Tome of the Undergates

Page 42

‘While knowledge is its own reward, I do. If the big one gives the orders, then it stands to reason that we can effectively render all those little ones a moot issue.’ He extended a single finger out towards the tower, aiming it at the greater Omen, and grinned. ‘Zap.’

‘That’s . . . actually not bad.’ Asper felt slightly frustrated at having to compliment the boy, but nodded appreciatively regardless. ‘Cut off the head and the body falls. If it was that simple, the way for Lenk and the others would be clear.’

‘Right.’ Dreadaeleon nodded. ‘If they come out.’

‘When they come out,’ she snapped. Turning back to the tower, she bit her lower lip. ‘The trick, then, would be to kill the big one before it could reach them.’ She glanced him over appraisingly. ‘Could you hit it from here?’

‘If I could, I would have done so.’ He shook his head. ‘No, I’m assuming that Lenk is a quick enough swimmer that he could draw it close enough for me to plant a lightning bolt in its face.’


‘It’s the only thing accurate enough to hit from such a distance.’

‘Of course . . . you realise that lightning and water aren’t precisely the best of friends.’

‘Well . . . I mean, yeah.’ He straightened up. ‘Of course I know that. If I can figure out how to throw lightning out of my damn hands, I can figure out that.’ He cleared his throat, attempting to maintain his composure. ‘Naturally, there might be some collateral damage, but—’

‘There is no good way for you to end that thought.’

‘Listen, the overall objective is to get the tome, isn’t it?’ He glanced to Greenhair, who offered a weak nod. ‘Right, so, even if something does go wrong, so long as we can remove the greater Omen as a threat, we can fish the tome out of the water at our leisure.’ He turned a nervous glance to Asper. ‘Or rather, you could.’

‘What?’ Her tone was teetering between incredulous and furious.

‘It’s only fair. I’m the one who has to kill the thing.’

‘That wasn’t . . .’ Her pain and words alike were lost in a sudden flood of anger driven by a storm of righteous indignation. ‘You’re talking about our friends, our companions, dying.’

‘I . . .’ His words failed him as he shook, turning a grimace towards Greenhair, who offered nothing but a concerned glance. ‘I mean, I thought we always did that.’

‘We don’t talk about murdering each other,’ she roared. ‘These are our friends, your friends, dying by your hands.’

‘First of all,’ he mustered a new semblance of confidence in a growl, ‘I said there might be collateral damage.’ He offered a weak smile, a crack in his facade. ‘And, I mean, that would be totally inadvertent, so, it’s really more like dying by my finger.’

Whatever rage might have boiled inside her was not shown on her face. Rather, as though water had been poured over her, she hardened and grew cold, regarding him through an even, unquivering scowl.

‘You make jokes . . . about murdering them.’

‘Why are you getting upset at me for being pragmatic?’ He shifted, unsure as to whether he should puff up or back down. ‘You never get this upset at any of the others.’

‘They can’t be helped! You—’ She moved forwards, both fists clenched and ready to strike him in spite of the pain in her right hand. Her face clenched harder, finding it very difficult to summon a reason not to. ‘You . . .’ With a sigh, she reached out and gave him a shove. ‘Damn it, Dread. You’re supposed to be the good one.’

He collapsed onto his rear.

Whether it was because he had been rendered stunned by her words or because she had seen him shoved over by toddlers before, she didn’t stop to think. And when he stared at her through an unblinking mask of flattery and confusion, she did not smile.

‘I . . . thought it . . . uh . . .’ He blanched. ‘What?’

She opened her mouth to say something when she suddenly became aware of Greenhair. Or rather, became aware of Greenhair‘s lack of awareness towards them both.

‘And you’ve nothing to say about this?’ Asper growled to the siren’s back.

Apparently not, for the siren merely stared out over the sea, fin erect, gills fluttering. Asper stalked towards her, perhaps intent on forcing her to participate in the fight, perhaps on forcing her to suggest some way to help.

She did neither, however, for as soon as she came up beside the siren, her gaze, too, was locked on the sea and the black ship that stained it.

Creeping across the waves with ebon oars, like the limbs of some great spider, the ship made only the slightest of ripples in the water, cutting through the surf with a jagged, black bow. With singular speed and purpose, it eased itself inevitably towards the shore.

‘What is it?’ Asper glanced over her shoulder at Dreadaeleon, who was also staring at the vessel, unblinking. ‘More pirates?’

‘Not like any I’ve seen.’ The boy shook his head.

‘I have . . . made a grave sin.’

They turned towards Greenhair, who now backed away, eyes wide with fear.

‘It was my error to seek help so promiscuously,’ she uttered, wading into the waves.

‘What are you talking about?’ Dreadaeleon asked.

‘Forgive me, lorekeeper,’ she replied, frowning. ‘Forgive me for what I was forced to do and for what may yet happen. Permit me to attempt to atone with a final wisdom.’ She grimaced, her face going rock hard. ‘Hide.’

Before either of them could form an objection, opinion or question, the siren sprang to her feet and tore into the surf. With a graceful leap, she dived beneath the lapping waves and vanished under a blanket of sand and spray, her form sliding further up the coast.

‘Well.’ Asper coughed. ‘That’s . . . ominous.’

‘Greenhair!’ Dreadaeleon called, tearing off down the beach. ‘Wait! Come back!’

‘Dread, you fool!’ Asper hissed after him, but she could spare no more time for him.

Her attention was seized by the ship; in the moments she had been looking away, it had crept closer. So close, in fact, that she could now make out its crew.

Eyes the colour of milk. The sound of metal clanking against metal. Alien voices uttering foul indecipherables.

Skin the colour of a fresh bruise.

‘Preserve me, Talanas,’ Asper, alone, whispered, ‘purpleskinned longfaces.’



Restraint, Denaos thought, was a vastly unappreciated trait.

All tense situations relied on it, he knew from an experience that had been long and not fatal, which was more than most in his profession could claim. Restraint was the idea of being the centre of calm in a raging storm, so that while all around would be rent asunder by torrid winds and gales, the centre would remain unnoticed, unscathed.

It had served him well in every situation in which he had hoped to never find himself, from negotiations with watchmen clamping irons about his wrists to talking down a particularly passionate young lady with a sharp knife and an overzealous love of fruits.

Of course, he thought as he felt moist talons dig into his neck, those were all mostly reasonable people. As he glanced out of the corner of his eye at the Abysmyth regarding him dispassionately, he could think of more ideal situations.

And, he added with a sidelong glance at his fellow captive, more ideal companions.

Kataria, it seemed, had no talent or appreciation for restraint. Within the demon’s grasp, she writhed, snarled, spat and gnashed her teeth. While undoubtedly she thought of herself as some ferocious lioness, in the creature’s grasp she more closely resembled a particularly fussy kitten.

The frogman standing before them appeared to share Denaos’s thoughts. Leaning heavily on a staff carved of bone, it ignored the rogue to regard the shict with what looked a lot like haughty mirth. Denaos arched an eyebrow at that; this frogman’s face was twisted in a grin, distinctive from the legions of identical faces past shoulders bereft of their collective stoop.

‘Does it not hurt?’ he asked, and Denaos noted a distinct lack of needle-like teeth in his mouth. ‘Is the futility not agonising? Do you not despair to look upon the rising tide and know that you are so much froth in an endless sea?’

The rogue tightened his lips, regarding the creature suspiciously. He did not recall the frogmen having either a speech pattern unslurred or a penchant for obvious metaphors.

‘The tide cannot be stopped.’ The frogman shook his head. ‘But yours is not a plight without power.’ He leaned closer, his grin becoming more abhorrent than the needle-toothed smiles of the creatures behind him. ‘Surrender to the tide, flow with it as it flows over the world, and become a part of the endless blue.’

‘Drown in it,’ Kataria spat back, with as much force as her position allowed. ‘When you wash up, I’ll kick the crabs out of your carcass.’

‘Sun and sky have blinded you. Wind and dirt have rendered you deaf.’ He made a sweeping gesture and Denaos noted that all five of his fingers spread themselves into thin, pale digits, free of any webbing. ‘Open your ears to the song of Mother Deep. When the earth is drowned and the sky kneels before the sea, it will be far too late to repent.’

Her ears folded flat against her head as she bared her teeth at him and snarled. The frogman, undeterred, reached out with a trembling hand to cup her by the chin. It was with that gesture, that familiar quiver in the fingers which suggested needs far beyond those that could be satisfied by the company of demons, that the realisation finally dawned upon the rogue.

‘You’re human,’ he whispered breathlessly, as though it was some damning discovery.

The unblinking, symmetrical expressions of the Abysmyths and the frogmen beyond him indicated, however, that it was not. The creature himself did not so much as cringe at the accusation, instead turning his leering grin upon the rogue.

‘You are cruel to notice,’ he replied. ‘But Mother Deep needs many mouths, and I am the one selected to remain cursed with the sins of flesh and earth so that others may be guided to Her waiting heaven.’ The frogman twisted a bald head to regard the masses behind him. ‘And am I not rewarded with the adoration of the devoted?’

‘The pain is fleeting,’ the frogmen echoed in unified chorus, ‘the blue is endless.’

‘So says the great Ulbecetonth.’

‘May She reign over a world without the agony demanded by false Gods.’ The frogmen raised their webbed hands and extended them towards the black water. ‘May these ones see Her restored to a throne built over heaven.’

‘It is not too late.’ The leader turned his attention back to Kataria and a sudden light filled his eyes. A desperation, Denaos saw, that he had seen in every man who hungered for the same thing. ‘Forsake your false Gods, as they have forsaken you. Abandon the sins of memory and sky. Feed the Mouth of Mother Deep.’

His lower lip trembled in time with his hand as it and his eyes, now wide and unblinking, lowered themselves to Kataria’s taut, pale form.

‘And he shall speak well in your name.’

The shict’s answer was less eloquent.

Heralded by the sound of ripping flesh and an all-too-mortal squeal, her head shot down like an asp’s to seize the frogman’s hand in her teeth. After a quick, canine jerk, he pulled back a bloody hand and the pain that lit up his eyes seemed even more foreign in the wake of his inhuman congregation. He stared at her, shocked, as she flashed a smile that was morbid and red, chewing on the pink for a moment.

‘Not the mouth you were expecting to be fed,’ she said before spitting it at him, ‘was it?’

The frogmen congregation recoiled in collective horror. They turned to their leader with a terror reserved for those who had seen idols desecrated and loosed a chorus of disharmonious agitation at the pain that flashed across his features and the blood that dripped to the floor. For his part, the Mouth seemed far less confused.

‘Swear unto Her,’ he seethed through clenched teeth. He twisted the head from his bone-carved staff to reveal a jagged blade. ‘Feed Her flock.’ He lunged forwards, seizing her by the throat as he raised the blade, quivering and whetted with his own blood. ‘It matters little to Her.’

Kataria met the threat with teeth bared and a snarl choked in her throat, defiant even as the jagged edge of the blade grinned green against the unnatural torchlight. Denaos, though he was certain some God somewhere hated him even for the effort, had to fight his own grin back down into his throat.

Silf help him, though, it was hard not to be pleased when opportunity bloomed into so sweet a flower.

Quietly, his eye slid up towards the bulbous ivory sphere that stared out blankly over the impending bloodshed. The Abysmyth’s expression hadn’t changed since first laying eyes and webbed hands upon his throat. If not for the shallow breaths that shuddered through its emaciated abdomen, it would be hard to declare the creature alive at all.

It was impassive. It was inattentive. It was uncaring. Enough, he reasoned, that it wouldn’t notice the dagger until Denaos had jammed it deep into that vast, unblinking stare. Immune to mortal weapons or no, the rogue imagined that two fingers of steel rammed into gooey flesh would at least give the demon an itch.

An itch it would have to scratch.

That, of course, left the frogmen to deal with. The congregation stood, enraptured by their leader’s quivering, bleeding hand. They were intent on the human, blank, sheep-like eyes upon their shepherd. So intent, he reasoned, that they had been sent into utter confusion at the little nip Kataria had given him.

A well-placed slice to the jugular, he imagined, would shock them enough that they’d hardly miss him.

So, one knife in the eye, he told himself, feeling the familiar weight of the weapon tucked neatly in his belt, one in the neck, feeling his heart beat against the cold steel strapped to the inside of his vest, and a spare for whoever else isn’t shocked, clenching his buttocks tightly.

All that was needed was an opportunity. An opportunity, he noted with some dismay, that was particularly slow in coming.

Of course, the loss of Kataria would be lamentable. She wasn’t entirely unpleasant company, as women went, nor entirely unpleasant to look at. However, she was still just a shict. He knew it, and his companions would understand. Dreadaeleon would have a few forced words of grief, Gariath some callous commentary and Asper all manner of harsh words for him not being able to save her.

Lenk, of course, would likely have reacted far worse, if he was still alive. Failing that, however, Denaos thought the young man would have been pleased if he and the shict had both died in the same place, separated only by a mere stone block.

Kataria’s death was regrettable, but necessary, he reasoned with a restrained nod.

Or it will be, if it ever happens . . .

The quiver with which the frogman held the dagger was familiar to him; he had seen it in hungry men who had been consumed with desires that the company of other men, or demons, could not satisfy. The broad eyes, angry and hungry at once, suggested that the frogman was caught between the desire to spill blood in retribution and the very grim knowledge that this was likely to be the last female he, all too human, would see in quite some time.

Of course, the rogue might have been more sympathetic to the Mouth’s quandary if not for the webbed fingers wrapped about his throat.

As it was, he made a quick note to feel guilty twice when he made his escape. Once for having to bite back his sigh of finality when the frogman at last overcame his indecision and drew the blade back, and twice for forcing himself to resist the urge to shout in exasperation when the creature staggered backwards suddenly.

Such a temptation passed quickly, overcome by a far more pressing urge to cover his ears. A cacophony of whispers filled the room, a high-pitched whine seeping through the stones, a guttural murmur rising between the ripples in the waters. And yet, it wasn’t within his ears that the rogue was assaulted. The sound permeated every part of him, vocal talons clawing past every pore to sink into his body and reverberate inside his sinew.

His were not the only sensibilities to be so flagrantly violated. Kataria writhed about in her captor’s grasp, snarling with such ferocity as suggested she was straining to block out the noise with one of her own. The Mouth, too, reacted in such a way, drawing concerned looks from his congregation and impassive stares from the Abysmyths.

‘Yes, yes,’ he whispered to no one, ‘I hear you.’ With a sudden growl, he clapped hands over his ears. ‘I SAID, I HEAR YOU!’

The dagger dropped from his fingers, forgotten along with his imminent sacrifice as he trudged past Kataria with a sudden weariness, ignoring her spitting and snarling. Denaos tolerated the noise long enough to note the intensity with which the Mouth gazed upon the stone slab at the end of the hall behind which Lenk had disappeared.

‘What is it?’ the Mouth muttered, then shrieked. ‘WHAT IS IT? I can’t . . . it’s hard to . . .’ He bit his lower lip, narrowed his eyes upon the stone. ‘Fine. I just . . . what? They’re coming? How close?’

Denaos felt the creature behind him shift and dared to look up enough to see the Abysmyth’s gaze also locked upon the rock. The impassiveness in the demon’s eyes had also shifted, as much as an expressionless fish face would allow. It stared without the hysteric intensity of the Mouth, but rather with the attentive silence of an eager pupil.

What lessons it sought to learn in the agonising noise, Denaos did not dare guess.

‘They can wait,’ the Mouth replied, his voice suddenly a whine. ‘I’ve business to . . . what? No, it’s not as though—’ He paused, hissing angrily at the stone as he gestured wildly at Kataria over his shoulder. ‘She insulted me! She insulted you! Now you wish to—’

The sound intensified. Denaos could no longer resist, forcing his hands to his ears as the murmurs became thunderous bellows, the whining a chorus of angry shrieks. The congregation cowered at the unseen speaker and even the Abysmyths shifted uncomfortably.

It was Kataria who drew Denaos’s attention, however. The shict’s writhing became a frenzy, kicking, frothing, emitting howls that went silent beneath the onslaught of sound. Her arms firmly locked behind her, her ears twitched and bent wildly, trying to fold over themselves and block out the sound.

The rogue grimaced. Despite his earlier plot, it was difficult not to share his companion’s pain. Besides, he reasoned with as little resentment as he could muster, if she decided to simply collapse without blood or fanfare, there’d be no escape for him. That thought fled him the moment she looked up to meet his gaze, however.

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