Dark Hunger


Page 29



Right. Let’s go, then.

Her foot hesitated, having not apparently heard the mental debate. She looked down at the ground and sighed.

Damn it.

Of course she had to go back for him. He had been helpless, curled up on the ground like a mewling infant. An infant with a giant sword, she thought, but regardless. Her pride could not be his end; pride was a human flaw. While he might be human, he was one of her humans.

She rolled her shoulders, adjusting her bow, and began to trudge back across the trail. She had taken only half a step before an epilogue revealed itself.

A sudden aroma, growing stronger with the change in the wind, filled her nose. She glanced over her shoulder, peering towards the beach, and saw the smoke. Like ghosts, wisps of grey casually rolled across the breeze, drifting further down the shore.

In another twitch of her nostrils, the smoke became heavy with stench, thick with the aroma of overcooked meat. Choked screams carried on its long, grey tendrils. Her ears quivered, nostrils flared as she reached for her bow.

She forgot Lenk, helpless and mewling, and turned towards the beach. He would wait, she knew, and be there when she returned.

For the moment, Kataria had to see how the story ended.

Fourteen

THE PREACHER

‘Where is it going?’

‘The slave returns to its master, the parasite to its host.’

‘Are you sure?’

‘You cannot sense it?’

‘I can hear.’

‘Then follow.’

There was no choice in the matter. Lenk’s feet moved regardless of his approval, legs swinging up and down methodically, heedless of roots and undergrowth. He was aware of the numbness, but did nothing to fight it. He was aware of the fact that he was talking to a voice in his head, but did not cease to speak.

It had spoken with much less ferocity, much less coldness in its words. It no longer felt like a verbal vice, crushing his skull in icy fingers. Now, it felt like instinct, like common sense.

Now, it felt right.

‘Help me,’ another voice called, ‘please, Zamanthras, help me!’

That particular shrieking still grated on him.

He glanced up; the Omen seemed in no great hurry, pulling its plump body from branch to branch on spindly legs. It occasionally stopped to glance down at him, as if making certain he still followed. When he stumbled over a root, it paused and waited for him to catch up.

‘It wants us to follow it,’ Lenk muttered. ‘It’s leading us to a trap.’

‘It leads us to an inevitability,’ the voice replied. ‘Its master knows of us now, it wants us to find it.’

‘So it can kill us.’

‘So it can find out if it can kill us.’

‘Can it?’

No answer.

The Omen took another hop forwards and vanished into the jungle’s gloom, the sound of feathers in its wake. Lenk followed, pressing through a thicket of branches. The leaves clung to him, as though struggling to hold him back. He paid them no mind, brushing them away and emerging from the greenery.

The sun felt strange upon his skin, hostile and unwelcoming. He could spare only a moment’s thought for it before glancing down at the wide mouth and bulbous eyes that stared up at him.

‘Sea Mother,’ it echoed from its gaping mouth, ‘benevolent matron and blessed watcher, forgive me my sins and wash me clean.’

A Zamanthran prayer, he recognised, desperate and brimming with fear. The idea of saving whoever the Omen mimicked was nothing more than an afterthought now and Lenk was no longer moved by it. The parasite sensed this, chattering its teeth at him and ruffling its feathers.

‘No more,’ he said, ‘show me.’

The Omen bobbed its miniature head, twisted it about so that it stared at Lenk upside down, then hopped a few steps and took flight. Lenk followed its low, lazy hover across the beach. The forest had not completely abandoned the sand, it seemed, and trees, however sparse, still stretched out their green grasp.

Lush, he thought, but not lush enough to detract from the bodies.

They were Cragsmen, or had been before the Omens had begun their feast. Now the plump demons cloaked them like feathery funeral shrouds, prodding with their long noses, tearing digits off and shredding tattooed flesh in yellow, needle-like teeth. In ravenous flocks, they devoured, slurping skin into their inner-lips and crunching bones in their wide jaws, leaving nothing behind.

Nothing but the faces.

The two men looked to be in repose. Their eyes were closed, mouths shut with only the faintest of smiles tugging at their lips. Perfectly untouched, their faces were pristine and almost pleasant against the mutilated murals of red and pink their bodies had become.

In fact, were it not for the faint glisten of mucus draped upon their visages, they looked as though they were simply napping in the afternoon sun, ready to awaken at any moment, shrieking at what had ravaged their bodies. Lenk could see the shimmer of the ooze, see where it had plugged up their noses, their ears, sealed their lips. These men would never wake again.

The Omens glanced up as he took a step forwards, regarded him for a moment through their unblinking eyes, then rose as one from the corpses. On silent wings, they glided down to the beach to the sole remaining tree, settling within its boughs to stare at him, a dozen eyes bulging through the leaves like great white fruits.

It was only when Lenk drew closer that he noticed the trunk of the tree. It was not slender and smooth, as the others were, but rough and misshapen on one side, as though it suffered some festering tumour.

As he approached it, he felt the noise die in one thunderous hush. There were no more birds singing, no leaves rustling, and even the sound of waves roiling went quiet. Lenk stared at the tree trunk for what felt like an eternity. It was only when it shifted that he realised.

The tree was staring back at him.

The Abysmyth made no movement, at first, nor gave any indication that it even knew he was there aside from the two great, white, vacant eyes glistening in the shadows. Its head lolled slightly, exposing rows of teeth, as something rumbled up through its chest and out through its gaping jaws.

‘Good afternoon,’ it said.

‘Good afternoon,’ the Omens mimicked in distant chorus, ‘good afternoon, good afternoon, good afternoon.’

‘Good afternoon,’ Lenk replied without knowing why.

Perhaps it was simply wise to show proper manners to something capable of ripping one’s head off, he thought. The creature did not appear to register the politeness, however, and continued to roll its head upon its emaciated shoulders.

‘Mother Deep gave us, Her children, many gifts,’ it said, far more gently than its wicked mouth should allow, ‘and we, Her children, received no greater gift than that of memory.’

There was something unnerving within the Abysmyth’s voice, Lenk thought, something that reverberated through its emaciated body and glistened in its eyes as it turned its gaze out to sea. Perhaps the shadows obscured any murderous intent, but the young man could see no malice within the creature. It sat, leaned against the tree and stared out over the waves, at peace.

Like the damn thing’s on a holiday, he thought.

‘These are the voices I remember,’ the Abysmyth continued. ‘I remember the wind going silent, the sand losing its hiss and the water closing its million mouths, all respectful, all so that we, her children, may hear the sound of Mother Deep.’

Its head jerked towards him and Lenk’s sword went up, levelled at the beast. The creature merely stared at him, giving no indication it had even seen the blade, as it tilted its head, fixing great empty eyes upon the young man.

‘Listen,’ it said, ‘and you, too, shall hear Her.’

‘Listen.’ The winged parasites bobbed their heads all at once, their voices ebbing like the tide. ‘Listen, listen, listen.’

Lenk’s ears trembled; he heard nothing but the beating of his own heart and the rush of blood through his veins. Even that, however, fell silent before another voice.

‘Do not deign to indulge the abomination,’ it uttered within his mind. ‘To so much as hear the faintest note of Her song is to invite damnation.’

That, he thought, would have been a much more imposing reply than what he did say.

‘I,’ he paused, ‘don’t hear anything.’

The Abysmyth’s lolling head rose to regard Lenk curiously. The young man cringed; the thing unnerved him further with every moment. If it had attacked him then and there, he could have mustered the will to fight it. If it had threatened him, he could have threatened back.

Against this display of nonchalance, this utter, depraved serenity, however, Lenk had no defence.


It quietly creaked, resting its head back against the trunk of the tree, and cast an almost meditative stare across the ocean. Then, with the sound of skin stretching over bone, it snapped its great eyes upon him once more.

‘Good afternoon,’ it gurgled.

‘You . . . already said that.’

It certainly did not seem wise to offer a colossal man-fish-thing cheekiness of any sort, but the Abysmyth hardly seemed to notice that Lenk had even spoken.

‘Time has no meaning to it,’ the voice replied, ‘for it has no use for time. It exists without reason, without purpose, and time is the reason for all that mortals do.’

‘I know you,’ it finally said. ‘It was upon the blight you call ship that I discovered you. I kept you pure, I kept you chaste.’

‘It babbles,’ the voice within muttered, ‘it is depraved, driven mad by its wounds.’

‘What wounds?’ Lenk asked.

‘You cannot see them?’

He squinted, peering into the shadows. Immediately his eyes widened at the gleam of emerald amongst the gloom. Great gashes rent the creature’s chest, wounds rimed with a sickly green ichor. Each movement of the demon, each laboured breath and swivel of head, made the sound of leather shredding as the green substance pulsed like a living thing, quietly gnawing on the demon’s flesh.

‘What happened to you?’ It occurred to him that he should be gloating over the creature’s wounds, not curious.

‘There was a battle,’ the creature replied, ‘longfaces . . . many of them, but weak. They could not hear Mother Deep. We could. We knew. We fought. We won.’

‘We won,’ the Omens echoed above, bobbing their heads in unison, ‘we won, we won, we won.’

‘We . . .’ Lenk regarded the demon warily. ‘By that, do you mean you and . . .’ he made a gesture to the winged parasites in the trees, ‘those things? Or,’ he could barely force the question from his lips, ‘are there more of you?’

‘More, yes,’ the creature replied. ‘Our suffering is profound, but a duty we take gladly. Mother Deep requires us to suffer for your sakes and silence the voices.’

Suddenly, its eyes went wide. It rose in a flash of shadows, its shriek causing the Omens to go rustling through the leaves, chattering in alarm. Lenk sprang backwards, his sword up and ready to carve a new set of decorations in the creature’s hide. The Abysmyth, however, made no move towards him, not so much as looking at the young man.

It swayed, precarious, before crashing back against the base of the tree, staring up at the sky with eyes full of revelation. Lenk had seen such expressions before, he noted grimly, in Asper’s own stare.

‘That is it!’ It gurgled excitedly. ‘It is all so clear. The wind may die, the sea may fall silent, but mortals . . . mortals are never quiet. That is why you cannot hear Her, that is why She cannot reach you.’

It turned its eyes towards Lenk and the revelation was gone. Its stare was dead again, empty and hollow as its voice.

‘Do not fret, wayward child,’ it uttered, ‘I am Her will, Her vigilance.’ Slowly, its webbed claw slid down to its side; there was a muted moan. ‘I can silence the voices.’

‘Silence them,’ the Omens whispered, ‘silence them, silence them, silence them.’

When the Abysmyth’s hand rose again, Lenk saw the Cragsman.

He had looked mighty back upon the Riptide, ferocity brimming in every inch of his tattooed flesh. Now, dangling upside down in the Abysmyth’s talons, he was nothing more than a chunk of bait, wriggling, albeit barely, upon a great hook. The claw marks that rent his flesh glistened ruby red in the shadows, the whites of his eyes stark as the yellow of his teeth as he quivered a plea.

‘Help me,’ the pirate squealed, ‘please!’ His gaze darted alternately between the demon and the young man. ‘I didn’t do anything! I don’t deserve this!’

‘Ah, you can hear that.’ The Abysmyth’s voice drowned the man’s screams under a multi-toned tide. ‘What purpose does it serve to make so much noise? Who can hear with such a tone-deaf chorus? It is a distraction.’

The thing’s other hand rose up like a great, black branch.

‘The cure is nigh.’

‘Cure it!’ the Omens shrieked excitedly. ‘Cure! Cure! Cure!’

It happened with such quick action that Lenk had no time to turn away. In the span of an unblinking eye’s quiver, the demon took the Cragsman’s arm in its own great hand and, with barely more than a wet popping noise, wrenched it off.

‘HELP ME!’ the man wailed. ‘ZAMANTHRAS! DAEON! GODS HELP ME!’ Tears ran in rivulets down his forehead, mingling with fat, red globs that plopped upon the sand. ‘PLEASE!’

‘And for what purpose, my son?’ The Abysmyth shook its great head. ‘Why do you make so much noise, calling to Gods who know not your name nor your suffering? Where is your mercy from heaven? Where is the end to suffering?’

It flicked its taloned hands, sending the appendage flying to land amidst the sands. The Omens let out a collective chatter of approval, bobbing their heads, their bulbous eyes never looking away from Lenk.

‘Where is it?’ they asked. ‘Where is the end? Where are the Gods? Where is the mercy?’

‘Sea Mother,’ the man began babbling a prayer, ‘benevolent matron, bountiful provider, blessed watcher. Wash my sins away on the sand, deliver me to my—’

‘NO!’

The Abysmyth’s howl echoed across the sea, across the sky. The Omens recoiled, fluttering off their branches to hover ponderously for a moment before settling back down. The demon’s black hand trembled as it pointed a claw at the pirate.

‘No blasphemies,’ it uttered, ‘no distractions.’ It shook its great head. ‘There is but one Mother here, one who may provide you with the mercy you seek.’ Its hand lurched forwards, seizing the pirate’s other arm. ‘Can you not see the truth I seek to give you? Can you not see what woe you wreak upon the world?’

‘Can you not?’ the Omens muttered. ‘Can you not see?’

‘The way becomes clear,’ the demon nodded, ‘with suffering to guide your path.’

Lenk grimaced at the sound of ripping, turned away at the sound of meat sliding along the sand, closed his ears to the sound of the man’s shrieking. It was too much.

‘Don’t bother,’ the voice replied, effortlessly heard over the pirate’s agony, ‘he made his path, chose his destiny. He deserves not our aid.’

‘He doesn’t deserve this,’ Lenk all but whimpered.

‘His sins will be washed clean in the demon’s blood. Now, patience.’

‘Can you hear it now?’ The Abysmyth pulled the man up, bringing him to eye level. ‘Can you hear Her wondrous song? How it calls to you . . . how I envy you to hear it for the first time. Let Her hear your joy in the whisper of your tears.’

‘Let Her.’ The Omens giggled. ‘She hears all, She delights in your discovery and Her song shall guide you.’

‘Do you hear it?’ The Abysmyth shook the man slightly. ‘Do you?’

There was nothing left to drain from him, however, no more agony upon his face, no more pain to leak from his stumps. He merely dangled there, mouth agape, eyes barely open. Only the glimmer behind them told Lenk that he was still alive, only the shine of what once had been hope, snuffed out. The Cragsman’s lips quivered, mouthing soundless words to him.

Kill me, he pleaded silently, please.

‘So,’ Gariath muttered, ‘what was it?’

Dreadaeleon glanced up at the dragonman, licking his lips as he finished slurping a liquid from a tin cup.

‘What was what?’

‘What called you?’

‘Ah.’ The boy’s eyes lit up. ‘It was actually quite interesting. I’m surprised you’re curious.’

‘I’m not.’

‘Then why did you ask?’

‘Because,’ the dragonman replied, ‘if it calls to you again, I plan to kill you before you can do something stupid. To that end, I’d like to know what to listen for so I can act before you do.’

‘Pragmatic.’ The boy inclined his head. ‘The truth is, I’m not entirely sure. It was something of a song without words, music without notes.’ He paused, straining to think. ‘Flatulence without smell? No, no, it was purely auditory.’ His nostrils quivered. ‘It occurs to me, though, I’d think you could smell whatever it was long before I heard it.’

‘Your thinking tends to be brief and often fleeting,’ Gariath grunted. ‘I can’t smell anything with you drinking that bile.’ He pointed to the tin cup clenched in the boy’s hands as Dreadaeleon squeezed his waterskin over it. ‘What is it, anyway? It smells like bat dung.’

‘It is.’ Dreadaeleon took a brief sip. ‘Some of it, anyway, mixed with the diluted sap of several trees, primarily willow, a few pinches of a powder you’re better off not knowing the name of and a drop of liquor, usually a form of brandy or whiskey, for kick.’

‘Why drink it?’

‘It eases my headaches.’

‘Uh-huh.’ Gariath scowled at the boy. ‘And the bat dung?’

Dreadaeleon smacked his lips thoughtfully. ‘Flavour.’

Gariath’s eyes glowered, muscles quivering with restrained fury. For a moment, a thought occurred to him, as it often had throughout his company with the humans, that this might be the sign he was waiting for. This might be the one act that indicated that these meagre, scrawny creatures had finally done something so deranged that they needed to be put down like the crazed animals they were.

‘What?’ Dreadaeleon asked, unaware of how close he was to having his head smashed in.

Not today, Gariath thought, easing his arm rigidly against his side. If you get his blood on you, you won’t be able to follow the scent. Later, maybe, but not now. Bearing that thought as a burden, he snorted and turned about, continuing to stalk down the beach.

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