Dark Hunger


Page 26



‘Well, if you’re so certain about our fate, it would seem a bit pointless to worry about it. But that isn’t what I’ve been thinking about.’

‘Go on, then.’

‘It just occurs to me,’ her voice grew hesitant, as though she were attempting to soothe an irate beast rather than pose a question, ‘I don’t know why you’re out here.’

Lenk’s response was a wet gurgle as he nearly toppled overboard with the fury of his heaving. The sea giggled a mocking, salt-laden tune as it reached up to slap him with a frothy palm. He pulled back a scowl dripping with resentment.

‘I ask myself that same question,’ he muttered, ‘every Gods-damned day.’

‘That’s not what I mean.’ She spoke more harshly. ‘Why are we out here? Why did you decide to go after the demon if death is so certain?’

‘I believe we covered this last night,’ he replied, ‘with one thousand golden responses.’

‘Don’t you dare pretend to think that I’m an idiot by pretending you’re an idiot, Lenk.’ All traces of sensitivity had given way to ire, anger spurred by his evasion. ‘All the gold in the world won’t do you any good if you’re dead. There’s another reason you’re out here, one you’re not telling me.’

He drew in a deep breath suddenly and, as though he had inhaled the sun, the air seemed to go cold around her. Before her, he went stiff and rigid, his fingers threatening to dig deep furrows in the railings, so white did they become. His voice was low and soft, though not at all gentle, as he hissed through his teeth.

‘Then why would I tell you now?’

Kataria found herself shivering at his response. For an instant, something else spoke from his mouth, another voice that lurked between his words. An echo of an echo resonated in her ears, lingering in the air around his lips and sucking the warmth from the sky with each reverberation.

‘Lenk, that’s not—’

No, no, NO! Her instincts thundered in her brain, drowning out all other sounds. Don’t you apologise to him, don’t you try to make peace. If he wants to be difficult, let him be difficult.

And yet, the voice that seeped out of her mouth was not that of her instinct.

‘Lenk,’ she whispered, ‘does it have to be this way?’

‘What way?’

Let him be difficult . . . and let him remember what it means to be difficult.

Whether it was instinct or simple, vengeful pride that forced her to tighten her grip on his hair, she could not say. Whether it was instinct or the last layer before a shell of quiet resentment gave way to a boiling core of anger that caused her arms to tense, she could not say.

‘This way.’

If it was anything other than a perverse pleasure that caused her to slam his head down against the railing, bringing a smile at the cracking sound that followed, she did not care.

‘Khetashe!’ he screamed, fingering the red blossom under his nose. ‘What was that for?’

When his fist lashed out to catch her jaw, he found nothing but air. A quick glance over his shoulder saw her crawling across the vessel’s meagre deck. Had he energy for anything besides heaving, he might have scrambled for his sword and pursued. As it stood, he merely vomited again.

Asper glanced up as Kataria sprang forwards over the shifting deck. Her eyes went wide at the chorus of curses from Lenk’s lips and she turned a befuddled stare to her companion as she sat down beside her.

‘What was that all about?’

‘Nothing to worry about yet,’ Kataria replied swiftly. With unnerving speed, she forced a smile onto her lips. ‘All’s well here?’

‘I suppose,’ the priestess replied. She noticed the bright red spot upon the railing and frowned. ‘Should I—’

‘No, you shouldn’t,’ Kataria snapped. ‘He’s fine. How are you?’

‘Decent enough,’ Asper replied with a weak shrug. She furrowed her brow at the shict. ‘Why do you care, anyway? ’

‘I can’t care about my companions?’ She gave Asper a playful slug on the arm, her grin growing broader as the priestess let out a pained squeak. ‘What’s the matter with you, anyway? You haven’t spoken for hours.’

‘I’m fine.’ Asper’s voice was as distant as her gaze, her eyes staring out over the endless blue. ‘I’m just . . . distracted.’

‘By?’

‘Well . . . nothing.’ The priestess shook herself angrily, as if incensed by her own lie. ‘Nothing that I can help, anyway. It’s just . . . I hear something. My ears are ringing, I have a headache,’ she fingered the phoenix medallion in her palm, ‘but I don’t know why.’

‘Seasickness, perhaps.’ Kataria sneered in Lenk’s direction as the young man let out a saliva-laden groan. ‘It could be worse.’

‘It’s not that.’ Asper shook her head. ‘It . . . well, it sounds strange to say, but it feels . . . like something’s calling to me.’ Seeing her companion’s baffled expression, she continued hastily. ‘It-it’s not a sound, not a normal one, anyway. It’s not like the ringing of bells or the crying of children. It’s ... an ache, a dull pain that I hear.’

‘You hear . . .’ Kataria’s face screwed up, ‘pain?’

‘Something like that.’

‘Well.’ The shict clicked her tongue thoughtfully. ‘If there were something out there that you could hear, I think chances are that I would hear it first.’ Her ears twitched. ‘And if it were something I couldn’t hear, I think Dreadaeleon would sense it.’ She glanced back at the entranced boy and frowned. ‘Then again—’

‘I know.’ Asper sighed. ‘It’s just nerves, I suppose.’ Her hand tightened around the pendant, squeezing it as she might a lover’s hand. ‘I don’t think I can be blamed for it, knowing what we’re going after.’

‘The Abysmyth can be hurt.’ Kataria spoke as much for her own assurance as for Asper’s; the quaver in her voice, however, seemed to convince neither of them. ‘We’ve seen it, right?’

‘We saw the Lord Emissary chase it away with prayers.’

‘Well, I suppose we’re in luck, since you seem to do a lot of that.’

‘It’s not the same and you know it.’ Asper glowered at her companion. ‘Further, we also saw it take a harpoon through the belly and . . .’ Her face twisted slightly. ‘Mossud, bless him—’

‘I remember.’

Kataria paused to force a frown upon her face. It felt awkward, like pulling a muscle, to strain such false sympathy through her teeth. Yet it was infinitely preferable to trying to explain her thoughts on the matter. Mossud’s death had been something appalling, the shict readily admitted to herself, but he was still just one human amongst many.

The fact that the world would make more did not seem as consoling as it once had.

‘Even if there is something out there, you don’t need to worry.’ Kataria shifted her face into a smile, hoping the priestess wouldn’t notice the pain with which she did it. ‘Leave matters of death and dying to the warriors.’

Asper frowned. As though her brain were wrought out of lead, her head bowed to stare dejectedly into the dull silver of her pendant, fingers caressing its metal wings.

‘Yeah . . . the warriors.’

Kataria fought back a sigh; humans never seemed satisfied by anything. They exuded fear, yet despised being reassured against it. They blatantly craved admiration, yet had no desire to earn it. They’re all nothing but a bunch of slack-jawed hypocrites, she thought resentfully, cowards.

Quietly, the urge to sigh twisted within her, becoming an urge to do to Asper what she had done to Lenk.

Before she could so much as tense her fingers, however, she suddenly noticed the waters calming. Curious, she leaned out over the railing, watching the waves slow until they finally came to a bobbing stop. She glanced up; the sails hung impotent against the tiny mast.

‘Well,’ she snorted, ‘maybe Dread can ease your apprehension, since he seems to be done with whatever he was doing.’

‘Are we close to land?’ Asper cast a glance about the waters. ‘I don’t see anything here.’ Her eyes shifted towards the rear of the boat. ‘Dread, are you—’

All eyes, in addition to the priestess’s, had turned towards the vessel’s bench. Dreadaeleon stood upright upon it, stiff as a board and eyes wide with an expression that could only be described as baffled shock. A few moments of silence passed before Denaos cleared his throat.

‘Did you get tired or something?’

The boy did not respond. Rolling his eyes, the rogue rose to his feet and reached out to place a hand on his shoulder.

‘Listen, we’re on a bit of a schedule, as you might recall. If I’m going to die, I’d like it to be before lu—’


In the blink of an eye, Dreadaeleon’s hands flung out, palms wide and aimed at the sail. His voice was an incomprehensible thunder, a furious phrase that erupted from his lips. The air shimmered for a moment before it rippled and quaked, as though threatening to burst apart like an overstuffed pillow.

The vessel responded immediately, rocking at the sudden burst of wizardly force and flying forwards like a javelin. Its prow rose so far out of the water as to threaten to capsize; bodies were forced to cling to wood to avoid being hurled from the deck, their protests inaudible over the boy’s chanting.

‘Sweet Silf,’ Denaos howled, ‘what is he doing?’

‘Turn the rudder!’ Lenk shouted from the prow. ‘Try to stop it!’

Hands, both human and dragonman, went to the steering rudder, arms quivering with effort as they grunted, growled and spat curses at the stubborn mechanism. It would not budge, except at the beck of whatever force Dreadaeleon imbued in it, jerking it wildly back and forth.

‘Stop him, then!’ Kataria shrieked above the sorcerous gale.

Gariath responded with a roar that nearly silenced the wind, pulling himself up the deck by his claws, the gleam in his black eyes suggesting that however he intended to stop the wizard, he also intended it to be permanent. As he came closer, his claws reached out to grasp at the boy’s fluttering coat-tails.

Dreadaeleon’s voice grew louder and, like a wooden slave, the vessel obeyed, lunging out of the water violently. Gariath tumbled backwards, his massive red bulk slamming into Denaos and nearly crushing the tall man against the ship’s gunwale.

‘Fine,’ the dragonman snarled, making ready to pull himself up again, ‘he can’t work his magic if his head is ripped off.’

‘No!’

He narrowed his fury at Lenk. ‘Why not?’

‘He’s focusing on . . . something,’ Lenk hollered. ‘If you disrupt him now, this whole ship may be blown apart!’

‘How is this any better?’ Denaos countered.

‘He’s not acting of his own will,’ Asper shouted in retort.

‘How do you know that?’ the rogue howled. ‘His magic may have driven him insane! It’s not unheard of ! We need to put him down!’

‘Calm down,’ Lenk shouted back. ‘I don’t think he’s going to bring us to harm.’

‘How can you be so sure?’ Kataria cried loudly as the gale intensified.

‘I can’t, really.’

‘Oh . . . well.’

He managed to pull himself up enough to see a rapidly approaching bank of sand in the far distance. As the waves lapped around the island, revealing jagged rocks jutting from the shore, he winced and braced himself as the island grew closer with each blinking eye.

Lenk stared upon the wreckage with dismay.

The companion boat lay on its side upon the beach, several yards up a shore marred by a deep skid-mark. Its red ribs jutted from the jagged hole gaping in its flank, as if it had been harpooned. Its shredded sail hung from a splintering mast like flesh flayed from bone. His frown grew so long it hurt his face as he waited for the carrion flies to begin swarming over it.

‘At least no one was hurt too badly,’ piped up a cheerful voice from beside him.

He glared at the grinning shict and then at the bandage wrapped tightly around his arm. He flexed it a little, wincing as the cut beneath it seared his skin.

‘Well.’ She coughed. ‘I wasn’t hurt too badly.’

‘Lucky for us,’ he grumbled.

He cast a glance over Kataria, who bore no physical injuries aside from a few scuffs and sand stains on her pale skin. When the vessel had hit the shore, she had been tossed into a nearby shrubbery. He had had the misfortune of nearly impaling his arm on a jutting timber rib. Disdainfully, he twitched his forearm again and saw a bit of red seep through the white bandages.

He glanced at the long skid in the sand where he had landed after being hurled from the vessel. He winced and made a silent prayer of thanks to whatever deity had prevented him from striking any of the bone-white jagged stones jutting from the sands like teeth. The tips of the same stones, their white hues mottled with coral the colour of vomit, emerged from the surface of the blue, foamy seas beyond.

A sea of trees, rising from a blanket of shrubbery, roots and vines, stood behind them; the only landmark breaking a nearly perfectly endless sheet of white sand and rock. At a glance, it seemed lush, Lenk thought, but he knew well that forests could be just as unforgiving and desolate as deserts. The corpse of the vessel, sprawled out on the sand like a beached whale, wood drying under the sun like bones bleaching, seemed a charming example.

‘It could be worse,’ Kataria offered, snapping him from his gloomy reverie.

It certainly could, Lenk thought.

He glanced over his shoulder to where Gariath squatted. The dragonman had taken the worst of the crash, having been tossed from the prow violently, skidding across the sands until his violent journey ended abruptly at a nearby palm tree. Cuts from the beach rocks and thorny shrubs covered his red skin and splinters from the tree jutted from his back.

Regardless of his injuries, the hardy dragonman had refused all aid.

‘Human medicine,’ he had growled, ‘is for skinned knees and constipation.’

Instead, he had skulked over to the shade of the same tree he had caromed off and sat quietly.

Dragonmen, particularly red ones, Lenk had been told, were resilient creatures and had an innate ability to heal themselves through sheer force of will. If there was a will stronger than Gariath’s, Lenk had never seen it, for the dragonman’s wounds were no longer bleeding.

He would have thanked his companion for declining aid if it was out of generosity. There weren’t a great many supplies to go around for the purposes of treating injuries.

His arm had required a good deal of Asper’s bandages and Denaos’s scrapes had required a good amount of salve. Most of the priestess’s aid, however, had gone to the one who had caused the wreck in the first place. Lenk’s eyes narrowed to thin, angry slits as he cast a glare further down the beach.

Dreadaeleon sat propped up against a rock, Asper squatting by his side, working to tighten the bandage around his head that covered the gash at his temple. A lot of bandages, Lenk noted with a wince, too many to hold in such a small brain.

Even now, the wizard clutched his head as he lay against the rock, pampered like a baby. Lenk’s teeth ground together so hard, sparks almost shot from his mouth. He felt his hands clench into fists, heedless of the strain it put on his wounded arm. Kataria noticed his ire rising and laid a hand on his shoulder.

‘Now, calm down,’ she said soothingly. ‘He already told you—’

‘He told me nothing,’ Lenk snarled. ‘If we’re going to be stuck on some Gods-forsaken island and starve to death because of him, I want to know why.’

Not waiting for a reply from his companion, the young man stormed over to the boy’s resting place with such fury in his stride as to burn the sands beneath him. He paused nearby and folded his arms over his chest, focusing his icy scowl upon the wizard. Asper said nothing and continued working on her patient’s splint, though her hands trembled more than a little under Lenk’s frigid stare.

‘Well?’ Lenk snarled after several moments’ silence.

‘Well what?’ Dreadaeleon replied, not opening his eyes.

‘Well, how’s your little scrape, you poor little lamb?’ Lenk said, his sarcasm burning. ‘What the hell were you thinking?’

‘Well, I don’t know,’ the wizard replied, equally vitriolic. ‘I suppose I thought: “I bet Lenk would find it hysterical if I decided to crash the boat.”’ He snorted. ‘I already told you, I don’t know what happened.’

‘How?’ the young man spat back. ‘How do you not know what you were doing?’

‘The intricacies of my mind are of such staggering complexity that they might very well cause yours to explode, leak out of your ears and puddle at your feet.’ He tilted his nose up. ‘Suffice it to say, I knew exactly what I was doing, I just wasn’t sure why.’

‘Oh, well, thank Khetashe for that distinction!’

‘Lenk,’ Kataria said, creeping up to his side. ‘You know Dread wouldn’t do it on purpose.’

‘Well, I’d like to know whose purpose he did do it on,’ the young man growled, casting a sideways glare at the shict.

Despite the protests of his conscience, his rage cared neither for compassion nor logic. It took all his willpower not to flay the boy alive and use his skin to patch the vessel’s wound.

‘I’m not sure what happened,’ Dreadaeleon said, finally opening his eyes and looking at Lenk. ‘I was focusing on moving the ship, as you asked, when I suddenly . . . heard something.’

‘Heard something?’ Lenk asked, screwing up his face in confusion. ‘When you focus, you can’t hear bloody murder two inches from your ear.’ His sniffed, glaring at Kataria. ‘I know from experience.’

‘Baby,’ Kataria grunted.

‘It wasn’t in my ears,’ Dreadaeleon said softly, ‘it was . . . in my head.’

‘So you were just going mad?’

‘No, Lenk,’ Asper said, looking up. ‘I . . . I heard it too.’

‘Really?’ Lenk asked, more in sarcasm than genuine curiosity. ‘So tell me, why didn’t you go insane?’

‘She’s not sensitive to magic,’ Dreadaeleon said, ‘I am.’

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