Tome of the Undergates

Page 39

‘Impressive, isn’t it?’

‘Not precisely the word I’d use to describe you.’ Lenk looked her up and down. ‘And yet . . . I feel compelled to ask - why?’

‘Why not?’ She rolled her black shoulders. ‘I’m about to go to war, aren’t I?’

‘We’ve done that before,’ Lenk replied, ‘and I’ve never seen you like . . . this . . . What the hell are you supposed to be, anyway?’

‘A shict about to receive the favour of her Goddess,’ she said proudly. ‘When the land is smeared with bodies, Riffid will look down and see my colours,’ she thumped her chest, ‘and know that it was Kataria of the sixth tribe who killed them.’

‘I see.’ Lenk didn’t bother to hide his cringe. ‘So . . . you expect to make a lot of kills today?’

‘You really are stupid, aren’t you?’ She grinned and tapped a particularly large stripe on her belly. ‘This is camouflage, you moron. We’re going into some place likely rather dark and, if you hadn’t noticed, I’m paler than a corpse.’

‘Convenience, I’d say.’ Denaos sipped his coffee. ‘I mean, if you’ve got the pallor of a dead body, that’s one less step before you’re actually dead. I suppose the paint will let me know which corpse is yours when you wash up on shore.’

‘If you live to see her die,’ Lenk said.

Denaos stared at him blankly, disbelief straining to express itself in his eyes as a particularly venomous curse strained to break free from his lips. Lenk, for his part, merely smiled back.

‘As the shict said, your God doesn’t love you nearly as well as you’d hope.’

The rogue paused, opened his mouth as if to say something, but could find nothing more than a sigh to offer.

‘I take it, then,’ he said, ‘that you’ve given some thought to the recovery of our precious tome.’

‘I have.’ Lenk nodded.

‘Thusly, you’ve no doubt a plan.’

‘I do.’

Denaos stared at him, purse-lipped, for a moment.


The young man smiled gently. ‘And you’re not going to like it.’



The frogmen, this one decided, still had needs.

It, for it was now far beyond a ‘he’, would have thought it slightly ironic, had this one still the capability to appreciate such a concept. This one had long ago grown past the desire for what it vaguely remembered as being needs. Comforts of family, of flesh and of company were no longer recalled; families died, flesh was weak, company had shunned him.

And yet, flashes of those necessities still clung frustratingly to this one, the claws of the weak and sorrowful creature this one had long ago sought to kill. While other frogmen had received Mother Deep’s blessing and no longer felt the need for food or for air or for water beyond a body to immerse themselves in, this one still felt knots in its belly, could not remain underwater.

Nor, this one thought irately, could this one ignore the growing pain in its loins any longer.

Quietly, this one crept into an alcove, carved by the crumbling tower as walls fell and endless blue seeped in. This one glanced over its shoulder; if any of those ones had seen it, it knew, there would be shame, there would be pain, and Mother Deep’s blessing would continually evade this one.

As it would continue to evade this one, it knew, after it dropped its loincloth to spill its water in the shallow pool that had formed in the alcove’s corner. To desecrate water blessed by the Shepherds, this one knew, was to displease Mother Deep. This one was not worried, however; Mother Deep was kind, Mother Deep was forgiving, Mother Deep had given this one the blessing of forgetting and a new life beneath the endless blue.

This one was not worried as it let itself leak out into the water with a great sigh.

This one was not worried as it felt the air grow a little colder.

It was only when this one noticed the rope descending from above that it felt the need to scream.

What emerged from its lips, however, was a strangled gargle as the thin, sharp rope bit into its neck and pulled. It felt itself slam against an unyielding surface, felt the rope knot behind its neck tighten. Its own voice fell silent as the yellow stream arced out in a terrified spray, its claws felt so feeble and weak as it raked at the rope.

‘Shh,’ something hissed behind it.

Its vision swam, eyes bulging from their sockets as though trying to escape. It kicked against leather, strained feebly to reach for the knife attached to the loincloth pooled around its ankles. Only as it felt its lungs tighten into pink fists inside it did this one remember the need to breathe.

A need this one never knew again.

Denaos caught the corpse as it slumped to the floor. Quietly, he laid it in the puddle of yellow filth and gave it a quick, distasteful shove. With barely a splash, it rolled over an outcropping and slipped into the black pool. No matter how shallow it might or might not have been, the frogman was well hidden from sight, and Denaos had no urge to see how deep such a pit went.

Instead, he rose and glanced out of the alcove, looking up and down the halls. The faintest traces of sunlight crept in through the faintest scratches in Irontide’s hide, but even such a small source of light was not permitted to live long within the tower. It was consumed by the dark water, pulled below to die soundlessly in the brackish depths that drowned the hall.

The poetry, while not lost on Denaos, would have to wait. For the moment, he was thrilled to find no frogmen, no Abysmyths, nothing that stopped him from making a beckoning gesture. Footsteps, wince-inducingly loud, filled the hall as a pair of shadows slipped into the alcove from around a corner.

‘Well done,’ Lenk whispered as he hunkered into the crevasse. ‘Clean and quiet.’

‘Quiet, maybe,’ Denaos mumbled. ‘Clean, hardly.’ He wrung out a lock of his hair, gagging at the drops of yellow that dropped to the floor. ‘I suppose I deserve it. Silf wouldn’t smile upon garrotting a man while he’s draining the dragon.’

‘What’s . . .’ Kataria grimaced. ‘What’s “draining the dragon”?’

‘It’s not important.’ Lenk waved her down. ‘Think, now. Where would they have the tome?’

‘Somewhere they don’t piss, I suppose.’ Denaos sighed.

‘Probably down there.’ Kataria gestured further along the hall. ‘Something’s going on.’

‘What’s going on?’

The shict glanced at him, her ears twitching as though that would be enough. Blinking, she coughed.

‘Oh, right, you’re . . .’ She shook her head. ‘Never mind. It’s hard to make out over all the water, but they seem to be . . . chanting or something, I don’t know.’ She frowned. ‘It’s not a pleasant noise, I can tell you that.’

‘Chanting is never good,’ Lenk muttered. ‘As if we needed any more reason to grab the tome and get out of here quickly.’

‘Agreed.’ Kataria nodded. She glanced between the two men. ‘So, uh . . . which one of you knows where it is?’

‘You might be missing the point of this. If we knew where it was, we wouldn’t be stumbling about in the dark waiting for our heads to be eaten.’ Lenk glanced down the hall. ‘I’ll wager, however, that whatever there is to be found is probably going to be found with the chanting.’

‘What we’ll find is a bunch of bloodthirsty demons,’ Denaos grumbled. ‘And, given that we have the rare opportunity of knowing where they are, we should probably go in the other direction.’

‘Do you have a better idea?’ Lenk held up a hand before the rogue could reply. ‘Do you have a better idea that doesn’t involve running away or soiling ourselves?’

‘Ah, well . . . you’ve got me there.’

‘Yeah,’ Lenk grunted. He glanced out of the alcove, then back to Denaos. ‘We’ll continue as we have, with you on point and Kataria covering our . . . or rather my rear.’

‘And what will you be doing while I’m sniffing your farts?’ the shict sneered. ‘Put me in the lead.’

‘Fat lot of good that piece of wood will do you in the lead.’ Denaos pointed at her bow. ‘It’s too cramped in here to draw the damn thing, let alone hit anything.’

‘And if you go in the lead, we’ll be found out for sure.’ She twitched her ears. ‘I could hear that splash for ages after you dumped the body.’

‘Well, I’m trusting our enemies don’t have ears the size of Saine.’ He snorted. ‘I seem to be doing a good job of it so far.’

‘Any dim-witted Kou’ru can sneak around and strangle something,’ Kataria hissed. ‘True stalking is a delicate practice, involving equal parts verbal and non-verbal.’

‘Verbal . . . you do know the point is to stay silent, don’t you?’

Whatever retort she had was cut off by the sound of legs splashing through the water, however. They tensed as one, waiting for the sound to pass. While it did so, they could still hear the heavy breathing of something just around the corner.

‘Hello?’ it gurgled. ‘Is that one there?’

Before anyone could stop her, Kataria sprang out from the alcove and levelled her bow at the creature.

‘No,’ she replied.

Air split apart, there was a hollow sound, then the sound of something slumping quietly beneath the black waters. Kataria cast a glance over her shoulder at Denaos and grinned haughtily.

‘Case in point.’ She slung her bow over her shoulder. ‘I’ll take lead.’

‘For a fortress, there’s not much to it, is there?’ Lenk murmured as quietly as he could as they crept through the hallway.

Total silence had become unattainable; the water seeping into the fortress had drowned the halls in ever-rising tides. It was all they could do to restrain their fears of something reaching out and seizing them from below as they mucked through the knee-high deeps.

‘I haven’t seen any rooms,’ he continued, ‘no barracks, no kitchens, no mess . . .’

They hesitated where the hall forked into two black paths. Kataria glanced up and down both, ears twitching, before gesturing for the two men to follow as she stalked further into Irontide. The sunlight, terrified even to peek a scant ray any further, completely disappeared, leaving them sloshing about in the dark.

‘If rumours can be trusted,’ Denaos replied softly, ‘there used to be sleeping quarters down here.’ He pointed towards the dripping ceiling. ‘Business was conducted further up.’

‘So what happened?’ Kataria whispered.

‘All I know is stories.’

‘And what did they say?’ the shict pressed.

She could feel his morbid grin twist into her back.

‘Supposedly,’ he muttered, ‘when the Navy finally seized Irontide, they made their examples down here.’ He rapped his knuckles against the stone. ‘The smugglers barricaded themselves in here. The Navy responded by punching a hole through the wall with their catapults.’


‘And then . . . high tide.’

She paused at that, taking a moment to waste a sneer in the darkness.

‘Dirty trick,’ she muttered. ‘But they’re just stories.’

No reply from the back.


‘They might be,’ Lenk replied for the rogue. ‘History’s full of worse ways to die and the people who think them up.’ He spared a stifled laugh. ‘I suppose we should take a certain amount of pride in that we’ll probably be experiencing some of the more awful ways first-hand.’

‘You’re a delight,’ Denaos growled softly. ‘Why have we stopped, anyway? At least with the sound of water, I don’t have to listen to you.’

Kataria leaned forwards in the gloom, narrowing her eyes. The two men held their breath behind her, nearly springing backwards when they heard her morbid chuckle.

‘There’s light ahead,’ she whispered, ‘and voices, too. We’re getting close.’

‘What kind of voices?’ Lenk asked.

‘Frogmen.’ She looked thoughtful as her ears twitched. ‘Something else, too.’

‘Abysmyths?’ Lenk tightened his grip on his sword.

‘No.’ She shook her head and frowned. ‘I thought I had heard something else, but I must have been mistaken.’

‘You’re never mistaken,’ Lenk said, quickly correcting himself, ‘when it comes to noise, anyway. What did you hear?’

‘A female’s voice.’ Her frown grew so heavy that it threatened to fall off her face and splash into the murk. ‘It almost . . . sounded like the siren.’

‘Aha!’ Denaos grimaced at his own cry. ‘I could have told you. She’s led us to our deaths.’

‘Kat said it sounded like Greenhair,’ Lenk replied harshly, ‘we don’t know if it’s her or not.’

‘How many things in this blessed world of ours sound like some fish-whore?’ the rogue snarled. ‘How many?’

‘I guess we’ll find out, won’t we?’

Lenk hefted his sword, gave Kataria a gentle push to urge her onwards. The shict responded by nocking an arrow, slinking forwards silently. Creeping into the gloom as they did, their steps heralded by the sounds of water sloshing, neither man nor shict glanced over a shoulder to see if the rogue followed.

Denaos had always thought of himself as a sensible man, a sensible man with very vocal instincts that currently shouted at him to turn around and let the others die on their own. It was suicide to follow; if, by some miracle of faith in fish-women, Greenhair hadn’t betrayed them, there might be another siren within the forsaken hold.

He recalled Greenhair’s song, her power to send men, even dragonmen, into slumber. The thought of snoring blissfully at some sea-witch’s tune while an Abysmyth quietly munched his head down to the neck held no great appeal.

Even if they did survive long enough to lay a finger upon the tome, what then? How would they escape? Even if they survived and were paid in full, how long would it be before he was placed in another situation where head-eating was a very likely outcome?

The sensible thing, he told himself, would be to turn back now, find a merchantman and hitch a ride back to decent folk.

‘Sensible,’ he reaffirmed to himself, ‘indeed.’

He knew that the tome lay with something that he did not seek to find. But he knew much more certainly that the things he didn’t want to find were in the shadows that turned sensible men to cowards.

And, he reminded himself as he sighed and began to wade after them, he was a sensible man.

‘I do not remember ever being loved by Gods.’

The frogman finished its sentence with a slam of its staff, driving it against the stones, letting the various bones attached to its head rattle against its ivory shaft. Dozens of pale faces looked up at the creature reverently, black eyes reflecting the torches that burnt with a pure emerald fire.

Dozens of faces, the frogman thought, free of scars, free of birthmarks, free of overbites, underbites, deformities, hair colours. Dozens of faces, all the same beaming paleness, all the same mouths twisted shut in reverence, all the same black eyes looking up at it, silently begging for the sermon to continue.

And the frogman indulged them.

‘I do not remember a day without suffering,’ it said, letting its voice echo off the vast chamber walls. ‘And I do not remember a day when my suffering served any purpose but for the amusement of what I once thought of as beings perfect and pure.’

The faces tensed in reply. The frogman snarled, baring teeth.

‘And I do not want to remember.’

At this, they bobbed their heads in unison, muttering quietly through their own jagged teeth.

‘What I remember,’ it hissed, ‘is praying daily at the shores for a false mother to deliver food. What I remember is starvation. What I remember is those that I once called my family being swallowed up and the waves mocking me. I remember.’ It levelled its staff at the congregation. ‘And so do you.’

‘Memory is our curse,’ they replied in unison, bowing their heads. ‘May Mother Deep forever free us.’

‘I thought the sea to be harsh and cruel, then,’ it continued, ‘but that is when I heard Her song.’ It tilted its head back, closing its eyes in memory. ‘I remember Her calling to me, singing to me. I remember Her assuring me that my life was precious, valuable, but my body was weak. I remember Her leading me here, granting me Her gifts, to breathe the water, to dance beneath the waves,’ its face stiffened, ‘to forget . . .

‘I do not remember Gods talking to me.’ It craned to face the congregation once more. ‘I do remember them asking me for my wealth and to deny others their wealth.’ Its smile was broad and full of teeth. ‘And so did Mother Deep bid me to shatter their pretences by asking these ones to come, penniless and alone, fearful and betrayed, full of aching memory. She bade these ones to return and forget the lies they had been told. She gave these ones gifts and asked for but one thing in return.’

The faces brightened in response, reflecting the frogman’s smile.

‘She asks,’ they chanted, ‘only that these ones aid the Shepherds as the Shepherds aid these ones.’

They spoke, and their voices reverberated through the water that had claimed the stones and the few stones the water had spared drowning. They spoke, and their voices caused the green flames to leap to life at their words as they burned in their sconces. They spoke, and a dozen as yet unheard voices, sealed behind sacs of flesh and skins of mucus, pulsated in response.

It would have thought them disgusting, it reflected, and chastised itself for the blasphemy. Something that it once was would have thought them disgusting, these glorious creations of Mother Deep that clung to the walls and pillars. Now, the frogman, the creature that it had become, knew them to be Her blessings made manifest.

They pulsated, beat like miniature hearts, bulbous and glistening, misshapen and glowing. Inside these great and vile creations of flesh and fluid, something stirred. Trapped within these skins, something sought to glow with the light of life. Beyond the glistening moisture that clung to them, something reflected only blackness.

‘Disgusting,’ Lenk muttered, sneering at the pulsating sacs. ‘What are they?’

Neither rogue nor shict had a response for him beyond a reflection of his own repulsion. The vast and sprawling chamber, as though it had not yet been desecrated enough by the black water that drowned it and the green and red graffiti that caked its walls, was absolutely infected with the things. They clung to every corner, bobbed in the water, hung from every pillar. The largest of them was suspended directly above the circle of frogmen, twitching with a thunderous pulse, threatening to drop at any moment.

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