Dark Hunger


Page 10



‘But there are always more of them,’ she whispered to herself.

‘Hm?’

She looked up. ‘Forgive me, it’s just . . .’ She grimaced. ‘I have a hard time seeing my purpose, Lord Emissary. My associates, they—’

‘Your companions, you mean, surely.’

‘Forgiveness, Lord Emissary, but they’re something akin to co-employees.’ She sneered. ‘I share little in common with them.’

‘And that’s precisely what troubles you.’

‘Something . . . something like that, yes.’ She cleared her throat, regaining her composure. ‘I’ve aided many and I’ve no regrets about the God I serve or what he asks of me . . . I just wish I could do more.’

He hummed, taking another sip of his drink.

‘We’ve done much fighting in our time, my comp—them and myself. Sometimes, we’ve not done the proper work of the Healer, but I’ve seen many fouler creatures, some humans, too, cut down by them.’

And it had started as such a good day . . .

Lenk hadn’t planned on much: a breakfast of hard tack and beans, a bit of time above deck, possibly vomiting overboard before dinner. Nothing was supposed to happen.

‘Unfair.’

The voice rang, steel on ice. His head hurt.

‘Cheaters. Called to it.’

‘To what?’ he growled through the pain.

‘Coming.’

‘What is?’

He felt the shadow over him, heard iron-shod boots ringing on the wood. He whirled and stared up into the thin slit of an iron helmet ringed with wild grey hair that was a stark contrast to the two young, tattooed hands folded across an ironbound chest.

‘Oh, hell,’ he whispered, ‘you sneaky son of a—’

‘Manners,’ Rashodd said.

An enormous young hand came hurtling into his face.

It was a bitter phrase to utter, but it came freely enough. She had learned many years ago that not everyone deserved the Healer’s mercy. There was cruelty in the world that walked on two legs and masqueraded behind pretences of humanity. She had seen many deserved deaths, knew of many that were probably occurring above her at that moment.

While she sat below, she thought dejectedly, waiting quietly as others bled and delivered those richly deserved deaths.

‘I heal wounds,’ she said, more to herself than the priest, ‘tend to the ill and send them off, walking and smiling. Then they return to me, cold and breathless in corpse-carts. I heal them and, if they don’t go off to kill someone themselves, they’re killed by someone who doesn’t give a damn for what I do.’

She hesitated, her fists clenching at her sides.

‘Lenk, Kataria, Dreadaeleon, Gariath,’ she said, grimacing, ‘even Denaos . . . they kill a wicked man and that’s that. One less wicked man to hurt those who Talanas shines upon, one less pirate, bandit, brigand, monstrosity or heathen.’

‘And yet there is no end to either the wounded or the wicked,’ Miron noted.

Asper had no reply for that.

‘Tell me, have you ever taken a life?’ The priest’s voice was stern, not so much thoughtful as confrontational.

Asper froze. A scream echoed through her as the ship groaned around her. Her breath caught in her throat. She rubbed her left arm as though it were sore.

‘No.’

‘Were I a lesser man, I might accuse those who were envious of the ability to take life so indiscriminately of being rather stupid.’ He took a long, slow sip. ‘Given my station, however, I’ll merely imply it.’

She blinked. He smiled.

‘That was a joke.’

‘Oh, well . . . yes, it was rather funny.’ Her smile trembled for a moment before collapsing into a frown. ‘But, Lord Emissary, is it not natural to wish I could help?’

His features seemed to melt with the force of his sigh. He set the clay cup aside, folded his hands and stared out through the mess’s broad window.

‘I have often wondered if I wasn’t born too soon for this world,’ he mused, ‘that perhaps the will and wisdom of Talanas cannot truly be appreciated where so much blood must be spilled. After all, what good, really, can the followers of the Healer be when we simply mend the arm that swings the sword? What do we accomplish by healing the leg that crushes the innocent underfoot?’

The question hung in the air, smothering all other sound beneath it.

‘Perhaps,’ his voice was so soft as to barely be heard above the rush of the sea outside, ‘if we knew the answers, we’d stop doing what we do.’

He continued to stare out at the roiling seas, the glimmer of sunlight against the ship’s white wake. She followed his gaze, though not far enough; his eyes were dark and distant, spying some answer in the endless blue horizon that she could not hope to grasp. She cleared her throat.

‘Lord Emissary?’

‘Regardless,’ he said, turning towards her as though he had been speaking to her all the while, ‘I suggest you spare yourself the worry of who kills who and work the will of the Healer as best you can.’ He plucked up his teacup once more. ‘Do your oaths remain burning in your mind?’

‘“To serve Talanas through serving man.”’ She recited with rehearsed confidence. ‘“To mend the bones, to bind the flesh, to cure the sick, to ease the dying. To serve Talanas and mankind.”’

‘Then take heart in your oaths where your companions take heart in coin. We all serve mankind in different ways, whether we love life or steel.’

It was impossible not to share his confidence; it radiated from him like a divine light. He was very much the servant of the Healer, a white spectre, stark and pure against the grime and grimness surrounding him, unsullied, untainted even as taint pervaded.

And yet, for all his purity, she knew he was her employer and her superior, not her companion, no matter how deeply she might have wished him to be. She looked wistfully to the companionway, remembering those she had left on the deck.

‘Perhaps it wouldn’t harm any to go up and see what strength I could lend them.’ She turned back to the Lord Emissary. ‘Will you be—’

Her voice died in her throat, eyes going wide, hands frigid as her right clenched her left in instinctive fear.

‘Lord Emissary,’ she gasped, ‘behind you.’

He spared her a curious tilt of his long face before turning to follow her gaze. Though he did not start, nor freeze as she did at the sight, the arch of a single white brow indicated he had seen it. How could he not?

It dangled in front of the window, pale flesh pressed against the glass as it hung from long, malnourished arms. To all appearances, it seemed a man: hairless, naked but for the dagger-laden belt hanging from its slender waist and the loincloth wrapped about its hips. Across its pale chest was a smeared, crimson sigil, indistinguishable through the smoky pane of glass.

Asper had to force herself not to scream as it pressed its face against the window. Its eyes were stark black where they should have been white, tiny silver pinpricks where pupils should have been. One hand reached down, tapped against the glass as a mouth filled with blackness opened and uttered an unmistakable word.

‘Priest.’

Miron rose from his seat. ‘That’s irritating.’

‘Lord Emissary,’ she whispered, perhaps for fear that the thing might hear her. ‘What is it?’

‘An invader,’ he replied, as though that were enough, ‘a frogman, specifically.’

‘Frog . . . man?’

He hummed a confirmation. ‘If you would kindly inform your companions that their attention is required down here, I would be most grateful.’


Before she could even think to do such a thing, she felt the floor shift beneath her feet as the ship rocked violently. A din rose from above, a shrieking howl mingled with what sounded like polite conversation. A discernible roar answered the call, a chest-borne thunder tinged with unpleasant laughter.

Something had happened on the deck, and whatever had happened had also met Gariath. Another noise reached her through the ship’s timbers.

From the cabins beyond the mess in the ship’s hold, she heard it: the sound of an iron porthole cover clanging to the deck, two water-laden feet squishing upon the wood, a croaking command in a tongue not human, nor shictish, nor any that she had ever heard.

Something had just crept into the ship.

Something crept closer.

Her hand quivered as it reached for her staff. Lenk’s hands wouldn’t quiver, she thought. Her breath was short, her knees quaking as she trudged towards the cabin’s door. Kataria’s knees wouldn’t knock. Her voice was timid, dying on her lips as she tried to speak. Gariath wouldn’t squeak.

Lenk, Kataria and Gariath were somewhere else, though. She was here, standing between the noise and the Lord Emissary. When her hands wrapped about the solid oak staff, she knew that at that moment, the warriors would have to leave the fighting to her.

‘Lord Emissary,’ she whispered, stepping towards the hold, ‘forgive me for my transgressions.’

‘Go as you must.’

She cringed; it would have been easier to justify staying behind if he had been angry with her. Instead, she took her staff in her hands and crept into the gloom of the Riptide’s timbered bowels.

Miron turned from the portal towards the foggy glass of the window. The frogman was gone, slid off to join its kin on the deck. No matter; a black void spread beneath the water’s surface, a mobile ink stain that slid lazily after the ship as it cut through the waters.

‘She sent you, did she?’ he muttered to the blackness. Absently, a hand went down to his chest, tracing the phoenix sigil upon his breast. ‘Come if you will, then. You shall not have it.’

He turned, striding from the mess towards the shadows of the hold, intent on reaching his cabin. In his mind, a shape burned: a square of perfectly black leather, parchment bound in red leather, tightly sealed and hidden from the outside world.

‘They shall not have it,’ he whispered.

There was a sound from the shadows, a masculine cry of surprise met by a voice dripping with malice. Someone screamed, someone ran, someone fell.

The man tumbled out of the shadows, the broad, unblinking whites of his eyes indiscernible against the swathes of bandages covering his face. He croaked out something through blackened lips, staring up at Miron as Miron stared down at him, impassively.

A webbed foot appeared from the darkness. A pale, lanky body emerged. Two dark, beady eyes set in a round, hairless head regarded him carefully. Through long, needle-like teeth, it hissed.

‘Priest.’ It raised its bloody dagger. ‘Tome.’

The thing peered through the jagged, splintering gash in the ship’s hull that used to be a porthole. Only shadows met its black eyes as it searched through the gloom for another pale shape, another thing similar to this one. Quietly, it slid two slender arms through the hole, a hairless head following as it pulled a moist torso through the rent in the timbers.

The hole was no bigger than its head. Absently, the thing recalled that it should not have been able to squeeze through it.

It set its feet upon the timbers, salt pooling around its tender, webbed toes. Slowly, it bent down to observe a similar puddle upon the floor where similar feet had stood just moments ago. And yet now there was no sign of those feet, nor the legs they belonged to, nor any sign of that one at all.

‘It is a stupid one,’ the thing hissed. It recalled, vaguely, a time when its voice did not sound so throaty, a time when a sac did not bulge beneath its chin with every breath. ‘“These ones stay together,” these ones were told, “stay together”. That one must not have run off. That one must stay with this one.’

This one remembered, for a fleeting moment, that it had once had a name.

That memory belonged to another one. This one knelt down, observing the traces of moisture clinging to the wood. That one had taken two steps forwards, it noted from the twin puddles before it. It tilted its head to the side; that one had stopped there . . . but not stopped. It had ceased to step and begun to slide. That struck this one as odd, given that these ones had been allowed to walk like men.

That one’s two moist prints became a thick, wet trail instead of footprints, a trail leading from the salt to the shadows of the ship’s hold. As this one followed its progress intently, watching it shift from clear salty water to smelly, coppery red, it spied something in the darkness: a tangle of pale limbs amidst crates.

That one was dead, it recognised; it remembered death.

It rose and felt something against its back. It remembered the scent of humanity. It thought to whirl around, bring knife against flesh, but then it remembered something else.

It remembered metal.

‘Shh,’ the tall other one behind it whispered, sliding a glove over its mouth while digging the knife deeper into its side. ‘No point.’ The other one twisted the knife. ‘Just sleep.’

Then it slumped to the floor.

Denaos grimaced as he bent down, retrieving the dagger wedged in the infiltrator’s kidneys. The last one hadn’t made half so much noise, he thought grimly as he wiped the bloodied weapons clean on the thing’s ebon leather loincloth. Replacing them in the sheaths at his waist, he seized the pale fish-man by the legs and dragged him behind a stack of crates where his companion lay motionless in a pool of sticky red.

With a grunt, the rogue heaved the fresh corpse atop the stale one.

They were skilled infiltrators, he admired silently; he would never have thought even a child could squeeze through the ship’s portholes, much less a grown man. Had he not chosen this particular section of cargo to guard, he would never have found them.

His laugh was not joyful. ‘Ha . . . guarding the cargo.’

Yes, he told himself, that’s what you were doing. While all the men were dying to the pirates and the women were being violated in every orifice imaginable, you were guarding cargo, you miserable coward. If anyone asks why you weren’t fighting like any proper man, you can just claim you were concerned for the safety of the spices.

He caught his reflection in the puddle of water at his feet, noting the frown that had unconsciously scarred itself onto his face. In the quiver of the water, he saw the future: chastisement from his companions, curses from the sailors he had abandoned . . .

And Asper. His loathing slowly twisted to ire in his head. I’ll have to endure yet another sermon from that self-righteous, preachy shrew. He paused, regarding his reflection contemplatively. Of course, that’s not likely to happen, given that they’re probably all dead, her included . . . if you’re that lucky.

Something caught his eye. Upon the intruder’s offensively white biceps lay a smear of the deepest crimson. Denaos arched a brow; he didn’t remember cutting either of the creatures on their arms.

He knelt to study the puny, pale limb. It was a tattoo, that much he recognised instantly: a pair of skeletal jaws belonging to some horrid fish encircled by a twisted halo of tentacles. And, he noted with a cringe, it had been scrawled none too neatly, as though with a blade instead of a needle.

As morbid curiosity compelled him to look closer, he found that their tattoos were the least unpleasant of their features.

They lacked any sort of body hair, not the slightest wisp to prevent their black leathers from clinging to them like secondary skins. Their eyes, locked wide in death, lacked any discernible pupil or iris, orbs of obsidian set in greying whites. A glimpse of bone caught his eye; against an instinct that begged him not to, he removed a dagger and peeled back the creature’s lip with the tip.

Rows of needle-like, serrated teeth flashed stark white against black gums.

‘Sweet Silf,’ he muttered, recoiling.

A panicked cry echoed through the halls of the hold, drawing his attention up. He rose to his feet and sprang to the door in one fluid movement. As he reached for the lock, he paused, glancing over his shoulder at the dead frogmen behind. His hand faltered as he pondered the possibility of facing one of these creatures and their sharp teeth from the front.

Slowly, he lowered his hand from the door.

Someone shrieked again and his ears pricked up. A woman.

The door flew open.

Perhaps, he speculated, some sassy young thing slinking down the hall had run afoul of one of the creatures and now cowered in a corner as the intruder menaced her. It was an unspoken rule that distressed damsels were obliged to yield a gratuity that frequently involved tongues.

Surely, he reasoned, that’s worth delivering another quick knife to the kidneys . . . of course, she’s probably dead, you know. He cursed himself as he rounded a corner. Stop that thinking. If you go ruining your fantasies with reality, what’s the point of—

A shriek ripped through his thoughts. Not a woman, he realised, or at least no woman he would want to slip his tongue into. The scream was a long, dirty howl: a rusty blade being drawn from a sheath, a filthy, festering, vocal wound.

And, he noted, it was emerging through a nearby door.

His feet acted before his mind could, instinctively sliding into soft, cat-like strides as he pressed himself to the cabin wall. The dagger that leapt to his hand spoke of heroism, trying to drown out the voice of reason in his head.

You can see the logic in this, can’t you? he told himself. It’s not like anyone’s really expecting you to come dashing up to save them.

The door creaked open slightly, no hand behind it. He continued forwards.

In fact, I doubt anyone will even have harsh words for you. It’s been about a year you’ve all been together, right? Maybe less ... a few months, perhaps; regardless, the point is that no one is really all that surprised when you run away.

He edged closer to the door. The sound of breathing, heavy and laboured, could be heard.

And this won’t solve anything. Nothing changes, even if she isn’t dead. His mind threw doubt at him as a delinquent throws stones. You won’t be any braver for it. You won’t be a hero. You’ll still be the same cowardly thug, the same disgusting wretch who gutted—

Enough. He drew in a breath, weak against the panting emerging from behind the door.

But it was not the kind of panting he had expected, not the laboured, glutted gasps of a creature freshly satiated or a fiend with blood on his hands. It was not soft, but hardly ragged. The breathing turned to heaving, someone fighting back vomit, choked on saliva. There was a short, staggered gasp, followed by a weak and pitiful sound.

Sobbing.

Without pausing to reflect on the irony of being emboldened by such a thing, Denaos took an incautious step into the shadowy cabin. Amidst the crates and barrels was a dark shape, curled up against the cargo like a motherless cub, desperately trying to hide. It shuddered with each breath, shivering down a slender back. Brown hair hung messily about its shoulders.

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