Dark Hunger

Page 2

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 towards 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 circumstance, ’ 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.

And her.

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.’

‘What? Really?’

‘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.

‘What, indeed—’

‘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 inconvenience 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.’

‘The what?’

‘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.

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