Tome of the Undergates

Page 13

‘There are always more adventurers. They’re like cockroaches, as you say.’

The surprise in Rashodd’s voice was genuine. ‘It is with no great glee that I admit I hadn’t expected this of you.’ He twirled the axe in his hands, raising it a little. ‘And it is with even less glee that I make this example.’

‘You ought to listen to the captain,’ someone hissed from behind.

Rashodd turned laboriously with two heavy feet, not nearly deft enough to avoid the arrow that shrieked from the steps and angrily bit at his wrist as it grazed his flesh. His grunt was more of surprise than of pain as he dropped Lenk to the deck, his scowl more of annoyance than anger as he turned to the woman already nocking another arrow.

‘Cockroaches are everywhere.’ Kataria smiled behind her bow, flashing broad canines. ‘Back away from him,’ she gestured to Lenk with her chin, ‘that one belongs to me.’

‘Shicts, is it?’ Rashodd’s thick lips twisted into a grin that was undoubtedly supposed to be coy. ‘My good Captain, you can hardly retain your claims to godliness while consorting with heathen savages.’ He raised his hands, taking a step away from Lenk. ‘By all means, keep the dear lad if you think it will do you any good.’

Her arrow followed him as he took another two steps backwards. It wasn’t until a moment passed that Argaol glanced from the shict to the fallen young man and coughed.

‘Shouldn’t you . . . help him?’

Kataria blinked suddenly, glanced down at her companion and sighed.

‘Yeah . . . I guess.’

Rashodd seemed less than worried, even though Kataria kept her bow aimed at him while she came to Lenk’s side. The pirate, rather, let out a great sigh, as though a potential arrow through the eyeball was all one tremendous inconvenience. He plucked up his stray axe and twirled it.

‘And how do we solve this, then?’ He shook his head. ‘Kill me, my men will fight harder and, while they weren’t particularly restrained boys to begin with, they’ll have much less restraint if I’m not here to control them.’

‘Every last heathen aboard this blessed vessel will be cleansed by steel, scum.’ Quillian’s approach was heralded by the hiss of a sword leaping from its scabbard. Though she levelled her blade at the pirate, her scowl was for Kataria. ‘Every. Last. One.’

‘She looks mad,’ Lenk noted through a strained gulp.

‘She always looks mad,’ Kataria replied.

‘In the interim,’ the Serrant said, turning her attention back to Rashodd, ‘it is only logical that we begin with the biggest.’

Lenk held his breath as the woman took a menacing step. Rashodd was right, he knew - the Cragsmen wouldn’t even notice that their captain had been killed until well after every last man was dead. Such an occurrence, however, rested on the idea that a sword would be enough to stop him.

An idea, he thought grimly, that seemed more ludicrous with every step the Cragsman took to meet the Serrant.

She growled and Lenk winced, though the sound of steel carving flesh never came. Rather, there was the sound of bronze clattering to the floor as a great, clawed hand reached up, seized Quillian by the head and shoved her aside.

Despite having no breath to chuckle, Lenk felt rather satisfied seeing Rashodd leap backwards at the sight clambering up the stairs. If the Cragsman strode with insulting casualness, Gariath stalked with infuriated ease. The leathery skin of his face was twisted angrily, bared teeth as red as every other part of his body. Cuts and gashes criss-crossed his body like so much decoration, which seemed to be all the credit he gave his wounds.

‘It’s over.’

Gariath seemed to say this with more irritation than satisfaction, though it was difficult for Lenk to distinguish his companion’s irritation from his other emotions; all of them involved some manner of rage.

‘They barely even fought.’

Red pooled at his feet. Red, Lenk noted grimly, not his own.

‘This one didn’t even raise his sword.’

Gariath tossed the limp body at the Cragsman’s feet. The man was barely recognisable as one of the Linkmaster’s crew, so badly broken and crushed was he. Limbs were bent in ways they weren’t meant to bend, extra joints had been added, and haemorrhages bloomed in ugly purple blossoms beneath the man’s skin.

Lenk quietly wished Rashodd hadn’t angled himself to prevent the young man from seeing his face.

The colossal captain gasped at his underling. ‘What in the name of All On High did you do to him?’

‘I killed him. Isn’t that obvious?’ The dragonman took a step forwards and Rashodd backpedalled with uncharacteristic haste, axes raised. ‘The rest of them will follow.’ Gariath levelled a claw at the captain. ‘Unless you kill me.’

A glance at the deck confirmed Gariath’s declaration. The battle, it seemed, had taken a definite turn with the dragonman’s presence. Many of the pirates lay dead, the remaining ones herded by the now superior numbers of the Riptide’s men. Only the pale invaders held strong, pressed into a small mass at one side of the ship, heedless of the Cragsmen’s pleas for help.

Those meagre few who hadn’t already thrown down their arms collapsed as smouldering husks in the shadow of Dreadaeleon, the boy breathing heavily, hurling gouts of fire from his hands as he strode along the deck like an underfed titan.

‘It’s an insult,’ Gariath growled, tearing all eyes back upon himself. ‘I wanted a fight. I wanted warriors and you send me babies.’ He kicked the corpse harshly. ‘Babies.’ The foot came up and down with a crack of wood and a spatter of thick, grey porridge. ‘BABIES.’

Rashodd cringed at that. Lenk thought it would have been a satisfying sight had he not also been forced to look away.

‘So boldly did you utter condemnation of imagined blasphemies, Argaol,’ the Cragsman’s voice betrayed not a hint of fear, ‘yet now you consort with murderous monsters and do not quiver at your own righteous hypocrisy?’

‘Stop talking to them,’ Gariath growled, clenching his hands into fists. ‘I had to fight through a lot of ugly, weak, smelly humans to get to you. Now, stand still and fight so one of us can die and we might be able to get something done today.’

‘I care not what atrocities linger before, throughout or herein, reptile.’ Rashodd’s axes kissed in a challenging clang. ‘Nor do I yearn to know what allegiances they hold to. If you seek to die, I’ll make your funeral impromptu and decidedly lacking in attendance.’

Not one of the dragonman’s smiles had ever been pleasant, Lenk noted as he watched his companion’s lips curl backwards, but this particular grin crossed a threshold the young man had not yet seen. Something flashed in the hulking brute’s eye, notable only in that it was no glimpse of bloodlust, nor promise of a memorable dismembering. What glimmered behind Gariath’s obsidian orbs was anxiousness, eagerness, anticipation better fitting a young man about to bed his first woman.

After that particular metaphor, Lenk did not dare contemplate what his companion was thinking.

‘Show me, then,’ Gariath’s challenge was punctuated by the ringing of his silver bracers clashing together, ‘what humans can do.’

‘Requested and granted.’

No sooner had the pirate’s massive foot hit the deck than a piercing wail cut through the air.

‘Stop him!’ All eyes below and above turned towards the shadows of the companionway as something emerged, pursued by a voice brimming with righteous indignation. ‘Stop him, you fools! Retrieve the book!’

With unnerving speed, something came springing out of the shadows. So white as to be blinding in the sun, the slender, pale creature leapt out onto the deck. It hesitated, surveying the carnage surrounding it with animal awareness, baring black gums and needle teeth in a defiant hiss. The combatants, pirates and sailors alike, ceased their fighting at the sudden appearance of the creature and the booming voice that followed it.

‘I said stop him!’

At the sound, the creature went bounding through the crowds. Sweeping from the shadows like a white spectre, Miron Evenhands came bursting out, frost flakes on his shoulders. He flung a hand out after the creature in such a dramatic gesture that the figures of Denaos and Asper behind him were hardly noticeable.

‘He has the book! Bring it back to me!’

‘SHEPHERD!’ the creature wailed to no visible presence as he rushed past the crowd. ‘Summon the Shepherd! This one has the tome!’

‘What the hell are you doing?’ The roar came from Rashodd. In the angry turn of a heel, the dragonman was forgotten as the captain stormed down the stairs after the fleeing creature. ‘We don’t need any books, you dim-witted hairless otter!’

‘Get back here!’ Gariath howled in response, charging after the Cragsman.

Lenk and Argaol shared a blink as a new breed of chaos began to unfurl below. The pale creature nimbly darted between those determined to stop him and rushed to the cluster of his own kind at the ship’s railing. All the while, Miron bellowed orders as Rashodd pursued the creature and Gariath pursued Rashodd.

‘Well?’ Argaol asked, turning to the young man suddenly.


‘Shouldn’t you do something?’

The young man sighed heavily and tapped the toe of his boot on the wood.

‘Yeah,’ he muttered, ‘fine.’

Lenk leapt from the stairs, though he knew not why. His breath was still ragged, his grip weak on his sword, his legs trembling. He charged into a throng of flesh, wood and steel with Rashodd’s blow still echoing in his body and he knew not why he did. Yet even as he felt himself stagger, he continued to charge after the pale thief, into the battle, into the sprays of red.

He knew not why.

Voices were at his back: commands from Miron, cries of mingled encouragement and warning from Asper and Denaos, all fading behind him. Arrows flew past his ears to put down particularly bold invaders rushing forth to aid their companion. Rashodd was before him, then at his side as he nimbly darted past the hulking pirate. He caught the flash of an axe out of the corner of his eye, moving to hack his legs out from under him.

There was a roar, a flash of red as something horned, clawed and winged caught the Cragsman from behind.

That threat fled from Lenk’s mind with the sound of two heavy bodies hitting the deck. As sounds and screams faded around him, as the world slipped into darkness, leaving only the slender-limbed creature and the burlap satchel it clutched, he knew what sent him in pursuit. He knew, and it spoke to him in a harsh, frigid voice.

‘They cannot flee,’ the voice said, an edge of joy to it, ‘they cannot run. Strike. Kill.’

The command lent him strength, pushed cold blood through his legs, drove him to leap. The pale creature was quick, but Lenk was more so. In the breath between his leap and his descent, the last trace of the world slipped away, bathing everything in darkness. He saw the invader turn, spurred by an unheard shout from his compatriots; Lenk saw the reflection of his steel in the creature’s dark eyes.

Then, in a glittering arc, the world returned.

The thief collapsed unceremoniously. Something square and black tumbled out of its satchel, bouncing once upon the deck, then sliding gently to rest in a particularly moist, sticky spot. Even as life leaked out of him, the invader gasped and reached out a trembling, webbed hand for the object.

‘Tome . . .’ he gasped, ‘Shepherd . . . take—’

Lenk twisted his sword and the creature went rigid, laying its quivering head down in a red pool as though it were a pillow. His blade still glistening, Lenk raised his weapon warily, warning off the small press of pale creatures that took a collective menacing step forwards. They retreated from the weapon, he noted, but with hardly the fear or haste he had hoped. Their eyes were still appraising, their bone daggers still clenched tightly.

‘Lenk!’ He didn’t have to turn around to recognise Miron’s booming voice. ‘The book! Return it to me!’

A book.

He wasn’t exactly sure what he thought the thing should be. It was a broad, black square, only a little bigger than his journal. High quality leather of crimson and ebon bound its pristine white pages; it certainly looked like a book.

And yet, as it slid out of its silk pouch with the rocking of the ship, it somehow didn’t seem to be a book.

It was unadorned. No title, no author, no symbol of any faith or people. The pale creatures lurched backwards, regarding it carefully, warily, anxiously. Yet even their reaction went unnoticed beside a fact that hit Lenk as he felt the warmth of the sun on his back.

It doesn’t glisten.

Leather of such high quality should shimmer. It should reflect the sunlight in its onyx face. Yet this leather did not glisten, nor shine, nor even flicker in the sunlight.

‘Quickly, you fool!’ Miron roared. ‘Take the book!’

With a swift glance over his shoulder, the young man nodded and moved forwards. Quickly, he reached down to scoop up the item.

‘NO! Not with your hands!’

He thought it slightly odd that Miron’s voice should seem distant, so distant as to render whatever he had just shouted silent. Truly, all the sounds fell silent as Lenk plucked up the book. No seawater, nor blood, though both flooded the deck in excess, clung to the leather cover. He thought that odd for only a moment before he felt a twinge in his palm.

Did . . . did it just move?

The book quivered at his thoughts and, in the blink of an eye, responded.

The black cover flipped open, baring the pages to his eyes and, spurred by some unseen, unfelt breeze, began to turn. They went slowly at first, blinding him with hymns, invocations, prayers to things he had never heard of, pleas for things he would never have thought to ask for. An eternity seemed to pass as the words scarred themselves onto his eyes.

He was scarcely aware of the fact that he wasn’t breathing any more.

The leaves continued to turn, to flip. Words vanished, blending into images, symbols, pictures that were discernible at first: people in torment, things with horns, claws, feathery wings. Then those too vanished and blended into nothing more than black lines scrawled in shapes that reached out and clawed at him, trying to pull his eyes from his skull with inky fingers.

Someone behind him screamed, told him to put the book down, but he could not will his hand to do so. Even as they made less and less sense, flipping viciously through his mind, the lines began to take a shape. He blinked, and with each passing moment, they continued to form a shape. It was horrible, yet he could not turn his head away, could not shut his eyes. He was forced to stare.

The book looked back at him.

The book smiled.


The book snapped shut. His fingers tensed involuntarily around it as the frigid howl reverberated through his head, coating his skull with a vocal rime. He dropped it then, watching it splash in a pink puddle. The liquid did not pool beneath it.

‘Something,’ the voice uttered, ‘is coming.’

Before Lenk could think, a howl filled the air. His eyes rose at the noise, spying the pale creatures as they clustered together at the railing. Standing above them, perched on the ship’s edge and clinging to the railing, the tallest of the invaders pressed a conch shell to its lips. Its chest expanded with breath, then shrank as a wailing exhale cut the air.

Voices rose from behind him, excited warnings to the sky. Lenk saw it: the clouds moved suddenly, twisting and shifting. They grew larger, shimmering with a dozen facets as they descended in great drifts.

The sky, it seemed, was falling.

They descended in ominous unity, a flock of frenzied feathers and bulbous blue orbs, to land upon the masts and rigging and railings of the Riptide. Lenk watched them, spellbound by their harmony as they settled. Plump bodies covered with feathers, sagging, fleshy faces dominated by two great blue eyes.

How many? He could not find an answer; they seemed to be endless, lines of ruffling, cooing birds. Seagulls? No, he told himself, seagulls didn’t sit and stare with unblinking eyes. Seagulls didn’t gather in such numbers.

Seagulls didn’t have long, needle-like teeth in place of beaks.

What, he asked himself, are they?

‘Harbingers.’ Miron’s sneering disgust answered his thoughts. ‘The book, Lenk! Seize the book! Keep it away from those monstrosities!’

‘What are you gentlemen doing?’ Rashodd bellowed from the deck, still wrestling with Gariath. ‘Your master requires aid!’

‘These ones no longer require that one,’ the creature with the conch said, levelling a finger at the Cragsman. ‘These ones have found the tome they seek.’

‘What tome?’ All semblance of composure vanished from the captain. ‘I ordered you to take no tome!’

‘No, that one did not,’ the frogman replied, glowering at the captain. ‘Yet that one is not this one’s master.’

‘What in all hell are you—’

Before Rashodd could find the words for his fury, the timbers quaked with sudden, violent force. Another series of gasps coursed through the crowd, hands tightening around weapons as eyes went wide with bewilderment.

Something had just struck the ship.

Distantly, where wood met froth, the hull groaned ominously. The deck shook once more, shifting to one side, sending sailors and defenders alike struggling to keep their footing. An eternity seemed to pass between sounds of wood splintering, punctuated by further wooden whines as something from below crawled up the hull.

The pale creatures whirled, suddenly heedless of the others behind them, the prize they had lost upon the ground. As a single unit of pasty skin and scrawny legs, they collapsed to their knees, pressing their foreheads to the salt of the deck.

All save one.

‘Speak not in the Shepherd’s presence,’ the conch-blower uttered, its eyes on Lenk. ‘Dare no movement, dare no impure thought. Be content in salvation.’ Its finger trembled as he pointed. ‘For that one has seen much purity.’

The ship listed further. Men stepped backwards, caught between the struggle to get away from the railing and to stay on their shifting feet.

And then, all were still; no sound, no movement. Only the groan of wood and the death of wind.

Screams were frozen in throats, hands quaking about weapons, unblinking eyes forced to the edge of the ship. From over the side, an immense, webbed appendage dotted with curling claws and wrapped in skin the colour of shadow reached up to cling to the railing. The wood splintered with the force of the grip, threatening to be crushed as the arm, emaciated and clad in painfully stretched flesh, tensed.

Copyright © novelfull All Rights Reserved.