Dark Hunger


Page 28



‘What are you looking at?’

He stiffened up at that, going rigid as though he had just been rudely awakened. The reaction did not go unnoticed as Kataria tilted her head to the side, eyeing him as she might a beast, her body tense and ready to flee . . . or attack.

Not the ideal response.

Now’s your chance, he told himself, you’ve got to talk to her and you’re alone together. Start with a compliment! Tell her about that forge of the Gods thing, she’ll like that!

‘You look like—’

Wait, WAIT! He bit his tongue as her face screwed up in confusion. She’s a shict; she doesn’t believe in the Gods, just Riffid. Does Riffid use a forge?

‘I look like what?’

Damn it, damn it, damn it. He clenched his teeth. To the pit with this, just say something.

‘Hey.’

Genius. He sighed inside his head. Throw away your sword and take up a pen, you Gods-damned poet-general.

‘What?’ Kataria’s long ears quivered, as though she heard his thoughts.

If she can hear your thoughts, he scolded himself, you might as well just say whatever’s on your mind.

‘I want to talk.’

All right, not bad. Straightforwardness is key.

‘We don’t talk during a hunt,’ she replied, ‘ancient shictish tradition.’

‘What?’ He blinked at her, puzzled. ‘You talk to me all the time when you’re tracking.’

‘Huh.’ She shrugged. ‘I guess I just want you to shut up this time, then.’

Easy, he told himself, drawing in a sharp breath of air, she wants to fight you. Don’t fall for it.

‘I want to talk,’ he repeated, ‘now.’

‘Why?’

Because, he rehearsed in his mind, you’re the only person I can trust not to get me killed or murder me in my sleep. It likely sounds stranger to hear than to say, but you’re the only person I can sleep easily around and I’d very much like to keep things that way.

He cleared his throat and spoke.

‘Why not?’

Damn it.

‘You don’t want to do this now,’ she replied.

‘I do.’

‘Then I don’t want to do this now.’

‘Then how are we going to—’

‘We’re not, that’s the point.’

Her stare was different as she slid off the tree, something flashing behind her eyes as she regarded him. He had seen everything in those green depths: her morbid humour, her cold anger, even her undisguised hatred when she met the right person. Up until that moment, though, he had never seen pity.

Up until that moment, he had never had to turn away from her.

‘Listen,’ she said, ‘it’s not that I don’t trust you any more, but you’re just . . .’ She cringed, perhaps fearing what his reaction might be should she continue. ‘You’re skulking, secretive, snarling. That was charming, in moderation, don’t misunderstand me. But now . . .’ Her body shuddered with her sigh. ‘You’re not even Lenk any more.’

‘I’m not Lenk?’ He threw a sneer at her as though it were an axe. ‘Answer me this, then, how is it you get to decide who Lenk is?’

‘I don’t,’ she retorted sharply. ‘I knew who I thought Lenk was, though. Apparently, now Lenk is some deranged lunatic who talks to himself and refers to himself in the third person.’

‘Lenk is most certainly not—’

He caught himself, bit his lower lip as she caught his sneer, twisted it into a haughty smirk and smashed him over the head with it.

‘Point taken,’ he muttered. ‘Being perfectly fair, though, you’re not Lenk. You,’ he thrust a finger at her, ‘have no idea what’s going on in my head.’

‘Not for lack of trying, certainly,’ she spat back. ‘Is it so shocking that someone might be interested in your weak, insignificant life?’

‘Oh, of course, a reminder of my humanity.’ He rolled his eyes and threw up his arms in one grand gesture. ‘You held on to that for as long as you could, didn’t you?’

‘A reminder?’ Her laughter was long, loud and unpleasant. ‘How could you not be reminded of your race? You’re reminded every time you wake up and think: “Hooray! One more day of being a walking disease!”’

‘Only I would think of death so sweetly,’ he snarled, ‘because the cold hand of Gevrauch is infinitely preferable to sharing my existence with an arrogant, smarmy, pointy-eared shict,’ he hesitated, as if holding back some vile torrent, before her hiss forced him to loose it, ‘who farts in her sleep! There, I said it!’

‘I eat a lot of meat,’ she spat back in an unabated hail of fury, ‘and perhaps if you did, too, you wouldn’t be the runt that you are!’

‘This particular runt can easily choke the life out of you, savage.’

‘You haven’t been successful yet, round-ear!’

‘Then maybe I just need a little more time to—’

‘No.’

The voice began as a mutter, a quiet whisper in the back of his mind. It echoed, singing through his skull, reverberating through his head. His temples throbbed, as though the voice left angry dents each time it rebounded against his skull. Kataria shifted before him, going from sharp and angry to hazy and indistinct. The earth under his feet felt softer, yielding as though it feared to stand against him.

The voice, however, remained tangible in its clarity.

‘No more time,’ it uttered, ‘no more talk.’

‘More time to what, you fart-sniffer?’ Kataria was hopping from foot to foot, fingers twitching, though before Lenk’s eyes she resembled nothing so much as a shifting blob. ‘Not so brave now?’

‘I . . .’ he began to utter, but his throat tightened, choking him.

‘You what?’

‘Nothing to say,’ the voice murmured, ‘no more time.’

‘What,’ he whispered, ‘is it time for?’

‘What the hell does that mean?’ If she looked at him oddly, he did not see. Her eyes faded into the indistinct blob that she had become. ‘Lenk . . . are you—’

‘Time,’ the voice uttered, ‘to kill.’

‘I’m not—’

‘Kill,’ it repeated.

‘Not what?’

‘Kill.’

‘I can’t—’ he whimpered.

‘No choice.’

‘Shut up,’ he tried to snarl, but his voice was weak and small. ‘Shut up!’

‘Kill.’

‘Lenk . . .’ Kataria’s voice began to fade.

‘KILL!’

‘SHUT UP!’

When he had fallen, he could not remember, nor did he know precisely when he had closed his eyes and clamped his hands over his ears, lying twitching upon the earth like a crushed cockroach. When he opened his eyes once more, the world was restored: the ground was solid beneath him, his head no longer ached and he stared up into a pair of eyes, hard and sharp as emeralds.

‘It happened again, didn’t it?’ she asked, kneeling over him. ‘What happened on the Riptide . . . happened again.’

His neck felt stiff when he nodded.


‘Don’t you see, Lenk?’ Her whisper was delicate, soothing. ‘This isn’t going to stop. I can’t help you if you don’t tell me what’s happening to you.’

‘I can’t.’ His whisper was more fragile, a vocal glass pane cracking at the edges. ‘I . . . don’t even know myself.’

‘You can’t even try?’ She reached out and placed a hand on his shoulder; he saw her wince at the contact. ‘For your sake, Lenk? For mine?’

‘I ... don’t ...’

His voice trailed off into nothingness, punctuated by the harsh narrowing of her eyes. She rose, not swiftly as she usually did, but with all the creaking exhaustion of an elder, far too tired of life. She stared down at him with pity flashing in her eyes once more; he had nowhere to turn to.

‘Then don’t,’ she replied sternly. ‘Lie here ... and don’t.’

He felt he should urge himself to get up as he heard her boots crunch upon the earth. He felt he should scream at himself to follow her as he heard her slip through the foliage with barely a rustle. He felt he should rise, run screaming after her, tell her everything he needed to until his tongue dried up and fell out of his head.

For all that, he lay on the earth and did not move. For all the commands he knew he should give himself, he could hear but one voice.

‘Weak.’

His head seared for a moment, then grew cold with a dull ache that gripped his brain in icy fingers. His mind grew colder with every echo, the chill creeping into the back of his eyes, down his throat, into his nose until the sun ceased to have warmth. Breathing became a chore, movement an impossibility, death . . . an appealing consideration.

He closed his eyes, allowing the world to fade away into echoes as the sound, too, faded into nothingness. There was nothing to the world any more, no life, no pain, no sound.

No sound.

He opened his eyes as the realisation came upon him: there was no birdsong, no buzzing of insects.

The prey had stopped making noise.

Cold was banished in a sudden sear of panic. He scrambled to his feet, reaching for his sword, sweeping his gaze about the jungle. Any one of the trees could be the demon, watching him with stark white eyes, talons twitching and ready to smother his head in ooze before eating it.

The only things he saw, however, were shadows and leaves. The only thing he heard was the pounding of his own heart.

‘Help.’

The silence was shattered by a faint, quivering voice. It was little more than a whisper, barely audible over the hush of the wind, but it filled Lenk’s ears and refused to leave.

‘Help me.’

He could hear it more clearly now, recognising it. He had heard more than enough dying men to know what one sounded like. For all the clarity of the voice, he could spy no man to go with it, however. Slowly, he eased his gaze across the trees once more and found nothing in the thick gloom.

‘Please,’ the man whimpered, ‘don’t kill me. Don’t kill me.’

There was silence for but a moment.

‘DON’T KILL ME!’

His eyes followed his ears, sweeping up into the canopy, narrowing upon the white smear in the darkness, improbably pristine. From above, a pair of bleary grey eyes atop a bulbous, beak-like nose stared back, unblinking and brimming with fat, salty tears.

I should run, he thought, the Abysmyth is likely right behind this thing.

‘No.’ The voice’s reply was slow and grating. ‘It dies.’

‘It dies,’ Lenk echoed.

The Omen’s teeth chattered quietly, yellow spikes rattling off each other. Lenk’s ear twitched at the sound of wet meat being slivered. Narrowing his eyes, he spied the single, severed finger ensconced between the creature’s teeth, shredded further into glistening meat with every chatter of its jaws.

‘There are others here.’ Lenk’s voice sounded distant and faint in his own ears, as though he spoke through fog to someone shrouded and invisible. ‘Should we help them?’

‘Irrelevant,’ the voice replied. ‘Men can die. Demons must die.’

‘Right.’

The Omen shuffled across the branch, tilting its wrinkled head in an attempt to comprehend. Lenk remained tense, not deceived by the facade of animal innocence. As if sensing this, it tightened its broad mouth into a needle-toothed smile, the severed digit vanishing down its throat with a crunching sound.

It ruffled its feathers once, stretched its head up like a cock preparing to crow and opened its mouth.

‘Gods help me!’ A man’s voice, whetted with terror, echoed through its gaping mouth. ‘Someone! Anyone! HELP ME!’

The mimicked plea reverberated through his flesh. His arm tensed, sliding his sword out of its sheath. Like a dog eager to play, the Omen ruffled its feathers, turned about and hopped into the dense foliage of the canopy.

‘It wants help,’ Lenk muttered, watching the white blob vanish into the green.

‘Then we shall help it.’

His legs were numb under his body, moving effortlessly against the earth, sword suddenly so very light in a hand he could no longer feel. He thought he ought to be worried about that, as he suspected he should be worried about following a demonic parasite into the depths of the foliage. He had no ears for those concerns, however.

The ringing cry of the dying man hung from every branch he crept under.

Kataria’s ears twitched. The world was quiet on Ktamgi.

Insects buzzed in the distance; she heard their wings slap their chitinous bodies. Birds muttered warbling curses; she heard their tongues undulate in their beaks. The sound of water raking sand and clouds drifting lazily in blue skies was far away.

She smiled. How much clearer, she thought, everything was without humans.

She had become used to their sounds, their noises, their whining and their cursing. She had become infected by the human disease, only realising it the moment a breath of air, free of the stench of sweat and blood, filled her lungs. Her ears were upright against her head, a faint sound filled her mind. Her eyes were wide, her smile was broad.

It was time to hunt in earnest.

She had barely taken ten paces before she saw the tracks. It might have been a coincidence that the trail only revealed itself after she had left Lenk behind, but she chose to take it as a blessing. Crouching low, her eyes widened as she realised that she both recognised the indentations in the moist earth and that she had spoken too soon.

Humans.

The notion that humans, humans that were not hers, were on Ktamgi did nothing to improve her mood. However, it did not come as a complete surprise to her, either. Argaol, after all, had said that a few of the Linkmaster’s crew had escaped. The island had also been an outpost for pirates.

Why wouldn’t they come here?

The tracks asked her questions, her feet answered. The tracks told a story, her eyes listened. This was the true purpose of the shictish hunt: to learn, to listen, to ask and to answer. Intent on the earth, her eyes glided over the tracks, eager for a new story.

It had begun dramatically, she recognised by the chaos of the prints, though with no great care to establish the characters. The tracks were sloppy and slurred, their dialogue messy and hurried. She rolled her eyes; it was as though these particular humans had no appreciation for the fact that someone might want to hunt them like animals.

Insulting.

Regardless, she followed them further down the trail. They were men, evidenced by the particular depth of the prints, and not graceful men at that. They had been hurried, they had run, but for what purpose?

Perhaps they were chasing down prey? she thought, but quickly dismissed that idea. There was no evidence of another character in this story, no tracks of anything that might be construed as edible. But if not hunger, then what?

There was little else to motivate such speed. Gold, jewels, meat or violence were the typical spurs of flight, but all seemed to be in short supply on Ktamgi. She paused, scratching her flank contemplatively.

There’s always fear, she suggested to herself.

She sighed at that; such a predictable twist. Regardless, it forced the story on and compelled her to follow the trail.

The plot only grew more blatantly unimaginative from there, the signs almost disturbingly clear. Here, a boot had become tangled in a root, abandoned by its wearer, who took two more steps before the trail suddenly ended.

That caused her to pause. She glanced up and down the trail but found no more details of this particular character. He had fled only a little further and then, suddenly, disappeared, his feet gone from the earth as though he had sprouted wings. Against her better judgment, she glanced upwards; the canopy remained thick and whole.

Curious, she went further. The cast had been whittled to two, their paths crossing each other recklessly. A pungent aroma filled her nostrils, drawing her eye towards a small depression against the base of a rock.

She grimaced; a vile brew of yellow and brown pooled where one of the characters had fallen onto his buttocks and not taken a step further. A rather crude ending, she thought, but acceptable.

One set of tracks remained, stretching long and straight through the earth. This one had been spirited, she thought, running for another twenty-three paces before he collapsed beside a tree. Right next to the disturbed dirt where he had fallen, a glisten of ruby, stark against the tree’s brown, caught her eye. Her face twisted as she examined the old plant: its bark had been stripped bare in eight deep furrows. Red flecks glittered like tiny jewels, fragments of dirty fingernails like unrefined ore embedded in the wood.

Spirited, indeed.

Kataria rose, knuckled the small of her back and glanced around. This was hardly the ending she had expected. Three humans run into the forest, leave sloppy trails and then vanish? Where was the tension? Where was the drama?

Her eyes widened with a sudden realisation.

Where was the villain?

She stared down the trail, searching every depression, every track, every broken branch. She found nothing. Whatever had run these men down had left no sign of itself, its prints lost amidst the chaos of the chase, if there had been any prints at all. Her brow furrowed concernedly; there was no sign of the characters either. All that remained of the Linkmaster’s crew equated to a few specks of blood and fingernail, an old boot and a puddle of piss and excrement.

Not a proper ending.

The wind shifted, leaves rustled and she felt a sudden warmth on her back. Whirling about, she couldn’t help a twinge of pity at the sight of the sun shining through an opening in the foliage. The last man hadn’t been ten paces away from reaching open ground.

Then again, she realised, whatever finally got them likely wouldn’t be put off by sunshine and white sand.

It occurred to her that she ought to return to Lenk and have him listen to the story, as well. He was likely still in the same spot she had left him in, she thought with no small amount of resentment. In fact, if he hadn’t moved, whatever unnamed character had ended the three men would likely stumble upon him sooner or later.

Then again . . . Her ears twitched thoughtfully. Is there any need to, really? If these deaths were recent, you would have heard them, wouldn’t you? A man who pisses himself doesn’t go silently. Whatever killed them is likely far and away, right?

Right.

She took a step forwards.

And what if it does come across him? He’s a big human . . . fully grown, or so he says. He can take care of himself. And if he doesn’t, what’s it matter? He’s just one more human, soon to be one less human. For the better, right?

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