The Skybound Sea

Page 49

“There is only one way.”

In the distance, he could hear something. Echoes of war cries carried on the gloom. The rattle of armor. Growing louder.

Whether the corpse was being intentionally cryptic or not, he was right. There was only one way.

They made their way down into the pit, amongst the many frozen bodies and the dead. And still the man in the ice spoke, his voice as clear and close as it had been a moment ago.

“He still calls to you, brother. He scratches at the back of your head. He tells me this. He can heal you. He can make you strong. If only you let him back in.”

He almost turned to look back at them and answer. He would have, if Kataria were not right there, seizing his neck, forcing his eyes down and his feet forward.

“You’re not them,” she snarled.

“Down there, brother, you will find him,” the voice called after him. “Or you will find her.”

And his voice echoed in the darkness. And his lights lingered in the darkness. As they walked farther, following the sound of rushing water.

I’m doing it.

The hope came, despite the blood trickling into her eye.

I’m stronger than her.

Despite the muscles in her arm breaking beneath her skin.

I can do this.

All ten of her fingers wrapped around Xhai’s fist, keeping it and the massive blade it clenched trembling over their heads. Xhai’s boots scraped against the rock. Her cursing stained the chamber’s still air. She pushed against the priestess and found the woman unyielding.

I can do it. I am doing it. I’m going to beat her and I’m going to survive and I’m going to save Denaos.

The thought came with a sudden waver.


She tossed the scantest glance over her shoulder, trying to catch the barest glimpse of the rogue.

It wasn’t clear how much of a mistake that was until she felt the netherling’s boot. It slammed into her belly, shattering her grasp and hurling her away. Somehow, though, she summoned just enough to curse him.

“Even—” she paused to gasp, collapsing to a knee, “—when I think about the bastard . . .”

“I don’t appreciate that kind of negativity.”

His hands were on her arms, hoisting her roughly to her feet, heedless of her glower. “Doesn’t make it less true.” She tried to find her breath. “She’s strong.”

“I really hadn’t figured that out when she beat me hard enough to make piss come out my nose.”

“But she’s not invincible,” Asper said. “If one of us can occupy her while the other one . . .” Asper paused, watching him run past her. “Where the hell are you going?”

He didn’t have to answer. The loud cackle that came from behind her did that well enough.

Scantest glance, barest glimpse. Sharp teeth in a wide, black-lipped smile. And she was running, too.

Breathless, staggering, struggling to stay on her feet. The sikkhun trotted after her, clacking claws and giggling wildly. It could have taken her in one pounce, but chased her with all the urgency of a child skipping through a field of dandelions.

There was, apparently, no aspect of netherling society that wasn’t, in some way, completely messed up.

“Thakh qai yush!” Xhai’s voice carried across the chamber. The sikkhun broke off suddenly, galloping toward her.

Asper came to a halt at the shattered doorway of the chamber where Denaos was trying to catch his breath and leaned against it, doing the same. She glanced at the beast as the Carnassial leapt atop its back.

“That thing could have killed me,” she gasped. “But it didn’t.” She looked at Denaos. “You should be dead by now.”

“Dead by the sikkhun or some other reason?” The rogue spat. “Not that I disagree.”

“Why didn’t it kill you while I was fighting her?”

“It’s complicated.”

“You don’t say,” she muttered.

“She doesn’t want me to die unless she can do it herself. And she’s not going to kill me unless she can take her time with it.”

“How do you know that?”

“Did I not just tell you it’s complicated? Look, I know her, so I know how to get out of this.”


“Well, I don’t know it now. Give me time to think. Keep her busy.”

“Why do I have to keep her busy?”

“Because she wants to kill you first.”


Like that wasn’t obvious. The ground shook with the sikkhun. It was focused now, jaws wide and laughing as it charged toward them. Xhai spurred it on, sword over her head, snarl painted on her face.

They split, Denaos running one way, Asper the other. True to his word and Xhai’s fury, the Carnassial whirled her beast upon the priestess. It squealed in delight, rampaging after her.

She twisted and turned, forcing it to follow her erratic movement with its clumsily eager bulk. But each time she darted away, the beast had a smaller gap to close.

“Do something!” she screamed.

In answer, a stray rock came flying. It struck the Carnassial upon the brow. She grunted, rubbed her head. The sikkhun did not stop.

“What the hell was that?” Asper shrieked.

“I said give me time! That was fifteen breaths, tops!” the rogue cried back.

It might have been worth it, she thought, to try to strangle Denaos before the sikkhun killed her. That might be more satisfying. But before she could catch sight of him, she saw something else.

The statue with the outstretched hand, lying amidst the rubble in the archway. Cracked, but not broken like the pillars. Sturdy stuff, that particular stone. Sturdy enough to give her a single, desperate idea.

She ran toward it. She felt its breath on her heels. She felt its laughter in her spine. She felt its jaws widening.

She leapt to the side.

The sikkhun’s giggle twisted into a shriek. Stone screamed and she could feel it, through the cold earth and in her stomach.

Asper picked herself up and turned about.

The sikkhun lay before the pile of rubble, whining pitifully, trying to scrabble to its feet with a brain that couldn’t remember how feet worked. Shards of granite jutted from its face in thick points from brow to snout. Its ears folded against its head as it whimpered, staggering away, drooling a thick black liquid.

Not dead.

It wasn’t half as gruesome as what had happened to Xhai. Asper looked up and saw the dark red streak painted upon the wall. The netherling slid down the stone on a thick trail, limp as a slug, to settle upon the rubble. The Carnassial groaned.

Not dead.

She should be worried about that.

She should be looking for Denaos, she should be reaching for the sword in her belt and going to finish Xhai off, she should be doing anything but staring at the pile of rubble and the body upon it.

But she couldn’t do anything but stare at the shattered rock.

And the two black eyes staring back at her.

The statue lay in pieces, divided neatly down the middle. The extended left arm lay upon the ground. The head lay atop the rubble.

And between them, a body lay.

A man made out of paper. Long and skinny, ragged around the edges, cut out of a parchment with a sticky pair of scissors. It did not lie upon the rubble. It unfurled. Its limbs had been folded to fit in the statue and now its limbs spread out, twitching, like a wadded-up piece of paper uncurling itself.

Its only solid pieces were its eyes. Black. Glossy. Alive. And blinking.

And it was looking at her.

And she felt its gaze in her, in her arms, the pain searing, the blood boiling, the skin tightening. As though something inside her was looking back at it. As though something inside her was desperately trying to get out of a statue made of flesh.

It moved. All that it had left, everything in it, pooled in the tip of a long left finger that twitched exactly one-half of the length of a hair from a man about to die, to point briefly at her.

And she felt herself erupt from within.

The stone beneath her. The blood weeping from her temple. His arms around her as she fell. She could feel none of it. The world swept into her, all the feeling drawing into her blood, beneath her skin, setting her on fire.

It knew her. The thing in the statue knew her. It knew she hated the taste of alcohol. It knew she slept with a candle burning for fourteen years of her life. It knew she once held hands with a girl named Taire. And it reached into her with a voice without words and said with a smile without a mouth.

How are you, my friend?

She was screaming. She was screaming and she couldn’t hear anything else above it as she lay back into his arms.

Denaos wasn’t talking. Maybe there was something in his eyes, some question he wanted to ask, some fear he wanted to voice. But she couldn’t tell. He was wearing a mask now, pretending to understand, pretending that she needed nothing more than his arms around her, pretending that he was the kind of man that could pretend hard enough and everyone else would believe it.

And maybe it worked. A little.

She found her breath. She held it inside her. She tried not to feel. She tried not to hear.

“Get away from her.”

A voice from the rubble, broken and dead and pretending it wasn’t. Xhai came staggering out. Her neck bent to one side. Her face was a mess of blood. But she held a sword so tightly the bones of her ruined hand were set aright. And through her broken teeth, she still snarled.

“That’s not how it ends,” she growled. “That’s not how I die.”

Denaos looked down at Asper for a moment. There was something else there. Something that told her that it hurt him to ease her down to the floor, to let her go and to rise up alone.

“It’s something you get to choose?” Denaos asked, turning to the Carnassial.

“You chose. When you hurt me.”

“I’ve hurt a lot of people.”

“You chose to.”

He hesitated. A mask dropped. “Yeah.”

She continued to stagger toward him like a dead thing pretending to be alive. When she shook her head, there was a cracking noise.

“You think you chose to. But there isn’t a choice for you and me. Even if we didn’t have masters, it would end this way. I knew how I would die when I met you.”

“How do you die?”

“After I kill you.”

“I could fight.” Denaos was walking, leading her away from Asper, who was clutching her arm, holding herself from eruption. “I’ve got knives.”

“You couldn’t kill me before.”

“I tried my damnedest.”

“If you had, I’d be dead. No. You knew I’d kill you. Because you’ve known for a while now that you deserve to die. Not clean. Not peacefully. You knew I should be the one to do it.”

Denaos was silent. When she smiled, the skin around her mouth tore.

“Because I was going to make it hurt.”

Maybe there was something in him that knew she was right. Maybe he weighed the odds of escaping alive. Maybe he had figured a way out of it and maybe he hadn’t.

But he stood there. He held his arms out wide. Challenging her. Welcoming her. It was all the same. The netherling smiled, lowered the spear.

“QAI ZHOTH!” the scream was ecstasy, the scream was agony. She charged. “AKH ZEKH LAKH!” Boots thundered. Voice thundered. “ZAHN QAI YUSH!” She charged.

The spear found air.

He fell.

The spear found flesh. And a scream to go with it.

The sikkhun had been reflecting its mistress. It had charged with her, from behind. It hadn’t the strength to laugh. She hadn’t the discipline to stop. The spear was lodged in its gaping mouth, its tongue flailing, voice warbling as it squirmed and tried to dislodge the ivory shaft. It shrieked, clawing at the spear as it reared back and tore it from her grasp.

It shrieked as its skin turned black and shrank around its skull. It shrieked as the spear ate the warmth, ate the voice, ate the life from it. And when it collapsed, it was silent, still and cold.

And so was Xhai.

“I killed that sikkhun’s mother to get him when he was weak,” she said to the silence. “I fed it the first thing I ever killed. I raised it on blood. It was . . . mine.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t have killed it, then,” Denaos said, picking himself up and dusting himself off.

His hand brushed his vest, a dagger all but leapt to his fingers. He whirled, the blade angling for the Carnassial’s flesh. It found metal, a gauntlet clenching his wrist. His eyes found hers, white and rimmed with the blood seeping from the cuts upon her face.


She hauled him from his feet, into the air.

“No more.”

Her fist trembled as she tightened it around his wrist.

“We are done with this.”

Bone snapped. His wrist bent, his voice was torn from his throat in a shriek. She silenced him, drawing her fist back and ramming it forward. Her fist sang a droning rhythm, an iron harmony as she struck him again and again in a song that spoke of a broken nose, a split lip, a swollen eye.

And when it ended, she held no killer in her hand, no creature that had once harmed her. And it was a broken thing she tossed aside to land beside Asper.

The pain that wracked her was echoed in his stare. In a single, squinted eye rimmed with blood that wept from the gashes upon his face. A single eye. Dark. Glistening. Alive.


“I can’t move, Denaos,” Asper whispered.

His voice escaped on a red groan. “I know.”

“It’ll see me. It knows me. It hurts. I can’t.”

He pressed his good hand against the floor, began to push himself up. “I know.”

“You can’t, either. She’ll kill you.”

He coughed. Blood wept from his mouth. “I know.”

“Denaos, don’t.”

He rose to his feet, staggering. “I have to.”


“Because I can’t.”

A dead man who didn’t know it. He got up, tucking his broken wrist beneath his good arm. He turned to face Xhai, who wore a disappointed frown, as though she had hoped he would do something else.

“Stop,” Xhai said.

“I can’t,” he replied, limping toward her.

“It isn’t supposed to end this way. You can’t die for her.”

“Well, I can’t die for myself.”

“You’re supposed to die for me,” Xhai said. “You’re supposed to die trying to kill me. That’s what we do. We kill until we are killed.”

“Not for me. I always should have died for her.”

“For her.”


Her ruined face twitched for a moment, trying to remember what it was supposed to look like. But it could find no snarls. Despite her torn mouth and her broken teeth, despite the blood painting her purple skin and her ruined arm, Semnein Xhai, Carnassial and killer, looked hurt.

He staggered toward her. She struck him to the earth and he did not rise. There was no enthusiasm in her boot as she pressed it between his shoulder blades.

He didn’t even bother to scream. He didn’t fight. His mask lay somewhere else, between a pool of his own blood and the dead sikkhun. What stared at Asper as he lay on the ground was him.

A man. Broken. Whose mouth could only twitch with a word he desperately wished he had breath to speak.


Asper found herself rising to her feet. Only the barest part of it was her. Only a faint desire felt through the agony to rise up and go to him. The rest, that which forced her to her feet, that which propelled her forward, came from elsewhere. Came from the paper creature on the rubble. Came from the thing inside her that it recognized. That thing remembered Xhai.

That thing wanted to see her again.

Her left arm rose up. Xhai didn’t look up. Not until Asper felt her fingers against the Carnassial’s throat. Not to strangle, not to harm, just to touch. The thing inside her remembered that skin, that strength beneath it. Xhai felt it, too. Xhai remembered. Xhai looked up.

“No,” she whispered as she looked at Asper. “No.”


Asper pretended to say that. Her voice was on fire. Her limb was alive. The hellish light erupted from her palm, swept over her flesh and painted her bones black. It raced up her arm, onto her shoulder, splitting cloth and flesh and baring the black skeleton beneath.

Her grip was death. Xhai swept her arm up to shove her off. Her fist bent, arm snapped and folded in half, fingers curled over so that their tips brushed the hairs on the back of her hand. She clenched her jaw so hard that the jagged shards of teeth punctured her gums.



She could only pretend. The thing inside her reached out, leapt into Xhai’s own flesh. She could feel it keener than she ever had. It was searching. It was digging holes in the Carnassial. It was looking for something else.

It had a voice.

Where is it, where are they, where are the rest of them, what are these bones, oh, they break so easily, what is this skin, why does it split apart, what is an arm, a leg, a rib, they all snap and break, and there is nothing in her anymore but bone and blood and I need more and I never find it and I can’t find anyone else like me and where is he, I heard him emerge, I heard him scream, I thought he was there in those people, in that creature, in that girl, in Taire, I remember Taire, I keep hearing Taire, but he wasn’t there, I need them, I need to talk to them, I need to see them, let me out, let me out, let me—


Xhai was still alive. Xhai was bending. Xhai was breaking. And she was screaming.

Screaming his name.

“No, no, no, no, NO!”

It was Asper screaming now. Asper hurling herself to the ground. The fire retreated, dissipating back into her flesh, leaving bare and steaming skin. The muscle beneath was ablaze. The blood boiled. The voice inside her was a jumble of wordless babble. It was still there. It wanted out. It wanted the paper creature.

It wanted something like it.

And now that it was so close, so close to the familiar, it was talking. It was within her. Alive.

She heard footsteps. Heard breathing. Above all of it, after all of it, Xhai was still standing, still walking. The Carnassial came to a halt over the priestess. Asper didn’t look up. She knew what she looked like.

“It talked to me.” Asper whispered softly. “It was in me. It was awake. I could feel it, all this time, feel it screaming. But . . .” She shook her head. “It’s like . . . that thing in the statue. That’s in me. That’s . . .” She inhaled, felt the tears forcing their way out the corners of her eyes. “I stopped it. I couldn’t let it. I couldn’t give it anything.”

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