Tome of the Undergates

Page 37

‘Circles that begin and end in activities I’ve doubtless no pleasure in hearing about,’ the priestess muttered. ‘But do go on.’

‘Fair enough.’ The rogue shrugged. ‘As you probably know, the main export of the Toha Nations is rum, that being the only place in the world the drink’s made. As a result, Toha was quick to extort as much tax gold as they could from other nations desiring the drink. Seeing a profit to be made, pirates were quick to sell illicit barrels of the stuff for far cheaper.

‘Towers of this design,’ he gestured for emphasis, ‘were originally storehouses and protection against the Toha Navy.’ He pointed to the stone-scarred reaches of the tower’s battlements. ‘You can see there what the Navy’s catapults thought of that.’

‘I see.’ Asper swallowed hard. ‘And . . . the spikes?’

‘First, they were for protection. Then they were used to make examples.’

‘Disgusting.’ She grimaced. ‘What a vile trick that so many lives should be wasted over a drink that has no purpose but to turn good people into sleazy harlots and swillers.’

‘That’s not entirely fair,’ he replied brusquely. ‘The same, after all, could be said of any faith.’

‘You’re actually comparing a house and faith of the Gods to smuggling?’

‘They seem fairly alike to me. Crime and religion are the only two things that people are willing to both die for and kill over.’

‘Regardless of who lived here for whatever reason,’ Lenk interjected, taking a step forwards, ‘it appears to have new residents.’

It was plain to see what he spoke of.

Plain and gruesome against the setting sun, a flock of feathers and bulbous eyes formed a white and writhing crown atop the giant. They milled about in great numbers, offering glimpses of hooked noses and yellow teeth that chattered endlessly.

‘Omens,’ he muttered.

‘Ah yes,’ Greenhair said coldly, ‘the choir.’

Before Lenk could make any agreement, something caught his eye. At the centre of the huddled mass of parasites, a particularly large white tumour pulsated and writhed. He squinted; though it was larger than anything with feathers had a right to be, he could discern no features. He glanced over his shoulder, beckoned to Kataria.

‘Have a look.’

She nodded, stalking up beside him, and stared long at the tower. The assembled, in turn, stared long at her, expectant as a grimace crossed her face.

‘What is it?’ Lenk dared to ask.

‘I really have no idea.’ Her grimace became a frown as she squinted, trying to find the words. ‘It’s . . . big . . . like one of the Omens, except . . . bigger. I don’t know . . . it’s got hands and a face, but . . . it’s upside-down, all angular.’ She scratched her head. ‘Well . . . hell.’

‘As good a descriptor as any,’ the young man muttered. ‘How many Omens?’

‘At least twenty, though they all move around so much it’s hard to tell.’

‘Scavengers.’ Greenhair’s voice was rife with loathing. ‘They feed on the dead and grow glutted on suffering. What you have seen, Notch-ear, is their . . . enlightened form.’

‘Form?’ Asper’s eyes went wide. ‘Omens . . . change?’

‘As they feed, yes. They are heralds, after all, and as they change, so too does the Kraken Queen grow in strength.’ She frowned. ‘To see one here, so soon, is . . . troubling.’

‘They don’t seem to have seen us,’ Kataria noted.

‘Nor will they, should we keep our distance,’ Greenhair replied. ‘In their smallest form, they are unthinking, oblivious. The greater one is present to ensure that they attack only what they are meant to attack.’

‘A watchdog.’ Lenk nodded. ‘With a pack of flesh-eating seagulls. Makes sense, given the circumstances.’

‘Not to mention a bunch of filthy, corpse-laden spikes,’ Kataria grunted, ‘and, if Omens are heralds, there’re enough of them to suggest quite a few Abysmyths inside.’

‘And that’s where the tome was taken.’ Lenk bit his lower lip, sighed. ‘Lovely.’

‘Lovely, indeed.’ Denaos clapped his hands together. ‘Rusted spikes to skewer us, Omens to eat us afterwards, Abysmyths waiting to tear us apart barring more fortunate fates.’ He giggled, not a little hysterical. ‘If we’re really fortunate, a shark will eat us before we ever set foot on it.’ His giggle became a cackle. ‘No, if Silf truly loves us, he’ll send a lightning bolt to strike us down before we even try.’

At that, he flung out his arms and looked to the sky expectantly. All he received, however, was a stagger forwards as Gariath shoved his way to the front.

‘A death from a weak God for a weak rat,’ he growled, ‘the best you could hope for.’

‘Let’s not get carried away,’ Kataria interrupted. ‘No one, as yet, has said anything about going in.’

‘Of course we’re going in there,’ Denaos snapped. ‘It’s completely brainless, bereft of any logical reason and totally suicidal. Why wouldn’t we go in there?’

‘It does look fairly impenetrable.’ Asper frowned once for the fortress and twice for the fact that she agreed with the rogue. ‘It’s too far to swim without being made into meat for the Omens and I doubt we could get our little boat over there even once we’ve repaired it.’ She squinted. ‘I can’t even see a way in.’

‘There is but one,’ Greenhair said. ‘On the other side, amidst the rocks, there is a concealed opening. Seals slumbered by it before the Deepshriek desecrated this place.’

‘Regardless,’ Lenk muttered, ‘there’s no way to reach it alive. If we aren’t dashed against the spikes by a wave, the Omens will gnaw us to pieces.’

‘Not necessarily.’ Dreadaeleon scratched his chin. ‘I mean, watchdogs aren’t the brightest things in the world. Toss a piece of meat out and you can sneak by one, easily.’ He glanced to Denaos. ‘I suspect you’d probably know more about that than I would, though.’

‘You want to distract them?’ The rogue scoffed. ‘You plan to strip naked, smear yourself with faeces and do the jolly Omen mating dance?’ He paused, tapped his cheek thoughtfully. ‘That might work.’

‘Hm . . . I’m not sure,’ the boy replied, oblivious. ‘I might be able to do something about it, though. They’re scavengers, right? Gluttons?’ At a nod from Greenhair, he glanced out to sea. ‘So, if they are anything like watchdogs, they’re probably attracted to blood. In that case, all we need to do is turn the water from blue to red.’

‘Oh, is that all?’ Denaos sneered.

‘It’s not too difficult. In fact, with a glamer, it should be rather easy . . . in theory.’

‘Nothing with magic is ever easy, in theory or in practice, ’ Denaos replied. ‘And what in Silf ’s name is a . . . glamer, anyway?’

‘Glamer,’ Dreadaeleon said, ‘from the word “glimmer”. It’s just a small spectromancy spell, one of the lesser schools. It works on the theory of bending light to produce an image.’ He held up a finger. ‘To wit.’

His hand danced in front of his face for a moment, a brief murmur expulsed from his lips. His skin shimmered, blinked, then distorted and when he turned back to the companions, he had full lips, long eyelashes and delicate angles. He batted his eyes and gave a demure giggle.

‘Just like that,’ his voice was a sharp contrast to his new face, ‘except on a larger, more distant scale.’

‘That’s . . . actually not a bad idea.’ Lenk nodded appreciatively. After an unbearably long moment, he coughed. ‘So, uh, are you going to stay that way or . . .’

‘Oh, right.’ The boy waved a hand and returned his face to his own with another, equally feminine giggle. ‘Well, I would just lose my own face if it weren’t laced on.’

‘Right . . . anyway, never say or do anything you did in the last few breaths ever again.’

‘We don’t need magic,’ Gariath growled suddenly. ‘We don’t need cowards, either.’ He thumped a fist against his chest. ‘We go in. We kill them as they come. We get the stupid book.’

‘It’s all so easy.’ Asper rolled her eyes. ‘If we conveniently go insane and forget the fact there are Gods know how many frogmen and Abysmyths in there. Factoring in the Deepshriek, I’d love to believe that we could make it in, I really would, but I doubt it.’ The waves receded, exposing the decaying buffet of flesh. ‘I severely doubt it.’

‘But it is not impossible,’ Greenhair protested. ‘I have heard the lorekeeper. He has told me much of what you have faced and fought before! He has told me the bravery of adventurers.’

‘He lied,’ Denaos spat. ‘Practicality dictates adventure, not bravery. Besides,’ he sniffed, ‘you’re not the one to risk your head getting eaten.’

‘Don’t disrespect her,’ Dreadaeleon snapped. ‘She can help us.’

‘With what? Singing lessons? Unless she can hold you down while I pound sense into your pudgy head, she’s useless to us.’

‘My head isn’t pudgy.’ The boy’s eyes flashed. ‘But my brain . . . is HUGE!’

‘Big enough to come up with a better idea?’

Lenk glanced at the rogue. ‘Can you?’

‘As a matter of fact, I can.’ Denaos puffed up, ready to explode with self-satisfaction. ‘As much as I’d love to recommend running away, I do like getting paid. Obviously, though, charging into a tower that is both ready to collapse and brimming with demons isn’t a good idea in any language.’ He shrugged. ‘So, why not just wait?’


‘Wait.’ He nodded. ‘They’ll come out, eventually, to do what demons do. Or we lure them out. Either way, we ambush them, take the book and then run away.’

‘That’s . . . not completely bad,’ Asper conceded. ‘They can’t stay in there for ever, can they? If they plan to do something with the tome, they’ll likely bring it out eventually. ’

‘I suppose that passes for genius amongst humans,’ Kataria sneered. ‘Leave the book in the hands of demons and wait to see what they do with it? You stupid monkey.’

‘And how do you plan to saunter your mighty shicty self in?’ Asper snapped back. ‘Are you going to swim in and hope they think your huge ears jutting from the waters are just a white fish with two fins?’

‘Miron,’ she poked the priestess hard, ‘your almighty lord and master, said himself that we can’t leave the tome in their hands.’ Her ears twitched threateningly. ‘And, frankly, your ear-envy is just sickening.’


‘Miron isn’t the one risking everything.’ Denaos stepped up beside the priestess.

‘And you would risk anything?’ Gariath’s laugh was a derisive rumble as he loomed over the man. ‘Your eyes and breeches both go moist at the first sign of trouble. The Rhega spit in the eyes of death and demons.’

‘Oh, it’s not my death I’m afraid of,’ the rogue hissed, ‘I’m utterly terrified of the idea that you and I will both die and I’ll have to share my heaven with some scaly, smelly reptile.’

‘There is no heaven for rats,’ Gariath snarled, shoving the rogue. ‘They get tossed on the trash heap and rot in a hole.’

‘ENOUGH!’ Kataria’s cry temporarily skewered the argument. As an uneasy silence descended, she glanced towards Lenk, staring absently across the sea. ‘And what do you say? You’re the one who usually chooses between bad ideas.’

‘Oh, is that what I do?’

He had no more words, only eyes, and they were fixated upon the fortress. The sun was dying at the horizon, descending into a blue grave, and the impending darkness seeped into his thoughts.

One Abysmyth, he reasoned, was invincible. It was a vicious brute capable of ripping people apart and drowning them on dry land, sometimes inflicting both on the same person. The fact that there was more than one had seemed a nightmare too horrifying to contemplate earlier that day.

The fact that there were more than two, discounting how many multitudes of frogmen and Omens accompanied them, was too horrifying not to contemplate.

In light of that fact, all plans seemed equally insane, save the unspoken idea of just turning around and leaving.

And yet, he thought, not even Denaos has suggested leaving . . .

Further, he had entered a contract; not just an adventurer’s agreement, but a contract, penned and sealed with promises. He had sold his word to Miron Evenhands, for one thousand pieces of gold.

A man’s word, no matter how expensive it might be, is the only thing of any real worth a man can give.

His grandfather had told him that, he was certain.

Don’t forget, though, that honour and common sense are mutually exclusive.

His grandfather had also said that.


He felt Kataria prodding him, breaking his reverie.

‘I . . .’ he inhaled dramatically and his companions held their breath with him, ‘am hungry.’ He sighed and so did they. ‘And tired.’

With that, he turned from the fortress and began to trudge away. They watched him for a few moments before Denaos spoke up.

‘What? That’s it?’

‘Night is falling,’ he replied. ‘If I’m going to my death, it can wait until I’ve had dinner.’


The Mouth, the Prophet, the Voice



The Aeons’ Gate

Ktamgi, a few days north and east (?) of Toha

Summer, getting later

So, why be an adventurer?

Why forsake the security of a mercenary guild, the comfort of a family or the patriotism of a soldier to serve at the whims of unscrupulous characters and perform deeds that fall somewhere in the triangle of madness, villainy and self-loathing?

To be honest, I hadn’t actually asked myself that for awhile. Don’t misunderstand; I asked myself all the time when I first began doing this sort of thing, three years ago. I don’t recall ever finding an answer . . .

Eventually, one begins to accept one’s lot in life, adventurers included, so I suppose I’d say the chief reason people stay with this, let’s be honest, rather abhorrent career decision is out of sheer laziness. But that doesn’t really offer an answer to the chief question, does it?

Why do it in the first place?

Freedom, perhaps, could be one reason: the need to be without the beck and call of sergeants, kings or even customers. An adventurer is as close as you can get to that sort of thing without declaring yourself outright a highwayman or rapist. Hardly any profit in the latter, anyway.

Greed is certainly another factor, for though adventurers don’t get hired often, we do typically end up with whatever gold we acquire along the way from robberies, plundering or looting ... which might be why we don’t get hired very often.

That aside, I think the real reason is the first one: laziness.

Wait, let me rephrase.


There’s precious little of it to be found in an adventurer’s life, it’s certain . . . and maybe that’s why we pick up a sword or a bow or a knife and decide to do it. It makes sense, doesn’t it? We all want comfort, in one way or another.

Asper wants the comfort of being able to provide comfort to others in the name of Talanas; being an adventurer gives her plenty of opportunity.

Dreadaeleon wants the comfort of knowing he did everything he could to make himself and his art stronger; again, plenty of opportunity.

Gariath wants the comfort of knowing he did everything he could to reduce the population of every non-dragonman species; I suspect there’s a greater reason, but I haven’t had any inclination to endure the head-stompings that asking would entail.

Denaos wants gold, I suppose, but why our gold is anyone’s guess. He could get gold anywhere else. Maybe he just wants the comfort of knowing he’s close to people as scummy as himself.

Kataria . . . is a mystery.

She has everything people who adventure typically don’t have: family, identity, security, homeland. Granted, I know only as much about shicts as I’d heard in stories and what I’ve learned from Kataria, but such things, and she’s bragged as much, are abundant in shictish society. If she had stayed with them, she’d undoubtedly lead a happy life hunting deer, raising little shictlets and perhaps killing a human or two.

As for me . . . maybe by staying near her I can remember what having those things is like . . .

... The family and identity part. Not the killing humans part. Though I suspect I’ve done enough of that to warrant at least a nod from the shicts.

To that end, I briefly considered asking her to stay behind today.

If I die, there’s nothing much that will be sorry for my loss. A dead child is a tragedy. A dead man is a funeral. A dead soldier is a loss. A dead adventurer is a lump in the ground and possibly a round of drinks from his former employer. If Gariath or Denaos die, there’ll just be one less murderer running loose. If Asper or Dread die, they’ll have done so for a cause and, thusly, not in vain.

But if Kat dies . . . people will mourn.

I would have liked to tell her to stay . . . but, alas, I am an adventurer and it’s true what Denaos said: practicality, not bravery, is what drives us.

And having her as a part of my plan is very practical.

The following sentence will undoubtedly prove to be the point of identification in this particular saga where I ceased to be merely foolhardy and became totally mad:

I’ve decided to go into Irontide, after the tome.

Thus far, I’ve determined the best means of procuring said book will be through stealth. And, with that in mind, it should come as no surprise that I’ve decided to divide us up for that purpose. It should come as no further surprise that Gariath won’t be coming along.

Nor will Asper or Dreadaeleon - they are too squeamish and too curious, respectively, to be of any use. Denaos, however, is both a thug and possessed of a particular aversion to what lies inside. He’ll be perfect.

Kataria is a stalker and a hunter. I need keen senses in there, too; if Gariath’s nose can’t come, I’ll gladly settle for Kat’s ears. Her bow will be a welcome asset, as well.

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