Tome of the Undergates

Page 21

Despite everything said between them, despite their harsh words for each other, they looked to him for their answer, their uniting purpose. Whatever had been said in the name of duty and fury, every word and oath could be revoked in the blink of an eye.

All rested on what would emerge from his mouth.

‘We’ll do it.’

Kataria and Asper beamed with simultaneous smiles of pride as Dreadaeleon’s brow arched and Denaos’s head fell into his hands with a dramatic moan. Gariath’s fierce visage remained unchanged, save for a snort and a nod to Lenk. Argaol, meanwhile, stared at the young man with the same curiosity with which he would regard a fire-breathing tortoise.

‘For one thousand pieces of gold.’

Suddenly, smiles disappeared, brows went flat and the rogue’s head snapped up like a cat catching the scent of dead fish.

‘How dare you, Lenk?’ Asper was quick to hurl her voice brimming with scorn. ‘To ask any money for such a duty is a sin in itself, but to ask for such an exorbitant sum is—’


‘Lord Emissary!’ Her wrath turned to shock as she whirled upon Miron. ‘The Church doesn’t have that kind of wealth to flaunt on a quest with no guarantee of success. ’

‘As well I know, child.’ Miron sighed. He looked to Lenk without judgement. ‘The money will come from my personal funds and will be paid in full upon return of the book.’

‘I can agree to that,’ Lenk replied, ‘assuming you pay for supplies we’ll need.’


‘We have a deal, then.’

Miron’s only reply was an ominous hum as he rose from his chair like an ivory tower.

‘I suggest you retire shortly. The Abysmyth has a lead on you and you’ll be leaving at dawn if you’re to catch it.’ He glanced at Argaol across the table. ‘Captain, if you would kindly assist me in consulting the sea charts?’

‘Aye . . . aye,’ Argaol muttered, rising on shaking legs. He wore an expression of disbelief, unwilling to comprehend what he had just heard, what he had just been a part of.

Quietly, on knocking knees, he followed the priest out of the cabin, pausing only long enough to look at Lenk and shake his head.

No sooner had the door slid shut before all eyes turned to the young man as he reclined in his seat, folding his hands behind his head as though he were at a picnic and not at negotiations regarding beings from hell.

‘So, then,’ Denaos began angrily, ‘will you give reason as to why you just signed all our deathscrolls?’

‘I gave you one thousand,’ he said smugly.

Asper shot him a vicious glare. ‘Perhaps then you’ll give a reason why you just extorted from my church like a street hawker?’


‘So why should we follow you on this expedition at all?’ the rogue demanded.

‘You probably shouldn’t,’ Lenk replied with a shrug. ‘I never asked any of you to follow me wherever I went and I won’t ask you now.’ He glanced to Asper. ‘If you object to what I just did, I’m sure Argaol will let you stay aboard until you reach Toha.’

Slowly, he leaned forwards, sweeping them with his piercing gaze.

‘I don’t know how far along I’ve figured this out,’ he said, ‘but I want to kill this thing. I don’t know how, or why, but I will.’ He turned to Asper. ‘And if I’m being sent to kill something that, up until this point, was simply legend, I deserve a bit of compensation.’ He leaned back again. ‘So, the way I figure, you can leave this table right now for whatever reason you may have. If I go alone, then I go alone. When I come back with the book, I’ll never have to work a day in my life again.’ He grinned broadly. ‘Man’s fate is his own to weave.’

Once more, the glances were exchanged. The silence lasted but a moment.

‘I’ll go,’ Kataria said. ‘Demons and cleansing aside,’ she smirked slyly, ‘I happen to need a new set of leathers.’

‘I will, as well,’ Dreadaeleon piped up, the faintest hint of excitement in his voice. ‘There’s a lot to be learned here and I intend to be the one to find out what’s going on. The Venarium will need to know.’

‘Freak,’ Denaos muttered.

‘I’ll go.’ Asper spoke with some reluctance. ‘But only because it’s the right thing to do. I forego my share right now.’

‘And since everyone is intent on killing themselves,’ Denaos sighed, ‘I should come along to pick up the bodies.’ He immediately shot up a single finger. ‘If I get Asper’s share.’

‘Why, you disgusting—’ the priestess snarled.

‘You gave it up,’ the rogue interrupted.

‘And what about you, Gariath?’ Lenk spoke before Asper could start.

Eyes turned to the dragonman, knowing that, of all the companions, his answer couldn’t be predicted. He had stayed with them this long, Lenk reasoned, but it would hardly be surprising if he decided the time to leave was now.

‘I go,’ Gariath grunted. ‘Nothing, demon or otherwise, fights a Rhega and lives.’ He snorted. ‘No stupid, weak human will die if I’m there, either.’

‘So that’s that, then,’ Lenk said, rising from his chair. ‘Sleep on it. If you change your mind by morning, stay behind. I’ll use your share to buy myself new friends.’

‘Don’t count on me ducking out,’ Kataria was quick to snap, springing up. ‘I’ll put that gold to good use.’ She shot her silver-haired companion a glance and winked. ‘I wouldn’t want you to go spending my share on shoes that’ll make you look taller.’

‘Stop being stupid,’ Lenk grunted. ‘If we’re done here, I’m going to sleep. I don’t know when one rises to go demon-killing, but I’ll wager it’s early.’

‘Sleep well while you can,’ Denaos muttered morbidly as he rose. ‘When the Abysmyth eats our heads, you’ll hear the screaming in your dreams.’

‘By then I’ll be able to buy earmuffs.’


Shores of White and Black



The Departure

The Sea of Buradan

Summer, late

I don’t remember much about my father, save for the fact that he was a humble man. He made an honest living which, by his definition, was one that involved hacking dirt and killing nothing bigger than a pig as a wedding gift. He lived well, I think, and I try to think of him whenever I have the time, in the moments when I remember the scent of dirt and feel a deep-seated hunger for pork.

I don’t recall what he sounded like.

In the dawning hours, however, before the sun has risen, I think of my grandfather. In truth, I think of him quite often: whenever I’m about to be killed, whenever I’m about to make a mistake, whenever I’m ready to do something stupid. I hear his voice, even if it is distant. It’s his voice I hear as I clutch his sword, my sword.

Today, I can’t hear him. I can’t hear anyone. No one’s talking.

There’s been precious little sleep aboard the Riptide. The crew remains fearful, preferring to go without sleep as they patrol, ever-vigilant for the return of anything that might crawl out of the water. Miron has been locked up with Argaol, discussing whatever it is men discuss when they’re about to send people off to die. I should note that they’ve been avoiding Argaol’s cabin, preferring to do their discussing in the ship’s hold. I don’t know the reason, but I’m finding it difficult to trust the decision behind anything Miron does.

More than that, I’m finding it difficult to trust myself.

The Aeons’ Gate, the relic we’ve been hired to seek out, is named for demons. Not just demons, but arch-demons, demons supreme. Demons with actual titles: ‘Kraken Queens’ and ‘Mother Deeps’. Demon aristocracy, though I’m certain there’s a fouler term for their social class. These are the things I’ve been hired to chase down, these are the things I’ve been told will be the salvation of mankind, the bridge between heaven and earth.

Despite all the lies . . . well, hold it, there’s only been one lie, really, but it was rather prominent. At any rate, despite that, I’ve still agreed to go off in search of the thing in exchange for one thousand pieces of gold.

It’s a respectable sum, to be certain, but there remains a tart taste around the knowledge that one’s soul, dignity and livelihood come at a price. For a while, I actually began to believe Asper when she told me that the human soul was beyond the weight of metal. I suppose I showed her.

There’s time to turn back, to reject Miron’s offer, to stay on board the ship and jump off at Toha and find the next priest, pirate or person who requires a sword arm and a lack of questions. For the life of me, however, I simply can’t go down there and tell him I quit. I suspect it’s because, as I’ve turned the possibilities over in my head, I continually fail to come up with a reason to turn back.

Dismemberment, death, decapitation, decay and drowning, on dry land or otherwise, are certainly deterrents. On the other hand . . . one thousand coins, split evenly amongst five people, still exceed the number most people will ever see in their lifetime. Certainly sufficient to find more respectable work, perhaps opening a smithy or an apothecary, or investing in slaves in the cities where the fleshtrade is permitted. This is presuming that everyone comes back alive, a staggeringly unlikely estimate by even generous accounts; if someone dies, the shares increase.

I suspect this line of reasoning should strike me as considerably more horrifying than it does.

And yet, it’s not just about money, even though I know it ought to be. I suggest that whoever is reading this should season the next few lines with a bit of salt.

I want to find the demon. I want to find it and kill it. I want to find it and kill it and I don’t know why.

It’s far more likely that the thing will find and kill me first, I know, but all the same, there’s something inside me that makes me want to track down the beast and put my sword through it. I never got the chance to strike it directly, as something roiling around in my head reminds me often, and I have to know what will happen when I do. Between blinks, I know this is ridiculous logic: the thing took a spear through its belly and survived, likely my sword won’t do anything more than tickle it. And yet . . . when I close my eyes, it all makes sense.

When I close my eyes, I hear a voice that is not my grandfather’s.

I suspect if I were to hear an actual voice, one of reason or even one threatening a stiff blow to the side of my head, I might be able to get these ideas out into the open and, upon hearing my own madness, be able to reject them. My companions haven’t been forthcoming, however, indicating that they’re either fine with the idea of chasing after demons or simply don’t want to talk to me.

It’s difficult to tell which.

Denaos slipped away shortly after our little meeting had concluded, citing the need for last indulgences while slinking off towards the cabin of one of the female passengers. Dreadaeleon, rife with ‘magic headaches’ or some manner of wizardly affliction decent people were never meant to know of, found some dark corner to sip tea in and pore over his book.

Asper, as far as I know, has been in various states of penance, meditation and prayer, tended to by Quillian. The Serrant clings to our priestess like a bloated tick; I suppose this isn’t unusual, given the symbiotic or parasitic relationship between their respective callings. All the same, I’m more than a little inclined, at times, to believe the rumours whispered about the Serrant, to give more than just a passing chuckle to the jokes Denaos makes about her.

Gariath, surprisingly, did deign to talk to me beyond grunted derisions of my race. He proved less than helpful in convincing me of the folly of chasing after demons, apparently sharing the sentiments of what may or may not be a symptom of insanity in my head. ‘If you’re scared, go sleep on a bed of urine,’ he suggested. ‘Very warm, I hear.’

In truth, I had hoped to speak to Kataria. She was . . . not forthcoming.

I don’t suppose I can blame her, really. Only an hour or two after the Abysmyth was driven off, I managed to not only convince her that I was utterly mad, but savagely attack her and then persuade her to follow me on a chase after the damned thing. If this were any other situation, I’m sure I’d marvel at my ability to turn such a circumstance to advantage.

More than that, I needed to talk to her. I needed to tell her I wasn’t mad, so that she would confirm that. If I tell myself I’m not mad, it’s not reliable, since it could be the madness talking. But if she tells me I’m not mad, then it’s clear that I’m not because she’s just a savage shict, not mad, even if the race itself is more than a bit mad.

And beyond even that, I needed to tell her something. I don’t know what it was, though. Whenever I close my eyes to think of it, I keep hearing the logic, the voice, the need to go after the demon and kill it. All I can think of to say to her is something about how sweaty she is.

In fact, I did try to tell her. Her response was a shrug, a roll onto her side and a profoundly decisive breaking of wind in my general direction. As one might imagine, negotiations were promptly concluded afterwards.

The sun is beginning to rise now. It strikes me that I should attempt to get at least an hour’s sleep. It strikes me as odd that I’m yearning for conversation. My grandfather used to tell me that the moments before an honest killing were tense, silent, no one able to talk, eat or sleep. Maybe I want to alleviate that tension by talking to someone, anyone. Maybe I want them to tell me I’m doing the right thing by going off to chase demons. Maybe I just want to hear something other than the waves.

Maybe I want to stop hearing voices when I close my eyes.

The crew is emerging on deck. Time is short. I’ll write later, presuming survival.

Hope is not advised.



Silver slivers of the dawn crept through the blinds like spectres, casting ghostly hues on the sheets. Denaos glanced upwards at the shuttered window with disinterest, awaiting the late-dawning sun. Nights without sleep were as common to him as a waking day was.

He had no right to place his feet down on the wood, to rub his eyes and stifle a yawn behind clenched teeth. That sort of thing was reserved for people who had done hard work and slept well, the gestures largely the last appreciation between a man and his bed before he readily faced the dawn like a soldier gallantly marching to battle. Still, he admitted to himself, acting as though he had slept well and was heading to brighter days was one of his lesser lies, hardly worth losing sleeplessness over.

Something rustled in the sheets next to him and he glanced sideways at the nude woman. The sheets hugged her slender body as she blissfully dozed, oblivious to the presence of him or the rising dawn.

She looked peaceful in her slumber. She had met him with suspicion when he had pretended to stumble, lost, through her door late last evening, coming close to casting him out with the coaxing of a bottle of inexpensive wine cracked against his skull. Now, all traces of scorn were vanished from her stately, well-nourished features, instead bearing the expression of something akin to a sated lioness.

Yes, he smiled to himself, that’s a rather good metaphor. I like that one.

Negotiating his way into her bed hadn’t been difficult; it never was. It hadn’t taken much but a few false tears shed for his fallen comrades whose names he couldn’t remember out of shock to convince her to pour him a glass of the red. The best lies usually began with tears, he knew, and from there it was only a stiff, resolute inhale to convince her of a wound past his brave, stoic shell that was in need of carnal healing.

He eyed the empty bottle on her bureau, regarding the label: Jaharlan Crimson. A lesser wine from a race who regarded lesser wines with all the reverence they did lesser Gods. To think, he scolded himself, if I had recited a bit of poetry, she’d probably have given me some of the expensive stuff.

That, at least, might have afforded him the opportunity to pass out, to sleep, perchance to slumber right through the call to leave, and a decent excuse not to follow his companions into death. The expensive stuff, at least, might have given him the opportunity for a dreamless, blissful emptiness behind his eyelids.

Lesser wine was his milk. He took it with bread and stew and it had long since failed to do anything but fill his belly and his bladder. Lesser wine never allowed him to sleep.

He rubbed his eyes again, hoping to lower his hands and find an inviting pillow beneath him. He was still awake, eyes still open. He attempted to convince himself that his insomnia was due to the events that had occurred yesterday.

After all, who could sleep after agreeing to chase a beast that drowned men on dry land? Certainly not Denaos, the average man, the voice of reason amidst the savage, monstrous, insane, zealous and blasphemous. Denaos needed time to digest such horrors, time in bed with pleasurable company and expensive stuff. It could hardly be Denaos’s fault that he couldn’t sleep.

Denaos told himself this. Denaos did not believe it.

The slivers of light brightened, seeping through the shutters to bathe the woman in muted light. He saw her, then, without the haze of wine or the fleeting euphoria of protrusions in orifices. She was a sculpture, her skin flawless, her hair so dark as to swallow the light as it crept over her.

He blinked. For the briefest of moments the woman was not the merchant who had scorned him previously. For the briefest of moments she was someone else, someone he had once known. He saw her waking as if she were a stranger, rolling over to bat large, dark eyes at him, a smile of contentment upon her face.

‘Good morning, tall man,’ he imagined her saying.

He blinked. In the span of his eyelid shutting and opening, he saw her once more, now still and lifeless upon crimson-stained sheets, eyes closed so peacefully one might never have noticed the gaping hole in her throat . . .

Stop it, he told himself, STOP IT!

Denaos shut his eyes tightly and breathed deeply. The image lingered in his mind like a tumour, growing ever more vivid with each breath he took. Silently, he held his breath, making not a word or sound until he felt his lungs were ready to burst.

When he opened his eyes, she lay there: whole, unsullied, breathing softly.

He slid out of her bed and crept to the crumpled black heap that was his clothes, and felt a chill come over his naked legs. It would be so easy, he thought, to stay here, to let them go and die on their own. It would be easy to lie here beside her . . .

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