Tome of the Undergates

Page 47

There was little time to appreciate the howl, however, for the echoing word of power that resounded behind her drowned out all other noise. There was the crack of thunder as a jagged bolt of electricity split the air to pierce the longface, reaching through her breastplate, through her breast, and leaping out of her back.

She landed, a smoking hole in her chest, muscles twitching with involuntarily convulsions, teeth forever locked in a sudden rigor. They both turned to regard the scrawny boy lurching forwards, Asper with shock, Gariath with ire. Dreadaeleon seemed rather unconcerned with either them or the woman he had just struck from the sky.

‘That one,’ the dragonman growled, ‘was mine.’

‘If I had thought you were capable of killing her in a timely manner, I would gladly have let you trade blows until one of you wet yourselves.’ The boy blew on his smoking fingertip. ‘I didn’t think I had time for that, though.’

Asper noted the tremble in the boy, the limp that was swiftly developing in one of his legs. He made no effort to hide it, nor his heavy breathing or the sudden bags that hung like purple fruits under his eyes.

‘You should probably sit back for a while,’ she suggested. ‘You . . . don’t look so good.’

‘How about that,’ Dreadaeleon muttered, ‘I wasn’t actually lying when I said magic drains me. Thus, forming a raft made out of ice using only my brain actually might leave me looking not so good.’

‘There’s no need to get all smarmy about it.’

‘He gets smarmy over everything. The little runt could pull a gerbil out of his pants and he’d somehow manage to end up in a coma and complain about it.’ Gariath snorted, prodding the boy in the chest. ‘I’ve got a knife in my back, but I don’t go crying about it. You don’t get hugs for doing things right.’

‘What do I get for killing that last longface?’

‘Punched in your ugly face.’

‘The fact that you’re decidedly unbothered about a knife in your back and the troubling questions it raises does not concern me now.’ The wizard swept a glare about the carnage. ‘Where is the heretic?’

‘The what?’

‘The renegade,’ Dreadaeleon hissed. ‘The defiler of law. The male. Where is he?’

Answer came in the form of a sudden pyre that cast the room into a glowing orange hell. A vast circle formed within the battle, charred black figures collapsing around its centre. The male longface, however, seemed to pay these no mind as he turned the plume of flame that leapt from his palm upon the pulsating sacs infesting the hall.

With methodical patience, he reduced them to ash. With contemptuous casualness, he flitted a hand at any frogman that rushed towards him, sending them spiralling against the stones.

‘Ah,’ the dragonman replied, ‘there he is.’


The male, having torched one cluster of the fleshy sacs, strode across the water upon stepping stones of ice, smirking slightly as he drew back curtains of frogmen to make a path for himself towards the next.

‘Simply incredible,’ the boy repeated, narrowing his eyes.

‘How so?’ Asper asked. ‘You can do the same thing, can’t you?’

‘Not like that,’ the boy muttered. ‘I made a boat out of ice and almost lost consciousness.’ He pointed a trembling finger. ‘He’s channelling three schools of magic at once after doing what he did to the Omens and he’s not even sweating.’

‘So . . . he’s better than you.’

‘It’s simply not possible!’ His protest came as a wheeze. ‘Spells can’t just be hurled about without regard! There are laws! There must be pause, there must be rest, there—’ He stiffened suddenly, turning the expression of a scolded puppy upon Asper. ‘Wait, you think he’s better than me?’

‘Well . . . I mean, you said he was.’

‘I said he did something different. That doesn’t make him better than me.’

‘I’m sure you’re very talented in other respects, but . . .’ She scowled suddenly. ‘Does it really matter now?’

‘No,’ Dreadaeleon muttered. He studied the male through a scrutinising squint, his lip crawling further up his face with every spell cast. ‘If his magic were just stronger, I’d sense it. I’d know it.’ With cognitive suddenness, he slammed a fist into a palm. ‘He’s cheating.’

‘Cheating.’ Asper raised a brow.

‘Well, he is!’ Dreadaeleon stamped a foot. ‘Even in the most skilled hands, magic is a controlled burn. It strains the body, but not his. He’s not even breathing hard. He’s ... I don’t know . . . using something.’

‘Search him when he’s dead,’ Gariath growled.

With a low snarl, he reached behind him. His body jerked, spasmed, then relaxed at the sound of particularly thick paper being torn. Asper cringed as dark rivers poured down his back, then fought violently against the rising bile as he thoughtfully flicked a glistening fragment of red from one of the blade’s sharp prongs.

‘For now,’ the dragonman grunted, ‘there’s plenty to kill. If you’re smart, you’ll sit back and wait for a real warrior to finish it.’ He looked over the pair contemptuously. ‘Being that you’re human, though—’

‘Naturally.’ Dreadaeleon’s fingers tensed, beads of crimson glowing at their tips. ‘I don’t care who kills him. The laws of the Venarium must be upheld.’

With grim nods exchanged, the dragonman and not-yet man turned and stalked grimly towards the melee, ready to rend, to freeze, to bite and to burn. The battle raged with a yet-unseen fury, tides of pink and purple flesh colliding as the Abysmyths waded through to leisurely pluck opponents up and dismember them with disinterest.

Beautiful, Gariath thought.

The dragonman snorted. The wound felt good in his back. He would not be walking away from this fight, he knew. All that remained was to make certain that he got there before nothing was left to kill.


His eyelid twitched at the shrill protest. He scowled at Asper over his shoulder, meeting her objecting befuddlement with abject annoyance.

‘What about the others? Lenk, Kataria, Denaos—’

‘Dead, dead, dead quickly,’ he replied. ‘Honour them. Give them company in the afterlife.’

‘But I . . .’ she whimpered, ‘I can’t fight.’

‘So die.’

‘I left my staff behind.’ Her excuse was as meek and sheepish as her smile. ‘I’m not much use. I . . . could remain here and tend to you, though. You are bleeding quite badly and I—’

‘Moron!’ he roared, turning on her. ‘There will be nothing for you to tend to here. Nothing will survive if I can help it.’ He stomped towards her, scowling through his mask of gore. ‘You cried about wanting to fight.’ He thrust the jagged blade into her hands, staining her robes red. ‘Now prove if you’re worthy of life.’

‘I . . . no, it’s not that.’ She tried to return the blade, her grasp trembling. ‘I don’t want to . . . I mean, I can’t. My arm, you see, it—’

‘I don’t care,’ he snarled in reply. ‘No one will ever care what you did while you’re still alive.’ He snorted, spraying a cloud of red into her face. ‘Your life will be nowhere near as great as your death, if you manage to do it right.’

Her eyes were those of an animal: frightened, weak, quivering. But she held on to the blade, he thought, and more importantly, she stopped talking. For the moment, that was enough for him; if she managed to do something worthwhile in the time she still breathed, it would be a pleasant surprise.

She disappeared from his thoughts and his sight as he turned his back to her, stalking towards the throng. He ignored her cries of protest, ignored the boy who had already disappeared into the battle, ignored the thought of the other dead humans. He would mourn for Lenk later, laugh at the rest of them with his last breath.

The wound in his back felt good, the chill that filled him refreshing. The sound of his life spattering onto the ground was a macabre reassurance that he would not be walking away from this fight, that he would be seeing his ancestors before the day was done.

And he would not be going alone, he resolved.

When the first of the longfaces looked up at him, pulling her spike out of a pale corpse and loosing a war cry, it was not death that he smelled, nor sea, nor salt, nor fear. There was only the scent of rivers as she charged him.

Rivers and rocks.



‘ Kat?’

That was her name, wasn’t it? No shict had ever called her that, of course; shicts had full, proud names that all meant something. Kat meant nothing, Kat was not a name, Kat was not a word.


Kat was her name, she remembered. Not her true name, not her shict name. Kat was a name that some silver-haired little girl had called her. No, she remembered, he had been a man. A human.


She remembered him now. Skinny fellow, not at all impressive to look at; but she looked at him often, didn’t she? She followed him out of a forest, a year ago. Where was he now?

His voice was hard to hear. Her ears twitched against her head. They felt disembodied, hanging from her head and heavy with lead. Too deaf to hear her own breath, much less some weak little human girl . . . man.

But she heard him, still crying out her name, still shrieking, still screaming as if in pain. He had a lot of pain, she remembered.

What was his name again?

‘Lenk.’ Her lips remembered. ‘Don’t be dead.’ The words came unbidden. They were not shict words. ‘I’m coming.’

‘Well, that’s just delightful. I’m sure if he wasn’t already dead, he’d be thrilled to hear it.’

Another voice: grating, simpering, unpleasant. She frowned immediately, her eyelids flittering open. The face she recognised: angular and narrow, like a rat’s, except more obnoxious. His wasn’t entirely concerned, his frown not particularly sympathetic.

‘Denaos,’ she hissed. Her voice was a croak on dry lips.

‘Oh, good. You remember my name. Everything else upstairs working?’ He tapped her temple with a finger. ‘Nothing feel loose? Leaking?’ He waved a hand in front of her. ‘How many fingers am I holding up?’

‘However many as will fit up your nose if you don’t get away from me,’ she snarled, slapping at his appendage. She rose from the stones beneath her, head pounding with the blood that rushed to it. ‘What happened?’

‘So, you are whole in the mind, right? That question was just your natural stupidity?’ He sneered and gestured down a dark, drowned hall. ‘Just listen, nit.’

She didn’t have to strain her ears; even weakened as they were, the distant furore sounded violently close. There was the sound of weapons clattering to the floor, harsh and croaking war cries mingling. Mostly, there was the screaming: loud and sporadic, flowing into a continuous river of agony that flooded into her ears and filled her mind like a bubbling pot.

She winced, folded her ears over themselves. They ached terribly; why did they hurt so bad? With a pained expression, she reached up and rubbed them gently. Her horror only grew at the flecks of dried crimson that crumbled out into her palms.

‘Ah, yes,’ she muttered, remembering. ‘Screaming.’

‘Plenty of it,’ Denaos confirmed. ‘So, if you wouldn’t mind, I’d like to do this nice and quietly.’

‘Do . . . what?’

Denaos rubbed the bridge of his nose. ‘I’d like to get out of here without having anything stuffed inside me that I didn’t put there.’ He eyed her warily. ‘Are you sure you’re all right? Because I’m starting to think this might be easier if you were dead.’

‘Get out of here?’

Kataria looked over her shoulder. The great stone slab loomed at the end of the hall, the cracks in its grey face made haughty, shadowy grins against the emerald torchlight. It was mocking her, she realised, as she recalled what had happened. As she recalled who lay beyond it.

‘We aren’t going anywhere,’ she muttered, rising to her feet. Her bones groaned in protest. She ignored them, as she did the throbbing of her ears, the agony of her body. ‘Not without Lenk.’

‘I’m sure he appreciates the sentiment.’ Denaos crossed his arms and rolled his eyes. ‘However, given the fact that he’s behind Silf knows how much solid stone and we’re out here and . . . you know, alive, he probably wouldn’t hold it against us.’

She ignored him, collected her bow and quiver from puddles of salt and slung them over her shoulder. With equal contempt for the limp she walked with, she trudged to the stone and ran her fingers down it.

‘It’s rather large, if you hadn’t noticed,’ Denaos muttered. ‘And thick. I checked.’

She looked over her shoulder at him with an even stare.

‘Admittedly, with not much care.’ He sighed. ‘There was the issue of the half-dead shict to attend to.’ He clapped his hands together. ‘But you’re up. You’re moving about. Whatever else is down here is distracted, thus leaving us a fairly good opportunity to do that activity I enjoy so much where I don’t get my head chewed off.’

‘You could have run already,’ she replied, turning back to the stone.

‘I stand a better chance with you watching my back.’

‘And we’ll stand an even better chance with Lenk watching both our backs. Help me look for it.’

‘For what?’

‘A switch . . . a lever . . . something that moves this thing, I don’t know. You’re supposed to be good with these things, aren’t you?’

‘With hopeless situations?’ He shook his head. ‘Only by virtue of experience. If there was anything that could move that thing, I’d have found it. The only chance you have at this point is to bash it down with your ugly face.’ He sneered. ‘Granted, while it seems tempting . . .’

His voice faded into another babbling tangent, easily ignored as she pressed her ear against the rock. The noises were faint: scuffling, splashing, something loud and violent. Through it, though, there was a familiar, if fleeting, sound.

He’s alive.

At least, he sounded alive to her. It was difficult to tell; what she heard was but a fragment of his voice. It was a weak and dying noise, there and gone in an instant. Perhaps, she wondered, she imagined it?

A trick of her mind or her bloodied ears? Or maybe, in her heart if not her mind, she knew he was already dead and heard the last traces of his breath escaping this world before he followed it. Either way, it was a flimsy, weak excuse to linger in a forsaken fortress filled with demons.

Still, she thought as she cracked her knuckles, I’ve gone off less before.

‘Hurry it up,’ she growled as she leaned down to inspect the bottom of the slab. ‘He’s not well.’

‘Compared to you?’ She heard Denaos’s long sigh. ‘Good luck.’

She turned at the sounds of boots scraping across the stones. Denaos, with no particular rush or hesitation, stalked down the hall towards the drowned section. She quirked a brow.

‘Where are you going?’

‘Let’s not belabour this, please. We all knew there was going to have to be a parting of ways, eventually.’ He threw his hands up in resignation. ‘I did what I could. Let Silf bear witness.’

‘You did nothing!’ she spat at his back, as though her words were arrows. ‘I know your petty round-ear God rewards cowardice, but I don’t. Now get back here and help.’

He could feel her eyes boring into him, that emerald stare that he had seen even Lenk flinch at. But he was not Lenk. He was not Gariath. He was not Kataria. He was a reasonable man. He was a cautious man. He was a man who knew when to run.

Keep telling yourself that, he thought. Eventually, you’ll believe it. He stooped, making certain that the shict wouldn’t see his bitter frown, hear his sigh. Don’t turn around, he reminded himself, don’t turn around. She doesn’t deserve a second look from you. None of them do. You told them. You warned them. They didn’t listen and this is what happened.

It’s not your fault.

He paused at the edge of the water, blanched at its blackness and noted that it wasn’t nearly black enough to hide the frowning face that looked back up at him.

No . . . still don’t believe it.

His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a bowstring drawn. He couldn’t say that the sight of her eyes, narrowed to venomous slits over a glistening arrowhead, was particularly unexpected.

‘No clansman is left behind,’ she snarled, ‘ever.’

Steady now, he told himself, holding his hands up for peace. She’s clearly lost what little mind she had.

‘Must we do this now?’ he half-whined.


‘It should have been done long ago,’ she hissed, pulling the fletching to her cheek. ‘I’ve been lingering amongst your diseased race for too long. I wanted to believe the stories my father told me weren’t true.’ He caught the briefest sliver of a tear murmuring at the corner of her eye. ‘I wanted to believe that.’

Sweet Silf, she’s completely mad. Mad, he realised, and perceptive. His hands twitched, fingers eyeing the dagger at his belt. She responded, string drawing taut, teeth clenched.

‘But every time I try, every legend proves true, every story about your cowardice and sickness . . .’ Her eyes went wide, like a crazed beast’s. ‘All of it was true.’

Grief-ridden, perhaps, he suspected. Gods know Lenk was a decent man, but this seems a bit extreme. He noted the trail of blood that had dried upon her temple. Maybe that last blow did it . . . His attentions were drawn back to the arrow. Either way . . .

‘If I can’t do anything for Lenk . . .’ She growled, her fingers twitched anxiously. ‘I have to do something.’

‘He’s not a shict.’

Her fingers twitched, bowstring eased just a scant hair. Good enough, he thought as his hand slid a little closer to his belt.

‘W-what?’ Her expression seemed to suggest she hadn’t contemplated that fact in some time.

‘He’s human, you know,’ the rogue continued, pressing a thumb to his chest. ‘Like me, not you.’ He raised one hand in appeal, all the better to draw attention from the other. ‘You call him “clansman”, like that means anything to him ... to us. But it only bears any weight on long, notched ears.’

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