The Skybound Sea


Page 7



No more heart, no more head with heavy thoughts to weigh him down. In their place grew something cold.

“Our voice.”

His head throbbed, pounded, swelled, expanded.

“Our duty.”

Erupted.

He felt his eyelid twitch, then tremble, then bulge. Ice and skull cracked as a translucent, jagged spike formed where his mind had been and pushed steadily outward. Something came loose within him, with the sound of his eye socket creaking, then shattering.

He didn’t even notice it until his eyeball was floating out before him, staring back at him and the jagged icicle that blossomed from its socket.

“Our death.”

He felt the back of his head split apart as another frigid spike emerged like a horn. He felt his mouth fill with frost, felt the thin layer of his cheek’s flesh burst in a red flower. His fingertips split apart, spine snaked out of his back, shinbones shattered as the icicles grew out of him and continued to grow until they filled the ocean and froze it.

Only when he had no voice did he think to cry out.

The frog was still twitching when he brought it to his mouth. His canines sank into its flesh and he felt the dizzying rush of raw venom on his tongue. Lately, it only took a moment for the sensation to pass.

Bones crunched behind his lips. He swallowed and a mess of pulped flesh and poison slid down his throat.

“I’ve had dreams.”

His voice was raw with venom when he spoke.

“When I was young, anyway. I wonder if every tribesman has them. I don’t think I ever asked.”

His toes twitched, all six pale green digits digging into the soil. He felt connected to this earth, kin to it; poison flowed through it as it did through him.

“We didn’t ask questions in the south. Maybe it’s different in the Silesrian. I don’t know. I once asked my uncle if he knew. He looked at me and didn’t say a word. He slid a Spokesman into my hands, patted me on the head, and pointed me toward the humans.

“I had been alive for . . . fifteen years?” He scratched his chin, fingers rubbing over the inked scrawl of tattoos that ran from brow to navel. “Fourteen, maybe. Just married at that point. We did that earlier in the south. Maybe it’s different in the Silesrian. My wife was the first person I ever asked. She just looked at me and shook her head.

“I stopped thinking about it, as much as I could. Time passed. I killed humans. Humans killed my uncles. Humans killed my wife.” He waved a hand. “My son, too. It doesn’t matter. All tribesmen die. They went to the Dark Forest and I continued fighting. We were losing, of course. It’s impossible to fight humans and win . . . or it was.

“The dreams . . . didn’t stop.” He scratched his bald scalp. “I still had them and they didn’t make sense. Maybe that was how I tried to figure it all out and get an answer. They lasted for a while.”

His ears twitched. He reached up, running a long finger along each length, counting each of the six notches in them, as if to reassure himself that they were still there.

“It was when I learned why we fight that they finally ended.

“I found one of them. I couldn’t tell you what nation he belonged to or what god he worshipped. All humans looked alike to me. But I found one, alone. I suppose it would have been smarter to wait for the others, maybe to interrogate him.

“But I was hungry. And I heard it—” he tapped his temple “—right here. And I wanted to hurt him. So I did. We fought for a bit. I struck his head with my stick. He cut me in the thigh with his sharp sword. When our weapons were lost, we fought with fists and teeth.

“And I don’t know when I had come on top of him, or when I had found his throat with my hands. Everything was just moments, things that happened without me knowing how. One time, my fingers felt the hair on the back of his neck. The next, my thumbs found the hard bump in his throat. I couldn’t remember either when I started to squeeze.

“I wondered if he knew the human who had killed my wife. Maybe he was. It was unlikely. There are so many humans. But this was one less. And because this was one less, there would be one more of us.”

Naxiaw looked up and stared across the clearing at the young woman sitting cross-legged at its edge. She stared at him intently. There was no more fear in her green eyes anymore, no more tension in her scrawny, pale body. Her ears rose upright, each one twitching and attentive.

“And that’s when I knew what it meant to be a shict.”

She took a long moment before she spoke. When she did, he wasn’t listening; words were something she was too good with, something she used too often. His ears twitched, listening to her other voice.

She could still speak through the Howling, the wordless language of their people, but in the same way that a child could still speak. The voice of her mind and body, spirit and anger, was a sporadic thing: snarling one moment, spitting the next, then whimpering, then weeping, then roaring.

She tried to hide it behind words. She tried to distract from it with questions she thought were insightful. But he could hear her Howling. Just barely.

He said nothing to her spoken words. He stayed silent as she rose up from the earth and offered some excuse that would mean more to a round-ear. He stared as she waved briefly, then awkwardly bowed as though it meant anything, and then turned and slipped out of the forest.

The Howling lingered behind her, shrieking and crying long after she had vanished. She was frightened, she was confused, she was barely a shict.

Still . . .

“You seem surprised,” a voice answered his thoughts from the bushes at his back.

“Not surprised,” he replied without looking behind him.

“Then what?” another voice, deeper and darker.

He had asked them to stay behind. Their presence would only have frightened her further. She wasn’t ready to rejoin a people she wasn’t sure she was a part of.

That will change.

“I’m not convinced it will, Naxiaw,” Inqalle said, emerging from the underbrush. “She’s been around humans for a long time. You agree the kou’ru have infected her.”

“Diseases can be cured,” he replied.

“We hope, at least,” Avaij added, his voice sharp and smooth where his sister’s was rasping and harsh. “We’ve all heard her Howling, though. If she can’t be cured—”

“Then what, brother?” he asked. “We leave her to die? Kill her?”

“Of course not,” Avaij replied.

“Maybe,” Inqalle said.

“We do not kill the sick.” Naxiaw rose up from the earth. “We treat the sickness, we kill the disease.”

“The human,” Avaij muttered. “You’re convinced that the death of one round-ear will bring our wayward sister back.”

“Not convinced.”

“Hope is not something for the s’na shict s’ha,” Inqalle said. “Our people know.”

“Then you know we cannot kill her and we cannot sit back and let her suffer.”

He turned and regarded his tribesmen. He wondered how the human would see them: tall and proud, limbs corded with green muscle and dotted with tattoos, black hair hacked and hewn into crested mohawks. Their weapons were sharp, their eyes were sharp, their canines were sharper still as their lips curled backward.

Humans had tales about the greenshicts, his people. They feared them, rightfully. This human might look upon them with terror in his blue stare. This human might fight back. To survive was the nature of disease.

But in these two, Naxiaw saw only brother, only sister, their Howling speaking clearly. If they doubted his methods, they did not doubt his goals. They would not let their sister suffer.

It would hurt, of course. She was attached to the silver-haired monkey, as much as she might wish they did not know. She might rave, she might rail against them, she might even mourn.

No illness was cured without pain.

Kataria drew in a long breath and released it. When the last trace of air had passed her lips, she opened her eyes.

“No,” she said. “You are wrong. The answer isn’t in blood. It hasn’t been so far. And the answer is not in you. I offer you no apology and I ask for no forgiveness, brother. Everything I have to find out, I can’t be told. I have to find it. If it means going with the humans, then so be it. Live well, Naxiaw. I will.”

She nodded firmly, smiling. There it was. Everything she had been holding inside her, everything she had refused to admit to herself, much less to the s’na shict s’ha.


She had said it and believed it.

If Naxiaw had actually been standing before her, she would have been just fine. As it was, the pig-sized, colorful roach in front of her merely twitched its feathery antennae and made a light chittering noise; as far as personal epiphanies went, it seemed unimpressed.

“Oh, like you’ve heard better,” she said with a sneer as she stalked past it.

Despite the insect’s lack of approval, she came out of the forest lightheaded. The meeting with the greenshict had gone well. Ominously well, considering she had told him it would be their last. She hoped he understood that. She hoped he heard that.

She could still hear the breathy, fumbled excuses in her own ears. She couldn’t understand them, of course. But she hoped Naxiaw was a little more accepting of incoherence.

And how could he not be? She chastised herself. What with that stirring performance of stuttering excuses and half-concocted logic, it’s amazing he’s not here beside you right now to give you a teary hug before he sends you to a human, the kind of breed that he’s sworn to kill and you are, too.

Were. She corrected herself. She had been sworn to kill humans, or so she thought. She had listened to the old logic that told the old reasons that supported the old story. The one that said humans were a disease that threatened shict and land alike, hence they must die.

And for as long as she could, she believed them.

But that time was over. The old story had never resonated with her as it should. The old reasons had never carried enough weight. The old logic had brought her nothing but a distinct pain in her belly that grew sharper every time she looked at Lenk and he looked back at her.

And they both remembered that night, when he had looked into her eyes with a blade to his throat and called out for her.

And she had turned her back on him.

But this isn’t about him, she told herself as she crept into the daylight. No, no. This is about you, and what you know is a shict and who you know you are and who you have to kill and what you have to do and how many times you have to tell yourself this before you finally believe it.

It was getting easier, at least.

Daylight met her with the sun rising higher in the sky as dawn was left behind and a bright, angry morning took prominence. Coming from the darkness of the forest, she was nearly blinded as the sun cast a furious glare off the sand.

It wasn’t enough to blind her to the flurry of activity, nor to the dread welling up inside her at the sight of work at the shoreline.

The center of the scene was dominated by the restored companion vessel they had salvaged, trying its hardest to appear seaworthy and aided ably by its scaly attendants. The lizardmen known as Gonwa worked diligently: sanding out its roughness, testing the sturdiness of its mast, securing its rudder. There was a vigor to their work, a frightening eagerness to get this vessel and its passengers to sea.

Considering said vessel was to deliver them into the maw of an island whose location was known only to the flesh-eating serpents and skull-crushing lizardmen who dwelt there, Kataria suspected she should feel a little insulted.

Not too late, you know, she thought as she began to trudge across the sand toward the worksite. You could still kill them all and run. They’d never see it coming. Well, Lenk might . . . I mean, you did want to kill him only a week or so ago. But only two people know that.

And one of them just seized her shoulder in a heavy hand with heavy claws.

Granted, given all that Gariath could do with his claws, she suspected she ought not to have snarled at him when he effortlessly spun her to face his vast chest. She had to look up to meet his black eyes.

And when he looked down at her, it was a harsh gaze set beneath a pair of horns that traveled down a snout brimming with sharp teeth in a bare snarl of his own.

At the best of times, Gariath didn’t need a reason to kill a person, even one that approached his vague definition of “companion.” Given that he had a slew of reasons, ranging from her abandoned plot to kill the only human he respected to her witnessing him talking to invisible people, she had to wonder, not for the first time, why he hadn’t done it yet.

That wasn’t the sort of musing one did vocally. And when he did no more than thrust an arm at her, she counted herself lucky.

“Here,” the dragonman rumbled.

He let go of the long object in his hand, leaving it to teeter ominously before collapsing against her. She buckled under its weight, struggling to keep it up.

“What’s this?” she asked.

“What you asked for.”

She looked down at the object. A spear . . . or a harpoon? Hard to say; the amalgamation of metal long rusted and old wood left the weapon’s exact purpose vague beyond being something suitable for stabbing.

Still, that was what she had asked for.

“I should remind you this thing has to go into a snake the size of a tree.” She hefted the massive weapon; a long sliver of wood cracked and peeled off. “We want to impale it, not give it splinters.”

“Your plan,” Gariath grunted.

She stepped aside twice as he shoved his way past her: once for his immense shoulder, twice for the batlike wings folded tightly against it. She failed, however, to account for his tail, creeping out behind his kilt. It snaked up behind him, lashing at her cheek with enough force to send her snarling. Not as hard as he could have, just enough to remind her of the dangers of not giving him a wide enough berth.

“If you don’t like what I found, you can go find another one.”

He gestured over his shoulder with a broad hand. She didn’t have to look hard to see what he gestured to.

It was staring back at her.

Considering the sheer number of the skulls littering the island, she suspected she ought to be used to their massive, empty eye sockets staring at her, their shattered jaws and fractured skulls paled in comparison. Still, one never truly became accustomed to seeing a thirty-foot-long unholy amalgamation of man and fish lying dead.

And they were just one macabre feature of the graveyard that was the beach. Fragmented ballistae dotted the landscape, their rusted spears caught between ribs whose flesh had long rotted away. Catapults lay crushed, the only remains of their ammunition within the gaping holes of the demonic skulls. Most curious were the monoliths: great statues of robed figures, holy symbols of gods carved in lieu of faces, sinking on rusted metal treads and lying in pieces on the beach.

The war in which mortalkind battled Aeons, the corrupted servants of the Gods, for supremacy. Nothing remained of that battle besides this graveyard.

That, she thought, and the tome. Which is why you’re going to Jaga in the first place. Hence the plan, hence the spear . . . the rotting, rusty spear . . . She blinked. You know, if you do kill them, the chances of this plan killing you are far lower.

She ignored that thought. It was getting easier.

“The shict is insane.”

She had been intended to hear it. Tact and volume were not qualities known to the Gonwa, or their leader.

Tall and lean, sinew and scales, Hongwe shook his head as he surveyed the vessel’s progress. He scratched the beard of scales drooping from below his chin, a low hiss emanating from behind pressed lips as a long tail twitched behind him.

“Completely insane,” he muttered again.

“I can hear you, you know,” she said.

“Good,” the Gonwa replied. He turned upon her, narrow yellow eyes staring at her from behind a blunt snout. “Better to remind you again and clear my conscience before you decide to kill yourself.”

“Look, I know we’ve only known each other for a week now,” she said, grunting as she leaned the spear against the vessel. “But trying to kill ourselves is sort of what we do.”

“Sometimes each other,” Gariath growled as he stalked forward to stand beside Hongwe.

“Right, sometimes.” Kataria did not miss the knowing glint in his eye.

“And I tell you again,” Hongwe said. “Your biggest danger is not anything with teeth or arrows.” His voice was sharp, threatening. “The shennisah-nui, the Great Gray Wall, is a reef so sharp with stone and so thick with fog that anyone, human, Gonwa, or Owauku, doesn’t even see the rock that impales him. No one passes but the Shen.”

“And the Akaneeds,” Kataria said. “They know the way.”

“Jaga is their home. Jaga is the home to snakes that swallow sharks. Appreciate that for a moment. The least of your concerns are the Shen.”

“Not true.”

The voice was a withered one, something so used to joviality and whimsy that its mournfulness was something that stuck in flesh instead of ears. As they looked up to the nearby rocky outcropping, it was easy to see who had spoken it. Togu’s body, too, had once been taller; as much as a reptile with a body like a beer keg could be, anyway.

Now the Owauku sat upon the rock, hunched over, head bowed.

Good.

A spiteful thought, Kataria knew, but a just one. That Togu lived at all was a decision of Lenk’s she neither understood nor questioned. The creature, king of his people, had welcomed them to his home of Teji, delivered them from their shipwreck, only to deliver them again into the hands of the netherlings. Lenk, perhaps, only saw his betrayal as just that.

Kataria had been aboard the ship, though. Kataria had seen the creature known as Sheraptus and had seen what he had done. Kataria had heard Asper scream.

And it was only out of acknowledgment of her own betrayal that she obeyed Lenk’s decision and didn’t put an arrow in Togu’s gullet.

“The Shen are not like us,” he said. “Maybe once all green people were from the same stock. But while the Gonwa swam and the Owauku starved, the Shen killed. They killed when our peoples separated so many years ago, and they have never stopped. They come out of Jaga in their canoes, the Akaneeds swimming with them, and they kill. They kill with clubs. They kill with arrows.”

He turned to stare at her. His eyes were bulbous yellow things, moving independently of one another as they both turned upon her.

“The Shen will kill you, too. All of you.” He shook his head. His scaly whiskers shook with it. “I will not mourn.”

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