The Skybound Sea

Page 45

Shen archers assembled as warriors with shields fell back to protect them. Lenk ducked one such missile, hearing it curse his name as it sped past his ear.

“Gods damn it, whose job was it to watch those things?”

“Nevermind that,” Mahalar snarled, swatting away the aid of a nearby Shen as he staggered to his feet. “They are coming.”

“They are here, you moron,” Kataria snarled, stringing an arrow.

“Not them, not them,” Mahalar gasped, shambling up the stairs. “They are coming. He is coming.” He made a fervent gesture. “Quickly. We must take the tome away. You must protect it. Follow me.”

“Follow you?” Lenk asked. “Up the mountain to the dead end? We stand a better chance here.”

“Even if we did trust you,” Kataria added.

“There’s more room to escape here,” Denaos said, nodding. “It doesn’t make sense to—”

“Doesn’t make sense?” Mahalar whirled on them, his eyes bright with anger. “Doesn’t make sense? The sky is raining blood! There is a heartbeat in the storm! Are you so stupid as to think that the person with the least idea of what’s going on is the lizardman that bleeds earth?”

The companions fell silent, exchanged brief, nervous looks.

“I mean,” Lenk said, rubbing the back of his neck, “I think that’s a good point?”

Another arrow hummed past, narrowly clipping Denaos’s shoulder. The rogue shrieked, clutched the grazing blow. “I’m for it.”

“They’re here!” Asper cried out. “Go. Go!”

They stole glimpses over their shoulders as they hurried up the stairs, the Shen closing in defensively behind them as Mahalar barked commands in their language. They could see the netherling line grinding to a halt. They could see one of the males suddenly break off and rush to the edge of the ring. It was the flash of red flesh that caught their eyes collectively, though.

“Gariath!” Lenk cried. “Come on!”

The dragonman looked up over his shoulder. A forlorn gleam flashed in his eyes before it died, replaced by a dull, black acceptance.

“His place is with us,” Shalake called back. “He dies with us as we died with him!”

“Oh dear,” Denaos said, rolling his eyes. “The Shen are insane and Gariath’s decided to stay behind and be insane with them in an attempt to kill himself. This is so unexpected. Oh dear, oh no, oh Gods, oh well.”

He took another ten steps before he was aware that his footsteps were the only ones he heard. He flashed an incredulous grimace at the companions standing stock-still upon the steps.

“Oh, for the love of . . .” He sighed, seized Dreadaeleon by the shoulder and shoved him down the steps. “Go get him.”

After the boy had staggered several steps, paused to cough violently, he glowered up at Denaos. “Why me?”

“You’re the one that has the connection with him.”

“Since when?”

“Look, now’s not the time to argue. Just go get him.”

Resentfully, Dreadaeleon wormed his way between the Shen down to Gariath at the barricade. A glance over green shoulders and he could see the netherling line halted. Their shields held fast, barely quivering under the hail of arrows sent from the Shen.

Sheraptus was still there, somewhere behind the wall of shields. He could feel it in the burning of his brow, the chill in his veins, the great pressure bearing down on him. The mere hint of the longfaced male’s presence was enough to make him feel ill, enough to send the power in him spiking in response, a moth twitching around a burning flame.

He tried to swallow the vomit roiling in his throat. He tried to ignore the fever burning behind his eyes. Wouldn’t do to break down now, start pissing fire and vomiting acid in front of the Shen and lose all this hard-earned respect he didn’t have.

“Look, Gariath—”

That was as far as he got, a meek whimper lost amidst the shriek of arrows and guttural howls. Gariath said something in response, something about this being the only way, about having nothing left. Dreadaeleon didn’t hear. His brow suddenly began to burn, the vomit clawed its way to his throat and he got the very distinct feeling that things were about to go very, very wrong.


He couldn’t understand the Shen’s warning. He didn’t have to. He knew what was happening even before the magic started.

At the far end of the ring, the other male spoke a word. Lightning flew from his hands, leaping out to gnaw angrily at the stone ankles of one of Ulbecetonth’s towering statues. It increased with each breath, its electric teeth pulverizing the granite and sending out clouds of powder. Stone snapped. The Kraken Queen let out a moan as she toppled forward.

Another word, the air rippled, the statue was suspended above the male, smaller, less grand than Sheraptus. He visibly tensed, grunted as the invisible force from his hands kept it aloft. Dreadaeleon could sense the strain, the weight. But only for a moment. After that, another surge of power from somewhere distant coursed through him, sent bile spilling out his mouth and onto the stone.

“Sheraptus,” he choked through vomit.

This lesser male grunted, threw his hands and the statue. It flew through the air, was caught, hovered there. A great monolith the size of a spire hovering over the netherlings like a crown.

It didn’t take an incredible amount of intelligence to know what was happening.

“Shoot,” Dreadaeleon gasped. He pointed a trembling finger. “Shoot! He’s there! In there! SHOOT HIM!

“Shoot!” Gariath roared to Shalake. “SHOOT HIM!”


The command was carried on the scream of arrows, flying one after the other until there was not a space of bare air in the sky. Desperation in every shot, the arrows flew, shattering against the statue, shattering against the shields. The rare netherling went down, the others shuffled to fill in the bare space. In those moments, Dreadaeleon could see the white robes, the broad smile, the eyes burning bright and red.

A gap in the firing. The arrows slowed for a moment. The netherlings seized their chance.

They split apart, revealing him. His hands extended to either side in lazy benevolence, as though he were delivering some great truth instead of holding several tons of stone over his head with the burning heresy upon his brow. His smile was soft and easy, his eyes relaxed and calm despite the fire leaking out of them.

His word was gentle.

As he raised his hands and threw.

The statue went flying through the air, rising up black against the storm clouds brewing overhead. It seemed to hang there for a moment.

“Can you move that?” Gariath asked, looking up.

“No,” Dreadaeleon said, wiping his mouth.

“Huh. We should probably move, then.”




The statue fell.

Their screams were eaten alive. Their wails disappeared into clouds of dust. The frantic struggle to escape, the clawing over each other, the desperate prayers to someone else, all had ended.

Their bodies lay, as broken as the fragments of stone that rained from the sky.



The world and he choked together. Blood and dust rose up around him in great curtains of red and black. It throttled vision, smothered sound, strangled him from within as he crawled across the earth. The shattered barricade lay amidst the bodies, cutting hands and feet of those who still ran in panicked confusion. He could hear the screaming only in hairs’ breadths, their voices lasting as long as they lingered near him.

The sound of metal, however, he could have heard for miles.

Without a noise beyond the rattle of their boots and the whisper of their spears sliding into flesh, the netherlings moved through the dust, their shadows black. Mechanically, they sought the survivors scrambling to flee, spared a killing thrust, and moved on.

Maybe he was just too insignificant, crawling breathlessly on his hands and knees, for them to notice. Perhaps they were so focused on their goal, as they charged past him and toward the stairs—or where he thought he remembered the stairs were, it was hard to tell—that they simply couldn’t be bothered with him.

Or maybe they see a guy in a dirty coat with a mouth stained with puke crawling around and trying not to piss himself and they just don’t have the heart to finish you off.

Do not question good fortunes, lorekeeper.

A cricket chirped in the back of his skull.

Greenhair! Where the hell have you been?

Watching, lorekeeper.

Ah, was it a good show, then? Saw what just happened? Are all the broken and mangled corpses quite a sight?

What horrors that man has wrought are nothing to what is coming, lorekeeper.

Oh, good. I was getting really bored with the godlike, limitlessly powerful wizard hurling giant statues around.

Cease your weeping, loreekeper. That thought came with a surge of agony, like someone screeching at him. I require a wizard, not a sarcastic worm. I need a hero.

He had no thoughts for that. None that came with words, anyway. She didn’t seem to need them. Whatever it was that surged inside him, she sensed.

Come to me.

No words that he could hear in his ears. A song without language beckoned him, drew him to her. Weaving his way between the iron legs and the bodies falling around him, he followed the song.

The curtains of dust thinned as he crawled out and clambered to his feet. Still more of the black-clad warriors brushed past him, charging into the fray. The screams of the dead and the wounded were fainter here, smothered beneath the gigantic statue of Ulbecetonth that lay, her smile spattered with crimson, upon the stone steps surrounded by sheets of dust and screaming.

The bulk of the netherling force was still midring, as though waiting. Sheraptus was ambling back to them atop his sikkhun, back casually turned to the slaughter, as though it weren’t even remotely the most interesting mayhem he had seen.

Of Greenhair, there was no sign. Nor thought.

Or there might have been. It was hard to hear himself with all the thunder. The clouds were roiling, roaring, groaning. And amidst them, all he could hear was the slow and steady sound of something.

A heartbeat?

No, too fast. Footsteps. Feet? Many feet.

Coming his way.

The gibbering alerted him first, the slathering cackle that turned him about and then sent him lunging to the ground. The sikkhun came roaring past a moment later, its claws tearing up the earth and its wailing laughter cutting the air as it rushed past him.

He looked up, met Xhai’s hateful glare for a moment. And a glare was all he got, spared the great blade in one of her hands and the thin, pale spear in her other. Those were weapons meant for a nastier job than whatever it would take to finish him off. And that job lay in the dust cloud as she charged after the black-clad warriors.

And his job?

Return to the fray?

He glanced back at the dust and slaughter and quickly discounted that.

Run away?

He glanced at the surrounding kelp, netherlings, and aforementioned slaughter.

Find Greenhair? No, she’ll just tell me to stop Sheraptus or something. Not that that wouldn’t be a bad thing to do.

But with what, he wondered? He was weary, breathless, armed only with an apparently beneficial insignificance and a rather ominous inkling that he was about to explode out of one orifice.

That might work. Position it just right and—no, no, no. Look, you’ve got something that can work here, right? You had one of their stones, didn’t you? If you could use that . . . no, it’s heresy.

His fist found itself in his pocket, regardless. His body, apparently, was done waiting for his brain to decide if it was ready to live. He fished around, wrapped fingers around something firm and cold. The stone. The stone that would cure him, that would give him enough power to—

Ah, wait, no, he thought as he pulled it from his pocket. That’s not the right one, is it?

This was the meager granite chunk from a black necklace that Denaos had found. Thick and raw and thoroughly useless.

“Where did you get that?”

It was his head, he was certain, all the noise and the dust was getting into his head. That’s how people kept sneaking up on him. Or maybe he really was so stupid as to be able to miss the great sikkhun approaching. It remained there, panting as its rider stared down at Dreadaeleon.

The other male, tall and thin and sporting a white goatee. His face was more expressive than the others, full of shock and horror at the sight of the boy. Probably not for the good reasons.

“That stone, I gave it . . .” He held out a hand, as if to grasp it. “You took it. Qaine, she . . .”

“Uh . . .” Dreadaeleon began to back away, hoping he wasn’t necessary in this conversation.

“Qaine. Qaine.” The male reiterated.

His lip trembled for a moment, eyes quivered for as long as it took him to draw in a breath. He held it there, shut his eyes tight. When they opened again, they burned red with energy.

“I need you,” he whispered, “to die.”

Gariath was still alive.

He had never been aware of his failure to die without a sigh of disappointment and resentment. He felt a dizzying rush as blood and breath fought to reassert themselves over his body. He swayed as he staggered to his feet, feeling strangely empty, as though his head hadn’t quite realized he was still alive and his spirit had already taken off for the afterlife.

Slowly, it returned, as if rejected and skulking back dejectedly.

There were hundreds more in line before him.

Something brushed his foot. A long, green limb groped blindly across stones slick with a pool of sticky red and black. Five fingers. An elbow joint. Skin. Claws.

All that remained of the Shen, buried beneath the stone. It dragged its claws against the stone until they snapped, tried to pull itself out until the flesh of its fingers shredded.

The emptiness of his head filled with the screams and the blood and the explosion and the twitching limbs and the statue flying through the sky and the scent of death everywhere, rising up on curtains of dust, the resigned sigh of an earth that had seen too much blood already.

Blood and broken bodies and glistening pink matter that had burst out of mouths and spilled upon stones. This was what remained. Of the Shen, nothing else.

But what about the others? Where were the humans? The little one had just been standing here, hadn’t he? Was he somewhere in this broken heap under the statue? Was he one of the shadows rushing about, screaming into the dust?

Was that him there, Gariath wondered? That stark black shape growing closer? He leaned forward, peered into the dust.

The jagged head of a spear shot out silently, found the muscle of his side and bit with iron teeth. His roar was eaten by dust. He reached down, seized the spear’s haft in his claws.

The warrior emerged from the dirt. No face, no eyes, untouched by the dust and the agony. Gariath saw his twisted grimace reflected in the carapace of her helmet as she approached, twisting the spear. He could feel it taste him, express the hatred and fury that the netherling’s faceless stare couldn’t.

This would have been a good death, he reflected briefly. At the end of a long fight, by a worthy foe. It would have, if he was ready to die.

But that time was passed. He saw no reason to reward latecomers.

His fist shot out, caught the female’s chin with the clang of metal. Her grip loosened enough for him to smash his fist again onto the haft of the spear, snapping it in two. He tore its splintered remains from her with one hand, reached out and slammed the butt of the other’s palm against her chin. Her neck twisted back as she lashed out with fist and shield, bending so far back it seemed it might snap at any moment.

That, too, would have been a good death.

Less messy, too. But again, latecomers.

He flipped the splintered haft in his palm, jammed it forward. It punched through her exposed purple throat to burst out the other side. She bled, she staggered, she collapsed and disappeared beneath the swirling dust and sand.

Too much dust, he thought. Too much sand. It wasn’t natural that sand should be this irritated, should linger in the air like a cloud of insects. There were lots of problems with this particular situation, the biggest one being the spearhead embedded in his side. He reached down to tear it out, braced himself for the scream to follow.

Wait. He forced himself to stop. Pull it out, the blood comes gushing, you’re dead in a few breaths. That’s what the human said, right? That sounds right. Leaving a giant wedge of metal embedded in your skin sounds right . . .

He blinked. Nothing about this made sense. He had to get away from it. He had to get higher.

He clawed his way up her stone body, over her hand, slipping on a patch of blood, trying to ignore the feeling that he could feel their screams in the palms of his hands. He emerged atop the statue.

He was not alone.

“Rhega.” Shalake did not turn around. His eyes were out over the sandy field. His club hung limp in his hands. “You are alive.”

“Shalake,” Gariath grunted, “are you . . .”

“No, Rhega. I am not.” He slowly turned around. His skull headdress was gone but for a single shard lodged into his right eye. “I am dead.”

“You aren’t,” Gariath replied, stalking forward. “You’re wounded. The rest of the Shen are scattered. The longfaces are moving up the stairs. You need to—”

“I can’t. I can’t hear my people. I can’t see my ancestors. I am somewhere else, Rhega. My body is down there, in the blood and dirt. My soul is here, talking to you.” He blinked. His eyelid trembled, flickering over the bone shard. “Are you dead, too?”


Gariath’s fist shot out, caught Shalake across the chin. The Shen staggered, spat out blood.

“Neither are you,” the dragonman grunted. “Now, get down there. Rally the warriors. We have to—”

“We can’t, Rhega.”

“We can, we just have to—”

“We can’t.”

Shalake raised a claw to the coral-splintered horizon and the crown of storms swirling atop it. Thunder crashed, banished the war cries and the screams and the rattle of iron and left the ring in an echoing silence. A great flash of lightning lit the sky and cast in shadow a mountain. A mountain that bled red in great weeping streaks across its body. A mountain that grew steadily bigger.

A mountain that walked.

“They’re already here.”

From the forest, out of the silence, a voice emerged. A distant wail, a bestial gurgle, the echoing reveberation of a bell, a hush of whispers and the flutter of wings and over it all, blending it into a single sound, the beating of a heart.

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