Tome of the Undergates

Page 20

‘So you knew about this?’ Lenk asked accusingly. ‘Why the hell didn’t you say anything?’

‘Oh, come on, imbecile,’ she snapped back, ‘what were the odds that it would come up?’

‘In the interests of preventing further delays,’ Miron said, clearing his throat, ‘may I continue?’

‘Sorry,’ Lenk muttered.

‘He certainly is,’ Kataria added snidely.

‘The suffering at the hands of the demons did not go unnoticed by the Gods and did not go unchallenged by mortals,’ Miron continued. ‘The heavenly ones spoke to the fiercest and most determined men and women, the ones free of demonic oppression, and granted unto them boons of divine power.

‘These Gods were the deities of righteousness: Talanas, the Healer, Galataur, the Sovereign, and Darior, the Judge.’

‘Who?’ Denaos asked.

‘Dariorism. An older faith, not much practised any more,’ Asper answered.

‘Indeed,’ Miron said, nodding. ‘Some faiths lost much in those times. They vested within these mortals their powers and, with that, the House of the Vanquishing Trinity, an organisation devoted to destroying the demons, was born.

‘The fighting began with great bloodshed, but for every demon that fell, more champions rose up, inspired by their rescuers. Many were lost, peoples became extinct in the span of a breath, but ultimately, mortals prevailed. The demons were pushed back and cast into hell, cursed to live in shadow for all eternity.

‘The House’s life after this was disgracefully short,’ Miron continued. ‘With no common oppressor, the suffering was forgotten by all peoples. Grudges were born, rivalries surfaced and wars between races tore the unity apart. The House was disbanded.’

‘Disbanded?’ Kataria said, raising an eyebrow. ‘Then why do you—’

‘Key positions remain,’ Miron said, ‘men and women with duties so grave that they must endure the generations. Mine is such a position, mine is such a duty. I remain charged to guard the artefacts born of the suffering, lest they fall into . . . less worthy hands.’

Lenk’s eyes were the first to go alight with the realisation. ‘The book,’ he uttered, the words heavy on his tongue. ‘The book the frogmen stole.’

‘It has a name,’ the priest replied. ‘The Tome of the Undergates, penned by the most heinous of demons and their mortal subjects in the last days of the wars. They were not fools; they foresaw their banishment. Knowing this, they wrought within the pages the rituals and rites necessary to bring them back to the mortal world.’

Miron shrank with the force of his sigh, all authority and cryptic presence lost as he slumped in his seat.

‘In my arrogance, I had hoped to use the tome to enable the Aeons’ Gate. I believed that the rituals used to establish contact with hell could be used to commune with heaven.’

‘How does anything involving the word “Undergates” lend itself to beneficient purposes?’ Denaos muttered.

‘I have no idea how the Abysmyth and its vile mistress found the book,’ Miron continued, ‘but it cannot remain in their hands.’

‘Again with this “mistress”,’ Lenk murmured. ‘What are you not telling us?’

‘You’ve a right to know,’ Miron said. ‘Her name is known only to a few, but to them, she is Ulbecetonth, the Kraken Queen, Mother Deep. Once a noble servant of Zamanthras, the Mother, she was corrupted into a creature of wickedness and gluttony. It was she who birthed the Abysmyth, spoke to it, sent it out.’ He stared hard at Lenk. ‘It is she who seeks to return.’

A deathly silence fell over the assembled as minds struggled to comprehend what had been heaped upon them.

Demons. The word echoed in the quiescence, a lingering cancer in the minds of the companions. Legends of such creatures permeated each of them, instilled by elders seeking to tame them, reinforced by drunkards muttering nonsensical stories. Until that moment, they had seemed nothing more substantial than that.

And yet . . .

‘All right.’ Lenk shattered the silence. ‘You aren’t telling us this for historical enlightenment.’

‘Apologies, but you were the one demanding answers,’ Miron replied, smiling with a gentle smugness. ‘However, you are correct. I would not tell you this for no reason.’

He took a long sip of his tea and set the cup down. The clink of the porcelain was deafening.

‘You will go after the Abysmyth. You will retrieve the tome.’

The silence that fell over them brimmed with tension this time, as every jaw went slack and every eye went as wide as they could possibly go without leaping from their sockets. Questions formed on lips, demands for further explanation, pleas for elaboration, accusations.

None were voiced before Denaos spoke.

‘You, priest,’ he said, ‘are out of your Gods-damned mind.’

‘Mind your—’ Asper began to scold.

‘Don’t you tell me to mind anything of mine,’ Denaos snapped back. ‘Did you not just hear what he said?’

‘I heard.’ Asper nodded. ‘And I believe he’s right to ask this of us.’

‘So it’s the whole clergy that’s insane?’ Denaos’s laughter trembled with hysteria.

‘I agree,’ Kataria piped up.

‘Thank you.’

‘No, I agree with Asper.’

‘Ah, so it’s the clergy and the shicts, is it?’ Denaos rubbed his eyes and shook his head, as though trying to emerge from some demented dream. ‘Am I the only sane one here?’

‘Demons are a threat to everything that breathes,’ Kataria added with a hiss. She drew herself up proudly, her eyes going hard as steel. ‘And it is the duty of a greater race to see them dead.’ She glanced sideways at her companions. ‘Humans can come along, too.’

‘Well, thank Silf the womenfolk are so eager to run off and die.’ He glanced at Dreadaeleon, elbowing the boy. ‘And what about you?’

‘Hm?’ The wizard glanced up with a start, roused from some deep reverie. ‘Oh. Yes, we might as well go.’

‘Oh, come on.’

‘Knowledge is the dominion of the wizards,’ the boy replied sternly. ‘There’s much we could learn from something that is supposedly distilled “evil”, if we ever get hold of a corpse.’

‘It’s not their corpse you’ll be holding.’ Denaos glanced over his shoulder at Gariath. ‘What about you?’

The dragonman merely snorted in reply.

‘Possibly the sanest thing spoken yet,’ Denaos said with a frustrated sigh.

He cast his eyes to the end of the table, where Lenk propped himself on his elbows, staring into nothingness. Such an expression did not go unrecognised.

‘I’m begging you now,’ Denaos urged hotly, ‘as the only other person here who is a man of reason and not a fanatic, pointy-eared, demented or scaly, don’t tell me you’re considering this.’

Lenk spared the briefest of moments for Denaos, taking in his hopeful expression, before turning back to Miron.

‘How do we even know where this . . . Abysmyth is?’

The edge of Miron’s small smile sheared off the last layer of ease from the room.

‘We are about to find out.’ The priest looked to the dark-skinned man at the end of the table. ‘Captain, kindly bring it in.’

Argaol’s face was the colour of a fading bruise when he looked up, a gloomy blend of pale fear and nauseous green. He looked from the door to the priest, seemingly uncertain which made him more nervous.

‘What . . .’ he stammered. ‘Now?’

‘Now,’ Miron replied, nodding.

‘Is it really . . .’ The captain hesitated with a cringe before inhaling sharply. ‘Fine.’ He slipped from the chair to the door, leaning out into the corridor. ‘Sebast! Bring it in!’

The first mate came rushing in like a man pursued, his hands trembling with the weight of the large cylinder in his grasp. A black cloth, scrawled with chalk sigils of Talanas, Zamanthras and other less familiar faiths, was draped about it. He set it down upon the table as though it were a carcass, muttering rapid, indecipherable prayers as he wiped his hands violently on his breeches.

‘So ...’ Denaos hummed as he watched the first mate disappear out of the cabin. ‘This won’t be pleasant, will it?’

‘Where these creatures are concerned, there is no such word.’

Miron reached out and slipped the cloth off with a whisper, followed by a chorus of retching and vomiting barely restrained as all assembled laid eyes upon the contents of the brass cage before them. And, with wide unblinking orbs, what lay within laid eyes upon them.

Lenk wasn’t sure if he recognised the creature as one of the white-feathered chorus from a day earlier, nor was he sure he wanted to. The creature, a strange and curious thing with the body of a portly seagull, was horrific enough from a distance. As it waddled in a slow circle about the cage, sweeping its bulging eyes around the assembly, more than a few gazes were averted.

And yet, it seemed there was no avoiding its stare. The bulbous orbs peered over the hooked nose of an old woman’s face, spotted wrinkles peeled back around its gaping mouth. The teeth within its maw, long yellow needles, chattered wordless curses as it swayed ominously within the cage.

‘What . . . is it?’ The question came from Asper on a bulge of swallowed bile.

‘A parasite,’ Miron answered, regarding the creature without emotion. ‘It heralds the approach of the Abysmyth, gluts itself on the suffering and sinew left behind.’ He leaned closer to the cage, sneering. ‘Their proper name . . . is “Omen”.’

‘Omen . . .’ Lenk repeated, apparently the only other one amongst them not so stricken with revulsion as to be rendered speechless.

‘So named for their precursorship of all things foul. They are the harbingers and the criers of Ulbecetonth, the cherubs that fly about her crown.’ He settled back, steepling his fingers. ‘To see them darkening the sky in such brazen numbers is disturbing.’

‘Yeah,’ Lenk muttered, glaring at the priest. ‘That was only slightly obvious, thank you.’

The only agreement came from the Omen itself as it chattered its teeth, the yellow needles clicking upon each other as it peered at the companions. Only Dreadaeleon leaned forwards to peer back, observing its lipless mouth with disgust.

‘It’s . . . as if it’s trying to speak,’ he whispered. There was a flash of movement behind the creature’s teeth, a glimmer of saliva that heralded the boy’s blanch. ‘It’s got inner lips.’

‘It’s got what?’ Lenk asked, sharing the wizard’s expression.

‘Its lips are behind its teeth.’ Dreadaeleon tapped the cage curiously. ‘Like a gopher . . . but why?’

In answer, the creature lunged at his finger, gnashing its teeth with such speed that only the startled shriek that sent him falling out of his chair spared his digit. The Omen hissed, ruffling its feathers as if in challenge as it settled onto its pudgy white haunches.

‘Part-gopher, part-bird, part-woman . . .’ Lenk tapped his chin thoughtfully and glared up at Miron. ‘This changes nothing, you realise.’

‘It proves the existence of demons, at least,’ Asper offered meekly.

‘No, the giant fish-demon proved the existence of demons,’ Lenk spat back. ‘What was the point of bringing this out? Shock?’

‘Information,’ Miron replied coolly. ‘An Omen is not a complex creature, living only to eat and cause misery. Neither takes a great amount of intellect, and thus, an Omen is incapable of lying.’

‘So ask it a question,’ Lenk said, ‘and see what it says.’

‘It doesn’t offer information without incentive,’ Miron said.

‘You mean . . . torture?’ Denaos asked, grimacing.

‘Not the kind you would be versed in.’ Miron affixed a piercing gaze upon the rogue, observing him casually shift his eyes away. ‘After all, how does one torture that which feeds on suffering?’

‘Rip its wings off and roast half of it until the other half talks!’ Argaol slammed his fist upon the table, drawing the creature’s attention. ‘So long as it gets me further away from that foulness that infected my ship, who cares?’ He leaned forwards, snarling. ‘Speak, bird, where did you come from?’

The creature replied by tilting its withered head as if studying him. His facade of fearlessness twitched, threatened to break.


The Omen’s mouth craned open slowly, exposing a tiny void beyond the yellow teeth. A low, gurgling noise emitted from within before a voice, masculine and terrified, boiled out of its throat.

‘Captain,’ it uttered without moving its mouth, ‘Captain, where are you? You’re . . . you’re supposed to protect us! Where are you? Why aren’t you here? CAPTAIN!’

Argaol fell back into his chair as if struck. His face was as white as his eyes as he stared, not at the parasite, but at the empty space before him. His jaw hung from his face, his voice oozing out of his mouth like spittle.

‘That’s . . . Anjus. He is . . . he was the master of wares. What’s—’

‘Zamanthras preserve me,’ the Omen continued, its voice now another man’s, ‘Zamanthras preserve me, Zamanthras preserve me. I’m not going to make it. Mother wash away my sins. I . . . I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die! Please, just let me live long enough to see my wife again, please . . . PLEASE!’

‘Nor does the Omen truly speak,’ Miron said, sighing. ‘It can only mimic what it has heard. But it does so—’

‘IT HURTS!’ the parasite’s imitation voice wailed. ‘IT HURTS SO MUCH!’


‘Make it stop.’ Argaol’s demand brimmed with tears. ‘Make it shut up!’

‘Your suffering will be brief, Captain,’ the priest said. ‘If that is all we require, then let it be so.’ He turned to Asper and offered a weak smile. ‘Would you kindly do me the favour of reciting, Priestess?’

‘Reciting . . . what?’ the priestess asked, blanching.

‘The Talanic Verses. Parable four-and-thirty, if you would be so kind.’

‘“The Healer Addresses the Masses”? But . . . whatever for?’

‘Allow me to ask the questions, please.’ He gestured towards the creature. ‘Simply recite.’

‘Er . . . ah, very well.’ Asper cleared her throat, drawing the creature’s attention. Averting her gaze, she began to speak. ‘“And it was upon the sixth noon, the sixth dismemberment of the Healer, that he rose again, whole and unscarred. He looked over the people, who raised torch and sickle against him and demanded he be slain again.”’

The creature emitted a low hum, like a pigeon being strangled. Its feathers ruffled, teeth chattering a little more violently. Yellow feet plopping beneath it, it marched in place, as if preparing to charge.

‘Do not stop,’ Miron commanded, staring at the thing. ‘Speak, vermin. Where did your master go?’

‘“And he said to them, Do you fear miracles? Have you lost such confidence in the Gods?”’ Asper continued, breathing heavily. ‘“Then look upon me with fear, for in fear you will find the need for answers. And it is answers I give you.”’

The Omen shrieked suddenly, hurling itself against the cage. The brass rattled upon the wood, causing all to draw back, save Miron. The beast hissed, gnawing on the bars of its cage with yellowed teeth and blackened gums, straining to break free, to silence the prayers.

‘“Your suffering is not unknown to me, He said. And your dead are with me now, in a place of unending sun and peace. Weep not for them. I shall weep for you. For I say to you, life is sacred.”’

The creature battered itself against the bars, blood leaking from its head, white feathers stained red as it shrieked and made guttural whines. It gyrated, twisted, writhed upon the floor of its cage. Miron held up a hand to Asper, leaned close to the cage and whispered.


‘North,’ it gasped, through its inner lips, ‘north.’

Miron nodded solemnly, then drew in a sharp breath and finished the prayer. ‘Hii lat Udun.’

‘And so is death,’ Asper translated, eyes going wide.

‘That’s . . . Old Talanic. Old, Old Talanic. It’s never been used outside of hymnal verses—’

‘And not since humanity developed one sole language out of many,’ Miron said.

The creature twisted once, then lay still, its life escaping on a gurgling, choked sigh. The assembled could do nothing but stare as Miron slowly took up the cloth and draped it over the cage once more.

‘A demon’s true weakness is memory,’ he muttered. ‘It recalls the chants that led the House into battle, it fears them.’ He lifted the cage off the table and set it aside. ‘But more importantly, we have our answer. We know where they are heading.’

‘You can’t be serious,’ Denaos whispered.

‘Can I be anything but?’

‘You bring out a flying gopher-demon, do a few tricks and expect us to go chasing after the Abysmyth?’ The rogue made a flailing gesture. ‘All that convinces me of is that we shouldn’t be chasing demons! Lenk and Gariath couldn’t even scratch that thing! You’re sending us against something that can’t be hurt!’

‘It can’t be harmed by mortal creations, no,’ Miron replied quickly, ‘but there are weapons that even demons fear. Fire, you see, is their bane. The smallest heat source burns them unmercifully, and they cannot bear the presence of smoke.’

‘Dreadaeleon is a wizard,’ Asper said thoughtfully. ‘He can make fire.’

‘Well, thank goodness he did that when it was here earlier,’ Denaos sneered.

‘If I had known that then, maybe I’d—’ Dreadaeleon began.

‘Quiet,’ Lenk snapped.

‘Regardless,’ the priest continued with a sigh, ‘you are hired to me as adventurers. You are free to leave my company at any moment and free to make your own decisions.’ He held his hands up in resignation. ‘Man’s fate is his own to weave.’

Glances were exchanged, myriad emotions captured in every eye. Terror, excitement, purpose, anger, anxiety, all reflected in stares that slowly, one by one, turned to the silver-haired young man scratching his chin absently.

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