The Skybound Sea

Page 46

A cry went out from the netherlings, only barely heard, even echoed amongst the warriors. Their line began to move as they shifted to change their face toward the edge of the ring and the creature emerging from it.

The sheets of kelp parted, trembling as it came forth, a tall and skeletal shadow. On long, thin limbs wrapped in glistening ebon flesh, it strode onto the sand. Through great white eyes, empty as the void between its gaping, fishlike jaws, it surveyed the carnage. Thunder muttered overhead. A drop of crimson rain fell from the sky to splash and leave a weeping red streak across the white of its eye.

Its ribcage buckled. Its webbed claws tightened into fists. The Abysmyth threw its head back and howled to heaven and hell.

And the world exploded behind it.

They came streaming over the horizon in sheets and tides. The Omens flocked in great, sweeping streams, their withered faces alight with an echoing chorus. The frogmen surged out from the forest in a sea of pale flesh and glistening spears, flooding onto the battlefield and rushing toward the center of the ring. The Abysmyths strode amidst the hairless flood, leisurely strolling toward the impending slaughter.

The netherlings were not so patient.

“QAI ZHOTH!” they roared in their iron voices, challenging the storm and its demonic chorus.

“ULBECETONTH!” the tide shrieked back.





All of it lost in a crash of metal and flesh as they collided in the middle of the ring in a great spattering, screaming agony.

Gariath’s breath was lost somewhere in it all. He had seen carnage. He had caused carnage. But this was . . .

“The end, Rhega.”

Shalake had a rather good way of putting it. The Shen held his hands out helplessly, the club hanging limp and impotent from his claws.

“This is everything we fought for. The chance to watch it all end and go with our ancestors.”

“I’m not ready,” Gariath snarled.

The Shen’s good eye flickered, dispelling a fog that settled over his pupil. “No, not ready. We can’t go . . . we . . . we need to help the others.”

“They’re down there somewhere,” Gariath muttered. “Dreadaeleon is . . . somewhere. I have to find him.”

“Him? No, no. Them. The Shen. There are survivors, lead them to . . . to . . .” He stared at Gariath. The shard lodged in his eye wept a thick substance. “We can’t go looking for—”

“There is no ‘we,’” Gariath snarled suddenly. “I am not Shen. I am not ready to die. I am Rhega. I am the only Rhega. I will do what I have always done.” He reached out and tore the club from Shalake’s grasp. “And I need this.”

It wasn’t until he launched himself off the statue and into the ring that he bothered to wonder what he needed the club for exactly. It wasn’t just a fight that was raging, it was a massacre undiscerning.

The frogmen continued to stream out, the netherlings did not give a single footstep before drowning it in the frogmen’s blood. The Abysmyths swung their great limbs, seizing warriors, strangling them as the Carnassials and their great blades rushed forward, heedless of their breathless comrades as they brought their metal to bear.

Against that, he wondered what good a hunk of wood full of sharp teeth was going to do.


She came leaping over a drift of corpses, pulling free from the great spreading stain of flesh and blood of the melee. Her sword was above her head, her shield was hanging off her arm. Blood covered her purple flesh as she charged toward him. The netherling’s mouth opened in a roar, jagged teeth bared.

Without realizing it, he swung.

A satisfactory crunch. Enough that he could barely feel the agony of his wound. The netherling’s teeth lay on the ground. The club lodged somewhere between her jaw and her left temple. Her eyes stared with a thick chunk of wood between them.

Ah, right, he thought, watching a bit of gray porridge slide down the wood. That is good.

His earfrills twitched with the sound. Not screaming. They were screaming, of course, but all that was drowned out in the sound of embers crackling and smoke belching. The frogmen fled as bipedal pyres, scattering like cinders on the wind before the gouts of flame pouring from the netherling’s hands. Not the netherling everyone was worried about; this one was smaller, weaker.

As weak as anything spewing fire from its palms could be, anyway.

But neither the netherling nor the creatures scattering before him were Gariath’s concern. Just one of them.

Dreadaeleon stumbled, scrambling on whatever limbs happened to be on the ground at the time in an effort to get away from the male and the great, laughing beast he spurred after the boy. The male seemed in no hurry. He possessed a burning serenity, leisurely sweeping great reins of fire through the crowds to sear blackened roads across the sand to leisurely follow after his quarry.

Gariath drew in a deep breath. The air was full of blood and dust and smoke. And for the first time in a long time, it tasted sweet. The scent was full of life, fading fast. It was a scent he wanted to cling to.

He didn’t want to die.

Which made it hard to justify what he was doing.

Running. Charging. Roaring. Swinging. A hairless head split apart, black eyes drowned in a spray of red. It fell, was replaced by another, purple one. Iron lashed out, his arm bled, a jaw splintered apart. More came, one after the other, blends of purple and white and red. It was hard to tell them apart. Color didn’t matter. Sight didn’t matter. The scent of life was growing stronger as it painted his face and stained his hands. The club hung to him. It belonged in his hands.

The longface with her head split apart didn’t really belong there, but he found her body in his hands all the same. He drove the body forward with a roar, a limp, leaking ram that smashed through the knots of combatants across the field, taking spears and swords and arrows meant for him as he bowled over frogmen and longfaces alike.

It was a disjointed and ligamented mess that he tossed aside when he emerged. The scent of life brimmed, in plumes of smoke from the scorched sand and in the hot breath of the sikkhun beast. The beast’s ears were fanned out, its rubbery lips peeled back in an eager smile as it advanced upon Dreadaeleon, stumbled and scrambling backward as the male rider looked on with contemptuous eagerness for the impending evisceration.

Gariath was slightly more enthusiastic.

The beast’s ears quivered at his roar, turning its sightless gaze upon him. It matched his howl with an eerie cackle as it turned about to face this new, more interesting quarry. Gariath matched it, tooth for tooth, noise for noise, as he closed the distance and raised his club above his head.

Roughly about the time he felt an invisible force tighten around his throat did he remember the male.

He felt his feet leave the sand as he was lifted helplessly into the air, snarling and clawing wildly at an unseen grip. That became slightly harder when he felt the sand meet his face as the male brought an arm down swiftly, slamming him into the earth and pinning him breathlessly beneath the magic. He swept his burning scowl between the dragonman and the boy.

“And you,” the male said, “were you there, too? Which one of you was the scum that killed her?”

Gariath grunted, looked to Dreadaeleon and mouthed “who?” The boy offered a hapless shrug before the air about his throat rippled. They were lifted as one, a hand outstretched to either of them as the male’s eyes burned like fire. The sikkhun beneath him giggled, pawing at the ground in anticipation of fresh meat.

“I wanted to spare ourselves this.”

The words came slowly, the concentration needed to hold onto the spell an endeavor even as the red stone burned brightly at the male’s throat. Gariath could feel something groaning, threatening to break as the trembling air closed around him like a vise.

“And look where that got us,” he hissed. “Sheraptus was right. Sheraptus always has to be right. That’s fine. That’s entirely fine. We can end this—”

A sound filled the air.

Something long, something loud, something from a very deep hole filling up with stale water from a storm that had gone on for centuries. It rendered the din of iron and death in the ring a pitiful background noise, something easily ignored. It had to be such a sound that made the male’s concentration snap and sent the boy and dragonman tumbling to the earth. It had to be such a sound that made eyes look up to the thundering skies above in awe and fear and joy and panic.

In thick, sticky drops, red tears fell from the sky. A shadow of a mountain with a white peak appeared at the edge of the ring. A roar rose from it, the sound of existence groaning under a great weight.

“Tremble, heathens.”

A man from atop the mountain spoke. A tiny, pale figure made significant, a voice made loud by virtue of from where it spoke.

“The long march of the inevitable has led us here.”

“Daga-Mer . . . Daga-Mer . . .” a chant began to rise from the crowd of onlookers.

“The sky bleeds for him. The storms are his crown!”

“Daga-Mer! Daga-Mer!”

“The faithless are crushed beneath him! The blasphemers tremble before him!”


“FATHER!” an Abysmyth howled from below, echoed by many more. The mountain stirred at the word, rose as a living thing.


Life came to the mountain in an eruption of hellish red light. It veined the limbs that spread out from it, it pulsed with the beat of a heart that thundered in time with the storm, it burst from a pair of eyes, sweeping out over the penitent and the damned assembled in the ring.

The earth trembled as Daga-Mer raised a colossal foot and stepped onto the field.

Before the sound of him, there could be no words. Before the sight of him, there could be no blinking. He stood as an Abysmyth, tall and thin. But his head scraped the bleeding skies above, his thin hands were bigger than even his demonic children, and his jaws gaped open, void seeping out from between jagged teeth. Crude, rusted plates of metal had been hammered into his black flesh, a horned helmet to his skull from which the pale man spoke, rays of red light seeping out from between thin slits carved in the metal.

He said nothing. He made no movement. Circles of light cast from his stare swept slowly over the battle below and not a soul moved, none wishing to draw his attention.

The frightened whine of the sikkhun could have been heard for miles.

Gariath, however, was left with no miles. The sikkhun’s squeak, the shuffling of its claws as it backpedaled, the panicked whispers of its rider as he tried to calm the beast were agonizingly loud.

As was the sudden sound of his heart stopping as a halo of red light fell upon them.

A crack of lightning above illuminated Daga-Mer’s hand rising into the sky. The plates on his body ground and groaned against each other as his hand clenched into a fist. The sky, the earth and hundreds of small, insignficant bodies screamed in unison as it came down.

A sharp, terrified whine, the name “Qaine” screamed out, bones snapping, skin exploding, the earth breaking beneath a fist the size of a boulder. Everything was lost in the eruption that sent the earth rising up and sending Gariath flying, carried on a wave of dust and gore.

He landed somewhere, he didn’t know where. Cries rose up around him, fear and panic and calls to arms. He was without Shen, without humans, without anything but the colossus of light and shadow that rose above the dust and insects.

As Daga-Mer threw back his head.

And roared.

Denaos looked up and over his shoulder, back toward the ring.

“That’s funny,” he said, “I could have sworn I just heard the sound of us about to be horribly murdered.”

“What was that?” Asper craned to see over the heads of the Shen warriors who had accompanied them to the top of the stairs. “What is that?”

“We should go back,” Kataria grunted, arrow drawn and at the ready. “We left Gariath and Dread behind to die.”

“There is nothing back there but death,” Mahalar growled. His attentions were focused on the great slab of stone at the end of the walkway running over the pond, his skeletal hands searching its smooth face. “Shalake failed. You failed. We all failed and now—”

Somewhere below, a roar shook the stones and the sky.

“That,” the elder Shen muttered. “We have no other options now. We go forward or we die.”

“We go forward and Gariath and Dread die,” Kataria said. “The rest of us will follow a little later.”

“Not ‘we,’” Mahalar snapped. “We. You. Me. Jaga. Everything. Can’t you hear it? Can’t you hear her?” He stomped his feet upon the bridge. “She’s stirring. Her beloved is close. Her children are close. She is coming.”

Kataria narrowed her eyes at the Shen before turning to Lenk. “We can’t just leave them, Lenk.”

Lenk grunted in reply. Lenk was listening to something else. Lenk could hear it. Lenk could hear her.

Somewhere deep. Somewhere far. In the chasm. In the earth. In the utter darkness. Something scratched against the floor of the world. Something pounded against the door. Someone heard the screaming in the ring. Someone screamed back.

And in the dark place of his head, something awoke.

He shook his head, tried to ignore it, tried to dismiss it as anxiety and paranoia. That was what it was, he told himself. He left that part of himself back in the darkness, back in the chasm. He touched his shoulder, it seared. He felt flesh as liquid beneath it.

He was still dying.


Wait, no.

And yet, as he tried to fight it, tried to ignore it, the voice came to him anyway, came out of his mouth.

“She comes.”

“Not yet,” Mahalar said. “She’s close, she’s trying hard, but she can’t come unless called.” His fingers found a piece of slate, thin and barely recognizable from the rest of the stone. He pulled it back, revealing a jagged indentation in the rock. “We take that away from her, from the longfaces, from everything.”

“By doing what?” Denaos asked. “There’s nowhere to go but back down.” He glanced over the edges of the walkway. “Or, you know, in there. I mean, either way it’s going to be messy.”

“There is another way.”

Mahalar pulled from his shabby robe the sigil of the House of the Vanquishing Trinity, the gauntlet clenching arrows. Tearing it from its chain, he pressed it into the indentation and slid the slate back over. Something shifted within the stone, it began to rumble. It began to rise.

Albeit painfully slowly.

Lenk looked down as a sudden, familiar weight was thrust against him. The tome whispered to him, muttered a voice onto another voice, beckoning, begging, whispering, whining. Mahalar’s eyes were dire, his voice darker.

“Take it there. Take it below. Keep it out of their hands and we can plan. Flee now. Save us now.”

Lenk glanced at Kataria. She shot him an urgent look. He sighed, turning to Mahalar and nodding.

“Why?” she demanded.

“It’s what Gariath and Dread would want,” he said. “For us to not run away.”

“Gariath, maybe,” Denaos replied. “Dread, I think, would have a problem with us leaving him to be eaten alive . . . or stabbed . . . or otherwise dying horribly.”

“Well, we don’t have a lot of choice, do we?” Asper asked hotly, backing up as she reached for her sword.

“Oh, what? Because if we don’t, the world is doomed?”

“Because of that, you idiot!” she replied, thrusting the blade at the top of the stairs.

And that came barreling up the steps. Cresting up over the stairs, atop the back of her sikkhun, eyes wide and white and mouth full of a roar, Semnein Xhai came.


“Stop her! Hold her back!” Mahalar howled to the Shen. “The door isn’t open yet!” He thrust a finger at Lenk. “You stay here! We can’t let the book get away!”

The door was rising too slowly. And Xhai was not deterred.

She hacked wildly into the cluster of Shen that rose up to stop her. The great wedge of metal split turtle shell shields, cleaved through spears, ate of green flesh and drank of red blood. Those warriors that strayed too close to the sikkhun were snatched up in its jaws, shaken wildly like toys.

“We should do something,” Asper said. “They’re dying.”

“Right, do something,” Denaos said, edging behind her. “Maybe we can throw ourselves at the monster and hope it chokes on us.”

“Or maybe we can let Kataria do everything again,” the shict snarled.

She drew an arrow back and let it fly. Its song was short and ended in a meaty thunk as it bit into the netherling’s leg. The longface looked up, spared a glare for Kataria, as though she were simply being obnoxious. It wasn’t until she looked over the shict and caught sight of Denaos that her face twisted up like a fist.

“YOU!” she roared. She clove through a Shen in a single blow, sent two parts of him flying into the water.

“What did you do?” Asper asked, backing away breathlessly. “What did you do?”

“Yes, blame me,” Denaos said, backing even farther. A small gap, barely larger than a child, had appeared beneath the door. “What the hell is taking so long?”

“The earth moves slowly, human,” Mahalar muttered, “it feels nothing for mortal—”

“No, Gods damn it! You had plenty of time to be poetic down there! Now we need results!”

“Then it’s just old as hell! I don’t even know if it will open all the way,” Mahalar snarled. “As soon as there’s enough space, move!”

There was not enough space to move yet. More concerningly, there was not nearly enough space between Xhai and the companions. Lenk watched as the last three Shen hurled themselves at her. Lenk watched as the last three of them fell in pieces.

Black shadows crested up behind her. The black-armored warriors, spears shining, came marching up to join a battle already finished. Lenk wasn’t concerned with them. Xhai wasn’t, either. The longface’s eyes caught a glimpse of the black book in Lenk’s hands. She snarled, spurred her beast forward. It cackled wildly, bits of flesh bursting from its mouth as it scrabbled across the stones and charged.

A snap behind him. A sharp shriek of metal. The arrow flew, caught the beast in its nostril. Its cackle became a shrieking whine. Its charge ended as it flew onto its hind legs, scratching wildly at its snout with its claws. Lenk blinked, felt an arm seize him.

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