Dark Hunger


Page 32



‘You fear for my well-being, perhaps,’ it gurgled, ‘and that is good. But your fear is in vain. No wolf’s teeth can harm the Shepherd. Purple longfaces, they tried. They came out of nowhere with their iron,’ it scratched at a green wound, ‘their venom. But they could not stop us.’

Longfaces, venom, the words flashed through her mind. The tracks became clear, the other characters revealed. Absently, the shict wished that the creatures that had tormented this demon had decided to linger.

‘There is nothing to fear.’ The Abysmyth spoke with a poor facade of reassurance. ‘There are simply questions, questions that you must answer for yourself.’

Its head jerked away at the sound of ice cracking and Kataria seized her chance. Her feet were quiet as she slid out from behind the frogman, her pale flesh indiscernible from the gloom - she hoped - as she slipped behind another.

‘Who will remember you when you die, mortal?’ It continued to stalk towards her prior position. ‘Will your Gods take you to their elusive heaven,’ it levelled its gaze upon a frogman, ‘when nothing is left to bury?’

Its roar split the smoke as it charged, smashing frogmen underfoot, sending chunks of ice and sinew flying. With one great sweep of its hand, it crushed the frogman that had hidden Kataria. The creature’s eyes seemed to go wider, were that even possible, at the sight of empty blue earth, and it collapsed to its knees.

‘Why,’ its voices were long, loud and keening, ‘are You making this so hard on me?’

Whether or not the demon was actually capable of sobbing was a matter Kataria would settle later, for at that moment, she saw her opportunity.

As it hunched over, the gaping wound in the Abysmyth’s back split a little further open, the green ichor lining it pulsing slightly. Within the wound, through blackened ribs, she saw it: barely visible in the darkness, but round and swollen like an overripe melon.

The heart.

She drew back her bowstring, took aim. She could feel her pupils dilating as the creature’s heart pounded, growing larger in her vision with each pump of tainted blood until it was as large as a black boulder. The fletching of her arrow tickled at her lips, which twisted into a grin.

‘One,’ the whisper of her voice and her bowstring were united.

The missile shrieked, cutting through the smoke and finding its target with a moist, squishing sound. Kataria bit her tongue to keep from giggling madly at her victory.

Her heart went from pounding to still in the time it took the creature to rise, turn and level two empty eyes upon her. She could see the arrowhead jutting from its ribcage, just as she could see it take an unfettered lurch forwards.

‘Blessed is Mother Deep,’ it gurgled, ‘the path is revealed.’

Why she didn’t move when it came charging towards her, she knew not. Why she remained standing, slack-jawed, as it reached a hand out for her, she didn’t know. Perhaps, she thought through the fog of awe, she was simply terrified. More likely, she was struck into immobility by the vision of the creature’s heart, pounding bloodlessly with an arrow stuck through it.

She took two awkward steps backwards before its arm swept out soundlessly, hand closing about her throat and hoisting her high into the air. It did not tremble as her senses returned to her and she hammered at its hand with leather-bound fists, kicking at its ribcage as it drew her closer.

It merely regarded her, tightened its grip and gurgled, ‘Sleep.’

Commanded, the ooze began to slide from the creature’s palm. Kataria felt it choke her immediately, tightening about her throat as it crept like slugs up her jawline. Instinct demanded that she scream, but survival demanded that she clench her teeth tightly together, denying the ooze a door into her.

The image of Mossud was wrought in her eyes as she stared down at the glistening mucus. In its cloudy reflection, she could see herself in his stead: mouth agape, eyes unblinking with a skin of the viscous slime over her face, still and breathless on the earth like a fish torn from water.

If the Abysmyth saw her fear, it showed nothing in its empty eyes.

‘I can hear your thoughts,’ it uttered. ‘You think the Shepherd mad for slaughtering the flock and calling it mercy.’ It tightened its grip; Kataria felt something creak inside her throat. ‘Your ears are deafened by so much inane screeching that you call the voice of your God.’

The ooze crept up her jawline, thick, viscous tendrils tugging at the corners of her mouth.

‘The truth is not always happy,’ it continued, ‘but always necessary, and this truth is insistent upon you.’ Its fingers twitched, the ooze crawled further upwards. ‘This is mercy, for you will be spared the tragedies that are to come.’

Her nostrils quivered, pumping air desperately as the ooze covered her pursed lips and sought the next nearest orifice. She hammered at the Abysmyth’s arm, her fists bouncing off its skeletal limb.

‘This world will drown,’ it spoke, heedless of her strife, ‘but only your weak Gods believe in tragedy without purpose. Mother Deep’s wisdom is as vast and sprawling as the sea. She shall see this blighted earth reborn into the endless blue it was intended to be. The Shepherd’s sole lament is that this sheep will not see such a paradise.’

Instinct and the desperation to wrench free from the beast’s grip slowly quieted within her as the ooze slid up her face. Her body seemed to betray her, mouth beginning to loosen, heart slowing, lungs shrinking and wracking her with pain. And as her organs began to surrender, so, too, could she feel her mind fester with a similar disease.

It won’t be so bad, she thought, quick, not much pain, and then it’s over. There are worse ways to die . . . aren’t there? With none coming to mind, she felt her heart beginning to sink, turning to lead in her chest. Whatever happens to me won’t be half as bad as . . .

Kataria’s eyes burst wide open as the ooze crept into the corners of her vision.

Lenk.

She could not surrender, she knew, could not leave Lenk buried in his grave, waiting for the Abysmyth to visit far worse torments upon him. She could not go peacefully into death knowing that he still lay helpless nearby.

With renewed fervour, she hammered at the creature, but even that fury died a swift, ugly death as soon as she had summoned it. Her lungs drew in less and less breath as the slime crept up into her nose, the screams caught inside her threatened to cause her throat to explode. What could she do against the demon? It could not be harmed by mortal weaponry; she had put an arrow through its heart and it hadn’t so much as flinched. No, she realised, there was nothing left to be done.

Nothing left, except to apologise.

Lenk, she thought, craning her neck to survey his hole, I’m—

Her gaze lingered upon the empty grave for a moment before a new thought struck her.

Where?

The question was answered in an instant as he came, silent as a shadow, silver as the sword he held high, cutting through the smoke. Fast, far too fast for the demon to notice, far too fast for her to flinch, the blade came down in a rainbow of steel.

She felt herself falling, felt fingers loosening around her throat, felt herself collapsed to the ground. She blinked, heedless of the ooze crawling into her eyes, and surveyed the black limb lying limp on the ground beside her, severed neatly at its thin biceps.

If the demon were capable of blinking, it would have, too, as it glanced down at the stump of its arm. It wiggled the remains of the appendage momentarily, shifted its vacant stare about: first to its arm upon the ground, then to the man standing before him, blade bloodless. It tilted its head to the side.

Then, the demon screamed.

The wail was so violent as to pierce even the wall of slime filling her ears, so terrifying as to make her forget the rest of the sludge as she strained to cover her ears. She had heard it laugh, pray, preach and chuckle before. She had heard such things and remained silent.

Only now, when she heard it in pain, did she feel the need to scream.

Lenk, however, was unmoved. His sword lashed out immediately, carving a deep gouge in the creature’s wispy torso. Black skin was rent like paper, globs of thick ebon spilling from the wound to plop in quivering jellies upon the earth. The creature shrieked at the wound again, its voice arcing into a high-pitched wail as it grabbed at the cut, straining to keep further parts of itself from slipping out.

‘Stop!’ it wailed. ‘Stop! Stop! You’re not supposed to do that!’

Lenk did not stop.

He lunged at the creature as it retreated backwards, thrusting his weapon into its leg so that the tip burst out of the other side in a fan of black. The creature collapsed to its knees and its shriek terrified the gloom, chasing the smoke further from the beach. Its hand quivered, darting between wounds, seeking to contain the thick liquids pouring from it at an alarming rate.

‘Not fair!’ it screamed. ‘Not fair! Get away from me! GO AWAY!’

Lenk did not go away.

His stride was soundless, his blade held loosely at his side as he advanced casually upon the creature. The victory was already decided, but rather than end it quickly, Lenk chose to take his time, walking so slowly as to suggest he wasn’t even aware that Kataria was nearby, covered with slime, still and breathless upon the ground.

‘Mother!’ the Abysmyth howled. ‘Mother! Help me! HELP ME!’

Lenk did not hear.

The demon made a lunge at him, feeble and sloppy, hurling its arm out to claw empty air as he stepped backwards. When the thing landed hard on its hand, he was quick to act, sidewinding about it like a serpent. His boots scraped against leathery flesh as he leapt and raced up the creature’s back, seizing it by its great black crest. His sword flashed, a steel fang sinking into the creature’s collarbone.

It was in that moment that Kataria realised the Abysmyth was making a sound she had never heard it make, never even thought it was capable of making before that moment: the demon was sobbing.

‘It hurts! It hurts!’ the thing cried out as Lenk wrenched the blade deeper, its mouth gaping wide. ‘MOMMY! MOMMY! IT HURTS! MAKE IT STOP!’ It batted at the weapon, digits suddenly becoming pudgy and helpless. ‘MOMMY, I DON’T LIKE IT! MAKE IT STOP!’

Lenk listened.

His foot came up and came down in one quick movement, heel upon the sword’s crossguard and burying it to the hilt. The silver blade burst out through the creature’s ribcage, sunlight through stormclouds, and shone defiantly.


The demon stopped its wailing. Lenk sprang off its back.

Its breathing was heavy now, laboured and ragged, shining rivers pouring out of it with every gasp. Even as it swayed upon its knees, its eyes could not express the despair it clearly felt as it stared blankly at the weapon. The sword looked back up at it through metal eyes, cruel and remorseless, denying the pity the Abysmyth so desperately wanted.

The wind moaned in the distance. Smoke parted above. A beam of light descended warily to the blackened earth and illuminated the silver spike as the demon reached up and fingered its tip.

‘So loud,’ it whispered, ‘the sky is . . . so loud.’ Waterfalls of black bile leaked out from between its serrated teeth, stained the ground. ‘It hurts . . .’ Quietly, it looked up to the sky. ‘Mother . . . how come it hurts?’

Kataria watched it collapse, the sword hilt proud in the sunlight, and a thought struck her.

That should not have happened . . .

It was when she blinked and felt her eyes squish that another thought rose.

I can’t breathe.

As though it had seemed a foreign concept until that moment, she began to rake at her face, pulling mucus off in great sheets. The slime seemed to resent this, trying to seep further inside her each time she clawed. Her lungs were ready to burst, heart ready to explode, mind ready to turn to stone and drag her head to the ground.

And still she raked.

Boots crunched. She felt a shadow descend upon her.

‘Lenk,’ she gurgled, choked, ‘help.’

He stood above her, unmoving, shadowed by the blend of smoke and sunlight.

‘Lenk,’ she said again, voice straining to get out through the ooze.

He twitched, knelt down beside her.

She opened her mouth to plead again, but found herself breathless. Blood froze in her veins, breath forgotten as her jaw went slack. She gasped; the ooze found its door into her body and flooded in. Her next breath was the last she took before she felt herself slip away, but even through the darkness of her eyes, she could still see him.

Lenk, skin as grey as a drowned corpse, eyes blue and burning, bereft of pupils.

Seventeen

BURY YOUR FRIENDS DEEP

‘Is it working?’

Asper could feel Lenk’s eyes with such intensity they threatened to crack her skull. His stare darted between the priestess, sweating and pumping knotted hands over her patient’s chest, and the shict, who lay breathless upon the ground.

Asper kept her actual thoughts to herself; it just seemed in poor taste to tell him his concern over his dying companion was slightly irritating.

‘I don’t know yet.’ She pressed a pair of fingers against Kataria’s throat. ‘This sort of thing works on drowning victims, but only if we get to them quickly.’ No pulse; she kept her head low to conceal her frown. ‘Really, I just have no idea if it works on drowning by demons.’

‘Well, try—’

‘Oh, is that what I’m supposed to be doing?’ she snarled over her shoulder at him. ‘I’m not putting hands on her chest for your enjoyment, you know. Back away, moron!’

He nodded weakly, backing away. Such readiness to obey distressed her. It was exceedingly unlike the young man to so willingly bow out of such a situation. Then again, she considered, it was exceedingly unlike him to express any interest in death. Yet he seemed to be dying with the shict, moping about her soon-to-be-corpse like a dog around its dying master.

Asper forbore to tell him this.

She was sorely tempted to tell him to stop staring at her, though. His eyes bored into the back of her skull, drilling into two well-worn spots in her head where other, weary stares had rested. Gazes from mothers with fevered children, fathers with raped daughters had left the first scratches upon her scalp. Soldiers with wounded comrades and sons with ailing elders had bored even deeper.

Lenk’s stare, however, went well beyond her skin. He peered past hair, flesh, blood and bone into the deepest recesses of her mind. He saw her, she felt, and all the workings of her brain.

He knew she couldn’t save this one.

NO! she shrieked at herself inside her own head. Don’t think like that. You can do this. These hands have healed before, countless people. These hands . . .

Her gaze was drawn to her left hand, resting limply upon the shict’s abdomen. It twitched suddenly, temptingly. You could end it all, you know, her thoughts drifted, just a bit of pressure, like you did to the frogman. Then, poof! All over! She won’t have to suffer any more . . .

‘No, no, no, NO!’

She ignored the concerned stares cast her way, ignored her hand, ignored everything but the placid expression upon Kataria’s face and the stillness of her heart.

‘I can do this,’ she muttered, beginning chest compressions anew, ‘I can do this, I can do this.’ She found solace in the repetition, so much that she barely noticed the tear forming at the corner of her eye. ‘Please, Talanas, let me do this . . .’

Lenk stared at Asper’s back, watching the sweat stain grow longer down her robe.

It was a hard battle to resist the urge to rush up beside the priestess, to see if he could help, if he could do something. He was used to fixing things: fixing the fights between his companions, fixing the agreements between him and his employers, fixing to jam hard bits of steel into soft flesh.

That’s how it should be.

He should have been able to fix this.

The sound of metal gently scraping against skin was loud, unbearable. He cast a resentful, sidelong scowl at his companion. Denaos, however, paid no heed to the young man, gingerly working at his fingernails with a tiny blade. Eventually, it seemed Lenk’s stare became a tad more unbearable and Denaos glanced back at him.

‘Sweet Silf, fine,’ he hissed, ‘I’ll do yours, if you’re so damn envious.’

‘Kataria,’ Lenk replied sharply, ‘is dying.’

‘To be more precise, Kataria may already be dead.’

Lenk blinked at him. Somewhere in the distance, a gull cried.

‘What?’ Denaos hardly looked at him as he plucked up a waterskin from the ground and took a drink.

‘This doesn’t bother you?’ Lenk all but shrieked at the tall man, snatching the skin away. ‘You can’t even keep yourself from drinking her water?’

‘It’s our water, you milksop. She’ll have her drink if and when she wakes up. Have at least an ounce of faith in Asper, would you?’ Denaos glanced over to the priestess. ‘She’s doing her best. She’ll do what’s right.’

‘Really?’ Lenk permitted a squeal of relief to tinge his voice. ‘You’ve seen this sort of thing before?’

‘Once, aye.’ He nodded appraisingly as Asper pressed her lips against Kataria’s once more. ‘But the spectacle cost me a pouch of silver.’ He became aware of Lenk’s angry stare after another moment. ‘What?’

‘What is wrong with you?’ The young man forced an angry snarl between clenched teeth. ‘I almost suspect Gariath would be more sympathetic in this than you are.’

‘He’s further up the beach,’ Denaos gestured, ‘far more curious about dead demons than he is about Kataria.’ He cast a smug smile at Lenk. ‘Besides, it’s not like he’d do anything more than I am save urinate on her corpse.’ He coughed. ‘Out of respect, of course.’

‘Then maybe you should go and linger with him,’ Lenk snorted. ‘If we’re lucky, I’ll only have to come back to see one of you still alive.’

‘Unsurprising as it might be, I find the near-dead to be rather more pleasant company than that lizard.’

‘Then do me,’ Lenk paused, ‘and her the respect of showing proper manners and worrying a little.’ He grunted. ‘Or by seeing how many daggers you can fit in your mouth. Whichever.’

‘Worry?’ Denaos made a scoffing sound. ‘Would that I could.’

The wind between them died. Lenk turned a scowl upon the rogue.

‘What do you mean by that?’

‘Frankly, I’d rather not say.’

‘Then you shouldn’t have said it in the first place,’ Lenk snarled. ‘What do you mean by that?’

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