Tome of the Undergates

Page 41


‘Shouldn’t they be back by now?’ she asked.

‘Had I gone with them, they should,’ he snorted. ‘Since I’m here, however, their corpses might wash up in a day or two.’

‘Are you being scornful,’ Asper glared at him, ‘or just insensitive?’

‘I wasn’t aware I had to choose between the two,’ he replied, and turned his attention back to the jungle.

She would have suggested that they go in after their, supposedly, mutual companions, but wisdom held her tongue. Whyever Lenk had decided to go in with only Kataria and Denaos, perhaps two of the less reliable companions, to watch his back, she was certain he had reason.

It seemed to make sense to her, at any rate, since the remaining two members seemed to be less interested than she was. Dreadaeleon sat some distance down the beach, babbling excitedly with Greenhair, who had yet to show even an ounce of concern, despite seeming the most knowledgeable regarding what might happen within the tower. Her apathy seemed to have infected the boy; he hadn’t moved since luring the Omens away with his glamer long enough to allow Lenk and the others to slip in.

As for Gariath, she had to admit she was a tad surprised to see him so calm about being left behind. The dragonman, however, seemed even less concerned than the others. That was only surprising due to his eagerness to kill. Yet even that appeared restrained as he stared towards the jungle, inhaling deeply.

She had been content to allow him whatever eccentricities a two-legged reptile might be entitled to for the first three hours, but after so long without even a bat of his leathery eyelid, she took a step forwards.

‘What are you doing, anyway?’

‘I was ignoring you,’ he replied calmly, ‘but I suppose the spirits don’t love me today, do they?’

‘And these spirits allow you to remain so calm while our friends are possibly being eviscerated in there?’ She gestured fervently to the tower. ‘I must admit, I’m a bit intrigued.’

‘First of all, they’re not all friends to me,’ he grunted. ‘Secondly, the spirits have no use for weak and ugly creatures. ’ He rolled his shoulders. ‘The spirits protect the strong. Lenk is strong. He will survive.’

‘And the others?’

‘Dead,’ he replied. ‘The pointy-eared one might die quicker than the rat, if the spirits are merciful.’

‘I . . . see. So, uh . . .’ She found herself eager to begin a new topic, if only to take her mind off which chunks of her friends might or might not be in the process of being torn out at that moment. ‘Is it . . . the spirits you’re smelling?’

‘Don’t be stupid,’ he said, inhaling. ‘I’m smelling a memory.’

‘Oh . . . well, I guess that makes sense.’ She scratched her head. ‘What are the spirits, anyway?’

‘You wouldn’t understand.’

‘Oh, of course I wouldn’t.’ She rolled her eyes. ‘Perhaps the only person of worldly faith amongst this whole Godless band of heathens, and I, of course, wouldn’t understand the religion of a walking, bloodthirsty lizard.’

‘No, you wouldn’t.’ The dragonman’s tone was decidedly calm for the accusation. Or at least distracted, Asper thought; either way, she resisted the urge to take off running. He simply drew in a deep breath. ‘It’s not a religion.’

‘Then what is it?’

‘Live well, protect the family,’ Gariath grunted. ‘And the spirits are honoured enough to give you the strength to do it.’

‘So . . . it is a religion.’ She chanced a step forwards. ‘I mean, it’s not so different amongst us . . . er, amongst humans.’

‘So I’ve noticed,’ he replied without looking at her. ‘Humans are rather fond of having so many different weak Gods from whom they claim to draw strength. And with that strength, they try to kill everyone who doesn’t kneel before the right weak God.’ He chuckled blackly. ‘And somehow, no weak God gives their followers enough strength to truly bless the world and wipe each other out. There are always more humans.’

‘Well, that’s not quite how it works. I mean, Talanas is the Healer, He—’

‘Gives you the strength to clean up after the other weak Gods’ messes,’ Gariath interrupted. ‘I suppose I have you to thank for knowing all this about humans and their useless faiths, since you never shut up about them.’

Asper self-consciously rubbed her left arm.

‘It’s . . . not always about power.’

‘Then what’s the point?’

Asper found herself disarmed by the question. She had been mentally preparing her arsenal of responses, all sharply honed from years of debate with other scholars of faith. Other human scholars, she corrected herself; amongst her own people, her weaponry had always been enough. Her responses were accepted, her reasoning commonplace, her retorts cutting deeply against the shield of human rhetoric.

And yet, she stood still, too stunned even to be galled at the fact that she had been rendered speechless by a simple question. And yet, all the more galling, she had enough wits left about her to realise why it left her so paralysed.

She was, she realised, a custodian. She was a matron who had, thus far, kissed scratches and massaged bruises, whose limitations had been proven the day before. Kataria, breathless and still upon the sands, was still vivid and fresh in her mind. Now she saw the visions again, visions of things yet to pass: her companions bleeding out on the stones of Irontide, drowning in the clutches of demons, eviscerated on whatever infernal altars they had constructed in the tower’s unhallowed depths.

And here she was . . . left behind.

Now she knew why Lenk had chosen not to take her.

‘Do the spirits make you a better fighter?’

Now it was the dragonman’s turn to stand speechless. He cast her a glance that suggested he was unsure whether to ignore her or spill her innards upon the sand. She was more than a tad surprised when he rolled his shoulders and answered.

‘A spirit is only as strong as the body that honours it.’ He raised an eyeridge. ‘Why?’

‘Can you teach me to fight?’

She held her breath as he looked her up and down, not with derision or scorn, but genuine appraisal. When he finally spoke, she was slightly less surprised that it was with swiftness and decisiveness.


‘Why not?’

‘You’re too weak, too stupid, too cowardly, too human,’ he replied crassly.

‘Humans have won many wars, you know.’ She attempted to mime his tone. ‘I mean, if you haven’t noticed, we are the dominant race.’

‘Humans only win wars against other humans,’ he growled. ‘You breed like cockroaches, fight like rats, die like mosquitoes and expect to receive any respect from a Rhega?’ He waved a hand dismissively. ‘Satisfy yourself with staying behind and cleaning up after real warriors.’

‘You once told me that all dragonmen fight.’ She furrowed her brow angrily. ‘Doesn’t that include the healers? ’

‘Rhega don’t need healers. Our skin is strong and our bones mend as quick as yours don’t.’ He turned his back to her and flexed for emphasis, every crimson cord pronounced. ‘I’ve got things to do now.’

‘Things to smell, you mean?’

When he did not respond to her, she took a challenging step forwards, unaware of how softly her feet fell in comparison to his tremendous red soles. Perhaps it was the fact that he had turned his back on her that made her so bold, or perhaps she wished to prove to herself that she was made of sterner stuff than he suggested.

‘If humans only win human wars,’ she cried after him, ‘why aren’t there more Rhega around?’

What her motive might have been, even she did not know. As he turned and stalked towards her, with an air of calmness that suggested she wouldn’t be able to run far if she tried, she steeled herself. She had issued the challenge, she told herself, and it was her time to stand by it.

‘Hit me.’ He spoke disturbingly softly.

‘What?’ She half-cringed, looking baffled.

‘Here is where you learn to,’ he replied calmly. ‘Hit me as hard as you can.’

An unfamiliar sense of dread befell Asper, a stubborn battle between fear and pride raging inside her. It was never a good idea, in principle, to hit a creature bristling with horns and claws, even if he requested it. No, she scolded herself, stand by the challenge.

She simply had not realised when she had issued it how small she stood against his red mass. Nevertheless, with a clench of her teeth, she balled one hand into a fist and launched a swing against the dragonman’s chest.

It struck with a hollow sound, which she, at that moment, swore reverberated like metal. She pulled back not a fist, but a throbbing, swollen red mass of skin and scraped knuckles.

It didn’t even occur to her to moan in pain, nor even to wince, for the moment she glanced up, she spied a tremendous red claw hurtling towards her. The back of his hand connected fiercely with the side of her face and sent her sprawling to the ground, any sound she might have made gone silent against the crack of flesh against bone.

Pressing red hand to red cheek, she sat up slowly and looked at the dragonman, her shock barely visible behind the massive bruise forming upon it.

‘What . . .’ It hurt to speak, so she had to exchange the indignant fury broiling inside her mouth for something more achievable. ‘Why?’

‘You hit me.’

‘You told me to!’

‘And what did you learn today?’

Every sound he made diminished her further. His footsteps echoed in her aching jaw, his tail lashing upon the ground made her hand throb all the worse. It was his back, however, turned callously towards her, that caused tears to well in her eyes, that caused her to rise.

Though her right hand had been the one to sting, it was her left arm that tensed so tightly it sent waves of pain rolling into her. That pain consumed all others, giving her the ability to trudge after the dragonman, her arm hanging low like a cudgel. And like a cudgel, spiked and merciless, she could see herself wielding it against him.

His neck looked so tempting then, blending in with her eyes as her vision reddened further with each breath. She could see herself through the crimson, reaching out to grab him, his neck a pulsing red vein that she need merely pinch shut and . . .

‘No!’ She clasped her agonised hand to her left arm, the pain blossoming again like a garden. ‘No . . . no. Stop thinking that. It’s not right. Stop it.’ She struck her temple with her red hand. ‘Stop it!’

‘Is that really intelligent?’

She resisted the urge to whirl about before she could wipe the tears from her eyes. Dreadaeleon appeared concerned as he saw her purpling cheek and reddening hand, though not quite as horrified as she thought he should.

‘What happened to you?’

‘Fight,’ she grumbled, ‘nothing much. Learned something . . . I don’t know. Gariath hit me.’


In civilised countries, there would be a call to arms over a man striking a woman. In the quaint culture of adventurers, bludgeoning tended to be more on the unavoidable side of things.

‘It . . . hurts?’ Greenhair was not far behind the boy, tilting her head curiously at the priestess, whose eyelid twitched momentarily.

‘Oh, not at all,’ Asper replied. ‘Having my hand smashed and my jaw cracked seems to have evened out into a nice state of being in searing pain. Of course it hurts, you imbecile!’ Wincing at her own snap, she held up a hand, wiggling red fingers. ‘It doesn’t seem to be broken . . . I should be fine.’

‘I could assist, if you so desired, Darkeyes.’

Asper had to force herself not to recoil at the suggestion.

She had felt the siren’s song before, when the creature had offered her aid in treating the companions’ injuries. The priestess thanked Talanas that hers were the least serious. The lyrics were more invasive than a scalpel, going far beyond her ears and sinking into her bones. Though she felt bruises soothed and cuts cease their sting, she was forced to fight the urge to tear herself open in a desperate bid to force the song out.

Bandages and salves were slower and sloppier, but they were natural and Talanas’s gifts to His servants. They’re at least a sight more trustworthy than whatever some fish-woman-thing can spew out, she thought resentfully. Instead of saying that, however, she merely forced a smile.

‘I’ll take care of it,’ she replied with a sigh. ‘It’s not like I’ve got anything better to do while the real warriors are off . . . warrioring.’

‘Warring,’ Dreadaeleon corrected.

‘I knew that, you little . . .’ She trailed off into incoherent mumbling as she began to trudge away. ‘It just needs a splint, a bit of binding. It’ll fix itself in a bit.’

‘You didn’t break it, did you?’

‘First of all, I already said it wasn’t broken.’ She whirled on him with a snarl. ‘And if anyone did break it, it would be Gariath.’

‘He hit your hand?’ The boy raised an eyebrow. ‘That seems a tad indirect.’

‘He broke it when I hit him in the mass of metal he calls a chest.’

‘Well, no wonder he hit you.’

‘He told me to hit him!’ she roared. ‘And what kind of logic is that, anyway? His fist is the size of my head! How is that at all justified?’

‘Oh . . . um, are you being irrational?’ The boy cringed. ‘Denaos said this might happen while he was gone. And, I mean, you couldn’t have been thinking too clearly to have actually thought hitting Gariath was a good idea.’

‘I could clear your mind, Darkeyes,’ Greenhair offered with a smile, ‘if you so wished.’

She affixed a scowl to both of their heads, her only wish being that she could replace her eyes with a sturdy quarterstaff. Her rage only intensified as they turned, with infuriating symmetry, to look at Irontide, pausing to exchange an encouraging smile.

There was a time, she thought irately, when Dreadaeleon would have withered under her glare. Now, even the scrawniest creature posing as a man put up a defiant face against her. And at that thought, her heart sank into a foetid pool of doubt.

Am I truly so weak, she asked herself, that I can’t even intimidate him?

It would seem so. He stood tall upon the shore, taller than ever before. He stood uncrippled by his previous malady; A malady that only I could cure. Up until now, she added, scowling at Greenhair. Beside her, he stood erect, proud and completely oblivious to her best attempts to gnaw on his face with scornful eyes.

‘Look at that.’ He gestured to Irontide with insulting casualness. ‘She . . . it? Whatever hasn’t stopped moving since dawn.’

Asper glanced up and frowned. It was difficult to maintain her anger at the sight of Irontide’s crown; another more loathsome sensation crept over her.

The greater Omen skulked up and down the lines of its lesser parasitic kin like a general inspecting its troops. Of course, Asper admitted, there was no way to tell if the creature was even looking at the others; they were much too far away to make out even the barest detail of features besides the creature’s size.

And yet, the revulsion it emanated was tangible even from the shore. Everything about it was horrible: its ungainly gait, its bobbing head, its messy, angular body. Asper admitted with momentary unabashedness that she would much prefer it to remain far away.

Of course, she thought with a frown, Gariath wouldn’t even hesitate to get up and tear its wings off . . . Are those wings or hands?

‘Fascinating, isn’t it?’

Her frown became a deep gash across her face; it appeared that someone else wasn’t at all bashful about the creature’s presence, either.

‘All those Omens,’ Dreadaeleon gestured out to the tower, ‘standing perfectly still.’

‘It’s not like they’ve got anything else to do,’ Asper grunted.

‘They are the vermin of hell, Lorekeeper,’ Greenhair agreed. ‘They bear not the gifts of thought and heart.’

‘We know that much, certainly. But look, they aren’t moping about.’ He glanced at Asper. ‘Recall that, whenever we’ve found them separated from an Abysmyth . . . or should I say their Abysmyth, they’ve always looked addled, distraught.’

‘We’ve only seen that happen once,’ Asper replied.

‘Twice - Gariath said they were acting in such a way when he was disposing of them.’ He paused, licked his lips. ‘I guess I wouldn’t know for certain, though, since apparently no one noticed he had left me for dead at that point.’

‘Perhaps you should thank him.’ She forced acid through her grumble. ‘After all, you found fine company in a sea-trollop. ’

‘Trollop?’ Greenhair tilted her head. ‘That is . . . what you call a shellfish, yes?’

‘It’s some manner of fish, all right,’ Asper seethed.

‘As I was saying,’ Dreadaeleon interrupted with a snarl far too fierce for his frame, ‘these particular Omens don’t seem at all bothered by the fact that there isn’t an Abysmyth in sight.’

‘I can appreciate that feeling.’

‘As can we all.’ Dreadaeleon nodded. ‘But consider the events of this morning when I lured them away with my glamer.’

Asper nodded grimly, remembering the situation all too vividly.

The larger parasite had reacted swiftly, hurling itself off the tower with a piercing wail. Echoed by its lesser kin, the shriek tainted sky and sea as they descended in a stream of white feathers and bulbous eyes upon the illusory blood-stain Dreadaeleon had cast upon the sea.

She winced, recalling the even louder scream when they discovered it was false. Far too late to even notice Lenk and the others slipping in, they had simply returned to the battlements, where they now roosted.

‘They followed the big one,’ Asper muttered, ‘like ducklings following their mother.’

‘I was going to compare them to lemmings, but your analogy might be better.’ Dreadaeleon grinned. ‘At any rate, the greater Omen seems to act as a substitute for the Abysmyths, if you will, giving orders in place of them.’ He tapped his cheek thoughtfully. ‘Though they don’t seem that much brighter than the small ones, do they?’

‘Not especially, no.’ She glanced at him. ‘I suspect you have a reason for thinking about this?’

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