Tome of the Undergates

Page 18

‘And you still won’t tell me anything about them, even while they leave you here to die!’

Rashodd shrugged. ‘Friendships are a fickle and mischievous garden, requiring constant tending, with their own share of weeds.’

‘I . . .’ Argaol flinched, his face screwing up. ‘What?’

‘I’d hardly expect you to understand, kind Captain. After all, most of your precious flowers are dead and trampled into the earth after today, aren’t they?’

It was over. Without fanfare or gloating, the verbal spar had ended. Argaol’s expression, wide-eyed, slack-jawed, hurt, lasted for only a moment before he turned around to hide the clench of his teeth upon his bottom lip. Rashodd watched him stalk away without contempt or smugness. All he could spare for Argaol was a yawn.

Denaos’s own stare lingered upon the pirate for a moment before he felt Argaol’s presence next to him. The captain leaned an arm against the wall, regarding the rogue with a tight-lipped, hard-eyed glower.

‘Well?’ he grunted.


‘Were you planning on doing anything besides lurking there?’

The tall man rubbed the edge of his blade against his chin contemplatively. ‘Well, I was planning on paying a visit later to that one spice merchant you’ve got chartered here. You know the one, right? Slim little dark-haired thing from Cier’Djaal. She called me a swine before, but I wager she’ll change her tune once she realises what I—’

‘Yeah, you’re adorable.’

‘That’s a word you’d use to describe something in pigtails and frills. I’m really more of a man possessed of immense gravitas.’ He offered the captain a broad smile fit for eating stool. Seeing no reaction, he sighed. ‘What is it you expect me to do, anyway?’

‘Get him to do what I’ve been trying to make him do all night,’ Argaol growled. ‘My boys are up there, terrified that some horror is going to return and do to them what it did to Mossud.’

‘Moscoff,’ Denaos corrected.

‘Mossud. I hired the damn boy.’ He sighed, rubbing his eyes. ‘What this Cragsfilth knows may be what I need to keep my boys safe, and he’s not talking.’

‘So throw him in the brig. Give him a few days without food or water and he’ll tell you.’

‘This is a merchantman, you twit. We don’t have a brig. In a few days, we could all be stacked in neat little heaps, ready to be eaten by whatever that thing was.’

‘Well, have you tried asking Gariath to help you? He’s not bad at this sort of thing.’

‘Your monster isn’t paying me any mind.’

‘Ah, ah.’ Denaos winced. ‘Keep your voice down. For a fellow with no ears, that reptile hears exceptionally well.’

‘Enough.’ Argaol’s voice became as hard as his eyes. He took a menacing step forwards. ‘I myself saw you gut two people like pigs on deck today, and we found more of your work down in the hold.’

The rogue shifted, appearing almost uncomfortable if not for the understated smile playing across his lips. It was impossible for Argaol not to notice the aversion of his eyes, however.

‘I managed to kill . . . what, four? Compared to Kataria, Lenk and Gariath, that’s hardly—’

‘And your fellow adventurers all say you’re the man to talk to about things like this.’ Argaol adjusted his stare to meet the rogue’s eyes. ‘They say you’ve crawled out of more dark places than they’ve even heard of. Were they mistaken?’

Denaos’s grin faded, his face going blank. With the quietest of sounds, he slid his dagger back into its sheath. Eyes unblinking, he stared at the hilt.

‘They said that, did they?’ he whispered, voice barely louder than a kitten’s.

Argaol’s nod was hesitant, but firm. The rogue’s voice rang hollow in his ears, bereft of all previous bravado, bereft of any potential scorn. In his voice, as in his eyes and face, there was nothing.

‘I suppose they must be right, then.’

‘Good,’ the captain replied. ‘Be sure to get everything you can out of him. Question him more than once if you need to. Pirates lie. We need to know about that thing and every—’



‘Leave me, please. I don’t want an audience.’ He stared blankly at the shorter man, neck craning stiffly. ‘And don’t check up on me. This won’t take long.’

‘What are you going to do?’ Argaol asked. Feeling the quaver echo through his throat, he coughed, straightening up in a show of authority. ‘It’s my ship, my cabin, I have a right to know.’

‘Go.’ Denaos slid past the captain, striding towards Rashodd. He did not look back over his shoulder.

Rashodd glanced up with a start at the sound of a chair sliding. He blinked blearily, trying to take into account the shape sitting before him. He regarded the tall man curiously for a moment, studying the absence of any expression upon his face, the dark eyes free of any malice or cruelty. A silence hung between them, the Cragsman angling his face to scrutinise this newcomer.

‘And what’s this?’ he mused aloud. ‘Perchance, some more stimulating conversation?’ He leaned forwards, expressing a smile he undoubtedly hoped would be instigative. ‘And, pray, what cabin boy union did the good captain drag you out of?’

Denaos said nothing, his face blank, lips thin and tight.

‘Somewhere up north, aye? I say aye?’ Rashodd forced the word through his teeth, thick with a feigned accent. ‘Around Saine?’ He settled back into his seat, a satisfied smirk on his face. ‘Large men come from Saine, tall men. The Crags are right off the coast. We were once part of the kingdoms. I couldn’t truly expect a man of your particular breeding to know such a thing, though.’

Denaos’s only response was a delicate shift of his hand as he gingerly took the pirate’s manacled appendage in his own and held it daintily in his palm, surveying it as though he were reading a screed of hairy pink poetry.

‘Ah.’ Rashodd’s eyes went wide with feigned surprise. ‘Mute, I see. Poor chap.’ He glanced over the tall man’s head towards the dusky Argaol as the captain shifted closer to the door. ‘And simple, I suppose, by the way he fondles me. Tell me, then, Captain, is this the enticement you’ve sent me? I’d rather prefer the shict, if she’s still about.’

Rashodd watched the captain bite back a retort, resigning himself to a purse of lips as the door of his cabin creaked open. Quietly, the man slipped out, the door closing behind him with an agonising groan. Argaol’s departure, the lack of fuss and bravado, drew a brief cock of Rashodd’s brow, his eyes so intent on the last dusky fingers vanishing behind the door that he scarcely noticed the glimmer of steel at the tall man’s hip.

The door squeaked shut and, with a click of its hinges, there was the sound of a raspy murmur, the odour of copper-baked meat and a delicate plop upon the wooden floor.

Rashodd had time to blink three times, noting first the bloodied dagger in the man’s hand, second the twitching pink nub upon the floor, and third the red blossom that used to be his thumb. By the time he opened his mouth to scream, a leather hand was clasped over his dry lips, a pair of empty dark eyes staring dully into his own over the top of black fingers.

‘Shh,’ Denaos whispered. ‘No sound.’ He set the whetted weapon aside delicately, as though it were a flower, and reached down to scoop up the thumb. He held it before the captain. ‘This is mine now. It will remind me of our time together tonight.’

Slowly, he turned it over in his fingers, eyes glancing at every pore, every ridge, every glistening follicle of hair and every clean, quivering rent.

‘We’re going to talk,’ he continued, holding the finger just a hair’s width from his lips, ‘quietly. You’re going to tell me what happened today. Argaol asked nicely. He’d like to know.’

Rashodd dislodged his leather gag with a jerk of his head. He clenched his teeth together as he clenched his bleeding stump. Though tears began to well inside his eyes, he forced them to go harder, firmer, determined to show nothing.

‘And what is it to you, wretch?’ he snarled through his beard. ‘Hm? What makes you think I know anything more than what I said? I don’t know anything about that creature.’


His voice was as brief and terse as the flick of his weapon. The dagger was in his hand and freshly glistening just as another fleshy digit went tumbling to the floor. It came swiftly, so suddenly that Rashodd hadn’t even noticed it until the man was scooping it up. He opened his lips to spew a torrent of agony-tinged curses, but found the hand at his lips again, moisture dripping from his nose onto the leathery fingers.

‘I said no noise,’ Denaos hissed through his teeth, ‘it upsets me.’ Quietly, he set the digit beside the other. ‘You’re lying to me, Rashodd. I don’t like it.’ He shook his head. ‘And I don’t like what you did today, either. You threatened my livelihood, my career.’ He blinked, and, as an afterthought, added, ‘My associates.’

‘Zamanthras damn you for the heathen you are.’ What Rashodd intended to be a fearsome snarl came out as a trembling whimper. ‘You’ll attack an ignorant, unarmed man for money alone. Mercenary scum.’

‘Adventurer,’ the tall man corrected.

‘Coward is what you are, attacking any man in shackles, preying on those with their backs turned and the helpless. How many people have you gutted before my lads today, hm? How many more unarmed and ignorant did you cut down?’

Denaos did not blink. ‘Many.’

‘And now you seek to add Rashodd to your tally?’ He lurched forwards, something rising up in his gullet, but he bit it back. Clutching his bleeding stumps, alternating between each, he rose up as much as he could in his chair. ‘All for naught, heathen.’

‘Tell me what you know,’ Denaos whispered calmly, rolling one of the fleshy digits between his fingers, ‘and I’ll give one back.’

‘I know only that the frogmen sought to make a deal with us,’ he replied, voice quavering. ‘They put their services at my disposal, in exchange for attacking a single ship.’

‘This ship.’

‘This ship. I don’t know why.’


‘It’s the truth!’ Rashodd lunged backwards, pulling his mutilated hands away as the rogue’s dagger twitched. ‘They offered no reason beyond the need to attack this ship!’ He stamped his feet on the floor. ‘This ship! They told me nothing else! I was bound to honour our agreement!’

‘They were after a tome,’ Denaos replied evenly. ‘A book. I heard them say it. You saw them take it.’ He looked up, staring hard. ‘You asked for Evenhands, you asked for the priest.’ His face twitched. ‘Lies upset me.’

‘They wanted the priest! THEY, the frogmen! Not my lads!’ He felt the first scrapes of metal against the veins on the back of his hands. ‘I thought they simply wanted to ransom him, in which case it’d be in our best interests to keep him safe, wouldn’t it?’ If he could have seen himself in the rogue’s steel, he would have noted the hysterical smile, the wide eyes, the need to appease that he had often observed in his own victims. ‘Wouldn’t it?’

‘What of the creature?’

‘I . . . I was as shocked to see it as anyone! You must believe me!’

‘The frogmen summoned it.’

‘I didn’t know! They never told me! They told me nothing but to attack this ship!’ He gasped, his voice slurring with coppery saliva filling his mouth. His hands were cold as more of his life wept out from the stumps between them. ‘That’s the truth! I’m naught but a pawn in whatever game they were planning. I consorted with no spawn of hell. Rashodd is no blasphemer.’

Denaos’s head swayed slightly, regarding the man. He did not blink, his lips did not move and he gave no indication that he was hearing anything the pirate said. Slowly, he leaned forwards and squinted, as though regarding Rashodd from miles away. Then his eyes widened suddenly, a flicker of indiscernible emotion, fear, shame, perhaps.

‘You’re lying again. Argaol said you would.’

‘I am no—’


The blow came more slowly this time; no quick, surgical strike, but an angry, heavy hack. The blade bit halfway through Rashodd’s remaining thumb, inciting a scream that went unheard behind Denaos’s hand. He whimpered, squealed as the digit hung lazily from the joint before the rogue reached down, seized it between his own thumb and forefinger, and twisted.

Rashodd felt his entire insides jerk with the pain, the shock shifting organs about within him. Bile rose behind his teeth, tasting of metallic acid. He muttered something desperately behind his gag and Denaos pressed his hand harder, narrowed his eyes in response.

‘Swallow it.’

He did so, with a choked protest, and lurched as the vile stuff slid back down his gullet. Denaos took his hand away and regarded the pirate carefully, offering no question, no threat beyond a hollow stare. There was no malice dwelling there, no accusation or anger as he had enjoyed with Argaol.

It was the sheer lack of anything in the man’s face that prompted Rashodd to pray.

‘Zamanthras help me,’ the pirate whimpered, ‘believe me, I had nothing to do with the creature. Why would I defend those traitors this long?’

‘Zamanthras does not exist here.’ Denaos shook his head. ‘Tonight, the only people in this cabin are you,’ he pointed with the man’s severed thumb, ‘me,’ he pressed it against his chest, ‘and Silf.’


‘“Salvation in secrets,”’ the rogue recited, ‘“forgiveness in whispers, absolution in quiescence.”’ He paused. ‘Silf.’

‘The Shadow.’ Rashodd uttered the name without reverence or fear for the God. Such things were reserved for the man before him. Quietly, he tucked his hands into his armpits, shivering. ‘A deity . . . a God for thieves . . . and . . .’ he paused to swallow, ‘murderers.’

‘Murderers,’ Denaos repeated, hollow. A smile, a wistful tug of the lips, creased his face for but a moment. ‘Isn’t that what we all are?’

‘It’s one thing to kill in battle, sir, it’s another entirely to—’

‘It is.’ The rogue nodded quietly, setting his dagger aside. ‘Perhaps that’s how Silf found His flock. Murderers require absolution, don’t they?’ His hand went inside his vest and came out with another knife, shorter, thicker, sawtoothed. ‘Or was He born to serve that need?’

‘You can’t be serious.’ Rashodd gasped at the blade. ‘I’ve told you everything!’

‘You might be lying.’ Denaos shook his head. ‘Silf has seven daughters. This is the second. We’ll meet more of them if you don’t speak.’

‘They . . . they wanted the priest for no good deed, I knew.’ Rashodd spoke with such squeaking swiftness it would have shamed him under other circumstances. ‘They spoke of mothers, queens and names of a Goddess no good Zamanthran has ever heard!’ His lips quivered. ‘Ulbecetonth . . . I am loath to repeat her name, even now. Ulbecetonth is who they worship, who they stole the book for! That’s all I know, I swear!’

Denaos paused, the dagger rigid in his hand. It appeared almost disappointed at being stayed, its sawtoothed grin pulling into a curving frown. Quietly, the tall man looked down, observing his reflection in the metal.

Rashodd allowed himself a brief moment of breath, free of saliva or bile. He was suddenly so cold, feeling as though all his warmth was dripping out of him, caking the insides of his arms. He needed something, a shirt, a blanket, anything to stem the loss of warmth coming out of him. Slowly, as his tormentor was absorbed in his own weapon, his eyes drifted towards the captain’s wardrobe in the far corner. There must be something there, he reasoned, something that would make him warm again, something to wrap about his hands.

‘You say this is all you know.’

There was a change in the rogue’s voice, a subtle inflection indicating thoughtfulness. It was a little thing, Rashodd knew, but enough of an alteration to send his head bobbing violently in a nod.

‘But you said, moments ago, that you knew nothing.’ His eyes lit up suddenly, wide and horrified. ‘You were lying.’

Rashodd was up in an instant, manacles rattling. He saw the dagger, but his eyes were focused on the wardrobe. He had to reach it, he knew, had to find something to stem the blood-loss, had to find something to save what remained of his warmth before this murderer took all of it.

There was a flash of black and Rashodd was upon the floor. The oil lamp swayed violently overhead, jostled. With every swing, it bathed the tall man in shadow, then in light, then in shadow. Every breath, the man was closer without moving. Every blink, the man’s dagger was bigger, brighter, smiling.

The lamp swayed backwards. There was shadow. The man was on top of him, straddling him.

‘No noise,’ he whispered.

The lamp swayed forwards. There was light. The man’s eyes were broad, wide and brimming with tears. The dagger was in his hand, firelight dancing from tooth to tooth.

‘Don’t you scream.’

After an endlessness of hearing waves rumble in the distance, the door finally opened with a whisper. Denaos’s appearance was just as quiet and swift, sliding out of the cabin and easing the door back into place with practised hands.

And there he stood, oblivious to Argaol’s stare, oblivious to anything beyond the knob in his grip and the wood before his eyes. The ship lulled, coaxed by the yawn of a passing wave.

‘How did it go?’ Argaol spoke suddenly, his voice strange and alien to his own ears after so much silence.



Denaos whirled about with unnerving speed. A smile played across his lips, his eyes were heavy-lidded and sleepy. Argaol cocked a brow; the man appeared more akin to someone who’d been ratting about in a private liquor cabinet than someone doing a job.

‘Rather well, in fact,’ he replied, licking his lips.

‘Ah.’ Argaol nodded, not bothering to hide his suspicion. ‘What did you find out?’

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