Tome of the Undergates

Page 33

The rogue’s shoulders sank as his head went low to hide the rolling of his eyes.

‘Really, you don’t want me to continue. If I do, you’ll get all upset and pouty, then violent. You’ll do something you’ll later regret, then come crawling back like a worm to tell me I was right and, honestly, I’m not sure if I can stand such a sight.’

‘Whatever I do, I’m guaranteed to regret it less if you don’t have the testicular-borne valor to finish your thought.’

Denaos half-sighed, half-growled.

‘Fine. Allow me to slide a shiv of reality into your kidneys. ’ He shrugged. ‘If she dies, it’ll be a tragedy, to be certain. She was a fine shot with that bow of hers and a finer sight for eyes used to far too much ugly, I’ll tell you. But it’s not like we’re losing anyone . . .’ He paused, tilting his head, wincing as though struck. ‘I mean . . . in the end, she’s not one of us. She’s just a shict. No shortage of them.’

Lenk blinked once. When his eyelids rose, it was not through his own stare that he saw his hands reach out and seize the tall man by his collar. It was not his arms that trembled with barely restrained fury. It was not his voice that uttered a frigid threat to the rogue.

‘The only regret here,’ he whispered, ‘is that my sword is stuck in a corpse that isn’t yours.’

This is it.

The thought rang through Asper’s head solemnly, like a dirge bell.

It had to happen eventually.

Her breath was short, sporadic.

You did your best . . .

Kataria’s face was almost part of the scenery, so unchanged was it. As much as Asper searched, as much as she prayed for a twitch of lips or flutter of eyelids, she found nothing. The shict seemed more in a deep dream than a breathless coma, more at peace than in pain.

That might be a sign, her thoughts flooded her head like a deluge, that’s Talanas’s mercy to you. What do you know about this, anyway? You can tie up scratches and kiss scraped knees, but you can’t heal a damn thing without bandages.

She pressed her fingers against Kataria’s throat; no pulse . . . still.

It’s not so bad. You can’t save them all. Remember the last one? She was in so much pain, but you managed to take that away. Her left hand twitched involuntarily. You can do the same for your friend, can’t you?

‘Shut up,’ she snarled, ‘shut up!’

She forced her mind dark, silenced the voices in the rhythm of chest compressions and the futile monotony of breathing. There was solace in monotony, she knew, comfort in not seeing ahead. She forced her gaze away from the future, focused on the now, the lifeless shict and the quiet muttering.

‘I can do this,’ she whispered, ‘I can do this,’ she told herself as she had for so long, ‘please, I can do this . . .’

She drew in her forty-third breath and leaned closer to the shict’s lips. She hesitated, hearing a sound so faint as to be a shade more silent than a whisper: a choked, gurgling whisper.

‘Please,’ she whispered again.

The lifeless muscles in Kataria’s body twitched. Asper forced herself to continue, biting back hope.


The gurgle came again, a little louder. Kataria’s body jerked, a little livelier.

‘Kat . . .’ She was terrified to raise her voice. ‘Please . . .’

A smile wormed its way onto Asper’s face. The shict’s pale lips parted, only slightly, and drew in the most meagre, pathetic of breaths.

‘Yes,’ her giggle was restrained hysteria, ‘yes, yes, yes!’

Her eyes widened with a sudden dread as she saw something bubble in the shadows of her companion’s mouth.

‘Oh, no! No, no, WAIT!’

As though possessed, the shict’s body shuddered violently, her mouth stretching so wide as to make her jaw creak threateningly. A torrent of translucent bile came flooding out of her, arcing like a geyser as her lungs were brutally evacuated.

Groaning, Kataria rolled onto her side and expelled the last traces of the muck with a hack. Body trembling, she had barely the strength to fall upon her back. The sun seemed bright and harsh above her, her breath foreign and stagnant on her lips.

Through fluttering eyes, she became aware of a shadow falling over her. She tensed, her voice forgotten, a scream bursting from her lips as only a faint, ooze-tinged squeal.

Two wicked blue moons stared down upon her. Her heart raced, head glutted with fragmented imagery: grey flesh, silver hair, two blue eyes burning like cold pyres, pupilless.

She opened her mouth to scream again, but caught herself. Or rather, a pair of strong hands caught her by her arms, pulling her closer. She writhed in the grip, unwilling to stare into the eyes that shifted before her. As dizziness and half-blindness faded, she beheld a gaze that was dominated by two big, hound-like pupils.

‘Calm down,’ Lenk whimpered, ‘just calm down. You’re fine.’

‘Fine,’ she repeated as she took in his face, his pink skin and blinking eyes. ‘I’m fine.’ She paused to cough, forcing a weak smile on her face. ‘I mean, as far as nearly dying goes.’

‘Fine.’ He nodded. ‘Just don’t strain yourself. Take breaths as they come.’ He raised her to a sitting position as he eased a waterskin into her hands. ‘Drink. You’re sure you’re well?’

‘A damn sight better than some of us,’ someone snarled from behind.

Asper’s scowl burned two holes in the mask of viscous sludge covering her face. Her lips quivered from behind the vomit, as though she sought to scream but thought better of it. Fuming so fiercely as to make the bile steam, she resigned herself to grumbling indignantly and mop-ping the substance with her sleeve.

‘Oh, you messy little sow.’ Denaos giggled as he joined his companions. ‘Gone and eaten your pudding like a fat little baby, have you?’

Artfully dodging the glob of vomit she hurled at him, he approached Lenk and Kataria with all the candour of someone who had not just recently dismissed a looming death as an unfortunate inconvenience.

‘And how are we today?’ he asked with a broad smile. ‘I was slightly worried we’d have to cut your body into six pieces so that you wouldn’t come back.’ He added a knowing nod. ‘That’s what happens when shicts die, you know. They’ll come crawling right out of the grave to rip your eyes out and eat them.’

‘One would hope she’d have the sense to rip out your tongue first.’ Lenk hurled his voice like a spear at the rogue, though Denaos seemed to dodge that just as gracefully as he had the vomit. ‘Maybe she’d like to hear what you—’

‘Well, that’s all fine, fine and dandy.’ Denaos interrupted the young man with a timely spear of his own. ‘Good to know we all emerged from another near-death experience with only one of us nearly dying. A fine score, if I may say so.’

Lenk opened his mouth to retort, but a hacking cough from Kataria shredded that before it reached his lips. Settling for an icy stare at Denaos’s nonchalant expression, he raised the waterskin to her lips, pulling his hand back as she swatted at it.

‘I’m not an invalid, round-ear,’ she growled, shaking his arm off from around her. After a few frenzied gulps, she wiped her mouth. ‘What happened, anyway?’

‘We were hoping you might tell us,’ Asper piped up. ‘Denaos and I came at the sound of screaming.’

‘Late,’ Lenk muttered.

‘Cautiously late,’ Denaos shot back.

‘At any rate,’ Asper continued, ‘we found you unconscious and the whole beach scorched halfway to heaven.’

‘Hell,’ Denaos corrected.

‘What about Lenk?’ Kataria asked.

‘What about Lenk?’

‘He was here. He saw what happened.’

‘I don’t recall.’ The young man offered a helpless shrug. ‘We were hit pretty hard.’

Kataria’s breath caught; she levelled a hard gaze at him.

‘We . . .’

‘Yeah,’ he nodded, ‘you and me.’

‘The demon bashed him good,’ Asper added. ‘He was just coming out of it when we arrived.’

He wasn’t out, Kataria thought.

The visions bloomed in her mind: the onyx sheen of the Abysmyth’s black blood, the surgical silver of Lenk’s sword. They flooded through her with grotesque vividness, matched only by the horrifying sounds that replayed in her mind.

‘MOMMY! MOMMY! IT HURTS!’ She recalled the demon’s wailing voice. ‘MAKE IT STOP! MAKE IT STOP!’

Lenk had said nothing.

Someone else had.

‘Stay,’ it had uttered through his mouth, ‘we kill.’

Whoever had spoken had leaned over her, stood with flesh grey as stone and eyes blue as winter.

Someone not Lenk . . .

‘Whichever of you did whatever,’ Denaos added with a grimace, ‘someone seems to have hit the demon back . . . rather hard.’

‘The demon.’ Kataria’s head snapped up. ‘What happened to it?’

The Omen hopped across the sand, sweeping bulbous eyes over the chaos. Despite the smoke seeping into the two gourd-like organs, the thing did not so much as blink. It recalled, vaguely, in what served as its mind, that there had been more of it just a moment ago.

Then there was noise, noise that hurt its ears. It didn’t care for that noise, so it stayed away. Now, there were none of it left. It turned about, faced the sea and tilted its head. There was one of it there moments ago, it believed. It chattered its teeth, calling to the other.

All that answered it was the sound of wind and a great, black shadow quickly falling over it.

‘Disgusting,’ Gariath muttered, wiping thick, black fluid off the sole of his foot.

It wasn’t so much the texture of the thing’s blood, reminiscent of a large beetle’s, that irritated him as it was the smell. He cast a dark scowl over the beach: sand still pumping acrid smoke into the air, fighting the stinging salty reek for dominance, as the stinking panoply of electricity, blood and fear congealed into a fine, vile perfume.

With a growl, he gave the Omen’s corpse a kick, sending it spiralling through the air like a feathery, blood-dripping ball to plop at the top of a heap of similar misshapen amalgamations. Gathering them in one spot did nothing for the odour.

With a sigh, Gariath thrust his snout into the air once more, testing it. Nothing but the stink of carnage and fire reached his nostrils. He found his fists tightening of their own volition, his skin threatening to burst under his claws. Every whiff of the air only brought him more of the same stinks, denying him any other scents.

So close, he snarled internally, I was so close. I was right on top of it . . . then THIS!

The beach’s odour had struck him like a wave, drowning all other aromas. It was only because of its sheer overwhelming stench that he had come to it and found two worthless humans agonising over two other worthless humans.

At that moment, he had excused himself to hunt down the remaining Omens that had been hopping aimlessly around the sands. He needed something to vent his rage upon and crushing the tiny parasites seemed only slightly more appropriate than crushing his companions; besides, one of them was already dead.

The Omens, of course, had provided no sport whatsoever. They merely stood there, idle, waiting to die. They didn’t even make a sound when he stepped on them, save for one final chatter of teeth.

‘Barely worth killing,’ he muttered.

‘Well, thanks for doing it, anyway,’ someone spoke up.

He found his mood further soured with the appearance of his companions trudging up the beach, the pointy-eared one barely standing. He snorted contemptuously at her.

‘Don’t look so weary,’ he growled, ‘it’s not as though being killed is some vast ordeal.’ He spat on the ground. ‘If it was so hard, not everyone would do it.’

‘Well, thanks for that,’ she replied, blinking at the large pile of lifeless Omens. ‘So . . . been busy?’

‘Hardly,’ he grunted. ‘Whatever was here before you did all the work.’

‘Before?’ Asper cocked a brow. ‘I didn’t see anyone else.’

‘Well, you didn’t think those two imbeciles could have done all this, did you?’ He swept a hand out over the beach, levelling a finger at the frogmen, still frozen even as the sun scattered the last of the smoke. ‘There were others here. You could smell them, if you were me.’ He snorted. ‘But you’re not.’

‘A shame I live with every waking moment,’ Denaos muttered. ‘Who else was here, then?’

‘Longfaces,’ Lenk replied curtly. ‘The Abysmyth said as much before it died.’

‘It did,’ Kataria agreed. ‘I found tracks to support it, too.’

‘You can tell how long someone’s face is by their tracks?’

‘I can tell how many people were fighting, idiot,’ she snarled back. ‘Not that I needed tracks to tell me there was a fight around here.’

‘Regardless,’ Lenk continued, ‘whoever these people were and however long their faces are, they didn’t leave anything behind to let us know what they’re up to.’

‘What they’re up to?’ Asper sounded incredulous as she gestured to a nearby tree, split apart by whatever magic had rent it. ‘How could anyone that does this be up to anything we want to be a part of?’

‘Leave it to a zealot to leap to conclusions,’ Denaos countered snidely. ‘What our dear floor-kisser is missing is the fact that these longfaces not only did this, but they also did that.’

He didn’t even have to gesture to draw everyone’s attention to the hanging Abysmyth.

A particularly fierce gust of wind kicked up, causing the creature’s lanky legs to rattle against each other, flecks of charred skin peeling off. The icicle spike that kept it impaled in the air showed no signs of thawing in the sun, shining ominously as its scorched captive continued to stare up at the sky through empty eye sockets.

‘How is this even a matter for debate?’ Denaos held his hands out helplessly. ‘We want Abysmyths dead. Longfaces kill Abysmyths. We should, obviously, find them and kiss whichever part of their anatomy will make them die instead of us.’

‘Afraid of a little death, are we?’ Gariath mused grimly.

‘Yes, I am afraid of death,’ the rogue responded curtly, ‘that’s a brilliant observation.’ He turned to Lenk. ‘Listen, you, of all people, must see the wisdom in this. These aren’t pirates we’re fighting. Whatever help we can get, we need.’

‘I didn’t think you would want to share the reward,’ the young man replied.

‘I’m wagering our yet-unseen friends don’t do this for mere gold.’

‘Mere gold now?’ Asper feigned shock. ‘Have you found a higher calling, Denaos?’ She held up a hand to ward off his retort, turning to Lenk instead. ‘It’s not necessarily a bad idea to seek out aid, but whoever did this to the beach clearly didn’t have any notion of restraint. Given the circumstances, it’d seem a mite smarter to make sure they won’t incinerate us before we throw ourselves upon their mercy.’

‘The point is moot for the moment,’ Lenk shot at both of them at once. ‘The longfaces aren’t here. We are.’ He cast a glance towards Gariath. ‘You’ve been poking around up here for a while. Found out anything?’

‘About what?’ the dragonman asked.

‘Well, for starters,’ the young man pointed behind them, ‘how about that?’

The corpse of the second Abysmyth, face-down in a pool of its own black humours, was not exactly difficult to miss. If it were even possible, the thing seemed far fouler in death than it had in life, with its emaciated limbs twisted about its hacked and hewn body, arrow shafts jutting from its black skin, one stump of an arm reaching for the shore as though it still sought to crawl to the safety of the sea.

It was not what was leaking out of the demon that caused Kataria’s breath to go short, but rather what was jammed into it.

Jutting from the creature’s back, the cross of its hilt shining triumphantly in the sunlight, Lenk’s sword glittered with a menace it had never showed her. Whereas before it was merely one weapon amongst many, now the blade seemed alive, smiling morbidly in its steel, remembering well what it had done to the beast.

When the others started stalking towards it, she found herself hard pressed to follow.

‘So,’ Lenk began, placing his hands on his hips and staring at the corpse, ‘what have you found out?’

The dragonman merely rolled his shoulders. ‘It’s dead.’

‘Well, hell.’ Denaos sighed dramatically. ‘Are the rest of us even needed here? It sounds like the lizard’s become so good at this necropsy business as to render Asper obsolete.’ He sneered. ‘Though, frankly, it’s tricky to decide which one’s nicer to look at.’

‘Keep squeaking, rat,’ Gariath snarled in reply, ‘and we’ll have two corpses to admire.’

From seemingly nowhere, he produced something long and black and waved it menacingly at the rogue. It was only after a moment and a sudden wave of nausea that the other companions recognised the Abysmyth’s severed arm.

‘And one of them will have this,’ he paused to pluck a stray Omen corpse up from the ground, ‘and this crammed into it.’ He smiled unpleasantly. ‘Your choice as to what gets stuffed into which end.’

‘It’s far too late in the day for this.’ Lenk sighed. ‘You can kill each other once I don’t have need of either of you.’

‘Kill,’ the dragonman snorted contemptuously, ‘each other?’

‘Fine.’ The young man rolled his eyes. ‘You can kill Denaos once I don’t need him any more.’

‘I rather take offence at that,’ the rogue snapped.

‘That was likely why I said it.’ Lenk waved the tall man’s concerns away and returned to the corpse. ‘Now, we know it’s dead. We just need to know what killed it.’

‘Oh, come on,’ Kataria said hotly, ‘isn’t it obvious?’

Myriad glances cast her way as though she were a mad-woman indicated that it was not. With a snarl, she swept up to the corpse and all but seized Lenk’s sword and throttled it, so fervently did she gesture.

‘The damn thing has a sword in its back! That’s quite typically fatal, you know.’

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