The Skybound Sea


Page 48



Daga-Mer convulsed as the electricity raced across his colossal body. His shrieks tore apart the sky, his hellish red light turned to a vivid blue pouring out of his mouth and painted against the storm with his scream. When it ended, the titan collapsed to one knee. Earth trembled, smoke bloomed in a gray forest.

Sheraptus smiled, flicking sparks from his fingers and making a vague gesture toward the demon.

“Finish it,” he said. The Carnassials obeyed, rushing off across the battlefield. He turned to Dreadaeleon with a smile on his face, almost seeking approval. “You see?”

Dreadaeleon was having a hard time seeing anything. The surge of power persisted, pressing down on his skull. He breathed heavily, trying to listen for Greenhair’s song, just for a moment of reprieve.

“You presume they’re there to give you things,” Sheraptus continued, waving a hand to the sky. “But they’re not. They’re there to make you prove you deserve it. They called me here. They sent the demons here. Everything that came before, all the killing, being surrounded by these females and doing nothing but what we thought we were meant to do. It all had a reason!”

Just a flinch. A fleeting twitch of a purple lip.

“Right?”

“I can’t think,” Dreadaeleon said, holding a hand to his temple. It burned to the touch. “There’s too much power surging about. How are you producing so much without casting any spells?”

“Ah, you feel it, too?” Sheraptus looked genuinely perplexed. “I thought that was you. A symptom of your condition.”

The two wizards looked at each other for a moment. Their gazes slowly turned upward.

“Oh, dear,” Sheraptus whispered.

They went scrambling for cover, boy and netherling alike. The ballista crew drew their swords, looking up and uncertain of what they were seeing. It became clear as soon as they heard the screaming. But by that point, the sky was already ablaze.

Bralston struck the ground in an explosion. Bodies, living and dead, were as wheat around him, bending into coils of blackened matter. They were ignored. The carnage raging around him went unheeded. He could see none of it. His eyes were alight, his vision burning out. All that was left of him was reserved for one sight.

A heretic.

The heretic. Bright red in Bralston’s vision, burning like the sun. No sign of the weak concomitant. No sign of his murderous ally. That was what he had come here for, yes? To avenge Cier’Djaal and the Houndmistress?

Hard to think. His mind seared, boiling under his own power. Everything in him leaked out of his eyes. He had come here for something. That was not important.

Duty was everything.

The heretic must die.

Bralston threw out his hands and screamed a word.

There was only the fire burning him alive, sending the wings of his wraithcoat flapping, hurling him toward the longface wizard. He could see the magic forming in the netherling’s hands, erecting walls of force. That, too, meant nothing.

Bralston struck it with a scream, hands outstretched like a battering ram. Their air crashed against each other, sent the longface skidding on his heels. He was burning too bright, spending too much power trying to hold back Bralston. Bralston screamed louder. Bralston pressed harder.

The netherling flew, tumbling over scorched sand and through bodies. Bralston pursued. The walking wheat that came at him, he could not see. They fell before his screams, the fire in his step, the frost pouring from his mouth. He walked among them, burning brightly, the longfaces and hairless things and towering beasts charred and shattered and sent flying.

They kept coming. That did not matter. The heretic mattered. Duty mattered. He had to keep going, he had to keep burning, he could not stop burning until the heretic was dead.

The heretic burned less bright in his gaze. He rose to his feet, diminished. He was weakening. He was stumbling backward, waving his hands wildly, sputtering words that meant nothing.

Bralston screamed, threw his hands forward and let the sheets of flame roil toward the heretic. He fled. The longface was burning dim, fading against the flames, flickering out of existence, blackening.

No, that was his own vision. Bralston’s vision. Darkening at the edges. Burning black. Burning out. Flickering. Dying. So tired. He needed sleep. He needed beds. He needed silk and her and perfume and her and poetry.

And her.

Duty. Duty first. Duty always.

He pressed on, following the heretic. Monsters rushed, were burned. Longfaces charged, were flung aside. It was hard to see the heretic, a fast-fading light. He had to keep going, he had to keep burning.

Someone seized him. He turned. A weak fire, waning, flickering candle snuffed by moth’s wings. Dreadaeleon. He was talking, saying words that weren’t magic. Pointless. Senseless. He needed to keep burning.

“—bleeding!”

Words.

“—dying, not going to—”

Fading.

“—the crown! The crown will—”

Burning.

He had to keep burning. The concomitant would not let go. The concomitant. Friends with the murderer. Killed hundreds. Where was the murderer? The concomitant would not let go. He had to find the heretic. The murderer. He had to scream. He had to keep burning. The concomitant would not let go.

Bralston raised a hand. Bralston screamed.

Lightning flashed. A single bolt. The concomitant had let go. Flesh burned. Bralston was still silent.

Bralston was bleeding.

From the throat. From the chest. He looked down. He was burning. His chest was black. He was burning out. He was not breathing. His vision was blackening.

He fell forward.

Soft hands caught him.

He could smell the candle wax, the silks, the orchids, the night sky, the perfumes that real women didn’t wear. He could feel the softness of her legs as he lay his head upon her knees. He could feel the warmth of his own breath, the gooseflesh rising upon her thighs, how very heavy his eyes were.

“No, no,” she said. “Don’t open your eyes.”

“I have to,” he said. “There is a heretic out there. There are murderers out there. I have to open my eyes.”

“I’m in here. Don’t open your eyes, Bralston.”

“All right.”

He felt her hand running across his scalp. He felt her hand sliding down across his chest.

“Don’t,” he said. “I’m hurt.”

“No, you’re not, Bralston. You’re here with me.”

“Where?”

“In a very long and very wide rice field. The mud is thick and it reeks of dung. The sun is very hot.”

“I only smell silk and perfume. I don’t feel warm at all. Anacha?”

“Mm?”

“Are you happy here?”

“We are happy here, Bralston.”

“I’m so tired, Anacha. I’ve missed you.”

“I’ve missed you, too. Sleep now, Bralston.”

“I love you, Anacha.”

“Sleep, Bralston.”

“I love you.”

“Sleep.”

“I . . . I . . .”

“Yes? You what?” Sheraptus asked, peering down at the dark-skinned human. “Sorry, you’ll have to speak up. I think you’re dead.”

“I . . . I . . . I . . .”

The human was still going. Sheraptus would be impressed if he wasn’t so annoyed. He had run. He, a male, had fled from this babbling thing. In front of all the females. In front of the people in the sky.

But he had had no choice. This overscum had knocked the crown loose, sent him reeling. The words hurt to speak. The price for nethra had burned him after so much time of not paying it. He could barely muster enough skill to cast the lightning that had slain the human.

No matter, he could find the crown now. He could finish this. This dark-skinned overscum had killed an impressive number. Only Daga-Mer and the most resilient of demons remained. Of course, only a few of his own warriors remained. That didn’t matter, either, once he had—

“The crown.”

He saw it there, lying like some forgotten thing. He scrambled toward it on his hands and knees in the gore-soaked dirt, careful not to be seen by anyone. He grew quicker as he approached, limbs flailing in desperation to reach it. He lunged for it.

It was in the air.

In pale, pink hands.

On a dirty, sweaty brow.

Dreadaeleon closed his eyes. He drew in a long, strong breath. When he opened them again, he was ablaze.

THIRTY-ONE

BLOOD OF MOUNTAINS

His shoulder hurt. He was bleeding. Darkness pressed in all around him. Bloodthirsty women were somewhere behind him.

“Two more we left behind.”


Kataria wasn’t helping.

“We had no choice,” he said.

“I know,” she said, sighing. “I know. But we left them behind with her. With Xhai.”

“And that means we’re not here with Xhai,” Lenk said. “That’s something.”

“Is it? I can’t even see my hand in front of my face. Can you?”

He collided with the heel of her palm and recoiled with a snarl.

“You’re hilarious.”

“I’m angry. I also have no idea where we’re going and I have no idea why it is you think we shouldn’t stop and try to figure it out. And of course, you’re not going to tell me. Because that would just be too sane, wouldn’t it?”

He was pleased she couldn’t see him wince at that. After all that had happened, he had thought sanity and accusations surrounding it wouldn’t be such a touchy subject. That had been before they had fled into the tunnels, though, before they had run through the winding darkness to escape the netherlings.

Before someone, somewhere, down there in the dark wet stone, started muttering his name.

“We lost the netherlings, didn’t we?” he said. “We’re still alive. The tome is still in the least dangerous hands possible. We . . . we did good.”

“We left them behind.”

“What the hell did you think was going to happen?” His voice did not echo in the darkness. “Why the hell did you think I wanted to run? I had everything I wanted back there. You, no voices in my head . . . but you said we shouldn’t run and I thought you were right.”

“I was right then and I’m right now,” she snarled back. “I’m right all the Gods damned time and we should go back.”

“Through a bunch of netherlings to dig ourselves out of a heap of rocks? We might emerge in time to see Xhai strangling Asper with Denaos’s intestines. We go forward.”

“At the very least, we should stop and check your shoulder.”

“We go forward.”

“Lenk.”

He said nothing.

“Never should have come here.”

She hadn’t said that.

The wall became cold beneath his hand, a kind of urgent cold that reached out with stony fingers to intertwine with his. He felt a pulse through his palm, an airless breath drawn in. And when it released, the light came.

“But you did,” the man in the ice said. The light in his eyes filtered through the tomb of frost, staring past Lenk and into nothing. “And you brought it back here.”

He was strong. And he was dead. His beard was white and his lips moved mechanically. Cords of flesh pulled him against a pillar of rock and crushed his body into macabre angles beneath the tomb of glassy frost, blackened and frozen in ancient rigor. His eyes beamed with blue light. His voice was hollow.

“You should not have returned, brother.”

Kataria was shivering, hovering around Lenk, uncertain whether to hide behind him or stand before him. She tried to make her chattering teeth seem a bare-toothed snarl. Lenk stared into the man’s eyes. He felt cold. It didn’t bother him.

“What the hell are you supposed to be?” she demanded of the man in the ice.

“I am the one who stayed behind, to watch my brothers, to see the end of this war. I am the one betrayed, the slayer who waited for the world to betray us as he said it would.”

“So . . . is that whole thing your name or do you have a regular one?”

“I once did.”

“And . . . what are you?”

The answer came, no matter how badly he wished it hadn’t.

“He’s me,” Lenk said. “They all are.”

“Who?”

In answer, the glow from the ice grew brighter, enough to illuminate the tunnel into a cavern. They stood upon a high ledge above a chasm yawning into nothingness. And below, a dozen other blue lights bloomed like dead flowers, reflecting off a dozen other tombs of frost.

They marched into the darkness, with their swords high and their black cloaks flying and their eyes alight with a cold fury that death could not diminish. In scenes of battle and of death, with arrows and blades and wounds decorating their flesh, they were frozen. They endured, constant as the death in the air and the dead beneath their feet. Demons, humans, wearing the images of Ulbecetonth and of the House of the Vanquishing Trinity, skeletons all, long gone from the battle the people in the ice still fought.

“Riffid,” Kataria gasped breathlessly, staring out over the pit.

“That name is memory,” the man in the ice said. “They cried out to many gods in that war. For nothing. We are too far gone from the sun. No god can hear us down here.”

“What happened?” Lenk asked.

“This is where we ended it. All of it,” the man said. “The mortal armies were failing. The demons were endless, the Aeons were all-powerful, the Gods were deaf. All was lost for the mortals and their House. Until he decided to intervene.”

“Who?” Kataria asked. Neither man answered. She looked to Lenk. “Who?”

A desperate incredulity was lit upon her face. A demand, a plea, something that pained him to see. He didn’t want to admit it any more than she wanted to know.

“Him,” Lenk repeated. “Mahalar spoke of you, the ones who killed the demons. But you only carried the swords, didn’t you? It was him who gave you the power, him who speaks through you. It was him who killed the demons and drove back Ulbecetonth.”

“What?” Kataria asked.

“God of Gods,” the man in the ice answered. “He had no name. Like us. He had no need for them. He decided there would be no demons, no gods, no rulers of mortality. The terrible burden of their existence was theirs to bear. Ours to deliver.”

“You talk like you aren’t one of them, aren’t mortal.”

“I am no god. My flesh rots beneath this ice. My bones snap under her grasp. But I am not like them. They hated him for his declaration. They hated us for delivering it. Men and the gods they served. They turned on us here, in this cavern, in this battle as we fought to make it to the drowned throne of the Kraken Queen. A pitiful jest. Without us, they could not kill her. They could only lock her behind doors of meaning.”

He sighed centuries out into the darkness.

“And you returned her key, brother.”

Lenk looked to his satchel. Even in the darkness, even obscured by the pouch, the barest glimpse of the tome’s cover revealed a blackness that refused to be obscured. If anything, it grew darker, heavier, more significant. An eager child perking up when it knew someone was talking about it.

“The tome . . . you wrote it?”

“Long ago. He knew that the gods would need to be challenged one day, as the demons were, that tyrants could never be traded for tyrants. And he told us to write the book, with all the knowledge of the demons and mortalkind and all that it meant to fear and hope. It was intended to stay in our hands.”

He laughed the sounds of ice breaking.

“And he was right. Yours are the only hands left, brother.”

“What is it you think I’m going to do with it?”

“There is no thinking, brother, for there is no question. There is only certainty and his will. You will use the tome as you are meant to, as he wills you to.”

“And if I refuse?”

“Reiteration is a poor defense against inevitability, brother. All that he speaks shall pass. He, the God of Gods, told us our duty, so we carried it out. He told us to kill, and we did. He said we would be betrayed, we were, as you knew you would be.”

He did not look behind him. It did not help. He could feel the hurt in Kataria’s stare as keenly as any metal.

“That was a fear. The same as any man of flesh and bone would have.”

“It was a certainty.”

“If it was certain, then I would have accepted it.”

“Denial is a poor shield, brother.”

“And a great weapon. You swing it hard enough, it breaks just about anything. Especially certainty.”

“We heard you when you came to this land. We heard your fears through him and they spoke loudly.”

“And what do you hear now?”

The man was silent.

“I sent him away,” Lenk said. “I rejected him. I rejected everything he offered me, every price he asked. I’m free of him.” He felt the pain in his shoulder. He did not reach for it. “I’m free of that ruler.”

“He does not rule. He speaks. He blesses us, tells us what must be done and gives us the strength to do it.”

“Sounds like any other tyrant masquerading as benevolent.”

“Perhaps. Or perhaps he knew that it was the price we had to pay for the rest of mankind. It’s a great power, brother. It came at a price we paid willingly.”

“Not me.”

“Then you will die.”

“I haven’t yet.”

“You haven’t accepted it yet.”

“You talk about leaving gods and rulers behind and in the same breath tell me about inevitability and fate.”

“They are not the same thing. He does not come to us and tell us this is how it must be. We felt the same that you did, the same fears, the same urges, the same knowledge that those around us loathed us and hated us and feared us. He does not come to us, brother. We call out to him, whether we know it or not.”

Lenk looked to Kataria. Instinctively. Shamefully. He looked to her and tried to convince himself that it was the voice inside his head that had said all those things about her and told him she would kill him. He looked to her and mouthed, noiselessly, “it was not me.”

She looked back. He could not bear her stare.

“I came here to get the book away,” Lenk said, turning back to the man in the ice. “Is there a way out of here or not?”

“Walk amongst your brothers. Down there in the darkness and the cold. Water carved these tunnels. It will lead you.”

“Where?”

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