The Skybound Sea


Page 38



“Did anyone bother to count?” Kataria piped up impatiently.

“They clustered in groups of thirty-three,” Dreadaeleon said. “Each one to a boat. There were at least ten boats.” He scratched his head. “Maybe more.”

Whether or not the Shen excelled at math, they could grasp the severity of the statement. Most of them, anyway.

“The longfaces have attacked before,” Shalake snarled. “We have killed them before. Stalk them, hunt them, and then,” he hefted his club, patted it into his palm, “shenko-sa.”

“Are you willfully stupid or does it just come easily to you?” Lenk snapped. “Do you not grasp the numbers here? Ten boatloads. Thirty-three each. There are . . . how many of you?”

“Not that many,” Jenaji muttered.

“We strike swiftly, from the forests,” Shalake replied. “Hunt them like animals, as we have done before. We cut them down and feed them to the sharks.”

“They’ll burn the forests down,” Dreadaeleon said. “They have the power, the fire. Their magic is infinite.”

“So you say,” Shalake said, suspicious. “But this is much to ask us to accept from people we would have killed a moment ago, had maka-wa not vouched for you.” He glanced over them, sought a stooped, green figure amongst the masses. “Hongwe, did you see this?”

The Gonwa lifted his head reluctantly, said nothing. His eyes seemed heavy enough to roll out of his head, his frown deep enough to slide off and follow. He had worn the expression ever since the fate of his kinsmen had been revealed to him. He had said not a word since. Whatever bonds still linked the Gonwa and the Shen, they were enough to keep Shalake’s voice stilled.

“And they come for the tome,” Mahalar muttered.

“The tome is inconsequential,” Dreadaeleon said. “They come for fuel. Whatever it is they’re coming through, it can’t be powered by the Gonwa. They succumb too easily. A demon, however . . .”

Mahalar loosed a low groan. “They fight one another, and whoever wins . . .” He didn’t bother to finish the sentence. “We stand and fight, against that many, against that much metal and fire, and . . .”

He didn’t need to finish that one.

“Not that it’s entirely unexpected that I suggest this,” Denaos began softly, “but has anyone considered running?”

“The Shen don’t run,” Gariath growled. “Neither do I.”

“Well, good, no one invited you, anyway. The rest of us can just hop in Lenk’s boat and—”

“Ours got destroyed,” Lenk interrupted. “What happened to yours?”

“These damn lizards sank it before we could get close enough to tell them not to,” Denaos said, rubbing his eyes. “So, did you commit any crimes against nature before I got here? Some horrid blasphemy to make the Gods hate us as much as they do?”

Lenk exchanged a quick glance with Kataria. “Define ‘crime.’”

“It does not matter,” Mahalar said wearily. “The longfaces have found their way through the reef before. They can do so again. The way out would put you in their path. They come. And they come with many.”

In the deathly silence that followed, in the bow of heads and the swallowing of doubts, the sound of grains of sand shifting atop one another could be heard as clear as a bell.

Asper’s voice could be heard only if one strained.

“There is a way,” she whispered.

The eyes that turned upon her were so intent it seemed as though they might pierce her flesh. But she did not flinch or shy away, even if she did not look up to meet them.

“They don’t act on their own. They follow one man.”

“Sheraptus,” Dreadaeleon muttered the name like a riddle.

“He controls them, the females. They obey him totally.” She cleared her throat, swallowed something back. “If you can kill him, their numbers won’t mean anything.”

“If.” Dreadaeleon spared a black laugh. “If you can kill someone with an entire furnace of blood and flesh feeding him fire and frost and lightning and whatever else the hell he feels like throwing at us.”

“She’s right, though. I’ve seen it,” Kataria said. “They bark like dogs at his command.”

“It’s worth a try,” Denaos said hesitantly, as though he himself hadn’t expected to say it.

“No, trying to jump over a wall to get into a farm is worth a try, you bark-necked dimwit,” Dreadaeleon said snidely. “What you are proposing is the equivalent of trying to beat down the wall with a twig and the wall is sixty feet high, made of metal and when you hit it, it electrocutes your genitals and makes your head explode.” He took a breath, then snorted. “It is impossible, in other words.”

“I’ve killed plenty of longfaces,” Gariath grunted.

“And yet, none of us have even been able to scratch this one. Even Bralston couldn’t hurt him,” Dreadaeleon said. “I’d say it could be done, but I also said that magic had limits and he went and disproved me there. We don’t even know if he can be hurt, much less—”

“He can.”

Asper only barely whispered, but she commanded their attention nonetheless.

“I hurt him.”

“How?” Lenk asked.

“He came to me and he did . . .” She swallowed a breath. “And I hurt him.”

“If anyone was to kill him, it would be me,” Gariath grunted. “You expect me to believe that you could do anything to him?”

“Take a step back, reptile,” Denaos said, stepping protectively in front of her. “And then continue going that way until you fall off a cliff. If she says she hurt him—”

“Humans lie. Humans are weak. Humans are stupid.” Shalake stepped beside Gariath, hefting his club. “Which is why they threaten a Rhega in front of the Shen.”

“And everyone fears the Shen.” Kataria stepped in front of Denaos. “My arrows feared them, too. Must be why they tried to hide . . . in Shen gullets.”

“Look around you, pink thing,” Yaike growled, narrowing his good eye on her. “Look what surrounds you.”

“Yeah? Why? Is it harder for you to see with only one eye?” She clacked her teeth after together.

“ENOUGH.”

Mahalar’s voice was a hungry thing, eating all other voices, all other sounds, even its own echo. Muscles relaxed, weapons were lowered. He turned his stare to Asper.

“What did you do?”

She looked at him intently. She spoke resolutely.

“I hurt him.”

Mahalar was silent.

Without looking up, he raised two fingers and waved them at Shalake. The immense lizardman grunted, reached to his hip and pulled free an immense warhorn. He trudged heavily up the stone stairs. Then raised the horn to his lips and blew.

The noise was no shrill, shrieking warcry. It was something deep, heavy and inevitable. It blew across the island, through the forests, through the coral, scattering fish and sending eels slithering back into their holes. It ate the sound, as the clouds overhead ate the light. And all was silent.

For a moment.

Then, the other horns came. One, two, three, blowing from the forest and shores and walls in response.

Shalake came back down, belting the horn at his hip. He nodded at Mahalar, who merely grunted back. Lenk blinked, glancing to the ancient lizardman.

“What?” he asked. “What just happened?”

“The watchers are summoned. They will come. We will fight. We will bleed.”

“That’s it?”

“That is not enough?”

“I mean, just like that? One horn and that’s that? Everyone comes to fight?”

“We took the oaths, human,” Mahalar said. “Every Shen is born dead, knowing that they walk with hell under them and that they will kill . . . and die to do so.”

His sigh was older than even he was. No dust came from his mouth. The light behind his dull ambers dimmed and he closed his eyes with such heaviness that he didn’t seem to see much point in opening them again. He said softly, he said sadly.

“That is duty.”

TWENTY-SIX

AS THE STARS

The last footfall came heavily, crunching upon the sand as Gariath reached the other end of the ring. He stared at his feet, sunk slightly into the moist earth, before looking back over his shoulder.

Fires burned at the foot of the stairs. The coral burned brighter than wood; he hadn’t thought it would, but he supposed that was the least weird thing about Jaga. In ever-increasing numbers, more warbands of Shen continued to emerge from the forest. From here, they seemed like tiny lights, fallen stars burning out on the earth.

He didn’t know how many paces he had taken, how far he had come. He was sure he had started counting, but after a while, as the sand went on and on, he stopped thinking about how long it was he walked and instead wondered about this earth.


And how much blood it had drank.

He had heard the stories.

This is where it happened, the Shen had uttered. They uttered everything. They never laughed or whispered or wept. Here, in this ring. This was where she held court. This was where she fell. She was driven back, into the mountain to be sealed away forever.

The Rhega, they had uttered, not said, were there, too. They fought. They died. Their blood spilled in oceans. When they lay, they lay with Shen. Where they lay, so lay a thousand corpses that went with them. Why they lay . . .

He had never heard the end of that story. They had never finished.

Rhega was a word they uttered with the reverence reserved for spirits, as though they—he—weren’t actually real. And when they uttered, there was an envy to their voice, a nostalgic resentment for those who had died and left them behind.

On the day it had happened, there was said to have been carnage. The Shen said that. Uttered it. He had asked Mahalar; the elder Shen had said nothing. He had asked Shalake; the warwatcher had simply smiled. He had no one else to ask. There were no ghosts here.

And so he stared out over the ring and tried to imagine it.

He saw fragments of a vision: the bells of Ulbecetonth’s chosen shattered and mingled into heaps of scrap along with siege engines and statues of mortal armies, titanic corpses of demons forming a soil of flesh watered by blood for the rest of the mortal flowers to wither and die in. He could see red.

So much red. So many unmoving bodies.

It was a vast field. It had taken him a long time to cross it. There must have been a lot of them. They must have lain screaming, cursing, howling to mothers and reaching out to brothers lying beside them and fathers bleeding out and refusing to die.

He could see that.

But he could smell nothing.

Ktamgi had reeked of memory. Teji stank of regret. And Jaga smelled like nothing. No death. No laments. Not even a faded aroma of a long-ago tear, shed into the earth and waiting for him to find it.

There was no smell of memory here.

There were no ghosts here.

There were no Rhega here.

Except for him. And the ones in the stories the Shen uttered.

And could he trust them? Could he bring himself to believe them? To see the Rhega walking here, living here, fighting alongside the Shen, alongside humans, as countless as the stars?

He looked to the night sky for reference and snorted. The analogy might have been easier to grasp had he stars to which he could actually compare. There were lights up there, to be certain: purple ones, yellow ones, even the occasional pale blue glow that might have been mistaken for a star.

But then they shifted. The fish carrying the lights in their bellies and brows twisted and swam from one another, countless and impossible to keep track of.

“We have no stars here.”

To see Shalake standing nearby was no particular surprise. The lizardman had been by Gariath’s side since he had arrived, always the one to tell the stories, always the one to utter. He now stood by Gariath’s side again and stared up into the sky.

“The sky and sea are one here. There’s no room for anything else.” He traced a slow-moving, blue-glowing fish with his claw as it swam across the sky. “And these fish only emerge in the shadow of the mountain.”

Their gazes shifted to the vast stone monument standing stolidly at the other end of the ring. Haloed by storm clouds, the blue rivers veining it bright and glistening against the many firelights below, it stood with an earthen weariness. It had seen much in its time: many deaths, many bodies.

The blood spilled before its stone eyes tomorrow would be nothing particularly worth noting.

“It’s a mistake,” Shalake grunted. “We shouldn’t be fighting here. The Shen way is to strike quickly from the sea and from the shadows. We should be back there.”

He gestured behind them. The kelp forest rose in great masses of twisting, writhing stalks, cleaved neatly down the middle by the stone road leading into the ring.

“Our best chance of success comes from fighting in the forest.”

“Scared?” Gariath asked, unsmiling.

“Intelligent,” Shalake answered him. “There’s no way for the longfaces to move a force as big as the humans claim they have, but for the road. We fight them there at dawn, we paint the sun red with their blood and ours. Their dead are fed to the sharks, ours are sent back to the sea.”

Gariath stared at the kelp forest and wondered if it was that simple. Had he ever spoken so casually of throwing himself to his death? Did he ever have the same sliver of an excited whine that crept into Shalake’s voice when he said the word “blood”?

Perhaps he wondered too loudly. When he looked back, Shalake had an intent gaze fixed upon him.

“Do you agree?” Shalake asked.

“The humans . . . think a lot,” Gariath said. “Especially the little one. They spend a lot of time in their heads talking to themselves and wondering how they can stay alive. If they think it’s better to fight here . . .”

“You trust them?”

The dragonman hesitated before speaking. “The longfaces are strong. I’ve fought them. I’ve killed them.”

“Then they can die.”

“They have no concept of ‘death.’ They look at blood spilling out of their bodies and don’t blink. They see their others lying cold on the ground and walk on top of their bodies. They die only when you convince them that they can die.”

The smile that creased Shalake’s face was morbid enough without the amorous gleam in his eye.

“And there will be many,” he whispered in a shuddering voice.

Gariath furrowed his eyeridges at the lizardman. “Yeah. A lot.”

“The fight will be a story unto itself.”

“It might not come to that. As strong as they are, it’s the males that are the real danger. The little ones control the others and tell them what to do. If one of them dies, this whole thing becomes simpler.”

“The pointy-eared thing’s plan.” The wistful joy in Shalake’s voice dropped back into a growl. “I don’t trust it, her or the ones that think it’s a good idea.”

“Mahalar did.”

“Mahalar is our elder. Even if we must respect his decisions, I am the warwatcher. I say there should be more warriors in the forest. We can’t entrust it to a stupid, pink-skinned thing like her.”

“Some of her plans are stupid,” Gariath said, nodding.

“The last one almost got you eaten by an Akaneed, you said.”

“Almost,” Gariath replied. “And it brought me to where the Rhega lived.”

“And died,” Shalake was quick to respond. He swept his hands out across the ring. “Atop the demons, atop the humans, atop the steel and the blood and even the Shen. They fought and they died and they bled until the dead were as countless as the stars.”

Gariath looked out over the ring and repeated to himself.

“As countless as the stars.”

He tried to imagine it.

He found he couldn’t.

“And we may join them.” Shalake’s voice grew excited. “In a way that only we know how, in a glory that only we know. The humans, they will scream and weep and beg. But we will know what it is that meets us on the other side.”

“I already know what it is,” Gariath muttered. He had talked to enough ghosts to know.

“Because you are Rhega,” Shalake said. “And we are Shen. We are the same, you and I. To the humans, it will always be a mystery, something to be feared. As will you. Have they never looked at you as we have? Have they never stood here with you and spoke to you like a true creature?”

Gariath tried to remember the last time they had spoken like that, without fear or terror in their voices.

“No,” Shalake said. “They are weak things, Rhega. You are amongst the Shen now. All we have is each other. And our glorious death.”

While not quite certain how lizardman anatomy worked, Gariath dreaded to think what was going on beneath Shalake’s loincloth, given the excited quaver in his voice.

The lizardman positively beamed from beneath his scales. His eyes were alight with glorious stories. His heart thundered with memory. His smile glistened with bloodlust reflected in every tooth.

And none of it was his.

That story was someone’s else. That memory died on the battlefield. That bloodlust belonged somewhere far away and long ago.

That face Shalake wore, his face, belonged to someone who had earned it, not someone who had dug it out of an earth glutted on stories and blood.

It belonged to a Rhega.

“I’m leaving,” he grunted.

“Rest well. Eat well,” Shalake said. “Tomorrow, we die well and see our ancestors.”

“Yeah.”

Gariath trudged across the sands, head bowed, feet heavy.

He didn’t bother to count the steps.

Dreadaeleon chewed absently on the blackened fish, not sure whether his mouth was open or not. He downed a swig of water from a skin, heedless of the belch that followed. He wasn’t even aware that he seemed to have stopped blinking. The entirety of his attention was focused on his dinner companions.

And the Shen shared his sentiment. Seven yellow eyes, bright against the fire between them, stared back at him. Two of them, the ones whose lids drooped just slightly and were angled down at the boy, belonged to the towering Shen called Jenaji. Four more belonged to the two Shen flanking him, each of them bearing more black stripes than red as warpaint—something Dreadaeleon began to suspect indicated a role of leadership, based on the way they sat apart from the rest.

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