Tome of the Undergates

Page 40

‘I’m rather more concerned with what they’re doing,’ Denaos muttered with a grimace as the frogmen began to rhythmically sway. ‘Any ceremony accompanied by ritualistic chanting tends to end with eviscerations, in my experience.’

‘I am slightly tempted to enquire, but all the same.’ Lenk nudged Kataria’s shoulder. ‘Any sign of Abysmyths?’

‘Not that I can see.’ Her eyes were narrowed, sweeping the chamber. ‘Take that as you will, though. They’re large, black things in a large, black room.’

‘Well, we can hardly wait here for them to come and eat us,’ the young man murmured. ‘We’ll have to move soon.’

‘To where, exactly?’

Lenk glanced about the hall. Options, it seemed, were limited. The chamber had undoubtedly once been grand, though its vast ceiling had begun to sink, its marching pillars had crumbled and its floor was completely lost to the water, save for the sprawling stone island that the frogmen congregated upon.

He didn’t even bother to note the torches crackling an unnatural green and the hanging sacs; there would be time enough to soil himself over those details later.

Though nearly unnoticeable through the gloom, he spied a crumbling archway at the chamber’s furthest corner. Half-drowned, half-cloaked in shadow, what lay beyond it was veiled in forbidding void.

‘There,’ he pointed, ‘that’s the way.’

‘How do you figure?’ Kataria grunted.

‘Because we seem to have a habit of going into places that would result in our deaths and I’d hate to ruin our rhythm.’

‘Sound reasoning as any. However,’ Denaos gestured to the prostrate frogmen, ‘how do you intend to get past them?’

‘Luck? Prayer?’ The young man shrugged.

‘Neither of which ever seem to work for me,’ the rogue countered. ‘Hence, before we decide to rush off all at once and possibly die together, let’s do a bit of scouting.’ He gestured to Kataria. ‘Send the shict out first.’

The suggestion struck Lenk like an open-handed slap and he felt himself tense at it, fixing a scowl upon the rogue. In the back of his mind, he knew such an anger shouldn’t have been stirred within him; after all, his companions had nothing in common save complete disregard for each other’s well-being.

All the same, he couldn’t help but tighten his grip on his sword irately.

‘Yeah, that works.’

If Denaos had slapped him, Kataria’s response all but knocked him into the water. He whirled on her suddenly with eyes wide.

‘What?’ he sputtered. ‘Wait, why?’

‘It makes sense, doesn’t it? I’m the best stalker. I should go ahead and see if this even has a chance of working.’

She unstrung her bow and pulled a small leather pouch from her belt. Quietly coiling the string, she secured it tightly within the pouch before popping it into her mouth and swallowing it. Her unpleasant smile at the men’s revulsion was accompanied by a wink.

‘Wet bows don’t shoot.’

‘That’s not what I’m worried about. You might get killed.’

She blinked at him.

‘And?’ Not waiting for an answer, she turned, crouching low into the water. ‘Assuming you can see me when I reach the door, follow.’

‘But . . . Fine.’

Lenk found the words coming out of his mouth with more exasperation than they should have. He watched her slide into the water, her black-painted flesh melding seamlessly into the gloom. Only the tips of her ears, protruding from the surface like the dorsal fins of two fish, gave any indication of her presence.

It was only after she was almost totally out of sight that he whispered to her fading form.

‘Be careful.’

‘She’ll be fine,’ Denaos muttered.

‘Of course, no great loss if she dies.’ Lenk cast a cold, narrow scowl over his shoulder. ‘Right?’

‘Given the circumstances, I would think the opposite. I’d rather have a working bow than a corpse.’

‘Don’t act coy.’

‘It’s no act, I assure you.’

‘Well, in case you hadn’t noticed,’ Lenk spat, ‘I still hold a grudge over what you said on the beach.’

‘You’ll have to be more specific.’

‘I mean—’ The young man paused, scowling at his taller companion. ‘You really are scum, you know that?’

‘It has been suggested before.’ The rogue shrugged. ‘And yes, of course I know what you’re talking about.’


‘And,’ Denaos bit his lip contemplatively, ‘I’m a tad hard pressed to care.’

Lenk had no retort for that, merely staring at the tall man with a blend of incredulousness and anger that vaguely resembled an uncomfortable bowel movement. Before he could even begin to think of something to say, however, Denaos held up a hand.

‘And before you decide to see just how far up you can shove that sword, let me explain something to you.’ He sighed a sort of sigh that a father reserves for uncomfortable discussions with a son aspiring to be a seamstress. ‘Listen, you’re still young, rather naive to the ways of the world, but I consider you enough of a friend to tell you that you’re wasting your time.’

The rogue’s words were lost on Lenk, so many unheard echoes in the void of his ears, fading quickly with every breath. And with every breath, another voice spoke more loudly in his head.

‘He is weak.’

‘You’re a human,’ Denaos continued, ‘she’s a shict. Don’t get me wrong, I’m delighted you found a pointy-eared shrew to lavish undue affection upon, if only for the sake of loosening you up, but don’t think for a breath that the feeling is shared.’

‘She is weak, as well.’

‘Whatever you may think of her, of everyone in the little social circle we’ve created, it’s all completely pointless.’

‘They will both die here.’

‘In the end, you can’t change what you are, and neither can she.’

‘We will live on, though.’

‘She’s a shict. You’re a human. Enemies.’

‘Our enemy lies within this forsaken church.’

‘Centuries upon centuries of open warfare won’t lapse just for you, my friend.’

‘We will make our war upon the creature that leads these abominations.’

‘She’ll shoot you in the back as soon as she feels the impulse.’

‘We will carve out the pestilence that festers here.’

‘So don’t blame me for holding a view that the rest of the world knows to be true.’

‘We will cleanse this world.’

‘It’s all moot, anyway. You clearly haven’t heard a word I’ve said.’

‘And it begins . . . now.’

‘Now . . .’ Lenk whispered.

‘NOW!’ another voice echoed.

They whirled about as one, suddenly aware that the rhythmic chanting had reached an abhorrent crescendo. The voices were incoherent, tainted by the sound of croaking and gurgling, punctuated by clawed hands raised, trembling, to the sunken ceiling. All knelt prostrate, all babbled wildly in mockery of a proper hymn.

All but one.

‘Now is the time,’ the frogman with the staff uttered, ‘now is when these ones’ suffering and hardships are rewarded. ’

It raised its staff to the ceiling and the pulsating sac above responded. It ceased to beat like a heart and began to tremble furiously, shaking angrily against the thick strands of mucus that held it to the stones. Areas of it stretched, extended, indentations of thick fingers pressed against the viscous skin.

The frogmen responded, their voices rising and falling in ecstatic discord with every push from within the tumour-like womb. The staff-bearing creature seemed to rise higher, held aloft by their fervent chanting as it shook its staff at the ceiling.

‘Come to these ones, Shepherd,’ it crowed, ‘and grant these ones the gifts that were promised.’

‘Free these ones from the chains of memory and the sins of air,’ the chorus chanted.

‘The feasts that were promised,’ the high frogman croaked, ‘the gifts that were whispered, the song that is yearning to be heard . . .’

‘Sing to these ones,’ the chorus spoke, ‘and deliver the world—’


The frogman’s invocation echoed through the hall.

It did not go unanswered.

There was the sound of flesh ripping as the sac split apart against the force of a long, black arm. It dangled, glistening like onyx, from the ceiling for but a moment before the ripping became a harsh groan.

Lenk’s breath caught in his throat as the womb tore open violently, expelling a blur of blackness that collapsed onto the floor with a heavy, hollow sound. From the quivering strands of leathery flesh that dangled from the ruined womb, droplets of a thick, glimmering substance coagulated, shivered and fell. The frogmen rolled their heads back, expressions twisted into orgasmic mirrors of each other as the substance splattered across their faces.

There was no time for the young man to vomit, no breath left in him to even contemplate doing such a thing. Unable to turn away, he continued to stare as the blob of darkness began to stir in the circle of frogmen.

Without so much as a whisper, it rose to its knees. Even so prostrate, it towered over the row of hairless heads before it. Its body trembled, sending thick globs of the ooze peeling off its flesh. With a violent cough, expelling more of the foul stuff, its head rose: two vacant white eyes stared up, a jaw filled with white teeth lowered.

And, freshly born, the Abysmyth screamed.

‘Sons of . . .’

The meagre breath that Denaos was able to conjure was still more than Lenk could manage. The young man’s jaw hung slack, his sword limp at his side. He could not blink, for fear that when he opened his eyes again, the demon would still be there.

The creature took no notice of the men, however. It swayed upon its knees, oblivious to its surroundings as the frogmen crowded around it, scooping globs of the viscous ooze in both hands and devouring it messily, choking on their own moans as they shovelled, lapped and slurped the demonic afterbirth into their craws.

‘This is only the beginning,’ the voice murmured within Lenk’s head, ‘and we are the ending.’

‘Do we kill it?’ Lenk asked quietly.

‘Are you mad?’ Denaos, incredulous, was unaware of the unseen speaker.

‘No. Too many tumours. We go deeper.’

‘At any rate,’ the rogue whispered, ‘we’d better get a move on. Kat’s found the way.’

The mention of her name caused him to blink. The sight of a few bands of pale flesh at the furthest edge of the chamber caused him to smile. The shict, her eyes so wide as to be visible across the waters, seemed barely able to tear her attention away from the ghastly scene long enough to beckon them over.

‘We go, then,’ Lenk whispered.

He sheathed his sword and slid into the gloom, Denaos close behind him. Quietly, they darted between the bobbing sacs, careful not to look too closely into any of them. Filling their ears were the sounds of things moving within and the choked moans of the frogmen’s gluttony.

‘Silf preserve me.’ Denaos’s grumble was mingled with the sound of water sloshing as he pulled himself up the steady slope and onto dry land. ‘But in a fortress crawling with demons, breeches riding up on me should be the last of my problems.’

‘Could be worse.’ Kataria wrung her long braid free of the black water as she crawled out of the gloom. ‘At least there aren’t any frogmen here.’

‘True.’ Lenk was last to pull himself free. He paused, casting a glance down the twisting corridor they had just swum through; the chanting had begun again and now echoed listlessly. ‘They’re still far too close for my liking, however.’

‘All the more reason to get moving.’ Kataria held up a finger, then lurched. Her mouth opened, a vile gagging sound emerging from within. Her whole body shuddered, then the tiny leather pouch was in her hand. Pulling the string out, she began to reassemble her bow. ‘Right, then. Where to?’

Lenk quietly surveyed their new surroundings, if only to avert his gaze from the shict’s nauseating display. The hall was refreshingly large after the oppressively cramped passages of Irontide. The torches, while still burning an unnatural green, did so with as little malice as an unnaturally green fire could manage. All in all, he thought, the broad hall was rather pleasant.

That worried him.

The dilapidation that plagued the rest of the keep was strangely absent. The walls were of a smooth, polished stone that resembled emerald against the crackling torchlight. At the end of the hall, a tall, square doorway had been carved, the green light pouring from beyond like venom from a serpent’s maw.

‘I only see one way.’ He sighed, gesturing with his chin. ‘Denaos, take the lead.’

‘Of course.’ The rogue sighed dramatically. ‘Why not? I’ve already been doused in some reeking foulness that’s gone so far up my nose I can see the filth behind my eyes. Nothing else could be too much worse.’

‘On second thought,’ Lenk drew his sword, ‘I’ll take the lead.’ Shoving the rogue aside, he strode cautiously towards the door. ‘If there’s something waiting up ahead to dismember us, I think I’d like to go first to spare me your whining.’

Despite weapons in hand and an irate growl from Denaos, their trek towards the doorway was less than cautious. Why wouldn’t it be? Lenk thought. It’s not like anything can hide here. For all the tension that coursed through them, the young man almost felt disappointed that their journey was so uneventful.

‘Wait here,’ he whispered.

‘Be careful.’

He felt a hand on his shoulder and turned to face two hard emerald eyes. He cracked a grin that he hoped was reassuring and hefted his sword as he slipped through the massive stone frame. He could hear their held breaths with each step, their silence speaking the fear their voices could not.

‘Think we’re close?’ Denaos whispered to the shict.

‘Might be,’ she grunted. ‘I’ve never known Lenk to guide us wrong.’ She smiled. ‘He just takes us on unorthodox routes.’

‘Unorthodox,’ the rogue muttered, ‘a much kinder word than I was going to use.’

Lenk paused beyond the doorway as he cast a scrutinising glance about this new chamber. Many moments passed before he turned around and shrugged, then returned to searching.

Kataria was about to take a step to join him when something struck her as amiss: she could hear her footsteps. The sound of silence was deafening in her ears.

‘Do you . . .’ she glanced at Denaos, ‘hear anything?’

The rogue cast her a crooked scowl before the same realisation filled his eyes.

‘Nothing,’ he whispered, ‘the chanting’s stopped.’

Before Kataria could reply, she felt a sudden chill. Something cold and wet plopped upon her shoulder and trickled down her bare back. Swallowing hard, she reached behind and took a bit of it between her fingers. It was too thick for water, she realised, and carried a peculiar but familiar odour.

Sparing no words for surprise or disgust, she felt the chill grow colder, a long shadow descending over her.

‘Oh,’ she gasped, looking up, ‘hell . . .’

She saw herself reflected in the Abysmyth’s white eyes for a moment before a long, black claw seized her by the throat. Her scream was wordless and terrified as she was hoisted into the air.

Lenk whirled about at the cry, his sword up and feet moving before he even knew what had happened. He had barely taken a step, however, before the entire fortress trembled. A massive stone block fell with a thunderous crash, wedging itself firmly in the doorway and banishing Lenk behind a vast screen of grey.

Kataria barely had time to glimpse the sight of another demon grabbing Denaos, the rogue going limp in its claws, before her captor whirled her about. Her bow effortlessly wrenched from her grasp, her quiver torn from her back and tossed to the earth, she was helpless as the demon presented her before dozens of pale faces, each one a perfect copy of the others, looking at her through malicious black eyes.

And at their fore was their staff-bearing leader, the only face to be twisted into a broad, needle-toothed grin as it croaked.

‘Mother Deep . . . has sent us much.’



Irontide was a thing oblivious to the sun.

As dark and foreboding in the bright afternoon as at dusk, it turned a stony and shadowed face to the shore, frowning with its many catapult-carved gashes, grinning with its corpse-laden spikes when the waters receded. A dispassionate monarch of the waves, Irontide was unmoved by the concerned stare that had bored into it since early morning, choosing to show the fate of those who defied it whenever disapproving eyes lingered too long.

The metaphor, Asper decided, was fitting. Irontide was a tyrant, complete with its own crown of parasites.

The Omens shimmered in the afternoon sun, ruffling feathers, heads twisting on stiff necks as they swept their bulbous eyes about the sea. The priestess was not afraid to stand openly upon the beach as she did; the little creatures showed no signs of moving. Rather, she found herself staring at them expectantly, holding her breath every time they chattered their teeth in a chorus, wondering if they would begin mimicking the sounds of her dying companions as they were torn into pieces by whatever lurked within the fortress.

The demons, to their credit, seemed to possess enough tact to spare her such a thing.

And yet, she thought resentfully, even a horrific echo from their withered maws would give her at least some notion of what was going on inside. The Omens gave no indication that they had any more idea than she, and stood as they had for ages: organised in neat, white rows upon the battlements, wide eyes unblinking even as the light of an angry afternoon sun poured mercilessly into them.

A sun, Asper noted, that hung ominously high.

‘Four hours.’ She sighed.

While she hadn’t expected any great outpouring of emotion from her companion, she felt compelled to scowl at Gariath as he stared off towards the jungle, snout upturned and nostrils flickering.

‘Four hours since they went in,’ she reiterated.

Gariath, apparently realising she wasn’t going to be content with showing off her ability to tell time, flared his ear-frills aggressively and glared.

Copyright © novelfull All Rights Reserved.