The Skybound Sea

Page 47

“Move, idiot!” Kataria snarled, shoving him toward the door.

Denaos’s boots were just disappearing beneath the stone slab, Asper already gone in. Kataria tossed her bow under and slithered on her belly after them.

“Come on, come on!” she barked at Lenk.

“Mahalar! We’re moving!” he cried as he threw himself to the ground.

The elder Shen nodded, turned to hobble after them as Lenk tumbled the gap. He could see that the stone was just a cover to a wooden door, a series of groaning gears and chains slowly raising it.

“It’s just going to keep opening!” Asper shouted in the darkness beyond the stone. “Find a switch or something!”

“What makes you think there’s a switch?” Denaos asked.

“I don’t know, just find something!”

Lenk watched the desperation in Mahalar’s eyes, watched the dust fly from his mouth like spittle. He watched the Shen drag his body across the stones. He watched a brief smile flit across his face at the thought of his plan coming to fruition.

He watched the obsidian spearhead burst out the Shen’s chest.

Xhai appeared from behind, hoisting the weapon by a pale, ivory-colored shaft. She looked at the impaled Shen contemptuously, irritated that she hadn’t used it on something a little more impressive. Contempt turned to a wicked delight in an instant, though, as the spear’s head glowed an ominous blue.

The Shen’s flesh blackened as he writhed helplessly upon the shaft. The moisture and warmth left him, sucked into the spear by a great inhale. Even the dust left him as the spear swallowed it all.

He watched Xhai shake the weapon and dislodge a blackened, frozen husk from the shaft.

He watched Mahalar fall to the ground.

He watched Mahalar’s lightless, dark eyes stare back at him.

“Here! Here’s something!” Denaos called. “Quick, help me pull it!”

A clicking sound. The stone groaned as more black-clad warriors came up on the stairs, carrying something thick and heavy between them. The door slid shut as Xhai shouldered the spear and walked back to her mount.

And Lenk was left staring at the darkness.



“So . . . what now?”

Lenk could hear Denaos clearly in the darkness. Just like he heard him the last six times. There was surprisingly little to do in a pitch-black room full of warm, stale air and the reek of decaying moisture.

They had spread out, searching blindly for another switch, for anything that might lead them out. The crude metal lever that had shut the door had been found nearly by accident and had promptly snapped in half shortly after. They couldn’t go back even if they wanted to.

“Uyeh!” a distant voice cried through stone.

“Toh!” five others sounded in reply.

The stone door shook as something smashed against it.

They most certainly didn’t want to go back and see what that was. Nor did they want it to come through. Not that such a thing seemed all that feasible. The door did nothing more than tremble. It was a comforting fact, Lenk thought, right up until he remembered it meant the sole route of escape was quite closed off.

Then it was back to groping.

He found nothing but cold stone. Still, cold stone was preferable to any number of options. One of which bumped rather harshly against him.

“Sorry,” Kataria muttered.

“It’s fine,” Lenk replied.

“Oh, it’s you.” She bumped again. This time with fists.

“Gods damn it, will you stop that?” he hissed.

“I should do worse,” she said. “Gariath would want me to do worse.” She struck him again. “How could you leave them like that?”

“Because we can’t run anymore,” he said.

He could feel her glare. “We ran in here.”

“In that case, because I wanted to die in one piece,” he snapped back. “Look, I know we should have gone back. I know we shouldn’t have even come up here. I wanted to sail away on a ship made out of skin but you—”

“Weak. Traitor. Betrayed us.”

“Never wanted them here. Killed them. Too dark.”

He shook his head. Whispers. Memories of whispers, no less. Easily ignored. He believed maybe one-quarter of that.

“We don’t have a lot of options left,” he said. “The tome can’t fall into the netherlings’ hands.”

“Not like there’s a lot of choice,” Asper replied from the other side of the room. “They’ll break through, eventually.”

“Not if the demons kill them first,” Denaos chimed in. “If you pray hard enough, maybe the Gods will take pity on us. The demons will kill the longfaces and be left without a way in and we’ll have the privilege of starving to— oh, good GODS.”

His curse came with the shuffle of stone as the rogue fell backward.

“Something . . . something . . .” he stammered. “I just touched . . . something!”

“Something?” Kataria asked. “Is it big and black?”


“I don’t see it, then.”

A soft light bloomed in the darkness. It grew, painting a slender, writhing body, vacant, glassy eyes, faint dots of green light that grew brighter with each breath. The fish twisted, slithered in midair, upward.

Toward a dozen more lights that blossomed in sympathy. Fishes swirled about the ceiling of a large, circular chamber carved into the mountain, illuminating the darkness in a soft nausea of blue and green. Carved upon the walls were images of tall, powerful women with hands extended in benevolence and faces scarred out by fire and sword. “Death to heathens,” “Glory to Gods,” “Kill all Demons” and other more colorful phrases were smeared across the walls in dark, soot-stained graffiti.

“In many different languages,” Kataria noted.


“That one’s in shictish,” she said, pointing to a line of writing upon the wall. “That one in something else.”

“The mortal armies,” Lenk muttered. “All peoples bound together to fight Ulbecetonth.”

“Well, so long as every culture got the chance to write something dirty,” Denaos said, walking past them. “But unless one of them has a curse you haven’t heard yet, I suggest you come look at this instead.”



Another tremor shook the stone door. It was all the persuasion anyone needed to follow Denaos to the other side of the cavern. A great archway rose up, flanked by two statues posing as pillars. Both depicted strong, young men with long, flowing hair and fins on the sides of their heads, tridents held in webbed hands.

Their stone skin was worn, however, by the intricate web of chains that wrapped around and between them to meet at a focal point at the center of the archway.

Another statue, shorter though far more imposing, stood there: a hooded man with a tremendous stone eye for a face, left palm outstretched in a warding motion, like the others Lenk had seen on Teji and Jaga. The chains bound it to the pillars and, hanging from every third link, a scrap of paper with barely legible script was woven to the metal.

“Do they say anything?” he asked, peering at the slips of paper.

“‘Turn back, ye who wanders,’” Denaos read off a slip, “‘the way ahead is shut to all but the dead. Enter, ye who seeks their joining.’”


“No, not really. I just thought that sounded ominous enough to make you stop thinking about it for a while.” He tried to pull a pair of chains apart to make a gap large enough to pass through. “Give me a hand with these.”

“Right.” The young man stepped up and took the links. “Kat, watch our back. Asper—”

He certainly hadn’t meant to finish that sentence with a scream that was usually reserved for people with hot pokers in the eyes. But the moment he had tried to pry the chains apart, he felt something inside him tear. His shoulder became damp, sticky. He could smell something pungent.

“The hell’s wrong with you?” Denaos asked, cocking a brow.

“Uh . . .”

Any chance he might have had of coming up with something more clever than that ended as Asper pulled the collar of this tunic away, exposing the glistening infection in his shoulder.

“I told you,” she snarled. “Didn’t I tell you? Didn’t I?”

“Tell him what?” Kataria asked, wide-eyed. “What’s wrong with him?”

“I’m fine,” Lenk said.

“I can’t tell if you’re trying to be stoic, clever, or stupid,” Asper said, pointing at his shoulder. “But this sort of precludes two of those.” She studied the wound, wincing. “It looks bad.”

“How bad?” Kataria asked.

“Not bad enough to stop,” Lenk muttered, pushing one leg through the gap in the chains.

“Very bad. He shouldn’t be up and around, let alone doing . . . well, any of this,” Asper said, reaching for the bag at her hip. “But if we can spare a moment or two, I might be able to—”



The word came with a shattering sound. A great stone hand came smashing through the door. Ulbecetonth’s arm, fingers cracking and crumbling to powder, carved a hole, fragments of timber and stone clattering to the floor as it withdrew, pulled by black-plated hands.



Another blow splintered it totally. The arm fell, making way for what came shrieking out of a cloud of dust.

“Move! MOVE!”

Lenk’s scream, and the subsequent cries of alarm, were lost in the sikkhun’s gibbering laughter as it charged into the chamber. They scrambled to get out of the way as it rampaged across the floor, tongue lolling, smile wide with excitement. Denaos released the chains, letting them pull tight over Lenk’s leg as he darted away.

“Denaos!” Lenk screamed at him. “You son of a bitch!”

“You said to move!” the rogue screamed back, already far away.

The young man tried desperately to pull his leg free. The pain in his shoulder and his thigh weren’t easy to ignore. The sound of a gibbering mass of muscle and fur thundering toward him, even less so.

He pulled himself free with a wrenched scream, falling to the floor. Kataria was there in a moment, seizing him by his ankles and dragging him ignobly away as the sikkhun threw itself wildly forward.

The statue buckled as its skull collided with it, its robes cracking, chains clinking. The pillars groaned, swaying as the chains pulled them from their roots. That might have been more alarming, Lenk thought as he rose to his feet, if not for the sikkhun scrambling to its feet. It shook a cloud of granite dust from its fur, loosed a delirious giggle as it turned and began to stalk toward the companions.

That, too, wasn’t the worst thing at that moment.


They came charging through the sundered door, spears alive, metal rattling. Lenk was already running to the archway, even before he heard a violent crack and scream behind him. The chains slackened as the pillars swayed. The others had already picked up on this idea. Kataria was alongside him, Asper right behind him, Denaos . . .

Even farther behind him, on the floor with a metal boot digging into his back. Xhai stood over him, blade raised above her head, a joyless smile on her face as her sikkhun came padding up, grinning broadly.

“Oh, Gods damn it,” Asper snarled.

By the time he had discerned what that meant, Lenk and Kataria were already through the chains. The priestess had whirled about, charging past the netherlings to tackle Xhai at the waist and knock her aside. The longfaces didn’t seem to notice her, intent on what was clear to everyone.

The pillars were collapsing.

“Come on, come on!” Kataria cried, pulling on Lenk’s arm.

There was no choice but to run as the netherlings filed in after them, as the pillars groaned and toppled over, as darkness swallowed them whole.

Are you well, lorekeeper?

Am I dead?

You are not.

Are you sure?

I am certain.

He tried to rise. Something inside him suggested that such an action and keeping all his organs inside him were mutually exclusive concepts.

Oh, you lying little harlot.

Lie still, lorekeeper. Her thoughts came into his head on lilting notes, a spoon stirring whatever soup his brain had become. Let me soothe you with—

Stop. Stop thinking at me.

“We can use words, if you wish,” she sang.

No, no. I don’t think I have lips anymore.

“Open your eyes, lorekeeper.”

That seems like a bad idea.

He did it anyway.

It was.

The battle raged across the ring still. The netherlings seemed to have a stable hand, if not an upper one. Each warrior stood knee-deep in bodies as frogmen hurled themselves at them. Abysmyths waded in tides of flesh, reaching down to pluck netherlings from the sea of combatants and twist an offending body into a purple knot before absently tossing them over their shoulders. They were heedless of blades sinking into their ribcages, arrows finding their gullets. It wasn’t until a Carnassial, wild with fury, would tear herself free from the combat and bring an envenomed blade to hack off a demonic limb that they noticed there was a battle going on.

Their father seemed even more heedless than that.

Daga-Mer and the storm strode as one. Each time the titan’s foot set down, it did so with the sound of thunder that crushed the screams of the frogmen and netherlings beneath it. Each time the hellfire in his eyes swept across the field and found a target, lightning danced joyously for the impending doom. Each time his great fist came down, red tears filled a shallow grave across the sand.

Dreadaeleon went unnoticed because he was currently heaped amidst a small pile of bodies. He was fine with that. He was more than fine with being absent from this mayhem.

Which made it difficult to justify why he was rising up, albeit shakily.

“Lorekeeper!” He felt Greenhair’s hand on his shoulder, steadying him. “You cannot be feeling well enough to do what you’re thinking of.”

Perhaps she had known what he was planning even before he had the thoughts to put it into name. Maybe he really was that obvious. After all, for what reason could a skinny little ill boy in a dirty coat get up and begin staggering toward a vile melee like this?

What could he hope to accomplish?

Go in there, find Sheraptus, or his corpse, locate the crown, use it to save his friends who were . . . somewhere else? Or go in there, hope that he’d been wrong all his life, discover that Gods were real and would smile on him enough to let him end all this? Or maybe just go and die and feel anything but the disease running through him?

All terrible plans, of course. The more he thought about them, the more stupid they seemed.

A good enough reason, then, to stop thinking about them. Actions, theoretically, were better.

Doing what he could to stop Sheraptus. Doing what he had to to help the others, wherever they were. Doing what he had to, to prove he still wasn’t as weak and useless as everyone—

He bit back a shriek. A hand thrust against his head as a sudden spike of agony lanced his skull. Fever and chill swirled about him, an immense pressure came down on his skull. He fought to hold onto consciousness, then to breath, then to thought.

Magic. An immense amount.

That made finding Sheraptus easy enough, even if the longface didn’t look wildly out of place amongst the carnage.

The boy caught sight of him not far away, standing at the center of a ring of charred sand and smoldering bodies, pristine in his white robes, fingers still steaming as he folded his hands behind him. He was casually observing a small crew of netherlings loading their spiky siege engine with a tremendous ballista bolt, a trio of Carnassials standing beside him, wary of the carnage he was seemingly oblivious to.

Dreadaeleon’s eyes drifted down to the twisted, blackened husks that ringed the longface.


But more, his eyes were drawn to the crown. Burning bright as fires, alive with energy. He tried his best not to remember where the energies came from.

He had to try harder not to remember what he could do with it.

He forced his attentions on what would have to come first. He raised his hand, focused on the crown, called the magic to mind.

“I can smell your wings burning, little moth,” Sheraptus said suddenly. “Finish that spell and you might very well burn to ash.” He turned to Dreadaeleon and smiled. “Only one of you?”

He couldn’t hear Greenhair’s song in his head. Had she fled? She was getting more efficient with her betrayals, if nothing else.

“The rest are busy trying to stop what you’re interfering with. They’re demons. Unnatural. You can’t use them like you used the Gonwa.”

“Use them? For what?”

“The . . . the red stones. Fuel.”

“The martyr stones?” Sheraptus grinned. “That would have been a good idea, wouldn’t it?”

The boy furrowed his brow. “Why did you come here, then?”

“I dislike that word. It’s only three letters, yet it’s been annoying me greatly. We have no equivalent in our tongue. We do not ask, we simply do. I have found this to be effective, thus far.”

“Ulbecetonth is rising, Sheraptus! That means certain death for us all!”

“If that were certain, we’d already be dead. The fact that I’m still here must, therefore, mean that my victory is certain.” The longface pointed a finger upward. “They have shown me this.”

“Has that crown finally burned a hole through your brain? Do you not hear yourself?”

The Carnassials hefted their blades, began to stalk toward the boy. Sheraptus held them back with an upraised hand.

“I don’t blame you for your faithlessness. It took me quite a while to realize the error of it myself and I’m so much more than you.” He turned and nodded to the ballista crew. “That is why I am about to do their will and end this.”

Creation shook with a howl. Daga-Mer challenged heaven and earth alike, throwing his titanic arms back as he roared to the sky.

Sheraptus answered softly.

“Let it fly.”

The ballista bolt went shrieking over the heads of the combatants, a great chain snaking behind it. It sank into the titan’s midsection, inciting barely more than a flinch from the beast as he reached into the melee and scooped out a longface.

A surge of power sent pain creasing across Dreadaeleon’s mind. Sheraptus raised his hands to the chain. The stones burned on his brow, his eyes erupted with red light. Electricity danced from his fingers onto the chain, link to link and flesh to flesh.

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