The Skybound Sea

Page 36

“Merely slowing us down,” Kataria snapped back. “We’ll kill ourselves when we damn well feel like it and there’s nothing you can do about it.” She raised her bow, aiming the arrow between Shalake’s eyes. “You can come with us, if you want.”

Another bowstring creaked as a Shen, slighter and lankier than the rest, moved protectively beside Shalake, bow in hand. A single yellow eye burned hatefully upon Kataria, the other one, a ruined hole of black flesh in his skull, merely smoldered.

“Yaike remembers you,” Shalake noted with a glance toward the creature. “He says you took his eye.”

She smiled broadly, taking care to show each and every tooth.

“What I did to his eye goes a little beyond ‘taking.’”

She snapped her teeth together, the sound of her canines clacking short and vicious. Yaike snarled, the bowstring tensing even further.

“If we wanted to kill you,” Shalake said, “we would have done it back in the coral forest.”

“Or in the chasm,” Gariath grunted.

“Or when you were crawling out of the chasm,” Shalake said, nodding. “That would have been a good time.”

“If it would spare me this posturing, I’d welcome it,” Lenk said, rubbing his eyes. “But somehow, I find myself surrounded by lizardmen who are suddenly not so eager to kill me.” He turned to Gariath. “And you’re with them, apparently not killing them.” He looked back, over the island. “And I’m here following a gorge full of tentacles and dead girls to a desert ringed by big, dead, stone demon queens looking for a book to keep said demon queen from being less dead and less stone and less spilling me open and eating my insides like she said she was going to the last time she started talking to me inside my head.”

He paused for breath. It was long and slow. When he looked back up, every eye—black, green, and yellow—was fixed upon him in varying degrees of confusion.

“It has been a long, confusing, stupid day.” He threw his arms out wide, turned around to face the lizardmen surrounding him. “So, will someone either kill me right now or tell me what the hell is going on?”

No arrow through the chest, no blade hacking his head off. No one was going to kill him. So much for things being easy.

Instead, they parted. Shalake stepped aside. Yaike retreated. The Shen moved away. Even Kataria took a step back as the creature, nearly forgotten, stood up.

Bones groaned with the sound of stone cracking. An ancient layer of dust fell from the creature’s shoulders as it rose. There was a symphony of sickening snapping, cracking, popping sounds as it stepped from the stone staircase and came to stand before Lenk, staring up at the young man.

He caught a flash of what lurked beneath the creature’s cowl. A glimpse of skin veined by wrinkles that had grown so deep as to become rents in faded green flesh. A flash of white bone where skin had fallen away above brow and beneath jaw. A hint of teeth rotted to black, gums rotted to blacker, tongue a dead thing rolling about inside a mouth full of dust.

Just a glimpse.

More than enough.

“You,” the creature said with a voice of old stone and old dirt, “have been looking for me.”

“I assure you, I haven’t,” Lenk replied, unable to look on any part of the creature’s face for long and yet unable to look away.

“You came to Jaga,” he said, a cloud of dust with each word, “looking for something. You came to Jaga because you were called. You came to Jaga because you are needed here.”

“Well, which is it?” Lenk asked.

“You will tell me, soon,” the creature said. A hand slipped into the folds of his robes. It emerged carrying something so old and tarnished it looked like it belonged on . . . something like the creature that held it. “But first, I must tell you.” He held the object up. “You know this symbol?”

He did. It had been a while, but he recognized it. A gauntlet clenching thirteen black arrows.

“I suppose I have been looking for you, then,” Lenk said, “Mister . . .”

“Mahalar,” the creature finished for him. “Warden of Ulbecetonth. Protector of Jaga. Member of the House of the Vanquishing Trinity.”




Elsewhere and far away.

Somewhere far beneath his feet and behind his brow, burning like a fever.

In the tremble of his hands upon his lap, in the tremble of his eyes as he closed them, in the sharpness of the air as he drew in a breath and held it in his throat.

He could feel it.

They were out there.

And they were speaking. They were speaking to him.

“You are listening to me, aren’t you?” someone asked from behind.

He narrowed his eyes. Not them. They weren’t important.

“Your silence does nothing to bolster my confidence,” Yldus said, sighing. “Nor does your . . . change of wardrobe.”

Sheraptus held up a hand with some difficulty. The withered limb beneath the sleeve, its muscle and bone eaten away by that . . . that woman’s touch, he had taken care to hide behind a new robe. Something as bright as this world’s sun-kissed skies to stand out against the darkness surrounding him.

Those who walked upon the clouds beside the sun would look down and see him glorious on the stain of this world. They would know him. They would tell him everything.

“If you refuse to consult with us on our strategy, I must once again voice my opposition to this.”

If other people would just stop talking . . .

“We can find our way through the mist well enough, but beyond that, we know nothing. No warriors have ever returned from this island. A dedicated scouting force supported by a male and a few Carnassials could—”

“Could return with infection, disease, anything but information,” Vashnear interrupted. His sneer was audible. Such an ugly thing, so typical of a netherling. “Better to come with all our power and destroy them in one fell swoop that we may take our leisure and precaution in exploring their filthy holds. That would give us more ample time to locate the demons and—”

“It means nothing if we wander into a trap. For all we know, the demons might already be there,” Yldus insisted.

Sheraptus did not chuckle. His voice was something harsh and raspy since that woman had collapsed his throat to a narrow hole. Not that his former fellow’s voice didn’t deserve it. He knew the demons were not there. Because he knew he still had to kill them.

Much had become clear to him in the events following her. His theory was correct: in pain, the sky-people, these . . . gods, had come to him. He merely had failed to surmise whose pain was necessary to contact them.

He had not cursed them. It was a weakness of the pink skin and feeble mind that pleaded for them and asked them where they had been. He could tell that they had not cursed him with that woman, with her wicked touch, with the withered and broken body she had given him.

They had given him this as a warning. They had implored him. They spoke to him in his withered arm and his crushed throat and his crumbled knee. They told him to go to Jaga. They told him to eradicate their enemies there.

He smiled as he clenched his good hand, felt the smoothness of the gray pebble rubbing against his palm. The gift of the Gray One That Grins. It was warm. It was alive.

The Gray One That Grins had always been his ally, but now Sheraptus could see he had been sent there to help him. Everything in his life: the discovery of the world beyond their own, the opening of the portal, that woman . . . it had all been the sky-people reaching out to him, telling him to come to them, telling him to reduce their foes, these demons, to ash.

His victory would be theirs. Their reward would be his. They would promise this land to him, in all its greenery and blue skies and white sun. He would have it. He would be beyond all netherlings.

It all made sense now.

It was all so perfect.


Or it would be. Soon.

“Look at us, Sheraptus.”

Feet trampled across the deck. Yldus advanced.

“Damn it, you will not—”

Two great feet stomped upon the wood. Yldus’s advance came to a sudden halt as something stood between him and Sheraptus.

“You will do whatever Master Sheraptus says you will do,” Semnein Xhai growled. “If he tells you nothing, then you need to know nothing else.” He could hear the grate of her teeth in her voice. “Leave.”

Only at the sound of their retreat did Sheraptus look over his shoulder. The two males cast indignant scowls over their backs as they strode down the middle of the deck, between the females silently oaring. With words of power, flashes of crimson about their throats, the males leapt, propelled by nethra to their own ships as their fleet advanced slowly across the ocean, oar over oar, rumbles of discontent rising from their decks.

They could complain. That was fine. They did not know what he knew, any of them.

“Master . . .”

Especially her.

“The females that have spoken against you have been silenced, as well as . . . those two, but you won’t tell us what you’re thinking. You won’t lead us. If you would just talk to us . . .”

He could feel her drawing closer.

“To me . . .”

He could hear the clatter of her gauntlet as she reached out a hand. Her horrible, maimed hand. The result of the touch of that overscum woman: a gift from the gods that Xhai simply could not recognize in her netherling futility.

He rose up to his feet and felt her draw back, a child wary of a parent rising from interrupted slumber. His good leg took the brunt of his weight; the other was far too cracked and useless to stand on its own. That was fine. He didn’t need it.

He didn’t need the withered arm that couldn’t keep his robes secured as they fell from him. He didn’t need the females that looked upon his shattered body with grimaces. He didn’t need the female that whirled a furious gaze over her shoulder and sent their gazes low.

He had everything he needed in his palm.

And at his feet.

He spoke a word, made the gesture, felt the pain that normally came with nethra. He had so little of himself to give, but the magic always demanded. But he wanted to remind himself of it again before he returned the crown to his brow. He wanted to remember who had the power to take this away.

And who could give him more.

The air quivered beneath his fingers. An invisible hand reached down, plucked the black box from his feet and delivered it into his hands. It had taken all the cunning of his indelicate warriors to create something worthy of housing the weapon that would strike down the demons, the weapon they had brought back from the overscum city. He opened the lid, stared at the spear.

Bones stared back at him without eyes. They were not impressive bones. No thicker than any other he had seen come from a human. Not particularly sturdy-looking. The jagged head of obsidian that sat amongst them only barely resembled a spear’s. But his warriors had brought them to him. His warriors had found them where they were supposed to be found.

It would become a mighty weapon. Sheraptus could see the grooves where the bones locked together to create the spear. It would be driven into the heart of Ulbecetonth. It would slay all that stood before it. It would fulfill the desires of the people in the sky.

Or so the Gray One That Grins had said.

Sheraptus trusted in these bones, in the creature they had come from, in the hands that would wield them.

He turned around and saw her hands resting on her knees as she sat before him. One was in a gauntlet, wrapped in steel. The other was a ruined, twisted thing, a pale imitation of the powerful purple fist it had been before. But it was a capable hand.

He knew this from her eyes, those pale, empty things that looked up to him only, that softened for him only. He knew this from her pleading gaze, the desperation she would show only him. He knew this from the words that trembled upon her lips, that she simply did not have the language to speak.

She loved him. That was it. The netherlings had no word for such a thing. He barely knew what it was himself before he looked to the sky and knew someone looked back to him. But he knew now, the desperation, the beautiful futility of doing something with the hope that it would someday beget reward.

And yet, he wondered what had happened in her, who she had spoken to, that let her show such desperation, that made her try to form the word she didn’t know.

It didn’t matter. Her love mattered. And with her love, she would carry these bones. She would kill in his name. In their name.

She did not cringe from his withered hand, thin and stretched like a child’s, as he rested it upon her brow. She did not cringe as he held out his other hand and looked at the small gray stone in his palm. She said nothing as he clenched it, as he squeezed the tiny life ensconced within it.

And into him.

He could feel it, that warmth that coursed inside it. A living thing, something unseen and significant that had been wrapped into a single stone pebble. It had disgusted him at first, repulsed him. The Gray One That Grins had, too, once upon a time. But that was before he knew what his true purpose was. And now that he knew, now that he had the life of this stone in his hands, he knew what it was sent to him for.

And he welcomed it.

With agony, it came. The life flowed from the lump of stone into his body with an exhalating scream of freedom that poured into his hand and out of his mouth. He threw back his head, felt his throat being restored, opened to allow the shriek to leave him. He tensed his arm as its muscle and shape returned to it and filled it. He stomped his foot in agony as the bones were mended and set themselves alight. He roared with laughter, with a voice he shared with someone else, into the sky to show the things that walked up there that he was worthy.

And when laughter died, when the night air hung still, he stood upon the deck.

Sheraptus in body. Restored and whole and unbroken.

His warriors stopped midrow, looking up at the creature brimming with life. They watched him with awe as he stepped over Xhai, walked between his warriors to the prow of the ship.

He stared out over the black shapes of his fleet cutting through the waves, at the warriors he commanded. All for the death of the demons. All for the glory of what walked in the sky.

All for him.

“Go,” he commanded. “We go to Jaga. We go for glory and for death. The demons await us.”

He knew this.

Because he had to kill them.

And because whatever had left the stone, whatever was inside him, knew it.

And wanted to help.




It was a rare and unfortunate occasion, Lenk thought, that he could not enjoy food. It always seemed like it had been some time since he had eaten, let alone anything freshly-cooked. But he chewed the skewered fish, plucked from the sky like fruit from a tree, without much joy.

It was, after all, difficult to enjoy a meal that had been handed to him by a gang of bipedal reptiles that had been eager to kill him just moments ago. Even if said reptiles now clustered in small campfires about the base of the stone stairs, even if they had offered him food, they continued to stare at him warily, their weapons never far from their hands.

Their leader was no less unnerving and twice as frustrating. Shortly after revealing his affiliation with the organization that had, over the course of weeks, led him to this very island, Mahalar had disappeared without a word. His green-skinned brethren had simply shrugged and said “Mahalar knows,” as though this were all perfectly normal. Perhaps it was for half-rotted lizardmen who spat dust with each word.

But Lenk could have gotten beyond all that. Lenk could have enjoyed his fish. Lenk could have celebrated a warm meal, the fact that he was no longer in immediate danger of decapitation, and the memory of scents of sweat and sand from the chasm.

And he would have.

If not for the statues.

He couldn’t explain it, the feeling he got as he looked across the shattered and broken women. They were but stone, ancient and decrepit and crumbling. But they hated him. They loathed him with a fury clenched in that smile, hidden behind those eyes, held within those outstretched, benevolent palms. The fish knew. That was why they gave her a wide berth when they swam.

He had just begun to turn, content to follow their example, when he heard the sound of grinding. He looked up and saw stone eyes rolling in stone sockets. From high above, and in the rubble where her head lay fragmented, she turned her eyes upon him.

The grinding became a groan, ancient granite dust falling from her shoulders as her many heads turned toward him. And the groaning became cracking, and the cracking became thunder as her many stone mouths opened and spoke in one old, hateful stone voice.

“I gave you a chance. I let you run. Not this time.”

He blinked.

The statues were once again mere stone. No moving eyes, no moving lips, no voices. He held up the half-eaten fish and scrutinized it carefully.

“It is not poisoned.”

The words came with the stench of burning dust. He turned, saw the creature wrapped in the dirty cloak standing before him.

“What you saw was not a hallucination.”

Mahalar inclined his head. Amber eyes, dull and glassy, stared out from the shadows of his cowl.

“She remembers you.”

Lenk nearly choked on his fish.

“You saw . . .”

Mahalar’s eyes drifted up toward one of the statues of Ulbecetonth. A cloud of dust came out with his sigh. Beneath him, tiny fingers of sand rose up to seize the motes of dust leaving on his breath, to take them down into the sand of the ring like precious things.

“I have lived a long time,” he said, noting Lenk’s gaze drifting to the ground. “The earth and I have bled together and it no longer remembers a time without me. Or her. We have both been here.

“Live with someone a long time,” he muttered, “and you begin to notice things. The wrinkles that appear when she smiles, the way her laugh is slightly annoying. I have lived with the Kraken Queen a very long time. I have heard her screaming. I have felt her scratching at the roof of hell. I hear her weeping. I know her laughter. I cannot stop from hearing when she cries out for her children.

“These days, she screams more often.” He turned back to Lenk. “Two days ago, she started screaming. She hasn’t stopped.” He sighed deeply. “But you know that, don’t you? You can’t hear it, but you’ve seen it. You know what’s happening in the chasm.” His eyes flashed. “You know she’s coming back, as do I. You remember her.”

There was a flash of movement, motes of dust in the dying light. Mahalar stood mere hairs’ breadths away from Lenk, eyes boring into the young man.

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