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The Skybound Sea
The Aeons' Gate Books Three
By Sam Sykes
Copyright © 2012 Sam Sykes
All right reserved.
Chapter One MANKIND
He awoke from the nightmares and said it.
He rose, slipped a dirty and threadbare robe over his body and wore nothing else. He stared at his hands, mortal soft and human frail.
He left a small hovel, one of many. He walked with a person, one of many, down to the harbor. Carried over their heads, passed along by his hands, he watched a corpse slide from their grasp, into the bay, and disappear under the depths. A short prayer. A short funeral.
One of many.
His name was Hanth.
He knew this after only three repetitions.
Three days ago, it took twenty times for him to remember that he was Hanth. Two days ago, it took eleven times to remember that he was not the Mouth. And today, after three repetitions, he remembered everything.
He remembered his father now, sailor and drunk. He remembered his mother, gone when he learned to walk. He remembered the promise he made to the child and wife he didn't know, that Hanth would be there.
He met his wife and child. He kept his promise. Those memories were the ones that hurt, filled him with pain exquisite, like needles driven into flesh thought numb. Exciting. Excruciating.
And they never ended there. The needle slid deeper. He remembered the days when he lost them both. He remembered the day he begged deaf gods and their greedy servants to save his child. He remembered cursing them, cursing the name that could do nothing for them.
He threw away that name.
He heard Ulbecetonth speak to him in the darkness.
He became the Mouth.
That was his name now. The memories would not go. He didn't want them to go. Mother Deep meant nothing.
So, too, did her commands. So, too, did the fealty he once swore to her. He remembered that, too. The sound of a beating heart would not let him forget.
In the distance, so far away as to have come from another life, he could hear it. Its beat was singular and steady; a foot tapping impatiently. He turned and looked to the lonely temple at the edge of Port Yonder, the decrepit church standing upon a sandy cliff. The people left it there for the goddess they honored.
The people knew nothing. They did not know what the wars had left imprisoned in that temple.
And as long as he lived, they never would.
He had once agreed to make them know. He had agreed to bring DagaMer back. The Mouth had agreed to that.
He was Hanth.
Daga-Mer would wait forever.
He turned his back on the Father now, as he had turned his back on his former life, and turned his attentions to the harbor.
Another body. Another splash.
One of many since the longfaces attacked.
What they had come for, no one knew. Even though the Mouth had once been their enemy, Hanth knew nothing of their motives, why they had come to Yonder, why they had slaughtered countless people, why they burned the city, why they had attacked the temple and done nothing more than shattered a statue and left.
He knew only that they had done these things. The bodies, indiscriminately butchered, lay as evidence amongst half the city that was now reduced to ashen skeletons.
His concerns were no longer for them, but for the dead and for the people who carried them, bodies in one hand and sacrifices in the other as they moved in slow lines to the harbor.
One procession bowed their heads for a moment, then turned away and left. Another came to take their place at the edge of the docks. Another would follow them. By nightfall, the first procession would be back.
"Not going to join in?"
He turned, saw the girl with the bushy black hair and the broad grin against her dusky skin that had not diminished in the slightest, even if her hands were darkened with dried blood and she reeked of death and ashes.
He never had to repeat her name.
She glanced past his shoulder to the funerary processions. "Is it that you're choosing to stand away from them or did they choose for you?" Upon his perplexed look, she sighed. "They don't speak well of you, Hanth. After all you've done for us, after you helped distribute food and organize the arrangements, they still don't trust you."
He said nothing. He didn't blame them. He didn't care.
"Might be because of your skin," she said, holding her arm out and comparing it to his. "No one's going to believe you once lived here when you look like a pimple on someone's tanned ass."
"It's not that," he replied.
She sighed. "No, it's not. You don't pray with them, Hanth. They want to appreciate you. They want to see you as someone sent from Zamanthras, to guide them."
He stared at her, unmoved.
"And that's kind of hard to do when you spit on Her name," Kasla sighed. "Couldn't you just humor them?"
"I could," he said.
"Then why don't you?"
He regarded her with more coldness than he intended and spoke.
"Because they would hold their child's lifeless body in their hands and beg for Zamanthras to bring her back," he said, "and when no one would deign to step from heaven to do anything, they would know me a liar. People can hate me if they want. I will do what the Gods can't and help them anyway."
It was harder to turn away from her than it was to turn away from anything, from everything else. It was harder to hear the pain in her voice than it was to hear the heartbeat of a demon.
"Then how," she asked softly, "will you ever call this city home?"
He closed his eyes, sighed. She was angry. She was disappointed in him. He used to know how to handle this.
He looked, instead, to the distant warehouse, the largest building seated not far away from the temple. It, too, was a prison, though of a more common nature. It held a captive of flesh and blood behind a heavy door. Its prisoner's heart beat with a sound that could not reach Hanth's ears.
"Rashodd," he said the name. "He did not try to escape?"
"He didn't, no. Algi watches his cell now." He could sense the question before she asked it. "How did you know his name?"
"He's a Cragsman," Hanth replied, evading it less than skillfully. "A shallow intellect and all the savagery and cunning of a bear. If we've two more men to spare, then put them both on watch with Algi."
"That's difficult," she said. "Everyone not busy with the dead are busy with the dying. We've still got the sick to think about."
Hanth had been avoiding the problem and the ill alike, never once coming close to the run-down building that had been used to house them. He could handle the dead. He could quell unrest. He could not handle illness.
Not without remembering his daughter.
And yet, it was a problem to handle, one whose origins were not even agreed upon. Plague and bad fish were blamed at first, but the disease lingered. More began to speak of poison, delivered from the hands of shicts ever dedicated to ending humanity. Whispers, rumors; both likely wrong, but requiring attention.
One more problem that he would have to face, along with the dead, along with dwindling resources, along with the prisoner Rashodd, along with Daga-Mer, along with the fact that he had once entered this city with the intent of ending it. He would tell them and they would hate him, someday.
He would never tell her.
She would never hate him.
He cast his gaze skyward. Clouds roiled, darkened. Thunder rumbled, echoed. A lone seagull circled overhead, soundless against the churning skies.
"Rain?" Kasla asked.
"Water," he replied. One problem alleviated, at least.
Yet the promise of more water did not cause him the relief it should have, not so long as his eyes remained fixed upon the seagull.
"That's odd," she said, following his gaze. "It's flying in such tight circles. I've never seen a gull move so ..."
Unnaturally, he thought, dread rising in his craw. Gulls don't.
His fears mounted with every moment, every silent flutter of feathers, even before he could behold the thing fully. He swallowed hard as it came down, flapping its wings as it plopped upon two yellow feet and ruffled its feathers, turning two vast eyes upon him.
He heard Kasla gasp as she stared into its face. He had no breath left for such a thing.
"What in the name of ..." Words and Gods failed her. "What is it?"
He did not tell her. He had hoped to never tell her.
But the Omen stared back at him.
From feet to neck, it was a squat gull. Past that, it was a nightmare: a withered face, sagging flesh, and hooked nose disguising female features that barely qualified as such. Its teeth, little yellow needles, chattered as it stared at them both with tremendous white orbs, a gaze too vast to be capable of focusing on anything.
It was not the monstrosity's gaze that caused his blood to freeze, not when it tilted its head back, opened its mouth, and spoke.
"He's loose," a man's voice, barely a notch above a boy's, and terrified, echoed in its jaws. "Sweet Mother, he's loose! Get back! Get back in your cell! Someone! ANYONE! HELP!"
"That's ... that's Algi's voice," Kasla gasped, eyes wide and trembling. "How is ... what's going—"
"Zamanthras help me, Zamanthras help me," Algi's voice echoed through the Omen's mouth. "Please don't ... no, you don't have to do this. Please! Don't! PLEASE!"
"Hanth ... what ..." Kasla's voice brimmed with confusion and sorrow as her eyes brimmed with tears.
"In oblivion, salvation," a dozen voices answered her. "In obedience, salvation. In acceptance, salvation. In defiance ..."
He looked up. Seated across the roof of a building like a choir, a dozen sets of vast eyes stared back, a dozen jaws of yellow needles chattered in unison and, as one dreadful voice, spoke.
"What are they, Hanth?" Kasla was crying. "What are they?"
"Hide," he told her, taking steps backward. "Run. Get everyone as far away from here as you can."
"There are boats, we could—"
"Stay on dry land! Stay out of the water! Tell them to leave the dead and the sick."
"What? We can't just leave them here to—"
No finish to the plea. No beginning to an answer. He was running.
People cast scowls at his back, shouted at him as he rudely shoved through their processions, cursed his blasphemies. That was easy to ignore. Kasla called after him, begged him to come back. That was not.
They could despise him. He would still save them. He would try.
Thunder clashed overhead, an echoing boom that shook his bones. He glanced up. The clouds swirled swiftly as if stirred in a cauldron. At their center, a dark eye of darker calm formed.
Directly over the temple. It followed the heartbeat.
"He wears the storm as a crown."
He charged through the city streets, toward the warehouse turned into a prison. He would have prayed that its charge was still there. He would have prayed that the Omen was nothing more than a sick joke from a spiteful beast. He would have, if he thought any god still had ears for him.
He rounded a corner and the warehouse loomed before him. Its doors had been shattered. Algi, young and scrawny, stood against the doorframe, his legs dangling beneath him as his own spear pinned him to the wood through his chest. Algi's eyes, wide and white, were staring at Hanth with the same fear Hanth knew would be reflected a hundred times over if he didn't act fast.
A thick drop of rain fell upon his brow. It trickled down, sickly and hot, sticky and odorous to dangle in front of his eye. Red.
"The skies bleed for him."
He was sprinting now, heart pounding in his chest as he made for the temple. The trail was marked, through streets and over sands, by immense footprints painted in blood.
Hanth could barely remember fear, but it was coming back swiftly. Overhead, thunder roared, lightning painted the skies a brilliant white for a moment. And for a moment, in shadows, he saw them, a hundred wings flapping, a hundred gazes turned to the city.
And its people.
He ran faster.
The temple doors were smashed open, the bar that had held them fast lay shattered on the ground. Darkness loomed within, the loneliness that only came from a god neglected. He charged in.
The temple was dark inside, darker than it was the last time he had been here. Dominating the center was the pool twenty men across. The waters were calm, placid, not a ripple to them.
Despite the thunderous heartbeat pulsing from beneath them.
Hanth stared at the water, wincing. The beating heart was almost unbearable here, an agony to listen to as its pulse quickened, blood raced with anticipation. Yet he forced himself to stare at it.
"Their jealous waters hold him prisoner."
And then, to the tower of tattooed flesh and graying hair that stood at its edge.
"They call you Hanth, now, do they?"
Rashodd's smile would have been repellent even if not for the hideous scarring of his face. Still, his half-missing nose, the crimson scab where an ear had once been, and his wiry beard certainly didn't make him any more pleasant to look upon.
"When last I saw you, they called you the Mouth of Ulbecetonth and I called you ally." He gestured to his face. "And this is what came of that."
Still, Hanth found it easier to overlook both the Cragsman's imposing musculature and his disfigurement when he spied the man's great arm extended over the pool, a hand missing three fingers precariously clutching a dark vial containing darker liquid.
The only remaining mortal memory of the demon queen herself, the only thing capable of penetrating the smothering waters and calling Daga-Mer to a world that had long since forgotten him.
And as Hanth's ears filled with the thunder of a heart beating, he knew he was not the only one to recognize it.
"I hid that for a reason."
Hanth's words and his tentative step forward were both halted by the precarious tremble of Rashodd's maimed hand.
"I found it," the Cragsman replied. "For a different one."
"Can you truly be so dull, sir?" Rashodd asked. "That I am here suggests that I am charged with doing that which you cannot." His eye twitched, his smile grew hysterical at the edge. "I've heard Her voice, Mouth. I've heard Her song. And it was beautiful."
"I am here, too, Rashodd," Hanth said, recalling delicateness. "I heard her song. I heard her voice." He stepped forward, remembering caution. "And because I am here, I tell you that whatever she has promised you is nothing. Whatever she offers is meaningless, whatever she demands is too much."
"You forsook Her," Rashodd whispered, watching him evenly. His hand stood mercifully still, the vial clenched in his fingers. "You turned your back on all that was promised to you. The Prophet told me."
"The Prophet is her lie," Hanth said, taking another step forward. "They tell you only what you wish to hear. They can't offer you what you truly wish."
"They offered me everything," Rashodd said, his eyes going to the floor. "My face ... my fingers ..." He brushed a mutilated hand against a scarred visage. "And the man who did this to me." His gaze snapped up with such suddenness to make Hanth pause midstep. "And you ... they told me they offered you much more."
"They offered me nothing I wanted," Hanth replied.
"They offered you a release from pain," Rashodd whispered, "so much pain."
"Pain that I need. Pain that I need to be my daughter's father, pain that I need to exist."
The Cragsman's scarred face twitched, his head shook. It was as though he heard Hanth's voice through one ear and was assaulted by another, inaudible voice through the scab that had once been the other.
"Need pain ... to exist," Rashodd muttered. "But that doesn't ... what could that—"
Hanth recognized the indecision, the torment upon the man's mutilated features. He had felt it enough times to recognize that whatever other unheard voice was speaking to Rashodd louder and more convincingly.
So when Rashodd's eyes drifted to the floor, Hanth's drifted to the vial, and he made ready to leap.
He froze when Rashodd looked up. He felt his blood go cold at the tears brimming in the man's eyes. Tears belonged on people who flinched and felt pain and knew sin. Hanth knew enough of the Cragsman's deeds to know that tears on him were a mockery.
"You've suffered so much," Rashodd whispered.
"And I would prevent more," Hanth said, his eyes never leaving the vial.
"I suppose I've been terribly selfish, haven't I?" The Cragsman chuckled lightly. "I thought She could give me everything I wanted, everything I needed."
"I once thought the same, too."
The gaze he fixed upon Hanth was bright, hopeful, and horrifying.
"And that's why I have to do this."
"For both of us."
And Hanth screamed.
It was a formless noise, impossible of conveying anything beyond the very immediate sense that something had gone very wrong. It was long. It was loud. It, along with his lunge, were completely incapable of stopping the vial from falling out of Rashodd's maimed fingers.
Into the waters, where it landed without a ripple.
Hanth hit the floor, his hand still outstretched, his mouth still open. He could not see Rashodd, focused only on the air that the vial had once occupied. He could not hear Rashodd, focused only on the sound of a heartbeat steadily growing fainter.
The time between each fading beat stretched into an agonized eternity, until finally, it stopped altogether—and Hanth's with it.
Excerpted from The Skybound Sea by Sam Sykes Copyright © 2012 by Sam Sykes. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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