Tome of the Undergates

Page 52

Wordlessly, an almost-silent breath hissed between its teeth. He turned it over, glancing where its stalk-like neck had been attached. A blackened, bloodied hole stretched from hair to jaw beneath. Air murmured through it, emerging from the creature’s fanged mouth.

‘Sweet Khetashe,’ he fought bile to speak, ‘it is alive.’

‘It has a new duty now,’ the voice replied.

Lenk turned to the stone slab, watching another shard crumble and slide down like a drop of stone sweat. He smiled, rose to his feet, sheathed his sword and slung the tome’s satchel about his shoulder.

‘We have but to give it that duty,’ the voice said, and - how, he had not the faintest idea - Lenk knew what it meant.

He walked before the slab, dangled the decapitated head by its golden tresses and whispered a word.


Even over the explosion, the stone shattering and the hail of rock chips, Kataria could hear the shrieking. In fragments of sound, it had been painful, uncomfortable, but tolerable. Bared to its full vocal fury, it was agonising. And in response, she became a creature of folds: folding her ears over themselves, folding her hands over her ears and folding her body over itself.

Shards of grey bit at her bare back, the earth settled ominously under her feet, dust poured into her nostrils. None of that mattered, none of that pain needed to be felt. All she thought of was the hideous wail that defiled the air, and keeping it from turning her ears into flayed pieces of glistening bacon hanging from her head.

How long it lasted, Kataria did not know, and she did not care. When it finally ceased, it still echoed in the hall, reverberating off stones and ripples and breaths she took. After an eternity of darting eyes and nervous twitching, she took her hands away from her ears, breathed a word of thanks mingled with a curse, and turned around.

And then, the screaming suddenly didn’t seem so bad.

Two thin pinpricks of light, cold and blue, stared at her from behind a cloud of dust that, mercifully, showed no signs of dissipating. She swallowed hard, clenched her teeth.

‘Lenk,’ she said, rather than asked. There was no mistaking him or his stare.

The two tiny spheres flickered, a shadow moved behind the dust cloud. It shifted against the curtains of pulverised grey, as though agitated or confused.

‘I think . . .’ a voice, faint and freezing, spoke, ‘she’s talking to you.’

The voice was familiar to her. She remembered it as well as she remembered Lenk’s own. And now they spoke in unison, each one with a crisp clarity that settled upon her skin like rime.

She could feel her heart sink. Whatever dwelt on the other side of the dust cloud was not completely Lenk. Perhaps, she thought, maybe not even Lenk at all.

‘What?’ When he spoke next, it was with his own voice, but it was frightened, shrill, like a small child’s. ‘No, I didn’t mean . . . stop. Don’t yell at me!’

This was it, she knew, the sign she had been waiting for. He was a disease within a disease now, completely lost to whatever plagued him. These were the moments she should be running instead of staring at his shadow through the veil of dust. These were the moments she should turn, leave this human - all humans - behind her and thank Riffid for giving her the clarity to be free of her shame.

‘Stop it . . .’ he whimpered, his voice rising into a roar. ‘I said stop!’

He would never hear her footsteps as she walked away. She kept that in mind as she turned to the water, reassuring herself. He would think it all a dream in his fevered mind, he would think she was dead. He would never suspect that she had left him behind.

And still, she cursed herself. She should be braver, she should be able to stand before the human disease, the great sickness that plagued the world, and spit on him through a shictish curse. Her father would have wanted that. Her people would have wanted that.

For her part, Kataria merely wanted to fight back the urge to turn around.

‘Kat ...’

Damn it, she muttered in her mind as she halted, damn it, damn it, damn it.

She turned, only to be greeted by another sign. The curtains of smoke parted, layer by layer, exposing the shadow behind in greater detail. Her blood froze at the sight, the distorted shape of the young man, the jaggedness of his outline and the bright, ominous blue with which his eyes shone.

He extended a hand to her, trembling, far too big to be his own and whispered.

‘Please . . .’

This was the final sign, Riffid’s last mercy to her. She should turn, walk away, run away, leave this human and whatever he had become in the shadows behind her. Her ancestry demanded it. Her pride as a shict demanded it. Her own instincts demanded it.

Kataria listened carefully. And, in response, she drew in a sharp breath and walked into the cloud of dust.

‘I’m here,’ she said as she might speak to an injured puppy, her hands groping about blindly. ‘I’m here, Lenk.’

She found him in a sudden shock as her hands clasped around flesh that froze like a fish’s. She swallowed hard, ignoring this sign as she had done the last, hearing in the faintest whispers Riffid cursing her for her stupidity.

Another hand reached out to clasp about hers and she froze. Through the leather of his glove, through the leather of hers, she could feel it, a sensation that caused her to go breathless as he squeezed her fingers in his.


‘You’re alive,’ he spoke.

He spoke, she told herself, unable to fight back the smile creeping onto her face. Lenk spoke. No one else.

‘Come on,’ she urged, pulling at him.

They staggered out into the stagnant air and the dying light of the torches. She drew in a sharp breath before looking at him, afraid to find grey flesh or pupilless spheres staring back at her.

Instead, she saw a man barely alive. His shirt was tattered and clung to a body that was stained red in areas. His leg, rent with a jagged cut, barely seemed capable of supporting the rest of his wiry frame. Deep circles lined his eyes and his smile was weary and accompanied by a sharp wince.

He looks so weak, she thought, like a sick dog or something. Why she should find that endearing, she did not know. The faint smile that crept to her face quickly vanished by the time her gaze drifted to the black-stained blade and the severed, golden-haired head in his grasp, however.

She cleared her throat. ‘Busy in there?’

‘A bit,’ he replied as he tucked the head’s glimmering locks into his belt.

He paused at the centre of the corridor, noting grimly the Abysmyth corpse striped by sizzling green lacerations. Quietly, he looked her over, frowning at the bruise upon her flank, the cuts criss-crossing her pale skin, the dried trail of blood under her nose.

‘How was your day?’ he asked.

She sniffed a little. ‘Pleasant.’

‘So long as you kept yourself occupied.’ He took a step forwards, then winced to a halt. Smiling sheepishly, he extended his arm to her. ‘Help me?’

‘Help you?’ She gestured to her own wreck of a body. ‘I fought a hulking, purple-skinned white-haired man-woman! ’

He patted the severed head at his belt. ‘I took the skull off a three-headed shark-lady.’

‘She kicked me,’ Kataria said, gesturing to the long bruise running down her flank, ‘might’ve broken my ribs, too. This was all after I stabbed her.’

‘Yeah? Well, she . . .’ Lenk looked at the head disparagingly. ‘She yelled at me.’

Kataria stared at him blankly. He coughed.

‘Really loudly.’

She pursed her lips. He sighed and offered his shoulder to her.

‘Fine, get on.’

‘No.’ She took his arm instead, draping it over her shoulder. ‘You’d probably soil yourself with the effort, anyway.’ She grunted, bolstering him. ‘You owe me, though.’

‘I’d offer my blood, if I hadn’t left it behind.’ He chuckled, then winced. ‘It hurts to laugh.’

‘Then stop telling terrible jokes.’ She guided him down the corridor. ‘Denaos lived.’

‘Pity,’ he replied. ‘And the others?’


‘Possibly what?’


He squeezed her hand and she froze. His grip was still warm.

‘You’re alive,’ he whispered, the faintest edge of hysteria in his voice.

‘I am,’ she replied in a voice just as soft.

‘And you’re still here.’

She hesitated, looked down at the ground and frowned.

‘Yeah . . . I know.’

‘I didn’t think—’

‘Don’t ruin it by starting now.’

And so they hobbled in silence until they reached the water’s edge. There they stopped, there they stared at themselves in the gloom.

The liquid seemed slightly less oppressive now, the air a bit cleaner, if tinged by a distant stench of burning. Kataria glimpsed Lenk’s reflection in the water as it twisted and writhed. Odd, she thought, but as distorted as it was, she could still pick out his features, his silver hair and his blue eyes.

What comfort she took in that was lost the moment she spied her own reflection, however. The creature of pale skin and green eyes stared back up at her, twisting, contorting and fading. She frowned, for even as her reflection re-formed, she still didn’t recognise the shict looking back at her.

‘Kataria,’ Lenk began, sensing her tense under him, ‘I—’

‘Later,’ she grunted, adjusting herself and him as they slid into the water.

If there was a later, she would handle it then. Whatever excuses needed to be made, whatever apologies had to be voiced to herself, to her Goddess, to her kin, could be made later. For now, they were both alive.

And Kataria couldn’t help but think it would be easier if one of them weren’t.



Denaos had never believed the idea that one of his particular talents should prefer the darkness. The sun was far more pleasant; it illuminated, it warmed, and didn’t mind at all if one happened to admire it nude, unlike certain people with primitive notions of modesty and boundaries.

‘We could learn a bit from you, my golden friend,’ he whispered to the great yellow sphere, reaching down to scratch a particularly errant itch.

After the eternity it had taken to leave Irontide, the sun was a particularly welcome sight. It was two long days in a dank, decrepit stone hall stinking of ash and blood before they were rested enough to make the long swim back to Ktamgi. The effort was made all the harder by the grievous injuries sustained during their excursion to the crumbling fortress. Even Asper had tended to them with a degree more listlessness than usual; many of his companions still lingered in uncertain fates.

But, he thought, they aren’t here now.

And so Denaos lay upon a beach blissfully free of demons, netherlings or hulking she-beasts while at least three of his companions were threatened with the imminent possibility of a slow, agonising death.

It was a good day.

Naturally, the thought occurred with a twitch of an eyelid as he heard the sound of footsteps on sand, someone has to come and ruin it.


Lenk’s voice, he thought, was a dull and unenthusiastic brick hurled through a pleasant stained-glass window depicting a rather tasteful scene of curvaceous nude women and apple trees. Knowing that such a thing would be lost on the young man, he chose to say something different.

‘Naked here. Go away.’

‘We’ve got work to do,’ Lenk replied with an unsympathetic tone. ‘The boat needs to be repaired. There’s wood to chop and nails to hammer.’

‘Why in the name of all good and virile Gods did you think that coming to a naked man with messages of chopping wood and hammering nails would persuade him?’ Denaos snorted. ‘Get someone else to do it.’

‘Everyone else is gone.’

‘Gone where?’

‘I don’t know, just . . . gone. I can’t find any of them.’

‘Well, why don’t you scurry off and see if they left any scat to track them by?’ He snorted and folded his hands behind his head. ‘Or, for a better idea, why don’t you just go and rest yourself? Your leg can’t be feeling too well.’ He coughed. ‘Not here, of course. Go find your own stretch of beach.’

‘I feel fine.’

Denaos arched his neck, regarding his companion who stood, he thought, far too close. Still, the young man looked to be standing firm, favouring his uninjured leg, to be sure, but largely unaffected. It struck the rogue as odd that someone who had been bitten by a demon shark should be standing only two days later, but that was a concern for another time.

‘I’m incredibly comfortable right now, I’ll have you know,’ the rogue muttered. ‘I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but it takes a considerable amount of effort to achieve the precarious position in which sand does not reach up into my rear end with eager, grainy claws and I’ll not have you ruin it.’

A period of silence, punctuated by the idle banter of the surf, followed before Lenk spoke again in a voice decidedly meeker than his own.


‘Whatever for?’

‘I need to talk to someone.’

‘About what?’

‘Things . . . you know.’

‘So talk,’ the rogue replied. ‘I’m not going anywhere.’

‘I can’t . . . I mean, not here.’

‘Why not?’

‘Well, back in Steadbrook, whenever we needed to talk about something, we’d do it over work.’ Lenk rubbed the back of his neck. ‘And it’s not like we can get off the island until someone finishes the vessel, anyway.’

‘I think I see,’ Denaos said, humming thoughtfully. ‘You’d like to talk to me, but instead of doing it like a human being free of mental illnesses, you’d like me to indulge you in this quaint little ritual devoted to furthering your already stunted social skills and rewarding you for not acting like a normal person.’


Denaos yawned, then pulled himself to his feet. ‘Fine.’

‘I mean, it’s nothing all that important,’ Lenk said to the rogue’s back as the taller man began walking towards the pile of nearby tools. ‘I’m just a little . . . confused.’

Denaos froze for a moment, then sighed. He waved a dejected hand as he turned around and began walking to his discarded clothing.

‘Hold that thought. This sounds like the kind of conversation I’ll need pants for.’

It dangled like an ugly fold of aging flesh, Dreadaeleon thought as he stared at his reflection in the shore’s tide-pools. The filthy grey streak of hair that hung over his brow continued to mock him, continued to chide him for his stupidity.

He had suspected this might happen, which was why he made a point of staying far away from his companions. They wouldn’t understand; how could they? None of them had the Gift, none of them had the mental capacity to comprehend a fraction of magic’s laws and extents, let alone its prices.

The Venarium’s records were full of cautionary tales of those who had overextended themselves: flesh melting from bones, bodies exploding into flames after misspeaking a word, young ladies giving birth to two-headed calves after being a bit too close to a wizard when he sneezed during an incantation.

Rapid, concentrated aging was the most common - and the most lenient - of the punishments. He supposed he should be grateful that he would only suffer from one marred lock.

Regardless, he lifted his shirt, checking his torso for any sign of liver spots, wrinkles, prominent veins. Nothing, he noted with relief, as there had been nothing when he checked twenty breaths ago.

The grey lock was warning enough, though, and he absently considered keeping it as a reminder of his failure. His companions wouldn’t understand, of course, but why should they? They weren’t the same as he was. They were lesser, stupid, still clinging to the belief that gods and spirits would protect them.

Ridiculous, he thought, the notion of beings in the sky that could reshape mountains and raise the dead without a thought. Power had a price, any logical mind knew. Nothing could be created without being taken from somewhere else, whether it was fire from the heat of a palm or ice from the moisture of a single breath. That was the law, the law of magic, the law of the Venarium.

Or, he thought as he reached inside his coat pocket, that used to be the law.

He pulled the red jewel out, observing it as it dangled on the black chain before him. Perfectly spherical, save for a noticeable chip on its face, the jewel ate the light of the sun, rather than reflected it. That, he told himself, was the sign that this was it, the tool that the longface male had used to cheat the laws of magic.

I mean, he told himself, what else could it have been? He had searched the corpse thoroughly, inside and out after performing a bit of impromptu dissection. Nothing differentiated the longface from himself, save for his purple skin and this . . . this tiny jewel.

That particular heretic was dead, it was true, but how many more were there? Where did these ‘netherlings’ come from and what did they hope to gain by fighting demons? Who was this ‘Sheraptus’?

And what, he asked himself with a sudden surge of fury, made them look at Asper the way that one did?

The memory of the long face, and its broad grin and hungry eyes, still burned in his mind with an anger far greater than any heresy the black-clad wizard might have committed. The memory of a purple hand extending to touch her, her, his companion, sizzled within his skull. The stink of his own soil filled his nostrils at the thought of it.

Dreadaeleon sighed, pressing his face into his hands. The strain had been too much to bear, he knew, and undoubtedly she would, too. Still, even after that, after drawing upon so much that even his bladder could not hold, he hadn’t even been able to save her. Gariath had to do that, leaving him as nothing more than an afterthought with wet pants and a breathing problem.

Somehow, he had imagined the scenario working out far more gallantly.

He should have pushed himself further, he knew, he should have had the strength to fend off that netherling and a hundred more. He should have flung them aside on waves of fire and roars of lightning, creating a ring of destruction to shelter her from the carnage.

He was a wizard! He was the absolute power!

Power, he thought ruefully, so limited . . .

But instead of all that, he had soiled himself and crumpled up in a heap, leaving her to whatever malice the netherling had planned for her. And once again, it had been Gariath, superstitious, brutish, barbaric Gariath, who had done what he could not. And if it hadn’t been Gariath, he told himself, it would have been Denaos with a dagger in the back or Lenk with a killing blow of his sword.

Copyright © novelfull All Rights Reserved.