Tome of the Undergates

Page 35

Her reaction did nothing to reassure him.

She shifted nervously for a moment, hopping from foot to foot as she glanced about the forest clearing as though noting all possible escape routes. She did not lower her bow, nor relax her grip on its string. She had all the anxiety of a nervous beast while at the same time regarding him as though he were some manner of bloodthirsty predator.

He knew he ought not begrudge her such a mannerism; she had only barely survived the Abysmyth’s touch. Surely, he reasoned, fear and panic were reasonable reactions. But towards him? Towards the man who had saved her? Towards the man who thought of her as not just a shict?

He found his hands tensing of their own volition and quickly fought to relax them. Something within him, however, fought just as hard to keep them in fists. Something within him spoke.

‘Ignore her,’ it uttered. ‘If she wishes to scorn us, then let her rot here while we do our work. There will be more Abysmyths. We know this.’

He clenched his teeth, straining to ignore the voice. His thoughts were glass, however, and the voice was a vocal rock. He felt them shatter and when the voice spoke again, it was a thousand echoing shards.


‘KAT!’ he shrieked.

She looked at him, ears twitching as though she could hear what brewed within him. With a grunt, he forced a new face, a frown of concern and narrowed eyes. Don’t upset her, he told himself, don’t let her hear it . . .

‘Listen,’ his voice sounded strained to his ears, ‘you can tell me. I’m not the enemy here.’

She cocked her head uncertainly at that. Once more, something shattered within him. His heart contracted under her wary stare and he felt his face twist to match the pain in his chest.

‘Kataria,’ he whispered, ‘don’t you trust me?’

‘Usually,’ she replied.

Her face nearly melted with the force of her sigh as her shoulders slumped, lowering her weapon. Such an expression brought him no relief; she seemed less remorseful and more weary, as though the thought of talking to him was a surrender.

‘Do you remember the Abysmyth?’ she asked.

‘Uh,’ he blinked, ‘it’s rather a hard thing to forget.’

He felt his heart go numb at the sight of her stare, dire and sharp as an arrowhead.

‘Fine,’ he continued, ‘no, I don’t remember it. I can barely remember anything past meeting the damn thing on the beach.’

‘You . . . met it?’

‘And had a conversation with it.’ He nodded. ‘It’s rather a polite demon, if you catch it between dismemberings.’

‘You said you barely remembered anything.’ She seemed unimpressed with his humour. ‘What do you remember?’

Voices. Or rather a voice, in my head. Icy and angry. Told me to pick up my sword and kill the demon. Told me a hundred times. Told me to kill, to slaughter, to rip it apart. And I did. And I know I shouldn’t have been able to, but I was. I killed the damn thing and I don’t know why. And when I did, it laughed. The voice laughed and I wanted to laugh, too. I wanted to laugh like a madman and dance in the thing’s blood.

That’s what I remember.

He told her none of this. Instead, he looked up, and replied in one word.


It was not exactly the entire truth, but though it was no lie, Kataria’s frown seemed to suggest that she did not quite believe it. He fought back a sigh and instead took a step forwards, feeling at least some relief when she did not tense up, retreat or bolt outright. Instead, she regarded him carefully with a hint of that same probing curiosity he hadn’t come to miss before she looked at him like he was a lunatic.

‘I saw you,’ he continued, unhindered, ‘I saw you shoot the Abysmyth. I saw the Abysmyth pick you up and I saw you go still and cold as a fish. Then, I saw you drop.’

‘And you know why I dropped?’ she asked.

He blinked, shook his head.

‘Because of you,’ she replied, ‘because you cut the demon’s arm off, because you killed it.’

‘I didn’t kill it.’

‘I’m fairly sure you did.’

‘We settled this already,’ he replied, ‘the poison killed it. The longfaces killed it.’

‘It didn’t stop moving until you put your sword in it.’

‘The poison took its time, then.’

‘Why are you denying this?’ She seemed as if she wanted to snarl, to spit the words. Instead, she could only shake her head at him. ‘I saw you, too. I saw you kill the demon. I saw you save me.’ Her frown twisted and Lenk could see that her heart sank as well. ‘Why are you denying that?’

Because, he thought, fingering the hilt of his sword, the Abysmyth can’t be hurt by mortal weapons.

He longed to say such a thing to her, if only so that she might know why he couldn’t say it. Instead, he could do little more than roll his shoulders, shake his head and sigh. She returned the expression and, without any fear, walked past him to take the lead.

Her shoulder brushed against his; she felt cold.

‘So,’ he spoke up, desperate to ease the tension, ‘do you see anything that I might have missed?’

‘Nah.’ She crouched to the earth, glancing over the jungle soil. ‘Something came through here, but I can’t tell who or what. Nothing’s clear.’

The leaves shook in the trees. Birds fled in a sudden burst as a thunderous roar split the forest apart. Kataria rose to her feet, following Lenk’s gaze out and away, towards the distant shore.

‘That is, though.’

Gariath could tolerate wounds of all kinds: piercings, cuts, gashes, bruises and assorted scrapes were things he could remember, things he could touch, things he could respond to. For those few injuries that drew no blood and beat no flesh, he had no patience.

‘Stand still!’

He lashed a claw at the female and, again, she stepped away from him. This routine was becoming quite tiresome. The creature’s relentless darting hardly irritated him as much as the serene expression she wore, unflinching, beyond offering him a congenial smile.

‘There’s no smiling,’ he snarled, ‘in battle!’

His roar drove his fist as he rammed it forwards, preparing to pulp her placid expression. Her sole defence was an upraised hand, a demure smile and a gentle hum.

Music filled his head, smothering him like a tide. His howling seemed so quiet, so meek, his muscles like jelly. When he opened his mouth to curse, he felt his jaw drop and hang numbly. Summoning what remained of his fury, he lunged forwards, arms flopping out before him like flippers.

And then they were lead weights, pulling him to the ground with a crash.

He roared, or tried to roar, both at himself and at her. He tried to rise, to crush her jaw, rip out her tongue, smash her face in so that she might only sputter out a tune with notes of broken teeth. His body, however, would not answer him. His eyelids became heavy like his arms.

A sweet, soothing darkness enveloped him.

The female tilted her head at him, gills flickering curiously, her gaze lingering only for a moment before she glanced up at the sound of shrieking.

The arrow bit angrily through the air where her head had just been, spitefully taking a few strands of green hair as it sped past her and sank into the sands beyond. The female blinked through eyelids that closed like twin doors and regarded the two pale shapes at the distant end of the beach.

‘What the hell was that?’ Lenk cried, punching Kataria in the arm. ‘Shictish archery, my left tes—’

‘She moved,’ the shict spat back, ‘she moved, damn it!’ Shoving him away, she drew another missile and narrowed her eyes at the wispy creature. ‘I’ll get her this time.’

Like a silk-swaddled bellows, the female’s chest inflated, mouth opening so wide as to threaten to dislocate her jaw. The arrow was lowered in momentary curiosity. Shict and man stared dumbly as the female took one step forwards, turned her mouth upon them and screamed.

The noise was shrill, getting shriller; annoying, Lenk thought through his fingers, but little more than that.

Kataria seemed to disagree.

Collapsing next to her bow, the shict writhed upon the ground, shrieking as she clawed at notched ears that withered like roses. Her legs kicked as she proceeded to bash her head against the sand, straining to pound the noise out of her head.

That left two companions down, Lenk thought, more than enough reason to stick a sword into something.

His weapon was up as he charged towards the female. Her alien features did not cause him to falter; he had killed things much more ferocious than her. He aimed at a spot between her breasts, undoubtedly where her heart was. If it wasn’t there, he reasoned, he’d just keep stabbing until he found something.

It was going to be messy. He found himself smiling at that.

It was only when he drew close enough to see her eyes that he hesitated. She cocked an eyebrow, or rather an eyeridge, at him, smiling. He returned the gesture with a confused expression.

Who, he wondered, smiles at someone charging at them with a sword? It’s like the stupid thing doesn’t even know I’m about to kill it.

Even as he continued to advance, his sword held high, still she did not seem to recognise his intent. She cocked her head, regarding him curiously. Good; better that she focus on him than look behind her. Better she lock eyes with him than be tempted to follow his gaze over her shoulder.

If she did, she might have seen Denaos looming up behind her, a long knife clenched in one hand.

The rogue’s scowl was as cold as his hand was quick. He slipped a gloved hand around and clasped it over her mouth, bringing his dagger up beneath her chin as she tried momentarily to struggle against his long fingers.

‘Shh,’ he whispered as he might to an infant, ‘no sounds, no singing.’ The tip of his blade scraped the bottom of her chin. ‘Don’t you scream.’


Had the command come from anyone else, Denaos would have cut out her jugular and autographed it before anyone could object. However, the shrill, excited voice forced his blade to a trembling halt a hair’s width from turning the female into a cut of choice meat.

He glowered over the woman’s head at the boy standing on trembling legs before him. His face was grave, breath ragged; hardly the sort of visage that should expect to have its commands obeyed, Denaos thought resentfully.

‘She needs our help,’ Dreadaeleon gasped, even speaking an ordeal.

The rogue glanced from Gariath, unconscious, to Kataria, squirming like a worm on the ground, back to Dreadaeleon.

‘What, seriously?’

‘Let her speak,’ the wizard said, nodding furiously, ‘and she’ll explain.’

‘Don’t do it, Denaos,’ Lenk ordered, ‘she just struck Gariath dead.’

‘The lizard’s still breathing,’ Denaos noted. ‘I’d be hard pressed not to release her had she actually killed him.’ He tugged her closer, bringing his knife a little further up. ‘As it stands—’

‘STOP!’ Dreadaeleon shrieked again. ‘She hasn’t hurt them. Kataria and Gariath will both be fine!’

‘Here’s a funny fact,’ the rogue spat. ‘Even if you say something a heap of times, it doesn’t actually make it come true.’ He levelled a murderous scowl upon his captive. ‘We should kill her before she has a chance to do to us what she did to them.’

‘She won’t!’ the wizard protested.

‘Well, of course she won’t if I stick her now.’

‘I mean she won’t at all,’ the boy added hotly, ‘not if you let her go. Otherwise, she might—’

‘Not if I jam a six-finger piece of steel in her face,’ the rogue interrupted. ‘Sweet Silf, man, try to keep up.’

Dreadaeleon made a motion to protest further, but instead turned two big, brown, puppy-like eyes to Lenk, pleading.

‘Lenk, she means us no harm. You’ve got to believe me.’

‘Oh, that’s fair,’ Denaos sneered, ‘go to Lenk for aid.’ He turned to the young man. ‘The boy might have been bewitched by her. Who says his words are his own?’

‘I say that you might be an imbecile but it’s far more likely that you’re a bloodthirsty moron! She was only defending herself!’

‘She attacked us first!’

‘Gariath attacked her first!’ The boy gritted his teeth. ‘Gariath always attacks first!’ He looked to Lenk once more, eyes going so wide they might roll out of his head. ‘Lenk, please . . .’

The young man remained unmoving, silent for a long moment. He glanced from the unconscious dragonman to the curled-up shict, to the creature with green hair who looked remarkably calm for a woman-fish-thing that had a knife to her throat. He only spoke when the stand-off was joined by a red-faced Asper rushing up to meet them.

‘Asper,’ he gestured with his chin, ‘have a look at Kat and Gariath. See if they’re well.’

‘What?’ she asked, breathless. ‘Who’s well? What’s happening? ’ She glanced over at the strange captive. ‘Who’s she?’

‘We’re a little busy here, Asper.’

The priestess seemed to want to argue, but had no breath for it. With a muttered curse and a wave of her hand, she stalked towards her prone companions.

‘Release her, Denaos,’ Lenk commanded. ‘Keep your knife ready, though. Gut her if she moves funny.’

‘She’s going to move funny eventually,’ the rogue grunted. ‘It’d be easier to gut her now.’

‘Just do as I say.’

With a grudging snarl, Denaos took a cautious step away, releasing the woman. Both he and Lenk kept their weapons at the ready as the young man approached the creature with a grim look in his eyes.

‘If you’ve injured anyone here,’ he uttered, ‘I’ll take your head before he has a chance to gut you.’ He flashed a threatening gaze at Dreadaeleon. ‘And if you try to stop me, Denaos will take yours.’

He let that threat hang in the air as all parties exchanged wary glances. All save the female, who merely smiled as she opened her mouth and spoke in a lyrical, reverberating tune.

‘If all death threats have been finished, I should like to solicit your aid.’



While all men can lie through their mouths, and a select few have a talent for lying through their eyes, no man can disguise intent evident in his buttocks.

Lenk’s grandfather had said that, or so the young man thought, and while it seemed almost insulting that he would ever find cause to recall such a morsel of wisdom, there was no denying that it was applicable.

Buttocks were firmly entrenched, steeped in tiny sand pits carved of hatred and suspicion. Only Lenk’s glare, perpetually flitting between his companions, kept them seated.

It had taken no small effort to get them there in the first place. After discerning that Kataria and Gariath were well enough, it took the strength of all mortal creatures and the possibility of an impending execution to bring their buttocks to the earth in a circle.

Ensconced between them, like a wiry silver battle line, Lenk kept his sword naked in his lap, eyes darting between his companions and the pale creature across from him.

She was a sight that demanded attention. Her features were human enough, in principle: a face filled with discernible angles, five fingers and toes, though webbed, and a long river of hair, though bright green. Her feathery gills, vaguely blue skin and the crest that occasionally rose upon the crown of her head, however, left the young man’s buttocks clenched with caution.

Yet whenever she spoke, they became uncomfortably loose.

‘I am once again asking for forgiveness.’ Her voice was audible liquid, slithering on ripples into his head and reverberating throughout. ‘Had I known you meant no harm, I would not have used my voice.’

Lenk frowned at that; before now, he hadn’t thought of a voice as a weapon. Before now, he wouldn’t have believed it could be used as one.


He cringed at the sound of Kataria as she leaned over and yelled at him.

‘SHE APOLOGISED,’ he shouted back.

‘YEAH, SHE BETTER!’ the shict roared.

‘Apologies, again,’ the female said meekly, ‘the deafness should subside before too long.’


‘It’s already been too long,’ Lenk muttered, waving down his companion. ‘For the moment, your apology is accepted.’ At a snort from Gariath, he added, ‘By everyone who matters, anyway.’

‘I suspect we might feel a degree more comfortable if we knew your name,’ Asper offered congenially.

‘As well as knowing whatever the hell you are,’ Denaos added, cocking his head at the female. ‘I mean, how are you even speaking right now?’

‘She has a mouth,’ Dreadaeleon muttered, rolling his eyes.

‘I mean speaking our language,’ the rogue retorted. ‘How does some kind of fish-woman-thing learn to speak the human tongue?’

‘Don’t be crude,’ Asper chastised, turning to the woman sympathetically. ‘You’re more woman than fish, aren’t you?’

‘I . . .’ The female appeared to be straining to express befuddlement. ‘I am neither fish nor human, though I have spoken extensively with both in my time.’

‘So you only talk to fish.’ Denaos sighed. ‘This is going to be another of those conversations I’d rather not hear, I can tell.’

‘Then feel free to leave,’ Dreadaeleon snapped. ‘We can accomplish much more without you here.’

‘We could accomplish much more without all of you jabbering like apes.’ Lenk fixed a glower upon the female. ‘All right, then . . . we know how you can speak our language, now tell us what you are.’

‘She’s a siren, obviously,’ the boy interrupted.

‘A what?’

‘Impossible,’ Denaos said with a sneer. ‘Sirens are a myth.’

‘Yesterday, so were demons,’ Dreadaeleon pointed out.

‘Demons are a force of pure destruction that want nothing more than to rip us open and eat our innards. It’s easy enough to believe such things could exist.’ The rogue shook his head. ‘Sirens are a legend to explain away navigational errors. Fish-women that lure men to their doom with deadly songs and promises of raucous, violent coitus? Unlikely.’

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