Tome of the Undergates

Page 44

Running was clearly futile; deserted islands tended to leave very little room for evasion. Fighting them was similarly discarded; neither longface’s unyielding muscle seemed to suggest that a staff’s blow would have any greater result than a stern talking-to.

Clearly, then, she reasoned, someone else would have to do the fighting.

She glanced up and down the beach and frowned; each one of the longfaces had departed in the same directions her companions had. If she didn’t find them first, the females undoubtedly would. Then she might never find out if they were friend or foe before the others decided to eviscerate or burn them alive.

That was, of course, if they didn’t simply gut her companions first.

Then again, she thought, rubbing her jaw where Gariath had struck her, maybe that’s not so bad. She growled, giving herself a light thump to the head. No, no, no. Stop thinking like that. Don’t end up like them.

She would stick to the forest, she imagined, skirt the trees to keep out of their sight until she could find Dreadaeleon or Gariath. Even if the longfaces were allies to be won, negotiations would go much easier accompanied by four hundred pounds of red muscle or one hundred pounds of fire and lightning.

The sole question remaining, then, was why there was so much activity atop Irontide’s battlements.

She wouldn’t have noticed it had it not been so prominent. The crown of white was now alive, the Omens writhing and hopping about, emitting all manner of chattering jabber that carried over the waves. The sight of them, their countless bulbous eyes shining like ugly, unpolished jewels, made Asper’s stomach roil; they had been bad enough when they stood still.

And yet, it wasn’t until she noticed a distinct empty space that she truly began to worry as another question crept intrusively into her mind and onto her lips.

‘Where’d the big one go?’

Her question was answered in the chattering of teeth that filled the air behind her, carried on a cloud of acrid fish reek. She felt the hair on the back of her neck stand up, kissed by a wisp of salt-laden, hot breath. The fear came over her in a cold blanket, freezing muscles that begged her to run, paralysing a neck that shrieked at her to turn around.

Heat returned to her as she heard something behind her speak in a guttural mimic of her own voice.

‘Where’d the big one go?’

She whirled, eyes going as wide as the eyes staring into hers. Two bulbous blue orbs stared at her, unblinking, from an old crone’s face. Asper’s lips pursed for a moment, unable to find the words to form a prayer holy enough to ward against what she saw.

The creature’s eyes stared at her from where the chin ought to have been, the hooked nose curving sharply above them like a long, fleshy horn. Breathlessly, the priestess stammered, trying to form a curse, and her words were echoed back to her from a pair of jaws creaking open upon the creature’s forehead.

Trembling hand clenching her pendant, she muttered a word.

‘Run,’ she gasped to herself, ‘run.’

‘Run,’ her own voice replied from the creature’s jaws.

Legs refusing to obey, she all but collapsed backwards out of the foliage and onto the beach, arms swiftly dragging her away from the creature. The Omen was not deterred, and leapt from the underbrush in a great flap of white wings to land before her.

In the daylight, the thing was even more horrific. From its upside-down face ran a long neck, leading to a body that resembled an underfed stork. The creature crawled forwards on bony hands blue with swollen veins that jutted from its wing-joints. Its face was blank and expressionless, teeth chattering as its eyes locked on to Asper, who sat frigid and unable to move before it.

The Omen rose up on webbed, yellow feet and spread its wings, exposing a pair of withered breasts that trembled as the creature drew in a deep breath and dropped its massive, inverted jaws.

Whatever sound it might have made, whether a curse or the shrill mockery of Asper’s own terror, was lost in a whining shriek and a hollow slamming sound. Something silver whirled violently through the air. Asper blinked and, when she opened her eyes, a leather-bound hilt jutted from the creature’s neck. With its face still unchanged, the Omen gurgled slightly, lowered its arms and keeled over.

The Omen lay leaking dark red upon the sand. Asper could not find the breath to scream, nor to do anything but stare open-eyed and open-mouthed at the twitching corpse before turning to gawk at the sound of heavy boots crunching across the sand.

The longface’s stride was casual and unhurried as she stalked towards the Omen, her face appearing more perturbed than anything. Completely heedless of the priestess sitting paralysed beside it, she merely leaned down and pulled the long blade, its edge jagged and thick with life, from the creature, her only expression being the hint of a smile that emerged alongside the choked squawk from the parasite as she ripped the weapon free.

When Asper finally spoke, the words came as a shock to her.

‘Th-thank you,’ she gasped.

The longface turned and lifted a black brow, as though she hadn’t noticed the woman until just now. Despite the not-entirely-friendly expression, Asper shakily rose to her feet and dusted her robe off, offering the woman a weak smile.

‘If you hadn’t come along just now . . .’ She cleared her throat. ‘Can you understand me?’

The longface cocked her head at that and Asper sighed. Of course, she muttered in her head, that was much better.

‘All right,’ she said resignedly. ‘You can’t understand me. We’ll work around that. But you did help me and you did kill what I’m supposed to be killing. So, for now,’ she extended a hand and a broad smile to her purple rescuer, ‘we can satisfy ourselves with that, can’t we?’

The longface regarded Asper’s hand with apparent concern, eyeing it for a moment as if unsure what to do with it. For a moment, the priestess felt her heart stop as the longface shoved her bloodied blade back into her belt without cleaning it. While the sensation she felt as the purple female seized her hand in a red, sticky gauntlet was not what she thought she could call ‘good’ in all conscience, it was with no small relief that she saw the longface smile back, exposing rows of jagged teeth.

The feeling was decidedly ruined when the longface pulled her forwards violently and drove a purple knee into her belly.

She staggered backwards, clutching at her stomach. Her left arm throbbed angrily, pulsing with a life all its own, a foreign, fiery blood coursing through it. Swiftly, she seized it with her weak right hand, clutching it as though it were a feral dog.

No, no, no! NO! Not now! She grimaced at her arm, and it seemed to scowl back at her, as if to ask, Then when?

She found no ready answer as the longface stalked forwards, eyes glimmering cruelly in their sockets. Feebly, the priestess held up her right hand, half in futile warding, half in unpitied plea.

‘No! No!’ she hacked. ‘That’s . . . not . . . I didn’t want to . . .’ She staggered to her feet, knees threatening to give out beneath her as she backpedalled awkwardly. ‘Listen. Listen!’

She stumbled backwards, saved from falling only as the red gauntlet reached out to seize her by her collar. With a harsh jerk, she was brought face to longface, a jagged, white smile added to the ivory stare. And the longface spoke with a voice as harsh and grating as the iron spike sliding from her belt.

‘I heard you, pinky.’

‘You,’ Asper gasped, ‘speak my language?’

‘I do.’ The longface’s smile seemed too wide for her narrow visage as she levelled the spike at Asper’s. ‘That’s what your weak breed calls “irony”, isn’t it?’

‘It’s not irony, it’s coincidence!’

‘Arguing languages while you’re about to be skewered?’ The longface shook her head. ‘Your death will be a boon to your race.’

Before she knew what was happening, Asper’s left arm, burning under her sleeve, snapped up to seize the woman by her throat. The voice shrieking inside her mind, begging for control, fell quiet against a violent crackle inside her. The fire in her veins slid through her fingers, up her shoulder and scorched a bare-toothed snarl upon her face.

‘I’m not going to die, heathen.’

The longface’s smile only grew broader, a predator feeling its prey squirm inside its jaws. Without a thought for the unnatural tension in Asper’s hand, she raised her spike and aimed the point directly at the priestess’s face.


The bellow degenerated into a wordless howl that rent the air. Eyes, white and pupilled alike, turned upwards to regard the massive wall of crimson muscle standing upon the shore.

Gariath’s own dark orbs were fixed upon the longface, apparently heedless of the captive she held, as he unfurled his wings, dropped upon all fours and charged, leaving sundered earth in his wake.

‘Not yet, anyway,’ the longface muttered, dropping the priestess and turning her weapon to face the new threat.

She did not have to wait long.

With a roar, Gariath sprang from the sand, wings flapping, claws outstretched and aiming for a tense purple throat. What he received instead was a vicious handful of iron as she raised her spike to strike at him. He seized it and twisted it away. She was driven backwards by the force of his lunge but did not stagger, her heels digging deeply into the sand.

His free hand came up, claws glistening, and was caught in her grasp. His muscles tensed, eyes widened, if only in momentary appreciation for a hand large and strong enough to hold his killing grasp at bay. A good fight, his toothy smile said without words, a good opponent. And, as he reared his head back, his horns finished the thought.

Not good enough.

His skull crashed against her nose, snapping her head backwards. When he drew away a face glistening with a moisture not his own, his eyes spoke of a deeper surprise. The longface’s grip held firm, her hands unshaking, as she turned upon the dragonman a scowl burning white through the crimson dripping down her face.

She snarled, a noise as vicious and fierce as Asper had ever heard Gariath utter, and returned the gesture, slamming her face against his snout. He reeled and Asper’s breath caught in her throat; Gariath had never reeled before.

He made a long, slow effort of drawing his face back up. And it was with longer, slower and far more unpleasant effort that he drew his tongue across his lips, tasting the red that dripped upon it.

‘Oh,’ he said through his smile, ‘I like you.’

His nostrils flared, snorting a cloud of crimson into her eyes. Her flinch left her unprepared for the head that followed. His skull smashed against hers; she quivered. His horns crushed her forehead; she released him and staggered backwards.

As if infuriated by the sudden lapse in her strength, Gariath drove his head forwards a third time, sending the longface to her knees. His rage-laden howl became the song of a violent choir as he brought his fists down upon her back. She withstood two hammering blows before buckling, collapsing to the earth.

Not nearly satisfied, Gariath fell on her, continuing to rain fists upon her until the sound of meat slapping meat became the sound of thick branches snapping.

It wasn’t until the sound of a particularly moist sponge being wrung reached her ears that Asper finally spoke up.

‘Enough, Gariath.’

‘You’re right.’ The dragonman rose, flicking thick droplets from his hands. ‘This one’s almost finished.’ At an errant twitch from the purple body, he brought his foot up and then down, smiling at the sound of undercooked porridge being spilled. ‘Tough one, though.’

‘There are more of them.’

His eyes lit up with a glimmer that Asper often found charming in children being handed presents.


‘Later. We need to find Dread and—’


He stood before her, the stink from his body, and parts of the longface’s body, roiling into her nostrils. She did not turn away, despite the pleas of her senses; his twitching arms suggested that there was only one acceptable gesture to make. And, with a sigh, she pointed out over the sea to the black vessel.

He shoved her aside, scowling across the waters. The ship cut through the froth like a black spear, propelled by its harmony of oars. Purple bruises lined the low deck, and in each pulse of purple muscle, Gariath saw something that made his smile threaten to split his face in two.

‘They’re not so fast,’ he grunted, stalking towards the water. ‘I can still catch them.’

‘Catch them?’ Asper turned an incredulous glare on him. ‘Catch them? There are over thirty of them on that ship!’

‘A ship heading for the tower,’ Gariath pointed out. ‘A tower filled with Lenk and two other weaklings.’

‘Don’t insult my intelligence by pretending you care about them.’

‘Fine, but only because I can insult you in so many other ways. Like this.’ His hands went limp at the wrists as he began dancing from foot to foot on his toes, whining through his teeth. ‘Oh! Oh! A bunch of scary purple women! Whatever shall we do?’ He gasped, reached out and slapped her face hard. ‘How about we kill them?’

‘Just because that’s the only answer you know doesn’t mean it’s the right one,’ she snarled, rubbing her face. ‘They’re dangerous. That last one almost killed me.’

‘Such a phenomenon ceased being interesting the last four hundred and twenty-six times it happened.’

‘With Dread, we can—’

‘You can. With the skinny little runt, I can sit around listening to two spineless imbeciles and waste time that could be better spent killing.’ He waved her off, stalking into the surf. ‘See you in the afterlife, if you ever make it.’

‘You expect to die,’ she called after him, ‘and you’re still going?’

‘It should have ceased to be shocking after the four hundred and twenty-seventh time.’

The curse she flung at his tail was lost, as was the tail, behind a screen of froth. She watched him become a red blur, his wings, arms and legs pumping to propel him beneath the waves and towards his target. She snarled, stamped her foot and found herself caught between cursing and envying him.

He, at least, would be doing something to help the others.

Gariath’s words were true, she knew; should their companions run into the longfaces, there would likely be nothing left to drift ashore. She admitted to herself with less shame than she expected that the dragonman had voiced concern for their companions before she had.

Now he was off, with at least a shallow facade of compassion behind him, to at least attempt to help Lenk and the others. And she stood on shore, helpless, left arm burning with impotent fury.

‘Where’s he going?’

She glanced up at Dreadaeleon’s approach, immediately noting the smoky tendrils he flicked from his fingers.

‘What happened to you?’ she asked.

‘Found something purple further up the beach,’ he replied, ‘fried it.’

‘It’s not important. Look, there’s—’ She paused, blinked at him. ‘Wait, what? Fried her? Just like that?’


‘It was a woman.’

‘Oh . . . wait, really?’ He flapped a hand. ‘It . . . she had a sword, she was waving it at me. I was busy searching for Greenhair, I didn’t have time not to fry her.’ He stared out over the sea. ‘But where’s Gariath going?’ His eyes went wide at the sight of the black ship. ‘Furthermore, what’s that?’

‘A ship,’ she replied curtly. ‘Isn’t that obvious? It’s also full of more purple women, all armed, all irate, all heading for Lenk and the others.’

‘As well as the demons,’ Dreadaeleon pointed out.

‘Right. There are demons in there, too.’ She began to wade into the surf. ‘Gariath’s heading out to help and we have to, as well.’

It wasn’t until the water was up to her thighs that she realised both that she was not dragonman enough to swim out to Irontide and that Dreadaeleon was still standing on the shore, staring at her in befuddlement. She whirled, turning a scowl upon him.

‘What are you waiting for?’ She gestured wildly at the water. ‘Make an ice bridge . . . or an ice boat, some kind of ice . . . whale. Do something.’

‘Like what?’ He held his hands out to his sides. ‘It doesn’t seem like anything needs to be done. The longfaces hate the demons. We hate the demons and the longfaces. Let one kill the other and we can clean up afterwards.’

‘If Lenk and the others get caught between the demons and the longfaces, there won’t be enough left of them to clean up with a dirty rag,’ she snarled. ‘If you won’t help, sit here and wallow in a pool of your own cowardice, but at least call Greenhair to see if she can help me.’

‘Call her? She’s not a dog.’ He snorted. ‘Besides, I couldn’t find her. She vanished beneath the water.’

‘All the more reason for you to help me,’ she replied hotly. ‘What do you suppose will happen to her when whoever’s the victor of this little clash comes out?’

‘What do I suppose will happen to a siren capable of hiding anywhere in the limitless blue sea?’ He tapped his chin, her scowl deepening with each strike of his finger. ‘Goodness, maybe she’ll come out and ask for a hug?’

Her face grew red with the scathing fury building up behind lips twisting into a grimace fierce enough to spew it. Her left hand trembled at her side, burning angrily, demanding to be wrapped about the boy’s throat. If he noticed such a thing, however, he paid it only as much care as was required to wave a hand as though batting away a particularly irate gnat.

‘It may seem callous,’ he continued, turning to walk away, ‘but my solution is both logical and fair. They’d abandon us in a heartbeat and you know it.’

‘Being an adventurer isn’t about being fair,’ she snarled, tearing through the water towards him, ‘it’s about suffering every miserable person the Gods deem fit to throw into your company.’ She raised a fist angrily, his head a greasy black pimple waiting to be popped. ‘And dealing with it the best you can at the mo—’

The burning in her arm dissipated with such force as to be painful. Quietly, she lowered it, stared at it with wide eyes. It felt strange in its socket: no longer so heavy, no longer so hot. It felt exactly like her right arm, it felt . . . normal.

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