The Skybound Sea

Page 51

“There’s a little spear in all of us.”

“I don’t think that’s—”

“Look, I have lost a lot of blood, so if you could speed this up a little.”

“The Shen have been trying to recover their people, salvage the dead and the wounded. I do what I can to keep the demons and longfaces away.”

Gariath looked down at the skeletal Abysmyth. “You do a good job of it.”

“The water comes from the mountain,” Hongwe said. “My father swore the oaths. My father remembered the stories. My father told me. Everything.”

“It’s not enough.”

Hongwe looked over the carnage raging and frowned. “It is not.”

“Why, then? They are not your people.”

Hongwe sniffed. “Close enough.”

Gariath stared for a long moment. He drew in a long breath and inhaled only the scent of blood and fear. He could hear no screams through the thunder and the pain. No ghosts. No humans. No Shen.

Only a voice.

“Come to me.”

From the earth.

“Come to me.”

From the water.

“Come to me.”

For a single moment, the battle died on one side. Abysmyths looked up from tearing their longfaced victims apart. Frogmen stood stock-still, heads turned upward even as netherlings lopped them off in messy blows. The great beast Daga-Mer stirred upon the field, the smoke dissipating from his form as he cast his great red gaze up, over the heads of his children and his foes and the bodies.

Toward the voice.

Toward the mountain.

“She calls to us!” the pale man atop Daga-Mer’s skull cried out. “Mother Deep cries to the faithful!”

“On the cries of the Mother do we march,” the Omens shrieked in choral ecstasy as they flocked overhead, writhing and twisting in the bloody wind, “on the faithful’s feet, we march to the mountain.”

The mountain.

Where the humans had gone, where the Shen still were. And one by one, they began to move.

Gariath reached out instinctively, tore the waterskins from the Gonwa’s waist. Without thinking, he began at a light jog, trying not to think about the spear in his flank, about the blood that still wept, about the fact that he was charging into a wall of advancing demons.

This plan required him not to think. If he did, he might start wondering exactly how he planned to use a pair of waterskins filled with freaky magic liquid to stop clashing armies of longfaces and demons. He might start thinking how stupid the only plan he had to stop them was. He might start noticing how idiotic it was to do this for them. For the humans, for the Shen, for the things that weren’t Rhega.

He had abandoned the former, the latter had abandoned him, he had found not so much as a ghost of a Rhega here, and he was charging toward a walking mountain of flesh and blood through the waves of demons and netherlings with a pair of waterskins.

Not a good plan.

But close enough.

Arrows flew, swords shot out to catch him, some scored against his flesh. More of the longfaces, though, either chased the frogmen and demons who broke off from the fight to begin a march toward the mountain or found themselves collapsing, exhausted or dead, without a foe to fight.

That didn’t matter. The humans were the ones who fought the little things. Gariath had always sought the biggest and strongest, the ones most capable of giving him the death he had craved. The only difference between then and now was that he was no longer seeking his own death.

That and this thing was much bigger than anything he had ever fought before.


Daga-Mer stirred to life with the noise. The smoldering black flesh began to grow bright red, his blood illuminated as it spread from the beating of his heart, into his veins, into his eyes. He rose from the earth, the corpses of those that had been beneath him when he fell peeling off like grains of sand as he turned toward the mountain.

Gariath leapt, found the titan’s ankle a mountain unto itself. Each knob of flesh, each ancient scar, each slab of metal grafted to the creature’s skin gave footing. Hand over hand, foot over foot, Gariath began to climb.

Daga-Mer seemed to take no notice of the red parasite climbing up his leg, of the ballista bolt and chain still sunk in his chest, of the demons, frogmen, and netherlings he crushed underfoot with each great stride. And the demons did not look up themselves as he marched across the blood-soaked ring. They were crushed into pulp without a sound, those bodies that still twitched trying to catch up in his wake.

And Gariath climbed, over knee, onto thigh, up bony hip. Ignoring the pain in his side, ignoring that he had next to no idea what his plan was and no idea whatsoever if it would work.

Over metal, over flesh, over lightning-charred scars.

Ignoring the blood that dripped from him, the blood that dripped from the sky, the puddles of blood and bodies on the ground that might be the humans.

Rib over rib, clinging to the beast’s flank, watching the titanic arm swing like a pendulum with each step.

Ignoring everything. Everything for this. For them.

He drew in a breath. It hurt. He leapt for Daga-Mer’s arm. He caught the beast’s wrist, wrapped his arms around a forearm the size of a tree and looked up. The great head, hell-light pouring out of its eyes, looked as far away as a mountain itself. He snarled, he bit back pain, he raised an arm to climb.

He never even saw the fist coming until it had connected with his jaw.

On the other side of the forearm, blade slung across her back, the Carnassial took exception to Gariath having the same idea as she had. He couldn’t say when she had jumped, when she had started climbing, nor did he care. For when she snarled at him and bared her teeth, he showed her his.

Up close.

He caught the hand as she moved to strike him and, with a swift jerk, hauled her from her precarious footing and into his jaws. Between helmet and armor, his teeth found the flesh of her throat. And with one more jerk, he tore free a purple chunk, spitting it out after her as she fell, her scream painted on the wind in red.

And he climbed, still, not thinking about how much it hurt, how he could still feel pain, how his grip felt slippery the farther he got up. How, if he fell, he would be the last Rhega to fall here and disappear forever and leave nothing behind.

Only flesh. Only climbing. Up the forearm. Onto the bicep. Over the rusted plates grafted onto the blackened skin. Climbing. Bleeding. No more feeling. No more thinking.

“Lastonelastonelastone . . .”

Whispers in his head, the closer he got.

“Dieherediehereherehere . . . nomorenomorenomore . . .”


“Nomorefatherssonsweepingchildrencryinginthesandohpoorbeastgobacktotheearthandwaittodrown . . .”

A light atop the shoulder. A face appeared over the blackened flesh. A withered hag’s head, bulbous and sagging, dominated by black void eyes and a lantern light on a gray stalk from the middle of its head. It smiled with two mouths at him and spoke in whispers.

“Shecomesshecomesshecomes . . . theyalldiediedie . . . likeyoulikeyoulike—”

Interrupted. A thick red claw around a twig of a neck would do that.

“No more thinking,” he growled. A quick pull.

Whatever a demon plummeting to the earth sounded like, he didn’t care. It hurt to hear, but pain required feeling. He was done with all that. The spear shifted inside him, the wound grew bigger. That would be a problem for creatures weighed down by thought, by fear, by pain.

He was Rhega. He was the last. He died here, atop the last of the demons.

All for humans.

If he was still a creature burdened by thought, that one might trouble him.

He hauled himself onto Daga-Mer’s helmet. The world moved slowly beneath him, he could feel the tremors from each stride reverberating up into the creature’s skull. He could see the red-tinged mist of the beast’s breath, hear the thunder of the heart.

“You shouldn’t be here.”

The pale thing. Skin scarred by lightning. Eyes wide and white. Not a frogman. Still alive. The Mouth. Looking at Gariath.

“This is for the faithful,” the Mouth said, clinging to the twisted horns jutting from the helmet. “This place, this is where I belong. You should leave. So should I. But Mother Deep, She spoke and I . . . I . . .” He looked up at Gariath solemnly. “If I could see her once more, my daughter, I would—”

He stopped talking. A head cloven from shoulders would do that.

The body plummeted to the earth. The Carnassial watched the body bounce off Daga-Mer’s knee and fall into a pool of blood below. She sniffed, looked to Gariath, who settled a scowl upon her.

“Oh, like you were interested,” she said, snorting.

They advanced on each other, snarling, and were sent grasping for the helmet’s horns as the beast’s head shifted beneath them. Daga-Mer groaned. The beast had finally taken notice of them.

No time to deal with the Carnassial, Gariath thought. He had to finish this quickly. He took the waterskins in hand, tried to angle himself over the helmet. Daga-Mer’s lower jaw was considerable. One good swing, he thought, and he could send both—

A boot struck him hard against his head.

That’s what he got for thinking.

“We’re in the middle of a fight here,” the Carnassial snarled. “Don’t you look away from me.”

Her boot shot out again. He shifted his body to absorb the blow. That might have been a good idea if she hadn’t instead found the spearhead. It tore into him, through him, the tip jutting out the other side of his flank. He bled. Profusely. He felt pain.

A hand shot to his side. The waterskins fell from his grasp, plummeted below to splatter in useless silver stains on the earth.

The Carnassial grinned, hefted her massive blade with a free hand as breath, blood, and vomit leaked from his mouth. It shone dull gray against the sky for but a brief moment. Then, all was black.

A tremendous webbed claw fell from overhead, like a tree falling. It lazily came over the helmet, scratched the Carnassial like an itch, and tore her body, snarling and shrieking, from the rusted metal. The blade slipped from her grasp, clattered upon the helmet and slid down to Gariath’s waiting claw.

He heard her cursing. He heard her screaming. He heard her bones breaking as Daga-Mer’s hand closed upon her. And then, he heard the sound of a pimple bursting.

He could think only of the sword in his hand, the metal under his body as he slid down Daga-Mer’s helmet. One hand was upon the horn, slipping. One foot sought purchase in the eye slit of the helmet. He kicked, the rusted metal bent beneath his foot. He snarled, releasing the horn and catching the eye slit. He bled, his muscles straining as he pried the slit open and clutched the sword.

The hell-light blinded him. The beat of Daga-Mer’s heart was in his ears as he stared into a bright-red eye. For one fleeting moment, he saw a red pupil contract, the light abating long enough for him to see his own reflection.

When he looked at himself, he was smiling.

As he raised the sword.

And thrust.

The demon that was a mountain was neither in that moment. The titanic abomination, the immovable creature of flesh and bone was lost in a spurt of blood and the sizzle of an envenomed blade. The blood that burst from its eye was lost in a great stain of steam on the sky.

In the scream that followed, in the scream that echoed across creation, Daga-Mer was something loud and wounded and agonizingly mortal.

The demon’s head snapped back. Gariath was sent flying through the sky. His wings flapped wildly, trying to regain purchase against the wind. In the end, all they could do was guide him into a patch of kelp that took him and rejected him in a bend of leaves, tossing his bleeding body back into the ring.

He staggered to his feet, breathing heavily. He reached for his wound, gasping. He began to head toward the mountain, limping. And trying his damnedest not to smile at what was going on.

Daga-Mer’s scream split the sky apart. His feet tore the earth into pulp. His body was a twisting wind of light and flesh, flailing wildly as he groped at his wounded eye, thundering across the sand as he fought to keep on his feet.

Beneath him, demons were crushed, frogmen were sent flying, netherlings were ground into the earth. Faith and fury were forgotten, everything giving way to Daga-Mer’s pain. Longfaces who had never spoken the word suddenly screamed for the retreat. Frogmen screamed pleas to a titan too tall to hear them. Abysmyths raised their hands to him, as if to soothe him with whatever words they could utter before being crushed underfoot.

And Daga-Mer continued to stomp, continued to scream. He groped at his helmet, claws digging under it, pulling. It came free with the squeak of bolts and shriek of metal, the grafted rust torn free with scathes of flesh hanging from it. He tossed it aside, pawed haplessly at his eye to no avail.

It was gone.

And in its place was a gaping void from which a bright light poured like blood from an open wound. A great hole that swept across the battlefield.

And settled upon Gariath.

The dragonman stopped smiling.

The dragonman started running.

As Daga-Mer’s mouth gaped open, as Gariath’s legs pumped, and the demon and the sand screamed in harmony.



Before he even knew he was alive, Lenk could feel her inside his head.

“Look at me.”

He didn’t have much choice. Down here, his will was not his own. He could breathe under the water. His steel floated beside him. He could not blink.

None of this boded particularly well.

Brief flashes of red lit up the darkness. In each flash, he could see the stain that was Ulbecetonth blooming like a flower out of the gate, growing bigger. A mass of tentacles and flesh and eyes. So many bright, yellow eyes, winking into existence like stars giving birth. But he only knew these as fleeting things, he could not take his attention from the great jaws in front of him. Pristine white teeth, jagged sharp, a mile long, twisted into a great white smile.

“I would have let you go.” Down here, her voice was clear, crystalline shards thrust neatly into his ears. “Knowing everything—the kind of creature you were, the children you killed, the murderous thoughts in your head—after all of that, I would have let you go.”

He could not speak down here. She didn’t will it.

“But you defied me. You hated me too much. You came here, to a land that wanted you dead, just to stop my children from coming to me.” The jaws cracked as they twisted into a frown. “Did you delude yourself with lies that it was all for someone else? To save the world?”

Another flash of red light, like lightning. He could see the great bowl that this place had been: the drowned ring of seats, the banners floating like kelp. It had been an assembly once, where they had gathered to worship her, to feel the warmth of her presence. But now it was cold but for the light flashing from the Aeons’ Gate.

“From what? From feeling the same devotion, the same peace my children did before you came into their lives?”

He could see the holes broken in the seating. The tunnels, the same one he had come through Jaga in. That’s how they had gotten in here. They had been waiting for him. The man in the ice knew. He had sent Lenk here.

“The truth is, you wanted them all to hurt like you hurt. To feel afraid, betrayed, alone like you do with your deaf gods and uncaring world. I looked into your head, Lenk. Whatever voices you think are controlling you are not. They do not put thoughts in your head. They merely agree with what you’re thinking.”

Something shifted in the water.

“And that voice that told you to kill . . .”

He felt his throat close.

“That voice that said they had to die . . .”

The water turned unbearably warm.

“That voice that wanted her to bleed . . . it was merely agreeing with you.”

No more air. No more sound. No more light. She willed him to stop breathing.

“For my children, for the people you would have killed . . . I do this for them, Lenk. Die.”

Her jaws gaped open. Teeth ringed a throat that stretched into hell. The water shifted, he felt himself being sucked into her maw. He could not fight back, he didn’t want to. Her voice was in his head, the water was seeping into every orifice, and on each droplet was the unbearable truth.

He wanted it. He wanted Kataria to die. He wanted her to hurt. He wanted everyone to hurt. He deserved this. He deserved death. The man in the ice knew. Everyone knew.

Except that tiny voice in the back of his head. The one he left behind. The one pounding at his skull and whispering.

“Not here. Not this way.”

The water shifted. The light flashed. Around him, a dozen shapes began floating toward the surface. The jaws snapped shut. The yellow eyes, the dozens of staring yellow orbs, grew wide.

“No. No. NO.”

The water quaked like earth, a distant rumble boiling out of the Aeons’ Gate, growing louder.

“Leave them alone!”

The Kraken Queen was shrieking at someone. The yellow eyes turned toward the surface. Something like a great black limb reached up and out. And Lenk felt something inside him cry out.


That small act of obedience was all it took. His blood was cold as he swam for the surface, sparing only a moment to seize his sword. The whispering in the back of his head grew louder. That was a worry. But that was a worry for people whose lungs weren’t about to explode.

He burst out of the surface with a gasp and the sound of agony. He treaded water, looking through bleary eyes toward the walkway upon which the carnage rang.

They moved like shadows. The longfaces clad in black armor darted into combat, their spears lancing out and into frogmen, shields deflecting crude knives and the reaching grasps of Abysmyths. When the opportunity presented itself, one leapt upon a towering demon, jamming her spear deep into the creature’s mouth before producing a green vial from her belt and hurling it into the open wound. The ensuing mess of steam, screams, and flailing sent her flying back.

Still, they came. Frogmen and Abysmyths pulled themselves out of the black water to assist their brethren. Longfaces continued to charge in from the archways, following the sound of carnage.

Kataria stood at the edge, backing away farther. Her captors lay at her feet in varying stages of torn-the-hell-apart and she stood, wielding one of their crude bone knives, letting the blood on her hands suggest just how easy a target she might be.

“What the hell is this?” Lenk demanded, swimming up to her.

When Kataria whirled on him, her eyes were mirrors reflecting the blood painting her mouth. She stared at him just long enough to know he wasn’t anything to kill before turning her attentions back to the carnage.

“I don’t know,” she grunted. “They just showed up after you got dragged under, and started fighting. I’ve killed about four so far.”

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