Tome of the Undergates

Page 54

Taire had begged.

Her disappearance was officially marked down as ‘lamentable’, never pursued with any particular interest. Children fled from the temple all the time, even the brightest and most enthusiastic students occasionally finding it too stressful to continue with the training. The gravedigger had looked half-heartedly about the temple grounds. The high priest sighed, gave a prayer and made a note in the doomsday book. Taire’s belongings were folded into a bundle and put into storage in the bin marked ‘unclaimed’.

There was no corpse, no suicide note, nothing to indicate she had ever existed besides the sooty mark on the floor of the dormitories.

And Asper.

No one had asked the shy little brown-haired girl who was always rubbing her left arm where Taire had gone. No one had paid attention to the shy little brown-haired girl who cried in the night until long after Taire was forgotten by all.

All except the one who knew that she had begged, like the longface, like the frogman.

She hadn’t forgotten any of them. She hadn’t forgotten the pain she felt, that they shared, as her arm robbed them of all. She could still feel it, would feel it long after whoever kept track of such things forgot that the longface in Irontide had ever existed. She would hear them scream, hear their bones snap, hear their bodies pop, hear them beg.

Her arm was one part of the curse. That Asper would never forget was another.

And she hadn’t forgotten that, for as many times as she looked up to the sun and asked, ‘why?’ no one had answered her.

‘It happened again,’ she whispered, choked through tears brimming behind her eyes.

Asper turned. The pendant did not look particularly interested in what she was saying as it lay upon the rock. The forest danced, shifted overhead, casting a shadow over the silver-wrought phoenix. Its carved eyes turned downcast, its gaping beak resembled something of a yawn, as though it wondered how long her weeping confession would last.

‘It happened again,’ she repeated, taking a step closer. ‘It happened again, it happened again, it happened again.’ She took another step with every fevered repetition until she collapsed upon her knees before the rock, an impromptu altar, and let her tears slide down to strike upon the pendant. ‘It happened again.


The pendant did not answer her.

‘Why?’ she said, louder.

‘Why, why, why, why?’ Her knuckles bled as she hammered the symbol, straining to beat an answer out of it. ‘Why does this keep happening to me? Why did you do this to me?’

She raised her hand to strike it again. The phoenix looked out from behind the red staining its silver, uninterested in her threat. Like a parent waiting for a child to burn itself out on its tantrum, it waited, stared. Her hand quivered in the air, impotent in its fury, before she crumpled beside the rock.

‘What did I do to deserve this?’

Asper had asked that question before, of the same God, on her first night in the temple. She had knelt before his image, carved in stone instead of silver, far from the loving embrace of her father and mother, far from the place she had once called home. She had knelt, alone, and asked the God she was supposed to worship.


And Talanas had sent Taire.

‘Because,’ the young girl who was always smiling had spoken from the back of the chapel, ‘someone has to.’

And Taire had knelt beside her, before the God that seemed, in that instant, better than any parent. Talanas was loving, cared for all things, sacrificed Himself so that humans might know what death was, what sickness was, and how to avert them. Talanas cared for His priests as much as He did His followers, and in the instant Taire had smiled at her, Asper knew that Talanas cared for them both, as well.

‘Has to what?’ she had asked the girl then.

‘Has to do it,’ Taire had replied.

‘Do what?’

‘That’s why we’re here,’ the girl had replied, reaching out to tap the brown-haired girl on the nose before they both broke down into laughter.

‘I don’t deserve this,’ Asper whispered, broken upon the forest floor. ‘I didn’t do anything to deserve this.’ She raised her left arm, stared at it as it grinned beneath its pinkness, knowing it would be unleashed again. ‘You gave this to me.’

She rose to her knees, thrust her left hand at the pendant as though it were proof.

‘You did. It isn’t what I wanted. I . . . I wanted to help people.’ She felt her tears sink into her mouth as she clenched her teeth. ‘I want to help people.’

‘To serve mankind,’ Taire had said as they flipped through the pages of the book. ‘To mend the bones, to heal the wound, to cure the illness.’

‘What for?’ Asper had asked.

‘You’re weird, you know that?’ Taire had stuck out her tongue. ‘Who else is going to do it?’


‘You don’t pay attention during hymn, do you? Humanity was given a choice: free will or bliss. We chose free will and so it’s up to us to take care of ourselves. Or rather, it’s up to us, His faithful, to take care of everyone else.’

‘Why would anyone not choose bliss?’


‘I would forsake free will in a heartbeat if it meant I didn’t have to feel pain any more, if I didn’t have to cry any more.’

‘Well, stupid, you’d be a slave, then.’

‘What’s wrong with that?’

‘What’s wrong . . .’ Taire had sputtered, looking incredulous. ‘What would be the point of life if you never knew pain? How would you even know you were alive?’

Asper had felt pain. Asper had felt Taire’s pain, that night in the dormitories. Asper had felt it as her friend begged and she could do nothing about it. Asper had felt it for the years after, as she had grown up, told herself it was an accident, told herself that she needed to atone for it by following Talanas.

‘Well, I have followed you,’ she whispered to the pendant. ‘And you’ve led me to nothing. I . . . I always wondered if I was doing good, being amongst these heathens. Never once did I suspect I was doing wrong.’ Her tears washed away the blood on the silver. ‘Never, you hear me?

‘But what am I supposed to do with this?’ She grabbed her arm, its sleeve long since destroyed. ‘What good can come from this? From leaving nothing to bury? From robbing someone of everything? What good?’

The pendant said nothing.

‘Answer me,’ she whispered.

The wind shifted. The pendant shrugged.

‘Answer me!’

She turned her arm, levelled its fingers at her throat.

‘If you’re there, if you’re listening, you’ll tell me why I shouldn’t just turn this on myself and end it all.’ She shook her arm. ‘I’ll do it. I’ll do the one good thing I can with this arm.’

A tear of salt leaked past its beak. The pendant yawned. She looked around furtively, found a hefty brown stone. She pulled it up, raised it above her head, fingers trembling as she aimed it over the pendant.

‘This,’ she said, shaking the rock. ‘This is real. This rock is real. Are you?’ she snarled at the pendant. ‘Are you? If you are, you’ll tell me why I shouldn’t just destroy you. If you aren’t, you end with this pendant. All you are is silver ... just a chunk of metal.’ She growled. ‘A chunk of metal with three breaths. One.’

The pendant did not do anything.


The pendant stared at her through hollow eyes.


The rock fell, rolled along the earth to bump against the trunk of a tree that loomed over a brown-haired girl, crumpled before a mossy altar, clenching her left arm with tears streaming down her face as a chunk of metal looked upon her with pity.



‘So,’ Denaos spoke loudly to be heard over the sound of hammering, ‘why the sudden interest in the fairer sex?’

Lenk paused and looked up from his duty of nailing wood over their wrecked boat’s wound, casting his companion a curious stare.

‘Sudden?’ he asked.

‘Oh, apologies.’ The rogue laughed, holding up a hand. ‘I didn’t mean to suggest you liked raisins in your curry, if you catch my meaning.’

‘I . . . really don’t.’

‘Well, I just meant you happened to be all duty and grimness and agonising about bloodshed up until this point.’ Denaos took a swig from a waterskin as he leaned on the vessel’s railing. ‘You know, like Gariath.’

‘Does . . . Gariath like raisins in his curry?’

‘I have no idea if he even eats curry.’ Denaos scratched his chin thoughtfully. ‘I suppose he’d probably like it hot, though.’

‘Yeah, probably.’ Lenk furrowed his brow. ‘Wait, what does that mean?’

‘Let’s forget it. Anyway, I’m thrilled to advise you on the subject, but why choose now, in the prime of your imminent death, to start worrying about women?’

‘Not “women”, exactly, but “woman”.’

‘A noble endeavour,’ Denaos replied, taking another swig.


There was a choked sputter as Denaos dropped the skin and put his hands on his knees, hacking out the droplets of water. Lenk frowned, picking up another half-log and placing it upon the companion vessel’s hole.

‘Is it that shocking?’ the young man asked, plucking up a nail.

‘Shocking? It’s immoral, man.’ The rogue gestured wildly off to some direction in which the aforementioned female might be. ‘She’s a shict! A bloodthirsty, leather-clad savage! She views humanity,’ he paused to nudge Lenk, ‘of which you are a part, I should add, as a disease! You know she threatened to kill me back in Irontide?’

‘Yeah, she told me.’ Lenk began to pound the nail.


‘And what?’ He glanced up and shrugged. ‘She didn’t actually kill you, so what’s the harm?’

‘Point taken,’ the rogue said, nodding glumly. ‘Still, that’s the sort of thing you’re lusting after here, my friend. Say the Gods get riotously drunk and favour your union, say you’re wed. What happens when you leave the jam out overnight or don’t wear the pants she’s laid out for you? Do you really want to risk her making a necklace out of your sack and stones every time she’s in a mood?’

‘Kat doesn’t seem like the type to lay out pants,’ Lenk said, looking thoughtful. ‘I think that might be why I . . .’ He scratched his chin. ‘Approve of her.’

‘Well, listen to you and your ballads, you romantic devil.’ The rogue sighed, resting his head on folded arms. ‘Still, I might have known this would happen.’

‘How’s that?’

‘Well, you’ve both got so much common,’ he continued. ‘You, a grim-faced runt with hair the colour of a man thrice your age. And her . . .’ Denaos shuddered. ‘Her, a woman with a lack of bosom so severe it should be considered a crime, a woman who thinks it’s perfectly fine to smear herself with various fluids and break wind wherever she pleases.’ His shudder became an unrestrained, horrified cringe. ‘And that laugh of hers—’

‘She has her good points,’ Lenk replied. ‘She’s independent, she’s stubborn when she needs to be, doesn’t bother me too much . . . I’ll concede the laugh, though.’

‘You just described a mule,’ Denaos pointed out. ‘Though you grew up on a farm, didn’t you? I suppose that explains a lot. Still, perhaps this particular match was meant to be.’

‘What do you mean by that?’

‘I mean you’re both vile, bloodthirsty, completely uncivilised and callous people and you both have the physiques of prepubescent thirteen-year-old boys.’ The rogue shrugged. ‘The sole difference between you is that you choose to expel your reeking foulness from your mouth and she from the other end.’

‘Glad to have your blessing, then,’ Lenk muttered, hefting up another log. ‘So, what do you think I should do?’

‘Well, a shict is barely a step above a beast, so you might as well just rut her and get it over with before she tries to assert her dominance over you.’

‘Uh . . . all right.’ Lenk looked up, frowning. ‘How do I do that?’

‘How’d you do it the first time you did it?’

‘What, with Kat?’

‘No, with whatever milkmaid or dung-shovelstress you happened to roll with when you first discovered you were a man, imbecile.’

Lenk turned back to the boat, blinking. He stared at the half-patched wound for a moment, though his eyes were vacant and distant.

‘I . . . can’t remember.’

‘Ah, one of those encounters, eh?’ Denaos laughed, plucking up the waterskin from the sand. ‘No worries, then. You might as well be starting fresh, aye?’ He brushed the dirt from its lip and took a swig. ‘Really, there’s not much to it. Just choose a manoeuvre and go through with it.’

‘What, there’s manoeuvres?’

‘Granted, the technique might be lost on her . . . and you, but if you’ve any hope of pleasing a woman, you’ll have to learn a few of the famous arts.’ A lewd grin crossed his face. ‘Like the Six-Fingered Suldana.’

‘And . . .’ Lenk’s expression seemed to suggest a severe moral dilemma in continuing. ‘How does that go?’

‘It’s not too hard.’ The rogue set down the waterskin, then folded the third finger of each hand under it, knotting the two appendages over themselves. ‘First, you take your fingers like this. Then, you drop a gold piece on the ground and ask the woman if she wants to see a magic trick, then you—’ He paused, regarding Lenk’s horrified expression, and smiled. ‘Oh, almost got me to say it, didn’t you? No, no . . . that one’s a secret, and for good reason. If you tried it, you’d probably rupture something.’

‘Maybe all this is for nothing,’ the young man said, turning back to the boat. ‘I mean, it’s not usual to . . . do this sort of thing right after confessing your feelings, is it?’

‘Love has nothing to do with feelings, you twit. Or at least, lovemaking doesn’t. It’s an art, created to establish prowess and technique.’

‘I’m . . . I’m really not sure I want to do that, then.’

‘Fine.’ The rogue sighed dramatically. ‘I was trying to spare you some embarrassment, since I severely doubt your capabilities of conveying anything remotely eloquent to her. Then again, she is a barbarian, so perhaps just grunting and snorting will do.’

‘I was planning on something like that,’ Lenk said, grinning. ‘But, out of curiosity, if Khetashe does smile upon me ... what manoeuvre do I use?’

‘Something simple,’ Denaos said, shrugging. ‘Like the Sleeping Toad.’

‘The Sleeping Toad?’

‘A beginner’s technique, but no less efficient. You simply request that your lady wait until you’re asleep, then have her do her business with such delicate sensual eroticism that you barely even stir.’

‘Huh . . . have you ever tried it?’

‘Once,’ the rogue said, nodding.

‘Did it work?’

Denaos looked out over the sea thoughtfully, took a long sip from the waterskin. ‘You know, I really have no Gods-damned idea.’

The coconut was a hairy thing, a small sphere of bristly brown hair. Kataria scrutinised it, looked it over with an appraising stare as she took out her hunting knife. With delicate precision, she jabbed two small holes into two of the nut’s deeper indentations. Quietly, she scooped a chunk of moist sand out of the forest floor and smeared it atop the coconut.

It looked at least vaguely silver in the shimmer of the sunlight, she thought, but there was still something missing. After a thoughtful hum, she brought her knife up and gouged a pair of scowling lines over the nut’s makeshift eyes, finishing the product with a long, jagged frown underneath.

‘There,’ she whispered, smiling as the hairy face scowled at her, ‘looks just like him.’

She traipsed over to a nearby stump sitting solemnly before a larger tree and set the face down upon it. Then, backing away as though she feared it might flee if she turned around, she reached for her quiver and bow. In a breath, the arrow was in her hand and drawn to her cheek, the bowstring quivering tautly.

The coconut continued to frown, not an ounce of fear on its grim, hairy visage. Just like him, she thought, perfect.

The bow hummed, the arrow shrieked for less than a breath before it was silenced by the sound of wood splitting and viscous liquid leaking onto the sand. The face hung by its right eye, the arrow having penetrated it perfectly and pinned the nut to the tree trunk behind it. Its expression did not change as thick milk dripped out of the back of its head and its muddy hair dribbled onto the earth.

The shict herself wore a broad, unpleasant smile as she stalked back to her impaled victim and leaned forwards, surveying her work. She observed the even split in the nut’s eye and nodded to herself, pleased.

‘I could still kill him,’ she assured herself. ‘I could do it.’

He was the tricky part, she knew, the only one she would have trouble killing. The rest were just obstacles: shifty hares in a thicket. He was the wolf, the dangerous prey. But that was hardly a matter. She could kill him now, she knew, and the rest would be dead soon after.

With that, Kataria jerked the arrow out of the face’s eye and watched it fall to the earth. Wiping the head off on her breeches, she slid the missile back into her quiver and turned to walk away. She had gone less than three paces when she felt a shiver run up her back.

The nut was still staring at her, she knew, still frowning. It demanded an explanation.

‘All right, look.’ She sighed as she turned around. ‘It’s nothing personal. I mean, I don’t hate you or anything.’

The coconut frowned, unconvinced.

‘You had to know this was going to happen, didn’t you?’ She scratched the back of her head, casting eyes down to the ground. ‘How else could it end, Lenk? I mean, we’re . . . I’m a shict. You’re a human.’ She growled, turning a scowl up. ‘No, you’re a strain. You’re part of the human disease! It’s up to us to kill you before you become unsatisfied with the parts of the world you’ve already contaminated and infect the whole thing!’

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