The Skybound Sea

Page 56

He looked to Gariath.

“Isn’t that strange?”

Gariath rose up. The wounds he had taken just three days ago were already looking old, the foundation for good scars. His eyes were older, darker than a week-long night, as they looked down at Shalake.

“It wasn’t your death.”


“The oaths you took were not yours. The words you spoke were someone else’s. When the time came for your last words, you had none of your own to give.”

“What do you mean?”

Gariath’s voice became a growl. “You wanted to die like a Rhega. But you’re not a Rhega.” He held out his hands. “You can no more die someone else’s death than you can live his life.”

“I don’t understand.”

“WHY THE HELL NOT?” The roar tore itself out from somewhere deep in his chest. “Why can’t you understand? Why is it every time I try to explain this, no one seems to be able to figure it out? Everyone always just says ‘what’ or ‘huh’ or ‘wow, Gariath, what the hell does a Rhega even do?’ And then I have to say that a Rhega charges onto a giant fish-thing on the off-chance it might save some humans while the green-skinned cowards that were supposed to be like him skulk and cry and weep about not dying gloriously.”

Shalake’s lip curled backward in a sneer. He mustered as much indignation as he could with one eye. “You dare call us cowards?”

“You fled.”

“We were wiped out!”

“You were given death. Was it not as glorious as you hoped it would be?”

“Ah, how wonderful for the glorious Rhega to honor me not in battle, but in lecture.” Shalake spat. “You intend to try to tell me the weight of death? My brothers and friends are dead. My leader is dead.”

“And all you can think about is how you could say nothing for it. No goodbyes, no great monologues, no answers from ancestors or ghosts to tell you you did good. No words. That’s true death.”

“True death? And you claim I give it too much glory? I saw death today, Rhega. I saw two hundred corpses and they all looked exactly the same.” He thrust a finger at Gariath. “You carry death on your shoulders like it was your son. You ran off into battle without a second thought for us. Those who knew you, your people.”

“You knew only songs.” Gariath snarled. “You knew legends.” His eyes narrowed. “And until I came here, I realize that’s all I knew, too. I came here expecting to find a ghost, a scent of memory, an answer from death. But I can smell only water and death now. Do you know why?”

“Possibly because of all the water and death.”

Gariath glared at him before leaning down to the earth. “There’s no blood here. There’s no scent here. There are no ghosts here. The Rhega who were here took everything they needed when they left to the afterlife. They had no need to stay behind. In their deaths, they did all that they needed to.

“I thought that was impossible. How could anyone die without having regrets? How could anyone die without sorrow for the sons he lost?” He drew in a breath, found it sweet and coppery on the back of his tongue. He blinked moisture from his eyes. “Maybe some never do. And maybe some just turn their sorrow into rage. But there are others who do what they need to when they need to. And when they die doing it, they don’t linger.

“Not all deaths are the same,” Gariath said. “Some of them last forever.”

Shalake’s good eye reflected a pain not present even when the other had a shard of bone stuck in it.

“And that’s who you would die for? Not us, who know your songs. Not the closest thing to a Rhega you will ever see. But humans. Weak, stupid humans who stand for nothing but gold.”


The moment he said it, some unconscious part of Gariath wanted to punch himself squarely in the face.

“Yeah. For them.”

Shalake opened his mouth to ask for justification. Gariath’s glare silenced him. Fortunate, the dragonman thought. It was difficult to justify that which was barely understood, much less what was painful to say.

But between the two creatures that shared scaly skin, between their clawed hands that clenched into scarred fists, in the barest space between the point where their easy scowls and easier rage clashed in the air, the knowledge was there.

The knowledge that, when the bodies lay dying, Gariath had made his choice.

Shalake raised his weapon. Through it all, it had lost only a few teeth. The club’s wood was strong and uncracked, despite the skulls that couldn’t claim the same. He held it out in front of him and dropped it in the sand.

“Where we go from here,” he said simply, “we will need no more old and dead things.”

Gariath watched him go. Gariath looked up at the moonlight pouring down from the sky. A storm cloud, perhaps very late to the party that had raged days ago, rolled over, obscuring the light.

And Gariath stood in the darkness, alone.



The beach was warm under his feet. The sun was shining. He smiled for a moment, savoring it all, save the feeling of sand crawling insistently up his rear end. He yawned, stretching his arms over his head.

He paused.

It didn’t hurt.

He looked to his arm and saw it whole, unscarred. He looked down the rest of his naked body, saw no wounds or blood. He laid his head back on the sand and cursed.

“Oh, come on!”

“What’s wrong?”

He rose, turned around and saw her there. Clad all in black, despite the shining sun. A sword at her hip, long and white like her hair. Eyes as blue as the sky overhead and concern etched across her hard-lined face.

“This was supposed to be over.”


“This,” he said, flailing out over the beach. “These weird dreams that only a crazy person would have.”

She looked around the beach. “Plenty of people dream of warm shores and sunshine. What’s so weird about it?”

“Aside from the fact that I’m talking to a woman I’ve only heard in my dreams, who is standing wearing pure black on a beach I wasn’t standing on an hour ago, but upon which I now stand, hale and hearty, despite having wounds that threatened to kill me?” He shook his head. “I’m naked.”

“What, you’ve never dreamed of yourself naked before?”

“Not when I’m alone.”

“But I’m here.”

“Which brings me back to my original point. Why are you here? I thought these dreams were from the voice and that’s gone, right?”

She pointedly looked at her feet.


She cleared her throat and looked up with a sheepish smile.

“Kind of,” she replied.

“Oh, son of a—” He slapped a hand over his face, dragging it down. “I can’t even lie quietly with the threat of soiling myself from agony without something psychotic happening. I abandoned the voice.”

“But then you brought it back.”

“But then I got rid of it again,” he snarled. “I threw it away and I haven’t heard from it for a week . . . or . . . like, two weeks. It’s hard to keep track at sea.” He pointed affirmatively to the ground. “Point being, this crap is supposed to be over.”

“Oh, look at you,” she said, smirking, “all upset that a crazy voice in your head that tells you to kill demons isn’t making sense.” She sighed. “The reason you’re dreaming of me is the same reason you were able to call upon it. Him, rather. He never really leaves.”

“What? Never?”

“He’s a part of you. As much as you are of him. He invested his power in you and can’t be separated that easily.”

“I never wanted that.”

“Well, no shit you didn’t want that. None of us did. But he chose us, regardless. And we do what he wants us to.”

“But . . .” Lenk rubbed his head. “I heard other voices. The people in the ice, telling me things. But there was one that told me not to hurt Kataria, that it wouldn’t—” His eyes widened upon her. “You. You told me that.”

“I did.”

“But you said we did—”

“He only wanted you to kill her because you were getting distracted from what he wanted. You fought him over her. Naturally, he wanted her gone. But you denied him, again and again.”

“And now he’s . . . what? Sleeping?”

“To be honest, I have no idea. No one’s ever really done that to him. He might be gone, he might be away, he might be trying to figure out how to control you to pull your own testicles out through your nose.”

“So, what, you came here just to tell me that?”

“I came here because I was worried about you. I wanted you to be safe and happy. Because there really aren’t that many of us left and the ones who are tend not to live long. We’re either cast out and killed by people or murdered by demons when we’re old enough to fight them.”

“What, there are other demons?”

“Obviously. They’ve been around for ages, privately plotting against each other, striving to be the one to come in and assume total power over mortality. Now, there’s one fewer.” She chuckled. “Of course, that means the others just have one more obstacle removed and are that much closer to enslaving us all, but don’t let that bring you down.”

Lenk blinked and looked down at his feet. “So . . . what happens now?”

“It isn’t really something I can tell you. You don’t have anyone telling you what to do anymore.” She turned around and shrugged. “I suppose your will and your fate are your own.” She frowned. “I envy you a little.”

“Why a little?”

“Because you might die from your wounds and he won’t be around to help you.”

“Oh.” He stared at the ground as she walked away, down the shore. Then, a thought struck him. “Wait. I could hear you . . . and I could hear the dead people in the ice. I can’t hear them anymore, but—”

She smiled impishly over her shoulder. “I guess I must not be dead, then.” She looked up, as though she could read something in the cloudless sky. “You’re going to want to wake up now.”

“But I’ve still got—”

“Trust me on this one.”

And she continued walking, fading into nothingess in the span of three breaths against a sun growing brighter.

He awoke with a start, though only by habit. He simply couldn’t remember how people usually woke up. Maybe that was something he would have to learn again.

Unless he died from his wounds. Which still hurt as he rose onto his elbows. He thought briefly about rousing Asper to check his stitches, salve and bandage regimen. But a quick look at her, curled up in sleep with her back to Denaos and Dreadaeleon wedged in rather rigidly nervous sleep between them, discouraged him. Gariath hunched over at the rudder, quietly dozing above the satchels of fruits, fish, and water the Shen had sent them on their way with.

They slept a tired, dreamless slumber for the weary and the wounded.

Most of them, anyway.

At the prow of the boat, she lay, arms over the railing, head tilted backward staring aimlessly up at the sky. Only the rise of breath in her belly and the twitching of her ears suggested that she was alive.

She was not a beautiful sight, not ethereal or mysterious. Her skin did not glisten in the moonlight, though the beads of sweat upon her body shimmered. Her hair hung in dirty, messy strands about eyes lined with weariness. Her muscles were tense, her body hard and unyielding, those parts not covered in bandages or filthy leathers. Her ears were scarred with ugly notches. Her curves were small and hostile. Her skin, bandaged and not, was coated in grime and sweat.

She was Kataria. And every part of her was bloody, dirty, and beautiful.

And she hadn’t spoken to him in a week.

He hadn’t pressed her. Most of his time had been spent getting treated by Asper, arguing with Denaos over the sea chart, or trying to break up fights over who had to look which way when it was someone’s turn to make water.

In all that time, she hadn’t so much as looked at him.

But the woman in his dreams had told him to wake up. He was awake now. And she was there.

He edged over to her, trying not to wince with the effort. He hesitated when he drew close to her, then he opened his mouth to speak. Her hand shot up.

“Not yet,” she whispered. “You should hear this.”

He waited. She didn’t say anything. He looked around as her ears went erect.

“Hear . . . what?”

“Wait until she comes close.” She pointed over the edge. “There.”

A great shadow of some old fish, vast and with a horizontal tail like an axe blade, slid beneath the surface. And so close, Lenk thought he could hear it. A low, keening wail. A long, lonely dirge.

“She’s singing,” Kataria said. “She’s the only sound down there. I don’t think there’s any fish left in these waters.” She frowned. “Maybe that’s why she sounds sad.”

“Because there’s nothing left for her?”

And then, she looked at him with two eyes. In one, there was the way she had always looked at him, with the fondness, with the laughter, with the curiosity. And in the other, there was the way she had looked through him, with the fear, with the anger, with the cold appraisal of a predator sizing up prey.

Between them, there was something else entirely that she looked at him with. And he stared straight at it.

“Because something happened,” he said, “and whatever was supposed to happen, didn’t, and now everything’s changed. And she’s not sure what happens now.”

She looked down at the deck and drew her knees up to her chest.

“Yeah. Something like that.”

A long silence passed. The waters chopped at the boat’s side.

“What do you think you’ll do when we get back to the mainland?” she asked.

“My original plan was to get paid, take the money, and go hack dirt somewhere until I die,” he replied. “Maybe that won’t happen again. But I want to find somewhere to hang up my sword.”


“What makes you say that?”

“You’ve lost that sword a hundred times and it keeps finding you,” she said. “If you hang it up, it’ll just come back. You keep calling to it.”

He looked at it, sitting in its sheath next to the tome. “Maybe I’ll put it to better use.”

“Than what? Killing? What else is it going to do?”

“I don’t know. Guard duty or something. Something good.”

“There are only a few good things you can do with a sword,” she said, frowning. “And none of them involve what you do with it.” Slowly, her eyes became one, full of doubt, full of fear. “Do you want to kill forever?”

He found himself hesitating before answering. Of course, he didn’t want to kill forever. But could he? Even without the voice, she was right. The sword returned to him. And he never hesitated to call it.

“Say no,” she said.



“It’s the truth.”

“No, because you can’t answer it truthfully. You don’t want to kill, but you’re not going to have a lot of choice. What you are . . .” Her voice drifted off, she struggled to find the words, much less speak them. “You’re . . . I don’t know. All this and I still don’t know anything about you except one thing.”

He didn’t ask. Not with his mouth.

“I . . .” The words came slow and painful. “I feel . . . things.”

He blinked.


“And they make me scared. And they made me scared in the chasm when I shot Naxiaw to save you. And they made me scared when you touched me. And they make me scared now that I’m talking to you, because I’m not sure what they are and I don’t know what they make me and I don’t know what I’m going to do because I have them.”

He didn’t have an answer. No answer he could voice, anyway. Because everything he could say would only convince himself of the obvious: that she was a shict, that he was a human, that there were differences that went beyond ears and that he had almost killed her over them.

Because whatever the voice had told him, he had listened. Whatever the voice had asked him, he had agreed. Whatever part of him that had wanted to hurt her . . . was part of him. Not a voice.

She would be safer without him. She could go back to her tribe, tell them she had made a mistake.

“You should go,” he said. “Go back.”


“It’s for the—”

“Sorry, but are you of the impression I don’t mean what I say when I say it?” She snarled, baring canines. “I’m not going back. And if you bring it up again, I’ll eat your eyes.”

“Oh. Okay, then.”

“Sorry, it’s just . . . I can’t go back. Because of these things. Not all of them are about you. I . . . maybe I am a shict. I’ve got the ears and I’m good with a bow. But there’s some part of me that isn’t. And if I go there, I’ll feel . . .”

She sighed, rubbed her eyes.

“But if I stay, we’ll never stop killing. Shicts, humans, whatever else. They’re still my family. They’re still people. I can kill them, sure, but after this . . . whole thing with the tome.” She looked up at the sky. “There was just so much blood.”

There was nothing he could say to that. Everything he could say would just be confirmation. Everything he might suggest would end in “you can’t stay.” And every whisper he could make would be desperate and end in “please don’t go.”

Strong men would say “leave.”

Good men would say “watch, I’ll throw my sword overboard for you.”

Wise men would say nothing at all.

“I . . . you . . . it’s hard.”

Lenk said this.

“Because everything about you is hard. The way you look at me, the way you talk to me, the way I am . . .” He rubbed the back of his neck. “It’s all hard. It was hard when I met you. It’s never not going to be hard and even when it’s not, it’s going to be painful.”

“So why do it?”

“Because I don’t have anything else. I’m not talking about family or something like that, either. I just don’t . . . know what else to do besides fight and kill. Even when I say I’m going to go to a farm, it all sounds fake, like something I’m never going to ever see and I can just keep talking about it like that makes me better for wanting it.”

Copyright © novelfull All Rights Reserved.