The Skybound Sea

Page 54

Gariath watched the water rush endlessly out, sweeping down the stairs and onto the battlefield below. His eyeridges furrowed. Theoretically, this would be a good time to say something pithy.

But at that moment, he caught a glimpse of them. The humans, the tall ones, carried out over the water and down it. Alive? Dead? Irrelevant. He had only one course of action and, thus, only one thing to say.

He turned to Mahalar and grunted.

“Hold your breath.”

Voices without words. Screams without substance. Agony unending. He could hear them as though they were drops of liquid dripping into his skull from the tiny gouges the crown’s spikes dug into the tender skin of his brow. He could hear pleas, wails, individual terrors blended into a swampy soup of pain that could not be shaken.

The Gonwa. Screaming. As their lives fed into his skull, down his throat, into his body.

He looked at his hands and saw them tensed and strong. He could feel the disease burning away, the weakness sweeping into the stones upon the crown and being carried to someone else.

Dreadaeleon felt strong. Impossibly strong.

And this would have come with such impossible relief had he been able to disregard the screaming.

“They won’t stop, will they?”

Sheraptus was still smiling when Dreadaeleon turned upon him. Despite the fact that his eyes were a pale white and his body was fragile and weak, the longface was still beaming as though nothing had changed.

“It was difficult for me to get used to, at first, too,” Sheraptus said as he picked himself up off the earth. “Eventually, you learn to block them out.”

Dreadaeleon found that hard to believe with how long and loud they screamed, with how clear and crystalline their pain was. He would have torn it from his head and cast it upon the ground if not for . . .

Damn it, old man, he cursed himself. Not this way. You’re not supposed to feel this. It’s heresy. It’s treason. It’s against every oath you took and every lesson you knew. It’s . . . it’s . . .

“It’s power,” Greenhair chimed, coming up alongside him. “The power to end all of it.” She swept her arm over the battlefield. “The power to do what no one else could do.”

“In all fairness, I tried to do it,” Sheraptus replied. “But the people in the sky had a different plan for me.”

“Starting with him,” Greenhair hissed, pointing a webbed finger at Sheraptus as she laid a hand on Dreadaeleon’s shoulder. “He tried to kill you. He defied the Sea Mother. He served darker masters than even the Kraken Queen.”

“Shut up,” Dreadaeleon replied, rubbing his eyes. “Just . . . let me think.”

It was hard to do so. The sound of the Gonwa’s pain did not fade. Every ounce of their life that flooded into him, burning away his sickness, filling his body with life, came accompanied by a scream to a god, a cry to a mother, a wail to a brother to save them.

“I wouldn’t take too long,” Sheraptus replied. “She might grow tired of you and arrange for someone else to kill you, as she did me.”

“Don’t listen to him,” Greenhair said.

“Yes, don’t listen to me, little moth. Don’t listen to the only one here who’s had dealings with that creature. Don’t listen to the man who knows what she’s about. She proclaims to want peace, bliss, for the Sea Mother or whatever. But all she’s interested in is the power. Same as any sensible creature, really. I can’t fault her.”

“Lorekeeper,” the siren said, pulling on his shoulder. “Ignore him. All that I have done has been to save this world, to preserve it from Ulbecetonth, to serve the will of the Gods.”

“Ah, that’s where you’re wrong.” Sheraptus held up a finger. “Of course, you claim to serve the Gods. You get others to do it for you, naturally, to use their power to serve them on you wield. A liar’s power. One I hadn’t really appreciated until everything was made clear to me by them.”

He pointed upward, to the bloodstained sky, and smiled. He drew in a breath, let it out as a cold cloud of frost.

“And so, I do name you a pretender to their power and their servitude, and so honor their distaste.”

Dreadaeleon saw it. The gesture of the hand, the twitch of the lips that heralded the spell. He saw the ice crystals form in the cloud of frost and become a jagged icicle. He saw it fly past him. He felt the warmth of her life spatter upon his face as it struck her squarely in the sternum and carried her to the ground, pinning her there. He saw it, before it had even happened, as it happened, after it happened.

And he did nothing.

Greenhair lay upon the sand, eyes wide and reflecting the cold blue chill of the icy spear pinning her to the earth. She reached out a hand to him, as if to beg him to pull her up, as if there weren’t a jagged chunk of ice in her chest. She gasped for air through a mouth dripping red.

“Why?” she gasped. “Why didn’t you stop him?”

“She has a point.”

When Dreadaeleon whirled on him, his smile had faded. The longface simply looked at Dreadaeleon, all the boy’s wide-eyed, jaw-clenched shock, and blinked.


“You killed her,” Dreadaeleon said.

“Sorry, have you not been paying attention? I kill lots of things.”

“She . . . she helped you, though. She was your ally. You treated with her and you killed her like . . .”

“So? She helped you and you watched her die. You have the crown, you could have stopped me.”

“I was confused, the screams, they’re just . . .”

“Just more screams. No different than any you have heard before. You could have stopped me. You could have saved her.”

And Dreadaeleon was left with nothing more than a silence and Greenhair’s blood crackling as it froze upon the ice.

“You’re ashamed,” Sheraptus observed. “Afraid, perhaps. I felt the same way.” Now a grin began to creep across his face, as though whatever he were about to say he had been dying to say for ages. “The awareness of it all, how insignificant it all is, and then you realize it’s not insignificant by design, but by perspective. It is looking down upon the crab and marveling at how tiny it is without realizing just how very tall you are next to it.

“To summate: she died because you no longer felt it worthwhile to save her. Not with what else you could do with that crown.”

“Magic wasn’t meant to be used that way.” He cringed as another chorus of screams echoed through his skull. “This way.”

“This is where you fail to understand. Power, magic, nethra: all the same. It’s there to be used. As a concept, it’s worthless. Gods are the same way. They do not sit there and wait to be assailed with the whining of weaklings. They wait for worthiness. They wait for me, little moth. I am alive because I use their strength and the chances they gave me.”

Dreadaeleon hadn’t even noticed the lightning crackling on the longface’s fingers until they were raised and thrust in his face.

“Just as that power is not yours to wield.”

By the time the longface spoke the word and sent the forked lightning from his fingers, all Dreadaeleon could muster was a feeble hand raised in defense. But in the flash that it took, he needed nothing more. He could feel the electricity enter his skin as though it belonged there, snaking into his body and disappearing into his fingertips with a few stray sparks. It crackled inside him, settling into his body like a new home.

And the two shared a look of shock, neither having expected that. But neither had the opportunity to dwell upon it.

The distant rumble grew to a roar. They turned and saw the wall of water rushing down from the staircase, becoming a colossal wave unto itself. It swept away the living and the dead, the screaming and the silent, the faithful and the faithless alike in a pitiless rush.

“Ah.” Sheraptus sighed. “I see.” He clicked his tongue. “They really are fickle, aren’t they? It seems a little unfair.”

With that, the longface folded his hands behind his back and walked. Slowly. Toward the water.

“What are you doing?” Dreadaeleon demanded. “You can’t—”

“Enough with the limitations, little moth,” Sheraptus said, waving a hand over his shoulder. “They saw fit to give you the crown and give me . . . this. I suspect you’ll find that limitations mean nothing to those willing to recognize their insignificance.”

“But where are you going?”

The water rushed up to meet him. Sheraptus had but enough time to look over his shoulder and smile.

“I suspect we’ll find out.”

And he disappeared beneath the flood.

Dreadaeleon should have dwelt on just how psychotic that was. Or on how he could have saved Greenhair. Or on the fate of his friends. But desperation lent clarity to thought. He drew in a breath, spoke the words, and released.

The wall of force formed nearly instantaneously. Nothing more than a flick of his wrist, a wave of his hand, and the air became rippling, solid, parting the colossal flood as easily as he would fold paper. And in brief, fleeting moments of clarity, he could but marvel at how effortless it all was. How easily the power flowed from him, how he felt nothing burning or breaking inside him to do it, how swiftly the water carried the blood and the bodies and the skeletons around him.

But only in brief, fleeting moments.

The rest of him was dedicated to trying not to listen to the screaming as he heard the Gonwa’s voices rise to shattering and fall silent, one by one, until their agony was a candle flame flickering in the wind.



Waist-deep in water, Dreadaeleon waded among them, and the dead would not stop looking at him.

Bobbing in the water, their long faces still screwed up in a battle they had not stopped fighting, the netherlings scowled at him. Hollow and empty as they had been in life, the skeletons of the Abysmyths stared at him from fleshless eye sockets as they lay submerged beneath the crystalline water. The Shen . . .

The Shen floated upon the lake that had been the ring. Face down. Motionless.

He paused and looked to the mountain. The clouds swirled overhead. Perhaps unable to bear giving the rest of the sky a look at what happened on the earth below. The water still vomited from the mountain’s face, though in a slow, steady stream that twisted down the shattered stone stairs and beneath the ribs of Daga-Mer’s colossal skeleton.

The fleshless titan froze in death, reaching out to the mountain with a bleached-white hand, as though still, in some small way, alive. As though, if he could but try a little harder, he could reach what he sought.

All in your mind, old man, he told himself. There’s no one left here but you.

He looked over the ring. The entirety of it was submerged, the bones and bodies bobbing along its surface like lilies of purple and white.

Somewhere in his mind, someone whimpered.

They’re still alive, he thought. Some of them, anyway. After all that. After all you did to them . . . He paused, shook his head. Stop that. You didn’t know. And by the time you did, there was no choice. The power was there, you happened to have it, so you had to use it and . . .

He paused and wondered if the Gonwa could hear him as he could hear them. He paused and wondered if they had heard this before from someone else.

Off to the side, he could hear the sound of splashing. He whirled about, hand extended, power leaping to his fingertips. The Gonwa could but groan.

Gariath didn’t even bother to look at him as he trudged through the waters. The dragonman moved slowly, limping. Stray bits of cloth and leather had been tied tightly around his middle, staunching a red stain. Over each shoulder and under one arm, he carried a body.

He paused as he came to Dreadaeleon and grunted. “Alive?”

The boy nodded; considering everything, it didn’t seem a stupid question. “You?” After Gariath nodded, he looked to the bodies. “And what about—” His eyes widened. “Is that Asper?”

“Yes and yes,” Gariath replied. “Alive. Not sure how.” He shook Denaos’s prone body under his arm. “This one either.”

Dreadaeleon looked to the limp, blackened figure of Mahalar and frowned. “And . . .”

“You don’t need to ask and you know you don’t. Give me something to put them down on.”

A dull whimper in his mind as he breathed over the surface of the water and formed a small floe of ice from his breath. Gariath slumped the bodies upon it. Sure enough, Asper and Denaos drew in short, shallow breath.

“Anyone else?”

Dreadaeleon looked around the ring. The waters chopped gently.

“What of Lenk and the pointy-eared human?” Gariath grunted. “Did they—”

“I don’t . . .” The boy’s eyes widened. “But maybe . . .” He tapped his cheek. “Greenhair.”


Dreadaeleon ran to where he saw her last and found her there. The icicle that had pinned her to the earth was but a sliver. Her body was torn and twisted where the waves had sought to take her and the frost had sought to keep her. Dreadaeleon reached down and plucked her from the water.

She seemed a fluid thing, then, head lolling in his arms and hair streaming down into the water. Without substance. Without weight. The gaping hole in her body was clean, as though the water had taken her blood with it when it cleaned this cursed place.


She spoke. No melody. No song. Words. Crude and painful to hear.

“Lorekeeper,” she gasped.

“I’m here,” he said.

“The Kraken Queen . . . dead.”

“I know.”

“I . . . did it. For the Sea Mother. Duty fulfilled. I . . .” She could not lift her head to look at him. Her arm could only brush against his cheek.

And her arm went limp. And she faded. And she dissolved. Flesh into water, hair into water. She spilled through his grasp, down into the water to disappear into the endless blue.

“She’s dead.” When he finally said it, after so many times he wondered how he might, he was surprised at how easy it was. “Just like that.”

“You were expecting her to live?”

“No . . .” He looked away, then back to the water. “But . . .”

Gariath didn’t ask. He didn’t have to. Dreadaeleon’s fingers began to weave, knitting into complex, painful-looking gestures. He coaxed the waters to rise in a column and with delicate brushes of his hands, he sheared the liquid away until it resembled something more shapely, something human.

“Sheraptus was right . . . in a way, of course, but not the correct way. Magic isn’t meant to be used this way—recklessly, that is—but what are limitations, anyway? We recognize the function of the power as it pertains to our bodies, but what of our minds? He negated the costs of magic—”

Dreadaeleon winced sharply, rubbing at his temple.

“That was a law that could not be circumnavigated. Not until he figured out a way. And if one law can be made pointless, what of others? What else could we possibly do with it? What else can be made insignificant?”

He stepped back. The water hung in the air, no longer a column, no longer even human. She was blue, of course, and liquid, but everything else about her—the flow of her hair, the fins upon her head, the crystalline hum she made when Dreadaeleon flicked her liquid body—was her.

“The siren,” Gariath muttered. “You . . . just—”

“I did,” Dreadaeleon said, beaming. “I can. Lenk, Kataria, anyone else, maybe even all the Shen lost today, if we can recover their bodies. If power can be transferred, if a being can be broken down into energy, then surely it can be reconstructed. Surely, with the proper motivations and more thorough thought than Sheraptus, I could . . .”

His smile was wide when he turned to Gariath.

“Gods, do you realize what this—”

His smile disappeared when Gariath punched him.

“Yeah.” The dragonman grunted as he caught the boy and tore the crown from his head before letting him drop into the water, the liquid Greenhair splashing into nothingness after him. “I do.”

For as much trouble as it had caused, it was like paper in Gariath’s hands, its iron bending in soft, whimpering creaks as he wadded it up into a mangled, blackened mess.

“What are you doing?” Dreadaeleon sputtered, flailing to his feet. “What the hell are you doing, you moron? STOP! That may be the only chance we have to—”

“There’s nothing you can say that will make me stop,” Gariath grunted, continuing to mangle the crown. “And only a handful of things you can say that won’t make me punch you again.”

He turned and threw it. It tumbled out of sight, disappearing somewhere beyond the line of kelp. Dreadaeleon itched at his scalp, his mind suddenly seeming a very empty, constrictive place.

“WHY?” he demanded.

“It was a cursed, evil thing.”

“Can you tell me why it was a cursed, evil thing? Because you can’t understand it? Because you don’t know how anything works if you can’t hit it real hard and make it do something?”

“Yeah,” Gariath growled, “because I don’t understand it. And because I don’t understand how someone thinks you can pull a dead body up, put something in it, and call it alive again. And I don’t understand how you can think anyone having that kind of power is a good thing.” He snorted. “So, in the absence of understanding, I turned to violence. It worked out pretty well for me.”

Dreadaeleon opened his mouth to retort, found himself silent as his eyes were drawn to the edge of the ring. The kelp forest parted as they came emerging from the shadows. In numbers too small for the leaves to even notice their passing.

At their head trudged a creature with a bent back and a long shard of bone wedged in his eye. Behind came the others, holding the prone bodies of a man with silver hair and a bloodied woman, both unmoving. They came until there were but a few.

Shalake said nothing as he looked past Gariath and Dreadaeleon to the ice floe and the blackened body of Mahalar. He said nothing as he looked to his few brothers, who stepped forward and deposited Lenk and Kataria upon the ice. And he said nothing as he bent low and began to pull a body of one of his fellows from the water.

And they said nothing, as one, as the Shen who knew they were dead were collected and heaped upon the ice by those who had yet to admit it




It was enough smoke to choke a god. But then again, it was a lot of fire. Because there were a lot of bodies.

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