The Skybound Sea


Page 50



“Why.”

Xhai’s voice was a croaking thing, a voice that belonged to something without a throat. Not a question. Not one that she thought had an answer.

“Because you cried out his name,” she said. “Like you . . . I don’t know. But you’re down here because of him, we’re fighting because of him, he acts like he knows you better than anyone, you kill, you’re dying, I hurt you . . . and you still called out to him like . . .” It ached to say it. “Like he was going to save you.”

“Why.”

“I guess . . . I didn’t want that. For you.”

“Why.”

“I don’t know. I can’t—”

“Why.”

A fist against the back of Asper’s head. She fell to the ground.

“Why.”

A boot to her side. She reeled.

“Why.”

Again. Again. Striking with what were once limbs, twisted beyond recognition. Again. Again. Snarling in a voice that wasn’t hers.

“Why. Why. Why. Why. Why. Why.” Xhai, snarling and striking and flailing as Asper quivered on the floor, trying to protect herself. “Why do you do that? Why do you not act like you’re supposed to? Why aren’t you dead?”

She looked up and saw Xhai. Saw one eye wide, the other a thick crunch of flesh and shards of bones where the eye socket had folded upon itself. She saw her mouth flapping, the jaw separated at the chin. She saw blood seeping out between jagged teeth.

She saw a woman who shouldn’t be alive.

She felt the broken woman’s twisted arm and bent legs hammering her into the ground.

She left Asper there as she collected her sword, dragging it behind her on a withered arm. She hauled it, hefted it over the woman who had not died, who tried to kill her, who hurt her worse than even he had.

“Wait.”

No urgency. No desperation. Denaos pulled himself wearily to his feet, pausing to spit out a glob of blood on the dusty ground. He didn’t hurry.

“Don’t kill her,” he said.

“I have to.”

“No, you don’t.”

“This is the way it has to be.”

“Why,” he asked. Not a question.

“Because there’s no other way. There is killing and there is dying and the more you do it, the more it makes sense.”

“And then the more you do it, the more you keep waiting for it to make sense,” he said. “You want to kill her because she hurt you, because you think that doesn’t happen, because people like us . . . we aren’t supposed to get hurt. But people like us,” he gestured between them, “it’s not a necessity. We just don’t know anything else.”

Xhai looked down at Asper.

“There’s another way.”

She looked to Denaos through her good eye. The rogue approached her, held her gaze despite one eye swollen shut.

“Take me instead,” he said.

“You mean kill you.”

“I mean take me,” he insisted. “So long as you never choose anything else, you’ll never have anything but death.”

“I don’t need anything—”

“Liar. If that were true, you wouldn’t look at Sheraptus like your sikkhun looked at you. You want something else. You can have something else.”

He came to a stop. Two paces away from her.

“So choose.”

Xhai looked at her blade, hanging from her hand, like it shouldn’t be doing that. She grimaced at it, at the withered stump of a hand with only three working fingers holding it. She frowned at her reflection, so distorted in the iron that it almost looked like a living thing.

And then she looked back up at him. Staring at her through one good eye. Blood weeping from his face. Broken, battered, alive. Choosing her.

Over her.

“Come to me,” Xhai said.

He did.

Limping forward, broken and battered and pretending he wasn’t, he came to her. Hers, something of her own. Something that didn’t belong to Sheraptus. Something that she didn’t kill to earn. The little pink female could live. Who cared.

She had something.

She had him.

And he was sliding his arm around her, drawing her close. And she found the touch painful, but impossible to turn away from. She slid closer to him, pressing her ruined body to his. She closed her good eye as she felt his hand slide around her shoulder. She smiled a torn mouth as she felt the heel of his hand slip so easily into the crook of her neck.

She was still smiling when she heard the click and the blade entered her throat.

When he pulled away, when her blood spurted out to splash upon the floor, she looked at him.

“You lied,” she said, uncertain of what that word meant.

“It’s what I do,” he replied.

She looked at him for a moment. Her arm moved before either of them knew. The blade sank into his side, biting through flesh all the way to something soft and dark. He shuddered. He grimaced. He looked surprised.

When he fell, he did not rise.

When she fell, she was last.

And they lay. Broken.

THIRTY-TWO

GREAT, DEAD,

OLD ONES

Once, it had been great.

It had begun as something old and vast, the empty spot where the mountain’s blood had carved out the cavern. The stalactites still hung overhead, teeth in a stone mouth that stretched in a great echoing chamber.

They had made it greater. They had carved the great stone steps into the sides of the cavern, the long stone walkway that circled its center, the tremendous statues of Ulbecetonth that rose up on all sides, womanly shoulders holding up the cavern roof in a testament to her strength and beauty.

The heart of the mountain. Once, it had been her throne.

War had unmade it. War had brought the banners of the House of the Vanquishing Trinity hanging over the walls, draped around the necks of Ulbecetonth’s statues like nooses. War had brought the great flood that drowned the middle of the chamber in dark water.

The heart of the mountain, Lenk thought as he stepped out of the archway into the tremendous chamber, was dead.

“He lied to us,” Lenk muttered. “Why the hell do I keep trusting dead people in ice?”

“Probably because having to interact with dead people in ice is a problem for you,” Kataria replied, following him out. Her bow was nocked with an arrow drawn. She scanned the room. “Look, there are other archways all along the wall here. We can try to follow one of those out.”

“Who knows how far they go,” Lenk said. “And what are we going to find on the other side?” He shook his head. “The man . . . he said to follow the sound of running water. I know I heard it.”

The water here was not running. The water here was barely even water. It was liquid shadow, a great teeming lake stretching from the stone walkway to the back of the cavern. It had been choked with so much blood and suffering and hate that it had become a living thing itself, a great hungry blackness that ate the green light burning from braziers hanging high in the toothy ceiling overhead.

And yet, as dark as it was, he thought he could almost see something beneath the surface. Something darker still, something staring at him from beneath the darkness with a hateful familiarity.

And then, whatever it was blinked.

“Let’s go,” he said, turning around.

“Which way?” Kataria asked as he pushed past her and started toward a random archway.

“It doesn’t matter. We have to go. We never should have come here.” He broke out into a jog, moving faster with each step. It was looking at him, whatever it was, watching him go, glaring at him. He could feel it. He could hear it. “Hurry the hell—”


He had no more mouth to speak. As he approached the darkness of the archway, a shadow fell over his face. An emaciated, webbed claw seized him by the throat, lifted him up and off his feet. The ensuing struggle was meaningless, the limbs flailing against the fist and reaching for his sword ignored as his captor strode out of the shadows.

The Abysmyth’s vacant stare took on a kind of serenity as it swiveled empty white eyes upon Lenk. Its voice gurgled from its gaping jaws with a throaty clarity.

“You turn from light, fearing blindness,” it said. “You fight fate, fearing oblivion.” It drew Lenk up in its grasp, closer to its jaws. “What great gifts have you missed in the name of your fleeting terrors?”

It only barely quivered when the arrow entered its eye. Instead, it swept its gaze toward Kataria, unhurried. Its head didn’t even wobble as another arrow lodged itself in the beast’s mouth. The shict strung another arrow and let it fly, planting another one in the beast’s eye, face, mouth.

“Does it not ache, child?” it spoke, shafts splintering between its teeth. “The desperation? The futility? Can you not feel the change beneath your feet?”

“Shut up and drop him,” Kataria snarled, drawing another arrow. “Unless you like the feel—”

Not another word could pierce the webbed hand that clasped over her mouth. She could not struggle from the other hands seizing her arms, forcing the bow from her grasp, the arms wrapping around her torso, the weight of hairless bodies forcing her to the ground. She snarled, she bit, she fought and spat. The frogmen pinning her took it with stoic silence, holding her steady even as she struggled to get free.

Lenk cried out to her and felt the Abysmyth’s talons press against his throat. Even then, he struggled, flailing until another titanic claw caught his arm. It was only then that he noticed another frogman come scampering from the black water, searching over him with webbed hands until they found what they sought in his satchel.

With trembling reverence, the frogman pulled free the perfect black square of leather that was the tome. Eyes, demonic and frogman alike, turned toward it with breathless adoration as the creature slowly slid back to the water.

The man in the ice, Lenk could only think, he led me here. He wanted me to come here to die.

Or to kill.

“Is it cold?”

Risen from the surface of the blackness like a stone, two golden eyes peered over the water at Kataria. Strands of auburn hair floated atop the water like kelp, eerily delicate.

“The earth,” the voice came from the darkness. “The stone. Is it cold?” The eyes narrowed sharply. “It always felt such, even when we had legs, even when we walked upon it. She made it bearable, of course, but now it’s . . . cold. It’s hard.”

The shadow clung to its skin as it rose out of the darkness, rising with needy tendrils as a human face, milk-pale, glass-boned, rose on a thick stalk of gray flesh. The woman’s lips pulled into a frown.

“We were Her most trusted, Her most ardent. We turned to Her when our families turned us away, when our lovers turned us to whores, when the earth turned us to bodies. And She welcomed us.”

“And She loved us.” Another head rose from the water, hair ebon black, eyes narrowed angrily. “And took us from cold earth. And when the mortal armies and your wicked people came for Her, we leapt into the darkness after Her. And we came back. For this.”

The Deepshriek turned both heads to the frogman with the tome and nodded. The creature dove beneath the water, disappearing into shadow.

“Don’t—” Lenk managed to speak before the demon’s claw tightened around his throat. He struggled with one arm, grasping and beating on the demon’s hand, hoping the other wouldn’t be noticed as it crept closer to the hilt of his sword.

“Are you so selfish, creature?” The Deepshriek spat the words. “Did you not see the suffering your breed caused? Did you not look at the faces of the hollow children and the dead? Do you think that your own twisted nature is enough to deny the world Her warmth?” Fangs bared, a hiss burst forth. “I heard you speak to that cold thing in the darkness.”

“I am nothing like—”

“You are. You are everything like it. She has been in your head. She has seen your thoughts. Murder. Treachery. Hatred. All that grows in your mind is born of the same murderous seed. You came here to kill Her, She who only wishes to be reunited with Her children.”

Its eyes steadied. Its lips closed. It smiled.

“That’s why She wants you be alive to see this.”

The heads disappeared beneath the water. Lenk reached after them, as though he could still stop them. The Abysmyth held fast, not even bothering to remove the arrows from its eye.

And soon, the darkness was alive. Words burbled up, too powerful to be contained by the gloom, too powerful to be spoken by mortal lips. Red light flashed in great spurts beneath, illuminating them in flashes: Abysmyths and frogmen swimming in a dark halo. The Deepshriek’s heads bent over a book as its shark body swam around it, the epicenter of the endless circles. A great shape, a vast circle of light that painted the darkness in brief flashes, ever longer, ever wider.

The Aeons’ Gate.

Opening.

And from the light, something greater emerged, something painted dark against the crimson, a stain of ink spreading into a pool of blood. Great tentacles emerging, golden stars winking into life, a pair of bright jaws opening.

“No, no, no!” Lenk screamed.

His blade was in his hand, drawn free. He swung it, struck the Abysmyth’s arm. It dropped him, though with no great roar of agony, no blood. His blade could no longer hurt the thing. He had left that power behind, in the chasm. His shoulder hurt. He was tired. He was terrified.

He didn’t care.

He ran toward Kataria. His blade could still cut the frogmen. She lashed out a leg, striking one in the groin. It gurgled, loosed its grip on her. The others tried to seize her arm as she reached up and began to claw at their eyes.

“Kataria!” he screamed. “Kataria, hurry! We have to—”

In the roar of water being split, he could not be heard. In the wake of the shadow that fell over him, he could not be seen. And as the tentacle, red flesh quivering, suckers trembling, swept down and wrapped about his ankle, he could no longer stand.

“Come to me.”

A voice, somewhere down in the dark, spoke to him.

“Come to me.”

The tentacle pulled, dragging him as he raked at the stone floor wildly.

“Come.”

He reached out.

“Come.”

He shouted out to Kataria.

“Come.”

He fell into darkness.

“Stop.”

His voice was parched and weak.

“Wait.”

He grasped only their shadows as they ran past.

“I need help.”

The Shen couldn’t see or hear him. They were running, screaming, trying to dig their companions out from beneath the statue, carrying off the wounded into the forest.

And he was bleeding.

And his friends were somewhere out there, in the great melee, amongst the dead. Or behind him somewhere, where the longfaces had charged up, along with the she-beast on the regular beast. His friends were gone. The Shen were running.

He was bleeding.

He walked through the dust that would not settle, the blood pouring from the sky. He walked over the bodies heaped on the ground and past the women who were alive only in their swords. He walked to the giant mountain, kneeling upon the field of death, breathing heavily as smoke poured from his flesh. The longface had done something, sent lightning into his body. He had to stop that thing before it killed the others. He had to keep going. He had to fight . . .

A hand went to his side, he felt traces of life slipping past the spearhead embedded in his side, out between his fingers. Slowly. It was a courteous wound, in no hurry to kill him and more than willing to let someone else take a crack at it first.

And she came. A Carnassial, tall and ragged and painted in blood. She approached him with eyes that belonged in the heads of dead people, eyes that forgot why they were doing what they did. She hefted her sword, loosed a ragged howl on a ragged breath and took exactly two steps forward.

When her foot hit the ground, the Abysmyth’s foot hit her.

The great demon had arisen from the sheets of dust and blood, emerging from such carnage that a beast of such horror would scarcely stand out. It stomped its great webbed foot upon the Carnassial, grinding her into the sand. Its flesh was carved with wounds, bits of iron jutting from its skin. In place of a left arm, a stump, sickly green with poison, hung from a bony shoulder.

“They don’t call out when they die,” the Abysmyth gurgled, “to god or man. They simply . . . scream. It is a strange thing to see.” At that moment, the beast seemed to notice Gariath. “When you die, who will you call out to?”

Gariath wasn’t sure why he answered honestly; perhaps because he had thought upon the question for so long it merely slipped out.

“My family.”

“Do they live?”

“No.”

“What infinite mercy do I grant you, lamb.” The Abysmyth’s foot rose with a squishing sound. “What terrors do I spare you, child.” Its single arm reached out, almost invitingly. “What glories do I send you to. Come to me.”

A green arm appeared around the beast’s neck. The demon scarcely seemed to notice the added weight on its back. Truly, Gariath himself only barely noticed the bright yellow eyes appearing from behind it. And only when the creature had climbed up to the beast’s shoulders and held the waterskin high above his head did Gariath recognize Hongwe.

“Shenko-sa!” the Gonwa cried out, a fleeting and insignificant noise against the din of war. He thrust the waterskin into the beast’s mouth.

The skin punctured only barely upon its teeth, but the water came flooding out like a wolf free from a cage. It swept over the beast’s mouth, through its teeth, over its jaws. It engulfed the creature’s jaw, eyes, neck, throat, shoulders. The Abysmyth was aware of it, of the pain it caused the creature, as it clawed at the liquid with its free hand. Those droplets that were torn free and fell upon the ground quickly reformed, sped back to the demon and leapt upon it until its black skin was replaced with a liquid flesh.

The creature flailed, a raindrop falling from heaven, before it splashed to the earth. The water fell from it, was drank by the glutted earth. What remained was a gaping, skinless skull staring up at Gariath.

“You are alive.”

Even against the Abysmyth’s skeleton, Hongwe looked tiny. Too clean to belong on this field. He stood with only a few cuts, another pair of waterskins hanging from his waist.

“I am,” Gariath replied. “So are you.”

“I was in the battle. Lost. But I am alive. And . . . and . . .” His gaze drifted to Gariath’s midriff.

“And?”

“And you’ve got a spear in you.”

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