TWO

IN THE GRISTLE

Beneath Lenk’s feet, a world turned slowly. Not his world.

That world was back on dry land, back where the dawn was rising and people still slept in dread of the moment they would have to open their eyes. That world was full of traitors and fire and people who walked around pretending he had no reason to kill them.

That world was where he had slept for the last two nights with the sound of a voice in his head, a voice that whispered plots and told him he had no choice but to kill those people. That world was where he had fallen asleep last night.

He suspected he might be dreaming, still.

That would explain why he was standing on the water like it were dry land.

That world swirled beneath him. He had watched it all night. When he should have been dreaming of flames and betrayal and his hands wrapped around a slender throat beneath wide green eyes, when he should have been hearing something whisper in his head, something telling him those eyes would see nothing.

He had been staring at fish.

Beneath his feet, they stirred as the morning returned color to that world. Coral rose in bright and vivid stains. A fish came out, something drab and gray with bulging eyes and clumsy fins. If it were possible to waddle underwater, it would have done so, clumsily navigating over the coral that seemed all the bleaker for its presence.

It drew too close to a shadowy nook within the coral. A serpentine eel shot out, eyes glassy even as it rent the fish with narrow jaws. It gobbled up what it could before slinking back into its lair, leaving a few white chunks to drift up to the surface and bump against the soles of Lenk’s boots.

In an instant, he had seen hope, betrayal, and death. Fitting.

How do you figure?” something responded to his thoughts.

A voice rose up from the water, something cold and distant. He didn’t blink; voices in his head were nothing new. This was not the cold and distant voice he knew, though. This was less of a cold blade sunk into his skull and more like a clammy hand on his shoulder.

“As near as I understand,” he said, “every day for a fish begins with them rising out of the water to go scavenge for food.”

Is that hope or necessity?

“Little difference.”

Agreed. Continue.

“Thus, to go out when one expects to find food and instead finding death. .”

Betrayal?

“That was my thinking.”

Counterpoint.

“Go ahead.”

If one could even argue a fish is aware enough of its own existence to feel hope, one might think it wouldn’t feel a great deal of hope by going into a world infested by things that are much bigger and nastier than itself with the slim chance of finding enough food to avoid dying of starvation and instead dying of eels.

“That’s betrayal.”

That’s nature.

“I disagree.”

Go right ahead.

“I would, but. .” He rubbed his temples. “Kataria usually tells me about these things. I’m sure if I talked it over with her-” That thought was cut off by a frigid, wordless whisper. “Look, what’s your point?”

Hope is circumstantial. Betrayal, too.

He stared down into the water, blinked once.

“I’m insane.”

You think you are.

“I’m having a conversation with a body of water.” He furrowed his brow contemplatively. “For the. . fifth time, I think?” He looked thoughtful. “Though this is only the fourth time it’s talked back, so I’ve got that going, at least.”

It’s only insanity if the water isn’t telling you anything. Is this not a productive conversation for you?

“To be honest?”

Please.

“Even if I could get past the whole ‘standing on the ocean talking to the ocean’. . thing,” he said, “I’ve had enough conversations with voices rising from nowhere to know that this probably won’t end well. So just tell me to kill, make some ominous musings, and I’ll be on my way to kill my friends.”

Friends?

“Former friends, sorry.”

Former?

“Is that how I sound when I repeat everything? The others were right, that is annoying.”

There’s no hate in your voice when you speak of them. You don’t sound like a man who wants to kill his friends, former or no.

He didn’t listen to himself often, but he was certain he had spoken with conviction last night before he went to sleep. The conversation with another voice in his head-the one cold and clear as the night-had seemed so certain. They went over their plans together, again and again: find Jaga, find the tome, kill everyone in their way, kill the people who had betrayed them.

Betrayed them. . or betrayed him? It was harder to remember now what they had spoken of last night. But his had been a voice full of certainty, full of justice and hatred and nightmare logic.

Unless that hadn’t been his voice.

A chill crept up his spine, became a frigid hand at the base of his skull. It gripped with icy fingers, sending a spike of pain through his body that did not relent until he shut his eyes tightly.

And when he opened them again, the world was on fire.

He was back on a ship full of fire and of enemies that lay dead on the deck, except for the one that held him by the throat and pressed a knife down into his shoulder. He was back in his world and he was going to die.

And she was there. Short and slender, her green eyes wild and feathers in her hair. There was a bow in her hands and a hand around his throat and a blade in his shoulder and an arrow on the string and blood. Blood and fire. Everywhere. And she did nothing.

He was going to die and she was going to do nothing.

That wasn’t how it ended. He hadn’t died back then. Someone else knew that, but not him and not in this world. In this world, something else happened. He ignored the hand around his throat and the knife in his shoulder. He got to his feet and she was watching and she was screaming and her throat was in his hands and it felt like ice. And he started to squeeze.

That hadn’t happened, either.

He opened his eyes. That world was gone. The water was back and talking to him.

Ah,” it said, “I see.

“You don’t,” he replied. “You don’t have eyes. You don’t have a face.”

I can fix that.

The water stirred underneath. There was someone looking at him from the floor of the sea. A woman, not a pretty one. Her face was hard angles and her hair was white. Her chin was too sharp and her cheekbones were too hard. Her eyes were too blue.

But it was a face.

Better now?

“You’re all the way down there,” he said. “How do I-”

And suddenly, he did. The water gave out beneath him and he was floating down, upside down. He could breathe. That wasn’t too alarming; this was the fifth time. That which should not be possible was only impressive when it was not possible. When it was not impossible, then it was not possible to be impressed.

He came to a halt, bobbing in the water as he looked into her face. She was smiling at him with a face that shouldn’t ever smile. Their eyes met and they stared. He asked, finally.

“So,” he said, “am I dreaming, insane, or dead?”

“Oh, Lenk,” she said, “you know you never have to choose.”

He had memorized the length of one knucklebone.

He used that to count down his hands. Three knucklebones across, six knucklebones down. Eighteen knucklebones, in total; possibly a few extra accounting for inaccuracy of the thumbs. If he counted the back of his hands, double that. His hands were as wide and long as thirty-six knucklebones in total.

He had dainty hands. That bothered him.

But all Dreadaeleon could think about as he stared at his dainty, disappointing hands was how much paper would be made out of his skin when he was dead.

It didn’t take long for the trembling to set in, the surge of electricity coursing beneath his skin. Three breaths before blue sparks began to dance across his fingertips. Three breaths today. It had been six breaths yesterday.

Getting worse, he thought. Can’t be too much longer now. How much do you figure? A month? Two? How does the Decay work, again? It begins with the flaming urine, ends with the trembles? Or was it something else? Reversal of internal and external organs? Probably. Dead with your rectum in your mouth. That’d be just your luck, old man. Still, better that you’ll be leaving soon so she doesn’t have to see you-

“Well?”

“What?” he blurted out suddenly at the sound of the woman’s voice. He grabbed his hand by the wrist and forced it out of sight.

Asper looked at him flatly. She pointed to the corpse on the table.

“I know she can wait forever, but I can’t.” She gestured with her chin. “Are you ready for this?”

He glanced down at his lap and took stock of his tools. Charcoal, parchment; he nodded.

“Are you?”

She glanced down at her table and took stock of her tools. Cloth, water, scalpel, bonesaw, crank-drill, needle, a knife that once made a man soil himself in fear; he blanched as she nodded.

“And how about you?” He followed her gaze up to the wall of the hut, to the dark man in a dark coat.

Bralston hadn’t moved from that spot-arms crossed over his broad chest, brows furrowed, completely silent-in half an hour. He didn’t seem to think Asper’s inquiry worthy of breaking that record over. His sole movement was a brief nod and twitch of the lips.

“Proceed.”

Clearly less than enthused with the command, she nonetheless looked to Dreadaeleon. “Here we go, then. Note the subject.” She looked down at the corpse. “What do we call this, anyway?”

It was female. It was also naked. Beyond that, the creature was rather hard to classify. It had two legs, two hands, all knotted with thick muscle under purple skin. Its three-fingered hands, broad as a man’s, were clenched tight in rigor. Its face was hardly feminine, far too long and clenched like its fists. Its eyes, without pupil or iris, had refused to close in death.

“A netherling,” Dreadaeleon said. “That’s what they call themselves.”

“Yeah, but necropsy subjects are usually categorized by their scholarly names in old Talanic,” she said. “This is. .” She gestured helplessly over the corpse. “New.”

“True, they haven’t really been discovered yet, have they?” Dreadaeleon tapped the charcoal to his chin, quirking a brow. “Except by us. We could call it something slightly more scholarly.” He stared down at his paper thoughtfully. “How do you say ‘head-stomping bloodthirsty she-beast’ in old Talanic?”

“The subject shall be known as ‘Heretic,’” Bralston said simply. “The Venarium will make proper notation when I deliver the report.”

She fixed him with an unyielding stare. “Others interested in medicine might want to know what we discover.”

Dreadaeleon cringed preemptively. As a Librarian of the Venarium, Bralston was the penultimate secretive station to an organization whose standard reply to requests for the sharing of information typically fell under a category marked “crimes against humanity and nature.” And as a much meagerer member of the same organization, Dreadaeleon could but wince at Bralston’s impending reaction.

He felt more foolish than surprised when Bralston merely sighed.

“Netherling will do for the moment,” he said.

He was still surprised, though he suspected he ought not be. Bralston, curt to the point of insult, seemed to have a patience for Asper that Dreadaeleon found deeply confusing.

And unnerving, he thought as he noted the smile Bralston cast toward her.

“Proceed,” he said gently. “Please.”

Dreadaeleon took a bit more pleasure than he suspected he should have in Asper’s lack of a returned smile. She didn’t smile much at all lately, not since that night on the ship. She barely said anything, either. Only after the necropsy was requested did she even deign to say two words to him.

Another thing he took pleasure in. Another thing to be ashamed of. Later, though.

“Fine,” she said, turning back to the corpse. “Netherling.” She took up the scalpel between two fingers. “Incision one.”

Amongst the various descriptors she used for necropsy, “easy” wasn’t one of them. The scalpel did not so much bite seamlessly into the netherling’s cold flesh as chew through it, the incision requiring both hands and more than a little sawing to cut open. When it was finally done, her brow glistened along with the innards.

“First note,” she grunted, setting the scalpel aside, “she’s made out of jerked meat.”

“Subject displays remarkable resilience of flesh,” Dreadaeleon muttered, scribbling.

“Now what the hell was wrong with what I said?” Asper snapped.

He blinked. “It. . uh. .”

“Oh, good. Write that down instead.” She glowered at him for a moment before turning it to the opened corpse. “There’s so much muscle here.” Her incisions were less than precise as she cut through the sinew. “Organs appear intact and normal, if slightly enlarged.” She prodded about the creature’s innards with the scalpel. “No sign of rotting. Intestine is shorter than that of a human’s.”

“Carnivorous,” Bralston observed. “All of this suggests a predatory bent.”

“Possibly,” Asper said, nodding sagely, “that conclusion would be supported by their teeth and the fact that they’ve tried to kill us several times already. Of course they’re predatory, you half-wit.”

Dreadaeleon swallowed hard, looking wide-eyed to the Librarian. Bralston’s face remained a dark, expressionless mask. He nodded as easy as he might have if she had asked if he had wanted tea. Preferable to a gesture that preceded incineration, but the boy couldn’t help but be baffled at his superior’s seeming obliviousness to the priestess’s attitude.

“Continue, then,” he said.

Asper, too, seemed taken aback by this. Though her disbelief lasted only as long as it took her to pick up the bonesaw.

“Her ribcage is. . thick,” she said, applying the serrated edge to the bone. After three grinding saws, she took the tool in both hands. “Really thick. This is like cutting metal.”

“It can’t be that hard,” Dreadaeleon said. “I’ve seen Gariath break their bones before.”

“Really?” Asper said without looking up. “A hulking, four-hundred pound monstrosity can break metal? I feel as though your intellect may be wasted on simply taking notes.”

At that, Dreadaeleon did more than merely cringe. “Look, I don’t know what I did to upset you, but-”

“Continue, please,” Bralston interrupted. His words were directed at Asper, though his glare he affixed to Dreadaeleon.

“But I-” the boy began to protest.

Continue.”

“Fine,” the word was muttered both by Asper and Dreadaeleon at the same time.

It took a few more moments of sickening sawing sounds before Asper finally removed the bonesaw, more than a few teeth broken off its blade. Dreadaeleon did not consider himself a squeamish man; having cooked people alive with his hands and a word tended to preclude such a thing. Yet there was something about this necropsy, of the many he had witnessed, that made him uneasy.

The priestess’s hands were soaked and glistening a dark red. She hadn’t requested any gloves and snapped at him when he had suggested it. She used only a damp cloth to clean up, and barely at that. When she mopped her brow, red stains were left behind and she continued, heedless, as she plucked up the pliers.

Of course, he thought, perhaps it weren’t the operation that made him cringe so much as the operator. He had never seen her like this, never heard her like this. Her pendant, the phoenix of her patron god Talanas, was missing from her throat; a rare sight grown more common of late.

What happened to you on that ship?

And he might have asked, if he weren’t silenced by the deafening crack of a ribcage being split apart.

“Huh,” she said, brows lofting in curiosity. “That’s interesting.” She reached inside, prodding something within the corpse with her scalpel.

“What is it?” Bralston said.

“This thing has two hearts.”

Dreadaeleon’s face screwed up. “That’s impossible.”

“You’re right, I’m lying about that.” She rolled her eyes. “Come up and see for yourself.”

It was more a dare than anything else, if her tone was any indication, and Dreadaeleon half considered not taking it. But he rejected that; he couldn’t back down in front of her. Perhaps she was challenging him, personally. Perhaps whatever plagued her now, he could fix. She knew that, and he knew that he couldn’t do that if he backed down.

So he rose and he walked over to the corpse and he instantly regretted doing so.

The dead netherling met his gaze, her white eyes still filled with hate so long after being dragged lifeless out of the ocean. He swallowed hard as he looked down to the creature’s open ribcage. Amidst the mass of thick veins and-Asper hadn’t been lying-muscle everywhere, he saw the organs: a large, fist-shaped muscle and a smaller, less developed one hanging beside it.

“So. .” He furrowed his brow, trying to force himself not to look away. “What does that mean?”

“It could be one of many possibilities,” Bralston suggested. “Perhaps it was something specific needed for wherever they come from. Past necropsies of creatures from harsh environments have revealed special adaptations.”

“Perhaps,” Asper said, “or perhaps she’s just a mass of ugly muscle and hate so big that she needed a second heart, like I assumed in the beginning.”

“Funny,” Dreadaeleon said.

“What is?” she asked.

“I don’t know, I would have thought you’d enjoy this.” He looked up at her and saw her blank expression. He coughed, offering a weak smile. “I mean, you always showed an interest in physiology. It’s something that your church teaches you, right? When we were beginning, when we first met up with Lenk, he would always have us, you and I that is, cut up whatever animal we killed to see if we could get anything edible. Remember?”

She stared at him flatly.

“A necessity of being adventurers out of work, of course,” he said, “but you and I would always spend time investigating the carcass, detailing everything. It was our thing, you know? We were the ones that cut it up. We were the ones that catalogued it. If our findings before didn’t get us noticed, I’m sure this-” he gestured to the netherling, “-would. So. .” He shrugged. “I guess maybe I just thought of this as old times. Better times.”

When he looked back at her, her expression was no longer blank. Something stirred behind her gaze. He felt his pulse race.

Steady, old man, he cautioned himself. She might break down any moment now. She’s going to break down and fall weeping into your arms and you’ll hold her tightly and find out what plagues her. I hope Bralston knows to leave the room. Any moment now. What is that in her eyes, anyway? Better know so you can be prepared. Sorrow? Pain? Desire?

“You,” she whispered harshly, “stupid little roach.

Possibly not desire.

“What?” he asked.

Those were your better times for us? Up to my elbows in fat and blood while you scribbled away notes on livers and kidneys? That’s what you think of when you think of us?”

“I was just-”

“You were just being freakish and weird, as usual,” she snarled. “Is there anything about you that doesn’t make one’s skin crawl?”

He reeled as if struck. He hadn’t quite expected that. Nor did he really expect to say what he said next.

“Yes,” he said calmly, “I’ve been told my ability to keep silent around the ignorant and mentally deficient is quite admirable.”

“I find that hard to believe, as I’ve never actually seen you be silent.”

“No? Well, let me refresh your memory.” His voice was sharp and cold, like a blade. “Whenever you’ve prayed to deities that don’t exist, whenever you’ve blamed something on the will of your gods that you could have helped, whenever you’ve prattled on about heavens and morals and all this other garbage you don’t actually believe for any reason other than to convince your toddler-with-fever-delirium-equivalent brain that you’re in any way superior to any of the people you choose to share company with,” he spat the last words, “I’ve. Said. Nothing.

And so, too, did she say nothing.

No threats. No retorts. No tears. She turned around, calmly walked past Bralston and left the hut, hands smeared with blood, brow smeared with blood, leaving a room full of silence.

Bralston stared at the door before looking back to Dreadaeleon.

“You disappoint me, concomitant,” he said simply.

Good,” Dreadaeleon spat back. “I’ll start a running tally. By the end of the day, I hope to have everyone dumber than me loathing me. I’ll throw a party to celebrate it.”

“One might call your intelligence into question, acting the way you do.”

“One might, if one were a lack-witted imbecile. You saw the way she was talking to me, talking to you.

“I did.”

“And you said nothing.”

“Possibly because my experience with women extends past necropsies,” Bralston said smoothly. “Concomitant, your ire is understandable, but not an excuse for losing your temper. A member of the Venarium is, above all else, in control of his abilities and himself.”

Dreadaeleon flashed a black, humorless smile at the man. “You are just hilarious.”

“And why is that?”

Dreadaeleon replied by holding up his hand. Three breaths. The tremors set in. Bralston nodded. Dreadaeleon did not relent, even when the tremors became worse and the electric sparks began building on his fingers. Bralston glared at him.

“That’s enough.”

“No, it isn’t.”

The tremor encompassed his entire arm, electricity crackling and spitting before loosing itself in an erratic web of lightning that raked against the wall of the hut where Bralston had once been. The Librarian, having sidestepped neatly, regarded the wall smoldering with flames. He drew in a sharp breath and exhaled, a white cloud of frost smothering the flames beneath it.

When he looked back up, Dreadaeleon was holding his arm to his chest and gritting his teeth.

“The Decay is getting worse,” he said, “at a far more advanced rate than has ever been documented. I can’t control anything about me, least of all my abilities.”

“Hence our departure to Cier’Djaal,” Bralston replied. “Once we can get you to the Venarium, we can-”

“Do not say cure me.”

“I was not going to. There is no cure for the Decay.”

“Don’t say help me.”

“There is little help for it.”

“Then why are we going?” Dreadaeleon demanded. “Why am I going there for any reason but to die so you can harvest my bones to be made into merroskrit?”

“As you say, you’re advancing at a progressed rate. Beyond the harvesting, we could learn from-”

“Let me learn from it, instead!” Dreadaeleon all but screamed. “Let me try to figure out how this works.”

“There is no ‘how this works’ to the Decay, concomitant.”

“This isn’t any normal Decay. I felt it strongly days ago, when we were first shipwrecked on Teji. But that night when we swept into Sheraptus’s ship, I was. . the power. .” His eyes lit up at the memory. “When I was there to save Asper, when I. . when I felt what I did, I could control it. I could do more than control it. My theory holds weight, Librarian. Magic is as much a part of us as emotion, why wouldn’t emotions affect our magic?”

“Concomitant. .” Bralston said with a sigh.

“And with these days? With all the tension between my companions and I?” He shook his arm at Bralston. “With what just happened? It only adds more weight to my theory! Emotions affect magic and I can-”

“You can do nothing but your duty,” Bralston snapped suddenly. His eyes burned against his dark skin. “Your companions are adventurers, concomitant: criminals on their best day. You are a member of the Venarium. You have no obligations to them beyond what I, as your senior, say you do. And I say you are going to die, very soon and very painfully.

“And I will not watch you languish in their-” he thrust a finger toward the door, “-company. I will not watch you die with no one but criminal scum to look on helplessly as they wait for the last breath to leave you before they can rifle your body and feed it to the sharks.” He inhaled deeply, regaining some composure. “Coarse as it may seem, this is protocol for a reason, Dreadaeleon. Whatever else the Venarium might do once the Decay claims your body, we are your people. We know how to take care of you in your final days.”

Dreadaeleon said nothing, staring down at his arm. It began to tremble once more. He focused to keep it down.

“When do we leave, then?”

“By the end of today,” Bralston replied. “As soon as I conclude business on the island.”

“With whom? The Venarium has no sway out in the Reaching Isles.”

“The Venarium holds sway anywhere there is a heretic. Even if Sheraptus is gone, we are duty-bound to make certain that none of his taint remains.”

“Lenk agrees with you,” Dreadaeleon said, sighing. “That’s why he’s had Denaos on interrogation duty.”

“Denaos. .” Bralston whispered the name more softly than he would whisper death’s. “Where is he conducting this. . interrogation?”

“In another hut at the edge of the village,” Dreadaeleon replied. “But he doesn’t want to be-”

He looked up. Bralston was gone. And he was alone.

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