Dark Hunger


Page 23



‘Unsurprising.’

‘Few people are anything but, I find. As for myself, there aren’t many surprises left.’ His sigh was slow and contemplative. ‘Maybe that’s why I linger around you degenerates.’

‘For surprises,’ she repeated, sneering to herself. ‘I find that hard to believe.’

‘So you should. You know me well enough to know that you don’t know me nearly well enough to accept that answer.’ He cleared his throat. ‘Still, everyone needs a purpose for what they do, don’t they?’

Another breeze swept over the deck. The tinge of salt was heavy, the song of distant gulls growing louder. The sun was rising stronger now, with more fervour, as though it, too, had heard the rogue and taken the man’s advice. That gave her a bitter pause as she bit her lower lip.

‘I’ve been wondering about my purpose.’ She surprised herself with the weakness of her own voice; somehow, she thought she would admit it with more conviction.

‘That’s funny.’ He hummed. ‘I’ve always envied the clergy for their conviction. I thought the reason you took oaths was to give yourself purpose.’

‘Oaths are a guide, a reminder of our . . . of my faith and my duty.’

‘A reminder.’ He tasted the words. ‘That seems acceptable, considering what Quillian’s say on her flank.’ He added quickly, ‘I know you’d like to turn around and raise an eyebrow at that, but I must encourage you to resist. I’m ... sort of in the middle of something.’

‘Still?’ She sighed, but kept her back turned, regardless. ‘You . . . can read Quillian’s oaths?’

‘Bits. Dreadaeleon might know more. Suffice it to say, I can pick out parts that are quite interesting to me when she deigns to doff that armour of hers.’ Leather creaked as he adjusted himself. ‘Hers would seem to suggest a reminder of duty.’

She paused, her lips pursing thoughtfully, then asked, ‘Does duty necessarily equate to purpose?’

‘That’s a decent question,’ he admitted. ‘I became an adventurer to avoid most accepted forms of duty. I like to think I manage to serve that purpose.’

‘Don’t lie to me,’ she snapped. ‘You became an adventurer because you were a fugitive.’

‘True, but that’s not saying much, is it? Prison sentences are a form of duty.’

‘For you, perhaps.’ Her sigh was long, tired and laden with thought. ‘I need more. I need . . . to know that I’m doing the right and proper thing.’

‘You’ll never figure that out,’ he answered decisively. ‘There’s no way to know what the right and proper thing is, you see. Ask a Karnerian, a Sainite, a shict and a dragonman the same question, they’ll all tell you something different.’

‘I suppose,’ she grunted. ‘Then again, I suppose I shouldn’t be consulting a felon about matters of spirituality and moral rightness.’

‘Moral righteousness, perhaps not, but I find myself in a unique position to analyse most matters of faith due to my general offensiveness to all Gods, religions and servicemen and -women thereof.’

‘Fine, then.’ Her patience was a pot of water, boiling as the sun insultingly decided to rise with a hot and yellow unpleasantness. ‘What is the right thing, if you’re such a genius? What are we doing here? What are we about to do?’

The question was only half-posed to the rogue; she stared and addressed no small part of it to the sun. It was fully risen now, Talanas’s great, golden Eye broad and fully awake, ready to accept her struggle. Yet still no answer came and, as the water rippled beneath it and cast its shifting hues upon the sky, even the great fiery disc itself seemed to blink.

‘We’re about to go on an adventure.’

His voice was soft, the words spoken with no particular zeal, yet it echoed in her mind. She turned and found herself jumping with a start as she looked into his dark eyes. He stood before her, perfectly still and unmoving, barely a finger’s length of space between them. He did not blink.

‘And . . . what does that mean?’ she asked.

‘It means that whatever happens is incidental.’

‘What do you—’

‘We kill a demon, we get a book, we get rich.’ He held up his hands in a shrug. ‘By that same token, we use that money for whatever good we think it’ll do, we prevent that book from being used in anything wicked and whatever demons die as a result will not result in more people dying like Moscoff.’

The image of the boy was another wound in her mind: his still corpse, drowned on dry land, the death that should not have been.

‘And, as it is an adventure . . .’ His hands slid down past his waist, tightening his belt and adjusting his breeches. ‘Whether you choose to come or stay, and should you find your purpose - or not - as a result, is also incidental.’

With that, he turned towards the stairs of the helm. At the top, he cast a glance over his shoulder. A smile creased his lips, so swiftly and suddenly as to cause her to start.

‘Something to think about the next time you squat.’

With silent footsteps, he was gone.

She strained to hear his boots upon the wood, strained to hear over the sounds of sailors rising on the deck and gulls upon the wind. She strained to hear, as though hoping he would mutter some last bit of advice, some solid stone of wisdom that would crush her with the weight of decision.

Such a sound never came. She glanced up; the sun was not providing anything else today. It had risen lazily and now stood stolidly, firmly resigned to another day of golden silence.

On the decks below, life returned to the Riptide.

Eleven

BERTH

Kataria leaned over the railing, balancing on the heels of her hands as she stared at the restless sea below. It churned listlessly against the ship’s flank, sending up spray that attached to her flesh like swarms of frothy ticks. The small escape vessel looked so insignificant now, in the light of their new intentions. She could hardly recall it being such a salvation when they tried to run the day before.

It had been a temptation then, a betrayal that had beckoned them with promises of redemption from the chaos raging on deck. Today, it threatened her, flashing a smarmy smile of timber as it promised to deliver the companions into the eager, drooling mouth of carnage.

Or perhaps I’m giving it too much credit, she thought. It’s just a boat, after all.

At the far end of the ship, sailors busied themselves with a pulley, lowering crates and various sundries into the boat. She watched with a frown, noting her bow amidst the mess: unstrung, a bit of its perfectly polished wood peeking out from the fur she had delicately wrapped it in. Her left eyelid twitched as a pair of careless hairy hands plucked it rudely from the spot where she had so carefully placed it and tossed it against the vessel’s edge as though it were a common branch.

They did that on purpose, she thought scornfully.

Human hands were without conscience or the ability to lie; what a human desired to say with his mouth, but was prevented from doing by his mind, he did with his hands. Their hands were maliciously clumsy. The whole round-eared race held a grudge over the shictish superiority with a bow.

We can hardly be blamed for that, she told herself. We did, after all, invent archery. They stole it from us.

Envy was an instinct for humans, as natural to them as rolling in foulness was to a dog . . . a human-trained dog.

‘You’re going to fall if you keep leaning like that.’

The voice was thundering, even in so casual a mutter. Gariath regarded her impassively, as he might an insect. He snorted, as though waiting to see if she would actually tumble headlong over the railing.

She offered him half a smile and half a sneer, pulling herself backwards.

‘Shicts don’t fall,’ she declared smugly.

‘Shicts don’t do anything right.’ He stalked to her side, making certain to shove her aside with a wing as he looked over the rail. He cast a contemptuous frown at the bobbing vessel. ‘What is that?’

‘They call it a companion ship; it’s used for foraging on islands. Supposedly, it can be manned by two men.’ She winked. ‘Considering we’ve three men, two women and one dragonman, we should have an advantage.’

He merely grunted at that, unaware of her resentful scowl. Lenk would have at least groaned.

‘Five humans are two and a half times as worthless as two humans,’ he muttered.

‘Four humans,’ she replied, twitching her ears.


‘Pointy-eared humans are still humans.’ He didn’t even bother to dignify her threatening bare of teeth with a glance. Instead, he merely kept a disdainful eye upon the craft. ‘This is a stupid idea.’

‘I thought you wanted to chase the demon.’ She knew that speaking so coyly to a creature whose arm was the size of her waist was not, by any race’s standards, a good idea. Still, she was hungry for a reaction; Lenk would have insulted her back by now. ‘Scared?’

He turned to face her, not with any great need to rip her face off, and regarded her through cold, dark eyes. She tensed, ready to leap aside at the first sign of an angry fist. Instead, he merely grunted, ignoring her flicking tongue as she shot it at him. Her sigh was exaggerated and bored, not that he likely heard it.

‘Fear is something for lesser races,’ he rumbled. ‘It’s the only gift their weak Gods gave them, since they sought to deny them intelligence.’ He thumped a fist against his chest. ‘The spirits gave no gifts to the Rhega. I’ll hunt the demon down.’ He narrowed his eyes. ‘It was meant for me.’

‘Meant,’ she paused, cocking a brow, ‘for you?’

‘I don’t expect you to understand.’

‘You’d expect a human to understand any better?’ It was with some form of pride that she noted the crew, standing as far away as possible from both shict and dragonman.

‘I wouldn’t expect anyone but a Rhega to understand.’

‘Yeah, well, there aren’t any Rhega around.’

For the first time, she hadn’t intended any offence. Yet, for all her previous prodding and attempts to incite him into a reaction, her innocuous observation caused him to whirl about and turn an angry gaze upon her.

Obviously.

His step shook the ship as he thundered forwards. The teeth he bared at her, she noted, were far bigger and far sharper than hers. She resisted the urge to back away, even as his hands tightened into fists. Retreat, more often than not, tended to be viewed as even more of an insult by the dragonman.

‘You don’t have the right to utter that word.’ He prodded a claw into her chest, drawing blood and sending her staggering backwards. ‘The Rhega tongue was not meant for your ugly lips.’

‘Then what am I supposed to call you?’ Her attempt to draw herself up seemed rather pitiful when she noted that the top of her head only came up to the middle of his chest, five times as broad as hers. ‘Dragonman? That human word?’

‘There are many human words.’ He made a dismissive gesture. ‘All of them are equally worthless. Rhega words are worth more.’

‘Fine.’

He ignored her challenging scowl as she rubbed at the red spot beneath her collarbone. They both looked towards the sea, observing the bobbing craft.

‘So,’ she broke the silence tersely, ‘what is it you think you’re meant to do with this demon?’

‘Kill it.’

‘Well, naturally.’

‘A Rhega’s kills have more meaning.’

‘Of course they do. It doesn’t bother you that you couldn’t harm it before?’

‘Hit something hard enough, it falls down. That’s how the world works.’

‘You hit it fairly hard before.’

‘Then I’ll have to hit it harder.’

She nodded; it seemed to make sense.

‘Riffid willing, we’ll do that.’

‘You should save the names of your weak Gods,’ he snorted. ‘The more you utter them, the less likely they’ll be inclined to send you their worthless aid. Besides,’ he folded his arms over his chest, ‘we won’t be doing anything. I will kill the demon and if your Gods aren’t useless, they’ll kill you quickly and get you out of the way.’

‘Riffid is the true Goddess,’ she hissed, ‘the only Goddess. ’

‘If your Gods intended to cure you of your stupidity, they would not have made you that way in the first place.’

She sighed at that, though she knew it was futile. Gariath’s response was hardly unexpected. To credit his objectivity, she grudgingly admitted, he had equal disdain for any God, shict, human or otherwise. His interest in theological discussion tended to begin with snorts and end in bloodshed. It would be wiser to leave now, she reasoned, before he decided to end this conversation.

And yet, she lingered.

‘So,’ she muttered, ‘what’s got you in such a sunny mood today?’

His nostrils flared. ‘There’s a scent on the air . . . one I haven’t sensed in a long time.’

His face flinched. It was such a small twitch, made smaller in the wake of the rehearsed growl that followed, that he doubtlessly hoped no one would notice. But nothing escaped a shict’s attention. In the briefest of moments, concealed behind the subtlest of quivers lurked the mildest ruminations of a frown.

His eyes shifted suddenly. They did not soften, as she might have expected, but rather seemed to twitch in time with his face, as though desperately remembering how to.

‘It doesn’t stay.’ His voice was distant, unaware of her presence beside him. ‘It goes . . . it returns . . . then goes again. It never stays. When it does, it is . . . overwhelmed, drowned out by other stinks.’

One eye rolled in its socket, so slowly she could hear the muscles creak behind it as he narrowed it upon her.

‘That, too, would be remedied if you weren’t here.’

Even Kataria was surprised by herself when she leapt forwards. She drew herself up, tightening, tensing and baring teeth in an attempt to look imposing: an effort she clearly took more seriously than he.

‘Don’t you go threatening me, reptile,’ she spat. ‘You seem to forget that I’m not a human. Don’t act like I have no idea what you’re talking about and don’t forget that no one else even has a hope of understanding what you’re going through.’ She jabbed a finger against his chest, narrowly hiding a wince behind her mask of ire. ‘I’m the closest thing you’ve got to one of your own.’

A silence hung between them, an eternity of inaction. The world seemed to fall silent around them. Gariath regarded her indifferently, his shadow choking her slender frame. He took a step forwards, closing the distance between them to a finger’s width.

Like a great mountain sighing, he leaned down, muscles groaning behind leathery skin. His nostrils flared as he brought his face closer to hers, sending the feathers in her hair whipping about her cheeks. There was thunder in her ears, her instincts screaming to be heard over the pounding of her heart and the tension of her muscles, screaming for her to run.

The cacophony was such that she barely even heard him when he whispered, ‘Is this the part where I’m supposed to cry?’

The thunder stopped with her heart; her face screwed up.

‘Wh-what?’

‘After this delightful little chat about racial harmony and standing tall against the human menace, are we supposed to be charming little friends? Am I supposed to break down in your puny arms and reveal, through tears, some profound insight about the inherent folly of hatred as you revel in your ability to bridge the gap between peoples? Afterwards, will we go prancing through some meadow so you can show me the simple beauty of a spiderweb or a pile of deer dung or whatever it is your worthless, stupid race thinks is important?’

‘I . . .’ His words had struck her squarely in the belly, leaving her breathless. ‘I don’t—’

‘Then don’t.’ He growled. ‘Twitch your little ears, if you want. Talk about your Gods as if they’re any different from their Gods, if it’s important to you, but never make the mistake of thinking you and I are anything alike.’ His eyes narrowed to angry obsidian slits. ‘In the end, you all look the same to me. Small, weak . . .’ His tongue flicked out between his teeth, grazing the tip of her nose. ‘Vermin.’

He punctuated his words with a blast of hot air from his nostrils. In an instant, he rose up before her, seemingly even taller, broader and redder against the clear blue sky. She felt herself take a hesitant step backwards as he turned about slowly.

Whatever retort she might have had buzzing inside her mind was swatted aside like so many gnats as his tail came lashing up in a flash of crimson. It slapped her smartly across the cheek, sending her sprawling to the deck. Even the sound of her body hitting the wood was an insignificant whisper against the thunder of his footsteps.

‘You’ve been squealing those same threats for ages now!’ she shrieked after him, rubbing the red mark across her cheek. ‘If we’re all so beneath you, why not kill us all now?’ Her words were little bee-stings against his leathery back. ‘Why do you linger around us if you don’t like us?’

He paused and she sprang to her haunches, ready to move should he decide to give her more than just a kiss of his tail. Instead, the dragonman merely shuddered with a great breath and spoke without turning around.

‘If you’re desperate to prove yourself as more than human,’ he rumbled, ‘prove it to someone lesser than yourself.’

The sea of humanity parted before him as he strode across the deck, sailors practically climbing over each other to get out of his way. The hulking dragonman seemed unperturbed by it, growing taller with each frightened gaze cast his way as he lumbered towards the far side of the ship.

It was with grudging envy that she watched him, for as Kataria stood at the other end of the deck, she was all too aware of the great wall of round-ears that separated her from the only other non-human aboard. Her ears twitched, picking up concerns she couldn’t understand, humour she couldn’t comprehend, whispers she wasn’t privy to.

In Gariath’s wake, the humans had re-formed into a great mass of their own race, leaving her sitting beside the railing, alone.

Stupid, stinking lizard. Her thoughts immediately turned to scorn. Acts like he’s so much better than everyone else. As if being large enough to strangle anyone who disagrees with you is reason enough to act as though you’re beyond reproach.

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