The Skybound Sea


Page 4



“First note,” she grunted, setting the scalpel aside, “she’s made out of jerked meat.”

“Subject displays remarkable resilience of flesh,” Dreadaeleon muttered, scribbling.

“Now what the hell was wrong with what I said?” Asper snapped.

He blinked. “It . . . uh . . .”

“Oh, good. Write that down instead.” She glowered at him for a moment before turning it to the opened corpse. “There’s so much muscle here.” Her incisions were less than precise as she cut through the sinew. “Organs appear intact and normal, if slightly enlarged.” She prodded about the creature’s innards with the scalpel. “No sign of rotting. Intestine is shorter than that of a human’s.”

“Carnivorous,” Bralston observed. “All of this suggests a predatory bent.”

“Possibly,” Asper said, nodding sagely, “that conclusion would be supported by their teeth and the fact that they’ve tried to kill us several times already. Of course they’re predatory, you half-wit.”

Dreadaeleon swallowed hard, looking wide-eyed to the Librarian. Bralston’s face remained a dark, expressionless mask. He nodded as easy as he might have if she had asked if he had wanted tea. Preferable to a gesture that preceded incineration, but the boy couldn’t help but be baffled at his superior’s seeming obliviousness to the priestess’s attitude.

“Continue, then,” he said.

Asper, too, seemed taken aback by this. Though her disbelief lasted only as long as it took her to pick up the bonesaw.

“Her ribcage is . . . thick,” she said, applying the serrated edge to the bone. After three grinding saws, she took the tool in both hands. “Really thick. This is like cutting metal.”

“It can’t be that hard,” Dreadaeleon said. “I’ve seen Gariath break their bones before.”

“Really?” Asper said without looking up. “A hulking, four-hundred pound monstrosity can break metal? I feel as though your intellect may be wasted on simply taking notes.”

At that, Dreadaeleon did more than merely cringe. “Look, I don’t know what I did to upset you, but—”

“Continue, please,” Bralston interrupted. His words were directed at Asper, though his glare he affixed to Dreadaeleon.

“But I—” the boy began to protest.

“Continue.”

“Fine,” the word was muttered both by Asper and Dreadaeleon at the same time.

It took a few more moments of sickening sawing sounds before Asper finally removed the bonesaw, more than a few teeth broken off its blade. Dreadaeleon did not consider himself a squeamish man; having cooked people alive with his hands and a word tended to preclude such a thing. Yet there was something about this necropsy, of the many he had witnessed, that made him uneasy.

The priestess’s hands were soaked and glistening a dark red. She hadn’t requested any gloves and snapped at him when he had suggested it. She used only a damp cloth to clean up, and barely at that. When she mopped her brow, red stains were left behind and she continued, heedless, as she plucked up the pliers.

Of course, he thought, perhaps it weren’t the operation that made him cringe so much as the operator. He had never seen her like this, never heard her like this. Her pendant, the phoenix of her patron god Talanas, was missing from her throat; a rare sight grown more common of late.

What happened to you on that ship?

And he might have asked, if he weren’t silenced by the deafening crack of a ribcage being split apart.

“Huh,” she said, brows lofting in curiosity. “That’s interesting.” She reached inside, prodding something within the corpse with her scalpel.

“What is it?” Bralston said.

“This thing has two hearts.”

Dreadaeleon’s face screwed up. “That’s impossible.”

“You’re right, I’m lying about that.” She rolled her eyes. “Come up and see for yourself.”

It was more a dare than anything else, if her tone was any indication, and Dreadaeleon half considered not taking it. But he rejected that; he couldn’t back down in front of her. Perhaps she was challenging him, personally. Perhaps whatever plagued her now, he could fix. She knew that, and he knew that he couldn’t do that if he backed down.

So he rose and he walked over to the corpse and he instantly regretted doing so.

The dead netherling met his gaze, her white eyes still filled with hate so long after being dragged lifeless out of the ocean. He swallowed hard as he looked down to the creature’s open ribcage. Amidst the mass of thick veins and—Asper hadn’t been lying—muscle everywhere, he saw the organs: a large, fist-shaped muscle and a smaller, less developed one hanging beside it.

“So . . .” He furrowed his brow, trying to force himself not to look away. “What does that mean?”

“It could be one of many possibilities,” Bralston suggested. “Perhaps it was something specific needed for wherever they come from. Past necropsies of creatures from harsh environments have revealed special adaptations.”

“Perhaps,” Asper said, “or perhaps she’s just a mass of ugly muscle and hate so big that she needed a second heart, like I assumed in the beginning.”

“Funny,” Dreadaeleon said.

“What is?” she asked.

“I don’t know, I would have thought you’d enjoy this.” He looked up at her and saw her blank expression. He coughed, offering a weak smile. “I mean, you always showed an interest in physiology. It’s something that your church teaches you, right? When we were beginning, when we first met up with Lenk, he would always have us, you and I that is, cut up whatever animal we killed to see if we could get anything edible. Remember?”

She stared at him flatly.

“A necessity of being adventurers out of work, of course,” he said, “but you and I would always spend time investigating the carcass, detailing everything. It was our thing, you know? We were the ones that cut it up. We were the ones that catalogued it. If our findings before didn’t get us noticed, I’m sure this—” he gestured to the netherling, “—would. So . . .” He shrugged. “I guess maybe I just thought of this as old times. Better times.”

When he looked back at her, her expression was no longer blank. Something stirred behind her gaze. He felt his pulse race.

Steady, old man, he cautioned himself. She might break down any moment now. She’s going to break down and fall weeping into your arms and you’ll hold her tightly and find out what plagues her. I hope Bralston knows to leave the room. Any moment now. What is that in her eyes, anyway? Better know so you can be prepared. Sorrow? Pain? Desire?

“You,” she whispered harshly, “stupid little roach.”

Possibly not desire.

“What?” he asked.

“Those were your better times for us? Up to my elbows in fat and blood while you scribbled away notes on livers and kidneys? That’s what you think of when you think of us?”

“I was just—”

“You were just being freakish and weird, as usual,” she snarled. “Is there anything about you that doesn’t make one’s skin crawl?”

He reeled as if struck. He hadn’t quite expected that. Nor did he really expect to say what he said next.

“Yes,” he said calmly, “I’ve been told my ability to keep silent around the ignorant and mentally deficient is quite admirable.”

“I find that hard to believe, as I’ve never actually seen you be silent.”

“No? Well, let me refresh your memory.” His voice was sharp and cold, like a blade. “Whenever you’ve prayed to deities that don’t exist, whenever you’ve blamed something on the will of your gods that you could have helped, whenever you’ve prattled on about heavens and morals and all this other garbage you don’t actually believe for any reason other than to convince your toddler-with-fever-delirium-equivalent brain that you’re in any way superior to any of the people you choose to share company with,” he spat the last words, “I’ve. Said. Nothing.”

And so, too, did she say nothing.

No threats. No retorts. No tears. She turned around, calmly walked past Bralston and left the hut, hands smeared with blood, brow smeared with blood, leaving a room full of silence.

Bralston stared at the door before looking back to Dreadaeleon.

“You disappoint me, concomitant,” he said simply.

“Good,” Dreadaeleon spat back. “I’ll start a running tally. By the end of the day, I hope to have everyone dumber than me loathing me. I’ll throw a party to celebrate it.”

“One might call your intelligence into question, acting the way you do.”

“One might, if one were a lack-witted imbecile. You saw the way she was talking to me, talking to you.”

“I did.”

“And you said nothing.”

“Possibly because my experience with women extends past necropsies,” Bralston said smoothly. “Concomitant, your ire is understandable, but not an excuse for losing your temper. A member of the Venarium is, above all else, in control of his abilities and himself.”

Dreadaeleon flashed a black, humorless smile at the man. “You are just hilarious.”

“And why is that?”

Dreadaeleon replied by holding up his hand. Three breaths. The tremors set in. Bralston nodded. Dreadaeleon did not relent, even when the tremors became worse and the electric sparks began building on his fingers. Bralston glared at him.

“That’s enough.”

“No, it isn’t.”

The tremor encompassed his entire arm, electricity crackling and spitting before loosing itself in an erratic web of lightning that raked against the wall of the hut where Bralston had once been. The Librarian, having sidestepped neatly, regarded the wall smoldering with flames. He drew in a sharp breath and exhaled, a white cloud of frost smothering the flames beneath it.


When he looked back up, Dreadaeleon was holding his arm to his chest and gritting his teeth.

“The Decay is getting worse,” he said, “at a far more advanced rate than has ever been documented. I can’t control anything about me, least of all my abilities.”

“Hence our departure to Cier’Djaal,” Bralston replied. “Once we can get you to the Venarium, we can—”

“Do not say cure me.”

“I was not going to. There is no cure for the Decay.”

“Don’t say help me.”

“There is little help for it.”

“Then why are we going?” Dreadaeleon demanded. “Why am I going there for any reason but to die so you can harvest my bones to be made into merroskrit?”

“As you say, you’re advancing at a progressed rate. Beyond the harvesting, we could learn from—”

“Let me learn from it, instead!” Dreadaeleon all but screamed. “Let me try to figure out how this works.”

“There is no ‘how this works’ to the Decay, concomitant.”

“This isn’t any normal Decay. I felt it strongly days ago, when we were first shipwrecked on Teji. But that night when we swept into Sheraptus’s ship, I was . . . the power . . .” His eyes lit up at the memory. “When I was there to save Asper, when I . . . when I felt what I did, I could control it. I could do more than control it. My theory holds weight, Librarian. Magic is as much a part of us as emotion, why wouldn’t emotions affect our magic?”

“Concomitant . . .” Bralston said with a sigh.

“And with these days? With all the tension between my companions and I?” He shook his arm at Bralston. “With what just happened? It only adds more weight to my theory! Emotions affect magic and I can—”

“You can do nothing but your duty,” Bralston snapped suddenly. His eyes burned against his dark skin. “Your companions are adventurers, concomitant: criminals on their best day. You are a member of the Venarium. You have no obligations to them beyond what I, as your senior, say you do. And I say you are going to die, very soon and very painfully.

“And I will not watch you languish in their—” he thrust a finger toward the door, “—company. I will not watch you die with no one but criminal scum to look on helplessly as they wait for the last breath to leave you before they can rifle your body and feed it to the sharks.” He inhaled deeply, regaining some composure. “Coarse as it may seem, this is protocol for a reason, Dreadaeleon. Whatever else the Venarium might do once the Decay claims your body, we are your people. We know how to take care of you in your final days.”

Dreadaeleon said nothing, staring down at his arm. It began to tremble once more. He focused to keep it down.

“When do we leave, then?”

“By the end of today,” Bralston replied. “As soon as I conclude business on the island.”

“With whom? The Venarium has no sway out in the Reaching Isles.”

“The Venarium holds sway anywhere there is a heretic. Even if Sheraptus is gone, we are duty-bound to make certain that none of his taint remains.”

“Lenk agrees with you,” Dreadaeleon said, sighing. “That’s why he’s had Denaos on interrogation duty.”

“Denaos . . .” Bralston whispered the name more softly than he would whisper death’s. “Where is he conducting this . . . interrogation?”

“In another hut at the edge of the village,” Dreadaeleon replied. “But he doesn’t want to be—”

He looked up. Bralston was gone. And he was alone.

THREE

THE ETIQUETTE

OF BLOODSHED

It always seemed to begin with fire.

As it had begun in Steadbrook, that village he once called home that no one had ever heard of and no one ever would. Fire had been there, where it had all begun. Fire was still there, years later, every time Lenk closed his eyes.

It licked at him now as it consumed the barns and houses around him, as it sampled the slow-roasted dead before giving away all pretenses of being civilized and messily devoured skin, cloth, and wood in great red gulps. It belched, cackled at its own crudeness, and reached out to him with sputtering hands. The fire wanted him to join them; in feast or in frolic, it didn’t matter.

Lenk was concerned with the dead.

He walked among them, saw faces staring up at him. Man. Woman. Old man’s beard charred black and skin crackling. Through smoke-covered mirrors, they looked like him. He didn’t remember their names.

He looked up, found that the night sky had moved too fast and the earth was hurrying to keep up. He was far away from Steadbrook now, that world left on another earth smoldered black. Wood was under his feet now, smoldering with the same fire that razed the mast overhead. A ship. A memory.

A different kind of fire.

This one didn’t care about him. This fire ate in resentful silence, consuming sail and wood and dying in the water rising up beneath him. Again, Lenk paid no attention. He was again concerned with the faces, the faces that meant something to him.

The faces of the traitors.

Denaos, dark-eyed; Asper, sullen; Dreadaeleon, arrogant; Gariath, inhuman. They loomed out of the fire at him. They didn’t ask him if he was hot. He was rather cold, in fact, as cold as the sword that had appeared in his hand. They didn’t ask him about that, either. They turned away, one by one. They showed their necks to him.

And he cut them down, one by one, until one face remained.

Kataria.

Green-eyed.

Full of treason.

She didn’t show him her neck. He couldn’t very well cut her head off when she was looking right at him. His eyes stared into her.

Blue eyes.

Full of hate.

It was his eyes she stared into. It wasn’t his hands that wrapped themselves around her throat. It wasn’t his voice that said this was right. It wasn’t his blood that flowed into his fingers, caused his bones to shiver as they strained to warm themselves in her throat.

But these were his eyes, her eyes. As the world burned down around them and sank into a callous sea, their eyes were full of each other.

He shut his eyes. When he opened them again, he was far below the sea. A fish, bloated and spiny and glassy-eyed stared at him, fins wafting gently as it bobbed up and down in front of him.

“So, anyway,” he said, “that’s basically how it all happened.”

The fish reared back, seeming to take umbrage at his breaking of the tranquil silence. It turned indignantly and sped away, disappearing into the curtains of life emerging from the reef.

“Rude.”

“Well, what did you expect?”

He turned and the woman was seated upon a sphere of wrinkled coral. Her head was tilted toward him.

“I am talking and breathing while several feet underwater.”

“You don’t seem surprised by that,” she said.

“This sort of thing happens to me a lot.” He tapped his brow. “The voices in my head tend to change things. It didn’t seem all that unreasonable that they might make me talk with a fish.” He looked at her intently. “You should know all this, shouldn’t you?”

“Why would I?”

“Can’t you read my thoughts?”

“Not exactly.”

“All the other ones have been able to.”

“I’m not a voice in your head,” she replied.

Amongst everything else in . . . whatever this was, that was the most believable. Her voice came from the water, in the cold current that existed solely between them. It swirled around him, through him, everywhere but within him.

“What are you, then?” he asked.

“I am just like you.”

“Not just like me.”

“Well, no, obviously. I don’t want to murder my friends.”

“You said you couldn’t—”

“I didn’t, you showed me.” She leapt off the coral, scattering a school of red fish as she landed neatly. A cloud of sand rose, drifted away on a current that would not touch her. “And before that, you told me.”

“When?”

“When you cried out,” she said, turning to walk away. “I’ve been hearing you for a while now. There aren’t a lot of voices anymore, so I hear the few that scream pretty clearly.”

As she walked farther away, the sea became intolerably warm. The cold current followed her and so did he. He didn’t see when she stopped beside the craggy coral, and he had to skid to a halt. She didn’t even look up at him as she peered into a black hole within the coral.

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