Tome of the Undergates

Page 11

No pale monstrosities here, he confirmed to himself, none that you don’t know, anyway.

‘Odd that I should find you here,’ he said as he strode into the room, ‘cringing in a corner when you should be protecting the Lord Emissary.’


‘I protected the Lord Emissary . . .’ Asper said, more to herself than to him. Silver glinted in the shadows; he could see her stroking her phoenix pendant with a fervent need. ‘They came aboard . . . things . . . frogs . . . men, I don’t know.’

‘Where?’ His dagger was instantly raised, his back already finding the wall.

She raised her left arm and pointed towards the edge of the room. The sleeve of her robe was destroyed completely, hanging in tatters around her shoulder, baring a pale limb. Following her finger, he spied it: the invader lay dead against the wall, limbs lazily at its sides, as though it were taking a nap.

‘Lovely work,’ he muttered, noting her staff lying near the corpse. ‘What? Did you bash its head in?’ She did not reply, provoking a cocked eyebrow. ‘Are you crying?’

‘No,’ she said, though the quiver of her voice betrayed her. ‘It . . . it was a rough fight. I’m . . . you know, I’m coming down.’

‘Coming down?’ He slinked towards her. ‘What are you—’

‘I’m fine!’ She whirled on him angrily, teeth bared like a snarling beast as she pulled herself to her feet. ‘It was a fight. He’s dead now. I didn’t need you to come looking for me.’

Tears quivered in her eyes as glistening liquid pooled beneath her nose. She stood sternly, back erect, head held high, though her legs trembled slightly. Unusual, he thought, given that the priestess hoarded her tears as though they were gold. Even surrounded by death, she rarely mourned or grieved in the view of others, considering her companions too blasphemous to take in that sight.

And yet, here she stood before him, almost as tall as he, though appearing so much smaller, so much meeker.

‘There are . . .’ She turned her head away, as if sensing his scrutinising judgement. ‘There are more of those things around.’

‘There were, yes,’ Denaos replied. ‘I took care of them.’

‘Took care of them how?’

‘How do you think?’ he asked, sheathing his dagger. ‘I found the other two and did it quietly.’

‘Two?’ She turned to him with concern in her eyes. ‘There were four others besides this one’

‘You’re mistaken, I only saw two.’

‘No.’ She shook her head. ‘I caught a glimpse of them from the porthole as they swam by. There were five in all.’

‘Five, huh,’ Denaos said, scratching his chin. ‘I suppose I can take care of the other two.’

‘Assuming they aren’t looking,’ she grumbled, retrieving her staff. ‘Let’s go.’

‘Are you certain?’ he asked, his tone slightly insulting as he looked her up and down. ‘It’s not like you should feel a need to fight.’ He glanced at the pale corpse against the wall. ‘After all, you took care of this one well enough.’

He blinked as the thing shifted beneath his eyes. It did not stir, it did not rise. Its movement was so subtle it might have been missed by anyone else. Yet, as he took a step forwards, the body responded to his foot striking the floor. It quivered, sending tiny ripples through the flesh as though it were water.

Flesh, he knew, did not do that.

‘Leave the dead where they lie.’ Whatever authority Asper hoped to carry slipped through the sudden crack in her voice. She drew in a sharp breath, quickly composing herself. ‘The thing’s almost naked; it doesn’t have anything you can take.’

His attentions were fixed solely on the thing lying at his feet. The rogue leaned forwards intently, studying it. Its own body had begun to pool beneath it. He let out a breath as he leaned closer and the tiny gust of air sent the thing’s skin rippling once more.

‘Leave it,’ Asper said.

Curiosity, however morbid, drove his finger even as common sense begged him to stay his hand. He prodded the thing’s hairless, round head and found no resistance. His finger sank into the skin as though it were a thick pudding and when he pulled it back, a perfect oval fingerprint was left in its skull.

No bones.

‘Sweet Silf.’ His breath came short as he turned to regard Asper. ‘What did you do to him?’

She opened her mouth to reply, eyes wide, lips quivering. A scream emerged, though not her own, and echoed off the timbers. Immediately, whatever fear had been smeared across her face was replaced with stern resolution as she glowered at him.

‘Leave the dead,’ she hissed one last time before seizing her staff in both hands and tearing out of the room into the corridor.

Ordinarily, he might have pressed further questions, despite her uncharacteristically harsh tone. Ordinarily, he might have left whatever had screamed to her, given that she could clearly handle it. It was simple greedy caution that urged him to his feet and at her back, the instinct inherent in all adventurers to protect their source of pay.

The scream had, after all, come from the direction of Miron’s room.

He doesn’t know, Asper told herself as they hurried down the corridor, he doesn’t know, he doesn’t know. He won’t ask questions. He’s not smart enough. He won’t tell. He doesn’t know.

His long legs easily overtook her. She sensed his eyes upon her, angled her head down.

The litany of reassurances she forced upon herself proved futile. Her mind remained clenched with possibility. What if he didn’t need to ask questions? He had seen the corpse, seen what it was. He saw her sobbing. He was a coward, a brigand, but not a moron. He could be replaying it in his mind, as she did now, seeing the creature leaping from the dark, seeing her hand rise up instinctively, hearing the frog-thing scream . . .

He heard the scream.

Stop it, stop it, STOP IT! He doesn’t know . . . don’t . . . don’t think about it now. Think about the Lord Emissary. Think about the other scream. Think about—

Her thoughts and her fervent rush came to a sudden halt as she collided with Denaos’s broad back. Immediately, fear was replaced by anger as she shoved her way past him, ready to unleash a verbal hellstorm upon him. But his eyes were not for her. He stared out into the corridor, mouth open, eyes unblinking.

She followed his gaze, looking down the hall, and found herself sharing his expression, eyes going wide with horror.

‘L-Lord Emissary,’ she gasped breathlessly.

A pale corpse lay at Evenhands’ feet, motionless in a pool of rapidly leaking blood. Miron’s sunken shoulders rose and fell with staggered breaths, his hands trembled at his sides. The blues and whites of his robes were tainted black with his attacker’s blood. The elderly gentleness of his face was gone, replaced by wrinkles twisted with undiluted fury.

‘Evenhands,’ Denaos said, moving forwards tentatively. ‘Are you all right?’

The priest’s head jerked up with such sudden anger as to force the rogue back a step. His eyes were narrowed to black slits, his lips curled in a toothy snarl. Then, with unnatural swiftness, his face untwisted to reveal a bright-eyed gaze punctuated by a broad, gentle smile.

‘I am well. Thank you for your concern,’ he replied in a trembling breath. ‘Forgive the scene. One of these . . .’ he looked down at the pale man disdainfully, ‘brutes attacked me as I went to see what was happening on deck.’

‘We’re still under attack, Lord Emissary,’ Asper said, stepping forwards. ‘It would be safer if you remained in your quarters.’

‘Yes, of course,’ he replied with a shaking nod. ‘But . . . be careful out there, my friends. These are no mere pirates.’

‘What do you mean, Lord Emissary?’ Asper asked, tilting her head at the priest.

As Miron opened his mouth to reply, he was cut off by a sudden response from Denaos.

‘It’s the tattoos,’ the rogue said, eyeing the priest, ‘isn’t it?’

‘Indeed.’ Miron’s reply was grim. ‘They are adornments of an order who serve a power far crueller than any pirate. Their appearance here is . . . unexpected.’

‘A power?’ Asper asked, frowning. ‘They’re . . . priests?’

‘Of a sort.’

‘Then why do they side with the pirates, Lord Emissary?’

‘There is no time to explain,’ Miron replied urgently. ‘Your friends require your aid above.’ He raised his hands in a sign of benediction. ‘Go forth, and Talanas be with you in your—’

A door slammed further down the corridor. Miron whirled about, Denaos and Asper looking over his shoulders to spy the fifth intruder darting away from the direction of the priest’s quarters. He paused to regard the trio warily for a moment, clutching a square silk pouch tightly to his chest.

‘Drop that, you filth!’ Miron roared with a fury not befitting his fragile frame.

The creature’s reply was a mouth opened to reveal twin rows of pointed, serrated teeth in a feral hiss. Without another moment’s hesitation, he stuffed his prize into a burlap sack and tore down the hallway.

‘Stop him!’ Miron bellowed, charging after the fleeing infiltrator. ‘STOP HIM! He must not have that book!’

‘What’s so important about it?’ Denaos called after him.

The priest did not respond, rushing headlong into the shadows of the hold. Denaos opened his mouth to repeat the question, but the breath was knocked from him as Asper shoved her way past, hurrying after the priest. With a sigh, Denaos shook his head and sprinted after them both.

Pirates, boneless beasts, books worth dying for, he thought grimly, all in one day. Whatever distressed young ladies are rescued from this mess had better be disgustingly grateful.



Screaming from above, an arrow caught a tardy pirate crawling across the chain. It struck deep into his neck, forcing a blood-choked gurgle from the man as he lost his grip on the bridge of links and went tumbling headfirst into the churning waters below.

‘Eight,’ Kataria remarked, nocking another arrow.

Her bowstring sang a melancholy dirge for the next pirate struck, the shict grinning as he fell to join his companion in the liquid tomb.

‘Nine,’ she added, drawing another missile.

‘Stop it,’ Quillian growled in response, levelling her crossbow towards the deck. ‘You’re shattering my concentration. ’

‘You have to concentrate to lose?’ Kataria asked coolly as she loosed her arrow. ‘How sad. Ten.’

‘I have to concentrate to make sure I don’t kill the wrong people,’ Quillian snapped back. She squeezed the trigger on her weapon and sent a bolt flying down to meet one of the deck-bound invaders below.

‘So you kill a few of your own along with the pirates.’ Kataria laughed. ‘It’s not like anyone was expecting you to do your job flawlessly.’ She winked an emerald eye. ‘You’re only human.’ Her bow hummed and someone screamed from below. ‘Eleven.’

‘You stupid savage,’ Quillian muttered, loading her crossbow.

‘You’re just upset that you’re losing.’ She launched another arrow. ‘To look, one would think you’ve never counted Kou’ru before.’ Before the Serrant could reply, she smirked. ‘You see, Kou’ru is—’

‘What your breed calls humans, I know,’ Quillian growled. ‘I take no pride in killing my own kind, much less making games of it.’

‘Well, no wonder you’re so bad at this.’

The Serrant held her tongue, opting instead to focus her aim. It was difficult to ignore the shict; her idle babble was a paling annoyance compared to the grating accuracy of her scorekeeping. That only tightened her resolve, however. She vowed that no simple-minded savage would outshoot a trained Serrant.

‘No way in hell,’ she hissed to herself.

‘Would it help if I shot blind?’

Quillian turned, incredulous. ‘What?’

Kataria’s grin was broad as she tugged her headband down over her eyes. Her ears quivered, one rotating to the left, the other to the right, like hounds with the scent of prey.

‘I can’t be blamed for this, you know. Shicts invented archery. We’re even named after the sound of arrows hitting flesh.’ She let her missile fly and smiled. ‘Shict.’

‘Really,’ Quillian muttered, ‘and here was I thinking you were named after what comes out of my—’

‘Your envy certainly smells like that.’ Kataria lifted her headband and frowned out. ‘Twelve . . . wait, no, that was just a glancing shot.’ The fall in her voice lasted only a moment before she jumped up and down, giggling madly. ‘Wait again! Someone got him in the neck with a sword! He’s dead! That counts, that counts!’

‘Will you shut up?’

‘Well, you can hardly expect me to help you when you keep shoving that foul attitude at me. Too bad; I could have improved your score to being at least halfway respectable for a human.’

‘Help?’ Quillian laughed blackly. ‘I’ve seen your kind’s “help” first-hand, savage. I know what you’ve done to my people.’

‘If we’re talking about crimes and kinds,’ Kataria replied nonchalantly, ‘we may as well discuss this strange little rabble of vermin called humanity.’ She loosed an arrow. ‘Thirteen.’ She reached for another. ‘At any rate, all the shict tribes put together only add up to a fraction of your teeming race. We’re smarter than you, quicker than you, craftier than you, and yet all you need to do to beat us out,’ she uttered the last words contemptuously, ‘is breed.’

‘And how many people, innocent people, will never get the chance because of what your kind has done? Your tribes slaughter without remorse, discrimination or respect for the rites of combat!’

‘We can’t afford to discriminate between strains of disease.’ Kataria’s voice and weapon were one cold, cruel amalgamation, hissing callously in unison as she loosed her arrow. ‘Shicts don’t fight fair. Fourteen.’

‘And your companions, are they strains of the same disease?’

Kataria fought hard to keep her body from stiffening, to keep her ears from flattening against her head. The Serrant could not hit a target with arrows. The shict resolved that she could not allow her to see her hit a target with words, either. She could not let the Serrant see her offence at the suggestion. Better to keep the ears upright, proud ears.

Shict ears.

A roar turned her attention to the deck and she glowered. Smoke curled into the sky from smouldering bodies. Men swarmed about the red-skinned brute at their centre, trying to hack at him, trying to take courage in their numbers even as Gariath continued to rip, to pull, to claw and to bludgeon.

Stupid reptile, she thought resentfully, taking all my kills. She glowered at the rapidly thinning crowd of foes. I could kill them all if they’d just stop moving around so much, scampering little monkeys. Her eyes drifted to the Linkmaster, keeping pace with the Riptide so easily, its helmsman shouting encouragement as he guided the ship with expert ease.

And his big, fat, ripe head . . .

‘That’s it,’ she whispered.

She loosed an unpleasant guffaw, which only increased as Squiggy cast her a curious cringe.

‘This is how I’ll help you,’ she said. ‘We put a stop to these little pirates moving about and we’ll pluck them off one by one.’ She glanced to the black ship. ‘Of course, we could also just end this game by putting their ship behind us.’

‘What?’ One of Quillian’s eyebrows arched in response to an inner twinge of dread and she whirled about to follow the shict’s gaze. ‘What do you mean?’

‘They can’t do much if they can’t catch us, can they? And they can’t catch us if they can’t chase us.’ Kataria drew her arrow, aiming it across the gap of sea and the salt-slick deck of the Linkmaster, towards its helm. ‘Thusly, all we need to do is keep them from chasing us.’

Quillian’s eyes went wide as the shict’s plan dawned on her. The glistening tip of her arrow was aimed directly at the filthy man at the Linkmaster’s wheel, blissfully unaware of her aim as he hurled abuse at Argaol.

‘Like so,’ Kataria finished.

‘Wait, you idiot!’

Quillian’s hand snatched an arm already hanging at the shict’s side, having loosed the arrow long before the Serrant could even reach for it. With painful slowness, Quillian stared as the arrow hummed with an almost casual speed towards the pirates’ helmsman. No heads looked up, far too embroiled in their current battle to foresee the impending disaster.

Quillian’s breath caught in her throat as the arrow caught in the helmsman’s. He jerked slightly, then stiffened with a curious look on his face, as though unaware of what had just happened.

‘There,’ Kataria said, shrugging the Serrant’s hand off. ‘What’s so bad about that?’

The slain helmsman answered.

He slumped across the wheel, his body dragging it into a full spin. The chain connecting the two ships went slack as the Linkmaster veered suddenly, driven by the corpse’s weight. The screams of pirates tumbling off their now-unstable bridge were punctuated by splashes of water. Cries of alarm rose up from the deck as fingers pointed towards the black-timbered titan now careening towards the Riptide. The pale-skinned creatures clinging to the hull in mid-climb croaked a collective chorus of terror.

Then, all sounds died in a great wooden scream.

The two huge ships collided, bows splintering. The Linkmaster’s momentum sent the Riptide spinning as their hulls ground together. Particularly unlucky pirates and pale frogmen were reduced from hostile invaders to smears in the span of two breaths.

The fighting on the deck ground to a halt as the ships did, the sudden shifting sending all combatants sprawling to kiss the salt. Eventually, the spiralling, the screaming and the splintering stopped, leaving two floating behemoths bobbing with unfitting calmness.

Kataria took the opportunity to stagger to her feet, gripping the edge of the crow’s nest. She glanced down at the carnage: dizzy men struggling to rise and find their weapons, uttering prayers to various human Gods, flattened chunks of red and pink tumbling into the waters as the hulls eased apart. In the funerary wake of sound, a stray wind caressed her hair, sending her feathers fluttering.

Copyright © novelfull All Rights Reserved.