Tome of the Undergates

Page 17

‘The creature,’ he said, ‘that thing. Was it some unholy demon sent from hell? Or an agent of a wrathful god? What?’

‘What makes you think I know?’ She scowled at him. ‘Is there nothing in any of your books that explains it?’

‘I have only one book,’ he replied, patting the heavy leather-bound object hanging from his waist, ‘and it’s filled with other things.’ He tucked a scroll into the arms of another corpse. ‘Nobody knows what that thing was.’ He looked up at her suddenly. ‘But the Lord Emissary seems to have a better idea than anyone else.’

‘What are you insinuating?’ she asked, her eyes narrowing as she drew herself up. ‘Lord Miron would never consort with such abominations.’

‘Of course not,’ Dreadaeleon said, shaking his head. ‘I’m just curious as to what that creature was.’ He sighed quizzically. ‘It’s certainly not something I’ve ever seen in any bestiary.’

‘You’re as likely to have an answer as I am,’ Asper replied with a shrug. ‘I’ve never heard of anything that can drown a man on dry land, have you?’

‘There are spells that can do such things. But if it had been using magic, I would have known.’ He paused and thought for a moment. ‘I wish that ooze hadn’t dried off Moscoff—’


‘I wish it hadn’t dried off his face so easily. I could have studied it.’

The priestess chuckled dryly and he turned to her, raising an eyebrow.

‘What’s so funny?’

‘I shouldn’t be laughing, I know. But . . . you’re the only man I know who would face something so horrible and wish he could have been closer to it.’ She stifled further inappropriate laughter. ‘Denaos has sent no word yet?’

‘No,’ the wizard replied, shaking his head. ‘The captain and he have been down there for hours.’ He shrugged. ‘Who knows what they’re doing to Rashodd?’

‘I’m not certain I want to know,’ Asper replied, frowning. She cast a glance to the companionway leading to the hold below and shuddered.

‘And what do you intend to do about him?’ Dreadaeleon asked, pointing to the far side of the mess hall.

Asper cringed; she had purposely avoided glancing at that particular section. Swallowing her anxiety, she turned and glanced at the cold, limp corpse of the frogman lying on the table under a sheet, eyes wide open and glazed over as they stared up at the ceiling. She hadn’t even ventured near enough to close his eyes, she realised, cursing herself for such disrespect. Still, it was difficult for her even to glance at the corpse. Without the rush of combat, the man’s appearance unnerved her greatly.

Anxiety was not a word that Dreadaeleon recognised, however, and she gasped as she saw the wizard take a seat next to the corpse and poke it curiously.

‘Dread!’ she cried out, hurrying over. She skidded to a halt about halfway, cringing, but forced herself to come alongside the boy. ‘Foe or not, have some respect for the dead!’

‘Look at this,’ the wizard said, ignoring her. He held up the corpse’s limp arm and she cringed again. He held the arm a little closer to the light and pointed to the skin. ‘His skin is still wet and he’s been down here for hours and . . . my, my, what’s this?’

He didn’t have to point it out to her, for Asper saw it as clearly as he did. The boy gently pulled the man’s fingers apart, stretching the flaps of skin between the digits.

‘Webbed hands,’ he said, examining the digits. He dropped the hand and spun in his seat, lifting up the man’s leg. ‘Look here . . . he has them between his toes as well.’

‘Fascinating,’ Asper replied. ‘Do you really have to do this now?’

‘And if he has webbed appendages . . .’ Dreadaeleon trailed off as he inched closer to the frogman’s head.

Asper reeled back, cringing as he lifted the corpse’s head and pulled back his ear. She nearly retched when she saw the thin red slits hidden behind the earlobe.

‘Interesting,’ Dreadaeleon remarked, sharing none of her disgust. ‘He has . . . gills.’

‘So . . . he really is a frogman?’

‘It’d be more accurate to call him a fishman, I think.’

‘Uh-huh,’ Asper replied, intentionally avoiding looking at the mutated man. ‘It’s . . . good that the captain didn’t order him tossed overboard. Otherwise you might never have found this out.’

‘Why does Argaol want him, anyway?’ Dreadaeleon asked, examining the webbed toes again. ‘Weren’t the others tossed overboard after they were executed?’

‘I suppose he believes the frogmen have some connection to the creatu—’

Asper stopped short, staring in abject horror as Dreadaeleon dropped the man’s leg and began to pull the sheet covering him down. Able to stand no more, she stamped her foot and reached for his hands.

‘Even if he is a loathsome creature, I won’t let you desecrate him like—’

‘Do you have any tattoos under your shirt?’ he interrupted.

‘What?’ Asper asked, pulling back with a shocked expression on her face.

‘You know, like on your belly or chest?’

‘I most certainly do not!’

‘Really?’ Dreadaeleon asked. With one swift jerk, he pulled the sheet from the corpse. Asper reeled back at the sight as Dreadaeleon leaned forwards to get a closer look. ‘Our friend here has an interesting one . . .’

Emblazoned on the man’s chest in ink the colour of fresh blood was a symbol of a pair of skeletal shark jaws, gaping wide and lined with hundreds of sharp teeth. The other frogmen had worn the symbol on their biceps, she recalled. Did they all have them on their chests, too?

‘What . . . do you think they mean?’ At his curious glance, she cleared her throat and continued. ‘In your opinion, that is?’

‘I’m at a loss. Symbols are really more the dominion of priests, aren’t they?’

‘Well, maybe I—’ She hesitated, suddenly aware of the edge in his voice.

Or rather, she noted, the lack of an edge. He’s doing it again, trying to appear nonchalant and enquiring while secretly smugging it up in his own head. She felt a familiar ire creep behind her eyes, her hand clench involuntarily. Not this time, runt.

‘What do you mean by that?’ she finished tersely.

‘I . . . didn’t mean anything by it.’

‘You leapt straight to linking those symbols to some manner of priesthood. Religious orders are hardly the only organisations to use sigils, you know. What about thieves? Assassins? Merchants? Argaol himself carries his own sigil.’

‘Not tattooed on his flesh.’ He held up his hands before she could retort. ‘Listen, I’ve neither the time nor inclination for a debate right this moment. I’m simply posing theories regarding a mystery that no one else seems to be thinking about besides you and me.’

Her jaw unclenched so slowly and forcefully that it might have made the sound of groaning metal. She inhaled sharply, holding her breath as her thoughts began to melt into a fine, guilty stew in her head. She had overreacted, of course she knew that now; not everything he posited was a challenge to her faith, nor was he intentionally trying to be snide.

The fact that he was unintentionally quite skilled at it, she chose to ignore. For now, she forced her irritation down and her smile up, offering an unspoken truce.

‘Though, you have to admit,’ he scratched his chin, perhaps hoping a beard would magically grow to make the gesture more dramatic, ‘it is a little odd.’

‘What is?’ She felt her jaw set again.

‘That the only one who seems to know anything isn’t answering any questions and is also a priest.’

It unclenched in a creaking snarl. ‘Why, you smarmy little—’

Before she could finish expressing her righteous indignation, before he could offer any stammering excuses, a noise filtered through the timbers of the mess. Growing closer with each breath, the sound of cursing, bodies hitting the wood, heavy-handed slaps and more than a little squealing filled the air.

Both pairs of eyes turned towards the companionway as a tangle of flesh, gold and silver came tumbling out of the shadows. They tussled for a moment, all frothing saliva, bared teeth, reddened skin and sheens of sweat, before settling into a mess of limbs. Gloved hands gripped arms, ankles, tufts of hair. Feet were planted in bellies, shins, dangerously close to groins. Their teeth were glistening, their recent use testified by the red marks on each other’s skin.

It was a horror to behold, Asper thought, but she had long since spent all her lectures on companionship and scolds for infighting. At this particular tangle, she could only blink once and sigh.

‘What’s the matter?’

‘Ask this savage,’ Lenk growled. ‘She bit me.’

‘This round-ear bit me first!’ Kataria snapped back.

‘At least I don’t have teeth like a dog’s!’ Lenk spat.

‘And that’s only his most recent crime,’ Kataria continued, ‘before which came insanity, excessive cursing and oversensitivity!’

‘Lies!’ he all but roared. With a shove, he pulled free from her, clambering to his feet as she did. ‘It hardly concerns anyone else, anyway. This is between me and her.’

‘Have you no respect for the dead?’ Asper protested, taking a wary step to intervene. ‘These men, who fought and died alongside you, are resting here and you have to bring another squabble into their midst for no reason?’

‘There’s plenty of reason,’ Lenk snarled. ‘These men are dead because of us.’

‘Why? Because you weren’t able to kill the thing that killed them?’ Kataria turned her nose up haughtily. ‘Accept your weakness and move on. There was nothing you could have done.’

‘I could have grabbed the book!’

‘You could have had your head smashed in and lost the book anyway. Then we’d be short a book and you.’

‘And what do you care about that? What is it you always say?’ He pulled his ears upwards in mockery of hers, his voice becoming a shrill imitation. ‘“The world can make more humans.” I’d have thought one more of us dying would make you happy.’

‘In hindsight, it would have, since I wouldn’t have to suffer your voice now!’ Her ears flattened against the side of her head in a menacing gesture. ‘And don’t even think to try to imitate me, even if you’ve got the height for it.’

It occurred to Asper at that moment, regarding them so curiously, that this was no ordinary fight. They had squab-bled before, as had all in their company, but never with such fervour. There was something animalistic between them, a frothing, snarling fury they had not deigned to show each other, or anyone else, before now. For that reason, she thought it wise to keep her distance.

Dreadaeleon, however, had never understood the difference between intellect and wisdom.

‘You’re disturbing everyone here, you know,’ he said, reaching out to place a hand on Lenk’s shoulder. ‘If you’d just—’

‘Back AWAY.’

Lenk seized the boy’s frail hand roughly, nearly crushing it with his fury-fuelled grip. He shoved Dreadaeleon off effortlessly, propelling his scrawny mass across the floor as though he were a stick wrapped in a dirty coat. And like a dirty coat, he twisted, stumbling across the floor, making a brief cry of surprise that was silenced the moment he came to a sudden halt.

Face-first against Asper’s robe-swaddled bosom.

He staggered back as though he had been punched in twelve places at the same time, sweat suddenly forming on his face in streaming sheets, hands held up as though he was facing some murderous wild beast. Given the red-faced, gaping-mouthed, narrow-eyed incredulous expression on the priestess’s face, he wagered it would be a reasonable reaction.

‘I-I’m truly sorry,’ he stammered, ‘but you must acknowledge that this was hardly my fault, you see—’

Her slap cut through the air deftly, stinging him across the cheek and sending a spray of anxious sweat into the air. He recoiled, touching the redder mark upon an already reddened face and regarded her with a shocked expression.

‘What’d you do that for? I was just telling you it was an accident!’

‘Accident or no, a lady is always entitled to deliver a slap for purposes of preserving her dignity.’ She flicked beads of moisture off her fingers. ‘Rules of etiquette.’

His finger was up and levelled at her in a single breath, an incomprehensible word shouted in another. A small spark of electricity danced down his arm and leapt from the tip, striking the priestess squarely in the chest. She trembled, letting out a shriek as it spread and ran the length of her body sending her hair on its ends and bathing her in the aroma of undercooked pork.

‘What was that for?’ she hissed through chattering teeth.

‘Spite,’ he replied, flicking sparks off his fingers.

‘How utterly typical,’ she growled, sweeping a scornful gaze across her companions. ‘You people feed off each other. When one of you acts like a vagrant, you all do.’

‘Us people?’ Lenk sneered. ‘You remember you’re with us, don’t you?’

‘Yeah,’ Kataria grunted, ‘at least we involved you in the fighting. I don’t see Miron out here even talking to you, much less getting ready to jab your eyeballs out.’

‘Why, you pointy-eared little—’

The fight died suddenly as the lanterns swayed at a sudden impact. The companions froze, taking a collective hard swallow as they noted a large shadow looming out from the companionway leading to the ship’s hold. All looked up to see Gariath standing in the entry, surveying them through eyes glittering with excitement.

‘What’s going on here?’ he asked as softly as he could, hardly enough to prevent them from taking a collective step backwards.

‘Nothing’s going on,’ Lenk said, forcing a weak smile onto his face.

‘It doesn’t look like nothing to me,’ the dragonman growled, taking a step forwards. ‘It looks like you’re all trying to kill each other.’

He paused, flashing his teeth in a morbid smile.

‘Without me.’



‘What you don’t seem to understand is that this is mere courtesy.’ Argaol’s voice, intended to be a growl, resigned to being a sigh, came out as something of a phlegmless cough. ‘Your cooperation here is the difference between a nice comfortable cell in Toha and joining your men in the deep.’

Rashodd looked up from the chair, weary as he had been when the interrogation had begun, but even less impressed with the dark-skinned captain. With his helmet removed, he was all scars and smirks above his long, grey beard. He raised a hand accompanied by the clink of manacles, covering a long, reeking yawn in a gesture one-part manners and two-parts insult. Making a point of smacking his lips, he looked the captain evenly in the eye, as tall sitting as Argaol was standing.

‘I can appreciate your desire for information, dear sir,’ he spoke curtly, ‘as much as I can appreciate your lack of tact and patience. Even so, I must insist that you accept the fact that I simply don’t know anything.’ His lips curled in an attempt to be coy. ‘I should beg your leave to sleep on it, perhaps with a visit from one of your more feminine passengers. It’s always been something of a dream of mine to learn what it’s like to sleep with a shict.’

Denaos had to stifle an admiring chuckle at that. He’d often wondered the same thing, hoping to compare it to his beddings with more civilised ladies. Never did try to talk Kat into it, though, he admitted to himself, likely because she’d gnaw my gents off. Content with that thought, he leaned against the far wall of the captain’s cabin-turned-interrogation room, taking comfort in the shadows.

It was all very dramatic, he had to admit: the fineries pushed aside or covered up, a single oil lamp hanging directly over the chair that the Cragsman was seated in. However, it was still Argaol’s chair, still far too comfortable for any prisoner to confess in. He had considered bringing this to the captain’s attention. Still, he reasoned, it would seem presumptuous to accuse the fellow of not knowing a business he clearly did not know.

With that, he simply plucked a dagger from his belt and began to trim the various stains out from under his nails.

‘Regardless, good sir,’ Rashodd said, ‘don’t feign interest in my well-being. I know you full-well plan to recoup your losses with the bounty my head will deliver.’

‘However meagre it might be,’ Argaol said with a sneer. ‘Your ship is damaged, Rashodd. We found scarcely anything of value aboard. Even the companion boat had been taken.’ He allowed himself a smirk. ‘It seems your men jumped ship, long before we could board. Small faith in your cause, had they?’

Not bad, Denaos noted. A cheap shot at a man’s esteem wasn’t always the best way to get someone to talk, but it might work in this case. Rashodd seemed like the kind of man who wouldn’t take kindly to being called small.

‘Sensible of them,’ the Cragsman conceded with a nod. ‘At the very least, they’ve saved me the hardship of paying for their funerary expenses.’ He turned a scrutinising eye upon Argaol. ‘You’re still a man in good standing with the guilds, yes? You do plan to extend that particular courtesy to the families of your slain men, don’t you, Captain? I’d offer to chip in, but as you said, not much aboard the Linkmaster worth taking, is there?’

The tall man bit back a wince at that. The captain will be groping his stones tonight, doubtless.

‘I will be, in fact,’ Argaol snarled, leaning in close to the prisoner. ‘I’ll pay for the funerals of those good men who were slain,’ he thrust a finger at the Cragsman as though it were a weapon, ‘by your monsters. Have you no shame, Rashodd? Summoning those . . . those things to fight for you? Denying my men even the dignity of a death by their own race?’

Weak. Denaos shook his head. Rashodd’s response confirmed his judgement.

‘In all fairness, sir, you threw your monster,’ he caught a glimpse of Denaos in the doorway and coughed, ‘pardon, monsters at my men first. My . . . associates simply had associates of their own. I can hardly be held responsible for their actions.’

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