Dark Hunger


Page 27



‘If she’s not sensitive, then how did she hear it at all?’

‘I don’t know,’ Dreadaeleon said, shaking his head. ‘It’s possible that—’

He cut himself off and fell back against the rock, his face screwed up in pain as he clutched his skull.

‘What now?’ Lenk asked, an inkling of concern seeping through his anger.

‘Magic headache,’ Dreadaeleon replied with a halting, pain-filled voice.

‘What?’

‘Wizard’s headache,’ Asper said, a hand going to Dreadaeleon’s shoulder. ‘Magic takes a toll on the body.’

‘If I use magic too much,’ Dreadaeleon replied, breathing hard, ‘or cast too many spells at once, I get a headache.’ He glared up at Lenk through strained eyes. ‘I’ve told you this before.’

Before Lenk could form a reply, he was suddenly aware of a tall figure standing between him and Kataria. He glanced up, startled as he saw Denaos’s concerned face staring down at the wizard.

‘And just where have you been this whole time?’ the young man asked.

‘Asper asked me to get some water for Dread,’ the rogue replied, holding up a bulging waterskin.

‘We have water on the boat,’ Lenk said, casting a glance over his shoulder. ‘Most of the cargo was secured, it shouldn’t be damaged.’

‘True,’ Denaos replied with a nod, ‘but I thought I might as well take a look around, since we may be here a while.’

‘It won’t take that long to fix the ship,’ Lenk replied. ‘With any luck, we’ll be back out on the sea in a day or two.’ His eyes steeled. ‘Every day we’re on land, the Abysmyth’s lead increases. Every day we hesitate, another—’

‘We’re on it.’

‘What?’

‘We’re here.’ He stomped the earth. ‘This is Ktamgi.’

‘How do you know?’

The rogue reached down to pluck a single grain of sand from the beach. He eyed it for a moment before holding it next to Kataria’s midsection.

‘Just a shade whiter, as Argaol said.’ He pulled back his hand before Kataria could slap it. ‘Check the sea charts and you’ll see I’m right.’ He blinked at Lenk suddenly, coughing. ‘Sorry for ruining whatever speech you had, though. I’m sure it was astonishingly inspirational.’

‘When did you learn to read sea charts?’ Asper shot a suspicious glare at the rogue.

‘Around the time I learned how to avoid angry debt collectors by signing on as a deckhand and fleeing the city,’ he replied with a wink, ‘but that’s another story.’ He tossed the waterskin to Dreadaeleon, the wizard making only half an attempt to catch it as it bounced off his face to land in his lap. ‘Drink up, little man.’

‘I see . . .’ Lenk said, furrowing his brow in brief thought. ‘Well, if it is as you say, we’ll take a look around, then.’

‘Are you sure you wouldn’t like to take another moment to berate me for finding the island?’ Dreadaeleon asked with a wry smirk. ‘Or did you perhaps have some praise for me?’

‘What I’ve got for you is a length of steel and few compunctions about where I jam it,’ Lenk snarled. ‘Now shut up before I plug the ship’s hole with your fat head.’

‘Still,’ Asper said, ‘is it wise to move out now?’ She glanced at Dreadaeleon. ‘Everyone’s more than a little roughed up.’

‘We’re not too bad,’ Lenk said, glancing at his arm. ‘We’re only looking for traces of the Abysmyth and the tome.’ He glanced around his companions. ‘If you find it, don’t try to fight it on your own.’ He cast a concerned glare at Gariath. ‘Come and get the rest of us.’

The dragonman merely snorted in reply.

‘How are we even going to hurt it?’ Denaos asked.

‘We’ll worry about that later,’ Lenk said. ‘For now, we just need to find out whether it’s still here and still has the tome.’ He looked disparagingly at the copse of trees and scratched his chin. ‘We might as well spread out to find whatever resources we can.’

‘That makes sense.’ Asper dusted her hands off, rose to her feet. ‘The more food and water we find here, the less we have to use from the ship.’

‘Not to mention that spreading out will make it easier for the Abysmyth to hunt us down and eat our heads,’ Denaos added with a nod. ‘As per usual, your genius cannot be praised with mere—’

‘Yeah, we’re all going to die, I get it,’ Lenk interrupted, waving the rogue away. ‘Anyway, foraging shouldn’t be a problem. Gariath alone can probably sniff—’

He glanced up at the sound of sand crunching beneath massive feet in time to spy Gariath’s wings twitching as the dragonman turned his back to the companions. Without so much as a word, he began to stalk off down the beach, snout occasionally thrust into the air with quivering nostrils.

‘There, see?’ Lenk smiled smugly. ‘That’s what you call community-minded. He’s already got the scent of some food.’

‘You can all starve,’ Gariath replied calmly without looking back. ‘I’m following something else.’

‘What?’

‘Die.’

‘Ah.’ Lenk frowned. ‘He’s in a mood.’ He cast a sidelong glance at Dreadaeleon, gesturing towards the dragonman with his chin. ‘You’d better go with him.’

‘What?’ The boy looked incredulous. ‘Why me? I can barely walk.’

‘“Barely” still translates to “capable”,’ Lenk responded sharply. ‘It’ll be better if we’ve got two hounds on the Abysmyth’s trail.’

‘I’m not sure I follow.’

‘You can sense magic, can’t you?’

‘All wizards can.’

‘And there you have it,’ Lenk replied. ‘While I don’t know if the demon is actually magical in nature, it probably leaves some kind of reek behind that either you or Gariath can follow.’

‘That logic doesn’t entirely hold up.’ Dreadaeleon rose to his feet shakily. ‘Wouldn’t one of us have sensed it before it attacked the Riptide?’

‘Maybe things work differently when it’s out of water.’ Lenk placed a hand on Dreadaeleon’s shoulder. ‘The other reason I’m sending you is to keep an eye on him. If you do find the demon, try your best to keep him away from it until we can all assemble. We don’t want anyone to fight this thing alone.’

The wizard had no sarcasm in reply. Instead, placing an expression of resolution upon his face, he nodded stiffly to the young man, his tiny chest swelling as Lenk offered him an encouraging smile.

‘Beyond that,’ Lenk clapped him on the shoulder, ‘he looks like he’s going to kill someone, and since you crashed the ship, it might as well be you.’

‘That does make sense.’ Denaos nodded.

‘What?’ Dreadaeleon’s eyes flared. ‘You can’t be—’

‘I am.’ With another clap on the shoulder, Lenk sent the boy staggering across the sands in pursuit of the dragonman. ‘Off you go now.’ He had barely a moment to make certain Dreadaeleon was still on his feet ten paces later before he spied Kataria moving away in the opposite direction. ‘Where are you off to?’

‘Hunting,’ she replied, holding up her bow and patting the quiver of arrows upon her back. ‘Gariath is going that way, I’ll go this way.’

‘Fine.’ He nodded. ‘I’ll come with you.’

‘You don’t have to,’ she muttered in such a way as to indicate that it was not at all a simple suggestion.

‘But I should,’ he said, less firmly than he might have, ‘if only for protection.’ He raised a brow. ‘Is that disagreeable to you?’

‘Slightly,’ she hissed. ‘But if you can keep up, I can’t tell you where to walk.’

And with that, she was gone, vanished into the palm trees like a shadow. A dramatic sigh brought Lenk’s attention to the rogue leaning on the remains of the vessel, staring wistfully into the jungle.

‘Tell me,’ he muttered, ‘why is it that you always get to go with Kataria while I’m left behind?’ A puzzled expression flashed across his face. ‘And what am I supposed to do here, anyway? Not that I’m complaining, but I seem to have been left out of this plot of yours.’

‘The boat needs mending.’ Lenk gestured to the wreckage. ‘You and Asper can tend to it and see if the Abysmyth comes your way.’

‘Oh, good,’ Denaos said, sighing once again. ‘We get to sit here and do busywork while we wait for the demon to come and eat us.’


‘More like appetisers than busyworkers, I’d say.’

Lenk didn’t linger to hear whatever the tall man might have offered in retort. Pausing only for a moment to pluck his sword from the ruined vessel, he slung it over his shoulder and tore off in pursuit of the shict.

With a resigned grunt, Denaos pulled himself up to perch upon the hunk of wood, frowning at the gaping hole between his legs. Definitely some work to be done here, no doubt, and it was work he hardly felt like doing. There’d be wood to find, wood to shape and wood to attach to the ship’s wound.

‘So, you know how to take care of this, right?’ Asper asked, tilting her head at him.

‘It’s not too hard,’ he replied. ‘I did a bit of work under a carpenter back in Redgate.’ He scratched his chin. ‘His name was Rudder, more body hair than flesh. Nice fellow, but a bit handsy when he tossed back a few. So long as you can—’

A sudden movement caught his attention and he glanced over to see Asper busily at work, altering her garments. After a little bit of tearing, she tied a flap of her skirt to each of her legs, securing the fabric with leather strips to form a pair of makeshift leggings. His interest was piqued and he leaned forwards as she rolled up the sleeves of her tunic to her shoulders, exposing firm arms. The faintest hint of a grin appeared on his face as she grabbed the hem of her tunic and rolled it up, tying it off below her chest and baring a slender midsection.

Suddenly aware of his gaze, she looked up with a suspicious glance.

‘What?’

‘Nothing,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘But that’s quite a bit of skin to show if you’re just mending sails.’

‘You can knit,’ she said, scowling at him as she moved over to the boat and pulled herself inside. After rummaging around in a few crates, she produced a shiny, well-worn hatchet. Leaping from the vessel, she hiked it over her shoulder and glanced at him. ‘There’s wood to be cut. If you’re scared of demons and want to sit here and cry, though ...’

He bit his lower lip contemplatively as he watched her go. Truthfully, he had to admit it was a difficult decision: linger here, out in the open where he couldn’t be surprised by anything on two or more legs, or follow a hatchet-wielding, half-clad woman into the forest where he might very well accidentally strangle himself with a vine if insects - or demons - didn’t eat him alive first.

The decision seemed easy, he thought, until he caught one last glimpse of her before she vanished. It was funny, he thought, but he had never noticed the particular delicacy with which her hips swayed.

Thirteen

AN EARNEST HUNT

Forests, Lenk decided, were places where man was not meant to tread.

It seemed a logical enough theory; humanity built their cities out on the open, where they could see threats coming. In the canopy-choked gloom, everything seemed to be a threat.

What had begun as a tiny copse of trees had blossomed into a lush jungle, deep and green as the sea. And, like the sea, the forest, too, was alive. Hidden amidst eclipsing boughs and grasping leaves, sounds emerged in disjointed harmony. Birds sang shrilly, determined to drown out the thrum of insect wings with their agonising choruses. For all the noises, he couldn’t see a single living thing. Not so much as a flicker of movement in the shadows.

Sunlight filtered through the green, twisting net of the forest’s canopy, shadowing every tree that crowded Lenk in an attempt to keep him out of their domain. He glanced about warily; in the darkness, the verdant trunks, slim and black, resembled nothing so much as his quarry.

The Abysmyth comes from the sea, right? He asked and answered himself. Right. It’ll stay near water, then. He paused. But what if it needed to go into the forest for some reason? What if it had to eat . . . demons eat, right? He considered that for a moment. Right. They eat heads, probably. They seem like the kind of thing that would eat a person’s head.

If it had retreated into the forest, it could stand right in front of him and not be seen. Even worse, it could easily ambush anything that wandered by it; after all, how could anyone tell the difference between it and a tree in the gloom?

Simple, he thought, a tree won’t eat your head.

That thought brought him no comfort. Instead the same thought occurred to him each time he forced his eyes closed in a blink: he didn’t belong here. That thought, in turn, opened his eyes in a scowl at the pale figure shifting effortlessly through the foliage in front of him.

How does she make it look so easy?

‘You’re moving rather quickly,’ he said, if only to break the ambience.

‘I’m sorry,’ she replied acidly, ‘would you like to stop and paint a picture of the scenery?’

Lenk let that particular barb sink into his flesh, not bothering to pull it out or launch one of his own. He sucked in a sharp breath through his teeth; perhaps, he thought, he should wait before attempting to mend things with the shict. She didn’t seem to be in the mood for reconciliation at the moment.

No, no, he scolded himself, if you don’t do it now, she’ll just get angrier and do worse than bloody your nose. His eyes drifted down to the hunting knife strapped to her leg. A grimace creased his face.

‘What I mean,’ he replied, ‘is you usually take longer to find a trail.’

‘In most cases,’ she nodded, ‘but this particular quarry has a few exceptional qualities.’

‘Such as?’

‘For one, there’s still a great deal of noise in the forest. Prey, like birds and bugs, always go silent when a predator is about.’

‘You said a few qualities.’

‘Well, there is something more.’

‘What?’

‘It’s a ten-foot-tall fish that walks on two legs and reeks of death, you moron,’ she snapped. ‘If it’s anywhere on this island, it’ll be disgustingly hard to miss.’

He chose to leave that one in his flesh, as well. It would be easy, he knew, to sling something equally venomous at her. In fact, as he noted a particularly thick branch just next to her head, he realised it would be even easier to repay her for her earlier violence.

All you have to do is reach out, and . . .

He shook his head to dispel that thought. While he knew there to be very few problems smashing someone’s head into a tree couldn’t solve, this was not one of them. Tact, however little use an adventurer usually found for it, was called for in such a situation.

‘That’s all there is to it, then?’ he asked, hoping she didn’t note the civil strain in his voice.

‘In this particular case, yes.’ She ducked under a low-hanging branch. ‘Let me ask you something.’

His entire body tensed; questions from the shict, lately, had served chiefly as preludes to violence.

‘Have you thought at all about how you’re going to fight this thing if you find it?’

‘Would it distress you to hear that I don’t know?’

‘No more than usual.’

‘Well, I’ve been giving it some thought,’ Lenk replied. ‘The Abysmyth can’t be hurt by mortal weapons, and that’s about all we’ve got. But it can be hurt by fire. Dread can do something about that and, if we’ve got time, we can get torches.’

‘It’ll be hard to make a fire when it’s eating our heads.’

‘You think it eats heads?’

‘Sure.’ She shrugged. ‘It seems like the kind of thing that eats heads.’

He smiled.

‘Dreadaeleon has his headache, however.’ She grunted as she pressed her lithe body between a heavy stone and a tree trunk. ‘I’ve never seen him use magic in such a state, but I wager it won’t be pretty.’

‘You mean the spectacle of him straining himself beyond his limits?’ Lenk struggled to follow her through the squeeze but found his waist caught firmly in fingers of stone and wood.

‘I was thinking more about the greasy splatter that the Abysmyth will make of him.’ The shict took his hands in hers and, with a strained grunt, pulled him free. ‘This is all assuming quite a bit, though.’

‘Right.’ He paused to dust himself off. ‘We have to find the stupid thing first. Khetashe willing, we’ll spot it before it spots us.’

‘And then?’

‘Then we run away and hide until we can get fire.’

‘Not the bravest strategy.’

‘Bravery and effectiveness are rivers that run in different directions.’

He caught her staring at his shirt and followed her gaze. Even after he had brushed himself off, the forest proved less than willing to let him go: all manner of burrs, thorns and leaves clung to his garments. He glanced back up and she met his gaze, smugness leaking out of her every pore.

‘Perhaps you’d like to take a moment to rest,’ she said, leaning against a tree and folding her arms across her chest.

Reeking, pointy-eared know-it-all.

Despite having led the way through the underbrush, Kataria was completely free of scratches; nothing more than a slight smear of sand marred her flesh. He focused on it unconsciously, observing the sole discoloration to her pale skin, shrinking and growing with each unhurried breath she took.

Arrogant little . . .

A breeze muttered through the canopy, parting the branches to allow a shaft of light through the greenery. As though the Gods had a flair for the dramatic, the beam settled lazily on Kataria, turning her shoulders gold, setting her hair alight, making the sandy smudge glisten.

Thinks she’s so . . .

The sunlight clung to her, he realised, upon a skin of perspiration. Even as the dirt painted her body bronze, the sweat caught the sun and bathed her skin in shimmering silver. In the moments between the fluttering of the leaves, she looked like something that had sprung from the forge of the Gods, brightly polished metals, rough edges and brilliant, glimmering emeralds.

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