The Skybound Sea

Page 37

“And I remember you.”

Lenk met his stare for as long as he could bear. While the creature was old, older than the dust that came from his mouth on each breath, old enough to have his skin flaking into powder, somehow his gaze was older, more unpleasant to look at than even his rotting body. His eyes had seen too much, knew too much, and even the tiniest scrap of what they shared in the instant they met Lenk’s eyes was too much.

There was recognition there. Not for Lenk, but for what Lenk was. Beyond whatever Kataria had seen, beyond whatever he had seen in himself, Mahalar saw. Every drop of blood that had stained him, every hateful thought that had ever been muttered inside his head, every chill that had coursed through his body, Mahalar saw.

Mahalar knew.

And Lenk couldn’t bear to look at him anymore. He turned on his heel, suddenly preferring the living, screaming statues.

“Think before you walk away from me,” Mahalar said, toneless. “Think of the weight you’ll walk with. Think of how many chances you’ll have to ask.”

He paused. He thought. He sighed.

“If I do ask,” Lenk replied, “you have to promise me something.”

“That being?”

“You have to tell me, straightforward, without any cryptic, riddle-speaking, I’m-old-and-oh-so-mysterious-so-I-get-to-not-make-sense garbage.” He glanced over his shoulder. “Do we have a deal?”

Mahalar stared straight ahead, as if in deep thought as to whether he was willing to give up that rare joy. In the end, he bowed his head in acquiescence.

“And . . .” Lenk began.

He glanced over Mahalar, to the distant firepits, to the sole flash of pale skin amidst a sea of green. Kataria sat amidst the Shen as though she had always belonged there, laughing at some joke they obviously didn’t share, looking up and flashing a broad, bare-canined smile at him.

“This stays between us,” the young man finished, “whatever it is you tell me, you tell no one else.”

“And what is it you wish to know?”

“You said you remembered me.”

“I did.”

“Does that mean you know . . .” He choked on the words, eventually coughed them up. “What I am?”

“I do.”

He stared at the elder Shen for a moment. “Well?”

Mahalar slowly turned his gaze upward. He raised a hand, stretched out a finger to a relatively intact statue of Ulbecetonth. The digit straightened with a sickening popping sound, a noticeable chunk of flesh sloughing off. It tumbled from his fingers, hit the ground, and became dust upon dust.

“It all began,” he said, “with her.”

“Gods damn it, what did I just say?”

Mahalar continued as though he had said nothing, either then or now. “It was all hers to begin with. This.” He stomped the earth with a foot. “This.” He tapped his own chest with a hand. “And we were whole back then. Jaga, Teji, Komga . . . Gonwa, Owauku, and Shen. One land. One people. We lived under her. We breathed at her mercy. I was born here.”

“I gather most Shen were.”

“I was born here,” Mahalar replied, pointing to the earth beneath his feet. “Here, under her eyes, beneath her court. My very first vision upon opening my eyes was of this statue as my father was carving it.”

Lenk fixed him with a confused glare. “How old are you?”

“Would you consider ‘old as the song of heaven and the depth of hell’ to be cryptic?”

“I would.”

“Old as balls, then.”


“I grew up under her gaze. I labored under her gaze. I watched my father and mother die under her gaze. All for her and her children.” He sighed a dusty sigh. “They were not so wretched then. They possessed fins, flowing green hair, pale skin. They were not called ‘demon’ back then.”

“What did you call them?”

“‘Master.’ On us, they built a place for themselves. She did anything for them: fed them whatever flesh they desired, provided them whatever amusement they wanted, tended to their every weeping wail. Her children flourished and those who suckled at her teats never wanted.

“And for this, for her love of her children that eclipsed everything else, she was punished. The Gods accused her of loving herself and her children more than her duty. The mortals she was sent to serve, she neglected and enslaved. For this, they twisted her.”

He fingered the pendant of the gauntlet clenching the arrows hanging around his neck.

“You did not flinch when I showed you this,” Mahalar said. “You know it.”

“I know enough to know what you’re telling me. The Gods cursed the Aeons for trying to usurp heaven, the war with the House of the Vanquishing Trinity put them to rest.”

“You know some, but not all. It was not heaven they tried to usurp, but heaven they tried to create. It was not the House that sent them to hell, but us.” His tone grew cold. “The war did not start until they came back.

“When the Gods struck back at Ulbecetonth and cursed her, we rose up. We drowned her children. We defiled her temples. We screeched and beat our chests and hailed freedom. Whether it was her love or their hate, no one knew. But her children came back. Vast and terrible and with souls as black as their skin. The House came to our aid. The House marched on Ulbecetonth. With their great moving statues, with their spears and banners and holy words . . . and with you.”

Lenk cast a wary glance to make sure Kataria was still far away before turning back to the elder Shen.

“The war went poorly, at first. For as strong as we were, as hungry for freedom as we were, the war was still between the mortal and the immortal. We faltered. We failed. We died, in great numbers. Even when the Rhega stood alongside us, fought alongside us, there were more of us dead than they.

“But then, they came from god. Not one we knew, not one they would speak of. But their hair was that of the old men and women. Their eyes were cold and hateful. And they spoke with the voice of that god they came from. They could cut the demons. They could hurt the demons. They fought. They won. And with them, we cast Ulbecetonth and her children back into hell.

“Not without cost, of course. You’ve seen the bones. The worst of it happened on Teji and our brothers there suffered for it and became the Owauku. But even here, on Jaga, from which she reigned, we spilled blood. Much of it spilled into the chasm when the road was shattered. Much of it was spilled here beneath our feet.

“But it did end. She was driven back into that dark place the Gods made for her. The House appointed us her wardens. And we have guarded her ever since. Shalake and the others know only the story and the duty it carries. Only I know what happened. Only I remember how we nearly lost everything, if not for the House . . . and for them.”

The word echoed against nothing.

“Who were they? The ones who came?” Lenk asked.

“We didn’t give them names. They didn’t give us any, either.”

“What happened to them?”

“Apparently,” Mahalar said, looking back to Lenk. “They came back.”

Lenk had been stared at many times. As a monster, as a curiosity, as something else entirely. But the way Mahalar stared at him now, eyes heavy with knowing, was the same stare one might use to appraise a weapon.

Lenk had never before felt the kind of shudder he felt now.

“Whatever you think I am,” he said, “whatever you think I can do, I can’t. I left it behind in the chasm with the bones.”

“Maybe.” Mahalar rolled his shoulders. “Maybe what I felt wasn’t you. Maybe it was someone wearing your skin, your soul. But my feet have never left Jaga in all the time I’ve been alive. I knew your presence when you set foot on my island, as I knew theirs. And I knew why you had come.”

“The tome.”

“To kill,” Mahalar said, “to end. Ulbecetonth is coming. I can feel it. You can, too. You were driven here. If you say it’s for the tome, that’s fine. It is a key to open a door. But you came here to kill what’s on the other side.”

“I came to stop her.”

“Many ways to do that.”

Lenk held his stare for a moment before turning away. “I . . . maybe. Before things stopped making sense . . . or started.”

“It seems a little hypocritical for you to start talking in riddles, yourself.”

“I’m entitled to sound a little insane,” Lenk snapped back. “I came here to kill her, but it wasn’t my idea. She was inside my head once. She sounded . . . hurt, panicked, worried for her children. She let me go, telling me not to hurt them again and I . . . I really didn’t want to.”

“But you’re here now.”

“Because something told me to come here.”

“Then clearly, it knew what it was talking about.”

“It told me to kill my—” He waved his hands about, frustrated. “We’re not going to argue this. I came here to kill her, but I stayed here for a different . . . are you even listening to me?”

Mahalar was not. Mahalar was turning. Mahalar was moving, five feet away. Then ten feet. In the blink of each eye, he moved impossibly quick, impossibly slow, and growing farther all the while as he moved closer to a sudden bustle of movement at the staircase.

“This, for the record,” Lenk shouted after him, “counts as ‘cryptic.’”

Lenk came hurrying up to find the Shen assembling around the foot of the stairs once more, Mahalar seated upon the stone once more. He forced his way through a gap in their ranks, found Gariath and Kataria standing nearby, Shalake hovering protectively over the elder.

“And this is why I said ‘no cryptic gibberish,’” Lenk snarled. “Because somehow, it always ends up with me, rushing up to some smelly creature I’d rather not be around, demanding what the hell is supposed to happen now.”


Mahalar smiled broadly, dust seeping out through his teeth, amber eyes shining dully. He drew back his cloak and there it sat upon his knee, like a baby made of leather black as night, sitting smugly in Mahalar’s hands.

The book.

The Tome of the Undergates.

He remembered the book. He remembered paper smiles, paper eyes, dusty mutterings and writings that made sense only to him. He remembered reading it and hearing voices going quiet, replaced by voices that grew darker in his head.

But he didn’t remember this.

The tome upon Mahalar’s knee was the tome, to be certain. But it was just a tome. Something leather and paper. No smiles. No eyes. A book.

Perhaps he had left more in the chasm than he thought.

Not his senses, though. He still knew something insane when he heard it.

“Now,” Mahalar said bluntly, “you kill Ulbecetonth.”

“What?” Kataria turned a scowl upon Lenk. “You were gone for a quarter of an hour. How the hell did you come to this conclusion?”

“We didn’t!” Lenk protested, turning on Mahalar. “And I’m not! We came here for the tome. The Tome of the Undergates. The thing that’s going to get us paid so I can move away from islands full of freaky dust-lizards and go live on a patch of dirt somewhere. Remember?” He turned to Gariath. “Remember?”

“Barely,” Gariath grunted.

“And you didn’t think to mention this to them, what with all the time you’ve been spending with them?”

“I didn’t come here for that,” the dragonman replied. “I came here for them.” He gestured to Shalake. “They stood with the Rhega against the demons. They know the Rhega. They have told me stories.”

“Great, fine, good,” Lenk grumbled. “Stay here with them, then. Scratch each others’ scales, play tug-the-tail or whatever it is people with more than four appendages do. I came for the tome.” He swept a hand out over the assembled Shen. “You’re obviously not too fond of me. Just give me the stupid book and we’ll leave.”

“We killed thousands to see our duty done,” Shalake snarled, stepping forward. “We will kill one more to do it.”

“We cannot give you the tome,” Mahalar said, nodding. “It was too precious to be penned in the first place. It has knowledge that no one should have. It was designed only for woe.” He fixed those scrutinizing eyes upon Lenk. “But it can be used for good.”

“No,” Lenk said.

“You have the power,” Mahalar insisted.


“There are stories,” Shalake said, “stories of those who came and cut the demons down.”


“Listen to them, Lenk,” Gariath said, “I’ve heard them, too. People with hair like yours, eyes like yours, who cut like you can. You’re the only one who’s been able to hurt the demons.”


“We can kill her,” Mahalar said, “before she breaks out. We can summon her, on our terms, with an army of Shen to assist you.” His eyes lit like the barest flicker of a candle. “Forgive me for my selfishness, but think of it. My people can be free, Lenk. Our duty can be fulfilled. We will no longer have to live with the burden, the agony, the screaming, if only you can—”

“He can’t.”

The voice came from Kataria. Not with great volume, or great joy. But everyone turned and looked to her, all the same. She did not look up to meet their stares.

“He can’t do that anymore.”

When she did look up, she looked only at Lenk.

“I followed you earlier. I overheard you. Talking to the dead girl. You didn’t want me to know, so I pretended I hadn’t. But . . .” She swallowed something back, then looked to Mahalar. “Whatever was in him is gone now. He sent it away. He can’t kill her. He can’t do anything for you.”

She hadn’t spoken loudly. Somehow, everyone heard. The same despair settled over every scaly face present. Lenk looked to her, an apology carved across his face in his frown.

“I really didn’t want you to know,” he said.

“Yeah,” she replied. “Well.”

He smiled sadly. “If you were dumber, we wouldn’t have this problem.”

“I sincerely hope you don’t think you were particularly clever about it,” Kataria snapped. “I knew something was wrong with you from the day I met you. It’s just now I know exactly what is wrong with you.”

He laughed. No one else did.

Mahalar merely settled back and breathed a cloud of dust.

“That,” he said, “is a problem.”

“One that gets worse, Mahalar,” someone said.

He—or at least, it looked and sounded like a “he,” it was hard to tell with lizardmen . . . or lizardwomen—came stalking out of the forest, tall and scaly and bearing a long, carved bow on his back. Many more emerged behind him, Shen armed and glowering as they slithered out of the coral and onto the great sandy field.

“Leaving a warwatcher’s post is a grave offense, Jenaji,” Shalake said in a gravel-voiced snarl.

“There are few things you don’t consider grave offenses, Shalake,” the tall and lanky newcomer replied, his voice smooth and heavy like a polished stone. “And there are fewer things I consider worth answering to you over.” He turned his eyes, bright and sharp as the arrows in his quiver, to Mahalar. “We have an issue, Mahalar.”

“An issue?” Lenk muttered. “Just one?”

“We have many problems, Jenaji,” Mahalar replied. “Or have you not been listening?”

“I have only just arrived,” Jenaji said. “And I did not come alone.”

The Shen parted to expose pink, familiar shapes amidst their greenery, trudging wearily up to join the congregation. There were no smiles on their faces as they approached, no relief at seeing their companions again. Only weariness, wariness and, in Denaos’s case, just a pinch of resentment.

Lenk looked them over. Dreadaeleon’s clothes were soiled with soot and worse. Asper’s eyes betrayed a drained weariness that went beyond the flesh. Denaos stood bandaged, bloodied, battered.

“What happened to you?” he asked.

“Longfaces,” Denaos replied. “You?”

“Shen, shicts, snakes,” Lenk said.

The rogue sniffed. “It’s not a contest.”

“It is bold of you to bring outsiders here,” Shalake said, narrowing his eyes. “These ones at least fought their way here.”

“Ah, so you are more honorable because you failed to stop them?” Jenaji said with a sneer. “I didn’t come to compare tails. They have cause to be here.”

“They say that?”

“They do not.” Jenaji stepped aside. “She does.”

Weapons immediately were drawn by the companions at the sight of Greenhair standing amidst them, like a pale white flower amidst endless green stalks. Hatchets and machetes came out in response as the Shen closed in protectively about the siren. Lenk flashed an accusatory glare at Denaos as the rogue stood with his daggers hanging at his belt.

Denaos merely shrugged. “Yeah, I was like that at first, too. But she helped us and she has something to say.”

“Something you need to hear, Mahalar,” the siren spoke in her liquid voice. “I bring dark words to you. I bring doom. I bring disaster.”

Mahalar looked up. Mahalar smiled a dusty smile.

“Maka-wa,” he said, “we have plenty to share with you, too.”

Doom, as it turned out, needed only half an hour to summarize.

The companions, Shen, and siren exchanged their stories, their experiences, all—or at least all that was pertinent and didn’t involve parts without pants, Lenk noted—that had happened since they had set out.

They spoke of netherling armies fueled by the dying Gonwa. They spoke of demons stirring beneath the earth. They spoke of Mahalar’s plan to draw out Ulbecetonth, to use Lenk to kill her, and its subsequent and tragic failure.

And there they had fallen silent. An hour after death had been summarized, they sat on the edge of disaster, waiting for someone to put it to words and dreading it, too.

If Mahalar held that dread, though, it showed in neither gleam of eye nor sigh of voice.

“How many?”

Would that everyone could boast such calmness at the question; as it was, every face went to wincing.

“Many,” Greenhair replied. “Three males, with all their power. Boats full of females, with all their swords. Great, savage beasts, teeth brimming with—”

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