The Skybound Sea

Page 41

Lenk cringed; this seemed like the sort of thing he would regret asking. Still . . .


“It was there. Ages ago. And so was I.” He pointed a bony finger to the storm clouds encircling the mountain. “From there.”

“Rain doesn’t do . . . that,” Lenk pointed out.

“Rain touches the earth, is drank, is gone.” Mahalar bobbed his head. “Some of this water touches the earth. It flows beneath the mountain. You saw it in the chasm.”

Lenk nodded. He recalled the vast tunnel from which he and Kataria had emerged, brimming with inky black water, stretching into a dark void.

“Those dark places run beneath the mountain. The water there remembers nothing but darkness . . . and her. It drowns. It kills. This water . . .” He stroked the liquid tendrils, which caressed his hand adoringly. “This water touches no ground. It stays between heaven and earth.”

He drew in a breath and let it out in a cloud of dust that settled upon the water. The liquid shrank from it, wary of something earthen.

“The blood of the Sea Mother,” Mahalar said. “Too pure for mortals.”

“So, that makes you . . . what?” Lenk asked.

“Very, very old.”

A sneer came over Mahalar’s face. He clenched his fist so hard the exposed bones cracked with the effort. The water trembled as though scolded and slid away from his hand.

“She chose this as her seat, to defy the Sea Mother. And we chose it as her prison for the same reason. This water remembers her. It remembers what she did.”

He extended his fingers to the water once more. They obliged, warily, reaching up to touch the exposed bone claws of his worn tips.

“They called us slaves from this water. Us, the children of the Sea Mother. And when we no longer called them masters, we sent them back to it. It remembers them, when they did not look like the demons they are now. It remembers them when they were beautiful and wicked. It remembers the stones we tied to their feet when we hurled them in and sent them into the water.”

He sighed wearily, closing his dull, amber eyes.

“It remembers when they rose up again.”

“As the Abysmyths,” Lenk muttered.

“We called them ‘enemy.’ As did the mortal armies. And we fought them together.”

“I’ve heard it said that memory is all that really kills a demon.”

“Memory shapes everything. The sky and sea of Jaga no longer remember what it means to be separate.” He swept a hand to the fish swimming through the night sky overhead. “The land no longer remembers my name, I have been around so long. But water remembers everything . . .”

He tapped a slender bone claw against the surface. A ripple echoed across the water, tearing the reflections of themselves and of the dancing stars into pieces and swallowing them whole.

When all light was gone, all that remained was something vast and black, something deep and dreadful.

A hole.

A hole stretching into infinite void beneath the water.

“How . . .” he began, staring down over the edge, “how deep does it go?”

“All the way to hell,” Mahalar replied casually.

It was difficult to tell if the elder Shen was being cryptic or literal. Lenk decided he didn’t want to know.

The young man leaned over farther, as if to see if there were something that would tell him. Some trace of light not yet swallowed, some fragment of reflection to tell him that this was still water. He found nothing.

Or rather, he saw nothing.

From the void, from the water, smothered by void, muffled by liquid, he could hear it. It was something soft, something trembling, something too quiet and too pure and too old to know what language was or what words were or anything beyond a simple, mournful melody.

A song. Just for him.

It pained him to hear it. He could feel it, in his skull and in his blood and seeping into his shoulder. He winced, touching a hand to the throbbing mess of flesh.

“Ask it to help you.”

Lenk turned to the elder Shen who stared at him with the same patient intent one watches a corpse to see if they’re really dead.

“Call out to it,” the lizardman said.

“I don’t know—”

“You do,” Mahalar insisted. “I’ve seen it. Back when they walked with us, against the demons. They talked to it in the darkness, they cried out to it when the blood was so thick they could barely speak for fear of choking on it.”

The elder Shen lowered his gaze, unblinking.

“And it answered them. Always.”

“It,” Lenk said quietly, “is not that simple.”

“Can you call it?”

“Do you know what it feels like?”

“I asked—”

“And so did I,” Lenk said. “Do you know what it feels like?”

“I do not.”

“I guess you wouldn’t. Do you want to know?”

“I do not.”

Lenk stared at him for a moment before looking back into the water. “It’s like . . . an itch.” He shook his head. “No, that’s stupid. Not like an itch. It’s like . . .” He chuckled a little, incredulous of himself. “Not like anything, actually. It just . . . is. You know?”

He looked to the elder Shen and nodded. The elder Shen did not nod back.

“And what it is, is constant. It’s . . . always there. Always. Even when it’s silent, it’s there. It’s watching you. It’s listening to you. It’s tensing. It’s getting ready. When it first started happening, I guess I just felt it was . . . stress, I don’t know. Whatever it is that goes on inside people that makes them hate themselves.”


“But then it . . . started saying things. It starts talking, even when it isn’t talking. It wants things, it needs things, and if you ignore it, it . . .” He drew in a sharp breath, held it. “It doesn’t like that. And it keeps talking. And it keeps saying things. It wants you to do things and it wants you to kill things and it wants you to . . . to hurt.

“So you start talking back, just so you think you aren’t insane for a few moments. And then it keeps insisting and you bargain with it and you beg it and you agree with it and it keeps talking until you just can’t . . .” He bit his lower lip until it bled. “You need it to stop. You need it to be quiet. So you do what it wants.”

His entire body shook as he released his breath, as he sputtered a few droplets of blood onto his stomach. A tension he wasn’t sure was even there released itself. A cold hand took itself off his shoulder.

“You kill for it.”

He eased himself onto his elbows, onto his back and lay there, trying too hard to forget he could still remember what the voice still sounded like.

“And then?” Mahalar asked.

“And then what?”

“How does it feel?”

“For a moment, it feels right.”

“And then?”

“And then . . . it starts talking again.”

Once the words had all been spoken and spent, Lenk was a little surprised at how easily they had come. He imagined it would all be more painful. He had always feared that, upon hearing him speak so candidly about murder and bloodshed and voices in his head, he would be met with horror.

Somehow, Mahalar’s stare, alight with eager curiosity, was worse.

“If you called to it—” the elder Shen began.

“You’re not listening,” Lenk interrupted.

“I am. I hear you now as I heard them then. I heard them weep and I heard them cry out. But they still killed the demons like nothing else could. Their suffering still prevented more from happening. The netherlings come to free Ulbecetonth and use her for their own purposes. They aren’t the first. They won’t be the last unless you call out to it and kill her.”

“So what? Why can’t we leave Ulbecetonth in wherever you left her?”

“Because then we still have to guard her. We still have to tell the stories. We have to hand our children hatchets as soon as they can walk and teach them how to kill before they can speak.”

“So it’s all for your people,” Lenk chuckled. “And here I thought you were some benevolent, wise old fart who just wanted to make the world a better place.”

“I don’t care about the world. I’ve been on it long enough to have grown bored with the novelty of it, human,” Mahalar growled, dust exuding from his mouth. “I care about my people. That’s why I want to save them.”

“If you wanted that, you wouldn’t be standing by and sending them to go die tomorrow.”

“Die? No, human. We are born dead. Every Shen child is raised to know that his life belongs to the oaths we swore. We escaped slavery under Ulbecetonth to be made slaves again through generations. The oaths became hymn. The Shen below have been waiting for tomorrow all their lives, the time they can kill and die and be free of this . . . all of this.

“I would have them live. I would have them have an island that was a home and not a battleground waiting to happen. I would have them find uses for things other than weapons. And that cannot happen unless you—”

“I’m not going to,” Lenk said. “I can’t.”

He staggered to his feet, plucked up his shirt, and eased it back over his head. When his vision was cleared of the cloth, Mahalar stood at the edge of the stairs, staring over his shoulder at the young man.

“I am well aware of what you can’t do, human,” Mahalar said. “I know you can’t survive without it. That wound in your shoulder is not the only thing that pains you, is it? All the agony it has spared you from is coming back.”

“This isn’t doing a lot to convince me,” Lenk replied.

“I suspect it might not. If you can’t see that you will die without the voice, then you cannot be convinced. But I was in the chasm, too. I saw you. And you know that Ulbecetonth will break free one day. And you know she will come for you, the murderer of her children.”

The elder Shen turned and began to shamble down the stairs.

“But maybe you’ll get lucky and die tomorrow. That way, you won’t have to see what happens when she does break free.”

Lenk watched him go. He watched the fire pits go dark as the Shen extinguished them and hefted their weapons. He watched the fish flee from the sky as the first light of dawn began to creep over the horizon. He watched the forest and wondered where Kataria might be in that tangle of kelp and coral.

And he tried to ignore the pains creeping through his body.



Dawn came timidly over Jaga, unwilling to challenge the mist that slid through the forest. And the mist, sensing weakness, did everything it could to smother the light. The result was something that crept over the island like a slow-moving tide, washing out colors in a foggy gray.

Those ambitious fish that emerged early to peck at the coral and the sands, and those opportunistic fish that emerged earlier to prey upon the former, moved like motes of dust in light. They were bright and vivid against the gray, living grafitti on something perfectly bland and respectable.

The island was perfectly devoid of sound.

The island was drained of color.

The island was a gloomy hell of serenity with absolutely nothing to do but sit quietly in a perch of sturdy red coral and wait for something to happen.

Summarily, Kataria thought, it was the perfect time to put an arrow in someone’s gullet.

Or it would be once he decided to come by. She sat nestled amidst the coral, perched upon the perfect spot. Just enough twisted red branches to conceal her with a fair amount of space to offer a clear view—and a clearer shot—of the highway before her and a fair amount of space to wriggle out when everything went to hell.

Not that everything is going to go to hell, she cautioned herself. Goodness no. It’s all quite simple. He’s arrogant, unaware, uncautious. He’ll never see you and he won’t know what’s happened until you’re gone. All that could go wrong is the extremely unlikely event of him . . . looking up. Then you’re dead. Or worse, alive and at his mercy and then you’re—

Stop, stop, STOP!

She clutched her ears, trying futilely to block out her own thoughts. There was a time and a place for self-doubt and it most certainly wasn’t when one was about to try to kill a sexual sadist who spewed fire and lightning like a chubby child spews cake crumbs.

Especially when that chubby child was composed of hundreds of berserker, sharp-toothed warrior women brimming with jagged metal and bloodlust and quite possibly—

Stop it again, she urged herself. What did you usually do in times like these? Shoot something? Right, right, that’s coming. What else? Ask your friends? Gariath would tell you to shoot something. Asper would tell you to pray. That works for her, doesn’t it? Right. Good. Start praying.

She opened her mouth for a moment. When no words came out, the thought occurred to her.

Pray to . . . who, exactly?

Riffid was the obvious answer. Riffid would have been helpful. Riffid gave shicts nothing but the skill and the will to get things done. She sent no boons and offered no miracles. Riffid would have let her shoot and be done with it.

But Riffid was a goddess for shicts.

Riffid was down in the chasm, where Kataria had watched Inqalle die, where Kataria had spilled Naxiaw’s blood, where Kataria had chosen to protect a human. Riffid was taking Inqalle to the Dark Forest. Riffid was hearing Naxiaw ask for the strength to kill the traitor who shot him.

Riffid would not listen to her.

And when—and if—she walked away from this, she was not sure who would.

For a long time, she tried not to think.

A long time turned into a longer time. While her mind was content to remain silent, her body was slightly more vocal. She could persuade herself not to think about all that had happened, but his scent lingered in her nostrils, she could still feel the tension of his muscle as she dug her nails into him, she could taste his sweat, his blood, his skin against her skin as he—

This isn’t helping, she grunted inwardly. Thoughts of him were as distracting as thoughts of the others and one invariably led to the other. So, as she felt the need, she attempted to empty thought and body at once.

Pulling her pants down and positioning the jar, wouldn’t have been easy for anyone else but a shict. But it was a common practice amongst hunters to keep their waste, liquid and otherwise, off the ground to avoid upsetting the prey’s delicate sense of scent and alerting them.

Admittedly, she had no idea if netherlings even had a sense of smell or if their noses were just there to be broken, but by her third filling of the jar she thought she might as well keep going. And once the tinkle of liquid stopped, she hiked her breeches back up, sealed the jar, and let it hang from the straps she had used to secure it to her belt.

Well, then, she thought, if only shicts do that, you’ve still got . . . something.

She forced her head silent.

And in that silence, she heard it. Her ears pricked up, full of the sound of iron upon stone, alien curses upon lips. It began softly at first, distant clanking and distant roaring. And then the kelp quivered and the coral rattled with the tromping of boots. The fish scattered, fleeing into folds of forest and shadowed holes. The mist slithered away into the trees.

And she saw them.

They came one by one at first, a few females in ratty armor wielding crude spears. They snarled amongst each other as they used their weapons to pry stones and debris from the ancient highway, kicking them into the forest as they cleared the path for the purple tide that came boiling up the road.

Rattling, clanking black armor grinding against armor as shoulder brushed against shoulder. Spikes masquerading as swords held hungrily in gauntleted hands. Shields with jagged edges clanged in eagerness. Long faces curled up in jagged-toothed snarls as the female netherlings marched forth, their impatient, foreign-tongued curses blending seamlessly with the sound of grinding iron.

In teeming numbers, rows of black-haired heads, columns of twitching purple muscle, masses of iron and spit and snarls, the netherlings came in a slow-moving wave of flesh and metal, their thunder barely contained.

And yet, contained it was. For all the very palpable hatred and anger they spewed into the air with every breath until it was choking, they did not fight, did not blink, did not even look anywhere but forward. Their milk-white eyes were thrust straight and sharp as the swords they carried, purposefully and violently pressed forward as though they expected their scowls to kill just as effectively as a blade.

And they weren’t looking up.

They were focused, Kataria noted, too intent on their distant battle to bear much ill will toward each other beyond the occasional growl. Something drew them together, united them, drove them forward as one, as only one thing could.

That was bad, for obvious reasons.

But at least she knew Sheraptus strode amongst them.

Which was also bad, for obvious reasons.

She tried not to think about those as the line moved on. They marched in order, of a sort. Thirty-three to a unit, as Dreadaeleon had said. Thirty-three angry, spewing, iron-clad creatures wholly intent on wholesale slaughter.

Thirty-three angry, spewing, iron-clad creatures driven by just one will.

Kataria slid an arrow from her quiver and strung it. No sense in drawing it in preparation; it would only make her arm tired, her aim shaky. She needed both strong for the sole shot she would get at this.

They continued to march. The warriors with their swords led the archers, that followed a trail of derision and scorn spat their way from those in the lead. The numbers were intimidating. She stopped keeping track of them by the time they passed the Shen’s number, which took an alarmingly short time.

By that moment, though, something else seized her attention.

Behind the archers’ grumbles and the warriors’ snarls, another unit came marching up in perfect, silent harmony. Clad in armor as black and shiny as a beetle’s carapace and covering them so that not a single trace of purple flesh could be seen behind the walls of glistening metal, they came. Their shields were tall, hammered to crescent shapes. Their spears were topped with cruel barbs.

As distressing as the sight was, the sound—or lack of it—was worse. They never said a word, never shared a single snarl of their less-clad companions. Their visored helmets betrayed no eye, no mouth, no sign of even a face as they marched in perfect, terrible synchronization.

Netherlings with discipline.


Not half as worrisome as what followed.

Its groaning metal, creaking wood, and shrieking, roaring wheels could be heard for an eternity away. But it was only when the metal machination came rolling up, pushed by several grunting warriors, that she could appreciate the terror that came with the metallic cacophony.

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