Tome of the Undergates

Page 14

‘Sweet Khetashe,’ Lenk whispered breathlessly.

With one great effort, the clawed limb pulled the rest of the creature up from the hull and turned the sailors’ anxious terror to panic as a great monstrosity landed upon the deck with enough force to crack wood beneath two massive webbed feet.

It stood more than ten feet tall, dwarfing any creature present with its emaciated, ebon-skinned splendour. Attached to a torso of flesh drawn cruelly tight over a long ribcage were two arms and legs, both longer than spears, jointed in four places and ending in great, webbed claws.

All its thin, underfed horror was nothing compared to the monument atop its long neck. Massive, almost the size of its painfully visible ribcage, resembling the head of a rotted fish, the thing regarded the crew through vast, unblinking eyes: frigid white pools dominated by great blots of darkness. Its wide, toothy maw stretched its entire face to the point of agony, its lower jaw hanging slack. More than one man present retched, cringed or added a distinct yellow tinge to the grisly paint upon the deck as the creature’s mouth swung open to speak.

‘Where does the salvation lie?’ Its voice was lilting, gurgling, the sounds of drowning men. ‘Where can it be?

‘There, Shepherd.’

Lenk saw their fingers, pale little digits pointed to the deck right at his feet. He glanced down at the tome for only a moment as it lay in a dry space with nothing but wet about it. His attention was then torn upwards once more as he felt the timbers quake beneath his feet.

The thing walked towards him in a loping, unhurried gait. He could see every webbed claw settle into the wood as it set a foot down, see the water cling to its black soles as it raised a foot up.

Was it aware of the fear it inspired? Lenk wondered. Was it aware that there had been so much blood spilled and so many bodies falling just moments ago? Was anyone else still aware? He could feel their frozen presence behind him, feel the ripple of air as they quivered, feel the breath of whimpered prayers.

Were they aware of him, he wondered, or did they merely see a tiny silver shadow before a looming tower of gloom?

‘The tome!’ Miron’s shout was fading, softened by the terrified silence. ‘Get the tome!’

By the time Lenk realised there was a world beyond the creature looming before him, the tome was ensconced in webbed claws, examined by empty eyes. It did not blink, did not so much as scowl; whatever it saw in Lenk, Lenk could not see in it.

‘Is it tempting? Is it envious?’ The abomination’s voice was incapable of softness, boiling up in its flabby throat like vocal bile. ‘Curious . . . and envious, both. The temptation is great to look within and muse on the salvation that lies beneath man-wrought covers.’

‘Temptation is strong.’ The rotund, feathered creatures chanted in horrifying unison. ‘Flesh is weak. Shelter in salvation. Salvation in the Shepherd.’

The black monstrosity leaned down, looking Lenk squarely in the eyes.

‘And yet . . . is it more faithful to keep eyes chaste, minds pure?’

‘Chastity leads to the endless blue,’ the chorus above chanted. ‘Blessed is the pure mind.’

Its arm extended, reached out to touch the deck as the thing remained unbent and Lenk remained unmoving. It reached over him and he heard its joints pop into place with greasy ease. The warning cries that had been at his back were quiet; all was quiet save for the shifting of the creature as it plucked the book’s silk covering from the water.

‘It is,’ it continued, drawing its great arm back, ‘for there is nothing without faith, no hope without chastity.’ Like a great, bony crane, the thing dipped its hand, replacing the book into the silk pouch. ‘And such great beauty must be kept only for eyes as beautiful.’

Lenk hadn’t even noticed the pale creature scurrying up beside the abomination, now accepting the tome with eager hands.

‘Is it not so?’ The creature did not wait for answer from itself, Lenk or its aide. Without another movement, it gurgled to the pale invader beside it. ‘Go.’

‘Fools!’ Miron cried, though no one seemed to hear him. No one noticed the frogmen retreating, ambling from their prostrate circle and over the railing of the ship, to land in the salt with muted splashes.

No one could see anything beyond the stake of darkness that had impaled the heart of the deck.

‘There is no escape from envy,’ the creature gurgled, staring down at Lenk, ‘however base a sensation it may feel. But to tolerate it . . . feel it and let it live, that is inexcusable in the eyes of Mother.’


He wished he could; the voice was so distant, drowned in the echo of the abomination’s gurgle. Between them, the frost and the shadow, he was smothered, frozen, unaware of the glistening black claw reaching down as though it intended to pluck a flower.


‘Understand,’ the thing gurgled, ‘this is simply how it must be.’

‘How it must end,’ the chorus agreed with bobbing heads.

When the blackness of the thing’s hand had completely engulfed his sight, he felt it. A roar tore the sky apart, ripping through the air as it ripped through Lenk. The creature’s hand wavered for a moment, the field of black broken by a sudden flash of angry red, the smothering echo of its voice shattered by thunder.

Gariath struck the creature with all the force of a battering ram, leathery wings flapping to propel his horned head into its ribcage. The abomination staggered, but did not fall. It gurgled, but did not scream. Gashes formed in its chest as it took a great step backwards ... but it did not bleed.

It doesn’t bleed.

He was reminded, however, that he did, as the dragonman’s knuckles cracked against his cheek. Whatever else had lingered inside him was banished in a fit of bloody-nosed rage as he turned a scowl upon his companion.

‘What was that for?’

‘Just checking,’ the dragonman grunted back.

Lenk blinked as a glob of red-tinged phlegm dripped down his face.

‘For what?’

‘Huh.’ Gariath shrugged. ‘I didn’t think I’d have to follow that up with a reason.’ He held up a scarred hand to prevent protest. ‘If it makes you feel better, say I was checking if you were too busy soiling yourself to fight.’

‘I wasn’t—’

‘Then what were you doing?’

Lenk opened his mouth to reply, but no words came out. He was muted, blinded, deafened all at once as the images flashed through his head again, the words echoing in his ears: the portraits in the book’s pages, the smile across the parchment, ‘salvation’, ‘MOVE!’ He found himself dizzy suddenly, but dared not sway, lest he find Gariath performing another check-up.

‘Never mind,’ Lenk grunted. ‘Whatever it was, it doesn’t warrant you punching your leader in the face.’

‘Leaders lead, they don’t stand around and wait to die.’ Gariath snorted at that, raising a claw to one black eye. ‘Cry later. Kill now.’

Whatever fear and frustration had been boiling within left him in one great resigned sigh. He glanced over at Gariath; even in the face of such a horror as the black-skinned foe, even against such walking foulness, he was still tensed for the fight, his wounds and cuts threatening to reopen over the bulge of his muscle. His posture, the eager twitch of wings, the flicking of moistened claws, told Lenk that the dragonman had already prepared to throw himself into a gaping, saw-toothed mouth of death. The sole question that lingered between their gazes was who was going to follow him into the afterlife.

Lenk raised his sword unconsciously. He saw his reflection in his companion’s teeth; they both knew the answer.

Thunder burst from Gariath’s mouth and crashed beneath his feet as he threw himself on all fours, charging towards the towering creature, wings unfurled, tail whipping behind him. Lenk struggled to keep up, following closely in the dragonman’s splintered wake.

The creature regarded them with a curious tilt of its head, as though not entirely sure what was charging towards it. Before it could react, Gariath closed the distance in a sudden spring, leaping up to drive his horns against the monstrosity’s ribcage. With an impact that shook the ship in the water, the creature staggered backwards as the dragonman sprang away, landing on all fours as he braced his body.

Lenk was quick to follow, charging up and over Gariath’s back as though he were a winged ramp. With a grunt, he went flying off his companion’s shoulders, his blade flashing in the air. He swung in a wide, murderous arc, intent on bringing his weapon anywhere he could against the thing’s emaciated figure.

Rage turned to confusion in an instant as Lenk felt his blade connect with something, though his feet did not return to the ground. He glanced up with mouth agape at the sight of his blade caught neatly between webbed digits. Slowly, he looked to the creature, who regarded him with the same, unblinking expression as it held him aloft with one long black limb.

‘Well . . . uh . . .’ Lenk began.

Before he could even think to let go of the weapon, the loose flesh about the creature’s neck quivered as it gurgled unpleasantly. In a blur of silver and black, the thing’s arm rose up and snapped downwards, hammering Lenk against the deck.

The air was robbed from him, sight failed him as he was pulled up from the deck by his sword, his hands wrapped about the hilt in a barely conscious death-grip. His senses failing, he barely felt the sudden lightness of his body as the creature’s arm snapped forwards once more, sending him sailing through the air.

In an instant, sound and sight returned to him. Screams and frightened gasps filled his ears as he saw the deck rising up to catch him in his plummet. Bones trembled in flesh with the impact of his fall.

‘Gods alive,’ his voice was a breathless whisper, ‘what made me think that would work?’

‘And so it becomes clear.’

The voice was a scar on his brain, rubbed with clawed digits, the drowned gurgle painful even to hear. Through blurring vision, Lenk stared up, pulling himself to his feet just in time to see the ebon hand reaching down for him.

‘What God can hear such a voice so far below?’ the creature asked.

‘They are deaf to your fears,’ the chorus muttered.

Lenk fell limp in the creature’s grasp as it raised him up with all the effort it would use to lift a dead fish. He stared into its empty whites, saw the lack of any emotion boiling behind the great black pupils. There was no hatred there, no malice, not even a sinister moment of joy. Nor did the creature’s stare reflect any predatory instinct or mindless sense of duty.

Within the thing’s eyes, there was simply nothing.

‘In the sky where your pitiless Gods dwell, none can hear you.’

A roar tore through the air. Out of the corner of his eye, Lenk spied Gariath rushing forwards, pools of blood quivering on the deck with the force of his four-legged charge. What momentary relief he might have felt was dashed with the sudden snap of a long, black arm.

Gariath was plucked from the deck like a tumbling kitten, a claw wrapping about his throat. It raised him for but an instant, holding him aloft as he thrashed, clawing and kicking at the creature, before bringing him down harshly. Wood splintered beneath the impact, forming a shallow grave of timber and seawater for Gariath to vanish into as the abomination’s foot came pressing down upon him.

‘But down here,’ it gurgled, ‘only Mother will hear you.’

The creature’s mouth went wide, flesh creaking with the effort of its jaws as it bared rows of jagged teeth glistening with saliva.

‘Let your end be a blessing to you.’

‘Fight back.’

It struck Lenk as odd that he should feel guilty for disappointing the voice, odd that he should feel so guilty for clubbing an impotent fist against the creature’s emaciated limb. After all, there were surely worse things than failing a hallucination.


Too little strength, too close to the jaws, he realised. He could do nothing but stare, his scream choked in his throat, as the creature’s eyes rolled back into its head, the gaping oblivion of its mouth looming before him.


The scream was distant in Lenk’s ears, as were the cries that followed: shrieks of horror, open-mouthed pleas for someone not to be heroic.

Someone, a man whose name Lenk had never known, burst from the press of flesh like a two-legged horse, a long fishing pike clenched in his skinny hands. His roar was more for his own sake than the monstrosity’s, trying to convince himself of his own bravery through sheer volume.

‘With me, boys,’ he howled, ‘we need no heathen adventurers to save us!’

Lenk fell from the monster’s grip, suddenly seized by hands about his shoulders as soon as he hit the ground. He glanced up, noting the glint of green eyes and gold hair through his still-swimming vision. A smile tried futilely to worm itself onto his face.

‘Kataria,’ he groaned.

‘Shut up,’ she snarled back as she pulled him into the relative safety of the crowd.

His throat aching, he had little choice but to obey. He looked back towards the creature and saw the sailor standing before it, unflinching, unmoving, as he drove the pike through the wisp of flesh that served as the creature’s belly. There was the sound of flesh tearing, sinew splitting as the metal head came bursting through the creature’s back.

Gariath seized the momentary distraction, reaching up to grab the creature’s ankle. With a snarl, he threw the massive webbed foot up and leapt from his half-finished coffin. Splinters jutted from his flesh, weeping gouts pooling at his feet. If he was in agony, he did not show it.

The creature did not fall, but swayed. It did not shriek, but hummed contemplatively. It did not look at the man with scorn, but with nothingness, a strange sort of curiosity that was something between annoyance and sheer befuddlement.

‘A mistake.’ it uttered. ‘Your rage at your uncaring Gods drives you to strike at your saviour. Do you repent?’

The man staggered backwards, lips mouthing a wordless prayer.

‘Then let salvation be done,’ the creature said.

What composure it had lost was regained in an instant as it rose tall and erect to glance at the pike’s shaft jutting from its belly. With no sound but that of its own flesh being mangled, the creature wrapped a claw about the handle and tore it free, sending meaty black blobs plopping to the deck.

‘And thus is my part written. I am here to make wide your error, your false hope.’

There was a sucking sound, as of a foot being pulled from mud, and the creature’s gaping wound began to quiver. Slowly, the flesh groaned, reaching out with frayed edges to seal itself in a grotesque slurp of sinew.

‘What the . . .’ The sailor was breathless, taking another step backwards. ‘What . . . what in the name of Zamanthras are you?’

Like a black, rubbery tentacle, the creature’s arm shot out to seize the sailor about his head, claws sinking into his cranium as it held the sailor aloft. The man shrieked, kicking about madly, clawing at the creature’s webbed hand, writhing in its unquivering grip.

‘I am,’ it gurgled ominously, ‘mercy.’

The sailor’s screams died as the beast’s claws twitched. With agonising slowness, cloudy, viscous ooze dripped from trembling fingers. The crowd took up their fellow’s screams as the slime continued to pour from the creature’s hand, coating his head and face to his shoulders. Like a rabbit caught in a trap, the kicking of the sailor’s legs slowly died, his thrashing silencing.

In moments, a hunk of breathless meat dangled from the creature’s grip, like a condemned prisoner from the gallows, wearing a mask of viscous sludge. The echo of his corpse hitting the deck carried for an eternity.

‘A better place, a better dream, free of your uncaring Gods. This is Ulbecetonth’s gift to you.’ Its voice was a whisper, could almost have sounded tender if not for the boiling bile in its throat. ‘Sleep now . . . and dream of blue.’

Even the murmur of the waves had fallen silent, the sea losing its frothy voice as it bore witness to the horrors occurring upon its surface. All present on the ship shared its sentiment, every man breathless, every woman speechless, not so much as a gull to break the choking quiescence. None present dared even a frightened sob, none heard a single sound.

None save Lenk. His eyes were locked on the man’s corpse, this sailor he had never met, whose name he had never known, whose death would never be explained to his widow’s satisfaction. His eyes were fixed, his ears were full.

‘Needless. Wasteful. Would still be alive if you had killed.’

‘He’s dead,’ Lenk uttered.

‘Because of you.’

‘Shut up, Lenk,’ Kataria urged, squeezing his shoulder. ‘It’s going to hear—’

Her voice died as two empty eyes rose up. It had heard.

‘Curious,’ the creature gurgled, as if suddenly aware of the presence of the crew and adventurers, ‘what strange vermin swim upon the seas.’

The answer it was offered was subtle, barely more than a whisper. In the wake of sound, however, it began to carry, it began to swell like the waves that had fallen impotent. For the first time in the horrific eternity that began when the creature had risen, eyes managed to blink as they tore themselves away to spy out the source of the new sound that filled their ears.

They parted before Miron like human waves, allowing the priest to stride between them with noiseless steps. The wind rose in his wake, causing his robes to whip about him, as if to silence his quickly growing voice. He spoke louder in response, his chant a series of prayers wrought from words too pure for any present to understand. He raised his hand to the monstrosity, his faith challenging nature and shadow with the gesture.

‘No.’ The creature’s voice was breathless, like a mewling kitten. Its eyes grew wider as it stared at Miron as its victims had stared at it. ‘Cease your pitiless wails! Silence your mourning, vermin! I have no ears for it!’

Miron was not silent.

The chorus of feathered creatures was the first to scream. They erupted in a cacophony of noise and flapping feathers, leaping, tumbling, tearing from their perches upon railings and rigging. The sky was painted white, men falling to the deck as great white curtains of ripping, frenzied feathers fell over the ship.

Miron was heedless.

Every breath the priest took seemed to cause him to grow. His presence grew brighter, the whites of his robes suddenly blinding, the fall of his feet causing the deck to quake. His chant became thunder, every word a bolt of lightning, every syllable a crackle of purpose. None dared to stop him, to pull him back as he drew closer to the monstrosity. They fell away, as terrified of him as they had been of the creature.

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