Dark Hunger


Page 4



‘What happened at the railings?’ she asked. ‘Did you win?’

‘In a manner of speaking, yes.’

‘In a manner of . . .’ She furrowed her brow. ‘It’s not a hard question, you know. Did you push the pirates back?’

‘Obviously, we were triumphant,’ chimed a darker voice from behind him. Denaos stalked forwards, placing a hand on Lenk’s shoulder. ‘If we hadn’t, you’d like have at least a dozen tattooed hands up your skirt by now.’

‘Robes,’ she corrected sharply. ‘I wear robes, brigand.’

‘How foolish of me. I should have known. After all, only proper ladies wear skirts.’ As she searched for a retort, he quickly leaned over and whispered in Lenk’s ear. ‘She’s never going to let us by and she certainly won’t come with us.’

Lenk nodded. Ordinarily, that wouldn’t have been a problem. He would just as soon leave her to die if she insisted. However, she could certainly call the sailors’ attentions to the fact that they were about to make off with the ship’s only escape vessel. Not to mention it would be exceedingly bad judgement to leave the healer behind.

‘So just shove her in,’ he muttered in reply. ‘On my signal, you rush her. I’ll cut the lines. We’ll be off.’

‘What are you two talking about?’ Asper’s eyebrows were so far up they were almost hidden beneath her bandana. ‘Are you plotting something?’

‘We are discussing stratagems, thank you,’ Denaos replied smoothly. ‘We are, after all, the brains of this band.’

‘I thought I was the brains,’ Dreadaeleon said.

‘You are the odd little boy we pay to shoot fire out of his ass,’ the rogue said.

‘I shoot fire out of my hands, thank you. And it requires an immense amount of brains.’ He pulled back his leather coat, revealing a massive book secured to his waist by a silver chain. ‘I memorised this whole thing! Look at it! It’s huge!’

‘He raises a good point,’ Denaos whispered to Lenk. ‘He might try to stop us.’

‘I can handle it,’ a third voice added to the conspiracy. Kataria appeared at Lenk’s side, ears twitching. ‘He weighs even less than me. I’ll just grab him on the way.’

‘I thought you didn’t like this idea,’ Lenk said, raising a brow.

‘I don’t,’ she replied, sparing him a grudging glare. ‘It’s completely unnecessary. But,’ she glanced sidelong at Lenk, ‘if you’re going to go . . .’

The moment stretched uncomfortably long in Lenk’s head, her eyes focusing on him as if he were a target. In the span of one blink, she conveyed a hundred different messages to him: requests for him to stay, conveyance of her wish to fight, a solemn assurance that she would follow. At least, he thought she said that. All that echoed in his mind was one voice.

Stop staring at me.

‘Yes, good, lovely,’ Denaos grunted. ‘If we’re going to do this, let’s do it now.’

‘Do what?’ Asper asked, going tense as if sensing the sin before it developed.

‘Nothing,’ Denaos replied, taking a step forwards, ‘we’re just hoping to accomplish it before—’

‘By the Shining Six,’ the voice cut through the air like a blade, ‘who wrought this sin?’

‘Damn it,’ Lenk snarled, glancing over his shoulder at the approaching figure.

Despite rumours whispered in the mess, it was a woman, tall as Denaos and at least as muscular. Her body was choked in bronze, her breastplate yielding not a hint of femininity as it was further obscured by a white toga.

Hard eyes stared out from a hard face, set deep in her skull and framed by meticulously short-trimmed black hair. Her right eyelid twitched at the sight of them all huddled together, the row of red-inked letters upon her cheek dancing like some crimson serpent that matched her very visible ire as she swept towards the companions, heedless of the puddles of blood splashing her greaves.

‘Quillian Guisarne-Garrelle Yanates,’ Asper said pleasantly as she stepped forwards unopposed, she being generally considered the person best suited to speak with people bearing more than two names. ‘We are pleased to see you well.’

‘Serrant Quillian Guisarne-Garrelle Yanates,’ the woman corrected. ‘Your praise is undeserved, I fear.’ She cast a glimpse at the human litter and sneered. ‘I should have been here much sooner.’

‘Yes, scampering in a bit late today, aren’t we, Squiggy?’ Denaos levelled his snide smirk at her like a spear. ‘The battle was over before you even strapped that fancy armour on.’

‘I was guarding the Lord Emissary,’ the Serrant replied coldly. ‘You might recall it being your duty, as well, if you could but keep your mind from gold and carnage.’

‘Carnage?’ Kataria laughed unpleasantly. ‘It was a slaughter.’

Quillian’s eyes sharpened, focusing a narrow glare of bladed hatred upon the shict.

‘You would know, savage.’ She forced her stare away with no small amount of effort. ‘I had hoped to arrive to see at least some modicum of rite was being followed. Instead, I find . . .’ she forced the word through her teeth as though it were poison, ‘adventurers.’ She spared a cursory nod to Asper. ‘Excluding those of decent faith.’

‘Oh,’ the woman blinked, ‘well, thank you, but—’

‘She’s with us,’ Denaos interjected, stepping up beside the priestess with a scummy grin. ‘How’s that stick in your craw, Squiggy? One of your beloved, pious temple friends embroiled in our world of sin and sell-swording, eh?’ He swept an arm about Asper, drawing her in close and rubbing his stubble-laden cheek against her face. ‘Doesn’t sit too well, does it? Does it? I can smell your disgust from here!’

Lenk caught the movement, subtle as it was, as the rogue gingerly tried to ease his blanching captive towards the escape vessel. Dreadaeleon, too, looked shocked enough that he’d never see Kataria coming to grab him. He readied his sword, eyeing the ropes.

‘That would be me,’ Asper snarled, driving an ungentle elbow into his ribs and ruining his plans. ‘Get off.’

‘The hallowed dead litter the deck,’ the Serrant said, sweeping her scorn across the scene, then focusing it on Lenk. ‘Innocent men alongside the impure. All sloppily killed.’

‘What?’ Dreadaeleon asked, pointing to his impaled victim. ‘That is, by far, the cleanest kill in this whole mess!’

‘Incredibly enough,’ Lenk added with a sigh, ‘killing is a sloppy business.’

‘These vagrants should have been routed before one of Argaol’s men could be driven below,’ she snapped. ‘You allowed this to happen.’

‘Me?’ Lenk said.

‘All of you.’

‘What?’ Kataria looked offended as she gestured to Denaos. ‘He didn’t even do anything!’

‘Yeah,’ Lenk said, nodding. ‘How do you figure we’re at fault?’

‘Because of the horrid blasphemies that continually spew from your bile-holes. You anger the Gods with your disregard for the sacred rites of combat! Your crude tactics, your consorting with heathens,’ her stare levelled at Kataria again, ‘as well as inhuman savages.’

Her eyes were decidedly warier when she swept the deck again.

‘And where is your other monster?’

‘Elsewhere,’ Lenk replied. ‘Look, we have a plan, but it doesn’t need you around. Is this really—’

‘Respect for the Gods is very necessary,’ Quillian said sharply. ‘Yes. Really. Bad enough that you bring your Godless savages here without questioning the divine mandate. ’

‘Savage arrows took three already.’ Kataria’s threat was cold and level. ‘I’ve got plenty more, Squiggy.’

‘Cease and repent, barbarian,’ the woman replied, just as harshly. Her gauntleted hand drifted dangerously close to the longsword at her hip. ‘The name of a Serrant is sacred.’

‘I’d disagree with that, Squiggy.’ Denaos chuckled.

‘Me too, Squiggy,’ Kataria agreed.

Stay calm, Lenk told himself as he watched the Serrant fume. This might be better. Neither Asper nor Dread is paying attention. We can still salvage this, we can still—

Kill.

The thought leapt, again, unbidden to his mind. He blinked, as though he had just taken a wrong turn.

Run, he corrected himself.

Kill, his mind insisted.

And, like a spark that heralds the disastrous fire to come, the sudden concern on his face sparked Quillian’s suspicion. Her glance was a whirlwind, carrying that fire and giving it horrific life as it swept from the companions, standing tensed and ready, to the escape vessel.

By the time it settled on Lenk, wide with shock and fury, he could see his plan consumed in that fire, precious ash on the wind.

‘She knows,’ Lenk whispered harshly to Kataria. ‘She knows.’

‘Who cares?’ the shict growled. ‘Stick to your plan.’

‘What? Shove her in, too?’


‘No, shove her over. She’ll sink like a stone in all that armour.’ She paused, ears flattening against her head. ‘It was my idea, though, so she counts as my kill.’

‘Deserters,’ Quillian hissed, ‘are the most grievous of sinners.’

Damn it, damn it, damn it, Lenk cursed as he watched her sword begin to slide out of its scabbard. This complicates things. But we can still—

Kill.

‘I suppose you would know,’ Denaos said with a thoughtful eye for the brand under her right eye, ‘wouldn’t you?’

Her shock was plain on her face, the kind of naked awe that came from the knowledge of a secret revealed. Her lip quivered, her spare hand going to the red ink.

‘You—’

‘Yes,’ he replied smoothly. ‘Now, if you wouldn’t mind scampering off to scrawl another oath on your forehead or something? We’ve got stratagems to—’

‘You . . .’ she hissed again, brimming with rage as she hoisted her sword, ‘you dare!’

There was a flash of steel, a blur of black. In the time it took to blink, the Serrant’s sword was out and trembling, its point quivering at Asper’s throat. The priestess’s eyes were wide and unmoving, barely aware of what had happened as two broad hands clenched her arms tightly.

Denaos peered out from behind her, grinning broadly and whistling sharply at the blade a hair’s width from the priestess’s throat.

‘Dear me.’ The rogue clicked his tongue chidingly. ‘You ought to be more careful, oughtn’t you? That was nearly another oath right there.’

Quillian’s eyes were wide, the bronze covering her knuckles rattling as she quivered horribly. Empty horror stared out from behind her gaze, as though her mind had fled at the very thought of what she had nearly done. It was an expression not entirely unfamiliar to Lenk, but it was usually plastered on the faces of the dying.

‘I . . . I didn’t mean . . .’ She looked at Asper pleadingly. ‘I would never . . .’

This is it, Lenk thought, she’s distracted. Denaos has a grip on Asper. Time to—

Kill.

No, time to run. We have to—

KILL!

WE HAVE TO RUN!

‘Now,’ he whispered.

‘What?’ Kataria asked.

‘NOW, GENTLEMEN, NOW!’

The voice of the Cragsman was accompanied by many others, boiling over the railings of the ship like a stew. The panicked cries of the sailors, mingled with Argaol’s shrieks for order, were hurled into the broth, creating a thick, savoury aroma that Lenk well recognised.

Battle.

Damn it.

Chapter Two

BLOOD AND SALT

In the span of a breath, colour and sound exploded.

They came surging over the railings in numbers unfathomable, the twisting wire of their tattoos blending together to create some horrible skeleton of black and blue outside the tide of flesh they arrived on. Their zeal was loud, joyous, the song of impending slaughter joined by the humming of their upraised swords and the clinking harmony of the chains they came clambering across.

‘Now, now!’ Denaos cried, lunging at the rigging and pulling a knife out. ‘We can still make it!’

‘What?’ Asper’s expression drifted from incredulous to furious. ‘You were planning on deserting?’

‘Oh, come on,’ the rogue protested sharply, ‘like you weren’t expecting this!’

‘I knew it,’ Quillian snarled. She shoved herself in front of Asper, blade extended. ‘Stay behind me, Priestess. The danger is not yet great enough that I cannot deal with a deserter first.’

‘I say, look lively, gentlemen!’

In the sound of whistling metal, the Serrant was proven violently wrong. The hatchet came whirling over the sailors’ heads, a bird of iron and wood that struck the woman squarely in her chest. A human gong unhinged, she went collapsing to the deck, Asper quickly diving to catch her.

‘Well, there you are,’ Denaos said. ‘Providence. Now, let’s go!’

‘No!’ Kataria’s bow was already in her hand, arrow kissing the string. ‘Even if we get that thing off, we won’t get far.’

As if to reinforce her point, a flock of hatchets came flying over the railings. The bold and unlucky sailors who had rushed forth to intercept the boarders went down under the sound of crunching bone and splashing liquid. The first of the boarders came sweeping over the railing, yet more of the thirsty weapons in their hands.

‘Dread!’ Kataria snarled, seizing the boy by the arm and shoving him forwards. ‘Do something!’

‘Right . . . right . . .’ He stepped forwards hesitantly. ‘I can . . . do something.’ He cleared his throat, then glanced over his shoulder to see if Asper was watching. ‘Er . . . you like fire, don’t you?’

‘NOW!’ Kataria shrieked in unison with the wailing weapons.

The boy’s eyes snapped wide open, hand up instinctively as he whirled about to face the onslaught of metal wings. His lips twisted, bellowing a phrase that hurt to hear, crimson light sparking behind his eyes.

The air rippled before him, hatchets slowing in their twisting flight, before finally stopping and falling to the deck.

‘Well, hell,’ Denaos grunted, ‘we can just have him do that and we’ll be fine!’

‘We can’t leave!’ Asper protested. ‘Quillian is hurt.’

‘So she can stay behind and be a decoy!’ the rogue retorted. ‘Am I the only one who’s thinking here?’

‘We don’t have time for this,’ Kataria growled. Her eyes, along with everyone else’s, turned towards Lenk, who was watching the ensuing fight impassively. ‘What do we do?’

He did not hear them. He did not feel her hand on his shoulder. Everything seemed to die; the wind ceased to blow, the sky ceased to move, the sea ceased to churn. He felt his eyes closing of their own volition, as though something reached out with icy fingers and placed them on his eyelids.

And that something reached out, whispered on a breathless voice into his ear.

When he opened his eyes again, there were no more enemies. There were no Cragsmen, no pirates, no sailors rushing forth to meet them. All he could see before him were fields of wheat, swaying delicately in the wind he could not feel. All he could hear was the whisper of their insignificance.

All he could feel was the blade in his hand and his boots moving under his feet.

‘Lenk! LENK!’ Kataria shrieked after him as he tore away from them, rushing to the railing.

‘Well, fine,’ Denaos said, ‘see? He volunteered to be the decoy. It’s a non-issue.’

The others fell silent; she continued to shout. He still didn’t hear her. The timbers quaked under him as several pairs of feet added their rhythm to his charge. Emboldened by his actions, possibly, or spurred on by the wordless call to battle Argaol sent from the helm.

He didn’t care.

His eyes were for the pirates that just now set their feet upon the timbers. His ears were for the sound of their last hatchets flying past his ears and over his head as he ducked low. His blade was for the man that just now set a hand upon the railing.

The sword lashed out quickly, catching the boarder by surprise as the Cragsman looked to see where his projectile had landed. It bit deeply, plunging below the pirate’s breastbone and sinking into his flesh.

His breath lasted an eternity, even as his mouth filled with his own life. The pirate looked down to see his own horror reflected in the steel, then looked up and Lenk saw his own eyes reflected in his foe’s unblinking gaze as the light guttered out behind them.

Chaff from wheat.

He pulled hard, his blade wedged so deeply in the man that he came tumbling onto the deck. Lenk smashed his boot against the man’s throat and pulled again, jerking his sword free in a spattering arc.

His senses were selective, ignoring the sound of sailors colliding into their foes in favour of the sound of feet coming up behind him. He whirled, lashing out with his blade, not caring who it was that had dared to try to ambush him.

Sparks sputtered in a quick and hasty embrace as his sword caught the pirate’s cutlass. It was enough to drive the man back with a surprised grunt, enough to give Lenk room to manoeuvre. He sprang backwards, felt something collide with his heel.

He looked.

A sailor; he recognised the face, if not the name. Such a task was difficult though, given that a hatchet had lodged itself in said visage, leaving little more than half a gasping mouth and one very surprised eye. At that, Lenk’s own eyes widened and the world returned to him.

Battle.

He could barely remember what had brought him this far: the fields of wheat, the unmoving sky and the silent screaming. What stood before him now was not something to be scythed down carelessly, but a man, towering and swinging his cutlass wildly.

Surprised, but not shocked, Lenk brought his blade up to defend. He felt the blow more solidly this time, shaking down to his bones. Behind his opponent, other tattooed, leering faces erupted over the railings, rushing to meet the defenders. He heard feet shuffling, bodies hitting the deck behind him. He was surrounded.

Imbecile, he thought. At what point did this seem like a good idea? His foe swung again, he darted to the side. Charging headlong? Who does that? He lunged, sought the pirate’s chest and caught his blade instead. Well, Gariath does, but he’s . . . well, you know.

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