Tome of the Undergates

Page 36

‘Listening to you,’ Asper sneered, ‘you’d think everything unexplained desired raucous, violent coitus.’

‘I have yet to be proven wrong.’ The rogue’s eyebrow raised appreciatively at the siren. ‘Or have I?’

‘The young lorekeeper refers to the name that humans are comfortable with calling my kind,’ the mysterious female replied fluidly. ‘I have never thought of myself as anything requiring a name, however. I am a child of the deep, born of the Sea Mother and charged to warden her waters and protect her children.’

‘Fine job you’re doing of that,’ Gariath growled, ‘what with the giant demons prowling about.’ He reared up, rising to his feet; buttocks were tensed immediately, but remained in their seats. ‘Why are we even having this conversation? If you weren’t all so stupid, you’d see what she is.’ He levelled a claw accusingly at the crest atop her head and snarled, ‘She’s one of them.’

Lenk supposed the resemblance to the Abysmyth ought to have occurred to him earlier, as did most of his companions. Tensions rose immediately, daggers were drawn, claws were bared, and even Kataria seemed to figure out the dragonman’s accusation accurately enough to nock an arrow. Asper glanced to Lenk, wide-eyed and baffled, but even she seemed to stiffen at the declaration.

Before he could make a move to join or restrain his companions, however, Dreadaeleon acted first.

‘She . . . is . . . not!’

With barely more than a flicker of his fingers, he was on his feet, propelled by a burst of unseen energy beneath him. And, apparently envisioning himself as a particularly underdeveloped gallant, stepped to intervene between the woman and the dragonman. Quite unlike the vision his stand conjured up, however, the finger he levelled at Gariath, crackling with blue electricity, delivered a much more decisive message.

‘And don’t think I won’t fry you where you stand if you take one more step forwards.’

‘The only thing I don’t think is that there’ll be enough of your treacherous little corpse left to paint the beach with after I’m done with you,’ Gariath snorted, apparently unimpressed.

‘You tried to kill me just today,’ the boy warned, his finger glowing an angry azure. ‘That didn’t pan out so well, did it?’

‘If I had tried to kill you, you’d be dead.’

‘Gentlemen.’ Asper sighed, exasperated. ‘Can we not do this in front of the siren?’ Met with only a snarl and the crackle of lightning brewing, she turned an incredulous gaze to Lenk. ‘Aren’t you going to do something?’

That sounded like a good idea; however much Gariath would like to believe differently, Dreadaeleon’s magic was more than capable of reducing things far larger than a dragonman to puddles.

Lenk’s attention, however, was less on the boy’s finger and more on the rest of him: on the way he stood so confident and poised, on the way his eyes were clear enough to reflect the blue sparks dancing across his hand.

‘You’re using magic again,’ he said, more for his own benefit than the wizard’s.

‘At least someone noticed,’ Dreadaeleon growled.

‘You could barely walk after the crash.’ Lenk leaned forwards, intent on his companion. ‘What happened?’

At the question, the boy seemed to forget his impending evisceration. He lowered his finger, magic extinguished, and beamed a smile at the young man. With all the propriety of an actor, he stepped aside and gestured to the siren, who merely blinked and smiled.

‘She did it,’ he said, ‘with her song.’

Lenk felt his heart quicken a beat. ‘You can heal,’ he whispered, ‘with your song?’

‘It is within my power to soothe.’ She nodded.

His mind quickened to match his heart, a flood of thoughts streaming in. The siren could heal . . . no, not heal, soothe. She could soothe Dreadaeleon’s headache, an affliction that no known medicine could cure. She could soothe the mind.

And perhaps, he thought, the voices within it.

‘Sit down.’ He waved a hand at Gariath.

‘What?’ The dragonman growled. ‘Why?’

‘I want to hear what she has to say,’ he replied. ‘Not that I’m promising anything, but if Dreadaeleon believes in her, we should give her a chance.’

‘The little runt came within an inch of betraying us,’ Gariath snorted, ‘and the last thing she said made the shict deaf.’

Lenk tensed himself at the mention of Kataria, not for any anticipation that she might yell again, but for the fact that he suddenly felt her gaze upon him. Glancing from the corner of his eye, for he did not meet her stare directly, he imagined she could be looking at him for any number of reasons: explanation, impatience . . .

Or perhaps his suspicions were right and, deaf as she was, those giant ears could still hear his thoughts.

‘If I held attempted murder against everyone in this group,’ he said calmly, looking away from the shict and towards the dragonman, ‘then we’d never get anything done. He’s entitled to at least one attempt on your life for all the times you’ve actively attempted on his.’

The dragonman’s glower shifted about the circle, from the siren to the young man to the boy, then once more around the others assembled. Finally, he settled a scowl upon Lenk.

‘You couldn’t stop me, you know,’ he grunted.

‘Probably not.’ Lenk shrugged.

‘Good. So long as we all understand that.’ He snorted, took a step backwards, settled upon his haunches and scowled at the siren. ‘Talk.’

The female blinked. ‘In regards to . . .’

‘Start with your name?’ Asper offered. ‘I believe that’s where we left off before we decided to act like raving psychotics.’

‘I . . . I do not have a name, I am afraid,’ she replied meekly. ‘I have never had a use for one.’

‘Everyone needs a name,’ Dreadaeleon quickly retorted. ‘What else would we call you?’

‘Screechy.’ Denaos nodded. ‘Screechy MacEarbleed.’

‘Don’t be stupid,’ Asper chastised. ‘She needs something elegant . . . like from a play.’

‘Lashenka!’ Dreadaeleon piped up, enthused. ‘You remember the tragedy, don’t you? Lament for a King. She looks like the young heiress, Lashenka.’

‘Sounds too close to Lenk.’ The priestess tapped her chin. ‘Were there any other players in it? I never saw it on stage. For that matter, was it any good?’

‘It was . . . decent. Nothing too thrilling, but worth the silver spent.’

‘Silver? When did theatre become worth that kind of money?’

‘Well, this particular one had the Merry Murderers, the troupe from Jaharla, and—’

‘Enough.’ Gariath was on his feet again, stomping upon the ground angrily. He snorted, levelling a claw at the siren. ‘Your name is Greenhair. Get on with it.’

‘Greenhair?’ Asper scratched her head. ‘It has a certain charm to it, but I’m not sure that—’

‘Tell me,’ Gariath almost whispered, ‘can you finish that thought with your tongue torn out and shoved in your ear?’

‘I don’t—’

‘Do you want to find out?’ With a decisive snort, he glowered at the siren. ‘Her name is Greenhair. Get on with it.’

‘It’s a fine name.’ Lenk nodded. ‘Just so we’re all on even footing, though, our names are—’

‘There is no need.’ The siren held up a hand while casting a smile at Dreadaeleon. ‘I have been informed, Silverhair, of much of who you are and what you do in the Sea Mother’s domain.’ Her smile broadened. ‘And I expect it is by Her hand that I meet you now.’

‘Rather high praise,’ Lenk muttered. ‘But you said you needed our help.’

‘And I thank you for it.’

‘Save your thanks,’ he replied. ‘I didn’t say we’d give any.’

A smile played across her features. Lenk felt his hand unconsciously resting on his sword; something in the creature’s gaze was unsettling. Absently, his thoughts drifted back to the Abysmyth. This thing expressed as much emotion in a twist of pale blue lips as that thing could not in a cacophony of shrieks.

‘Your . . . callings are not unknown to me.’ She did not so much as flinch at his bluntness. ‘You are . . . adventurers, yes? And adventurers seek compensation for their trials. Such is the way of the sea. What is given must be earned, what is earned is not easily lost.’

‘If that’s a lot of fancy talk for gold, then I’m interested.’ Denaos eyed the wispy silk she wore. ‘I dare suggest I’d be more than tempted to help you if you planned on showing me wherever you hid it, though.’

‘I have no riches for you, Longleg.’ She shook her hair. ‘What I offer, however, is something more precious than gold. Something you have lost.’

Lenk leaned forwards again. He could sense the word resting on her tongue as a hedonist sensed a tongue resting on something else.

‘I am informed,’ she said, so slowly as to drive him wild, ‘that you seek a tome.’

Buttocks tightened collectively.

Not a single face remained unchanged at the word. Expressions went alight with various stages of greed, hope and anticipation. Even Kataria’s eyes seemed to widen, if only at the simultaneous reaction amongst her companions. Lenk himself could not imagine what his own face must have looked like, but fought to twist it into stony caution nonetheless. The last time someone had mentioned a tome to him, it had led to him and Kataria nearly being slaughtered.

He had since come to treat the word warily.

‘What do you know of it?’

‘What I have been told by the lorekeeper and what I am able to conclude on my own,’ the siren replied. ‘The tome was lost. You, specifically, wish to find it. I am at once filled with joy and sorrow for you.’

Lenk felt his face twitch; good news never began with those words.

‘You don’t know where it is?’ he asked.

‘I know where it is,’ she replied. ‘I have seen much, heard much from the fish before they fled at the presence of the demons.’ As if reading his thoughts through his eyes, she nodded grimly. ‘The two you discovered on the blackened sands were but the sneezes and coughs of a sickness with many, many symptoms.’

He almost loathed to ask. ‘How many?’

‘Many,’ she said simply. ‘They have risen from the depths of the ocean that the Sea Mother has forgotten. They have tainted the waters, as they do all things, and blackened the sea such that no living thing remains between here and their temple.’

Her voice changed suddenly. What had begun as liquid song that slipped through his ears soundless became heavy and bloated, a salt-pregnant wave that seemed to steal the air from the sky as she spoke.

‘The fish shall be the first to flee, being closest to their taint. The birds shall be chased from the sky. The clever beasts shall hide where they can. The brave will die. As will all things that walk upon land. Mortals drown. Sky drowns. Earth drowns. There shall be an unholy wave born of no benevolent tide. Nothing shall remain . . . save endless blue.’

Endless blue.

That phrase had passed through fouler lips before. Lenk tightened his grip on his sword, holding it firmly in his hand, but still in his lap. There would be time to dwell on cryptic musings later.

‘Swim to the point, then,’ he growled. ‘What does any of this have to do with the tome?’

‘Consider it a warning,’ she replied, unhurried, ‘passed through all children of the Sea Mother of what shall come to pass if that foul thing of red and black remains in the possession of the demons. It is a reminder of all that the Kraken Queen craves, all that her children seek to return her for.’

‘And the actual location of the tome?’

‘It is . . . not here.’

‘Well.’ He slapped his knees with an air of finality. ‘Thanks for that, I suppose.’

‘Not here,’ she continued, undeterred, ‘but close. You are but an hour away from it, in fact.’

‘Now that is helpful.’ Denaos, who had previously been lying on his back and scratching himself, rose to his feet and stretched. ‘Let’s get it and put this whole fish and prophecy business behind us, aye? Screechy here knows where it is.’

‘I do.’ The siren nodded. ‘And I know what guards it.’

Denaos paused mid-stretch, sighed and sat back down.

‘Of course you do.’

Lenk was less rattled. It was rather apparent that the siren would not be telling them this purely for the sake of their aversion to being choked by ooze.

‘What do you want from us, then?’ he asked.

She stared at him without expression, spoke without hatred or fury.

‘I want you to kill, Silverhair.’

That figures.

‘Kill . . . what?’

‘I take no great pleasure in asking you, but the plague must be cleansed. The Sea Mother’s dominion must be restored.’

‘So you want us to kill more Abysmyths.’

‘Curb as many symptoms as you can, yes, silence the coughing and the wheezing where necessary. But for a plague of this nature to be cured, the tumour must be cut out.’

Her lips pursed tightly, eyes narrowed as her utterance reverberated through them like a dull ache.

‘You must kill the Deepshriek.’

A moment of silence passed before Lenk sighed.

‘You’re going to make me ask, aren’t you?’

‘They . . .’ The siren paused, looked at the ground. ‘It . . . was once like myself. A child of the deep, a servant of the Sea Mother . . . but no longer. Long ago, when the skies were painted red and She still befouled the mortal seas, the Kraken Queen sang to the Deepshriek and the Deepshriek listened. Now . . . it is her prophet, the one who shall return its mistress and mother to the waking world.’ She looked back up at Lenk with a swiftness fuelled by desperation. ‘Unless you take the tome back to whatever foul hand it came from.’

Lenk hesitated at that, leaning back and sighing. Frankly, he thought, he could have done with just being told the location of the tome without hearing the inane claptrap of a deranged sea beast. As it was, the temptation of a thousand gold pieces was slowly beginning to lose its lustre.

He suddenly became aware of Kataria sitting next to him, a blank expression on the shict’s face. Leaning over, he yelled.


‘I HEARD WHAT SHE SAID!’ the shict snapped back violently. ‘The deafness wore off ages ago, you stupid monkey.’

‘Oh.’ He smiled meekly. ‘Well, great.’


‘This . . . is rather a lot to take in,’ Asper said breathlessly, as though just recovering from some unpleasant coitus. ‘Demons upon demons, tomes and diseases . . . it’s hard to decide what to do next.’

‘If you’re an idiot, I suppose,’ Denaos replied. ‘Obviously, we run.’

‘It’s obvious to everyone without a spine, I suppose.’

‘I can guarantee you if we decide to go this route, the only spine you’ll be seeing is your own as some Abysmyth ... Deepshriek . . . or whatever rips it out and force-feeds it to you.’ He cast a glance about the circle. ‘Listen, I hate to reinforce your beliefs in my cowardice as much as I hate to be forced to be the voice of reason again, but let’s consider a few things.

‘First of all,’ he held up a finger, ‘we can’t harm the Abysmyths and it’s a decent bet we won’t be able to harm something with an even weirder-sounding name. Secondly,’ he gestured over his shoulder towards the carnage at the other end of the beach, ‘someone else seems to have tried to “cleanse” them without much luck.’

‘You speak of the longfaces,’ Greenhair replied.

‘Seems they get around, too.’ Denaos rolled his eyes.

‘I witnessed them . . . from afar. I saw the fire and ice they wrought upon the land.’ She leaned back, as though reminiscing fondly. ‘They were tall, powerful, skin the colour of a bruise and eyes the colour of milk. There were many, females all but for one male, the one who slew the Abysmyth with a spear of ice.’

‘I take it these longfaces didn’t take the tome.’

‘No. By that time, the servants of the Deepshriek had taken it into their temple.’

Lenk paused, stared hard at her. ‘What temple?’

She regarded him unflinchingly. ‘I will show you.’

‘Well, that’s . . .’ Denaos could not find the words to describe the sight looming before him. ‘That’s . . . uh . . .’

‘Impressive,’ Lenk muttered.

‘Ominous.’ Dreadaeleon nodded.

‘Vile.’ Asper blanched.

‘Yeah,’ the rogue said, ‘something like that.’

Like the hand of some drowning stone giant, scraping futilely at the sky as he took his final breath, the granite tower rose to claw at the orange clouds above. A plague of algae scarred its great hide, holes riddling its weathered skin like rocky wounds.

Brackish waves licked against the tower’s base, rising and falling to expose the sturdy reef it had been wrought upon. Each time the waves recoiled from the stones, a jagged chorus of rusted spears, blades and spikes embedded in the rocks glistened unpleasantly with the fading sun.

Stomachs writhed collectively as the companions stared upon the impressive mass of impaled corpses in varying stages of decay held fast by the red spikes. Amongst the panoply, a few protrusions impaled incautious sea creatures; many more bore arms with fingers, legs with toes, bodies swaddled by clothing.

Lenk still had trouble believing they hadn’t seen it before. Even ensconced on the far side of the island from where they had crashed, the thing was imposing enough to command attention from miles around.

‘This is their temple,’ Greenhair explained with a shudder. ‘They conduct their rites and sermons within.’ She narrowed her eyes upon the tower. ‘Mortals once lived here, long ago. In those days, they called it “Irontide”.’

‘And they aren’t here any more?’ Asper pointedly turned her head away as the waves recoiled once more. ‘Who . . . or what drove them away? The demons?’

‘Other men.’ Denaos spoke before the siren could. ‘Irontide has a rather colourful repute amongst certain circles.’

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