Tome of the Undergates

Page 53

Or even Kataria, standing triumphant over an arrow-laden corpse as Asper swooned at the shict’s feet.

While not an entirely unpleasant image, the fact of the matter remained that it would not have been him who saved her. It would never be a scrawny boy in a dirty coat. He would never have that kind of power.

At least, he thought as he wrapped his hand about the crimson jewel, not on my own.

‘You are well, Lorekeeper?’

Dreadaeleon found himself incapable of starting at the voice. It was far too melodic, far too soothing to cause anything but a smile. He looked up, wearing that smile, to regard an angular, pale face framed by flowing locks of kelp-coloured hair and a pair of feathery gills.

‘I am, thank you,’ he replied.

‘Your hair . . .’ Greenhair noted, frowning at the lock of grey.

‘Yeah, well . . . prices and the like,’ Dreadaeleon muttered as he climbed to his feet. ‘You know how it is.’

‘I do not,’ she replied flatly.

‘Oh.’ He paused, cleared his throat. ‘Well . . . it’s, ah . . . difficult.’ Forcing a larger, far more awkward smile onto his face, he continued, ‘Where did you scamper off to, anyway? We missed you.’

‘Oh,’ she said, blinking. ‘Did you throw something at me?’

‘No, I mean . . .’ He held up a hand, drew in a deep breath. ‘Where did you go?’

‘I went . . .’ A pained expression crossed her face, though Dreadaeleon found it hard to decipher that from her features. ‘Away.’


‘Somewhere else, Lorekeeper. It is not important.’

‘Why, then?’

‘That is even less important.’ She eyed the boy curiously for a moment, something dancing behind her alien eyes. ‘You . . . were victorious in Irontide?’

‘Roughly,’ he replied. ‘It was difficult. There were demons, some kind of . . . sacs, I don’t know.’

‘Even fiends have mothers, Lorekeeper, and they are all birthed from the wretched womb of Ulbecetonth.’

‘Those things,’ Dreadaeleon said, cringing, ‘were eggs?’

‘They were nothing meant for this world. What is important is that they are destroyed.’ She leaned in to him, regarding him through a wary expression. ‘You did destroy them?’

‘Not personally, no. There was a longface there. He burned them with fire.’ The boy scratched his chin. ‘Fire that wouldn’t go out . . .’ He scratched a little harder. ‘He was defying the laws, he cheated.’ His teeth clenched unconsciously as he scratched harder at his hairless chin. ‘He ... he almost . . .’

‘Lorekeeper . . .’

He felt his blood on his hands the moment she spoke. Muttering a curse, he wiped his chin off on the lapel of his coat, hiding it from the siren’s curious gaze. A futile gesture, for her eyes seemed to focus on something past the dirty fabric, past his skin and bone.

‘You are . . . not well,’ she observed.

‘I’m fine,’ he replied coldly. ‘It’s just . . .’ He sighed, looking at his hands, so scrawny, so feeble. ‘I should have been the one.’

‘To kill the Abysmyths?’

‘To kill the Abysmyths, the frogmen, the longfaces, to find the tome, to kill the Deepshriek, to . . .’ To save Asper, he added mentally, but all I did was piss myself and fall down, like an old man, with barely any blood on my hands.

‘So long as they are dead, what does it matter?’

Because what’s the point of having the power if I can’t use it? Because why is it fair that I can be beaten by brute force and superstitious myth? Because why can’t I be the one to turn the tide, to get the treasure and win the woman?

‘Because,’ he whispered, ‘there are laws.’

He continued to stare at his hands as the pale, webbed fingers slid around his own, closing tightly over them. Quietly, his stare was drawn up and into her fathomless eyes, her gentle, thin-lipped smile.

‘Laws are not important,’ Greenhair whispered, her voice but a ripple on the water.

He could feel his breath catch in his throat as he stared into her eyes, his hands go so weak and malleable under hers as she pushed them aside. He could feel his legs cross awkwardly over each other in a vain attempt at concealing as she drew herself closer to him, feeling the chill of her body through the garment wrapping her.

Oh Gods, he muttered inside his own mind, quick, say something clever.

‘So . . . what is important?’ he squeaked.


‘What is here. What is now,’ she replied, low and breathless. ‘What has occurred is but one wave, come and gone. What is now is you.’

She raised a hand to her shoulder and, with digits working slowly, let her silk-like garment fall from her body.

‘And me.’

His eyes went wide, wide enough to leap out of his skull, yet nowhere near wide enough to take all of her in. He could only steal glimpses: gentle curves like the bend of a river, skin that shimmered between pristine ivory and pale azure as the light glimmered off her body, and rivers of hair that flowed down her body.

‘Uh . . . should I ...’

Dreadaeleon was silenced with a sudden chill as she pressed her mouth to his. His eyes threatened to melt as hers closed. Thoughts slid through his mind as easily as her tongue slid past his lips.

Oh Gods, oh Gods, oh Gods, he babbled inwardly, if there were Gods, that is. This is it! This is it! This is what it feels like! This is what it tastes like. He blinked, his tongue shyly brushing against hers. Salt? That makes sense, I guess. She’s a siren. Does the rest of her taste like—

Something stiffened beneath him and he swallowed hard.

Keep it together, old man, he chided himself mentally. Here and now, like she said, focus on the here and now. One moment ... what does that even mean? Am I . . . am I supposed to lick something? I think I’m supposed to lick something. I should lick something . . . but what? Oh Gods . . .

Her tongue seized his forcibly, wrapping around to caress softly. He felt her breath upon his face, the gentle whisk of sea spray that tingled in his nostrils. He felt her slide a hand up and behind his head, pulling him further into her.

I think I’m supposed to do that . . . aren’t I? Denaos always says that the male is supposed to be aggressive. But . . . but what does that mean? Do I . . . do I pin her down or something? Is that romantic or rape? His hands absently brushed against her arms. Nevermind it, she feels pretty tough. Gods, why do I always have to meet muscular women? Well, I can’t just sit here and let her do everything . . . do something, you fool!

But what?

I . . . uh . . . grab something! His hand lashed out and clasped, quivering upon her round buttock. Not there, you fool! She’ll think you a pervert! Wait, no, you fool! She’s already naked, how much harm could you possibly do? Okay . . . okay . . . everything’s okay. It’s just—

‘What does it matter,’ she whispered on a wisp of breath as she pulled slightly away, ‘that you were not the one to slay the demons?’

Wait, what? That hardly seems like a nice thing to . . . steady. Steady! You’re losing it!

‘It is what you will do that matters most,’ she continued.

Oh Gods, is that a joke? Can she feel it getting soft? Steady! Denaos always says this sort of thing happens . . . but only with lots of whiskey.

‘You have the tome.’ She drew herself closer, one ivory thigh easily brushing his leg aside and sliding up and down.

Well, yes, we have it, but Lenk took it . . . no! No! Think positively! It’s not about Lenk! It’s about you, you . . . you throbbing stallion, you rapturous lord of the sheets, you amorous bullfrog. Wait . . . wait . . . ignore that last part.

‘And you will bring it to me . . .’


‘What?’ He said as much.

‘Is it not wise?’ She pulled him closer, smiling as she felt him go rigid against her. ‘The tome is an item of such knowledge.’ She leaned in, her whisper carried on the tongue that flicked against his ear. ‘Such power.’

‘Power . . .’ He could feel himself lost on her whisper, set adrift on the sea that was her voice.

‘Your companions would not understand it.’

‘How could they?’ he muttered. ‘They know nothing but gold.’

‘They would hate me for it.’

‘I . . . I’d protect you.’

‘You would save me?’

Her gasp caused him to shudder as something within him yearned to be free, yearned to burst out and seize her, to force her upon the sands and savage her in ways he had only heard about second-hand. It pushed at him, demanding he forget the idea of betrayal, demanding he take her in his arms and deliver to her what she demanded herself.

He reached up, seizing her by her naked shoulders and pulling her close, feeling her breasts press against his chest, feeling the breath on his cheek as her lips parted in a faint gasp, feeling her webbed fingers slide down to his belt.

‘I would save you . . .’ he whispered.

‘On waves of fire,’ she replied, ‘and roars of lightning?’

‘Yes . . .’

Wait . . .

With her words sliding like veils over his ears, he felt it. Something twitched in the back of his head, as though a cockroach had skittered upon his brain while she spoke and stood stock still, desperate not to be noticed. But with those last words, he could feel it, the brief twitch of antennae.

Dreadaeleon pushed himself away from her, his eyes narrowing. Greenhair recoiled. Though it was difficult to tell, Dreadaeleon could make out upon her angular features not shock, but the sudden fear of being discovered.

‘You’re in my head,’ he whispered, his voice seething.

‘It is . . . it is not what you think, Lorekeeper,’ she protested.

‘How is it not exactly what it seems?’ he snarled, advancing menacingly. ‘You never told me you could read thoughts . . . then again, if this is what you were planning, I suppose that makes sense.’

‘The tome is dangerous, Lorekeeper! There are powers at work here that you do not understand! The Sea Mother—’

‘Is false! Like all Gods!’ Dreadaeleon blinked, his eyes opening with a burst of crimson power. ‘Like you!’ He levelled a finger at her. ‘You wanted to use me! All to get some stupid book!’

‘It is no mere book, Lorekeeper,’ she said, fumbling for her garment. ‘It has knowledge, it has darkness, it has—’

‘Power,’ he finished for her. ‘And so do I.’ He spoke an echoing word and his finger burst with electricity. ‘Get out of here.’

‘It is also to save you,’ she protested, backing away. ‘The darkness will come after you now that you have the tome! I can protect it! I can protect you, Lorekeeper.’

He roared another word that thundered off the sky, punctuated by a sudden crack of lightning leaping from his digit. She shrieked and collapsed. Only when the echo of thunder passed did she look up at him, his finger angled high and smoking.

‘My name,’ he said, ‘is Dreadaeleon.’

The boy could not recall in what order it happened: his threats, her wailed excuses and pleas, his collapsing, her fleeing into the water to vanish into the sea. He could only sit and stare out over the waves as a tear trickled down his cheek and into his mouth, leaving him with the fading taste of salt.



Denaos poised the hatchet over the wooden block, closed one eye and swung. It split smoothly down the centre, each half flying off to join the two piles of similar semicircular shapes. He smiled at his work momentarily, admiring the even cleave, before sinking the tool into the tree stump that served as a chopping block.

‘Your turn,’ he said.

Lenk looked up through a sweat-stained face, incredulous.

‘What?’ He looked down at the piles, his piles, with Denaos’s addition lying smugly on top like fruits on a dessert. ‘You only chopped one?’

‘I chopped one exquisitely,’ the rogue corrected. ‘If I wanted to beat you in a contest, I could hack circles around you, throwing off so many lacklustre splinters like you did.’ He plucked up his product and one of Lenk’s, holding his up. ‘Look at this: a nice, delicate blow, revealing every tender secret of the wood. Now look at yours. Where’s the heart?’

Lenk mopped his brow, looked down at the piles, then looked back up at his companion.

‘It’s wood.’

‘A true artist never makes excuses.’ The rogue added an insulting sashay to his walk as he turned away from Lenk. ‘Anyway, you’re the one who wanted work ethic and talk. It’s only fair that I get laziness and listening.’ He pulled himself up onto a low-hanging tree branch and lay down. ‘So, go ahead.’

‘Fine,’ the young man said, grunting as he hefted the hatchet and placed a fresh block of wood onto the stump. ‘I’m having some trouble with—’

‘Oh, wait, we’re going to talk about you?’

‘Well . . . yeah.’

‘Why can’t we ever talk about me for once?’ the rogue muttered, settling himself further into his boughy sling. ‘Everyone comes to me with their problems. Why can’t I ever get the same treatment?’

‘Because all I know about you is that you’re a coward, a lech, a lush, a brigand, a bigot and a piece of offal masquerading as a man,’ Lenk snarled, bringing the hatchet down in a vicious chop. ‘Did I miss anything?’

‘Yes,’ the rogue replied, ‘I also play the lute.’

‘Fine, then. We’ll talk about you.’ Lenk set a new piece of wood up, glancing at his companion. ‘You never told me what you did before becoming an adventurer. Are you married?’

Denaos sat up at that, lips pursing, regarding Lenk through narrowed eyes.

‘Any children?’ Lenk asked.

‘You know, I think I am in the mood to talk about you.’ With noticeable stiffness, the rogue settled back into his tree branch. ‘So, do go on.’

‘Um . . . all right, then.’ Lenk brought the axe down again. ‘I’m having some difficulty understanding women.’

‘Ah, yes.’ Denaos scratched his chin. ‘The eternal question on two legs that only gets more annoying with every passing thought.’ His hand drifted lower, scratched something else. ‘Fortunately for you, I’m something of an expert on the subject.’


‘No doubt,’ the rogue replied. ‘What do you want to know?’

‘I suppose . . .’ Lenk’s hum hovered in the air as he leaned on the hatchet’s handle, staring contemplatively out at the forest’s greenery. ‘Why?’

‘The best place to start,’ Denaos said, nodding. ‘Well, to understand women, you must first understand their place in the world. And to that end, you must first know how they came to occupy this world alongside us.’


‘The theories vary from faith to faith, but here’s how it was explained to me.’ He cleared his throat, sitting upright as though he were some scholar. ‘The Gods first created man and gave to him their gifts. From Daeon and Galataur, we received the art of war. From Silf, we received the talent of deception. And from Khetashe, as you know, we received the urge to explore.’

‘Go on.’

‘But there was a difficulty. Mankind lacked purpose. There was no reason to go to war, no reason to lie, no reason to wander far and wide.’


Denaos shrugged and lay back. ‘And then the Gods created women and suddenly everything made sense.’

‘Oh . . .’ Lenk scratched his head. ‘Well, how does that help me?’

‘If you haven’t reached that conclusion from that particular story, there’s really nothing I can do to help you.’ The rogue waved a hand dismissively. ‘What do you even care? When we return the tome, you’ll have enough money to buy several whores, make one of them your wife and die a slow, lingering death at the bottom of a tankard like any decent man.’

‘What if I don’t want any of that?’

‘Then give me your share.’

‘I mean,’ Lenk said, setting down another log, ‘well ... let me ask you this. Have you ever wanted something desperately, but you knew it just wasn’t meant to be?’

The rogue fell silent, absently scratching his chest. The wind shifted overhead, parting branches that sent shadows dancing over his face, chased by eager fingers of sunlight upon the giggles of a playful breeze. Quietly, he reached up, fingers outstretched as though he sought to grab them.

‘Yeah,’ he replied, ‘I’ve wanted that.’

‘So, what do you do?’

Lenk brought the hatchet down, splitting the log and sending its halves flying off. The echo of the chop lasted an eternity throughout the forest, silencing the laughter of the wind.

‘I suppose,’ Denaos whispered, ‘you ask “why”?’

Taire was her name.

Asper remembered that about her, remembered it the first day she had heard it.

‘Like . . . a paper tear?’ she had asked the girl, scrunching up her nose. ‘What kind of name is that?’

‘What kind of name is Asper?’ she had replied with a smile, sticking her tongue out. ‘The name of a slow-witted tree or a snake with a lisp?’

Her tongue was long and pink, never coated. Her eyes were big and blue, not cold like Lenk’s, but vast like the sky. Her hair was long and golden, not dirty like Kataria’s, but glistening like the precious metal.

She was always smiling.

Temple life was hard. Asper had been told that before she ever felt called to join. She learned it in the days that followed, during the dissections of the dead to discover what they had died from, ferrying salves and medicines from the apothecary to the common floor where the elder priests tended to the sick and the dying, forced to look upon men, women and children as they coughed out their last breath so that she might know why she served the Healer.

Taire was never shy, never afraid, life never seemed hard for her. She was always the first to peer curiously into the open corpse, the fastest to get the medicine to the common floor while greeting every patient that walked in, the only one who would hold someone’s hand as they left the world on Talanas’s wings.

Taire had taken Asper’s hand and placed it on the dying. Taire had helped her fumble with the medicine. Taire had stayed up reading the tomes on the human body, late into the night, with Asper. Taire was not the reason Asper had entered the temple. Taire was the reason she served the Healer.

Copyright © novelfull All Rights Reserved.