Dark Hunger


Page 24



She bit her lower lip; that actually did make sense.

Regardless, she countered herself, he has no reason to treat me like that. He has no reason to look down on me like I’m some filthy . . . human!

Her anger shifted from the dragonman to the sailors bustling about the deck, each one occasionally glancing over his shoulder to see how close she was to them and make room accordingly.

Cowards.

Cowardice was the way of their race. Her father had said as much and now she knew it to be true. She recalled the aftermath of yesterday’s carnage. The crew of the Riptide, her humans had prevailed over the other, filthier humans with her help. While they screamed, she laughed. While they fumbled, she shot true. While they had soiled themselves, it was she who had pulled Lenk, one of her humans, away from danger.

She had deserved their respect from the very beginning as both a warrior and a shict. Now, her very presence demanded it.

And yet, they continued to prove their cowardice. She heard them even now, making envious, lewd remarks about her musculature. They skulked, casting shifty, wary glances her way. They hurried with the loading, undoubtedly eager to see her leave to chase some demon and die out at sea.

None of them had enough bravery to come forth and insult her to face.

‘Hey, moron.’

Her lips were curled in a snarl and her teeth bared as she whirled about. The blue eyes that met her fury were impassive and rolling in their sockets.

‘Yeah, you’re ferocious,’ Lenk said, half-yawning. ‘I’ll be sure to soil myself later.’ He extended a tin cup to her, a thick veil of steam rising from its lip. ‘Here.’

‘What is it?’ She took it and gave it a sniff, examining the thick, brown liquid sloshing about inside it curiously. ‘It smells awful.’

‘It’s coffee,’ he replied. ‘Tohanan brownbean, specifically; expensive stuff.’

‘Coffee,’ she murmured. She took a sip and blanched. ‘It tastes awful, too.’

‘That’s how you know it’s expensive.’

‘I guess that makes sense to a human.’

‘Not particularly,’ he said, shrugging. ‘It never made sense to me, at least.’ Taking a sip of his own brew, he forced a smile without much effort to convince behind it. ‘I suppose that makes me inhuman, then?’

Kataria should have smiled back, she knew, but her only responses were pursed lips and a heavy-lidded stare.

Inhuman.

The word hung in the air between them and she heard it every time she blinked. In the spaces where she should have seen darkness behind her eyes, she saw him instead. She saw him writhing, clutching his head, snarling at her in a voice that was not his own. In the moments between her breath and the beating of her own heart, she heard him as he shrieked at her.

STOP STARING AT US!

‘Stop,’ he said.

‘What?’ She blinked; the images were gone.

‘Stop looking at me that way,’ he muttered, taking a harsh sip, ‘it bothers me.’

‘Ah.’ She turned her gaze down to the brown brew in her hand and blinked. ‘Why are we drinking the expensive stuff, anyway?’

‘Argaol’s charity,’ he replied. ‘The good captain apparently wants us to depart in good spirits.’

‘Charity?’ She cocked a brow; that seemed an unlikely word to describe the man.

‘He said to think of it as a last meal for the soon-to-be-corpses. ’

‘Ah.’ She took a sip. ‘Thoughtful.’

‘Mm.’

The stillness of the morning was broken suddenly by the sound of something shrieking across the sea. The two glanced up and regarded the looming black spectacle approaching the Riptide.

The Linkmaster was alive in the waters, or at least alive in the same way a carcass crawling with flies was alive. Men scurried across its decks, pink dots against black timbers, variously swabbing, stitching and otherwise mending. From its railings dangled crude rope swings, men ensconced and busy at the hull. At the prow, one such man worked at the bright red lettering of the ship’s title, smothering its identity under a shell of black paint.

Kataria noted with some pride the wound where the ship’s hull had been shattered by the Riptide’s prow. It had been her precise shooting, shictish shooting, that had given the great wooden beast such a blow. Now, men dangled around the great mess of timbers, prying from its splinters what appeared to be thick, reeking chunks of quickly browning beef.

Kataria’s grin was small, restrained and wholly unpleasant.

‘Disgusting.’ Lenk grimaced as what might once have been a thigh was tugged free of the wood and plopped into the waters below, the latest course of a feast tended to by a noisy pack of gulls. ‘And to think, that’s our freedom.’

‘It is?’

‘According to Argaol.’ Lenk nodded. ‘He even renamed it Black Salvation for the occasion.’

‘I’m not sure I follow.’

‘Well, if that demon we questioned is to be believed, the Abysmyth headed for the islands to the north. The waters there are too shallow for a large ship like the Riptide to navigate, so we’re taking the companion craft,’ he gestured over the ship’s starboard side, ‘out there.

‘Now, you might have noticed that thing is far too small to take us back to Toha, where civilisation and our pay await when and if we retrieve the tome and assuming at least one of us is still alive to deliver it.’

She nodded; the thought had occurred to her.

‘So, Argaol’s apparent plan is to let Sebast take the Black Salvation out after us.’ He took a hard swig, finishing the rest of his coffee. ‘In a few days, the ship should be ready for sailing. Presumably, it should take another day or two for Sebast to catch up with us.’

‘I see.’ Her ears twitched. ‘So, that gives us how much time to find the tome?’

‘About six days before we meet up with Sebast.’

‘So, going by what we know of the Abysmyth, you figure that gives us, what, one day to find where it went, another day to get the tome, two more days to reach wherever it is we’re supposed to reach and one more day to find Sebast.’ She blinked. ‘What do we do with the other day?’

Lenk’s nostrils quivered as he inhaled deeply. ‘Presumably?’

‘By all means,’ she answered.

‘Bury the dead.’

A stale wind swept across the deck. The feathers in Kataria’s hair wafted across her face as she stared down into her cup and swirled the liquid thoughtfully.

‘Good coffee.’

‘Mm.’

In the brightness of the morning, Kataria couldn’t help but notice a sudden change in Lenk. He was not a large man, standing only about as tall as herself, far shorter than most of his kind. Yet, today, as the sun gnawed at his back with hungry golden rays, he seemed smaller than he had been the night before . . . diminished, somehow.

It was no mere physical change, nothing that sleeplessness alone could account for. He had changed so subtly that no one but she might notice. He stood slightly less straight, his back a little more crooked. His silver hair that had once gleamed bright and flowed in the breeze like liquid metal now hung limp and grey at his shoulders, still even as the wind tried to goad it into movement. For all that, though, his eyes had lost none of their lustre. They were still blue, still hard.

Still cold.

‘Lenk,’ she whispered.

He turned on her swiftly, a beast sensing danger, and her breath caught in her throat as he levelled his gaze at her. His eyes glimmered with an intellect not his own, flashing with a hard and stony presence for but a moment. When she blinked, his stare was softer, but no less wary.

‘Last night . . .’ she continued, unintimidated.

‘You couldn’t sleep, either,’ he finished, nodding. ‘Frankly, if I broke wind as much as you do, I’d have a difficult time breathing, much less dozing off.’

‘That’s not what I was going to say.’

He sighed, and diminished further, something leaving him with the force of his breath.


‘I know.’ His voice was weaker now, closer to a whimper than an answer. ‘I know what you want. I know it every time you stare at me.’

‘I don’t mean to.’

‘Yes, you do. That’s simply how you ask for things. You stare.’ When he looked back up at her, his eyes quivered at the corners, stars sparkling against red-veined whites. ‘But it’s far too early for that sort of thing just now, wouldn’t you agree?’

‘For what sort of thing?’ She strained, with no small effort, to conceal the indignation in her voice. ‘Talking?’

‘About what you want to talk about, yes,’ he replied sharply. ‘So, kindly indulge me when I ask you to simply keep your peace today.’

‘Keep my . . .’ Her face twisted into an expression of incredulousness. ‘For how long?’

‘Hopefully,’ he turned from her and began to trudge away, ‘until one of us is dead so that it no longer matters.’

She watched him go for a moment, venom boiling on the tip of her tongue. Moments before he stepped out of earshot, she struck, like a spitting asp, and hissed at him.

‘And will it be you who kills me?’

He stiffened and, in a sharp, shallow breath, he was restored. No longer diminished, he turned on her, standing as tall as he could, wiry muscles tensed and eyes bright with anger. She forced herself not to recoil as he stepped towards her, boots heavy upon the deck.

‘What was that?’ He had no growl or snarl to his voice, no passion or anger.

‘You heard me,’ she responded swiftly. ‘By walking away from me, you’re putting my life in danger.’

‘Stop this.’

‘Are you just going to pretend that last night didn’t happen? ’ She took a challenging step forwards. ‘Are you going to hope it was a bad dream? That it won’t happen again?’ She shook her head. ‘I’m sure you can live with that, but I can’t.’

‘Stop.’

‘I remember what you did last night.’ She continued unabated, despite the rigidity of his body, the narrowing of his eyes. ‘I remember you screaming at yourself, screaming at me. Now we’ve got a chance to find out what’s going on inside that thick head of yours and you don’t even want to spare a moment to talk about it for my sake, let alone yours.’

‘Kat—’

‘Lenk.’ She took a step closer, peering intently at him. Her hand trembling, she reached out to lay it upon his shoulder. ‘What happened to you?’

The answer she received was unspoken. Beneath her hand, beneath the fabric of his tunic, she felt something stir in his bones. Even as the sun hissed, steadily climbing, she felt a sudden chill coursing through her fingers.

‘That’s enough.’ His own hand was up in a flash, batting hers off his shoulder. ‘If I don’t want to talk about something, you’re in no position to question me. Over the past few days, I’ve been stabbed, slashed, punched, pummelled and smashed by various people and things without the luxury of pay or anything more than a bowl of beans and the complaining of the people I somehow manage always to find myself surrounded by.’

She blinked and he was face to face with her, his breath frigid against her lips. Her own lungs seemed to deflate under his gaze, her eyes refusing to look away from his. She wanted to blink, she craved any reason to close her eyes, praying that when she opened them again, his eyes would be dotted by black pupils.

But she could not blink. As he stared at her, she was forced to stare back into two orbs of pristine, pupilless blue.

‘Listen to me when I say,’ he whispered harshly, ‘that I have earned the right to walk away from you.’

And with a turn that cut the wind, he was off, stalking across the deck. She stared at him; though he was no longer diminished, no longer so small against the day, he did not appear whole, either. He walked with his back straight, but his hair still hung limply upon shoulders that were heavy with some unseen burden.

Though she had spoken to Lenk moments ago, she was unsure who now walked away from her.

A mass of people were congealing at the railing. She spotted her own companions amongst them, huddled about the dark shape of Captain Argaol. Quietly, she began to move towards them, rubbing her arms as she went to nurse circulation back into her skin.

It hadn’t been so cold a moment ago.

‘Damn,’ Denaos grunted, looking up accusingly at the sky. ‘What happened?’

‘What do you mean?’ Asper asked.

‘It was warm,’ Denaos muttered, stamping his feet. ‘Now it’s colder than a whale fart.’

‘Do . . . do whales fart?’ She cocked a brow.

‘Everything farts; it’s what makes us human.’

‘But whales aren’t—’

‘That’s why their farts are cold,’ he snapped. The tall man glanced up as Kataria elbowed her way into the huddle, his eyes darting from her bare arms to her bare midsection. ‘Not that I’ve any particular grievance with it, but are you sure you wouldn’t like a cloak or something?’

‘I don’t need anything,’ she muttered, not looking at him. Her stare was distant, though the corner of her gaze occasionally flickered to the silver-haired man standing beside her. ‘It’s not that cold.’

‘Not that cold?’ Denaos shivered at the very words. ‘It feels like I’ve just sat on an icicle and twisted.’

‘She said she’s not cold,’ Lenk spat, glowering at him. ‘Shut up.’

While a number of scathing retorts leapt easily to mind, ones he was certain would leave the young man fumbling for his stones, Denaos opted to clamp his lips together. Something between his and the shict’s stare confirmed the wisdom in that.

‘You’ll be sweating out of your pants in an hour, anyway,’ Argaol replied, glancing up at the sun. ‘The sea changes weather quickly. While those soft and dry porkflanks in the cities won’t be up to face their warm morning for another two hours, we men of Zamanthras have to be up before dawn so we can face Her when She’s cold and angry.’

‘And this has never struck you as blatantly stupid?’ Dreadaeleon offered the man a smirk.

‘I’m in no mood for a smug-off, boy,’ the dark man snapped. ‘The Lord Emissary has requested I point you in the direction of your demon and that’s just grand by me. The sooner you learn where you’re going, the sooner you can be off my ship and out of my life. So, unless there are any objections,’ his eyes darted between the assembled, ‘we can proceed.’

‘This is probably unnecessary,’ Kataria muttered with a sneer, ‘since Gariath can apparently just sniff his way to victory.’

‘Victory smells like a pair of ripped-off ears,’ the dragonman said in reply, dismembering the argument before it could begin, ‘just in case anyone was wondering.’

‘All right, if there aren’t any other objections,’ Argaol sighed, ‘we can get underway.’ He swept about, pointing towards the distant horizon. ‘Now, if you strain your eyes a bit, you can see your destination on the edge of the world there.’

Lenk squinted, peering out over the railing and shaking his head.

‘I can’t see anything.’ He made a gesture. ‘Kat, get up here and tell me what you see.’

‘No need for that,’ she replied. ‘I see a speck of white in the distance and, in the fore, a silvery piece of—’

‘Anyway,’ Argaol interrupted, ‘she’s correct. The island you’re looking for has the renown of being the whitest. See, it’s the furthest from Toha, the Heart of Buradan, where the Sea Mother plummeted from the heavens to submerge Herself in the deep. As one sails from Toha, where the sands are so blue as to render the shores useless, one finds the sands getting progressively whiter until you reach Ktamgi.’

‘Ktamgi?’

‘Aye, Ktamgi.’ He nodded. ‘The uttermost reach of Toha and her Blue Navy.’

‘What do you mean by that?’ Lenk asked.

‘He means it’s a former Tohanan colony, as far as an island can be from Toha and still be considered theirs,’ Denaos replied before the captain could. ‘Though he’s a bit mistaken; smugglers have been using the Reaching Isles for decades now.’

‘Check with whatever vile sources you have, you thug,’ Argaol snapped back. ‘The Reaches have been cleared of pirates for the past five years.’

‘My mistake.’ Denaos coughed. ‘I just figured, what with the fact that we were attacked by pirates yesterday, they might still be active. You yourself said that some of the Linkmaster’s crew escaped on their companion boats.’

‘First of all, it’s the Black Salvation now. The Linkmaster was a pirate vessel and I command no such thing.’ He held up a finger. ‘Further, however many of Rashodd’s boys escaped are likely headed for safer waters than Ktamgi’s.’

‘You’re implying that Ktamgi’s waters are not safe.’ Lenk glowered.

‘Well, pardon the abruptness, but I figured since you’re eager to go chasing after gigantic black demons that rip heads off, safety wasn’t that big a concern for you.’

‘No one’s ever actually seen an Abysmyth rip anyone’s head off,’ Dreadaeleon pointed out.

‘Be that as it may,’ Argaol replied, ‘the threat of pirates, sharks or whatever man-eating parrots or similar creations may be out there are the least of your worries, I can assure you. As it stands, according to the Lord Emissary and our . . .’ he paused to clear his throat, ‘other source, Ktamgi is the most likely island the demon has fled to with the Lord Emissary’s tome. As stated, you’ll have about six days to get your business done before Sebast catches up with you.’

‘And Sebast will pick us up at Ktamgi?’ Asper asked.

‘Well, not as such, no.’ Argaol shook his head. ‘The waters around Ktamgi are shallower than most. He’ll be meeting you on an island another day north, on an outpost called Teji.’

‘Of course.’ Lenk rolled his eyes. ‘Why convenience us when you can make a profit?’

‘If you prefer not to meet up with us, you can try making it to Port Destiny in the companion craft.’

‘All the same,’ Dreadaeleon tapped his chin thoughtfully, ‘aren’t there a number of islands closer and more suitable to serve as a meeting site?’

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