Dark Hunger


Page 22



He looked at her once more, resisting the urge to blink.

Even as his eyes strained to keep open, he could see her hand on the space he had recently lain upon. She had all her fingers. Without blinking, he saw the red stumps on large, hairy hands. Without blinking, he saw the missing digits rolling about on the floor beside a pair of quivering, glistening globs in a pool of brackish bile. Without blinking, he saw a bearded face, lips cracked and gaping, pleas forced through vomit.

He still dared not close his eyes, nor did he dare return to her bed. It was the scent of linen that was his allergy, spurring images to his mind he never wished to see, those images bringing forth other images. He should be lucky to only recall last night’s other accomplishment in such fleeting visions. He should be lucky to escape the nightmare of sheets before he was tempted to sleep.

Quietly, cannily, he slid into his trousers. She would be furious when she awoke, he knew, to find him absent. By then, he would be gone, possibly drowned, possibly with his head bitten off by some horrible monstrosity.

The door shut quietly. The woman turned in her bed, grasping at a space on her mattress that bore no depression or muss of sheets, no evidence that anyone had ever been there.

The sun was the dominion of Talanas.

This, Asper knew, was certain. It was the Healer’s greatest gift to mankind, the gate through which He had entered and left the waking, mortal world. Talanas frowned upon no human, cursed no follower of another God; He was the Giver, dispensing His purification freely and without judgement. So, too, was the sun an indiscriminate and generous benefactor of humanity.

More than that, however, the sun was His Eye. Mankind could never truly be separated from Talanas for He observed them always through that great, golden sphere. Through it, He saw all in need, heard every prayer. Only under the cloak of night was He ever hard of hearing. Asper frowned at that; if Talanas had heard her last night, He certainly was not revealing any answers today.

She leaned hard on the railing of the helm, staring out over the sea. The curtains of mist over the sea were parting as dawn crept upon the horizon. She had always welcomed the sun, yearned for the warmth it brought, sought the reconnection with the Healer. When she had studied at the temple, it was a ritual in and of itself to see the sun rise and shine through the stained-glass windows.

Here, far away from the comfort of stone walls, out upon the open sea, the dawn was not quite so dramatic. Instead of arriving in a soundless thunderclap, it staggered up with a silent yawn. Instead of blooming with a glorious burst, it opened its golden eye lazily. Instead of acting as a herald for a new day, a cleansing, it seemed slow, sluggish ... bored.

Perhaps that was why she had no prayers for Talanas today.

It had been her routine since she had left the temple to thank the Healer for delivering her through the night once the sun rose again. Following that, she begged safety for her family, her clergy, her temple. Prayers for her companions typically ranked last, pleas for Talanas’s watchful gaze requested for Lenk, Dreadaeleon, Kataria and Gariath, always in that order. Whether or not she chose to offer a prayer for Denaos largely depended on her mood.

Today, she was in no mood to ask for any such benevolence. Her lips were still, silent. She could not pray this morning, not when the dawn still failed to cleanse her memories of yesterday’s violence.

Images flew on shrieking wings through her mind, scenes of the fury that had raged inside the ship’s bowels. Even as she tried to burn the sights out of her eyes by staring directly at the sun, she still saw them. The dawn was in no hurry to assist her.

She saw them, the moments replaying themselves over and over in her mind: the frogman lurching towards her, the white flash of its dagger and needle-like teeth. Her staff was out of reach, useless against the wall; she could not remember how it had left her hand. As desperately as she might wish, she could not help but remember her left hand, reaching out, muscles spasming wildly, tears brimming in her eyes as it reached past the knife and took the pale creature by the throat . . .

NO! She clenched her eyes shut. Stop it, stop it, stop it. Stop thinking about it! Focus on the dawn! Focus on the sun!

That proved difficult, as the sun had risen only a hair’s width. Dawn had failed to purge her mind. The long, sleepless night had offered her no respite. The new sleeve she had stitched onto her robe failed to offer any comfort.

And so, as she looked down from the dawn to the silver pendant of the phoenix in her hand, she had no prayers. She had but one word.

‘Why?’

The holy symbol did not answer. Its eyes, tiny carved gouges, were fixed upwards, staring towards the dawn as though that were enough. She bit her lower lip, not bothering to follow its metal gaze.

‘It happened again,’ she whispered. ‘Why did it happen again? Why does it keep happening?’

The pendant did not answer. The sun rose another eye-lash, light caught the silver. A glare was cast over its eyes, the usually stern and uncompromising stare of nobility suddenly turning heavy-lidded and disinterested.

‘Why don’t you ever answer me?’

‘Priestess?’

Asper realised she had demanded that last answer more loudly than she had intended. Swallowing hard, she resisted the urge to whirl about at the voice. Instead, she forced her back to stiffen to a more upright posture, resolute against the dawn. It would not serve, she knew, to look startled under the Eye of Talanas.

‘Quillian Guisarne-Garrelle Yanates.’ She turned about, forcing a smile upon her face. ‘Apologies - Serrant Quillian Guisarne-Garrelle Yanates, good morning.’

‘To you as well.’ The woman’s eyes had a peculiar way of remaining still and hard while the rest of her head moved in a respectful nod. ‘Quillian is fine.’ She cleared her throat suddenly. ‘Whichever title pleases you, however, is the one that is proper, Priestess.’

The Serrant attempted a smile; it was not easy for her. It did not flow smoothly over her face, but had to be carved hastily. The twist of her lips revealed strain, teeth set so tight in her jaw as to creak like aged iron. She looked more prepared for a hanging than a conversation.

‘The title that would please me most,’ Asper replied, her own voice a bit halted by the woman’s obvious tension, ‘is the one where we have only one name to refer to each other by.’

‘So noted, Priestess, but I must request you reconsider such a statement. It would be improper to call you anything less than your station.’

Asper blinked at that; she had never considered her name to be beneath her calling before.

‘Oaths dictate a certain protocol.’

‘Mm.’ Asper turned back to face the sun; it had risen a finger’s width. ‘What can I do for you, Serrant?’

‘I was hoping to fulfil my oaths and make certain of your well-being. I know you will . . . likely be leaving soon.’

It wasn’t until Quillian had spoken those words that it dawned on Asper. She would be leaving soon.

All at once, the noise on the decks below began to rise. Sailors were emerging from their sleepless night in the holds below, the sound of ropes sliding on wood, sails unfurling and orders being barked were beginning to mingle with the lazy sizzle of the sun. Asper narrowed her eyes at that; whatever answers she hoped to find, she wouldn’t even be able to hear in a few moments.

‘Your companions will likely expect you,’ the Serrant suggested.

‘They can wait.’

The answer came quickly and without thought. Truly, she hoped it would be enough to express her desire to be alone with the silent, uncaring sun, to have the silence to hear its answers.

Even that hope, however, was extinguished.

‘A wise decision, if I may say.’ Quillian’s footsteps were loud and clanking against the wood as she drew closer. ‘Frankly, if you think my criticism not too bold, I don’t know why you continue to indulge those heathens, Priestess.’

Asper merely let out a hum. She had often been presented with that query by those who considered themselves worthy of voicing it. She mulled it over herself, frequently. More often than not, she preferred not to think too hard about it; accepting the excuse that she enjoyed the opportunities provided by their company was preferable to the inevitable headaches that ensued further thought.

‘Granted, I may not be in a position to question, given that I follow Galataur.’ The Serrant hesitated momentarily. ‘But . . . Talanas only requires you to serve mankind, does He not?’

‘Ideally, all Gods—’ Asper paused, correcting herself. ‘All human Gods at least gently encourage the improvement of mankind. I seem to do that rather well.’

‘Still,’ she could almost hear the cracking of Quillian’s teeth, ‘I wonder if you are perhaps too indulgent of other faiths. Is it not a sin to acknowledge the Gods of savages?’

‘Technically, Kataria and all shicts only have one God. Goddess, actually. Gariath, as far as I know, believes in something else altogether.’

‘Which is precisely my point: you are aware that some of your companions are—’

‘Not human?’ She rolled her eyes. ‘Yes, I had noticed that.’

‘May I ask why—’

‘I suppose their parents hadn’t the foresight to have been human.’

‘Your sarcasm is noted.’ The lack of ire in the Serrant’s voice was oddly unnerving to the priestess. ‘It was my intent to ask why you cling to them.’

Likely because they’re at least occasionally willing to leave me alone.

She bit back that thought.

‘In theory,’ she began with a sigh, ‘staying in their company grants me many opportunities to do the Healer’s work.’ She cast an appeasing smile over her shoulder. ‘You might have noticed the abundance of wounds that materialise in my companions’ presence.’


Her nervous laughter was met with stony silence. Quillian offered no indication that she understood the jest, much less appreciated it. She lingered in the corner of Asper’s eyes for another moment before the priestess turned away.

Perhaps, she thought, if she stood perfectly still, Quillian would simply stand there and say nothing; it would be the same as being alone, just with a strange, silent, bronze-clad woman staring at her.

‘You don’t seem convinced.’

Asper opened her mouth to retort before she realised the unpleasant truth of Quillian’s words: namely, the fact that she was correct.

She closed her eyes at that moment, trying to summon up images of laughter shared, stories exchanged, a reason why she called them ‘companions’. All that flashed behind her lids, however, were the images: bodies cut down, blood shed. The frogman lying motionless in the corner, quivering like a blob of jelly . . .

Stop it!

Her mind disobeyed the command.

Where, she wondered, was the Healer’s work? Where were the mended bones and healed flesh? Where had she consoled the grieving? Where were the funerals? Had there been anything beyond swaddled corpses, deathscrolls and steel?

If I stay with them, is there anything beyond that at all?

‘Forgive my audacity.’ Quillian’s voice shifted low at the priestess’s silence. ‘I should not have second-guessed your motives.’

‘I’ve been with them for a year now.’

The Serrant’s armour shifted noisily as she straightened up. Without looking, Asper could feel Quillian’s eyes upon her: expectant, attentive. She realised she had never commanded such expressions amongst her companions.

‘I’ve done a lot of good in that time, you know,’ she said softly. ‘I don’t regret it. It seemed a grand idea, then, to embark on my pilgrimage in the company of adventurers. Where else would one find so much healing to be done?’

‘In my humble experience,’ there was an edge of venom to Quillian’s words, ‘there is rarely a good idea that involves shicts and heathens.’

‘They’re good people.’ The counter came neither as swiftly nor as sternly as she expected. ‘They’re just . . .’ Violent? Brutish? Half-mad? No word summed them up properly. ‘Misguided.’

‘Does it then fall to you to guide them?’

Once more, the Serrant’s words struck her silent. Her mouth did not so much as open as the question echoed in her mind. What hope did she have of mending their ways? It had been a year now, a bloody, fierce year. They had turned their steel and ferocity towards the good of the Church, that much was true, but they still did so un-charitably, demanding exorbitant amounts of wealth . . .

What good did she do by remaining with them?

When she turned around, Quillian was close to her, much closer than she had ever seen the woman. Her features became clearer: there was softness between her hard lines, a quiver in her eyes, as though they struggled desperately to remember how women were supposed to look.

The realisation came swiftly upon her. Before that moment, she had never seen the Serrant in such a position: no sword at her hip, no oaths or battle cries on her tongue, no sounds of battle in the background. It was not Knight-Serrant Quillian that stood before her, it was simply Quillian, woman.

‘There is good to be done,’ Asper whispered, ‘here and now.’

Quillian’s hand twitched, the bronze knuckles rattling against her gauntlet. It rose up to her torso and froze there, quivering as though it wanted to go higher.

Then something flashed across her face, so swift that Asper might not have caught it had she not been so close. Quillian’s eyes widened for a moment, then shut tightly. When they opened again, they were soft, quivering, the beginnings of a tear forming in the corner of one eye. She bit her lower lip so hard that Asper feared blood might gush out at any moment.

‘Forgive me, Priestess,’ she said, her voice suddenly stern and brimming with duty once more, ‘I must see to the needs of the Lord Emissary.’

The Serrant departed with a haste Asper had never seen before: a loud, clunky, stumbling gait down the stairs of the helm. She even apologised after bumping into one of the sailors before vanishing into the companionway. And yet, even though the woman was gone, the tension remained thick and oppressive around the priestess.

The questions still lingered in the air, echoing in her head. Behind her, the sun had risen halfway out of the ocean, still unanswering.

‘Someone has a little infatuation, hm?’

Asper blinked and suddenly noticed him: a tall, black stain against the pristine ocean. Tucked in the corner of the helm, Denaos stood, hands at his groin, an arcing flight of golden, foul-smelling angels singing over the railing.

‘How long have you been there?’ she asked, raising a brow.

‘Quite some time,’ he replied swiftly. ‘And it appears I’ll be here for some time more.’ The golden shaft suddenly died in the blink of an eye. ‘You’d be surprised how little attention a man urinating requires in delicate situations.’

‘Given that said attention would require looking at said man, I’m really not.’ She formed a glare. ‘How much did you over—’

‘Wait!’ His voice was shrill and hurried. ‘Turn around.’

‘What?’

‘Turn around! Don’t look at me!’ He offered a bashful smile. ‘I can’t go if you look.’

‘You can’t be—’

‘Do it.’

The order came with such firmness that she found herself hard pressed to do anything but obey. Shortly after returning her gaze to the familiar sight of the sluggish sun, the sound of water singing acrid yellow tunes filled her ears, accompanied by a sigh so filled with relief it bordered on perverse.

‘Oh, sweet Silf, that’s better,’ he moaned. ‘This is what I get for drinking the cheap stuff.’

‘I thought men outgrew that.’

‘Oh, no one ever outgrows their soil habits.’

‘Their what?’

‘Soil habits,’ he repeated. ‘Pot practices, golden means, tinkle techniques if you like. Everyone has their own that they discover at birth and they can never get rid of them.’ The sound of water stopped; there was a grunt before it resumed. ‘For example, did you know that Dreadaeleon, before checking to make certain no one is looking, removes his breeches entirely, no matter which business he has to do?’

She thought she ought to protest that revelation, if only for propriety’s sake. However, she found herself silent; she had seen the wizard do that before. A new, slightly more unnerving image flashed behind her eyes.

‘Gariath doesn’t even take the time to prepare. He just lifts his leg and goes wherever he pleases.’ He snorted. ‘Must be why he wears a kilt, eh?’

‘So, you’ve seen everyone ...’ she coughed, ‘make water?’

‘Everyone except Kataria,’ he replied. ‘It’s true what they say about the shicts. They always go in a secret place.’ The sound of water rose suddenly as he tilted upwards. ‘Disgusting.’

‘Huh.’ She chose not to comment on that. ‘So, you’ve even seen—’

‘Oh, absolutely.’ Without waiting for further prodding, he continued with an obscene vigour, ‘I’ve seen you plenty of times. Now, you’re what I’ve heard called the “chamber-pot philosopher”, granted said title through the long contemplations while squatting.’

Her ears went aflame, face going a deeper shade of crimson than had ever been seen amidst roses. She found her mouth open, without a retort, even though it seemed that she ought to have a particularly scathing one. Still, she whirled about to face him, only to be met with a shriek of protest.

‘Don’t look!’ he screeched. ‘Turn around, turn around, turn around!’

She did so with only a mild stammer of outrage, more for her own benefit than for his. Undoubtedly, seeing her coloured so would give him some bizarre form of pleasure she preferred not to think about.

A breeze, harsh against her cheek, swept over the ship. Asper stood still, facing the lazy, half-risen sun and listening to the vile symphony of water that showed no signs of fading, slowing or otherwise sparing her the unpleasantness.

‘So, do you think you’ll do it?’ His voice was surprisingly soft, nearly drowned by his functions.

‘Do . . . what?’

‘Leave.’ He grunted slightly, as if forcing himself to concentrate. ‘It’s fairly obvious by this point that you’ve considered it.’

‘You overheard.’

‘“Overhearing” implies a certain degree of innocent accident. I was genuinely and intentionally spying, I assure you.’

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