Dark Hunger


Page 3



‘Rashodd,’ Lenk muttered.

He had heard the name gasped in fear when the Linkmaster first arrived. He heard it again now as the captain of the black ship stood before his crew, the echo of his heavy boots audible even across the roaring sea.

Rashodd was a Cragsman, as his colossal arms ringed with twisting tattoos declared proudly. The rest of him was a sheer monolith of metal and leather. His chest, twice as broad as any in his crew, was hidden behind a hammered sheet of iron posing as a breastplate. His face was obscured as he peered through a thin slit in his dull grey helmet, tendrils of an equally grey beard twitching beneath it.

And he, too, waited, Lenk noted. No command to attack arose on a metal-smothered shout. No call for action in a falsely elegant voice drifted over the sea. Not one massive, leathery hand drifted to either of the tremendous, single-bit axes hanging from his waist.

They merely folded along with the Cragsman’s titanic arms, crossing over the breastplate and remaining there.

Waiting.

‘Their next bid will be coming shortly,’ Denaos warned. ‘And he’s going to be the one that delivers it.’ He gestured out to the crew. ‘They’re dead, sure, but they’re Argaol’s men. We have to think of our own.’

‘He’s just a human,’ Kataria said derisively, ‘a monkey.’ She glanced at the titanic pirate and frowned. ‘A big monkey, but we’ve killed big ones before. There’s no reason to run.’

‘Good,’ Denaos replied sharply, ‘stay here while all sane creatures embrace reason.’ He sneered. ‘Do try to scream loudly, though. Make it something they’ll savour long enough so that the rest of us can get away.’

‘The only one leaving will be you, round-ear,’ Kataria growled, ‘and we’ll see how long your delusions of wit can sustain you at sea.’

‘Only a shict would think of reason as delusional.’

‘Only a human would think of cowardice as rational!’

Words were flung between them like arrows and daggers, each one cutting deeply with neither of the two refusing to admit the blood. Lenk had no eyes for their snarls and rude gestures, no attention for their insults that turned to whispers on his ears.

His stare was seized, bound to the hulking figure of Rashodd. His ears were full, consumed by another voice whispering at the back of his head.

It’s possible, that voice said, that Denaos is wrong. There are almost as many men on our ship as on theirs. We could fight. We wouldn’t even have to win a complete victory, just bloody their noses. Teach them that we aren’t worth the trouble. It’s business, right?

‘What’s the big deal over a big monkey, anyway?’ Kataria snapped. ‘The moment he raises that visor, I’ll put an arrow in his gullet and we’ll be done here! No need to run.’ Her laughter was sharp and unpleasant. ‘Or do you find his big muscles intimidating, you poor little lamb?’

‘I can think of at least one muscle of his that you’ll find unpleasant when he comes over,’ Denaos replied, a hint of ire creeping into his voice. ‘And I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it was bearded and covered in iron, too. He’s seen what you’ve done to his men. He won’t be taking that visor off.’

It’s possible, Lenk answered his own thought, but not likely. Numbers are one thing, but steel is another. They have swords. We have sticks. Well, I mean, I’ve got a sword . . . fat lot of good it will do against that many, though. Running is just logical here. It’s not as if Denaos actually had a good idea here, anyway.

‘If you run, you don’t get paid,’ Kataria said. ‘Though, really, I’ve always wanted to see if human greed is stronger than human cowardice.’

‘We get paid slaves’ wages,’ Denaos said. ‘Silf, we get worse. We get adventurers’ wages. Stop trying to turn this into a matter of morality. It’s purely about the practicality of the situation and, really, when has a shict ever been a moral authority?’

When have any of them ever had a good idea? Lenk’s eyes narrowed irately. I’m always the one who has to think here. He’s a coward, but she’s insane. Asper’s a milksop, Dreadaeleon’s worthless. Gariath is as likely to kill me as help. Running is better here. They’ll get me killed if we stay.

‘Well, don’t get the impression that I’m trying to stop you,’ Kataria snarled. ‘The only reason I’d like you to stay is because I’m almost certain you’ll get a sword in your guts and then I won’t even have to deal with the terrible worry that you might somehow survive out at sea. The rest of us can handle things from here.’

‘And if I could handle it all by myself, I would,’ Denaos said. ‘Feeling the humanitarian that I am, though, I would consider it a decent thing to try to get as many humans off as I possibly could.’

‘Decent? You?’ Kataria made a sound as though she had just inhaled one of her own arrows through her nose.

‘I didn’t kill anyone today.’

‘Only because you were busy putting your hands down a dead man’s trousers. In what language is that decent?’

They’re going to die, Lenk’s thoughts grew their wings, flew about his head violently, but I can live. Flee now and live! The rest will . . .

‘And what would you know of language?’ Denaos snarled. ‘You only learned how to speak ours so you could mock the people you kill, savage!’

... waiting, waiting for what? To attack? Why? What else can you do? There’s so many of them, few of us. Save them and they kill each other . . .

‘And you mock your own people by pretending you give a single fart about them, rat.’

... to what end? What else can you do?

‘Barbarian!’

What else can you do?

‘Coward!’

WHAT ELSE?

The thoughts that formed a blizzard in Lenk’s mind suddenly froze over, turning to a pure sheet of ice over his brain. He suddenly felt a chill creep down his spine and into his arm, forcing his fingers shut on his sword’s hilt. From the ice, a single voice, frigid and uncompromising, spoke.

Kill.

‘What?’ he whispered aloud.

Kill.

‘I . . . don’t—’

‘Don’t what?’

He felt a hand on his shoulder, unbearably warm. He whirled about, hand tight on his sword. The shapes before him looked unfamiliar for a moment: shadows of blue lost in the sky. He blinked and something came into view, apparent in a flash of blazing green.

Kataria’s eyes, brimming with disquiet.

With every blink, the sunlight became brighter and more oppressive. He squinted at the two people before him, face twisted in a confused frown.

‘What?’

‘It’s up to you, we agreed,’ Kataria replied hesitantly. ‘You’re the leader.’

‘Though “why” is a good question,’ Denaos muttered.

‘Do we fight or run?’

Lenk looked over his shoulder. His eyelid twitched at the sight of the pirates, visibly tensing, sliding swords from their sheaths. Behind the rows of tattooed flesh, a shadow shifted uneasily. Had it always been there, Lenk wondered, standing so still that he hadn’t noticed it?

‘Fight?’ Kataria repeated. ‘Or run?’

Lenk nodded. He heard her distinctly now, saw the world free of haze and darkness. Everything became clear.

‘I have a plan,’ he said firmly.

‘I’m all ears,’ Denaos said, casting a snide smile to Kataria. ‘Sorry, was that offensive?’

‘Shut up,’ Lenk growled before she could. ‘Grab your weapons. Follow me.’

Don’t look, Dreadaeleon thought to himself, but a seagull just evacuated on your shoulder.

He felt his neck twist slightly.

I SAID, DON’T LOOK! He cringed at his own thoughts. No, if you look, you’ll panic. I mean, why wouldn’t you? It’s sitting there . . . all squishy and crawling with disease. And . . . well, this isn’t helping. Just . . . just brush it off nonchalantly . . . try to be nonchalant about touching bird faeces . . . just try . . .

It occurred to the boy as odd that the warm present on his shoulder wasn’t even the reason he resented the birds overhead at that moment.

Rather, he thought, as he stared up at the winged vermin, they didn’t make nearly enough noise. Neither did the ocean, nor the wind, nor the murmurings of the sailors gathered before him, muttering ignorant prayers to gods that didn’t exist with the blue-clad woman who swore that they did.


Though, at that moment, he doubted that even gods, false or true, could make enough noise to drown out the awkward silence that hung between him and her.

Wait, he responded to his own thoughts, you didn’t say that last part instead of thinking it, did you? Don’t tell her that the gods are just made up! Remember what happened last time. Look at her . . . slowly . . . nonchalantly . . . all right, good, she doesn’t appear to have heard you, so you probably didn’t say it. Wait, no, she’s scowling. Wait, do you still have the bird faeces on you? Get it off! Nonchalant! Nonchalant!

The problem persisted, however. Even after he brushed the white gunk from his leather coat, Asper’s hazel eyes remained fixed in a scowl upon him. He cleared his throat, looked down at the deck.

Mercifully, she directed her hostility at him only for as long as it took to tuck her brown hair back beneath her bandana, then looked back down at the singed arm she was carefully dressing with bandage and salve. The man who possessed said arm remained scowling at him, but Dreadaeleon scarcely noticed.

He probably wants you to apologise, the boy thought. He deserves it, I suppose. I mean, you did set him on fire. His fingers rubbed together, lingering warmth dancing on their tips. But what did he expect, getting in the way like that? He’s lucky he escaped with only a burned arm. Still, she’d probably like it if you apologised . . .

If she even noticed, he thought with a sigh. Behind the burned man were three others with deep cuts, bruised heads or visibly broken joints. Behind them were four more that had already been wrapped, salved, cleaned or stitched.

And they had taken their toll on her, he noticed as her hands went back into the large leather satchel at her side and pulled out another roll of bandages. They trembled, they were calloused, they were clearly used to working.

And, he thought with a sigh, they are just so strong. He drew in a resolute breath. All right, you’ve got to say something . . . not that, though! But something. Remember what Denaos says: women are dangerous beasts. But you’re a wizard, a member of the Venarium. You fear no beast. Just . . . use tact.

‘Asper,’ he all but whispered, his voice catching as she looked up at him again, ‘you’re . . .’ He inhaled sharply. ‘You’re being completely stupid.’

Well done.

‘Stupid,’ she said, levelling a glare that informed him of both her disagreement and her future plans to bludgeon him.

‘As it pertains to the context, yes,’ he said, attempting to remain bold under her withering eyes.

‘The context of . . .’ she gestured to her patient, ‘setting a man on fire?’

‘It’s . . . it’s a highly sensitive context,’ he protested, his voice closely resembling that of a kitten being chewed on by a lamb. ‘You aren’t taking into account the many variables that account for the incident. See, body temperature can fluctuate fairly quickly, requiring a vast amount of concentration for me to channel it into something combustible enough to do appreciable damage to something animate.’

At this, the burned man added his scowl to Asper’s. Dreadaeleon cleared his throat.

‘As evidenced visibly. With such circumstances as we’ve just experienced, the risk for a triviality increases.’

‘You set . . . a man . . . on fire . . .’ Asper said, her voice a long, slow knife digging into him. ‘How is that a triviality? ’

‘Well . . . well . . .’ The boy levelled a skinny finger at the man accusingly. ‘He got in my way!’

‘I was tryin’ to defend the captain!’ the man protested.

‘You could have gone around me!’ Dreadaeleon snapped back. ‘My eyes were glowing! My hands were on fire! What affliction of the mind made you think it was a good idea to run in front of me? I was clearly about to do something very impressive.’

‘Dread,’ Asper rebuked the boy sharply before tying the bandage off at the man’s arm and laying a hand gently on his shoulder. To the sailor: ‘The wound’s not serious. Avoid using it for a while. I’ll change the dressing tomorrow. ’ She sighed and looked over the men, both breathing and breathless, beyond her patient. ‘If you can, you should tend to your fellows.’

‘Blessings, Priestess,’ the man replied, rising to his feet and bowing to her.

She returned the gesture and rose as well, smoothing out the wrinkles creasing her blue robes. She excused herself from the remaining patients with a nod and turned away to lean on the railings.

And Dreadaeleon could not help but notice just how hard she leaned. The irate vigour that had lurked behind her eyes vanished entirely, leaving only a very tired woman. Her hands, now suddenly trembling, reached to the gleaming silver hanging from her throat. Fingers caressed the wings of a great bird, the phoenix.

Talanas, Dreadaeleon recalled, the Healer.

‘You look tired,’ he observed.

‘I can see how I might give off that impression,’ Asper replied, ‘what with having to undo the damage my companions do as well as the pirates’ own havoc.’

Somehow, the softness of her voice cut even deeper than its former sharpness. Dreadaeleon frowned and looked down at the deck.

‘It was an accident—’

‘I know.’ She looked up and offered him an exhausted smile. ‘I can appreciate what you were trying to do.’

You see, old man? That fire would have been colossal! Corpses burning on the deck! Smoke rising into the sky! Of course she’d have been impressed. The ladies love fire.

‘Well, it would have been difficult to pull off, of course,’ he offered, attempting to sound humble. ‘But the benefits would have outweighed the tragedy.’

‘Tragedy?’ She blinked. ‘I thought you were going to try to scare the rest of them off with a show of force.’ She peered curiously at him. ‘What were you thinking?’

‘The exact same thing,’ he hastily blurted. ‘I mean, they’re pirates, right? And Cragsmen, on top of that. They probably still believe wizards eat souls and fart thunder.’

She stared at him.

‘We, uh, we don’t.’

‘Hmm.’ She glanced over his shoulder with a grimace, towards the shadows of the companionway. ‘And what was the purpose of that?’

He followed her gaze and frowned. He wasn’t quite sure why she looked at the sight with disgust. To him, it was a masterpiece.

The icicle’s shape was perfect: thick enough to drive it into the wood of the ship, sharp enough to pierce the ribcage in which it currently rested comfortably. Even as the Cragsman clung to it, hands frozen to the red-stained ice in death, Dreadaeleon couldn’t help but smile. He had expected something far messier, but the force used to hurl it through the air had been just enough.

Of course, she probably won’t understand that. He rolled his eyes as he felt hers boring into his. Women.

‘Prevention,’ he replied coolly. ‘I saw him heading for the companionway, I thought he might try to harm Miron.’

She nodded approvingly. ‘I suppose it was necessary, then, if only to protect the Lord Emissary.’

Well done, old man, well done. The exuberance coursing through him threatened to make him explode. He fought it down to a self-confident smirk. Talking to girls is just like casting a spell. Just maintain concentration and don’t—

‘After all,’ he interrupted his train of thought with a laugh, ‘if he died, who would pay us?’

... do anything like that, idiot.

She swung her scowl upon him like a battleaxe, all the fury and life restored to her as she clenched her teeth. She ceased to resemble a priestess at that moment, or any kind of woman, and looked instead like some horrific beast ready to rip his innards out and paint the deck with them.

‘This is what it’s all about, then?’ she snarled. ‘Pay? Gold? Good Gods, Dread, you impaled a man.’

‘That hardly seems fair,’ he replied meekly. ‘Lenk and the others have killed far more than me. Kataria even made a game out of it.’

‘And she’s a shict!’ Asper clenched her pendant violently. ‘Bad enough that I should have to tolerate their blasphemies without you also taking pleasure in killing.’

‘I wasn’t—’

‘Oh, shut up. You were staring at that corpse like you wanted to mount it on a wall. Would you have taken the same pride if you had killed that man instead of just burning him?’

‘Well . . .’ His common sense had fled him, his words came on a torrent of shamelessness. ‘I mean, if the spell had gone off as it was supposed to, I suppose I could have appreciated the artistry of it.’ He looked up with sudden terror, holding his hands out in front of him. ‘But no, no! I wouldn’t have taken pride in it! I never take pride in making more work for you!’

‘It’s not work to do Talanas’s will, you snivelling heathen!’ Her face screwed up in ways that he had thought possible only on gargoyles. ‘You sound like . . . like one of them, Dread!’

‘Who?’

‘Us.’

Lenk met the boy’s whirling gaze without blinking, even as Dreadaeleon frowned.

‘Oh,’ he said, ‘you.’

‘You sound disappointed.’

‘Well, the comparison was rather unfavourable,’ the wizard said, shrugging. ‘Not that I’m not thrilled you’re still alive.’

He still sounded disappointed, but Lenk made no mention of it. His eyes went over the boy’s head of stringy black hair, past Asper’s concerned glare, through the mass of wounded sailors to the object of his desire.

The smaller escape vessel dangled seductively from its davits, displaying its oars so brazenly, its benches so invitingly. It called to him with firm, wooden logic, told him he would not survive without it. He believed it, he wanted to go to it.

There was the modest problem of the tall priestess before him, though, arms crossed over her chest to form a wall of moral indignation.

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