The Skybound Sea


Page 53



Pretty, he thought. Kind of like clouds, right?

No one answered.

Never seen something so pretty.

A face, dark and stained by blood, appeared over him a moment later.

That’s more like it.

“You were supposed to run,” he said, voice weak.

“Where?” she asked.

“Somewhere else.”

“There is nowhere else.”

He heard the ceiling cracking overhead. All around, more and more scars appeared in the earth as more stalactites fell and more columns of silver plummeted into the water. The water drank the stone, the walkway, the statues, the archways disappearing as it rose upon tides of black and silver. Lenk felt himself rising as Ulbecetonth rose. And fell.

She was breathing.

She was still alive.

“I should not blame you.” Her voice rumbled beneath him. Lenk turned and saw a single eye staring at him, wide and white with a gold iris from skin blackened. “You did as you were supposed to, as your kind did back then, too, listening to a father of your own.”

Water, neither silver nor black, rimmed her stare.

“Perhaps you wanted to protect those you loved. Perhaps you wanted to prove me wrong. Perhaps you will, still. I should not hate you.”

Her voice rasped on plumes of steam.

“My children have no mother. I have no children. I hope you live your life well, Lenk. And I hope that whatever hell you go to when you die, I will be waiting for you.”

The water carried her up on the rising tide, closer to the dying earth. Lenk lay still upon her body, felt her breathe no more. Despite the steam, despite the blood, he felt cold.

“Mother?” A voice, weak and trembling. “Mother.”

He looked and saw the Abysmyth, wading up to Ulbecetonth’s body. It laid claws upon her, tried to shake her colossal form.

“Mother,” it said, its voice a whisper. The silver water splashed on its skin, sent it steaming and charring like its mother’s. It took no notice. “Mother, wake up.”

“Please, Mother, please wake up.” It was joined by more demons, more hands upon her, more voices pleading to the dead. “Mother, please don’t leave me.”

“Mother, it hurts, please don’t—”

“—Mother, I don’t want to feel it, anymore, please—”

“—we succeeded, Mother, we got the book, you can—”

“—Father is outside, Mother, please, just—”

“—Mother—”

“—please—”

“—I’m scared—”

“—Mother—”

Their flesh turned to steam, their claws to bone, their voices to ash. As, stain by stain, piece by piece, the water unmade them, their fears, their whispers, until only bones remained. They rested their skulls upon her body. They lay still and peaceful.

“I killed them,” Lenk whispered. “All of them. And her.”

“Yeah,” Kataria said. She wrapped her arms around him, pulled him to her body. He felt his own life painted upon her skin. “You did.”

He reached up, wrapped his fingers around her hand. “You’re still alive.”

“Yeah.” Her grip tightened. He steadied the tremble of her hand, she found the life left in his arm. “I am.”

He felt her breath upon him. He felt her heartbeat through her hands. He felt her hair brushing against the blood on his face. He felt warm.

“Wish I had something better to say,” he said.

“Don’t worry about it.”

They looked up toward the ceiling. The earth was gone. Only the great clouds of steam, all that was left of Ulbecetonth and her brood. Only the water, falling in sheets and tears.

“Pretty, though,” Kataria said, pulling him closer to her.

“Yeah.”

And they rose. To the closest thing to heaven they would ever see.

Carried on endless blue.

THIRTY-FOUR

THE REMNANT

It was funny, she thought, but he weighed less than she thought he would. She had seen him unclothed. He had always seemed a strong man, then, a man of weight. But she could feel his ribs through his vest, hear his breath come so weakly, see his eyes glazed over like a sick man’s.

And still he smiled. All that was left of him was the mask. A face that belonged to a man at peace.

“How’s it look?” His voice was a hollow, fading thing.

“Shut up,” Asper said. He knew damn well how it looked. She had stolen only a glimpse under his tunic, saw the pink organs, the copious blood. She knew what it meant. “You’re going to be . . .” She looked around. “I just need my bag . . .”

“If you did, you would have gotten it,” he said.

“I said shut up. You’re not helping anything by talking.”

“But you didn’t. You’re here. Holding me like I deserve it.”

“Denaos, please, just—”

“Because you can’t give me anything else.”

And she offered nothing but silence. The kind of weak, painful quiet that came when only three words could be written on a long, blank piece of paper.

She could have contented herself saying there was nothing else she could have done. She could have watched him die. She could have lived with that quiet.

But then he spoke.

“Last rites.”

“No.”

“Come on.”

“No.”

“I don’t have anything left, Asper. Nothing but a dead girl and a lot of sin. I can’t take that with me.”

“Denaos, don’t ask me to do that. I can’t do that. You’re supposed to die long after we’ve parted ways, grinning as someone sticks a knife in you.”

“What, you’ve thought it out?”

“A little.”

“Well, it hasn’t worked out that way. Just listen to me while I’ve got the blood to speak, okay?” He forced a smile, red at the edges. “Look, I’ll even grin while I do it.”

What else could she do but nod?

“Riots in Cier’Djaal. You heard of them, right?”

She had. She had been amongst the few to work the injured who were sailed day and night to Muraska, propelled by the Venarium when Cier’Djaal’s own healers were overworked.

“There were . . . a lot of people dead,” she said. “A lot. We saved . . . three. Three out of the hundreds that came to us.”

“You know how it happened?”

She said nothing.

“Please, Asper, it saves me from having to say it—”

“She was murdered.” Asper said, choking on something. “The Houndmistress. She challenged the Jackals, drove them back, and they . . . someone killed her and that started the riots.”

“And people died.”

“Yeah. Fourteen hundred.”

“More.”

She looked down at him. He looked up at her. Past her. Into heaven.

“How many,” she asked, “did you kill, Denaos?”

His smile faded. His mask broke.

“One.” He coughed. “All of them.”

“Which is it?”

“Both.”


Had she not been so numb, had the feeling of her body not been welled up inside her throat, she would have dropped him. Had she worshipped any other god, she would have risen and walked away.

What could she do but whisper?

“Talanas . . .”

“He wasn’t there when it happened.”

“Denaos, you . . .”

“Yeah. I did.”

“How? Why were you there? What were you doing with her? Were you some . . . some kind of assassin? Some thug? Did you know? Didn’t you realize what you would do?”

“I was in the palace. I was around her a lot in those days. I was near her. I knew what she was doing and I knew how to . . . how . . .” His eyelids fluttered. He drew in a rasping breath.

She was squeezing him. She wanted him to hurt. By her hand.

“You killed her.”

“Yeah.”

“You killed all of them.”

“Kind of, yeah.”

She could not blink, could barely breathe. “What the hell do you expect me to do about that, then? Absolve you? Tell you it’s going to be okay?”

A glint in his glazed eyes. Fading. “Can’t do that, I’m guessing?”

She simply stared.

“Then just listen.”

“I can’t. Whatever rites I could give, I was going to give to Denaos. You’re not him. I don’t know who you are.”

“That’s fine.”

“You’re a murderer.”

“Yeah.”

“You killed them all.”

“Yeah.”

“You killed her. You killed the Houndmistress. You killed them all.”

“She wasn’t the Houndmistress.” He looked at her now. Not at heaven. Not at ghosts. “Her name was Imone.” He smiled, briefly. “She was my wife.”

His smile began to fade, leaving nothing behind. No peace was on his lips as they went slack, no contentment in his eyes as they dimmed. All the sin he carried, he carried with him as he, too, faded.

But not completely.

He drew a shallow breath, held the faintest light in his eye. Wherever he was, it was neither heaven nor hell nor earth, but some place between them all.

Slowly, she found her left hand reaching for his neck. Her fingers trembled as she did so, wary to unleash the power behind them. It seemed not so much a mercy. Those who had felt her touch before had felt the pain as she had, as whatever was in her arm had destroyed them. But he wouldn’t last that long. One moment of pain, then she would send him on his way. Maybe it was a mercy. Maybe it was agony.

But he deserved it. One confession and everything was all right? As though he had never done it? No. Some part of her, the part that watched only three people walk out of her temple and leave hundreds left to be buried, wanted this. Some part of her wanted him to suffer for his crimes. And that part of her brushed the tips of her fingers against his throat.

“He can not be sal va tion.”

The sound that paper makes when it burns. Ashes unmoved by wind. Dust falling in thin beams of light. She looked over shoulder. The paper man was staring at her with its black eyes. All too alive.

“Feel noth ing in your arm, lit tle crea ture?”

And speaking, sounding almost amused.

She shook her head.

“He can not do it.”

“Who?”

“He has no name. He was nev er giv en one bef ore he went there.”

“Where?”

“Un der the skin. In the bone. He spoke to me when he sensed me. Such a hap py voice. So ea ger to talk to some one who could hear him.” The creature’s voice came slowly, on each exhale and inhale. “There, he is blind. Here, you are deaf. He can on ly hear you. He can not speak to you.”

“He’s . . . like you? The thing in my arm?”

“But he was close. I could hear him. And he was young. He knew noth ing of the war. Been trapped in the flesh for so long. Re fresh ing. Wan ted to know me, wan ted to know ab out the sta tue, wan ted to know my name.”

“It was . . . looking for something. Earlier. I could hear it.”

“For me. Could hear him. But could not speak to him. Deaf in there. On ly knows you, your voice, your fears, your pains. Gets scared in there, tries to es cape.”

“Then why isn’t it doing it now? Why won’t it kill him?” she asked, holding Denaos up.

“Be cause you do not want him dead.”

She looked down at Denaos, emptying like a vessel.

“He deserves it.”

“When you dream, do you see a world where ev er y one gets what they de serve?”

She looked from the paper man to Denaos again. The rogue drew in a short breath. It did not come out again.

“What . . . do I do?”

“You speak. He will li sten. He can not hear an y thing else.”

Somewhere far away, there was a crashing sound in the darkness beyond the rubble. Then a moment of the hollow quiet, the long, blank page waiting for the words. She pressed her left hand to Denaos’s face.

“Not like that. He does not be lieve you.”

Her right hand trembled. She closed her eyes, let it fall upon his body, slide down beneath his tunic to the great wound beneath.

“Ask him a gain.”

She spoke a whispered word.

“Please.”

And she could feel him dying. She could feel the blood drying, skin blackening, organs failing. Pain. Agony. Her fingers drank it like water, all the suffering in the blood. Her arm grew heavy, glutted with the agony. She felt it course into her, into her arm and from death into life.

She could feel a life lived in reverse, pulled out of the darkness and into a burning light, the sensation of skin kissing steel, the sound of air dying before a body hit the floor, the first breath a woman takes when her husband plans to kill her, the wail of a mother when she gives birth to a murderer.

She was screaming. Her arm was ablaze. Skin was bathed in something bright white, something hideous and hungry that drank his pain and left behind black bone as it grew brighter with each drop drank. She was screaming. And through it, she could hear him. In her arm, she could hear the demon.

What is this, don’t like it, it hurts, can feel it, why does it hurt, why can’t I find anything here, I can fix this, I can make this work, I can make it work, I can fix everything, I will, do not be worried, do not fear.

It was a sensation she had felt before, in Sheraptus’s clutches, as she watched a young woman die. It had craved her pain, then, craved to fix it as Asper had wanted to. She opened her eyes long enough to look down at her arm. No skin remained. No cloth remained. Only the bright white light. Only the black, black bone. Only the blood growing wet, the skin pulling itself together, the organs waking up from their slumber.

Only the light.

Over her own agony, she could not hear the crash in the distance growing louder. Against the light, she could not see the stream of water racing across the floor. As she felt Denaos’s body grow warm, as she felt the pain inside her own arm, she could not feel the earth shake beneath her.

A moment before the wall of water came to swallow her up. A moment between when she drew breath and when the thing in her arm went silent and the water had just begun to burst beyond the archway. A perfect silence, the moment of the quill pressed to parchment.

And she heard Denaos breathe as the silver glow enveloped them both completely.

Gariath came to the crest of the staircase after he had left a good deal of his life on the stone steps below. He looked up at the face of the mountain and saw the carving of Ulbecetonth, arms stretched out and smile wide with benevolence. He looked over his shoulder to see what the hell she was so damn happy about.

Bodies. Some of them his friends. Blood. Some of it his own. The battle in the ring raged, as it would always rage until they all fell. But they hadn’t all fallen. The netherlings that did not know the words “lie down and die” swung at the demons that spoke to them with gurgling voices and reaching claws. As they would, always.

Perhaps that was just how life for the Rhega was, to drift from battle to battle. To stand over corpses and say, “This is what we fought for.” He had done just that, or intended to. He had intended to stand over the corpse of Daga-Mer, to look at his friends and say, “This is what I fought for. These humans. Not my family. Not even close. The Shen were close. And I left them. For these humans.”

Maybe it would have sounded better if he had been standing on the corpse of a titanic demon.

But he was going to die here alone, at the top of these stairs, surrounded by the water and with only one corpse to share it all with.

Mahalar. Blackened and split apart, lying there like ashes from a fire. His eyes were still dull, still yellow, still staring as Gariath approached him. The dragonman reached down, plucked the elder Shen up in his arms. Funny, he thought; his eyes still looked alive, as though he were expecting something from Gariath. Words of encouragement? A report?

Why the hell not.

“The fight isn’t going well,” the dragonman said. “Your people, they fled. They left their oaths behind and ran. Some are alive. Some are not.” He sniffed. “I thought you should know.”

Maybe not the best words to end on. Maybe not something the elder wanted to hear in the afterlife. But for a moment, the Shen’s eyes looked like they grew darker, slipping away from whatever they clung to.

But that might have been from the vast shadow falling over them.

Gariath turned and saw him. Daga-Mer’s light was a dim, steady, bloodred throb as he loomed over the dragonman at the top of the staircase. His great webbed claws clutched the bridge. Stale wind tinged with red burst from his jaws with every long, ragged breath. Deep within a hollow eye socket, a red fire burned upon Gariath.

The dragonman took a step back and felt something beneath his foot. He looked down and saw a trickle of water weeping out from the doorway behind him. Daga-Mer clawed forward, reaching out to haul his tremendous body forth with a great quaking sound as he settled upon the stone. His hand rose, clenched into a fist and prepared to bring it down upon the tiny red parasite on the stone before him. There was silence. All of creation held its breath for fear of being noticed.

Almost all, anyway.

Gariath’s earfrills fanned out with the sound. A distant rumbling, growing louder. The stream beneath his feet grew swifter, sweeping over the bridge, beneath Daga-Mer’s fingers. He watched the black flesh of the titan’s skin sizzle and steam. The great beast did not seem to notice.

Gariath did.

Gariath slung Mahalar’s body over his shoulder and leapt, scrambling up over a pile of rubble and into the arms of Ulbecetonth over the doorway.

And the water came in a great roar of froth and liquid, dragon’s breath from an old, rocky beast. It washed over Daga-Mer, striking him like a fist and bathing him in a silver glow. The titan howled with agony as it raced over him like a living thing, setting his black skin afire with steam.

He roared, he thrashed, he held out his titanic hands as if to hold it back. But the water kept coming. The water was pitiless. The water devoured him.

Gariath watched as Daga-Mer disappeared beneath a colossal wave and a cloud of steam. He rose again with a howl, his white bones left bare as the black skin of his body shrank like puddles under the sun. He fell beneath the water and rose again, soundless, stretching out a skeletal hand as if to grab Gariath with whatever hatred kept those bones alive just long enough to swing out with a skeletal claw and sink back beneath the water.

He did not rise again.

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