Tome of the Undergates

Page 57

He couldn’t honestly say the thought of Argaol’s furious face, screwed up so tight his jaws would fold inwards and begin to devour his own bowels, caused him any great despair. After all, the man gave us a lute.

Besides, he reasoned, whatever price Argaol demanded could be paid out of his earnings. One thousand gold, he told himself, divided amongst six . . . one hundred sixty five pieces, roughly. My share, plus Asper’s, equates to three hundred and thirty. This bottle, he paused to survey the golden-stained glass, can’t be more than thirty. Expensive, but still enough to buy many more and a new bowel for Argaol.

The good captain’s sacrifice would not be in vain. Silf demanded sacrifice for His role in their victory, the recovery of the book. Fortunately, the Patron was, if His own scriptures were to be believed, satisfied with whatever revelry that might occur being done in His name.

And what was not to revel about? The book was in their possession, patiently waiting to be exchanged for hard, shiny coin. The demons were fled for a glorious three nights, the longfaces gone, as well. And, as an added answer to an oft-muttered prayer, both Gariath and Dreadaeleon had been strangely absent for the past day and night, leaving Denaos alone with two lovely women who would no doubt be at least tolerable when the bottle was drained.

And Lenk, too, he thought disdainfully, but let’s not dwell on the negative. Tonight is a night of revelry! Silf demands it! He demands empty bottles, drunken dreams and remorseful lamentations in the morning! He demands satisfied women, wrinkled skirts and trousers that can’t be found in the morning! He demands riot, revel and, at the absolute minimum, three violations of scripture by two women with a strong desire to explore their own mystique.

What greeted him when he arrived, however, was not revelry or riot. There was hardly a smile shared around the fire, much less two women committing blasphemies on the sand. Their faces were sombre, their eyes hard and their mouths stretched into frowns so tight they might as well have come off a torturer’s rack.

‘Frankly,’ he said aloud, placing hands on hips, ‘I’m wondering if I might not find a livelier bunch in Irontide.’

‘Amongst the maggots and corpseflies, perhaps,’ Asper muttered, looking up from Lenk’s leg. She eyed the bottle with scrutiny. ‘What’s that?’

‘Huss’s Gold Cork,’ the rogue replied, holding up the bottle triumphantly. ‘The finest whiskey ever to be wrought past the last Karnerian Crusade. Only one hundred barrels of this made it out of the empire before liquor was outlawed there.’

‘Where’d you get it?’ the priestess asked, lofting a brow.

‘Argaol so generously donated it to our cause.’

‘Uh-huh. And why don’t I believe you?’

‘Likely because you have two working eyes and at least a tenuous grasp on the concept of behavioural patterns.’ The rogue batted his eyelashes sweetly. ‘Or maybe Talanas just loves you.’

‘Sure, fine.’ She held out a hand. ‘Give it here.’

‘A zealous little one, are you?’ He slipped the bottle to her. ‘By all means, begin your indulgences first. The tightest buttocks require the most lubrication, after all.’

Asper ignored his remark, seemed to ignore the bottle as she studied Lenk’s leg. The young man’s trouser leg had been sheared off above the knee, pulled back to expose the jagged wound in his thigh. It had since been treated, the dead flesh removed, the salve applied, the skin pulled together and stitched tight with black gut thread. All the same, Asper scrutinised it with the same sort of frown she might an oozing, infected, scabrous thing.

She uncorked the bottle and held a white cloth to the mouth. Quietly, she tipped it and stained it amber, wiping it upon the young man’s leg.

The scream of agony came not from Lenk.

‘What are you doing, heathen?’ Denaos shrieked as he shoved her over and wrenched the bottle from her hand, cradling it to his chest as he might an infant. ‘This is none of your wretched Talanite swill! This . . . is . . . liquor.’

‘It’s alcohol,’ she replied, scowling as she righted herself. ‘It’ll fight infection.’

‘If you were any kind of decent healer, you’d have fought it with another weapon already.’

‘I wanted to make sure.’ She shrugged. ‘What else am I supposed to clean it with?’

Denaos glanced from the bottle, to the priestess, to the young man’s leg. He snorted, a wet, rumbling sound coursing through his nose, and spat a glistening glob upon the stitched wound.

‘Walk it off,’ he snarled.

‘Yeah, sure,’ Lenk muttered. ‘You’ve been trying to indirectly kill me for as long as I’ve known you. I suppose you had to escalate at some point.’

‘You didn’t cry out.’

Lenk turned a hard stare upon Kataria. It was with a frown that Denaos noted the shict had affixed such a stare to the young man ever since they had settled around the crackling fire. He would have hoped that her gaze would have turned to him by now, or at least to Asper.

Then again, he thought, noting the particular hardness and narrowness of her gaze, perhaps it’s all for the best.

‘What?’ Lenk asked.

‘You didn’t cry out,’ she repeated, gesturing to the bottle. ‘Didn’t that hurt?’

‘It might have.’

‘But you don’t know.’ Her ears twitched with a sort of predatory observation. ‘Humans are supposed to cry out when they get hurt.’

‘And what do you think that means.’ It was not a question that came out of Lenk’s mouth, and the cold hostility with which it was delivered indicated no particular concern for whatever Kataria might have to answer.

For her part, the shict said nothing. It was with some concern that Denaos noted the hunting knife securely strapped to her belt. He hadn’t ever noticed her wearing it when not hunting, but that was far from his largest concern.

‘Oh, let’s not do this now, shall we?’ Denaos took his place around the roaring orange. ‘We’ve a victory to celebrate, after all, and it’s two days overdue.’

‘Victory?’ Lenk asked, raising a brow. ‘We barely escaped alive.’

‘Barely counts.’

‘We’re wounded and tired,’ Asper pointed out.

‘But alive.’

‘For now,’ Kataria muttered.

‘And now, we need to celebrate. We need to get drunk, roll around in our own vomit and lick whatever amphibious wildlife we can catch in our stupor.’ The rogue paused, blinked and cleared his throat. ‘Granted, in practice, it’s a lot more amusing, which is all the more reason to start drinking.’

‘I don’t feel the need to,’ Lenk replied harshly.

‘But the need feels you . . . to—’

‘That doesn’t make sense.’

‘It doesn’t have to! We’re celebrating!’

‘Celebrating what?’ The young man rose, his injured leg shaking beneath him. ‘What did you do that’s worthy of celebration?’

‘Well, I—’

‘Did you fight the Deepshriek?’

‘No, but—’

‘Did you get wounded?’

‘I was fairly well—’

‘When you close your eyes, what is it that you see, Denaos?’ Lenk snarled.

The rogue glowered, his lips twitching as if ready to deliver some scathing retort to that. After a moment, his face twisted, cracked around the edges, and he quickly looked down at the earth.

‘I’d rather not say,’ he whispered. ‘But I do know that liquor often helps it.’

‘Then you keep it,’ Lenk muttered, turning around. ‘Thank whatever kind of God Silf is that your problems can be fixed like that.’

Denaos did not try to stop him as he stalked away from the fire and vanished into the night air. Silf hated melodrama, after all.

‘Well, fine.’ The rogue snorted and spat upon the earth. ‘That’s just glorious. He can go and sulk and wait for someone to come and rub his back and tell him that everyone loves him and we shall have a good time all our own.’ He took a brief swig from the bottle. ‘So, why don’t we enjoy ourselves? Kataria, you take off your tunic and I’ll show you both a magic trick.’

‘She’s gone,’ Asper said.

Denaos’s frown only grew deeper as he stared at the indentation where she had been sitting. At what point she had decided to go, he could not know, nor did he particularly care. All the better, all the better, he told himself with a bit of hysteria edging his inner voice, that just leaves me and . . .

Asper, he finished with a sigh. Zealous, purist, morally irreproachable Asper. Asper, who had never done anything wrong in her life. Asper, who complained every time he stuck a knife into anything. Asper, who tried to use Huss’s Gold Cork as a disinfectant.

Maybe I should just save myself the trouble and go to sleep now.

He was about to rise when he heard the sand shift, sensed someone come up beside him. He felt soft brown hair laid down upon his shoulder as she pressed her body against his, resting her head upon him as she stared into the fire. So stunned was he that he didn’t even try to resist as she took the bottle from his hands and pulled a long swig from its neck.

‘Well,’ he said softly, eyeing the eager pulse of her throat. ‘Dare I ask what drives you to such extremes?’

‘You dare not,’ she replied coldly.

‘Dare I hope where this might lead?’

‘You dare not.’

‘Well, then what’s the bloody point?’ he muttered, snatching the bottle back from her.

‘I need you,’ she said, simply and without anything behind it.

‘I’ve heard that from a few women in my time,’ he said bitterly, taking a swig. ‘In my experience, it never quite works out in a way that’s beneficial for me.’

‘Well, I don’t need you, specifically.’ She wrapped her arm around his, clutching it with a tightness he found uncomfortable. ‘I need a rock.’

‘A rock.’

‘I need something real. I need something that talks back to me.’

He smiled at that. It was only with the night time, the starlight that made her skin glow, the scent of smoke that contrasted with her own delicate aroma, that he noticed her. It was only now, as he felt her body rise and fall with each breath, pressing against his, that he noticed how her body curved in a way that could not be hidden by robes.

She reminded him of . . .

He blinked. The images flashed before his eyes. Blood. A dead stare locked upon the ceiling. Laughter.

Someone else.

Asper was not someone else, though. It was only at that moment that she was no longer a priestess, he no longer a rogue. She no longer pious, he no longer vile. Between the darkness and the bottle, they were but woman and rock.

That thought brought a smile to his face as he upended the bottle into his mouth.

‘Rocks don’t drink,’ she pointed out.

‘Rocks also don’t finger your asshole while you sleep.’ He exhaled, then took another swig. ‘Looks like you’re in for several disappointments tonight.’

‘That’s funny,’ Asper said. ‘I’m not laughing . . . but it’s funny.’ She eyed the bottle thoughtfully. ‘We should make a toast, shouldn’t we?’

‘We should. The Gods would demand it.’ He raised the bottle, observed the amber sloshing inside. ‘To the Gods, then?’

‘Not the Gods,’ she said coldly, snatching the bottle back.

Denaos felt her breath catch in her body, linger uncertainly there for a moment. He could feel her press more firmly against him, her grip tighten on his arm. He could feel her fingers slide up his arm, searching for something.

Smiling, he reached out, letting her hand find his, letting hers grip his tight.

‘To rocks, then,’ he whispered.

‘To rocks.’ She threw back her head and the bottle at once.

Lenk did not remember when the sun had shone so brightly. The golden orb cast a warm, loving caress upon the fields below, setting the golden wheat to a shimmering blaze against the blue sky. Below the ridge, Steadbrook continued its quiet existence as if it had always existed.

He could see the people as distant, vague shapes. They dropped sheaves of wheat, wiped their brows. They rolled up their sleeves and tended to swollen udders. They watched dogs rut, drank stale beer and muttered about taxes in the village’s dusty lanes.

It was a quiet life, the most notable occasion being a farm changing hands or an infant from the womb of woman or cow being born. It had never seen plague, famine or weather in enough ferocity to warrant worry over such things. It was a quiet life, far from the grimy despair of cities and away from the greedy hands of priests and lords.

It was a good life.

‘Had been, anyway.’

He suddenly became aware of the figure sitting cross-legged at the ridge’s edge beside him. He stared at the man, observing his silver hair, dull even in the sunlight, his wiry body tensed and flexed despite his casual position. The sword lay naked in his lap, its long blade dull and sheenless, catching the light upon its face and refusing to let it go.

‘I can’t really be blamed for being nostalgic,’ Lenk replied, looking back down over Steadbrook. ‘There are times when I wish it still stood.’

‘That would imply there are times when you prefer things as they are.’

‘For certain reasons.’

‘Such as?’

‘None that you would approve of.’


‘If things hadn’t happened as they had,’ Lenk muttered, resting his chin in his hand, ‘I wouldn’t have met any of my companions.’

The man beside him drew in a deep breath. No sigh came, nor any indication that the man would ever exhale. Lenk raised a brow at him.


‘You believe all the good that came of what happened to this village was that you met a few other people?’

‘Well . . . one of them, at least.’

‘Ah, yes. Her.’

Lenk frowned. ‘You don’t like her.’

‘We don’t need her,’ the man replied. ‘But I digress. You owe much to this village, you know.’

‘Obviously, I was born here, raised here.’

‘Apologies, that was not my intended meaning. It would have been more proper to say that we owe much to this village’s destruction.’

‘You’re treading on dangerous ground,’ Lenk growled, scowling at the man.

‘Am I?’

The man’s sword rose with him, so effortless and easy in his grasp. He turned to face Lenk and the young man blanched. The man’s face was cold and stony, a mountain-side carved by eternal sleet. His eyes were a bright and glowing blue, glistening with a malevolence unmarred by pupils.

‘Look at me,’ the man demanded.

‘I am.’

‘You’re not. You look through me. You look around me. You don’t hear me when I try to speak to you and you refuse to do what must be done.’

Lenk rose to his feet. Despite standing the same height as his counterpart, he couldn’t help but feel as though he was being looked down upon.

‘You don’t say anything I don’t already know,’ he retorted.

‘You know nothing.’

‘I know how to kill.’

‘And I have taught you.’

‘I taught myself.’

‘You’re not listening to me.’

‘I am.’

‘Are you aware of what we are?’ the man asked. ‘Are you aware of what we do? What we have done? What we were created to do?’ The man’s eyes narrowed to angry sapphires. ‘Do you see our opponents tremble? Do you hear them scream and beg? Do you remember what we did to the demon?’

‘Only vaguely,’ Lenk replied.

‘Understandable,’ the man said, ‘it was mostly my doing.’

‘I drove the blade into the Abysmyth,’ Lenk replied. ‘I killed it. That’s not supposed to be possible.’

‘Then why will you not say such to your companions? Why will you not answer her?’

‘I don’t want her to worry.’

‘You don’t want to look at her, either. You don’t want to listen to her. If you did, you would know she means to kill us.’

Lenk did not start at the accusation, not raising so much as an eyebrow at the man. Instead, he drew in a sharp breath and looked back over the ridge. Steadbrook continued under the sun, unmoved and unmotivated by the presence of demons or the whisper of swords. He, too, was once so unmoved.

‘Maybe,’ he whispered, ‘that’s not such a bad thing.’


‘Demons can’t be killed by mortal hands.’

‘We are more than mortal.’

‘Exactly my point,’ Lenk replied, looking up sharply. ‘That’s not supposed to happen. She can never know.’

‘Why should she not?’

‘Why should she?’

‘They all should know,’ the man said coldly. ‘They already know we are superior to them.’

‘No, we’re not. I’m just a man.’

‘You? You are weak. We are far more than a man. Why did they follow us? Why do they continue to follow us? Why do we suppress their greed, their hate, their violence and make them do as we say? Even the lowliest of beasts recognise their master.’

‘I don’t want to be anyone’s master,’ Lenk snarled suddenly. He stabbed a finger at the man, accusing. ‘I . . . I want you to go.’


‘I want you to get out of my head. I want to stop hearing voices. I want to stop feeling cold all the time. I . . . I . . .’ He clutched at his head, wincing. ‘I want to be me, not us.’

The man’s face did not move at the outpour of emotion, did not flinch in sympathy nor blink in scorn. He merely stared, observed his counterpart through cold, blue eyes, his hair unmoved by wind and heedless of sun, just as Steadbrook was heedless of them upon the ridge.


Lenk blinked and felt cold.

The sun sputtered out like a dying torch, consumed behind a black veil of darkness. The golden fields below were bronzed by the fires engulfing Steadbrook, moving in waves of bristling, crackling sheen. The livestock lowed, their cries desperate to be heard over the roar of fire, their owners and tenders motionless in the red-stained dirt. Shadows moved amongst them and where their black hands caressed, people fell.

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