t bother to call back “no” this time. He kept going, jogging through the chasm. Admittedly, he should be nicer to her given that her scent was still all over him, but he trusted she would understand why he wanted to leave a dark, brooding chasm in which he had nearly died and then spoken to a dead girl.

Of course, he hadn’t told her that last part.

So she hadn’t understood when she awoke and found him hurriedly dressing, taking a quick swig of water, finishing up the remains of a fish they had managed to catch, and telling her to come with him. Nor did she seem to understand now as they leapt over rock and coral, over skeletal hand and rusted sword, hurrying farther into the darkness with no end in sight.

He would explain later, he told himself, when they got out of the chasm.

Explain the dead girl living in a block of ice in a room filled with tentacles as she spoke of how a demon queen from beyond hell was bursting out from her prison and the only way to stop her was to bring back the voice in his head that apparently had a gender and other people he occasionally took up residences in so that his shoulder didn’t rot off and kill him first.

Or maybe he’d just tell her he needed some fresh air.

That would be good, too.

Of course, before any of that could happen, he had to find the way out. The girl had said to follow the chasm and that’s what he had done.

He came to a halt, casting a stare up and down the chasm.

But which way had he been following it?

All right, he thought. Let’s think about this a moment. You passed the skeleton, the purple coral, the purple kelp, then the other skeleton . . . in that order? Or did you pass the . . . He scratched his head. So this is why people draw maps in their books. Okay, there was a dead shict somewhere and that was back the way you came and you didn’t pass that dead shict . . . unless someone moved the body. Or ate it. Do shicts eat their dead? Is that true or did we just make that up?

He cast a long, curious look at Kataria as she came jogging up, breathing heavily. She shot him a glare.

“What are you looking at me like that for?” she asked.

“Do you eat—”

Don’t ask her, stupid!

“Nevermind.” He looked up at the jagged rent in the earth. “How much farther do you think it goes?”

“Oh, is that what we’re trying to find?” Kataria snarled. “Maybe if you had told me instead of running off, I could have figured something out.”

“Can you figure something out now? I’m kind of getting tired of this.”

“Well, so long as you’re getting tired of it.” She sighed, followed his gaze up to the sky. “No, I have no idea how and I have no idea why you think following this thing will lead us anywhere, anyway.”

He frowned, stared down into the emptiness of the chasm and muttered under his breath.

“I can’t believe she would lie to me.”

“Who?”

“The dead girl.”

“Who?”

What was that? You don’t have voices in your head anymore! You should be saying fewer weird things!

He opened his mouth to explain and some jumble of words that sounded vaguely like an excuse tumbled out. It was with some relief that he saw her looking over his head, clearly not listening. Relief that quickly turned to fear as he saw her reach for her bow.

His sword was in his hand by the time he turned around and stared into the yellow eyes staring back at him. It was those eyes—and only those eyes—that betrayed the creature as a Shen. The rest of it, bent back, dirty robes, drooping cowl from which ancient smoke and dust emanated, were so impossibly decrepit they might as well have been lifted from the dead.

It stood there for a moment, watching them. It made no other movement, said nothing, did not blink. And they, in turn, made no move to release arrow or tighten grip on sword. For the moment, anyway.

“Should I shoot it?” Kataria asked.

“It hasn’t attacked us,” Lenk replied.

“Ah.” The bowstring groaned a little. “So . . . do I shoot it?”


“Give it a moment. It might know a way out.”

“And why would it tell us that as opposed to, say, splitting our heads open . . . you know, like all the other ones try to do?”

“Because it’s retreating.”

“Slowly shuffling away” might have been a better choice of words for what the creature was doing, even if it didn’t carry the same disdain for how brazenly it turned about and slipped into the darkness, tail dragging behind it.

“After it!” Lenk barked. “It could lead us out of here.”

“Should we give it a longer head start?” Kataria asked. “The thing wasn’t exactly in a hurry.”

Yet even as they hurried after it, the creature seemed ever in the distance. Even as they charged, even as it shuffled, it seemed to draw farther and farther ahead of them, moving from shadow to shadow as a man moves through doors. By the time they were out of breath, the creature was still yards away, disappearing into the shadows once more.

“Not fair,” Kataria exclaimed through heavy breath. “They’re not supposed to be able to do that. How are they doing that?”

“It’s just the one. This one is different.”

“Could have shot him.”

“How would that have helped?”

“How is this helping?”

His only answer was to run. He continued on, her at his side, hurrying after the creature that had vanished from sight completely. Shadows engulfed them as the chasm began to close overhead and become a tunnel. The earth grew damp beneath their feet, the sand squishing instead of crunching.

Soon, before they knew it, the earth was gone entirely, swallowed up by still, stagnant water that rose to their ankles. And still, he pressed on, despite a rather strong argument.

“Do you seriously not see what’s happening here?” Kataria called after him. “It’s leading us into water so we can drown, because it thinks we’re stupid enough not to turn back.”

Probably not an unjustified thought, given the idiocy of following it in the first place. Lenk did not think about that. Instead, he focused on a flash of light ahead. A golden ray punched through the roof of the wall, illuminating a vast, pale face staring directly at him.

A stone face of a woman he had seen before, adorning the walls of Jaga. A woman with a broad smile, wide eyes, and a neck shattered into pieces as her head lay atop the fragments of her broken stone body.

The statue lay in a heap, half-drowned in the water, her head a crown atop a haphazard burial mound scraping a hole in the ceiling, the last trace of light in the void. A chance at escape, the only thing left in the darkness.

That was reason enough to climb. Without a sound save for the occasional grunt of effort as they helped one another up the rubble, over the rubble, and over each other. It was only when they stood perched upon the statue’s nose that they shared a look.

“Could be an ambush,” Lenk said.

“It could’ve been an ambush when you first started chasing the thing. Better opportunities back there, too.” She looked up to the hole in the earth, the pit through which the stone lady had fallen. Her ears trembled. “I don’t hear anything up there.”

“What if they’re just . . . quiet?”

“Well, goodness, I guess if my enemies have learned how to be quiet I’m just a little screwed, aren’t I?”

“Fine,” he snarled. “I’ll go up first.”

“Why you?”

“Well, if you give me a bit, I can come up with something about feelings, heartache, you having protected me and me wanting to return the favor and it’ll probably involve the words ‘my personal autumn.’”

She clicked her tongue. “Go on, then.”

He hurled his sword through the opening, pulling himself up after it. The daylight was not particularly bright, filtered through a hue of gray, but after the darkness of the chasm it was more than enough to send him shielding his eyes as he crawled out onto the sand.

And there was plenty of sand. Stretching out like an ocean all its own, bereft of coral, kelp, or bone, it ran flat and featureless for what seemed like miles in a vast ring. Circling it, a low stone wall segregated the small desert from the kelp forests beyond. Stray fish would fly over it, around it, above it as they passed from one copse of kelp to another.

Never through it.

The light that had seemed so bright beneath the world was all but vanished. Much of it was smothered behind the endless swirling halo of clouds that swam overhead, but most of it was muted to a dull, dim gray by the shadow. The mountain stood impassive at the far end of the ring, stoically ignoring the rivers that wept down its craggy face to collect upon a long, stone staircase that ran from its rocky brow down to the sands of the ring.

That would have drawn more attention from him had he not found himself transfixed by dozens of stares upon him.

Cold stares. Stone stares.

She was everywhere. Surrounding the vast, valley-like ring of sand that stretched for at least a mile in all directions, she stood above the coral and kelp swaying in an endless forest surrounding the ring. Tall, proud, clad in stone silks, raising stone arms, stone smile broad, stone hair scraping the sky, the statues surrounded the great ring of sand.

Tall.

Proud.

Broken.

By chain, by boulder, by chisel and grit and a sheer determination to see her fall, she stood in varying forms of decay about the great ring. Here, her head lay in fragments. There, she stood smiling with her limbs torn off. Behind him, she was nothing more than feet, the rest of her collapsed into the pit from which he had climbed.

Even in stone, he knew her. He knew the smile. He tried to look away, but everywhere he turned, even where she was headless, she was there. Looking back at him.

Ulbecetonth. Proud and broken.

Transfixed by her gaze, he stared at the omnipresent smile. Straight stone teeth in cold stone lips. And yet somehow, he swore he could almost see them moving. Somehow, he swore he could almost hear her.

“I took pity on you. I gave you a chance. Never again. You come here to die.”

“How the hell did he get all the way over there?”

When he looked at Kataria, she was standing beside him and staring out toward the far end of the valley. And there the creature sat, on the bottommost step of the long staircase climbing the mountain’s face, beneath a halo of stormclouds slowly circling a hidden peak.

Half a mile away, its yellow eyes were all but pinpricks beneath its cowl. And yet, he could still feel the creature’s stare, as he could feel dust settling upon his skin. It unnerved him.

Not enough to hold him back, though. He shouldered his sword and began to walk toward the creature. Kataria was by his side, though her bow remained in her hands with arrow drawn.

“This is a bad idea,” she whispered to him.

“He’s not running,” Lenk replied. “He has answers.”

“You can’t be sure of that.”

“It was your idea to come here. You said the tome would be here. We don’t have a lot of other leads.”

“It could be an ambush.”

“There’s no reason to think that.”

“Right.” She kept her voice low. The sound of a bestial hiss carried clearly to his ears from behind. “Except for the ambush.”

He glanced over his shoulder into half a dozen yellow eyes. And then a dozen, then two dozen. And more and more as they came from the kelp forest. Seeming to melt off the swaying fronds like water from ice, the Shen came, warpaint bright as blood, eyes sharp and fixed upon the two, weapons decidedly more so.

He didn’t draw his sword; it would have seemed rather pathetic to offer it against the machetes and hatchets drawn on him. Kataria apparently disagreed, as evidenced by the groan of her bowstring.

“I can put one down,” Kataria whispered. “The others might back off for a moment.”

“There are thirty of them. What do we do after that?”

“I’ll shoot you, then myself. We’ll deny them the pleasure.”

“That’s insane.”

“At least I’m contributing.”

Enough bows were trained on them that they’d both be perforated before she could even twiddle her fingers. Enough machetes were drawn to suggest that whatever happened to them next would probably involve the words “fine stew.” And yet, the arrows remained in their strings. The machetes remained in their claws. The Shen remained well away.

“They’re not attacking,” he noted.

“They’re not retreating, either,” Kataria said.

“Then we keep moving.”

More came, emerging from the forest. More arrows were drawn, more machetes slid from their sheaths. More yellow eyes were fixed upon them, more guttural hisses, mutterings in a thick-tongued language followed them.

And nothing else. As they continued to move toward the creature, the arrows did not fly and the hisses did not turn to war cries. They were merely being herded for the moment. Lenk remained tense; herd led to slaughter, eventually.

The creature at the foot of the stairs continued to stare, heedless of the Shen behind them or the Shen appearing around it. Against its fellows, this one, in its dirty cloak and hood, looked positively puny, something old and bony that would probably be made into some piece of tribal decoration. It didn’t seem to mind, didn’t seem to care, didn’t seem to blink.

It continued to stare.

Its gaze, duller, darker, like petrified amber, drew Lenk’s attention. So much so that he narrowly missed the figure moving forward to stand before him. It was more than a little difficult to miss the giant, tooth-studded club that flashed into view.

He took a step back as Shalake moved to impose himself between the ancient creature and Lenk, his sword leaping to his hand and raised before him. Shalake made no move to respond, his massive club resting easily in his hand, staring from his skull headdress. Slowly, his free claw went to the ornament of bone, prying it free to reveal a face scarred by black warpaint and old injuries.

Lenk held himself, but the sheer contempt that radiated from the lizardman was more palpable than any he had felt before.

Almost any, anyway.

A red hand reached down and took his wrist in its grip. He looked up to the tremendous creature standing beside him, taken aback only for as long as it took him to recall that the black eyes staring down at him were ones he knew.

“Gariath,” he gasped. “We thought you . . .”

The dragonman snorted. “Thought I what?”

“I was going to accuse you of something, but lately I’m never quite sure what the hell you’re doing.”

“At the moment,” Shalake rumbled, hefting his club, “he is stopping you from killing yourselves.”


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