Tome of the Undergates

Page 16

‘Clearly she didn’t do a good enough job, did she?’ She slid back the fabric of his tunic, examining the linen bandage wrapped about his shoulder. ‘Not surprising. Human medicine is roughly where shictish medicine would be if we were just crawling out of the muck.’ She snickered at that. ‘Of course, it’s humans that crawled out of the muck, not shicts, and that must have been centuries ago, so I’m not even sure what her excuse is.’

‘It’s fine. She gave me some salve and—’

‘Bandages. She thinks she can solve everything with bandages and salve.’ Peeling back the white linen, she scratched her chin thoughtfully. ‘A bit of fire would close these wounds, I bet.’

Had Lenk actually heard her suggestion, he might have objected. As it was, her voice was distant to him, second to the suddenly pervasive presence of her scent.

His nostrils flared soundlessly, drinking in her aroma as she leaned over him. His first thought was that she smelled rather unlike what he suspected a woman should smell like. There was no cleanness to her, no softness. Her perfume was thick and hard, an ever-present scent of wood, mud and leather under an ingrained layer of sweat and dried blood. As he swirled her stink in his nose, he became aware that he should find the aroma quite foul; it certainly smelled particularly disgusting on his other companions.

So why, he wondered, was he so entranced with smelling her?

‘That can’t be normal—’


‘What? Nothing.’ He blinked. ‘What?’


‘What about it?’

‘You could seal your wounds with fire,’ she repeated, ‘assuming you didn’t break down in tears halfway through.’

‘Uh-huh . . .’

Her voice had faded again, ears suddenly less important than nose, nose suddenly far, far less important than eyes. The scent of sweat, that key ounce of her muscular perfume, became suddenly more pronounced as he spied a bead of the silver liquid forming just beneath the lobe of a long, notched ear.

She continued to prattle on about fire, shictish superiority and any number of topics related to the two. He could only nod, form half-decipherable grunts as he stared at the small trickle of sweat. It slid down her body like a snake, leaving a path of tiny droplets upon her pale flesh in its wake. It trickled down, trailing along her jawline to caress her neck, slithering over a perfectly pronounced collarbone, roiling over the subtle slope of her modest chest to disappear down her leather half-tunic.

Lenk was no longer even aware of her speaking, no longer aware of the dryness of his unblinking eyes or his slightly open mouth.

After a leather-smothered eternity, the bead reappeared just beneath the hem of her garment, settling at the base of her sternum like a glistening star of hope. It quivered there in whimsical contemplation before sliding down the centre-line of her abdomen. It glided over the shadowed contours of her belly’s muscle, across each subtle curve as it journeyed ever downwards, his eyes following, unblinking.

Lenk was forced to swallow hard as it finally reached her navel, dangling off the upper lip like some silvery stalactite, quivering with each shallow breath, each tug of her taut stomach, each breath he unconsciously sent its way, growing heavier. It glistened there, stark against the shadow of the oval-shaped depression before something happened. One of them breathed too hard, flinched too noticeably, and the bead quivered once.

Then fell.

It struck his lap with the quietest of splashes, leaving a dark stain upon the dirt of his trousers. Only when its silver ceased to sparkle did he finally blink, did he finally realise what he had just been staring at for so long.

He stiffened, starting up with an incomprehensible grunt. His head struck something and Kataria echoed his noise, recoiling and rubbing her chin. Eyes bewildered, like a startled beast, she regarded him irately.

‘What?’ she asked.

‘What?’ he echoed in a shrill, dry crack.

She blinked. ‘I . . . didn’t say anything.’ Tilting her head, her expression changed to one of concern. ‘Did I hit a nerve or something?’

‘Yeah.’ He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. ‘A nerve or something.’

She nodded silently, but offered no response. At least, he thought, no decent response. She spoke no more, did not so much as twitch as she reclined onto her haunches and stared. He cleared his throat, making a point of looking down at the deck, hoping she would lose interest in him and find something else to do.

He had been hoping that for the year he had known her.

Kataria, however, had never found anything else to do besides follow him. She had never met anyone else in all their travels worth sparing a second glance for. She had never stopped staring.

He cleared his throat again, more loudly. It was all he could do; if he chased her away, she would stare from afar. If he asked what she found so interesting, she would not answer. If he struck her when his temper got the better of his patience, she would strike back, harder. Then keep staring.

She would always stare. He would always feel her eyes.

‘Something’s on your mind.’

Kataria’s voice sounded off. Distant, but painfully close, hissed directly into his ear through a wall of glass. He gritted his teeth, shook his head, before turning to regard her. She was still staring, eyes flashing with an expression he couldn’t understand at that moment.

‘What is it?’ she asked.

You, he wanted to say, I’m thinking of you. I’m thinking of your stink and how bad you smell and how I can’t stop smelling you. I’m thinking of how you keep staring at me and how I never say anything about it and I don’t know why. I’m thinking of you staring at me and why someone’s screaming at me inside my head and how someone’s screaming inside my head and why it seems odd that I’m not worried about that.

He wanted to say that.

‘Today,’ was all he said instead.

She nodded, rising up from her knees. She extended a hand and he took it, hauled himself to his feet with her help.

‘It’s something to worry about, isn’t it?’

Really? Worried? Why would we be worried? A man drowns on dry land at the hands of something that shouldn’t exist and we should be worried? You’re a reeking genius.

‘Uh-huh,’ he nodded.

‘You almost died.’

It occurred to him that he should be more offended by the casual observation of her tone.

‘It happens.’ It occurred to him that this was not a normal answer for anyone else.

She continued to stare at him. This time, he did not look away, absorbed instead by the reflection in her eyes. Behind him, the sun was setting over the bobbing husk of the Linkmaster, painting the sky a muted purple, the colour of a bruise. Above him, the stars were beginning to peer, content to emerge after gulls had been chased away. Before him, the world existed only in her eyes, all the silver, purples and reds drowned in the endless emerald of her stare.

‘You’re staring,’ she noted, the faintest of smiles tugging at the corners of her lips.

‘I am.’ He straightened up, painfully aware that he was barely any taller than she was. He cleared his throat, puffing his chest out. ‘What are you going to do about it?’

‘I don’t need to do anything about it,’ she replied smugly. ‘Stare as much as you want. I know I’m something of a marvel to behold to beady little human eyes.’

‘My eyes aren’t beady.’ He resisted the urge to narrow said orbs in irritation.

‘They are beady. Your hair is stringy, and you’re short and wiry.’

‘Well, you smell.’

‘Is that so?’ She reached out and gave him a playful shove. ‘And what do I smell like?’

‘Like Gar—’ He hesitated, a better insult coming to mind. He returned the shove with a smug smirk of his own. ‘Like Denaos.’

Her own stare grew a little beadier at that. Snarling, she shoved him once more.


‘No.’ He shoved her back. ‘You recant.’

‘Who’s going to make me? Some runt with the hair of an old man?’

‘Make you? I couldn’t make you bathe, much less recant.’ He leaned forwards, making certain he could see the edge of his sneer in her eyes. ‘Besides, what do the words of a savage matter to anyone?’

‘They apparently mean enough to force a walking disease to put up some pitiful display of false bravado.’ Her sneer matched his to a precise, hideous crinkling of the lip. ‘If they don’t matter to you, why don’t you back away?’

‘I don’t show my back to savages.’

‘Shicts don’t squirm at stoop-spined swallows struggling to strut.’

‘I don’t . . .’ He blinked. ‘Wait . . . what?’

She smiled and shrugged. ‘So my father taught me.’

He smiled at that. Beneath him, his foot twitched, brushing against hers, and he became aware of how close they stood. He felt the heat of her breath, felt her ears twitch at every beat of his heart, as though she heard past all the grime caking him, all the flesh surrounding him, heard him function at his core.

‘Back away,’ he whispered, heedless of the lack of breath in his voice.

Her foot did not move. The wind moaned between them, singing a dirge for the dead that went unappreciated. As if in spite, the tiny breeze cut across them and sent their locks of silver and gold whipping across their faces. Between them, though, the air remained unchanging. He could feel the subtle twist of heat as her chest rose with each breath, the cool shift as another bead of sweat formed upon the pale skin of her neck to begin a snaking path down her belly.

‘You back away,’ she muttered, her voice barely audible over the wind’s murmur.

The stars were out, unafraid. The sky was the deepest of bruises now. The clouds had long since slunk into black sails on far distant horizons. Behind Lenk, the sky met the sea and the world moved beneath them.

‘Last chance,’ he whispered.

Before Lenk, the world was eclipsed in two green suns above a pair of thin, parted lips.

‘Make me,’ she smiled.

There was a heartbeat shared between them.


His eyes snapped open wide. His neck became cold just as it had begun to shift forwards.

‘Staring at us.’

He didn’t hear the voice; he felt it, crawling across his brain on icicle fingers.

‘She’s staring at us.’

‘What’s wrong?’

Kataria’s ears went upright, sensing something. Could she hear it, he wondered, as it echoed inside his skull?

‘Stop,’ he repeated.

‘Make her stop.’

‘Stop,’ his voice became a whine.

‘Stop what?’

‘Make her stop!’


‘Stop what?’



The sailors glanced up from their routine, eyes suddenly quite wide as his scream carried across the corpses bobbing on the waves. They stared for only a moment before cringing as he turned around, clutching his head, before returning to their duties and taking a collective step away from his vicinity.

Kataria, however, did not look away.

‘What’s wrong?’ she asked.

‘Nothing’s wrong. I’m perfectly fine.’ The statement sounded less absurd in his head, but his brain was choked by frigid fingers, an echo reverberating off his skull. ‘Perfectly fine. Would you stop staring at me?’

She did not.

‘You’re not fine,’ she stated, her eyes boring past his hair and skin as if to peer at whatever rang in his head. ‘You just broke down screaming at me for no reason.’

‘There’s always a reason for me to be screaming,’ he growled. ‘Especially at you.’

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ Her gaze narrowed; no longer a probe but rather a weapon to stab him with.

‘What do you mean, “What’s that supposed to mean?” Isn’t it obvious? I was nearly killed today!’

And now I’m hearing voices in my head, he wanted to add, but did not.

‘You’re nearly killed almost every other day! So are all of us! We’re adventurers!’

Insanity isn’t common amongst adventurers.

‘We’re not supposed to nearly be killed by hideous things that can’t be harmed by steel and drown men on dry land! Moscoff—’


‘Whatever his name was, he rammed the damn ... that ... thing through with a spear and it didn’t even flinch! Gariath and I threw everything we had at it and it didn’t budge! I ...’ He stalled, then forced the words out through gritted teeth. ‘I looked into its eyes and I didn’t see anything.’ ‘And that’s why you went mad a moment ago?’

I went mad because I’m likely losing my mind.

‘And you feel that’s inappropriate?’ he asked with a sneer.

‘Slightly.’ She sighed, her shoulders sinking. ‘You meet one thing you can’t kill and this is how you react? Is it so hard to accept that some things exist that you simply can’t change? I would have thought you were used to it, being a—’

‘Human.’ He rolled his eyes. ‘Of course. How could I not be used to such things, being a weak-willed, beady-eyed human?’

‘I wasn’t going to say that.’

‘But you were thinking it.’

Her eyes were hard and cruel. ‘I’m always thinking it.’ ‘Well, if you think so little of us, why don’t you leave and go frolic in the forest with the other savages?’

‘Because I choose not to,’ she spat back. Folding her arms over her chest, she turned her nose upwards. ‘Who’s going to make me do otherwise?’

‘Me,’ Lenk grunted, hefting a hand clenched into a fist, ‘and him.’

She glanced from his eyes to his fist and back to his face. They mirrored each other at that moment, jaws set in stone, eyes narrowed to thin, angry slits, hands that had once been close to holding each other now rigid with anger.

‘I dare you,’ she hissed.

Asper tied the bandage off at Mossud’s arm. A frown ate her face in a single gulp as she looked over the tightly wrapped corpse upon the table. Skinny as he was, with his arms folded across his chest, legs clenched tightly together, the pure white bandages swaddling him made him look like some manner of cocooned vermin.

She hated bandaging; it was such an undignified way to be preserved. Though, she admitted to herself, it was slightly better than being stuffed in a cask of rum. At least this way, when they were stuffed in salt, they wouldn’t shrivel up. He would be preserved until the Riptide reached Toha and he could be turned over to proper morguepriests.

Still, that fact hadn’t made it any easier when she had wrapped the other men up.

She felt sick as she looked over the bandaged corpses laid out upon the tables of the mess hall. The dusty, stifling air of the hold and the mournful creaking of the ship’s hull made it feel like a tomb.

She could still recall laughing with sailors and passengers over breakfast that morning . . .

Tending to the dead was her least favourite duty as a priestess of Talanas. She was bound to do it, as a servant of the Healer, in addition to performing funerary rites and consoling the grieving. When she had trained in the temple, though, she had tended to the latter while less-squeamish clergy had handled the former.

The crew of the Riptide would be dead themselves before they let her console them, however. And Miron, the only other man of faith on board, had vanished shortly after he had driven off the beast.

She sighed to herself and made a sign of benediction over the sailor’s corpse; if it had to be done, she thought, it was better that she did it than letting him go unguided into the afterlife.

Quietly, she walked down the hall and noted a red stain appearing at the throat of another bound corpse, tainting the pure white. A frown consumed her; that poor man might have lived if Gariath was able to tell the difference between humans a bit better. She reminded herself to rebind him when she could acquire more bandages from Argaol.

The sound of quill scraping parchment broke the ominous silence. She turned to one of the tables, where Dreadaeleon sat, busily scribbling away. She grimaced at the casualness with which he sat next to the bandaged corpse, as though he were sitting next to an exceptionally quiet scholar in a library.

‘Have you finished?’ she asked, forcing the thought from her mind.

‘Almost,’ he replied, hurriedly scribbling the last piece of information. ‘Do you know what his faith was?’

‘He was a Zamanthran, I believe,’ Asper said. ‘Sailors, seamen, fishermen . . . they all are, usually.’

‘All right,’ he said. He finished with a decisive stab of the quill and held the parchment up to read aloud. ‘“Roghar ‘Rogrog’ Allensdon, born Muraskan, served aboard the Riptide merchant under Captain S. Argaol, devout follower of Zamanthras.”’ He frowned a little. ‘“Slain in combat defending his ship. Sixteen years of age.”’

With a sigh, he rolled the parchment up and tied it with coarse thread. He reached over the bandaged corpse and tucked the deathscroll firmly in its crossed hands. His sigh was echoed by Asper as they glanced at the pile of scrolls on the bench next to him. With solemn shakes of the head, they plucked them up and walked about the tables, delivering the deathscrolls to their silent owners.

She hesitated as the last one was deposited in stiff, swaddled arms. Dreadaeleon’s listless shuffling echoed in the mess.

‘Dread.’ The shuffling stopped. ‘Thank you for helping me.’

‘It’s not an issue.’ He took another step before pausing again. ‘I suppose I was duty-bound, being one of the few literate aboard.’

She smiled at that. ‘I just . . . hope you don’t begrudge me anything after what I said to you earlier.’

‘I said things just as bad,’ he replied. ‘We all do. It’s not that big a deal.’

She felt him look towards her with familiar eyes: big, dark and glistening like a puppy’s. It would have felt reassuring to see him look at her that way, she reasoned, in any other situation. Amongst the library of bandages and scrolls, however, she resisted the urge to return the gesture and waited until she heard the shuffling of his feet once more.

‘So, what was it?’ he asked suddenly.


Copyright © novelfull All Rights Reserved.