Tome of the Undergates

Page 34

‘True,’ Denaos replied, ‘but if you can point out anything typical about a giant fish-man-demon-thing, I’d love to hear it.’

‘They can’t be harmed by mortal weapons.’ Asper nodded. ‘We’ve seen it. Whatever killed the Abysmyth, it wasn’t Lenk.’

‘But I saw—’ Kataria’s protest was slain in her mouth at the sight of Lenk’s stare, hard and flashing, levelled at her like a weapon itself. Instead, she looked away and muttered, ‘I saw it die.’

‘You didn’t see Lenk kill it, though.’ Denaos pushed his way past her and knelt beside the body. As he extended a hand, stopping just short of its leathery hide, he glanced over his shoulder concernedly. ‘We’re sure this thing is dead, right?’

‘Sure.’ Gariath scratched at his chin with the demon’s dismembered claws. ‘If it isn’t, though, the worst that can happen is we lose you.’

‘Acceptable losses,’ Asper agreed.

‘Oh, you two are just a pair of merry little jesters,’ he hissed. Without sparing another moment for them, he began to trace his fingers down the creature’s hide, no small amount of disgust visible on his face. ‘As I was saying, Lenk didn’t kill it. Poison did.’

‘That can’t be right,’ Lenk muttered, coming up beside the rogue. ‘I didn’t see any poison on it.’

‘What the hell did you think this stuff was?’

The rogue ran a finger down the edge of one of the creature’s wounds, pinching off a few flakes of green ichor, now dried and dusty. He rubbed it between his fingers, brought it to his nose and blanched.

‘Granted, it’s long past its bottle life, but this is potent stuff.’ He brushed his hands off. ‘Someone was carving our dear friend up with an envenomed weapon long before you ever hacked at it.’ He flicked one of the more prominent tears in the creature’s flesh. ‘Have a glimpse. These wounds are fresh, even though the venom is old. You remember what happened when Mossud harpooned the thing, right?’

‘It healed instantly.’ Lenk nodded as he rubbed his shoulder in memory of the thrashing the creature had given him. ‘The damn thing didn’t even flinch.’

‘From your attacks, maybe,’ Gariath snorted.

‘So why haven’t these lacerations healed?’ Denaos winked knowingly. ‘The wounds were trying to close, but the poison kept them from doing so. Rather potent stuff, actually. I haven’t seen anything this vigorous before.’

‘These wounds, though, are tremendous.’ In emphasis, Lenk reached out and flicked an arrow shaft that Kataria had sent into the thing’s heart through a tear the size of two fists side by side. ‘I’ve seen some big swords in my time, but nothing so big as to make such a mess.’

‘The wounds didn’t start that way.’ Asper elbowed herself into the huddle, pointing to some of the larger rips. ‘See, the edges of the skin are frayed. The poison ate at the flesh, probably continued to do so up until the thing was dead.’ She raised her eyebrows in appreciation. ‘Not unlike a parasite.’

‘I remember.’ Lenk nodded. ‘The green stuff was pulsating. ’ He looked over his shoulder to Kataria. ‘You saw, didn’t you?’

‘Yeah.’ She nodded weakly. ‘Like it was breathing.’

‘So,’ Denaos bit his lower lip, ‘these longfaces are in possession of a . . . living poison?’

‘And you wanted to kiss their rumps,’ Asper shot at him smugly. ‘Dip your lips in iron, you smelly little sycophant. ’

‘Well, if you’re such a genius,’ he snapped, ‘maybe you can tell us what did,’ he paused to gesture over the scorched beach, ‘this?’

‘Isn’t it clear?’ She paused, held up a hand in apology. ‘Pardon me. Isn’t it clear to everyone who isn’t a colossal moron?’ She nearly decapitated him with the sharpness of her smirk. ‘Think. What else do you know that can turn sand black and make ice that doesn’t melt in the sun?’

‘Magic,’ the rogue replied, ‘but—’

‘Precisely,’ she interrupted, ‘and who do we know who knows something about magic?’

‘Dreadaeleon,’ he answered, ‘however—’

‘See? Even you can solve these tricky little issues with the miracle of thinking.’ She rose, dusting her hands off with an air of self-satisfaction so thick as to choke even the smoke. She set hands on hips and glanced about the beach. ‘Now, if Dread would just come up and tell us a little bit about . . . uh . . .’

It occurred to her, at that moment, that they had mentioned the subject of magic and had been able to go three breaths without a familiarly shrill voice chiming in with some incessant trivia. She was not alone in her realisation, as Lenk nearly collapsed under the weight of his sigh.

‘Right, then,’ he muttered, ‘who lost the wizard?’

‘He was with the lizard last I saw,’ Denaos replied. ‘Maybe he stopped to sniff a tree or something.’

‘Where is he, then?’ Asper immediately turned a scowl upon the dragonman. ‘What’d you do with him?’

‘What makes you think I did something to him?’ Gariath replied, raising an eyeridge. ‘Isn’t it possible that he got lost on his own?’

‘Well . . .’ Her face screwed up momentarily. ‘I suppose that’s possible. I’m sorry.’ She sighed and offered him an apologetic smile. ‘So, where was he when you last saw him?’

‘Writhing on the ground and not breathing.’

‘Oh.’ She blinked. ‘Wait, what?’

‘I resent you assuming that I beat the stupid out of him until he was lying in a pool of it.’ He folded his arms over his chest. ‘But, as it stands, I did.’

Asper’s jaw dropped. Whether it was from the shock of the dragonman’s actions or the sheer casualness with which he reported them, all she could do was turn to Lenk with a look that demanded he do something.

The young man, however, merely blinked; he suspected he ought to do something about it, if he had been at all surprised that such a thing had happened. Instead, he sighed, rubbed the bridge of his nose and cast a glance around his companions.

‘Well, you know the routine,’ he said. ‘Fan out, find him or his body and so forth and so on.’

‘Searching for someone we’re supposed to care about who was possibly murdered by someone else we’re supposed to care about is not supposed to be routine,’ Asper shrieked, stomping her foot.

‘And yet . . .’ Lenk let that thought dangle as he reached out to retrieve his sword. ‘Anyway, split up.’ He cast a fleeting glance over his shoulder. ‘Kat, you’re with me.’

‘What?’ She did not mean for her voice to sound as shocked as it did. ‘Why?’

‘What do you mean, “why”?’ Lenk shot her a confused look. ‘That’s how we always do it.’

‘Selfish,’ Denaos muttered under his breath.

‘Well, yeah, but . . .’ Her eyes darted about the beach like a cornered beast’s. ‘It’s just that—’

‘If you don’t want to go with me, fine,’ Lenk snapped back, possibly more harshly than he intended. ‘Go with Gariath or whoever else you feel you’d prefer to claw, stab or insult you in the back.’ He seized the handle of his sword and gave a sharp jerk. ‘All I’m doing is trying to keep people from getting killed.’

No sooner had the steel left the Abysmyth’s corpse than the sky split apart with the force of a scream.

Lenk staggered backwards, falling to his rear and scrambling like a drunken crab as the beast, as though possessed, spasmed back into waking life.

Eyes as vacant as they had been in life were turned to the sky as the fish-like head threw itself backwards, jaws agape and streaming rivers of black bile from the corners of its mouth. Heralded by a spray of glistening ebon, it loosed a howl unlike any sound it had made while alive. The noise stretched for an eternity, forcing the companions to choose between gripping weapons and shielding their ears as the shriek echoed off every charred leaf and ashen grain.

Bile streaming from its mouth turned to black blood streaming from every gaping wound in the creature’s flesh. Liquid poured with such intensity as to make the creature’s entire body seem like a great half-melted candle. As the thing continued to scream, it became clear that it was not just bile that wept from its body.

There was a grunt of surprise from Gariath and all eyes turned to see the severed arm begin to jerk and spasm with a life of its own. The dragonman growled once, then hurled the appendage at the corpse, as though such an act would stop it.

Instead, both member and dismembered began to react as one. Black flesh turned to wax, wax turned to ooze, ooze turned to blood. The creature’s flesh began to peel from it, exposing greying bones and settling in a puddle around the thing’s knees. The scream intensified with every inch of skin sloughing off and the flesh only crept more quickly with every moment the Abysmyth shrieked.

Only when the last traces of the creature’s face dripped off, leaving a fish-like skull gaping at the sun, did the creature finally fall silent.

Leaving no time to curse or pray to various Gods, the pool of black sludge that had been the Abysmyth began to move. It twitched once, rippled like tainted water, then began to creep across the shore like an ink stain, moving slowly towards the sea. A gust of wind kissed the beach; the grey skeleton fell forwards and clattered into a pile of bones.

The tension lasted for as long as it took for the screaming echoes to silence themselves. It was only when everything was silent, save for the waves taking the molten flesh back into the water, that Lenk spoke.

‘Spread out,’ he whispered, ‘find Dread. Kat, you’re with me.’



Gariath searched the air with his nose, greeted by the same scents he had encountered before: salt and trees. The stink of paper and ink that followed the human boy wherever he went were lost on the wind and in the dirt, and while he did detect traces of dried animal excrement, they weren’t the odours of the particular excrement the wizard was fond of drinking.

For a time uncountable, Gariath had to pause and wonder why he was even searching.

It was but one more wonder to add to a running, endless list he had been keeping ever since deciding to follow the humans. Chief amongst them, now, was why they insisted on fanning out to search for the little runt. Surely they must have known that he, a Rhega, would find the boy first.

Why even bother attempting to find him without Gariath? Even searching solitarily as he was, there was no chance they would so much as catch a whiff of the boy’s farts before he did. They were too slow, too stupid, their noses too small and underdeveloped.

‘Stupid little . . .’ His curses degenerated into wordless mumbles.

Of all the creatures that walked on two legs, he offered grudging, unspoken admiration only to Lenk. Despite the shame of having no family and the humiliation of being shorter than most humans, the young man was bold, disciplined and the only one worthy of something just a shade lower than genuine praise amongst the otherwise useless race.

It was unfortunate that Lenk had chosen to go with the long-eared human. Strong and swift, with a healthy contempt for her round-eared fellows, she might have deserved something a shade lower than what he attributed Lenk, had she not the brain of a squirrel.

The two tall humans were naturally inept at all things: fighting fairly, fighting intelligently and, of course, finding anything. The brown-haired woman was too proud in her false Gods to smell the earth. The rat would run away, leaving a yellow trail, at the first whiff of danger.

And, of course, the human boy had found danger. He was born with a dark cloud over his head, a curse of spirit and body, born of a shamed family and supported by a far more shameful life. The scrawny human was estranged from his father and mother, a wicked omen of itself, and far too feeble to overcome such hardship through the proper channel of bloodshed.

After all, how could one kill to honour one’s family if one’s family was not worth killing over? Most humans suffered from such a fate.

Fortunately for them, their wretched Gods loved them just enough to allow them the privilege of walking in a Rhega’s tracks. The chosen of the spirits, born of red rock shaped by furious rivers, the Rhega were the only creation of the world ever to have turned out right. This, he reminded himself, was why he allowed them to walk behind him. They needed him, as sheep needed rams. How else would they survive?

They’d find a way, he thought with a sigh. Luck and stupidity, both desirable traits to them, were things they had in ample supply.

He sighed again, stuck his nose into the air and inhaled deeply. No stink of human.

And yet, this time, he did not lower his snout.

Instead, he sniffed at the air once again, felt his heart begin to pound, ear-frills fan out attentively. The aroma filled his nostrils with memory and he summoned visions and sounds through the scent: clawed footprints in the earth, wings beating on the air, rain on heavy leather, uncooked meat on grass.

Rivers and rocks.

The boy was forgotten, humans disappeared from his concerns as he fell to all fours and rushed along the ground, following the scent as it wound over roots, under branches, around rocks and through bushes. He followed it as it twisted and turned one hundred times in as many breaths, each time growing fainter.

No, no, no, he whimpered inside his head.

The footprints in the earth became his own as he retraced them.

Not now!

The sound of wings beating on the air became the whisper of waves.

I’ve almost found you . . .

The scent of rain was suddenly tinged with salt.

Please, don’t go yet!

Rivers and rocks became sand and surf.

He was on the beach suddenly, the forest behind him and the scent gone, a snake stretched too thin around the tree trunks. He rose, turned and thrust his nose into the air. Nothing filled his nostrils. He inhaled until the inside of his snout was raw and quivering and the stink of salt water made him want to vomit.

And salt water was all he received.

The sensation of weakness was foreign to Gariath. He had not felt weak in such a long time, not when blades kissed his flesh and cudgels bounced off his bones; yet he could remember the feeling well. He had felt it once before, so keenly, when he held two bodies not his enemies’ in his arms, stared into their eyes as rain draped their faces in shrouds of fresh water.

He had collapsed then, too, as he did now.

He had wept, then, too.

Drops of salt clouded his senses, but not so much that he could not perceive the new stink entering his nostrils. He did not stop to consider what it might be, whether it was something he ought or ought not to kill. His sadness twisted to fury as he drank deeply the aroma and began to anticipate when it would soon turn to the coppery odour of blood.

Fuelled by anger, he tore down the beach on all fours. When he sighted his prey, he stopped only to consider how she might die.

She, for it reeked of womanhood, was pale, beyond even the ghostly sheen of the pointy-eared human. She was so pale as to appear insubstantial, as sunlight shimmering on the sea. Hair the colour of a healthy tree’s crown cascaded down her back, its endless verdancy broken only by the large, blue fin cresting her head.

The Abysmyths have such a fin, he thought resentfully.

She was a mess of angles, frail and delicate and wrapped in a wispy sheet of silk that did barely anything to hide the glistening blues and whites of her skin. Through a nose little more than a bony outcropping she exhaled a fine mist. At her neck, what appeared to be feathery gills fluttered.

As vile as she was to behold, the sight of the young boy with stringy black locks in her hands was far more disgusting.

The wizard lay with his head in her lap, a look of contentment creasing his face, as though he were a recently suckled infant. And, as though soothing an infant, the female creature ran webbed fingers through his hair. Through lips a pale blue, she hummed a tune unearthly, one that carried over waves as it carried through the boy, sending both into comatose calmness.

What might temper the sea, however, could not cool the blood of a Rhega. She sought to sing him deaf; his ear-frills twitched. She sought to sing his eyes shut; they widened. She sought to carry his bloodlust from his shoulders; he vowed to set it upon hers with two clawed fists.

The fate of the boy was irrelevant; whether she cradled his ensorcelled breathing body or his ensorcelled corpse, she would find herself in a far deeper sleep than she had put him into.

Gariath’s wings unfurled like red sails. His hands clenched into fists so tight as to bloody his palms. His terrifying roar seized her weak song and tore it apart in the air. Upon all fours once more, he charged, levelling his horned head at her frail, angular mouth.

It would feel good to kill again.

Lenk staggered as he stumbled over a tree root, kicking up damp soil and leaves. With a sigh, he glanced down at the earth; whatever modest trail had been present was now nothing more than a smattering of dirt and tubers. If there ever was a trail there at all, he thought to himself, discouraged. How Kataria routinely made it look so easy, he would never know.

Which begged another question . . .

‘Why aren’t you in front?’ he asked over his shoulder.

The shict started at his voice, as she had started at every sneeze, cough and curse to pass his lips for the past half-hour. She quickly composed herself, taking a gratuitous step backwards, placing her even further away from him.

‘It’s good practice,’ she replied quickly. ‘You need to learn this sort of stuff to survive.’

‘Not so long as I’ve got you around.’

‘Well, maybe I won’t always be around,’ she snapped back. ‘Ever think of that, dimwit?’

‘Is there something you want to tell me?’ The question came with a sigh, knowing full well that whatever she wished to tell him, he wished not to hear. ‘You’ve been skittish ever since we left the corpse.’

‘Imagine that,’ she sneered, ‘near-death experiences leave me a bit jumpy.’

‘Sure, jumpy.’ He glanced down to the bow drawn in her hands. ‘Are near-death experiences something you’d like to share? Because you’ve had that damn thing drawn and pointed at me for the past half-hour.’

‘Don’t you blame me for being cautious.’

‘Cautious is one thing,’ he replied. ‘You’re just being psychotic now. And while I’ve never begrudged you that before, I have to ask,’ he tilted his head at her, frowning concernedly, ‘what’s wrong?’

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