Tome of the Undergates

Page 5

An errant kick caught him, sent him staggering backwards. His foe, apparently, had long legs. Long arms, too, Lenk noted; this wouldn’t be a fight he could win if it continued to be this dance.

Run away, he thought, escape through the crowd and you can—


No, no! Stop that! You just have to get away long enough to—


NO! If . . . if you can’t escape, just keep him busy. Keep him distracted long enough for Denaos to stab him in the back or Kataria to shoot him in the neck or—


‘What?’ he asked his own thoughts.

He whipped his gaze about the carnage that the deck had become. He could see flesh, faces rising up and down from a sea into which the sailors and Cragsmen had blended seamlessly. But they were only faces filled with fear or covered in tattoos. He could see no sign of a skinny youth, a tall and lanky cockroach, a flashing silver pendant.

Or, he noted ruefully, twitching ears and bright green eyes.

Whatever twinge of despair he might have felt must have made itself apparent on his face, for when he turned his attentions back to his opponent, the Cragsman had discarded his battle-hardened concentration in exchange for an amused grin.

‘I say, dear boy,’ he said, ‘you look to be possessed of a touch of the doubting dung beetle.’

‘I’m fine, thanks,’ Lenk grunted in reply, hoisting his blade up before him.

‘More’s the pity, I suppose. Had you, indeed, succumbed to the previous hypothesis of being a man of the utmost practicality and, synonymously, cowardice, I would have invited you to congenially excuse yourself from the anticipated social of disaster about to be wreaked.’

Lenk blinked. ‘I’m sorry, did you just offer me an escape route or invite me to tea?’ He made a half-hearted thrust at the man, who easily darted away. ‘Either way, you would seem to be in a poor position to guarantee either. You’re not the captain.’

‘Indeed. Our dearest chum and astute tutor Rashodd has excused himself from this particular bloody fete to better assure you of his honour. All we wish to partake of is the women in your charter, as well as a portion of your cargo, us being pirates and all.’ He tilted his head slightly. ‘And a particular priest who has decided to associate himself with your uncouth captain.’

Lenk drew back at the mention, suddenly cocking a brow.


‘Ah, the delicate ladies of your employ would certainly be unimpressed at the object of your concern, sir.’

‘What do you want with the Lord Emissary?’

The Cragsman offered a smirk coy as he could manage with lips like a shedding centipede. ‘A proper gentleman never tells,’ the pirate said, advancing upon the young man and grinning as his opponent took a step backwards. ‘Unfortunately, in the time it took to deliver that stirring bout of eloquence, my patience, and thusly the offer, did decline. Alas . . .’ He raised his cutlass high. ‘Generosity wasted is generosity insulted, as they—’

He was interrupted suddenly by the sound of an out-of-tune lute being plucked, followed by a whistling shriek that ended in a wet, warm punctuation. The pirate jerked suddenly, he and Lenk sharing the same expression of confusion before they both looked down to see the arrow’s shaft quivering from between two of the Cragsman’s ribs.

‘Ah,’ he slurred, mouth glutted with red, ‘that would do it, wouldn’t it?’

Lenk watched him until he stopped twitching, then turned his stare upwards.

He caught sight of Kataria’s smile first, her canines broad and prominent over the heads of the combatants as she stood upon the railing. She held up a hand, wiggling four slender fingers before scampering up the rigging, a trio of Cragsmen at her heels.

It was a well-believed idea of less-practical men that removing oneself from the reach of their opponent was low. Scampering away from them, however, was simply insulting. Kataria doubtlessly knew that. With dexterity better befitting a murderous squirrel, she turned, drew and loosed a pair of arrows at them, giggling wildly as they fell back, one dead, one wounded and the third apparently ready to find easier prey.

The saying was old and well-worn amongst men, but true enough that the pointy-eared savages had adopted it as their own.

Shicts don’t fight fair.

The Cragsmen, too, seemed equally aware of the phrase and voiced their retort in a whirl of thrown hatchets. She twisted, narrowly avoiding the gnawing blades, but found herself caught in the rigging as they glided over her head and bit through the rope. She shrieked, fell, disappeared into the melee.

Go back, was his first thought. Find her. Save her. But his legs were frozen, his head pulling towards another direction. She’s a shict. Savage. She doesn’t need saving. Keep going, keep going and—

Kill. The thought came again, more urgent this time. It hurt his head to think it, chilled his skull as though it came on icy breath. Fight.

He couldn’t help but agree; there would be time enough to worry about Kataria later, likely when she was dead. For the moment, something else caught his attention.

The sound of wheels turning with such force as to be heard over the din of battle reached his ears. A groaning of wood and metal sounded across the gap of the sea. Lenk could see, over the heads of the pirates who remained aboard the Linkmaster to hold their boarding chains steady, a monstrosity being pushed towards the railing.

‘A siege engine?’ he muttered to himself, not being able to imagine what else the wheeled thing might be. ‘If they can afford a damn siege engine, why are they raiding us?’

No answer was forthcoming from either the four Cragsmen pushing it, nor from the visor-bound gaze of Rashodd. It was not them that Lenk looked at, but rather the wisp of a man standing by the side of the titanic captain.

Or at least, Lenk thought it was a man. Swaddled in conservative black where the pirates displayed their tattoos brazenly, the creature’s clothing was the least curious thing about him. He was heads shorter than the others, looking like a mere shadow next to Rashodd, and his head resembled a bleached bone long scavenged of meat: hairless, pale, perfectly narrow.

Whether he saw Lenk staring at him or not, the young man did not know. But as the insignificant person’s lips twisted slightly, the bone showing a sudden marring crack, Lenk couldn’t help but feel as though it was intended for him.

To your left.

The thought came with greater clarity, with greater will, as though it was no longer even a part of his own mind, but another voice altogether. Lenk was highly surprised to hear it.

Not quite as surprised as he was to feel the rounded guard of a cutlass smash against his jaw, however.

He staggered backwards, his heel catching a dead pirate’s arm as though his foe reached out in death. His senses reeled as his sword fell from his hand, his vision blurred as he felt blood trickle down his nose. He looked up, blinking and shaking his head; the first thing he made out, shortly before the tattoos, was a long, banana-coloured grin.

‘It could hardly be said of me that so noble a man of the Crags does not endeavour to make good on his word,’ the pirate said. ‘But I do beg your pardon, kind sir. You do us no honour by sitting quietly and watching.’ He looked down at the man Lenk had tripped over and frowned. ‘Nor by the theft of so fine a fellow as this gentleman was to me.’

‘I’m . . . sorry?’ Lenk’s voice was hoarse and weak, his hands trembling as he reached for his fallen sword.

‘Ah, of course, your apology is accepted with the utmost gratitude,’ the pirate replied. ‘Even if the idea of repairing such egregious breaches of conduct is more than a tad absurd.’

His fingers felt numb, unable to sense the warmth of the hilt, the chill of the steel. He tried to regain his footing, the ringing in his skull and the uncertainty beneath his feet conspiring to keep him down. The Cragsman seemed less than concerned with the young man rising, if his very visible pity was any suggestion.

‘I don’t suppose it would help if I said I wouldn’t do it again?’ Lenk asked, trying to talk through his dizziness.

‘I’m more than a mite remorseful to inform you that such would hardly be the proper retort.’ The pirate shook his head and levelled his blade at the young man’s face. ‘Regrettably, this is the point in proper protocol where we resolve and absolve alike through the gouging of eyes and spilling of entrails upon the uncaring deck, if you’ll excuse the crudeness.’


Absently, Lenk regretted not having thought of something better for his last words.

That thought was banished as his hands thrust up weakly, catching the pirate’s wrist and holding the blade fast a hair’s length away from his face. The gesture was futile, both Lenk and his foe knew; his arms trembled, his fingers could not feel the skin and metal they sought to hold back. His breath gave up before he did, becoming short, rasping gasps in his throat.

He clenched his jaw, shut his eyes, felt his arms begin to yield.


That thought lasted for but a moment, while the moment existed as a drop of moisture on the pirate’s blade, dangling for a silent eternity. Lenk felt his breath run cold in his lungs, felt his blood freeze in his veins and time with it.


His muscles did not strengthen beneath his skin, rather they denied strength entirely in favour of the frigid fingers that crept through him. In one long, cold breath, he felt the numbness sweep up his arms, into his chest.

Into his mind.


The thought grew stronger, louder with every twitch of his hands, every fingerbreadth he gave to the blade. It echoed through his head, down into his chest, into an arm that involuntarily broke from his opponent’s grip and sought his fallen blade.

Through shut eyes, he could see the moment dangling off his opponent’s sword.

He felt it drop.


Blue flashed, pitiless and cold, behind his eyelids. Eyes not his own stared back into him. Teeth that were not his clenched. Fingers that were not his gripped a hilt. The thought did not leap to his mind, did not whisper inside him.

It had a voice.

It spoke.

Lenk felt something move, a snap of cold air that sent his hair whipping about his face. He opened his eyes and stared down the long steel blade of a sword he didn’t remember swinging, life dripping down it, upon which the Cragsman’s shock was violently etched.

He looked up, just as surprised as his opponent, and met the man’s eyes. No fear this time, no moment of futile hope and extinguished life. The pirate stared at him with eyes that could reflect nothing, the blow having come too swiftly to grant him even the privilege of a horrified death.

He mouthed, ‘No fair.’

And fell to the deck.

The numbness did not flee from Lenk’s limbs, but rather seeped into his body, as water disappearing into the earth. He felt suddenly weak, legs soft under a body suddenly unbearably heavy, breath offensively warm and jagged in his throat.

Slowly, he staggered to his feet. Slowly, he felt the sun again, heard the din of battle. But the warmth was faint, the sounds distant. He could feel the chill, he was aware of it as he was of his own shadow. It seeped away, dissipated into blood that began to run warm, leaving only a single thought given a voice behind.


‘What?’ he gasped, his own voice suddenly alien to himself.


‘I . . . I don’t—’


Argaol’s roar came from the helm with desperation. Lenk glanced up to see four sailors locked in combat with a pair of Cragsmen, desperately trying to keep the blade-wielding pirates away from their captain with their staves. The dark man himself looked directly at Lenk, pointing to the railing.

He shrieked, of course, as he usually did when addressing the young man, but Lenk didn’t hear him. He didn’t need to as he saw two more tattooed men leap from a boarding chain onto the deck. Instead of rushing towards the battle to aid their fellows, they instead cast wary looks about, hungry eyes and bare feet immediately setting off for the companionway.


‘Damn, damn, damn, damn, damn, damn, damn, damn.’

A curse for every step as he charged after the boarders. Ironic, he thought absently as he pushed his way through the melee, that moments ago he was ready to leave the Lord Emissary to die. Then again, it was hardly surprising; so long as he had been hit in the face once today, he might as well get paid for it.

Which wasn’t likely to happen if his employer was gutted below decks.

‘Protect the charter, boys!’ Argaol roared to his own crew. ‘Protect the Lord Emissary! The Gods demand it and smile on us for it!’

Lenk’s pace was quick as he leapt over bodies, side-stepped brawls, darted around stray blades. The battle raged with no clear victor; he passed corpses both familiar and tattooed. But the sailors held, the Cragsmen had not overrun them yet, and the two boarders were not as swift as Lenk was. For a moment, he felt a rush of victory as he drew closer.

For a moment, he thought that maybe the Gods did smile upon him.

That belief died with the sudden twist of an ankle and a shriek as he recalled that the Gods loved irony far more than they loved their servants. He hit a patch of red-tinged seawater, his boot slid out from under him and he went sprawling, sword clattering to the deck.

There was barely enough time to spew out a curse before he lunged to his feet, seizing his weapon. Too late; he saw the two boarders vanish into the shadows of the companionway, laughter anticipating the impending looting ringing in their wake. Once inside, they would easily lose any pursuit in the maze of cargo holds and cabins, chopping up passengers at will, cutting and pillaging in a few breaths. And he was too late to stop it.

Too late, too late, too late, too late, too—

Stop it! Stop, he scolded himself as he forced his boots into a run. Fight first, fear later.

Just as the darkness of the companionway loomed up before him like a gaping maw, he was forced to skid to a halt. Something squirmed in the shadows. Someone screamed.

He threw himself to the side just in time to see the body of one of the invaders sail through the air, landing limply on the deck with his neck twisted at an angle at which necks clearly were not meant to twist.

‘G-GET AWAY FROM ME!’ the remaining pirate squealed from inside. He came shrieking out of the gloom, weapon lost, mouth gibbering. ‘MONSTER! THEY’VE GOT A GODS-DAMNED DRAG—’

His scream died in his throat, his feet torn from the deck as a great red arm ending in a set of brutal claws reached out from the darkness to wrap about his neck. The hand tightened, the sound of bones creaking between its massive fingers. Lenk cringed, but only for a moment. He knew the smile that then spread across his face was unwholesome, but he could hardly help himself.

The sight of Gariath brought out all sorts of loathsome emotions in people.

The dragonman emerged from the companionway, holding the writhing pirate aloft with an arm rippling with crimson muscle. He surveyed the battle through black eyes, his captive a mere afterthought.

The expression across his long snout was unreadable as he swung his horned head back and forth. The ear-frills at the side of his head twitched in time with the leathery wings folded on his massive back, as if stretching after a long nap.

‘I thought you weren’t coming up,’ Lenk said.

Gariath looked down at the young man, who only came up to the lowest edge of his titanic chest. He sneered, far more unpleasantly than either Lenk or Kataria could ever hope to, baring rows of sharp, ivory teeth.

‘It was stifling below,’ he grunted. ‘I came up for air and find humans dying.’ He glanced over the melee. ‘I can’t say I’m not pleasantly surprised.’

He became aware of the captive pirate thrashing in his hand, pounding at the thick red wrist wrapped in a silver bracer. His scaly eye-ridges furrowed as he turned to the companionway.

His snarl was short and businesslike as he slammed the pirate’s face against the wooden doorframe, staining it red. His roar was loud and boastful as he drove it forwards again, bone fragments splintering with the frame. His snort was quick and derisive as he crushed the pirate once more, reducing a formerly grisly visage to featureless red pulp. Already bored with his now-unmoving prey, the dragonman dropped him to the deck, raising a clawed foot to rest upon his head.

‘Who needs to die?’ he asked.

‘Pirates,’ Lenk replied.

Gariath ran his obsidian glare from one end of the ship to the other in long, patient stares.

‘Which ones are the pirates?’

‘What do you mean, “Which ones are the pirates?”’

‘You all look the same to me,’ Gariath grunted, folding his arms over his chest. ‘Ugly, stupid, smelly.’

‘So look for the ugliest, stupidest and smelliest ones and give it your best guess,’ Lenk replied. ‘Are you going to help or not?’

The dragonman’s thick red legs tensed. His weight shifted to the foot resting on the pirate’s skull. Lenk winced and turned away at the sound of something cracking, the sight of something grey and sticky oozing out onto the blood-soaked deck. Gariath snorted.


Contrary to what her elders had said of the teeming race, Kataria didn’t find humans entirely awful. The only thing that truly annoyed her about them was their grossly underrated ability to adapt. It was a subject of routine discussion amongst those few shicts who grew old enough to stop killing their round-eared foes and start theorising about better ways to kill them.

‘They’re just monkeys, of course,’ it had often been said. ‘They spend their whole lives searching for food and, when they don’t find it, they just run around in circles, smelling their fingers and eating their own scat.’

In the year since she had followed a silver-haired man out of the woods, she had been keeping track of her own addenda that she might someday offer by the fire. And, as the possibility of her living that long quickly began to dwindle, she thought, not for the first time, that the elders’ description neglected to mention that, when faced with food, humans proved particularly motivated.

And the Cragsmen surrounding her proved to be particularly clever monkeys.

Should’ve stayed in the rigging, she told herself, should’ve climbed back up. Easier target for hatchets, sure, but you could’ve shot more of them.

She had hardly expected them to figure out what arrows were, much less corner her against the railing. But they had adapted; they had found her, pursued her, showing the extreme discourtesy of not giving her enough room to shoot them.

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