Tome of the Undergates

Page 55

The coconut did not appear to share the same sentiments. As she fell to her rear, Kataria realised she didn’t either.

‘We had fun, didn’t we?’ she asked the nut. ‘I mean, I had fun at least. After a year around you, I’m not infected.’ She sighed, rubbing her eyes. ‘That’s not true. I am infected. That’s why I had to do what I did . . . sorry, why I have to do what I’m going to do.’

She didn’t bother explaining the rest to the coconut. How could he understand? she asked herself. Humans didn’t understand the Howling, couldn’t hear it, couldn’t comprehend what it was like to hear it again after a year of silence.

But Kataria did.

She had heard it, in fleeting echoes, during her battle with Xhai. And in those few moments, she had felt it, everything that it meant to be a shict. She could hear all the voices of her people, her ancestors, her tribesmen.

‘My father,’ she whispered.

Quietly, she reached up and ran her finger down the notches in her long earlobes, counting them off. One, two, three, she switched her hand to the other ear, four, five, six. The sixth tribe. Sil’is Ish. The Wolves. The Tribe that Hears.

And what good was it to be a part of the sixth tribe if she was deaf to the Howling? What would her people say if they knew such a thing? To know that she only used her ears to be a glorified hunting hound for a pack of inept, reeking, diseased monkeys?

What would her father say?

A brown shape caught her eye and she spied another coconut, this one apparently having landed on a rock when descending from its leafy home. Its face looked sunken, frowning, disapproving.

Much like him.

‘Naturally, I’m disappointed,’ she imagined the coconut saying, ‘you are a shict, after all.’

‘What does that even mean, though?’ she asked.

‘If you’ve forgotten already, then the answer as to what you should do is quite clear.’

‘But I don’t want to do it,’ she replied.

‘If we could all do what we wanted to, what would that make us?’

‘Human.’ She sighed, rubbing her eyes.


‘Tulwar,’ she recited with rehearsed precision, ‘or Vulgore, or Couthi, or any number of monkeys that claim to be a people.’ She looked to the coconut with a pleading expression. ‘But it’s not like we have to kill them all.’

‘Just the ones that make us forget what it is to be a shict.’

‘It’s not like that—’

‘Was it not you who just said such a thing?’

‘It’s complicated.’

‘It is not.’

‘He’s complicated.’

‘He’s human.’

‘I have no reason to kill him. I don’t hate him.’

‘It’s not a matter of hate.’ She could hear the deep, resonant tone of a voice used to speaking to a people, for a people. ‘Any monkey can hate, no matter what race he claims to be. Shicts are as beyond hate as the human disease is beyond redemption. We do not hate the disease, we cure it. We do not kill, we purify. This is simply what must be done and no other race has the conviction to do it. After all . . . we were here first.’

‘Right ...’

Her father had always been hard to deny, for both herself and her tribe. He had shed little blood himself in years past, but had kept their home free of filth and degenerates. It was his leadership that turned back three individual human armies seeking to cross their domain. It was his confidence that led the three tribes to unite under him.

It was his plans, the houses that burned, the wells that were poisoned, the lack of mercy for anything with a round ear, regardless of age or sex, that kept humans far away from their borders.

No one could say what might happen if a human did contaminate a shict. Her father had made certain there would never be an opportunity. Now that Kataria herself felt it, felt the distance, felt the need to ask what it meant to be a shict, his speeches and sermons made much more sense than they ever had when she was small.

And yet, she wasn’t quite ready to pick up arrows and start firing.

It could have been something else that infected her, something else that made her forget the Howling. She had been around many humans, after all, and other races as well. Any number of them could have been the cause.

But then, she told herself, you wouldn’t have been exposed to any of them if not for him.

Kataria lay back upon the sand. Her head throbbed, ached with the weight that had been put upon it. Her father was right, she knew; humans had done too much damage to be considered anything but a threat. She was proof enough. But if he was right, why hadn’t she done what needed to be done in the first place?

Opinions contradicting her father’s were few, but there was one that could be counted on always.

At that, she folded her arms behind her head and stared up at the sky, wondering what her mother would have said.

‘Well, it’s not like it’s some great loss for a human to die,’ the crisp, sharp voice came cutting on the wind, ‘but when is it really necessary?’

‘You killed humans at K’tsche Kando,’ Kataria retorted, ‘many.’

‘Hundreds.’ There was a morbid laughter on the wind. ‘But that was different.’

‘Forgive me for not seeing how.’

‘A human encroaching on our land is no different from any other race encroaching on our land. If they stay on their own side, they can do whatever they want. It’s when they start pretending they belong somewhere else that they need to be culled.’

‘Not quite the message I’d hoped to receive.’

‘Well, you’re forgetting a very important aspect.’

‘What’s that?’

‘I didn’t go to K’tsche Kando for any shict. I went there for you.’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘If you did, you wouldn’t be hallucinating now, would you?’

‘I thought this was the Howling,’ Kataria said, frowning. ‘Am . . . am I actually going mad?’

‘If you choose to. After all, no matter what your father says, it’s all down to choice. He didn’t want me to go, but I chose to, because if the humans set one foot upon our sister tribe’s land unchallenged, they’d come to our land, too, bolder and more virulent than ever.’

A brief silence hung over them. Kataria absently sighed up to the sky, hoping that whatever was looking down upon her did so with a frown that matched her own.

‘Did you choose to die there?’ she asked.

‘Can you choose that? I chose to kill there. What do you choose?’

‘I’m . . . not sure.’

‘Then what do you want?’

Kataria sat up, staring at her hands as they lay in her lap, calloused and well used to the shape of the bow, feeling the breeze kick the feathers in her hair against her notched ears, hearing the distant howl upon the wind.

‘I . . .’ she said reluctantly, ‘I want to feel like a shict again.’

‘Then,’ the sky and coconut answered as one, ‘you already know the answer.’

The hunting knife seemed much heavier when she picked it up. Her body felt like lead as she pulled herself up to her feet. The realisation that they were right was so thick as to choke her when she took in a deep breath.

The coconut with its eye put out now looked cold, stale. In the moments before the last of its milk had sloshed onto the sand, its face had changed. No longer did it demand explanation or look at her with disapproval. It merely seemed to stare blankly, as if to ask what it had done wrong to deserve such treatment.

She had no answer for it, no answer for herself as she tucked the knife into her belt and turned to join her companion for the last time. All she had left was a question that she asked herself with every footstep.

How else could it end?



Irontide no longer loomed against the orange setting of the sun. Irontide was no longer capable of looming. Instead, the massive fortress sagged, leaned drunkenly with a long, granite sigh as though it strained to clutch at the gaping hole in its side and lamented its lack of arms. Instead of looking fearsome, instead of looking forsaken, it looked at peace, a great, grey old man ready to go with a stony smile and an undignified stumble into the water.

Salt still wept from its wound, though in small, murmuring trickles. The tide had settled over its spike-encrusted base. Soon, the whole structure would crumble and vanish beneath the waves. The weapons and bodies entombed within would be forgotten. The sea, ever rising, had already forgotten Irontide.

Lenk, however, had not.

He wondered if he could still swim to the fortress, how long it would take him with his injured leg. How long would it take him to revisit the chamber with the black water and the rocky outcropping? How long would it take him to sink to the bottom once more and leave behind what had come out of the chamber with him?

‘I hear it more often now,’ he whispered, perhaps to whatever God might be listening. ‘It’s so loud, so clear.’ Absently, he rubbed his leg. ‘So cold.’

And with the voice had come the memories, the images that he remembered forgetting before. He saw them in flashes, in the moments when he blinked, and heard them in the moments when he held his breath. He could remember a strange weight upon his head, as though his skull had been coated in lead. He could remember the distinct lack of warmth and not being bothered by such a thing.

He could remember seeing his hands before him, covered in grey skin.

Now they lay before him, pink. But he remembered what they had done, whose head they had taken.

‘Demons can’t be harmed by mortal weapons,’ he muttered to himself. ‘Demons can’t die by mortal hands. That doesn’t happen.’

But it did, didn’t it?

‘Did it?’ he asked himself. ‘Maybe the whole thing was ... was imaginary, a hallucination. It could have been a trick of the mind.’

You did take several blows to the head.

‘Yes, several blows,’ he agreed.

Not as grievous as those the Deepshriek took, of course.

‘Exactly, I—’

Lenk paused and looked up, eyes wide as he felt his blood go cold. Somewhere inside him, a chuckle slipped through his brain and slid down his spine on freezing legs.

‘Not so chatty now, are you?’


‘I said, not so talkative any more? No more questions?’

Lenk turned about, regarding the rogue standing behind him. Denaos flashed a grin as he stalked towards the young man, taking a seat beside him on the beach.

‘Any other inane enquiries about the female question? Perhaps you’d like to know where babies come from?’

Lenk regarded the taller man through eyes that suddenly felt heavy, as though he had just been deprived of a year’s worth of sleep in a breath. He pulled his knees up to his chest and stared out over the ocean.

‘No. I don’t want to talk any more.’

‘Oh? Did we run out of work to do?’ Denaos glanced down the beach where their vessel lay, its hole patched with conspicuous timber. ‘Not the best job, I admit, but hardly a reason to stop conversing. I was rather enjoying myself towards the end.’

‘I don’t want to talk—’

‘Then maybe you ought to listen.’ The rogue scratched his chin. ‘Frankly, I think I might have misjudged your chances with Kataria.’ At the young man’s worried look, he grinned. ‘There, I thought you might find that interesting. ’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘Shocking.’ Denaos rolled his eyes. ‘Anyway, it strikes me that, if plays are any indicator, a great deal of romance tends to end in death. Suicide, frequently, or murder . . . and if the script’s any good, sometimes both.’ The rogue shrugged. ‘Given your mutual professions, I think your chances for either are rather good. Violence, it seems, makes a fertile garden for love to blossom.’

‘Love . . .’ Lenk repeated to himself, staring at his hands.

And who could love someone who . . . did what you did? Someone who is what you are?

‘Who even requires love?’ the voice asked.

‘Shut up,’ Lenk hissed.

‘No, no, hear me out,’ Denaos insisted. ‘Given that she’s a shict, I think the chances of her killing you are excellent. And that’s almost exactly how The Heresy of Vulton Husk ends, if you’ve ever read it.’ He made a soft applause. ‘A great tragedy of our time. Truly inspired.’

‘You’ve . . .’ Lenk began, glancing at the rogue, ‘been in love?’

‘I’ve been married.’

‘Same thing.’

‘Oh, Gods no.’ The rogue shook his head vigorously. ‘Marriage, you see, is an invention of man. It’s a trick in which you deceive someone into cleaning up after you when you’re too old to care whether you’re wearing pants when you piss. If it’s love . . . true love, one of you dies before the other realises they hate you.’

‘And she will die long before us,’ the voice whispered threateningly, ‘they all will die, you know. They’re obstacles. They’re hindrances.’

‘Stop,’ Lenk muttered.

‘Yes, I suppose it’s a little late for such quandaries, isn’t it?’ The rogue clapped the young man on the back as he clambered to his feet. ‘But I’m glad we had this talk. If nothing else, you can always buy your answers with your reward when we hand over the book.’

Denaos’s feet crunched upon the sand, leaving Lenk staring at his hands, straining not to blink, not to breathe. When the taller man’s footsteps were barely audible, the young man looked up and spoke to no one.

‘Who are you?’ he whispered. ‘What do you want?’

‘It is not a matter of want. It is a matter of what must be done.’

‘I’m not the man to do it. Not if it means that she—’

‘We are the one to do it. All obstacles fade or are torn down, even her.’

‘How do I get rid of you? How?’

‘There is no such thing.’

‘What do you do,’ he muttered, ‘when you want to be with someone . . . but you want to kill yourself?’

‘Ah,’ the rogue called, distantly, ‘that’s most definitely love.’

There was nothing left.

The stench of blood and cowardice, the reek of smoke and salt, the foul aromas of humanity and weakness were all vanished. Even the air hung still, carrying no scent of moisture rising from the earth or breath hissing from the trees. The world was as it was intended to be, free from all imperfect stenches.

All that remained was Gariath and the scent of rivers and rocks.

His legs felt weak underneath him as he pushed his way delicately through the jungle, following the memory’s trail. His wounds had since begun to heal, the burned flesh peeling off and the cuts scabbing over. It was something else that made him hesitant, made him wary of continuing, a sensation he hadn’t been able to smell through the stench of his own anger and the sheets of blood that he covered himself with.

His knees were soft as they had been when he first learned to hunt alongside his father. His bowels quivered with excitement as they had when he tasted the meat of his first prey. His chest trembled and felt as shallow as it had when he first mated. His arms felt weighted and weak as they had when he first held two wailing pups in his grasp, when he first learned he was a father.

That, all of it, was gone now. Only Gariath was left, of his family, of the Rhega. When he realised that, when he realised why he had followed a weak, scrawny human away from what had once been his home, where his family had once lived, where his children had cried and his father had bled, he realised what the sensation was.


It was a foul emotion, Gariath thought, anger was much better. Within anger there was certainty, there was predictability, and he always knew how everything would end. Within fear, there was nothing. There was nothing to expect and nothing to keep hope from spawning inside him.

Hope died. Anger lived.

But it was with hope that he walked, following the scent as it wound its way through the jungle paths and into the heart of the forest where no one but he was meant to go. The spirits let him pass, drawing back their fronds and branches, leaving their rocks and roots out of his path, chasing the noisy beasts and birds from their crowns that he might hear.

Hear and smell.

The scent became overwhelming as he placed a claw upon the thick, leafy branch. The last branch, he realised, before he faced what lay upon the other side. It would be better to go back now, he knew, to go back to the certainty of anger and the predictability of bloodshed. It would be better to go back, safe in the knowledge that there were no more Rhega, that his father and his mate and his children were all gone.

It would be better to forget that he might have ever hoped.

But, still, he pushed past the branch.

The glade greeted him with the murmur of a stream and the gentle hum of sunlight peering through the branches. The earth was moist, but hard and green under his feet. It pressed against his soles affectionately, as if it were welcoming him back after a journey so long only the earth could remember him.

It knew his feet.

The water greeted him eagerly, lapping up to his waist as he waded through the shallow stream towards the verdant chunk of earth in the centre of it. It giggled, laughed and jumped up to grab at him, trying to invite him to swim as he had once before, before he had known what anger was.

The water knew him.

He reached down, leaving a hand in the stream as if to assure it that he would be back before too long. He ignored the splashing moans of disappointment as he climbed onto the chunk of green. The great stone loomed over it, tall, grey and jagged. An elder, he realised as he brushed a hand over it, who had seen the stream born, the forest born, and so much more.

He knew the stone.

He breathed deeply, inhaling the memories. The elder was free with his tales, let the scents escape his soil and fill Gariath’s nostrils. They came quickly, almost overwhelmingly.

Taoharga was born here, he knew, and she was the swiftest runner in the land. The earth scorned her feet and the beasts feared her approach.

He inhaled again. Gathar stood here and sheltered his children beneath his wings when the storms came and did not relent for three days.

The sound of breath. Argha and Hartaga were born here. They stood, they fought, they hunted and they bled together.

They came one after the other, his breaths short and ragged. Gratha laughed while she mated here. Harathag roared to the sky here as his children died before he did. Iagrah watched her son catch a fish and wrestle with it here.

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