Here, from that sampler, is an excerpt from Tome of the Undergates by Sam Sykes.
“Wildly descriptive slaughter-fest with a surprising pathos.”
“Imaginative characters, a well-paced narrative, and enough maiming, decapitation, and evisceration to make 300 look tame. . . . A bloody good read. 9/10”
Tome of the Undergates:
The Aeons’ Gate, Book One
NO ROOM FOR HOPE
The Aeons’ Gate
Sea of Buradan, two weeks north and east of Toha
Contrary to whatever stories and songs there may be about the subject, there are only a handful of respectable things a man can do after he picks up a sword.
First of all, he can put it down and do something else; this is the option for men who have more appreciable talents. He could use it to defend his homestead, of course, as protecting one’s own is nothing but admirable. If he decides he’s good at that sort of work, he could enlist with the local army and defend his kin and country against whatever entity is deemed the enemy at that moment. All these are decent and honourable practices for a man who carries a sword.
Then there are the less respectable trades.
There’s always mercenary life, the fine art of being paid to put steel in things. Mercenaries, usually, aren’t quite as respected as soldiers, since they swear no allegiance to any liege beyond the kind that are round, flat and golden. And yet, it remains only a slightly less respectable use for the blade, as, inevitably, being a mercenary does help someone.
Now, the very bottommost practice for a man who carries a sword, the absolute dregs of the well, the lowliest and meanest trade a man can possibly embrace after he decides not to put away his weapon is that of the adventurer.
There is one similarity between the adventurer and the mercenary: the love of money. Past that fact, everything is unfavourable contrast. Like a mercenary, an adventurer works for money, be it gold, silver or copper. Unlike a mercenary, an adventurer’s trade is not limited to killing, though it does require quite a bit of that. Unlike a mercenary, an adventurer’s exploits typically aid no one.
When one requires a herd of cattle guarded from rustlers, a young maiden protected, a family tomb watched over or an enemy driven away, all for an honest fee, one calls upon a mercenary.
When one requires a herd of cattle stolen, a young maiden deflowered, a family tomb looted and desecrated or an honest man driven away from his own home, all for a few copper coins and a promise, one calls upon an adventurer.
I make this distinction for the sole purpose that, if someone finds this journal after I’ve succumbed to whatever hole I fell into or weapon I’ve run afoul of, they’ll know the reason.
This marks the first entry of the Aeons’ Gate, the grand adventure of Lenk and his five companions.
If whoever reads this has a high opinion of this writer so far, please cease reading now. The above sentence takes many liberties.
To consider the term “adventure,” one must consider it from the adventurer’s point of view. For a boy on his father’s knee, a youth listening to an elder or a rapt crowd hearing the songs of poets, adventure is something to lust after, filled with riches, women, heroism and glory. For an adventurer, it’s work; dirty, dusty, bloody, spittlefilled, lethal and cheap work.
The Aeons’ Gate is a relic, an ancient device long sought after by holy men and women of all faiths. It breaches the barriers between heaven and earth, allowing communication with the Gods themselves, an opportunity to ask why, how and what.
Or so I’ve heard.
My companions and I have been hired to seek out this Gate.
To address the term “companions,” I say this because it sounds a degree better than a “band of brigands, zealots, savages and madmen.” And I use that description because it sounds infinitely more interesting than what we really are: cheap labour.
Unbound by the codes of unions and guilds, adventurers are able to perform more duties than common mercenaries. Untroubled by sets of morals and guidelines, adventurers are able to go into places the common mercenary would find repulsive. Unprotected by laws dictating the absolute minimum one must be paid, adventurers do all this for much, much less coin than the common mercenary.
If someone has read this far, he might ask himself what the point of being an adventurer is.
The answer is freedom. An adventurer is free to come and go as he pleases, parting from whoever has hired him when the fancy strikes him. An adventurer is free to stop at whatever exotic locale he has found, to take whatever he has with him, to stay for as long as he wants. An adventurer is free to claim what he finds, be it knowledge, treasure or glory. An adventurer is free to wander, penniless and perpetually starved, until he finally collapses dead on a road.
It also bears mentioning that an adventurer typically does leave his employer’s charter if the task assigned proves particularly deranged.
Thus far, my journey has taken my companions and me far from Muraska’s harbour, where we took on this commission. We have travelled the western seas for what seems like an eternity, braving the islands, and their various diseases and inhabitants, in search of this Gate. Thus far, I’ve fought off hostile natives, lugged heavy crates filled with various supplies, mended sails, swabbed decks and spent hours upon hours with one end of mine or the other leaning over the railing of our ship.
My funds have so far accumulated to twenty-six pieces of copper, eleven pieces of silver and half a gold coin. That half came from a sailor who was less lucky than the rest of us and had his meagre savings declared impromptu inheritance for the ship’s charter.
That charter is Miron Evenhands, Lord Emissary of the Church of Talanas. Miron’s duties are, in addition to regular priestly business, overseeing diplomatic ties with other churches and carrying out religious expeditions, as which this apparently qualifies. He has been allocated funds for the matter, but spends them sparingly, hiring only as many adventurers and mercen aries as he must to form a facade of generosity. The ship he has chartered, a merchantman dubbed the Riptide, we share with various dirty sailors and hairy rats that walk on two legs.
My companions seem content with these arrangements, perhaps because they themselves are just as dirty and smelly. They sleep below deck even as I write this, having been driven up top by foul scents and groping hands. Granted, the arrangements are all that they are content with.
Every day, I deal with their greed and distrust. They demand to know where our payment is, how much money we’re getting. They tell me that the others are plotting and scheming against them. Asper tells me that Denaos makes lewd comments to her and the other women who have chartered passage aboard the ship. Denaos tells me that Asper mutters all manner of religious curses at him and tells the women that he is a liar, lech, lush, layabout and lummox; all lies, he tells me. Dreadaeleon tells me the
ship rocks too much and it’s impossible for him to concentrate on his books. Gariath tells me he can’t stand the presence of so many humans and he’ll kill every one to the last man.
Kataria . . . tells me to relax. “Time at sea,” she says, smiling all the while, “amidst the beauty of it all should be relaxing.”
It would seem like sound advice if not for the fact that it came from a girl who stinks worse than the crew half the time.
To be an adventurer means to have freedom, the freedom to decide for oneself. That said, if someone has found this journal and wonders why it’s no longer in my hands, please keep in mind that it’s just as likely that I decided to leap from the crow’s nest to the hungry waters below as it is that I died in some heroic manner.
In the span of a breath, colour and sound died on the wind.
The green of the ocean, the flutter of sails, the tang of salt in the air vanished from Lenk’s senses. The world faded into darkness, leaving only the tall, leather-skinned man before him and the sword clutched in his hands.
The man loosed a silent howl and leapt forward. Lenk’s sword rose just as his foe’s curved blade came crashing down.
They met in a kiss of sparks. Life returned to Lenk’s senses in the groan of the grinding blades. He was aware of many things at once: the man’s towering size, the sound of curses boiling out of tattooed lips, the odour of sweat and the blood staining the wood under their feet.
The man uttered something through a yellow-toothed smile; Lenk watched every writhing twitch of his mouth, hearing no words behind them. No time to wonder. He saw the man’s free hand clutching a smaller, crueller blade, whipping up to seek his ribs.
The steel embrace shattered. Lenk leapt backward, feeling his boots slide along the red-tinged salt beneath him. His heels struck something fleshy and solid and unmoving; his backpedal halted.
Don’t look, he urged himself, not yet.
He had eyes for nothing but his foe’s larger blade as it came hurtling down upon him. Lenk darted away, watched the cutlass bite into the slick timbers and embed itself. He saw the twitch of the man’s eye—the realisation of his mistake and the instant in which futile hope existed.
And then died.
Lenk lunged, sword up and down in a flashing arc. His senses returned with painful slowness; he could hear the echo of the man’s shriek, feel the sticky life spatter across his face, taste the tang of copper on his lips. He blinked, and when he opened his eyes, the man knelt before his own severed
arm, shifting a wide-eyed stare from the leaking appendage to the young man standing over him.
Lenk’s sword flashed again, biting deeply into meat and sliding out again. Only when its tip lowered, steady, to the timbers, only when his opponent collapsed, unmoving, did he allow himself to take in the sight.
The pirate’s eyes were quivering pudding: stark white against the leather of his flesh. They looked stolen, wearing an expression that belonged to a smaller, more fearful man. Lenk met his foe’s gaze, seeing his own blue stare reflected in the whites until the light behind them sputtered out in the span
of a sole, ragged breath.
He drew a lock of silver hair from his eyes, ran his hand down his face, wiping the sweat and substance from his brow. His fingers came back to him trembling and stained.
Lenk drew in a breath.
In that breath, the battle had ended. The roar of the pirates’ retreat and the hesitant, hasty battle cries of sailors had faded on the wind. The steel that had flashed under the light of a shameless staring sun now lay on the ground in limp hands. The stench ebbed on the breeze, filled the sails overhead and
beckoned the hungry gulls to follow.
The dead remained.
They were everywhere, having ceased to be men. Now they were litter, so many obstacles of drained flesh and broken bones lying motionless on the deck. Pirates lay here and there, amongst the sailors they had taken with them. Some embraced their foes with rigor-stiffening limbs. Most lay on their backs, eyes turned to Gods that had no answers for the questions that had died on their lips.
His thought seemed an understatement, perhaps insultingly so, but he had seen many bodies in his life, many not half as peacefully gone. He had drawn back trembling hands many times before, flicked blood from his sword many times before, as he did now. And he was certain that the stale breath he
drew would not be the last to be scented with death.
“Astounding congratulations should be proffered for so ruby a sport, good sir!”
Lenk whirled about at the voice, blade up. The pirate standing upon the railing of the Riptide, however, seemed less than impressed, if the banana-coloured grin on his face was any indication. He extended a long, tattooed limb and made an elaborate bow.
“It is the sole pleasure of the Linkmaster’s crew, myself included, to look forward to offering a suitable retort for,” the pirate paused to gesture to the human litter, “our less fortunate complements, of suitable fury and adequately accompanying disembowelment.”
“Uh,” Lenk said, blinking, “what?”
Had he time and wit enough about him to decipher the tattooed man’s expression, he would, he assured himself, have come up with a more suitable retort.
“Do hold that thought, kind sir. I shall return anon to carve it out.”
Like some particularly eloquent hairless ape, the pirate fell to all fours and scampered nimbly across a chain swaying over the gap of quickly shifting sea between the two ships. He was but one of many, Lenk noted, as the remaining tattooed survivors fled back over the railings of their own vessel.
“Cragsmen,” the young man muttered, spitting on the deck at the sight of the inked masses.
Their leviathan ship shared their love of decoration, it seemed. Its title was painted in bold, violent crimson upon a black hull, sharp as a knife: Linkmaster. And in equally threatening display were crude scrawlings of ships of various sizes beneath the title, each one with a triumphant red cross drawn through it.
Save one that bore a peculiar resemblance to the Riptide’s triple masts.
“Eager little bastards,” he muttered, narrowing his eyes. “They’ve already picked out a spot for us.”
He blinked. That realisation carried a heavy weight, one that struck him suddenly. He had thought that the pirates were chance raiders and the Riptide nothing more than an unlucky victim. This particular drawing, apparently painted days before, suggested something else.
“Khetashe,” Lenk cursed under his breath, “they’ve been waiting for us.”
“Were they?” someone grunted from behind him, a voice that seemed to think it should be feminine but wasn’t quite convinced.
He turned about and immediately regretted doing so. A pair of slender hands in fingerless leather gloves reached down to grip an arrow’s shaft jutting from a man’s chest. He should have been used to the sound of arrowheads being wrenched out of flesh, he knew, but he couldn’t help cringing.
Somehow, one never got all the way used to Kataria.
“Because if this is an ambush,” the pale creature said as she inspected the bloody arrow, “it’s a rather pitiful excuse for one.” She caught his uncomfortable stare and offered an equally unpleasant grin as she tapped her chin with the missile’s head. “But then, humans have never been very good at this sort
of thing, have they?”
Her ears were always the first thing he noticed about Kataria: long, pointed spears of pale flesh peeking out from locks of dirty blonde hair, three deep notches running the length of each as they twitched and trembled like beings unto themselves. Those ears, as long as the feathers laced in her hair, were certainly the most prominent markers of her shictish heritage.
The immense, fur-wrapped bow she carried on her back, as well as the shortcut leathers she wore about what only barely constituted a bosom, leaving her muscular mid section exposed, were also indicative of her savage custom.
“You looked as surprised as any to find them aboard,” Lenk replied. With a sudden awareness, he cast a glance about the deck. “So did Denaos, come to think of it. Where did he go?”
“Well . . .” She tapped the missile’s fletching against her chin as she inspected the deck. “I suppose if you just find the trail of urine and follow it, you’ll eventually reach him.”
“Whereas one need only follow your stench to find you?” he asked, daring a little smirk.
“Correction,” she replied, unfazed, “one need only look for the clear winner.” She pushed a stray lock of hair behind the leather band about her brow, glanced at the corpse at Lenk’s feet. “What’s that? Your first one today?”
“Well, well, well.” Her smile was as unpleasant as the red-painted arrows she held before her, her canines as prominent and sharp as their glistening heads. “I win.”
“This isn’t a game, you know.”
“You only say that because you’re losing.” She replaced the bloodied missiles in the quiver on her back. “What’s it matter to you, anyway? They’re dead. We’re not. Seems a pretty favourable situation to me.”
“That last one snuck up on me.” He kicked the body. “Nearly gutted me.
I told you to watch my back.”
“First, when we came up here.” He counted off on his fingers. “Next, when everyone started screaming, ‘Pirates! Pirates!’ And then, when I became distinctly aware of the possibility of someone shoving steel into my kidneys. Any of these sound familiar?”
“Vaguely,” she said, scratching her backside. “I mean, not the actual words, but I do recall the whining.” She offered a broader smile to cut off his retort. “You tell me lots of things: “Watch my back, watch his back, put an arrow in his back.” Watch backs. Shoot humans. I got the idea.”
“I said shoot Cragsmen.” Upon seeing her unregistering blink, he sighed and kicked the corpse again. “These things! The pirates! Don’t shoot our humans!”
“I haven’t,” she replied with a smirk. “Yet.”
“Are you planning to start?” he asked.
“If I run out of the other kind, maybe.”
Lenk looked out over the railing and sighed.
No chance of that happening anytime soon.
The crew of the Linkmaster stood at the railings of their vessel, poised over the clanking chain bridges with barely restrained eagerness. And yet, Lenk noted with a narrowing of his eyes, restrained all the same. Their leering, eager faces outnumbered the Riptide’s panicked expressions, their cutlasses shone brighter than any staff or club their victims had managed to cobble together.
And yet, all the same, they remained on their ship, content to throw at the Riptide nothing more than hungry stares and the occasional declaration of what they planned to do with Kataria, no matter what upper assets she might lack. The phrase “segregate those weeping dandelions ’twixt a furious hammer” was shouted more than once.
Any other day, he would have taken the time to ponder the meaning behind that. At that moment, another question consumed his thoughts.
“What are they waiting for?”
“Right now?” Kataria growled, flattened ears suggesting she heard quite clearly their intentions and divined their meaning. “Possibly for me to put an arrow in their gullets.”
“They could easily overrun us,” he muttered. “Why wouldn’t they attack now, while they still have the ad vantage?”
Largely, he told himself, that we’re going to die and you’re going to be the cause. His thoughts throbbed painfully in the back of his head. They’re waiting for something, I know it, and when they finally decide to attack, all I’ve got is a lunatic shict to fight them. Where are the others? Where’s Dreadaeleon? Where’s Denaos? Why do I even keep them around? I could do this. I could survive this if they were gone.
If she were . . .
He felt her stare upon him as surely as if she’d shot him. From the corner of his own eye, he could see hers staring at him. No, he thought, studying. Studying with an unnerving steadiness that exceeded even the unpleasantness of her long-vanished smile.
His skin twitched under her gaze, he shifted, turned a shoulder to her.
Stop staring at me.
She canted her head to one side. “What?”
Any response he might have had degenerated into a sudden cry of surprise, one lost amidst countless others, as the deck shifted violently beneath him, sending him hurtling to one knee. He was rendered deaf by the roar of waves as the Riptide rent the sea beneath it with the force of its turn, but even the ocean could not drown out the furious howl from the Riptide’s helm.
“More men!” the voice screeched. “Get more men to the railing! What are you doing, you thrice-fondled sons of six-legged whores from hell? Get those chains off!”
Not an eye could help turning to the ship’s wheel, and the slim, dark figure behind it. A bald beacon, Captain Argaol’s hairless head shone with sweat as his muscles strained to guide his bride of wood and sails away from her pursuer. Eyes white and wide in furious snarl, he turned a scowl onto Lenk.
“What in Zamanthras’s name are you blasphemers being paid for?” He thrust a finger toward the railings. “Get. Them. OFF!”
Several bodies pushed past Lenk, hatchets in hand as they rushed the chains biting into the Riptide’s hull. At this, a lilting voice cut across the gap of the sea, sharp as a blade to Lenk’s ears as he pulled himself to his feet.
“I say, kind Captain, that hardly seems the proper way to address the gentlemen in your employ, does it?” The helmsman of the Linkmaster taunted with little effort as he guided the black vessel to keep pace with its prey. “Truly, sirrah, perhaps you could benefit from a tongue more silver than brass?”
“Stuff your metaphors in your eyes and burn them, Cragscum!” Argaol split his roar in twain, hurling the rest of his fury at his crew below. “Faster! Work faster, you hairless monkeys! Get the chains off!”
“Do we help?” Kataria asked, looking from the chains to Lenk. “I mean, aren’t you a monkey?”
“Monkeys lack a sense of business etiquette,” Lenk replied. “Argaol isn’t the one who pays us.” His eyes drifted down, along with his frown, to the dull iron fingers peeking over the edge of the Riptide’s hull. “Besides, no amount of screaming is going to smash that thing loose.”
Her eyes followed his, and so did her lips, at the sight of the massive metal claw. A “mother claw,” some sailors had shrieked upon seeing it: a massive bridge of links, each the size of a housecat, ending in six massive talons that clung to its victim ship like an overconfident drunkard.
“Were slander but one key upon a ring of victory, good Captain, I dare suggest you’d not be in such delicate circum stance,” the Linkmaster’s helmsman called from across the gap. “Alas, a lack of manners more frequently begets sharp devices embedded in kidneys. If I might be so brash as to suggest surrender as a means of keeping your internal organs free of metallic intrusion?”
The mother claw had since lived up to its title, resisting any attempt to dislodge it. What swords could be cobbled together had been broken upon it. The sailors that might have been able to dislodge it when the Cragsmen attacked were also the first to be cut down or grievously wounded. All attempts to tear away from its embrace had proved useless.
Not that it seems to stop Argaol from trying, Lenk noted.
“You might,” the captain roared to his rival, “but only if I might suggest shoving said suggestion square up your—”
The vulgarity was lost in the wooden groan of the Riptide as Argaol pulled the wheel sharply, sending his ship cutting through salt like a scythe.
The mother chain wailed in metal panic, going taut and pulling the Linkmaster back alongside its prey. A collective roar of surprise went up from the crew as they were sent sprawling. Lenk’s own was a muffled grunt, as Kataria’s modest weight was hurled against him.
His breath was struck from him and his senses with it. When they returned to him, he was conscious of many things at once: the sticky deck beneath him, the calls of angry gulls above him and the groan of sailors clambering to their feet.
His breath seeped into his nostrils slowly, carrying with it a new scent that overwhelmed the stench of decay. He tasted her sweat on his tongue, smelled blood that wept from the few scratches on her torso, and felt the warmth of her slick flesh pressed against him, seeping through his stained tunic and into his skin like a contagion.
He opened his eyes and found hers boring into his. He saw his own slack jaw reflected in their green depths, unable to look away.
“Hardly worthy of praise, Captain,” the Linkmaster’s helmsman called out, drawing their attentions. “Might one suggest even the faintest caress of Lady Reason would e’er do your plight well?”
“So . . .” Kataria said, screwing up her face in befuddlement, “do they all talk like that?”
“Cragsmen are lunatics,” he muttered in reply. “Their mothers drink ink when they’re still in the womb, so every one of them comes out tattooed and out of his skull.”
“Khetashe, I don’t know,” he grunted, shoving her off and clambering to his feet. “The point is that, in a few moments when they finally decide to board again, they’re going to run us over, cut us open and shove our intestines up our noses!” He glanced her over. “Well, I mean, they’ll kill me, at least. You, they said they’d like to—”
“Yeah,” she snarled, “I heard them. But that’s only if they board.”
“And what makes you think they’re not going to?” He flailed in the general direction of the mother chain. “So long as that thing is there, they can just come over and visit whenever the fancy takes them!”
“So we get rid of it!”
“How? Nothing can move it!”
“Gariath could move it.”
“Gariath could do a lot of things,” Lenk snarled, scowling across the deck to the companionway that led to the ship’s hold. “He could come out here and help us instead of waiting for us all to die, but since he hasn’t, he could just choke on his own vomit and I’d be perfectly happy.”
“Well, I hope you won’t take offence if I’m not willing to sit around and wait with you to die.”
“Good! No waiting required! Just jump up to the front and get it over quickly!”
“Typical human,” she said, sneering and showing a large canine. “You’re giving up before the bodies are even hung and feeding the trees.”
“What does that even mean?” he roared back at her. Before she could retort, he held up a hand and sighed. “One moment. Let’s . . . let’s just pretend that death is slightly less imminent and think for a moment.”
“Think about what?” she asked, rolling her shoulders. “The situation seems pretty solved to you, at least. What are we supposed to do?”
Lenk’s eyes became blue flurries, darting about the ship. He looked from the chains and their massive mother to the men futilely trying to dislodge them. He looked from the companionway to Argaol shrieking at the helm. He looked from Kataria’s hard green stare to the Riptide’s rail . . .
And to the lifeboat dangling from its riggings.
“Well,” a voice soft and sharp as a knife drawn from leather hissed, “you know my advice.”
Lenk turned and was immediately greeted by what resembled a bipedal cockroach. The man was crouched over a Cragsman’s corpse, studying it through dark eyes that suggested he might actually eat it if left alone. His leathers glistened like a dark carapace, his fingers twitched like feelers as they ran down the body’s leg.
Denaos’s smile, however, was wholly human, if a little unpleasant.
“And what advice is that?” Kataria asked, sneering at the man. “Run? Hide? Offer up various orifices in a desperate exchange for mercy?”
“Oh, they won’t be patient enough to let you offer, I assure you.” The rogue’s smile only grew broader at the insult. “Curb that savage organ you call a tongue, however, and I might be generous enough to share a notion of escape with you.”
“You’ve been plotting an escape this whole time the rest of us have been fighting?” Lenk didn’t bother to frown; Denaos’s lack of shame had rendered him immune to even the sharpest twist of lips. “Did you have so little faith in us?”
Denaos gave a cursory glance over the deck and shrugged. “I count exactly five dead Cragsmen, only one more than I had anticipated.”
“We don’t get paid by the body,” Lenk replied.
“Perhaps you should negotiate a new contract,” Kataria offered.
“We have a contract?” The rogue’s eyes lit up brightly.
“She was being sarcastic,” Lenk said.
Immediately, Denaos’s face darkened. “Sarcasm implies humour,” he growled. “There’s not a damn thing funny about not having money.” He levelled a finger at the shict. “What you were being was facetious, a quality of speech reserved only for the lowest and most cruel of jokes. Regardless,” he
turned back to the corpse, “it was clear you didn’t need me.”
“Not need you in a fight?” Lenk cracked a grin. “I’m quickly getting used to the idea.”
“We should just use him as a shield next time,” Kataria said, nodding, “see if we can’t get at least some benefit from him.”
“I hate to agree with her,” Lenk said with a sigh, “but . . . well, I mean you make it so easy, Denaos. Where were you when the fighting began, anyway?”
“Elsewhere,” the rogue said with a shrug.
“One of us could have been killed,” Lenk replied sharply.
Denaos glanced from Lenk to Kataria, expression unchanging. “Well, that might have been a mild inconveni ence or a cause for celebration, depending. As both of you are alive, however, I can only assume that my initial theory was correct. As to where I was—”
“Hiding?” Kataria interrupted. “Crying? Soiling yourself?”
“Correction.” Denaos’s reply was as smooth and easy as the knife that leapt from his belt to his hand. “I was hiding and soiling myself, if you want to call it that. At the moment . . .” He slid the dagger into the leg seam of the Cragsman’s trousers. “I’m looting.”
“Uh-huh.” Lenk got the vague sensation that continuing to watch the rogue work would be a mistake, but was unable to turn his head away as Denaos began to cut. “And . . . out of curiosity, what would you call what you were doing?”
“I believe the proper term is ‘reconnaissance.’”
“Scouting is what I do,” Kataria replied, making a show of her twitching ears.
“Yes, you’re very good at sniffing faeces and hunting beasts. What I do is . . .” He looked up from his macabre activities, waving his weapon as he searched for the word. “Of a more philosophical nature.”
“Go on,” Lenk said, ignoring the glare Kataria shot him for indulging the man.
“Given our circumstances, I’d say what I do is more along the lines of planning for the future,” Denaos said, finishing the long cut up the trouser leg.
Heavy masks of shock settled over the young man and shict’s faces, neither of them able to muster the energy to cringe as Denaos slid a long arm into the slit and reached up the Cragsman’s leg. Quietly, Kataria cleared her throat and leaned over to Lenk.
“Are . . . are you going to ask him?”
“I would,” he muttered, “but I really don’t think I want to know.”
“Now then, as I was saying,” Denaos continued with all the nonchalance of a man who did not have his arm up another man’s trouser leg, “being reasonable men and insane pointy-eared savages alike, I assume we’re thinking the same thing.”
“Somehow,” Lenk said, watching with morbid fascination, “I sincerely doubt that.”
“That is,” Denaos continued, heedless, “we’re thinking of running, aren’t we?”
“You are,” Kataria growled. “And no one’s surprised. The rest of us already have a plan.”
“Which would be?” Denaos wore a look of deep contemplation. “Lenk and I have rather limited options: fight and die or run and live.” He looked up and cast a disparaging glance at Kataria’s chest. “Yours are improved only by the chance that they might mistake you for a pointy-eared, pubescent boy
instead of a woman.” He shrugged. “Then again, they might prefer that.”
“You stinking, cowardly round-ear,” she snarled, baring her canines at him. “The plan is to neither run nor die, but to fight!” She jabbed her elbow into Lenk’s side. “The leader says so!”
“You do?” Denaos asked, looking genuinely perplexed.
“Well, I . . . uh . . .” Lenk frowned, watching the movement of Denaos’s hand through the Cragsman’s trousers. “I think you might . . .” He finally shook his head. “Look, I don’t disapprove of looting, really, but I think I might have a problem with whatever it is you’re doing here.”
“Looting, as I said.”
Denaos’s hand suddenly stiffened, seizing something as a wicked smile came over his face. Lenk cringed and turned away as the man’s long fingers tensed, twisted and pulled violently. When he looked back, the man was dangling a small leather purse between his fingers.
“The third pocket,” the rogue explained, wiping the purse off on the man’s trousers, “where all reasonable men hide their wealth.”
“Including you?” Lenk asked.
“Assuming I had any wealth to spend,” Denaos replied, “I would hide it in a spot that would make a looter give long, hard thought as to just how badly he wanted it.” He slipped the pouch into his belt. “At any rate, this is likely as good as it’s going to get for me.”
“For us, you mean,” Lenk said.
“Oh, no, no. For you, it’s going to get much worse, since you seem rather intent on staying here.”
“We are in the employ of—”
“We are adventurers in the employ of Evenhands,” Denaos pointed out. “And what has he done for us? We’ve been at sea for a month and all we’ve got to show for it is dirty clothes, seasickness and the occasional native-borne disease.” He looked at Lenk intently. “Out at sea, there’s no chance to make an honest living. We’re as like to be killed as get paid, and Evenhands knows that.”
He shook a trembling finger, as though a great idea boiled on the tip of it.
“Now,” he continued, “if we run, we can sneak back to Toha and catch a ship back to the mainland. On the continent proper, we can go anywhere, do anything: mercenary work for the legions in Karneria, bodyguarding the fashas in Cier’Djaal. We’ll earn real coin without all these promises that
Evenhands is offering us. Out here, we’re just penniless.”
“We’ll be just as penniless on the mainland,” Lenk countered. “We run, the only thing we’ve earned is a reputation for letting employers, godly employers, die.”
“And the dead spend no money,” Denaos replied smoothly. “Besides, we won’t need to take jobs to make money.” He glanced at Kataria, gesturing with his chin. “We can sell the shict to a brothel.” He coughed. “Or a zoo of some kind.”
“Try it,” Kataria levelled her growl at both men, “and what parts of you I don’t shoot full of holes, I’ll hack off and wear as a hat.” She bared her teeth at Denaos. “And just because you plan to die—”
“The plan is not to die, haven’t you been listening? And before you ask, yes, I’m certain that we will die when they return, for two reasons.”
“If they return,” Kataria interjected. “We scared them off before.”
“When they return,” Denaos countered. “Which coincides with the first reason: this was just the probe.”
“Ah, excuse me,” the man said as he rose up. “I forgot I was talking to a savage. Allow me to explain the finer points of business.”
Lenk spared a moment to think, not for the first time, that it was decidedly unfair that the rogue should stand nearly a head taller than himself. It’s not as though the length of your trousers matters when you piss them routinely, he thought resentfully.
“Piracy,” the tall man continued, “like all forms of murder, is a matter of business. It’s a haggle, a matter of bidding and buying. What they just sent over,” he paused to nudge the corpse at his feet, “is their initial bid, an investment. It’s the price they paid to see how many more men they’d need to take the ship.”
“That’s a lot of philosophy to justify running away,” Lenk said, arching an eyebrow.
“You had a lot of time to think while hiding?” Kataria asked.
“It’s really more a matter of instinct,” Denaos replied.
“The instinct of a rat,” Kataria hissed, “is to run, hide and eat their own excrement. There’s a reason no one listens to them.”
“Forgive me, I misspoke.” He held up his hands, offering an offensively smarmy smile. “By ‘instinct,’ I meant to say ‘it’s blindingly obvious to anyone but a stupid shict.’ See, if I were attacking a ship bearing a half-clad, half-mad barbarian that at least resembled a woman wearing breeches tighter than the skin on an overfed hog, I would most certainly want to know how many men I needed to take her with no more holes in her than I could realistically use.”
She opened her mouth, ready to launch a hailstorm of retorts. Her indignation turned into a blink, as though she were confused when nothing would come. Coughing, she looked down.
“So it’s not that bad an idea,” she muttered. Finding a sudden surge of courage, she looked back up. “But, I mean, we killed the first ones. We can kill them again.”
“Kill how many?” Denaos replied. “Three? Six? That leaves roughly three dozen left to kill.” He pointed a finger over the railing. “And reason number two.”
Lenk saw the object of attention right away; it was impossible not to once the amalgamation of metal and flesh strode to the fore.
“Rashodd,” Lenk muttered.
He had heard the name gasped in fear when the Linkmaster first arrived. He heard it again now as the captain of the black ship stood before his crew, the echo of his heavy boots audible even across the roaring sea.
Rashodd was a Cragsman, as his colossal arms ringed with twisting tattoos declared proudly. The rest of him was a sheer monolith of metal and leather. His chest, twice as broad as any in his crew, was hidden behind a hammered sheet of iron posing as a breastplate. His face was obscured as he peered through a thin slit in his dull grey helmet, tendrils of an equally grey beard twitching beneath it.
And he, too, waited, Lenk noted. No command to attack arose on a metal-smothered shout. No call for action in a falsely elegant voice drifted over the sea. Not one massive, leathery hand drifted to either of the tremendous, single-bit axes hanging from his waist.
They merely folded along with the Cragsman’s titanic arms, crossing over the breastplate and remaining there.
“Their next bid will be coming shortly,” Denaos warned. “And he’s going to be the one that delivers it.” He gestured out to the crew. “They’re dead, sure, but they’re Argaol’s men. We have to think of our own.”
“He’s just a human,” Kataria said derisively, “a monkey.” She glanced at the titanic pirate and frowned. “A big monkey, but we’ve killed big ones before. There’s no reason to run.”
“Good,” Denaos replied sharply, “stay here while all sane creatures embrace reason.” He sneered. “Do try to scream loudly, though. Make it something they’ll savour long enough so that the rest of us can get away.”
“The only one leaving will be you, round-ear,” Kataria growled, “and we’ll see how long your delusions of wit can sustain you at sea.”
“Only a shict would think of reason as delusional.”
“Only a human would think of cowardice as rational!”
Words were flung between them like arrows and daggers, each one cutting deeply with neither of the two refusing to admit the blood. Lenk had no eyes for their snarls and rude gestures, no attention for their insults that turned to whispers on his ears.
His stare was seized, bound to the hulking figure of Rashodd. His ears were full, consumed by another voice whispering at the back of his head.
It’s possible, that voice said, that Denaos is wrong. There are almost as many men on our ship as on theirs. We could fight. We wouldn’t even have to win a complete victory, just bloody their noses. Teach them that we aren’t worth the trouble. It’s business, right?
“What’s the big deal over a big monkey, anyway?” Kataria snapped. “The moment he raises that visor, I’ll put an arrow in his gullet and we’ll be done here! No need to run.” Her laughter was sharp and unpleasant. “Or do you find his big muscles intimidating, you poor little lamb?”
“I can think of at least one muscle of his that you’ll find unpleasant when he comes over,” Denaos replied, a hint of ire creeping into his voice. “And I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it was bearded and covered in iron, too. He’s seen what you’ve done to his men. He won’t be taking that visor off.”
It’s possible, Lenk answered his own thought, but not likely. Numbers are one thing, but steel is another. They have swords. We have sticks. Well, I mean, I’ve got a sword . . . fat lot of good it will do against that many, though. Running is just logical here. It’s not as if Denaos actually had a good idea here, anyway.
“If you run, you don’t get paid,” Kataria said. “Though, really, I’ve always wanted to see if human greed is stronger than human cowardice.”
“We get paid slaves’ wages,” Denaos said. “Silf, we get worse. We get adventurers’ wages. Stop trying to turn this into a matter of morality. It’s purely about the practicality of the situation and, really, when has a shict ever been a moral authority?”
When have any of them ever had a good idea? Lenk’s eyes narrowed irately. I’m always the one who has to think here. He’s a coward, but she’s insane. Asper’s a milksop, Dreadaeleon’s worthless. Gariath is as likely to kill me as help. Running is better here. They’ll get me killed if we stay.
“Well, don’t get the impression that I’m trying to stop you,” Kataria snarled. “The only reason I’d like you to stay is because I’m almost certain you’ll get a sword in your guts and then I won’t even have to deal with the terrible worry that you might somehow survive out at sea. The rest of us can handle things from here.”
“And if I could handle it all by myself, I would,” Denaos said. “Feeling the humanitarian that I am, though, I would consider it a decent thing to try to get as many humans off as I possibly could.”
“Decent? You?” Kataria made a sound as though she had just inhaled one of her own arrows through her nose.
“I didn’t kill anyone today.”
“Only because you were busy putting your hands down a dead man’s trousers. In what language is that decent?”
They’re going to die, Lenk’s thoughts grew their wings, flew about his head violently, but I can live. Flee now and live! The rest will . . .
“And what would you know of language?” Denaos snarled. “You only learned how to speak ours so you could mock the people you kill, savage!”
. . . waiting, waiting for what? To attack? Why? What else can you do? There’s so many of them, few of us. Save them and they kill each other . . .
“And you mock your own people by pretending you give a single fart about them, rat.”
. . . to what end? What else can you do?
What else can you do?
The thoughts that formed a blizzard in Lenk’s mind sud denly froze over, turning to a pure sheet of ice over his brain. He suddenly felt a chill creep down his spine and into his arm, forcing his fingers shut on his sword’s hilt. From the ice, a single voice, frigid and uncompromising, spoke.
“What?” he whispered aloud.
“I . . . don’t—”
He felt a hand on his shoulder, unbearably warm. He whirled about, hand tight on his sword. The shapes before him looked unfamiliar for a moment: shadows of blue lost in the sky. He blinked and something came into view, apparent in a flash of blazing green.
Kataria’s eyes, brimming with disquiet.
With every blink, the sunlight became brighter and more oppressive. He squinted at the two people before him, face twisted in a confused frown.
“It’s up to you, we agreed,” Kataria replied hesitantly. “You’re the leader.”
“Though ‘why’ is a good question,” Denaos muttered.
“Do we fight or run?”
Lenk looked over his shoulder. His eyelid twitched at the sight of the pirates, visibly tensing, sliding swords from their sheaths. Behind the rows of tattooed flesh, a shadow shifted uneasily. Had it always been there, Lenk wondered, standing so still that he hadn’t noticed it?
“Fight?” Kataria repeated. “Or run?”
Lenk nodded. He heard her distinctly now, saw the world free of haze and darkness. Everything became clear.
“I have a plan,” he said firmly.
“I’m all ears,” Denaos said, casting a snide smile to Kataria. “Sorry, was that offensive?”
“Shut up,” Lenk growled before she could. “Grab your weapons. Follow me.”
Don’t look, Dreadaeleon thought to himself, but a seagull just evacuated on your shoulder.
He felt his neck twist slightly.
I SAID, DON’T LOOK! He cringed at his own thoughts. No, if you look, you’ll panic. I mean, why wouldn’t you? It’s sitting there . . . all squishy and crawling with disease. And . . . well, this isn’t helping. Just . . . just brush it off nonchalantly . . . try to be nonchalant about touching bird faeces . . . just try . . .
It occurred to the boy as odd that the warm present on his shoulder wasn’t even the reason he resented the birds overhead at that moment.
Rather, he thought, as he stared up at the winged vermin, they didn’t make nearly enough noise. Neither did the ocean, nor the wind, nor the murmurings of the sailors gathered before him, muttering ignorant prayers to gods that didn’t exist with the blue-clad woman who swore that they did.
Though, at that moment, he doubted that even gods, false or true, could make enough noise to drown out the awkward silence that hung between him and her.
Wait, he responded to his own thoughts, you didn’t say that last part instead of thinking it, did you? Don’t tell her that the gods are just made up! Remember what happened last time. Look at her . . . slowly . . . nonchalantly . . . all right, good, she doesn’t appear to have heard you, so you probably didn’t say it. Wait, no, she’s scowling. Wait, do you still have the bird faeces on you? Get it off! Nonchalant! Nonchalant!
The problem persisted, however. Even after he brushed the white gunk from his leather coat, Asper’s hazel eyes remained fixed in a scowl upon him. He cleared his throat, looked down at the deck.
Mercifully, she directed her hostility at him only for as long as it took to tuck her brown hair back beneath her bandana, then looked back down at the singed arm she was carefully dressing with bandage and salve. The man who possessed said arm remained scowling at him, but Dreadaeleon scarcely noticed.
He probably wants you to apologise, the boy thought. He deserves it, I suppose. I mean, you did set him on fire. His fingers rubbed together, lingering warmth dancing on their tips. But what did he expect, getting in the way like that? He’s lucky he escaped with only a burned arm. Still, she’d probably like it if you apologised . . .
If she even noticed, he thought with a sigh. Behind the burned man were three others with deep cuts, bruised heads or visibly broken joints. Behind them were four more that had already been wrapped, salved, cleaned or stitched.
And they had taken their toll on her, he noticed as her hands went back into the large leather satchel at her side and pulled out another roll of bandages. They trembled, they were calloused, they were clearly used to working.
And, he thought with a sigh, they are just so strong. He drew in a resolute breath. All right, you’ve got to say something . . . not that, though! But something. Remember what Denaos says: women are dangerous beasts. But you’re a wizard, a member of the Venarium. You fear no beast. Just . . . use tact.
“Asper,” he all but whispered, his voice catching as she looked up at him again, “you’re . . .” He inhaled sharply. “You’re being completely stupid.”
“Stupid,” she said, levelling a glare that informed him of both her disagreement and her future plans to bludgeon him.
“As it pertains to the context, yes,” he said, attempting to remain bold under her withering eyes.
“The context of . . .” she gestured to her patient, “setting a man on fire?”
“It’s . . . it’s a highly sensitive context,” he protested, his voice closely resembling that of a kitten being chewed on by a lamb. “You aren’t taking into account the many variables that account for the incident. See, body temperature can fluctuate fairly quickly, requiring a vast amount of concentration for me to channel it into something combustible enough to do appreciable damage to something animate.”
At this, the burned man added his scowl to Asper’s. Dreadaeleon cleared his throat.
“As evidenced visibly. With such circumstances as we’ve just experienced, the risk for a triviality increases.”
“You set . . . a man . . . on fire . . .” Asper said, her voice a long, slow knife digging into him. “How is that a triviality?”
“Well . . . well . . .” The boy levelled a skinny finger at the man accusingly. “He got in my way!”
“I was tryin’ to defend the captain!” the man protested.
“You could have gone around me!” Dreadaeleon snapped back. “My eyes were glowing! My hands were on fire! What affliction of the mind made you think it was a good idea to run in front of me? I was clearly about to do something very impressive.”
“Dread,” Asper rebuked the boy sharply before tying the bandage off at the man’s arm and laying a hand gently on his shoulder. To the sailor: “The wound’s not serious. Avoid using it for a while. I’ll change the dressing tomorrow.” She sighed and looked over the men, both breathing and breathless,
beyond her patient. “If you can, you should tend to your fellows.”
“Blessings, Priestess,” the man replied, rising to his feet and bowing to her.
She returned the gesture and rose as well, smoothing out the wrinkles creasing her blue robes. She excused herself from the remaining patients with a nod and turned away to lean on the railings.
And Dreadaeleon could not help but notice just how hard she leaned. The irate vigour that had lurked behind her eyes vanished entirely, leaving only a very tired woman. Her hands, now suddenly trembling, reached to the gleaming silver hanging from her throat. Fingers caressed the wings of a great bird, the phoenix.
Talanas, Dreadaeleon recalled, the Healer.
“You look tired,” he observed.
“I can see how I might give off that impression,” Asper replied, “what with having to undo the damage my companions do as well as the pirates’ own havoc.”
Somehow, the softness of her voice cut even deeper than its former sharpness. Dreadaeleon frowned and looked down at the deck.
“It was an accident—”
“I know.” She looked up and offered him an exhausted smile. “I can appreciate what you were trying to do.”
You see, old man? That fire would have been colossal! Corpses burning on the deck! Smoke rising into the sky! Of course she’d have been impressed. The ladies love fire.
“Well, it would have been difficult to pull off, of course,” he offered, attempting to sound humble. “But the benefits would have outweighed the tragedy.”
“Tragedy?” She blinked. “I thought you were going to try to scare the rest of them off with a show of force.” She peered curiously at him. “What were you thinking?”
“The exact same thing,” he hastily blurted. “I mean, they’re pirates, right?
And Cragsmen, on top of that. They probably still believe wizards eat souls and fart thunder.”
She stared at him.
“We, uh, we don’t.”
“Hmm.” She glanced over his shoulder with a grimace, toward the shadows of the companionway. “And what was the purpose of that?”
He followed her gaze and frowned. He wasn’t quite sure why she looked at the sight with disgust. To him, it was a masterpiece.
The icicle’s shape was perfect: thick enough to drive it into the wood of the ship, sharp enough to pierce the rib cage in which it currently rested comfortably. Even as the Cragsman clung to it, hands frozen to the red-stained ice in death, Dreadaeleon couldn’t help but smile. He had expected something far messier, but the force used to hurl it through the air had been just enough.
Of course, she probably won’t understand that. He rolled his eyes as he felt hers boring into his. Women.
“Prevention,” he replied coolly. “I saw him heading for the companionway, I thought he might try to harm Miron.”
She nodded approvingly. “I suppose it was necessary, then, if only to protect the Lord Emissary.”
Well done, old man, well done. The exuberance coursing through him threatened to make him explode. He fought it down to a self-confident smirk. Talking to girls is just like casting a spell. Just maintain concentration and don’t—
“After all,” he interrupted his train of thought with a laugh, “if he died, who would pay us?"
. . . do anything like that, idiot.
She swung her scowl upon him like a battleaxe, all the fury and life restored to her as she clenched her teeth. She ceased to resemble a priestess at that moment, or any kind of woman, and looked instead like some horrific beast ready to rip his innards out and paint the deck with them.
“This is what it’s all about, then?” she snarled. “Pay? Gold? Good Gods, Dread, you impaled a man.”
“That hardly seems fair,” he replied meekly. “Lenk and the others have killed far more than me. Kataria even made a game out of it.”
“And she’s a shict!” Asper clenched her pendant violently. “Bad enough that I should have to tolerate their blasphemies without you also taking pleasure in killing.”
“Oh, shut up. You were staring at that corpse like you wanted to mount it on a wall. Would you have taken the same pride if you had killed that man instead of just burning him?”
“Well . . .” His common sense had fled him, his words came on a torrent of shamelessness. “I mean, if the spell had gone off as it was supposed to, I suppose I could have appreciated the artistry of it.” He looked up with sudden terror, holding his hands out in front of him. “But no, no! I wouldn’t have taken pride in it! I never take pride in making more work for you!”
“It’s not work to do Talanas’s will, you snivelling heathen!” Her face screwed up in ways that he had thought possible only on gargoyles. “You sound like . . . like one of them, Dread!”
Lenk met the boy’s whirling gaze without blinking, even as Dreadaeleon frowned.
“Oh,” he said, “you.”
“You sound disappointed.”
“Well, the comparison was rather unfavourable,” the wizard said, shrugging. “Not that I’m not thrilled you’re still alive.”
He still sounded disappointed, but Lenk made no mention of it. His eyes went over the boy’s head of stringy black hair, past Asper’s concerned glare, through the mass of wounded sailors to the object of his desire.
The smaller escape vessel dangled seductively from its davits, displaying its oars so brazenly, its benches so invitingly. It called to him with firm, wooden logic, told him he would not survive without it. He believed it, he wanted to go to it.
There was the modest problem of the tall priestess before him, though, arms crossed over her chest to form a wall of moral indignation.
“What happened at the railings?” she asked. “Did you win?”
“In a manner of speaking, yes.”
“In a manner of . . .” She furrowed her brow. “It’s not a hard question, you know. Did you push the pirates back?”
“Obviously, we were triumphant,” chimed a darker voice from behind him. Denaos stalked forward, placing a hand on Lenk’s shoulder. “If we hadn’t, you’d like have at least a dozen tattooed hands up your skirt by now.”
“Robes,” she corrected sharply. “I wear robes, brigand.”
“How foolish of me. I should have known. After all, only proper ladies wear skirts.” As she searched for a retort, he quickly leaned over and whispered in Lenk’s ear. “She’s never going to let us by and she certainly won’t come with us.”
Lenk nodded. Ordinarily, that wouldn’t have been a problem. He would just as soon leave her to die if she insisted. However, she could certainly call the sailors’ attentions to the fact that they were about to make off with the ship’s only escape vessel. Not to mention it would be exceedingly bad judgement to leave the healer behind.
“So just shove her in,” he muttered in reply. “On my signal, you rush her. I’ll cut the lines. We’ll be off.”
“What are you two talking about?” Asper’s eyebrows were so far up they were almost hidden beneath her bandana. “Are you plotting something?”
“We are discussing stratagems, thank you,” Denaos replied smoothly. “We are, after all, the brains of this band.”
“I thought I was the brains,” Dreadaeleon said.
“You are the odd little boy we pay to shoot fire out of his ass,” the rogue said.
“I shoot fire out of my hands, thank you. And it requires an immense amount of brains.” He pulled back his leather coat, revealing a massive book secured to his waist by a silver chain. “I memorised this whole thing! Look at it! It’s huge!”
“He raises a good point,” Denaos whispered to Lenk. “He might try to stop us.”
“I can handle it,” a third voice added to the conspiracy. Kataria appeared at Lenk’s side, ears twitching. “He weighs even less than me. I’ll just grab him on the way.”
“I thought you didn’t like this idea,” Lenk said, raising a brow.
“I don’t,” she replied, sparing him a grudging glare. “It’s completely unnecessary. But,” she glanced sidelong at Lenk, “if you’re going to go . . .”
The moment stretched uncomfortably long in Lenk’s head, her eyes focusing on him as if he were a target. In the span of one blink, she conveyed a hundred different messages to him: requests for him to stay, conveyance of her wish to fight, a solemn assurance that she would follow. At least, he thought she said that. All that echoed in his mind was one voice.
Stop staring at me.
“Yes, good, lovely,” Denaos grunted. “If we’re going to do this, let’s do it now.”
“Do what?” Asper asked, going tense as if sensing the sin before it developed.
“Nothing,” Denaos replied, taking a step forward, “we’re just hoping to accomplish it before—”
“By the Shining Six,” the voice cut through the air like a blade, “who wrought this sin?”
“Damn it,” Lenk snarled, glancing over his shoulder at the approaching figure.
Despite rumours whispered in the mess, it was a woman, tall as Denaos and at least as muscular. Her body was choked in bronze, her breastplate yielding not a hint of femininity as it was further obscured by a white toga.
Hard eyes stared out from a hard face, set deep in her skull and framed by meticulously short-trimmed black hair. Her right eyelid twitched at the sight of them all huddled together, the row of red-inked letters upon her cheek dancing like some crimson serpent that matched her very visible ire as she swept toward the companions, heedless of the puddles of blood splashing her greaves.
“Quillian Guisarne-Garrelle Yanates,” Asper said pleas antly as she stepped forward unopposed, she being gen erally considered the person best suited to speak with people bearing more than two names. “We are pleased to see you well.”
“Serrant Quillian Guisarne-Garrelle Yanates,” the woman corrected. “Your praise is undeserved, I fear.” She cast a glimpse at the human litter and sneered. “I should have been here much sooner.”
“Yes, scampering in a bit late today, aren’t we, Squiggy?” Denaos levelled his snide smirk at her like a spear. “The battle was over before you even strapped that fancy armour on.”
“I was guarding the Lord Emissary,” the Serrant replied coldly. “You might recall it being your duty, as well, if you could but keep your mind from gold and carnage.”
“Carnage?” Kataria laughed unpleasantly. “It was a slaughter.”
Quillian’s eyes sharpened, focusing a narrow glare of bladed hatred upon he shict.
“You would know, savage.” She forced her stare away with no small amount of effort. “I had hoped to arrive to see at least some modicum of rite was being followed. Instead, I find . . .” she forced the word through her teeth as though it were poison, ‘adventurers.’ She spared a cursory nod to Asper.
“Excluding those of decent faith.”
“Oh,” the woman blinked, “well, thank you, but—”
“She’s with us,” Denaos interjected, stepping up beside the priestess with a scummy grin. “How’s that stick in your craw, Squiggy? One of your beloved, pious temple friends embroiled in our world of sin and sellswording, eh?” He swept an arm about Asper, drawing her in close and rubbing his stubble-laden cheek against her face. “Doesn’t sit too well, does it? Does it? I can smell your disgust from here!”
Lenk caught the movement, subtle as it was, as the rogue gingerly tried to ease his blanching captive toward the escape vessel. Dreadaeleon, too, looked shocked enough that he’d never see Kataria coming to grab him. He readied his sword, eyeing the ropes.
“That would be me,” Asper snarled, driving an ungentle elbow into his ribs and ruining his plans. “Get off.”
“The hallowed dead litter the deck,” the Serrant said, sweeping her scorn across the scene, then focusing it on Lenk. “Innocent men alongside the impure. All sloppily killed.”
“What?” Dreadaeleon asked, pointing to his impaled victim. “That is, by far, the cleanest kill in this whole mess!”
“Incredibly enough,” Lenk added with a sigh, “killing is a sloppy business.”
“These vagrants should have been routed before one of Argaol’s men could be driven below,” she snapped. “You allowed this to happen.”
“Me?” Lenk said.
“All of you.”
“What?” Kataria looked offended as she gestured to Denaos. “He didn’t even do anything!”
“Yeah,” Lenk said, nodding. “How do you figure we’re at fault?”
“Because of the horrid blasphemies that continually spew from your bile holes. You anger the Gods with your disregard for the sacred rites of combat! Your crude tactics, your consorting with heathens,” her stare levelled at Kataria again, “as well as inhuman savages.”
Her eyes were decidedly warier when she swept the deck again.
“And where is your other monster?”
“Elsewhere,” Lenk replied. “Look, we have a plan, but it doesn’t need you around. Is this really—”
“Respect for the Gods is very necessary,” Quillian said sharply. “Yes. Really. Bad enough that you bring your Godless savages here without questioning the divine mandate.”
“Savage arrows took three already.” Kataria’s threat was cold and level. “I’ve got plenty more, Squiggy.”
“Cease and repent, barbarian,” the woman replied, just as harshly. Her gauntleted hand drifted dangerously close to the longsword at her hip. “The name of a Serrant is sacred.”
“I’d disagree with that, Squiggy.” Denaos chuckled.
“Me too, Squiggy,” Kataria agreed.
Stay calm, Lenk told himself as he watched the Serrant fume. This might be better. Neither Asper nor Dread is paying attention. We can still salvage this, we can still—
The thought leapt, again, unbidden to his mind. He blinked, as though he had just taken a wrong turn.
Run, he corrected himself.
Kill, his mind insisted.
And, like a spark that heralds the disastrous fire to come, the sudden concern on his face sparked Quillian’s suspicion. Her glance was a whirlwind, carrying that fire and giving it horrific life as it swept from the companions, standing tensed and ready, to the escape vessel.
By the time it settled on Lenk, wide with shock and fury, he could see his plan consumed in that fire, precious ash on the wind.
“She knows,” Lenk whispered harshly to Kataria. “She knows.”
“Who cares?” the shict growled. “Stick to your plan.”
“What? Shove her in, too?”
“No, shove her over. She’ll sink like a stone in all that armour.” She paused, ears flattening against her head. “It was my idea, though, so she counts as my kill.”
“Deserters,” Quillian hissed, “are the most grievous of sinners.”
Damn it, damn it, damn it, Lenk cursed as he watched her sword begin to slide out of its scabbard. This complicates things. But we can still—
“I suppose you would know,” Denaos said with a thoughtful eye for the brand under her right eye, “wouldn’t you?”
Her shock was plain on her face, the kind of naked awe that came from the knowledge of a secret revealed. Her lip quivered, her spare hand going to the red ink.
“Yes,” he replied smoothly. “Now, if you wouldn’t mind scampering off to scrawl another oath on your forehead or something? We’ve got stratagems to—”
“You . . .” she hissed again, brimming with rage as she hoisted her sword, “you dare!”
There was a flash of steel, a blur of black. In the time it took to blink, the Serrant’s sword was out and trembling, its point quivering at Asper’s throat. The priestess’s eyes were wide and unmoving, barely aware of what had happened as two broad hands clenched her arms tightly.
Denaos peered out from behind her, grinning broadly and whistling sharply at the blade a hair’s width from the priestess’s throat.
“Dear me.” The rogue clicked his tongue chidingly. “You ought to be more careful, oughtn’t you? That was nearly another oath right there.”
Quillian’s eyes were wide, the bronze covering her knuckles rattling as she quivered horribly. Empty horror stared out from behind her gaze, as though her mind had fled at the very thought of what she had nearly done.
It was an expression not entirely unfamiliar to Lenk, but it was usually plastered on the faces of the dying.
“I . . . I didn’t mean . . .” She looked at Asper pleadingly. “I would never . . .”
This is it, Lenk thought, she’s distracted. Denaos has a grip on Asper. Time to—
No, time to run. We have to—
WE HAVE TO RUN!
“Now,” he whispered.
“What?” Kataria asked.
“NOW, GENTLEMEN, NOW!”
The voice of the Cragsman was accompanied by many others, boiling over the railings of the ship like a stew. The panicked cries of the sailors, mingled with Argaol’s shrieks for order, were hurled into the broth, creating a thick, savoury aroma that Lenk well recognised.
Cover Illustration © Paul Young
Design by Grace M. Conti-Zilsberger
About the author: SAM SYKES is a twenty-five-year-old author living in Arizona. Tome of the Undergates is his first book, with many more to come. He lives with two hounds in a small, drab apartment and has eaten at least one of every animal on earth.