The Skybound Sea

Page 57

She was looking at him now. Hard. Her stare was unbearable. But he couldn’t look away from her. Her eyes, even in the darkness, seemed huge. And the more he looked at them, the larger they seemed. They grew to take him in and they became everything, her eyes.

“But then you look at me. And then I touch you. And then I smell you. And there’s something else there, besides killing and fighting. And I want that more than ever. And I’ll do whatever it takes to hold onto it.”

He reached out and took her hand. He pulled her to him. She slid onto her belly, against his body, her back curving and her body sliding into the slope of his as though she always belonged there from the very beginning. He could feel the breath in her stomach, the scent on her hair, the fear in her eyes.

And it hurt.

“So . . . just tell me what that is. I’ll figure out the rest.”

There was nothing they could have said. Nothing he could say to allay their fears. Nothing she could say to convince him this was a good idea. Nothing that came on words that were too full of things that would make them be afraid.

And so he drew her closer to him.

And she leaned into him.

And he felt her breath fill him and she felt the callouses on his hands against her back and they felt themselves slide into each other as though they had always been supposed to do that.

And he closed his eyes.

And she closed hers.

And she laid her head upon his chest.

And he held her.

And they said nothing.



“They were not good people. They were not moral people. They were not of particular fiber but for the sinew that fueled their often-misguided deeds.” Knight-Serrant Quillian Guisarne-Garrett Yanates lowered her head, placing a bronze gauntlet to her breastplate. “But they were, indeed, children of the Gods. And at least one of them was definitely a priestess, questionable though her choices might be, so that should at least earn them a little favor. So . . . you know . . . have fun in hell.”

She turned and flashed a smile beneath a tattoo under her right eye. The dark-skinned man with the bald head and the well-made clothes seemed less than impressed.

“It loses something toward the end,” Argaol said.

“Like what?”

“Like any semblance of sanity or dignity.”

“They’re lucky they’re getting this much from me,” Quillian replied with a sneer. “I doubt there are two people in the world that would give an elegy for a group of unsanitary adventurers, let alone practice it.”

“For there to be a funeral, there need to be bodies.”

“Several weeks missing? In that tiny boat? No word from Sebast or anyone we’ve sent after them? In the absence of a body, I opt for logic.” She glanced at the shorter man in the even-better-made clothes next to Argaol. “From what I understand, we have little choice.”

The harbormaster of Port Destiny glared at her. “I’m simply saying, as I was before you went off and did . . . that, that you have no bodies so you can have no funerals, so your request to stay in port without extra charge has been denied.”

“And as I was telling you,” Argaol replied, “it’s out of my hands. The charter doesn’t want to leave yet, so we don’t leave.”

“And where is the charter? This . . .” The harbormaster flipped through a ledge. “Miron Evenhands.”

“Lord Emissary Miron Evenhands,” Quillian corrected. “You speak of a member of good standing of the Church of Talanas and would do well to remember that.”

“And said character is somewhere . . . out there.”

Argaol swept a hand out toward the distant city, its spires rising from the blue sands of the island and sprawling well past its boundaries into the ocean, a city standing on rocks and pillars carved by someone that no one cared to remember or honor.

“He went there a week ago and hasn’t come out of the city since. We checked the temples, the inns. He’s got some kind of sense that lets him know when people he owes money are coming, I don’t know.”

“The charter you signed made it perfectly clear that you couldn’t keep a vessel like this,” the harbormaster said, gesturing to the great three-masted vessel moored next to them, “without the fees.”

“Yeah, whatever,” Argaol grunted. “You can take it up with his bodyguard.”

“It’s been well past the date we agreed to meet up with the adventurers,” Quillian replied with a shrug. “The Lord Emissary insists on waiting longer out of compassion, but he is a reasonable man. Within a few days’ time, he’ll come to terms with the fate of the heathens and we’ll be on our way.”

“Then you’ll pay for those days and however many more it takes for you to wait,” the harbormaster insisted. “The concerns of Talanas or his emissaries are not mine and—”

“And?” Quillian punctuated the question with the gentle clink of a bronzed gauntlet resting on the pommel of a longsword.

The harbormaster eyed her blade carefully for a moment. “I’m a civil servant, Serrant. There is little you can do to me that life already hasn’t.”

“There will be no need for any of that.”

Austere and pure as a specter, Miron Evenhands glided across the dock. Tall and stately, he walked through a press of dockhands and sailors toting loads to their ships without so much as brushing against them. His white robes remained bright and untarnished by salt, water, or more unsavory substances around the dock. His smile was soft and benevolent, as though he were meeting his granddaughter instead of interrupting impending violence.

“Will there be a need for getting answers? Because I might like that,” the harbormaster said as Miron walked between them.

“All shall be answered in time,” the Lord Emissary replied, his gaze cast out over the harbor waters.

“And in the time it takes, there’s the matter of the coin—”

“In much more humble terms, I must concur with the heathen, Lord Emissary,” Quillian interrupted. “The adventurers are long dead and their mission doubtlessly failed. Our time would be better served formulating a secondary strategy for the procurement of the tome.”

“I didn’t mind them so much, but this is costing me some money, Evenhands,” Argaol chimed in. “And she’s probably right. They’re probably dead. Eaten. Whatever. It’s just not practical to wait any longer.”

“Faith often contradicts practicality,” Miron replied. “And for this, the faithful are rewarded.”

“With coin, I hope,” the harbormaster grumbled.

“Something much better,” Miron replied.

The smile upon his face grew broader. He took a slow, deliberate step to the side to reveal the shape. A small, black dot on the horizon growing closer until it took shape. A boat, six bodies aboard, rowing tirelessly toward the harbor.

“The knowledge that the Gods do, occasionally, listen. Even if it takes a few weeks of praying.”

“That and the opportunity to look as smug as a bloody—” the harbormaster grunted as Quillian delivered a stiff elbow to him.

The vessel rowed its way forward, a reeking cloud of stench heralding the arrival like several cherubs possessed of indigestion. It was fitting for the rabble that clawed its way off the ship with a few weapons, clothes stained white with salt, hair stiff from dried sweat, bodies in various stages of disrepair and all eyes sunken.

Lenk was alive in name only. But that was enough for him to stand before Miron as he held up the satchel.


His voice came on a very soft breath. “Is that . . .”

“Uh huh. Doom of the world, key to heaven, all that good stuff.”

Miron accepted it with eyes wide. “I must admit, in some part of me, I doubted you could actually retrieve it.” His whispers were reverent, eerily so. “I prayed, of course. But how could a man pray to Gods to retrieve an item they so loathed? How could a man ask for that which could unmake their creation? How could—”

“Hey.” Lenk cleared his throat. “I haven’t bathed in a couple of weeks now.”

Miron looked at him blankly.

“Just . . . thought you should know,” Lenk said, “before you got going there. So . . . we’re going to go remember why outhouses are made with only enough room for one person, if you know what I mean.”

“I do not.”

“Well, think about it for a while. I don’t really have the time and you don’t have the stomach for me to paint a picture,” the young man said, pushing past. “Just point us to wherever you’re staying and we’ll catch up real soon. You know, after everyone’s bathed and eaten things that don’t taste like insoles.”

“Wouldn’t have had that problem if you had just heard me out,” Denaos said, tossing a sack out of the vessel and climbing onto the dock. “It’s not like it was a bad idea.”

“Cannibalism is not typically noted as a traditional second resort after the meat runs out,” Dreadaeleon replied as a spell carried him up and over the rogue’s head and onto the dock.

“We could have had a more thorough discussion of it if we hadn’t all argued who’d be eating who.”

“Who’d be eating whom.”

“And that’s why everyone decided we’d eat you first,” the rogue muttered. He glanced to Lenk. “Did he tell you where we’re bedding down or what? Some of us need baths.”

“Some of us desperately so,” Asper replied, glaring over her shoulder as she crawled onto the dock.

Kataria came bounding up after her, teeth bared in a snarl. “If you were intimidated by a shict’s natural odor, you should have thought of that before you decided to stay in a boat for weeks with one.”

“I didn’t have a choice or an issue with your aroma . . .” Asper cringed at the memory. “Not until you started . . . rubbing yourself on things.”

“Well, how do you let people know what’s yours, if you’re so damn smart?” The shict snorted, sneering at her. “Kept you from touching my share of the food, at least.”

“And mine,” Asper muttered.

“Should’ve said something. Or rubbed something.” Kataria snarled. “Can we feed little miss ‘can’t-eat-something-that-someone-else-touched,’ then?”

“We will as soon as Miron tells us,” Lenk snapped. “Which would help if everyone could just stop being the center of attention for a moment and let the man speak.”

They looked expectantly to the Lord Emissary, who in turn nodded to the harbormaster. “We will be at sea within the hour, sir. You have my thanks for your generosity.”

“Wait . . . what?”

“Yes, if you wouldn’t mind adjourning to the Riptide, I’ll be happy to fill you in,” Miron said, looking to Argaol. “Would you kindly rally your crew, captain?”

“This isn’t funny,” Lenk said.

“Unfortunately, the only thing keeping us here was your absence,” Miron replied. “With your timely arrival, we may finally depart.”

“I just spent . . . weeks at sea, Miron. I put things that came out of me into the ocean.”

“And now you’ll at least have larger accommodations.”

Lenk held up a hand to silence the unrest fomenting behind him. “Fine. We’ll do this. We’ll go back aboard the ship. But out of protest, we’re not bathing for another day.”

Denaos leaned over to the young man. “Did . . . that sound like a better threat in your head?”

“Shut up and come on,” Lenk sighed, trudging off toward the ship with his companions in tow.

“One moment!” The harbormaster cried after them, flailing at the tiny vessel. “You can’t leave something like this docked here! Not without signing, not without a fee!”

“Gariath will handle it.”

The dragonman hauled himself onto the dock before the harbormaster could ask. Wordlessly, he pushed past the assembled to the far end of the dock and returned dragging a freshly-polished anchor behind him. With a heft, a grunt, and a snarl, he tossed it onto the deck of their vessel. There was a loud crack, then a sputtering sound.

“Handled,” Gariath growled, turning to stalk toward the ship with the others.

“It won’t be poor accommodations,” Miron said, walking alongside Lenk. “Goodness knows you’ve been through enough. We’ll arrange for private cabins . . . or one, at least. And food. You’ve done us a great service, Lenk, and are to be rewarded justly.”

“As I recall, the reward is just about one thousand coins,” Lenk said. “Gold. Unsealed. No kings or gods or birds or crap on them. I want to be able to spend them in any nation I happen to feel the need to get drunk in.”

“And you shall have the full amount,” Miron said, voice dipping, “in time.”

Lenk came to a halt. “What?”

The Lord Emissary’s smile turned sheepish. “There were expenses, I’m afraid, that had to come from somewhere. And Port Destiny is largely Zamanthran. Rest assured, when we return to the mainland and to a proper temple of Talanas, we’ll be able to—”

“How much?”


“How much can you give me now?”

Miron smiled. “Well . . .”


Denaos stared at him for a long moment from across the table. “Sorry, I couldn’t hear you. I think I had a if you think I’m going to take that crap I will gut you like a fish in my ear.”

“The deal was for one thousand,” Asper said, wincing. “Granted, I wasn’t keen on taking money from the church and I was planning on giving it all back, anyway, but to make the gesture would have been nice.”

“Well, I had plans,” Kataria muttered. “Plans that involved me replacing a bow I lost while I was out nearly dying for the pious moron who was supposed to pay us.”

“This does seem like duplicity,” Dreadaeleon said. “My share was going to go toward research, fees for the Venarium, that sort of thing. How am I to get anything done with five coins to my name?”

“Four, actually,” Lenk said. He tapped the bottle at the center of the table. “This stuff is actually supposed to be pretty good, according to the smelly gentleman I bought it from.”

“And is it?”

“I haven’t tasted it yet.”

“You spent five coins on a bottle of whiskey,” Kataria said, “without knowing what it tastes like.”

“He was very smelly. I assumed he was a drunk. So, I figured he probably knew what was good enough to smuggle out of Argaol’s hold.”

Denaos blinked, struggling to find words. “I mean . . . that’s kind of logical, but—”

“And I wanted to celebrate,” Lenk said. “I mean . . . we’re alive, right? We succeeded in what we set out to do. We retrieved the Tome of the Undergates, stopped a demonic incursion—”

“We set out to get paid, technically,” Dreadaeleon corrected him. “Adventurers, and all.”

“So, we procedurally succeeded, shut up,” Lenk spat. “And we owe ourselves a drink for it.” He all but tore the cork from the bottle and downed a long, slow swig. When he set the bottle back down, they were staring at him curiously. “What?”

“I feel you’re acting like we’ve accomplished more than we have,” Asper said. “No matter what happens next, whether we all stay together or go our separate ways, we’re still adventurers, still not exactly a respectable trade.”

“Which might affect the glory of this whole thing,” Dreadaeleon said. “Not a single one of the sailors believed me when I told them what happened. Nor would I fault them for doing so.”

“We left behind a lot of dead bodies and a couple of races previously unknown by most cultures that join those same cultures in hating us,” Kataria said, slumping in her seat. “We . . . did things on those islands.”

“So, when you get down to it,” Denaos added, “we went out to the middle of nowhere, nearly killed ourselves, came back with terrible injuries that will probably last us a lifetime, somehow managed to earn the wrath of several races through the actions of six people, all for the sum of thirty—”


“Twenty-five gold coins and to possibly spare a world that loathed us a gigantic demon eating them alive, which they wouldn’t believe we did, anyway.” He looked around the table. “Have I got that right?”

“Roughly,” Asper said.

“Yeah,” Kataria grunted.

“More or less,” Dreadaeleon sighed.

“So, why should we be celebrating?”

Lenk had no answer. He looked at himself, wounded and hurting. He looked at his sword, resting in the corner of the cabin and ready to be called back. He looked back in his mind and saw the Abysmyths latching onto their mother and calling to her.

And he wondered if he had done anything more than kill a mother trying to reunite with her children because someone in a robe told him to.

He had no answer.

Someone else did. That someone rousted himself from his cot and with slow, lumbering steps, came to the tiny table of their tiny cabin and sat down in a chair that was tiny for him. Gariath leaned on it, the wood groaning beneath his weight. He stared at the bottle for a moment, as though he expected it to come alive at any moment and give him a profound answer.

When nothing came, he reached over as if to strangle it and took it by its neck. He looked at each of them, in turn.

“Because this,” he said, “is all that we have. And it is something solid.”

He threw his head back and poured the liquid down his gullet. His nostrils flared. His earfrills fanned out. He snorted, passed it to Lenk.

“This tastes like shit.”




The Aeons’ Gate

The Sea of Buradan

To my most esteemed colleague,

It may grieve you to hear of the loss of Sheraptus and his warriors. It most certainly may grieve you to know that the vast majority of his knowledge on the manipulation of portals went to the grave with him. You undoubtedly know by now that our agents were unable to retrieve anything from his operations on Komga but bodies and a flimsy gate he used to enter.

Comparatively, the loss of the martyr stones he loved so well may seem a trifle.

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