The Skybound Sea

Page 9

He stared, blinking. His eyes widened just half a hair’s breadth, not entirely shocked. That was what made her scream.


It was not a voice familiar that replied to her. Too confident to be Lenk’s, too choked to be someone else’s; he spoke, he wanted to believe the words he was saying.

“Because the alternative is still death,” he said.

And Asper wasn’t quite sure who he was, who he was talking to or who he was trying to convince. It wasn’t Lenk, not the man who spoke with certainty and didn’t flinch. Not the man she had followed into this mess, not the man who had led her to that night and into those teeth. That man, for all she knew, was still back on that boat at the bottom of the ocean.

This man could only walk, and he didn’t even do that well. He turned around and clutched at his shoulder, at the sutured wound beneath his shirt. This man was weak. This man made her call out after him.

“Wait,” she said. She turned to a nearby rock, plucked up her medicine bag and walked to him. “At least let me make sure you won’t be blaming my stitching when you die.”

“You killed her.”

Bralston spoke once, then again, and the tree above Denaos’s head exploded. Lightning sheared the trunk apart and sent smoldering shards raining down upon him.

“You killed her,” Bralston insisted.

Hardly necessary, Denaos thought; it was hard to argue with a man in the right, even if that man could make trees explode with a wave and a word.

Another word, another clap of thunder, another explosion. This one farther away. A different tree. The Librarian, at the very least, did not know where he was. Small comfort. It was a small clearing on a small island and there was only so much vegetation to hide behind.

“You killed them all.”

He half expected the wizard to finish that train of thought that had been so frequent. He waited for the wizard to use his magic to open his skull up, read his mind, and tell him he was going to hell.

Well, that’s just ridiculous, he told himself. Wizards don’t believe in hell. And they can’t read thoughts, either. That’d be silly. Now, they might make your head explode and then read whatever’s splattered on the—

Another word came from the clearing.

Oh, right. He’s still there.

And fast on the word’s trail was the end of the forest. Everything to the man’s right, all the browns and greens and soft earth was eaten alive in a roar of flame. It cheered in a smoldering tongue, urging Denaos to be sporting and run.

Denaos obliged, scrambling on hands and knees as the fire raked the world behind him. The sundered tree groaned, split, and crashed behind him in a spray of cinders as the fire put it out of its misery. Smoke rose up in choking gouts.

He’s burning the whole damn thing down, Denaos thought. Absently, he wished he was more of a nature lover so he could fault this strategy, if only on ethical grounds.

Perhaps Bralston was more of a nature lover than he, or perhaps he could read minds, for in that instant, the fire stopped, sliding back into whatever orifice the wizard had spewed it from and leaving only a sky choked with smoke and an earth seared with ash.

Neither of which did anything to stifle the words Denaos could understand. “I didn’t know you well when you were posing as the Houndmistress’s advisor,” Bralston said, his voice sweeping the clearing. “I saw you, certainly, even met your gaze when she reached out to the Venarium for help. I didn’t know what you were, then, what you would do to the city and its people.”

He wants you to answer, Denaos thought as he slithered beneath a bush and peered out from the foliage. The wizard slowly scanned the forest line. He wants you to succumb to his taunts. A little insulting that he thinks you’ll fall for it, isn’t it? You should go out there right now and show him what you do to—

Oh, that is pretty clever of him, isn’t it?

“But I know you now,” Bralston continued, “under whatever name you pretend to have and whatever person you pretend to be. I’ve seen you. I know you’re smart enough to know that you won’t escape me. You and I both know that if you flee now I’ll hunt you down and your companions will join me, once they know.

“But more importantly,” he said, “I know you’re a man who prays. I don’t know to what gods and I won’t lie to you by saying I know what they’d say. I don’t know if they’ll ever forgive you.” He drew in a sharp breath, lowered his gaze. “But whatever you’re hoping for, wherever it is you think you’re going to go . . .”

His eyes rose again, drifted over Denaos. Their eyes met.

“Your best chance lies with answering for what you’ve done. Here. By my hand.”

The wizard’s eyes lingered for only a moment before passing on. He hadn’t seen the rogue. Denaos wished he had.

And still, he found himself wondering if it was too late.

Reasonable men were driven by logic. The same logic that kept him alive all these years since he had opened her throat and killed the fourteen hundred and more. The same logic that stated that he could find salvation in doing good deeds, as good as adventurers could manage.

The same logic that said, eventually, he would die, and no matter how much good he did, he would face those people and her on equal footing.

Denaos was a reasonable man.

He closed his eyes and clambered to his feet. He felt the wizard’s eyes upon him, the approving nod, the hand that was raised, palm open and steaming with warmth yet waiting to be released into a fire. One that purified, removed a human stain and left the earth cleaner.

Something final was in order. Good deaths had those. Final words, maybe, whispered in the hopes that they would linger on the wind and find the way. Final prayers to Silf, a last-minute bargain to get whatever lay beyond his flesh to whatever lay beyond the sky.

Something solid, he thought as he opened his eyes and heard the wizard speak a word. Something dignified, he thought as he watched the fire born in Bralston’s palm.


Not that.

But that was what came out. Of his mouth, anyway. What came out of the wizard’s palm was something distinctly bigger and red.

Not that he lingered to study it in any great detail. He was already darting under it as it howled in outrage, chewing empty air and stray leaves.

Self-preservation was a strong instinct. Terror was, too. Too strong for reasonable men to ignore.

Denaos would wonder which it was that made him dart under and away from the fire, that made him charge toward the wizard. Later. Right now, he didn’t care. Neither did his knife; it was an agreeable sort, leaping immediately to his hand as one eye narrowed on the wizard’s tender throat and the other glanced at his dangerous, fiery hands.

Who would have even thought to look at a wizard’s feet?

That no one ever would was small comfort to Denaos. Comfort that grew smaller as the wizard raised a foot and brought it down firmly upon sand that didn’t remain as such for long. The moment his sole struck, the earth rolled, rising up like a shaken rug. And like a leather-clad speck of dust, Denaos was hurled into the air.

Where he lingered.

Whatever force that had shook the earth slid effortlessly through the Librarian’s body, from foot to hand. One palm extended, the air rippling in a sightless line between it and Denaos, floating haplessly in the grip of it. The other clenched into a fist, withdrawing the fire that licked from it.

Only when Denaos felt the sensation of the sky turning against him, holding him suspended in insubstantial fingers, did he begin to think this was a little unfair.

“I offered you a chance,” Bralston said. “Something clean and quick that you didn’t deserve.”

“Clean and quick?” Denaos scoffed, not quite grasping the futility of it. “What is it about fire that suggests either to you, you bald little p—”

He didn’t feel bad about losing the insult. It was hard to hold onto when insubstantial fingers wrapped around his body and slammed him bodily into earth that quickly filled his mouth. The grip of unseen force tightened, raised him again. He hovered for a moment before it smashed him once more, earth coming undone beneath him, reshaping itself and crawling into every orifice.

Except the important ones, he thought, small pleasure in that.

Smaller still after he was smashed again and again. Each time, the earth ate the sound of screaming and of impact, rendering the sound of a man being killed into something quieter.

But the moment he thought he was going to choke on dirt, which came after the moment he thought was going to be crushed by the invisible hands, he was hauled into the sky. He stared down at an indentation of his body, noted that the nose looked a little squashed, before the wizard spoke a word.

He was twisted in the air. One hand turned into a fist . . . or maybe it was a foot all along. Hard to tell with the invisible and insubstantial. Hard to think on it when whatever invisible limb slammed into his chest and slammed him against a tree. It seized his head—a hand, then, good to know—and smashed it against the tree. He came back dizzy, winded, fragments of bark stuck in his hair . . . probably blood, too. Hard to think, hard to hear.

That must be why Bralston spoke so loud and clear as he approached to ten paces away from Denaos, holding one hand out, the air rippling before it.

“I don’t enjoy it, no,” the Librarian said, answering some unspoken question. “Because I can’t do this without looking at your face. And every time I see it, I see when it used to be tanned and your hair was dyed black, when you pretended to be a Djaalman and you looped your arm around the Houndmistress’s and pretended you were someone she could trust.”

“No,” Denaos groaned, “she wasn’t—”

“She was,” Bralston interrupted. “Everything you think she might have been, she was. She was the one who took our city away from criminals and who didn’t look at the people like commodities. She was going to end the vice dens and the gambling halls and the . . . the whorehouses. They were all going to be people again.”

“Maybe we don’t get to choose to be that,” Denaos said, flashing a bloodied grin. “Maybe they would have found something else you hated. Maybe there’s no pleasing you.”

“Maybe. Maybe people are the way they are. And people who are the way you are exist.”

Bralston’s free hand went to his head, removed the wide-brimmed hat from it. He pressed his thumb against it, spoke a word, ran it along the steel ringing its interior. Like a hound stirred, the hat twitched. Toothy spikes grew in the wake of his digit, crinkling, growling in a way that only a man-eating hat could.

“This is going to be messy,” Bralston said.

Well, obviously, Denaos thought.

“I won’t apologize.”

Probably smart.

“You deserve this.”

Denaos looked up to heaven. And this is who you send to tell me that? I suppose you don’t mess around.

He looked back at the Librarian, who drew his hand back. He tossed the hat lazily at Denaos. It opened wide, teeth glistening, leather and steel jaws gaping.

And the rogue’s hand snapped. Before either man knew it, the dagger flew from his fingers and pierced the hat with a shriek of metal and pinned it to the earth. They looked down at the hat, writhing with whatever power animated it, and then up at each other.

And in that instant, Denaos knew the Gods loathed a heathen more than a sinner.

Maybe he would think about that later, when a knife didn’t leap so readily to his hand and fly from his fingertips like an angel.

It flew straight enough to be blessed, even if it didn’t strike. Bralston’s word was sloppy, the wave of his hand undisciplined as it formed force from air to send the dagger spiraling away. He raised his hand, pointed two fingers forward, the electricity eagerly crackling upon their tips.

And Denaos was already there, ducking under to seize the Librarian’s hand and thrust it upward. The rogue felt his arm shake as lightning flew into the sky, felt the stray current shoot down his arm as another whip of electricity shot off into nothingness. It throbbed angrily, shook muscle and bone, but he didn’t let go. The Gods had sent him a message.

He was determined to fulfill it. Or defy it. Whatever.

Bralston’s hand shot out, pressed against Denaos’s chest. That force that had hurled him into the air and slammed him into the earth now reached inside him, those intangible fingers slipping past his skin and through his ribs. They searched for something important enough, poking and probing before they found it.

And then they squeezed.

His lungs, maybe. Or his heart. He couldn’t afford to be choosy, not with the sensation of the air being wrung from him like dirty water from a rag. Bralston did not smile, did not give the slightest impression he was enjoying this.

A good man, one who should survive this fight. Wouldn’t be the first one who didn’t.

Denaos’s right hand jerked, his grip upon Bralston’s wrist shifting as the blade hidden in his glove came on spring and a bloody song. It shot through Bralston’s wrist in a single red note, accompanied by the Librarian’s howl.

The fingers inside Denaos retreated just enough to grip him by something more exterior and hurl him away. A ripping sound joined him as he did, like very fresh paper tearing.

Bralston was bleeding. Bralston was angry. He reached down, seized his bloodied wrist, fought to keep the blood inside him. He looked up as Denaos sprang to his feet, raised the blade over his head. Bralston narrowed his eyes upon the rogue.

And spoke a word.

Lenk felt no lighter as he peeled off his tunic, nor the shirt of mail that lay under it. When the coarse undershirt had been stripped and he sat, half-naked in the breeze, he didn’t feel cold. That should be odd to any other man.

“No room for that,” the voice answered his thoughts.

He didn’t answer.

“For cold, for pain, for anything. We have duty. We have things to kill. First her, then them, then them.”

He closed his eyes, listened to Asper’s footsteps as she came up behind him and set her medicine bag on the log beside him. She gave a cursory probe to the bandage covering his shoulder, gently eased it back to inspect the sutures. He should feel that.

“It speaks. The tome. It calls. To anything that will listen. But they can’t hear it. The demons can’t hear it. I can. Listen closely, you can, too. It calls us to the island, it—”

What if she’s right?

He hadn’t meant to think it, hadn’t meant for the voice to hear it, certainly hadn’t meant to interrupt it. The voice remained silent.

Where is the evidence? Where is heaven? Where do the demons even come from? The voice was not speaking. He was not speaking to the voice. But he felt its presence, something narrowing unseen eyes into a glare.

Ulbecetonth spoke of them as children. She begged me not to kill them. She wept for them. He rubbed his temple. She offered me escape . . . to let me go in exchange for sparing her children. What kind of demon does that?

“You’re doubting.”

I’m wondering.

“There is no difference.”

That’s the problem, isn’t it? Everything seems different since last night.

“Last night?”

My sword feels too heavy. Everything does. Maybe it is doubt . . . but uncertainty is difference enough, isn’t it?

“Nothing has changed,” the voice insisted with crystalline clarity. “Remove doubt. I will remove everything else. I will move you through pain, through fear. Your duty cannot be performed without me. I cannot fulfill my duty without you. Neither of us exist. Only we do.”

You say that, but if I don’t feel pain—

“You don’t.”


“You aren’t.”

He wasn’t.

The netherling’s knife had struck hard. The wound was not light. The suturing had been painful and the blood had been copious. He had received such wounds before. He knew it should hurt now as Asper probed, touched, eased the red and irritated flesh around his sutures.

It didn’t.

“Well?” he asked, the voice matching wound in ire.

“You’re healing,” Asper said. “Some salve, regular poultices and keeping it covered and you’ll be all right.”

“Outstanding,” he said, reaching for his shirt. “See you when I get back.”

“Check that.” She placed a hand on his unmarred shoulder and pulled him back. “You need salve, poultice, bandage, and an understanding of past and progressive tense. You’re healing, not healed.”

“Then I will continue healing on the way to Jaga,” he growled.

“I know I’ve never really bothered to explain the intricacies of my craft, but medicine doesn’t quite work that way, stupid.” He heard her rustling about in her medicine bag. “You’re not going to be healing when you’re being eaten alive by snakes . . . or lizards.”

“The Shen don’t eat people.” Lenk cast a glower over his back as she pressed a ripe-smelling poultice against his stitches. “We think, anyway. I mean, they’re reptiles and all, but so is Gariath and he’s never eaten someone . . . all the way, anyway.”

“You’re being intentionally stupid now.” Her sigh was familiar, less tired and more frustrated. “Look, I don’t want you to die. This wound was tricky to stitch up and if you go around swinging your sword, it’ll eventually pop open and you’ll bleed out without me to help you.”

“There’s no telling what’s going to happen, and if the wound does open, Kataria can—”

“No,” the voice interrupted him before Asper could. “She cannot. We will not let her near us again.”

“She can’t,” Asper said. “I don’t care what she says, and I don’t care what you say, either. You’re going there to fight and, thusly, you’re going to die.” She cast a disparaging glance at the mail shirt lying in a heap with his other garments. “It’s stupid enough that you’re wearing that kind of weight, anyway.”

“It’s better to get used to carrying it now,” he said, “so I don’t get a wound like this again.”

“You know, another great way to avoid getting wounds would be to go back to that one plan you had,” she muttered. “The one where we don’t go chasing after books and return to the mainland and never see each other again. I liked that one.”

“That’s not going to happen.” The ire in Lenk’s voice rose, cold and clear. “And watch your mouth. Denaos will be upset if he finds out you’re trying to usurp his position as cynical worthless complainer.”

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