The Skybound Sea


Page 42



A ballista, she had heard it called. A big bow mounted on wheels. Where the netherlings had found one, she didn’t actually know. She wasn’t even sure if it was a ballista. It had the bow part, but everything else was slathered in spikes and metal parts that had been punched on. Two giant arms of flexible wood were tied back at the sides of the engine, each one ending in a strange claw that clenched a jagged, twisted star of sharpened, unpolished metal.

She wasn’t quite sure if it would actually work or whether it was just there to look intimidating. It did, of course, but only because she knew netherlings had a talent for making anything into a weapon and making anything that already was a weapon into something . . . like that.

And if it did work, the Shen would have to know. She studied it as it rolled past and up the highway, trying to figure out how it worked and where it could be struck. Once she was done here, she would have to hurry back and tell them. Maybe they could get to it before—

Her ears perked up. Her eyes widened. Her heart slowed a beat.

She couldn’t explain what it was about him: a sound too faint to be real, an aroma that couldn’t be smelled, a threat that was never spoken. But she heard him, felt him, knew he was coming.

And she nocked her bow.

They came in a knot: white-haired females dressed in gleaming, polished armor, carrying titanic slabs of sharpened metal half-heartedly pretending to be swords on their shoulders. They were bigger, stronger, more laden with scars than any other warrior that walked amongst them.

Carnassials.

And Sheraptus rode at their center.

Two other males flanked him, short and slender with white hair and red and purple robes, wearing arrogant scorn upon their long faces. Xhai rode ahead of him, looking twice as vicious as the great beast she rode. For all their fury and their hatred and their bare-toothed savagery, they paled in comparison to the specter that rode between them.

He was wearing white robes, shrouded in them like they could keep in whatever he was, seated so comfortably in them with a small smile on his face as though he belonged in something that was worn by holy men. It was a poor farce, a poor disguise.

Even if it wasn’t for the black crown upon his brow burning with three fiery stones, even if he rode something other than a creature of muscle and claws and jaws and six twitching ears the color of coal, nothing he wore could hide what he was. His cruelty stained the cloth. His viciousness seeped through it.

And he was right there.

Waiting to be killed.

Her fingers tensed around the fletching of her arrow when the cry came down the line, an iron-voiced howl that was echoed from unit to unit until it reached Sheraptus’s. The entire column came to a grinding, groaning halt. Curses were exchanged in alien tongues, inquiries made with what Kataria was certain were threats following. Xhai smashed her fist against the nearest white-haired longface and barked an order, they complied with a growled reply. The Carnassial sneered and reined her beast around, trotting over to Sheraptus.

“Something in the way ahead,” she grunted. “The low-fingers need more muscle to move it.”

“No hurry,” Sheraptus replied, his smile twitching.

Kataria hadn’t seen anything in the road on her way here. She didn’t care. The line had stopped. And he was right in front of her, stopped and smiling and waiting for an arrow in his gullet.

The purple of his flesh was vivid in the muted light. His jugular gyrated with each breath he took. And with each breath he took, it became bigger, a big, fat boil just waiting to be lanced.

She held her own breath as she raised her bow, drew her arrow back. The coral trembled slightly. The bowstring moaned in quiet anticipation.

On the road, the beast that served as Sheraptus’s mount twitched. Six ears fanned out like a dish as it swept an eyeless gaze about the road. She held her shot. Surely it couldn’t have heard her . . . could it?

No time to wonder. The nervous wariness from Sheraptus’s mount spread to the others. And like a fire it spread to the netherlings. Xhai looked down as her mount’s ears extended and it emitted low, excited whines.

“QAI AHN!” she roared, drawing her massive blade from over her shoulder. The warriors around her followed suit, seizing their weapons and raising them before them as they huddled together warily.

Kataria held her aim. She held her breath back despite the overwhelming urge to panic and run. She kept her calm.

Right up until the moment she saw a flash of green out of the corner of her eye.

Something was down in the coral, moving. Something with weapons. Something with bright, yellow—

Shalake, she had time to think, you stupid son of a bitch.

“SHENKO-SA!”

The Shen came leaping out of the foliage, machetes in their hands, warcries in their throats, arrows chasing them like faithful puppies. The missiles struck first, sinking into netherling throats and exposed purple flesh. The longfaces fell with gurgles and cries of surprise, stepping stools of metal and skin as the Shen came leaping through the lines, waving their weapons.

One of them made a lunge for Sheraptus, machete held high with the intent of smashing it into his black-crowned skull. He loosed a cry, leapt from a fallen longface high into the air and, like a bird beneath a metal hawk, was snatched from the sky.

Xhai’s blade screamed not as loud, moved not as elegantly as the lizardman, but its howl was metal and unyielding and its edge was vicious as it clove the lizardman from his leap and sent him to tumble and bounce upon the earth.

In two pieces.

Kataria quickly scanned the fight. The arrows still flew, but those netherlings they struck did not fall. They snarled, as if it were mosquitoes biting them instead of arrows stuck in their arms and legs, and swung their gigantic blades unhindered by blood loss or pain.

The metal ate of scaly flesh, separated limbs, shattered spines, clove skulls. No blow was clean. No blow finished them. The Shen fell to the ground, their flesh sizzling and burning as the venom coating the swords ate them alive. They writhed, they wailed, they screamed for as long as it took the nearest netherling to bring a spiked metal boot upon their skull and stamp them out like wet ashes.

And Sheraptus watched it all with a serene smile.

Whole and complete, he sat upon his beast’s back, unharmed. What had Asper done to him? Had she been lying? He looked completely fit, even more full of arrogant cruelty than she remembered. Perhaps this was not worth it. Perhaps retreat was the wiser—

No, no, NO.

Kataria swallowed her shock, bit back her scream and took aim. Now or never, she told herself. One shot. In his neck. Before he knows it. Then I run.

She drew the string to her cheek, released it.

One shot.

It wailed as it flew.

To his neck.

He looked up.

And before either of them knew it, the arrow had found a mark.

It lodged itself into flesh with the sound of meat being tenderized and breath being stolen. It quivered eagerly beneath a purple collarbone, pleased with itself. A purple hand, too twisted to fit into a gauntlet, reached up to seize it and snap it off at the shaft.

Xhai, looming before Sheraptus like a wall of metal and iron, scowled up at Kataria. She snorted, broke the remains of the arrow with a twitch of her ruined fingers.

Kataria stared for a moment, slack-jawed and unblinking. Sheraptus merely raised an eyebrow at the shattered arrow falling to the stones. He looked back up to Kataria. And, as he held out his hands in what almost looked like it could be a gesture of benediction if not for the blossoms of fire blooming upon his palms, she wasn’t quite sure what to do next.

Until someone told her.

Now you run.

Her head knew, but her legs didn’t. She fell backward, tumbling from her perch, just as the sky exploded.

Fire washed over the coral as a tide, blackening her perch and shattering it. It flooded the forest, turning coral into pyres, kelp into sheets of flame. Kataria could see the Shen now from their hiding places. She could see Yaike as he looked up at her, as unaware that she had been there as she had been of him. She could see him yell something, she could see his eye reflect the fire, she could see his mouth twist and distort as his face became scaly green melting wax as the fire rose up around him in a titanic sheet.

Warriors were fleeing. Fish were swimming. Fire was racing to catch them both and winning, engulfing the forest and eating it alive. Kataria hauled herself to her legs and told them to go. They remembered now, they remembered how to run and how to not stop and how to tell her lungs that they couldn’t stop breathing even as smoke rose up in plumes around her and she couldn’t stop running ever as the fire closed in around her, behind her.

And then in front of her.

The wall of kelp went up in a glorious burst. The coral collapsed around her and in her path, forming a ring of blackening spikes and fire around her. It ate everything, all color, all light, all sound. The screams of the Shen dying were engulfed in the laughter of the fire. The greenery of the forest was bathed in red. The fish fell from the sky, their colors painted black with soot.

Kataria could feel the sweat mingle with her warpaint, streak down her body in long tears of red. She could feel her heart beat as it struggled to free itself from her chest. She could feel the breath beginning to leave her.

She closed her eyes.

She gritted her teeth.

And she prayed. To someone.

From far away, the forest screamed. Its voice was fervent and choked with ash. Its blood was painted in a cloud of black and red upon the gray dawn sky. It wailed through a shudder of kelp and a groan of blackened coral before it finally fell to a broken sigh of ash and embers and then fell silent.

Lenk wasn’t quite sure how long it spoke. Lenk wasn’t at all certain how long he stared at its black blood pooling in the sky, bright embers dancing in it. Lenk didn’t know what to say when he finally found the words to speak.

But they came, anyway.


“Kat?”

As though she might pop up behind him, wrap her arms about his middle and say “just kidding.”

He whirled about on the stone staircase, casting a furious scowl at the creature one step above him.

“What the hell just happened?” he demanded.

Shalake looked down, yellow eyes narrowed through the sockets of his skull headdress. He made no answer. Not as Denaos and Asper both turned irate and suspicious scowls up the stairs. Not as Dreadaeleon looked agog from the devastation to him. Not as Gariath shot him a sidelong glance.

Only when Mahalar cleared his throat from one more step above did Shalake speak.

“They failed,” the hulking Shen said simply.

“Who? Who is they?” Lenk demanded, ascending a step.

“The brave warriors who gave their lives in the ambush,” Shalake replied. “They will be remembered.”

From beside Shalake, Jenaji, nearly as tall and half as tattooed, seized the Shen’s arm.

“How many?”

“Twenty,” Shalake replied, shrugging Jenaji’s grip off. “Twenty who will be honored at sunset.”

“Honored as charred husks of overcooked meat along with Kataria because you are a stupid, scaly piece of shit who can’t follow an order!” Lenk all but screamed.

“I am the warwatcher,” Shalake roared back, looking down at Lenk and taking an aggressive step forward. “I do not take orders from you and I do not trust pointy-eared weaklings to do the duty of the Shen.”

“Whatever just went wrong happened because your warriors couldn’t be trusted not to send everything to hell!” Lenk roared.

The hulking Shen glowered as he removed his tremendous warclub from his back, the tooth-studded weapon roughly half the size of Lenk sliding easily into his hands like it had been waiting for this for days. Lenk responded, pulling his sword free and hoping no one saw his hands tremble with the effort.

On the steps below, the green crowd trailing into the sand of the ring, close to two hundred Shen warriors looked up in anticipation of the brawl— or decapitation—about to happen.

Mahalar cleared his throat.

Shalake’s glare did not dissipate, but softened considerably as he turned it toward the elder Shen.

“He challenges me,” Shalake snarled. “He accuses me. I have the right to—”

“Of course. Later.” Mahalar gestured with his chin. “After that.”

“Holy . . .” Asper began. The rest of her words were lost in the sight that came from the forest, with a herald of smoke and fire.

Like children called to supper, the netherlings came racing eagerly from the forests in a stream of purple skin and glistening black iron. A stream became a tide as they poured into the ring, tearing the earth beneath their boots.

Legion after legion, long face after long face, they came. With shields on their arms, bows on their backs, swords slung over their shoulders, they came. In numbers vast and with bodies blackened by soot and flame, they came. They filled the ring, rushing until they came exactly halfway between the Shen and the forest and assembling into lines.

And there they stopped.

From the top of the steps, no sand could be seen. The ring had become a sea of purple skin, lit by the white of hundreds of empty eyes and hundreds of jagged-toothed smiles.

“KENKI-AI!”

The call boomed from Shalake’s mouth like a drum, echoing down the line. The Shen assembled on the steps drew arrows from quivers, nocked them into great bows of wood and bone. The Shen on the sands below seized their clubs in both hands, banged machetes against shields made from turtle shells and dried leather as they hunkered behind barricades brimming with sharp coral spines.

Lenk felt his attentions drawn to the center of the line, an insignificant white speck of froth amidst the purple sea. From this distance, he could pick the figure out. From this distance, he could see Sheraptus sitting there, smoke still trailing from his fingers and leading to the bleeding sky behind him.

And from a place tenderly close, Lenk could feel a scratching at the back of his skull.

“Kill him,” he hissed. “Kill him now. He’s right there. Shoot him.”

“Not close enough,” Jenaji muttered.

“Then rush out there and kill him.”

“Any chance we have relies on them coming to us,” Mahalar muttered. “We wait.”

Lenk knew the wisdom in that. He could see the line of shields and swords stretching out before him. He could see the arrows being drawn back by netherling bows. Any charge would be brief, futile, and end in him lying in a puddle of his own fluids. At the very best, he would die with his sword in a netherling’s chest. Probably not Sheraptus’s. It was a very messy suicide.

But something inside him dearly wanted just that.

“Roughly what we expected,” Yldus commented, “a small number in a fortified position. No other choice for them, really. The ring winds down at the other side, meaning we can only put so many of our warriors there before they start trampling each other.” He gestured to the brightly-colored coral fortifications. “And they set up those . . . things to try and funnel us further. Smarter than we’d given lizards credit for.”

“Not a problem, I assume,” Sheraptus muttered, though only half paying attention. His attentions were turned outward, over the heads of his warriors, over the spiraling coral thorns, out to the distant sea. Something out there drew his eye as an itch draws a scratching hand.

“It was nothing we weren’t prepared for,” Yldus replied. “We can rip through those defenses with the . . .” He paused and glanced at the monstrosity of metal and spiked machinery that stood at the center of their line. “What did you call this thing again?”

A female loading a star-shaped blade into the thing’s flexible, side-mounted arms looked up and shrugged. “I don’t know. It shoots stuff.”

“Of course.” Yldus sighed. “At any rate, the blades are thick enough to shred those barricades. Given time—”

“How much time?”

“A few hours or so. We’ll need to put the low-fingers and their bows up ahead so that—”

“And how quickly can you get this done?” Sheraptus asked, turning to the side.

Vashnear looked at him, then turned a stare out to the Shen assembled at the other end of the ring. He sniffed.

“Quickly,” he answered.

Sheraptus swung his gaze over to Xhai. The female grunted and turned to her nearest subordinate, another Carnassial clad in the storm gray armor of her rank. The Carnassial snorted in response, looking up through the thin slits of a skull-hugging helmet rife with spikes and jagged edges.

“Three fists,” Xhai grunted. “Three Carnassials. Whoever can get to the front first.” She spurred her cohort with an iron boot to the flank. “Go.”

The Carnassial snarled a response, barked an order to the rest of the netherlings. The hungriest ones fought their way to the front, leaving the weaker ones to clean up the soon-to-be mess.

Sheraptus wasn’t sure how they decided who got to charge. Amongst males, it was generally considered wisdom not to try to understand the finer intricacies of the females’ hierarchies. Sheraptus didn’t care, either way. His concerns were beyond the sea.

And drawing ever closer.

“Quickly, Vashnear?” he asked.

“Quickly, Sheraptus,” Vashnear said, spurring his sikkhun forward to take his place at the center of the assembling netherlings. “And with a great deal of mess.”

“What’s that they’re doing?”

“They’re moving . . . fighting? Yes, fighting. No, now just moving again . . . faster . . . closer. Oh. Oh dear.”

“They’re grouping up, are they—”

“Attala-ah-kah, Jenaji. Attala-ah-kah.”

“They’re definitely—”

“KENKI-SHA! ATTALA! ATALLA JAGA!”

“Oh sweet Silf, they’re coming to—”

“QAI ZHOTH!”

They were all talking at once. The mass of green and yellow blending together around Lenk, the great wave of purple washing across the sands toward them, the blobs of pink and blue and black that reached and grabbed at him as he pushed his way down the gray slope.

It was hard to hear them. It was hard to see them. There were too many of them all and he only cared about one of them. And he was far away, seated atop a pitch-black beast and dressed like an angel from hell with a halo of fire and shadow.

And between them came the purple, countless bodies intertwining, countless mouths howling, countless swords in the air. There might have been a lot, there might have been a few.

He had to hurt them. He had to make them bleed. He couldn’t care about numbers or jagged-toothed smiles or the great metal birds flying overhead.

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