Dark Hunger


Page 43



Her eyes were wide and terrified, like a beast’s. No, he thought, not an animal . . . she looks like . . . just like . . . He blinked. When he opened his eyes again, she was someone else, another woman, another life ending with blood seeping out of her throat. She mouthed something, his ears were deaf to it, but his mind was not.

‘Help me, tall man.’

He shut his eyes again. When he opened them, the shict hung limp in the Abysmyth’s grasp, her breathing shallow, buds of red beginning to blossom inside her ears.

‘No! No more! No more!’

His attentions were drawn back to the Mouth, collapsed before the stone as though it were an altar of adoration.

‘I do your bidding! I serve the Prophet!’ He crushed his head to the floor in submissive fervour. ‘I will serve!’

The silence that followed seemed deafening in the wake of such a hellish chorus. Even though it had dissipated, Denaos couldn’t shake the reverberation, the sensation of ripples sent through his blood. It wasn’t with anything but irritation that he recalled where he had first felt such a sound, such a violation of flesh by song.

‘Greenhair,’ he whispered.

‘What?’ The Mouth rose on shaky feet, not turning about. ‘What is it?’

‘Of course, it was a set-up.’ His callous laughter, he hoped, disguised fury and fear he dared not show before his captors. ‘You’ve been working with the siren the whole time.’

‘Blasphemy,’ the Mouth replied. ‘There are no blind servants to false Gods in this place.’ He turned, and the hunger that had once filled his eyes was replaced with a madness yet unseen in the empty stares of the Abysmyths and symmetrical glowers of the frogmen. ‘This . . . this is a holy place.’

‘Defilers have arrived,’ the Abysmyth holding Kataria gurgled. ‘Offenders to Mother Deep . . . slayers of the Shepherds.’

‘So it is noted,’ the Mouth grunted, stalking back to the dagger.

‘The longfaces return,’ Denaos’s own captor added. ‘The Prophet demands vengeance.’

‘There is yet time.’ He leaned down to pluck the weapon up. ‘I am yet the Mouth of Mother Deep. I demand vengeance of my own.’

‘The Prophet is the Voice.’ The Abysmyth regarded Kataria, limp and motionless in its grasp. ‘This vessel is empty. There is no further need.’

‘What have you done with her, you sons of fish-whores?’ Denaos demanded, scolding himself immediately afterwards. So much for restraint . . .

‘I know not from whence this wretch came,’ the Abysmyth replied, ‘but it is a blessed one to have heard the voice of the Prophet with such clarity.’

‘A Prophet,’ Denaos muttered, eyeing the door. ‘You worship a block of stone.’

Mock them, he told himself, brilliant.

‘I suppose that makes as much sense as anything else related to a bunch of walking chum and their hairless androgynous toadies.’

They’re going to kill you, no matter what. Go out with some class.

‘You also reek.’

Well done.

‘You dare to blaspheme—’ the Mouth snarled, stalking towards him.

‘The words of the faithless are nothing to the graced ear.’ The Abysmyth’s grasp grew tighter around Denaos’ throat. ‘The Prophet shall cleanse what mortal filth taints these hallowed halls. As we shall march in Mother’s name to cleanse the impending blasphemers.’

‘Is that easier or harder to do with only one eye?’

Before the Abysmyth could so much as grunt, the blade was out and flashing in Denaos’s hand. He twisted in the beast’s grasp, arcing the dagger up and sinking it into a gaze that remained blank even as the hilt kissed its pupil.

With a triumphant cackle, he kicked at the creature’s ribcage, leaping away from it and tearing towards the water. His heart raced with elation as the frogmen reacted just as he had hoped, recoiling and parting with collective horror at the desecration that had occurred before them.

He glanced over his shoulder as he sped towards shadowed freedom, grimacing at Kataria’s limp form. Sparing a moment to mutter a prayer that the shrieking had killed her before the demons could have the pleasure, his attention was suddenly seized by the Mouth.

Odd, he thought, that a man so thoroughly defiled would be smiling.

Then he felt webbed fingers seize him. The Abysmyth’s long arm jerked him off his feet, staring at him through the wedge of steel lodged in its skull. The hilt shifted with an unnerving squishing noise as the creature’s eyeball rolled about in its socket.

‘Blessed is he who stands to face his judgement,’ the creature gurgled. ‘Blessed is he who perishes in the name of Mother Deep.’

Its arm snapped forwards with surprising speed, sending Denaos hurtling towards the wall. He struck it with a crack, bouncing from the stones to land in a puddle of salt water. Through hazy vision, he was barely able to make out Kataria’s pale body flying over him as she was likewise discarded.

‘So, then, are all blessed in Her eyes and heart.’

With that, the creatures turned and stalked through the congregation, followed by a begrudging Mouth. So, too, did the congregation turn to vanish down the hallways, following the Abysmyth’s empty voice.

‘Defilers approach. All are needed. We go to water, to weapons, to war.’

Left alone in the silence of the hall, accompanied only by the crackle of green fire and the lonely drip of water, Denaos could hear the sound of his heart slowing, the sound of red seeping into the puddle that was his grave. It was the groan behind him that caught his attention, however, the voice that rose faintly.

‘Lenk,’ Kataria whispered, her voice wet, ‘. . . I’m coming. ’

No matter; he reminded himself to appreciate the irony when he reached the afterlife.

She’s alive, he thought, unable to summon the breath to chuckle.

Twenty-Four

THE OPPORTUNE MOMENT

It was with great clarity that Asper recalled the very first time she wondered whether Talanas truly loved her.

One year ago, following a short, wiry young man with silver hair, as his barbarous shict followed him, her doubt had been a brief, niggling gnat she could easily swat away. A disciple of the Healer’s pilgrimage, after all, required many opportunities to witness and learn from injury as well as to see what good could be wrought from those situations.

While most joined their local militias or armies, Asper was handed the bad luck to be born in an era where no one was particularly eager to slaughter each other on a mass scale. Adventurers, at the very least, provided ample opportunity to observe injury and all manner of wounds and diseases.

Her doubt had grown with each member added to their band: the murderous brigand, the heathen wizard and the savage monster. When they had finally met Miron Evenhands and agreed to aid his mission to commune with the heavens, it had dissipated.

But now, as she squatted in the underbrush of Ktamgi’s forest, watching the prow of the black vessel carve through the water, her doubt returned. And like a rash left untreated, it blossomed with a triumphant festering.

The ship, carved long and sleek from a wood so dark as to devour the sun, slid along the shoreline. With every push of the thick oars, every grunt of effort from those who pushed them, the crew became distinct, each one an ugly purple bruise upon the ship’s low-set deck.

At first, she wondered if she might be hallucinating, wondered if some native pollen had seeped into her nostrils and twisted her sight into some miasma of ebon and violet. She certainly had never seen such creatures as dotted the benches on the vessel.

Their purple flesh, generously exposed by the hammered sheets of iron they wore over their chests, was pulled hard and taut over muscles that flexed and shimmered in sweat-laden harmony. Their black hair resembled a row of hedges, each one trimmed with similarly violent style and cut close to their powerful jawlines.


It was their eyes that caught Asper’s attention, however: rows of narrowed, white diamonds without pupil or iris, each one set deep into the sockets of a long, narrow face.

Asper felt herself cringe inwardly. These, then, were the source of the carnage upon the blackened beach. She found it easy enough to believe; as the ship pulled closer, she could make out the thick iron blades strapped to their belts, two to each man, dark and ominous against their muscular purple thighs.

And yet, for all their menace and jagged edges, they appeared to be nothing more than ordinary blades. Not even well-made ones at that, she thought, each one resembling little more than a long spike. What, then, enabled these men to slaughter the demons as they had done?

That question suddenly became far less relevant to her as another one forcefully entered her mind through her widening eyes.

Are . . . are they . . . slowing down?

‘NYUNG!’

She winced at the sound: a harsh, alien bark that was difficult to distinguish between an actual spoken language and a bodily function. Whichever, the men seemed to understand it well enough. With an equally unintelligible roar in reply, they dug their oars into the sands of the shoals, bringing the ship to a sudden halt, bobbing ominously in the surf.

Though she was shocked to admit it, her first thought was not for herself, but rather for her companions. Gariath and Dreadaeleon were still vanished, chasing whatever it was that made each of them respectively useless at that moment. What would happen, she wondered, fearful, if they should stumble upon the purple creatures disembarked and eager to dismember?

Then again, she reasoned, perhaps their disappearance upset her for the sole reason that magic and claws would be much better for a potential fight than a hefty stick and harsh language.

Whenever her companions planned on returning, however, they’d have to deal with whatever metal bits would be inevitably jammed into their orifices themselves. She had no intention of moving from her cover in the first place, and the sudden sound that arose from the ship’s deck did nothing to persuade her.

There was a sharp groan, followed by a heavy slamming sound, as though someone thought it a good idea to drag a bag of particularly old door hinges in a particularly thin sack across the deck. With each passing breath, the sound grew to resemble the distinct pound of footsteps. And with each heavy fall of the heel, the realisation grew in Asper’s heart with a chill.

Talanas help me . . . they’re coming ashore.

From the rear of the ship rose a great white plume, stalking between oarsmen who, at its presence, lowered their heads. It strode to the prow of the ship and Asper could see it was a stiff topknot stretched tightly above a particularly long face. The man, noticeably taller and more muscular than his dark-haired companions, stood at the vessel’s bow and swept a white-eyed glare across the shore.

Asper had to clap her hand over her mouth at the sound of shattered surf as he placed a gauntleted hand upon the railing and hoisted himself over. Trudging through the waves with a contemptuous stride, he emerged onto the shore, purple flesh and black armour glistening.

Despite his proximity, close enough for her to see the hard sneer etched into his long, hairless face, Asper couldn’t help but lean closer to study the man. There was something off about him, she noted, for as tall and powerful as he was, there were too many decidedly unmasculine qualities to him.

The skirt-like garment that hung from his belt exposed legs that should have been covered in greasy, grimy hair; even Dreadaeleon had that. But his legs were smooth, as was the rest of his purple flesh. His armour, a haphazard collection of blackened chain and plate, was sparse, exposing a muscular abdomen that was also hairless. It was the particular curvature of his breastplate that caught her eye, though: the metal was curved, seemingly needlessly, as though it had been wrought to fit . . .

The realisation knocked her to her rear.

‘Sweet suffering Sun God, it’s a woman.’

Why wouldn’t they be? she asked herself. Females more massive than men would certainly fit with the absolute nothingness she knew of these alien things.

The rest of them, she realised, were also female. Their curves became more apparent, though hard and unyielding. Their chins bore a feminine angle, but only vaguely. Their faces resembled first the same hard iron they wore, but secondly women.

Women, she realised, but only barely so; the one standing upon the beach even less.

Taller than a man, lean and hard as a spear, she surveyed the shore through a long, narrow face. Her eyes were hard and white, not the colour of milk but of angry quartzites, sharp enough to draw blood with a mere gaze. Even her hair was menacing, topknot rising like a white spire from the crown of her head, the rest of it pulled tightly against her skull.

For as much ferocity as she oozed, however, it was nothing compared to the weapon clenched in her hand. Resembling nothing so much as a broad, flattened sheet of iron with a hilt jutting from it, the sword looked to be easily the size of a small man, yet this longface, this woman, clenched it with familiar, five-fingered ease.

No, wait, Asper noted, four fingers. The gauntlet covering her hand had only three digits and one thumb, the middle being decidedly larger than the others. She blinked, took a moment to consider.

Four-fingered, purple-skinned, white-haired, longfaced women who carry giant slabs of metal, she paused to swallow, and kill demons.

Quietly, she looked up to the sun, beaming proudly upon this towering woman and asked.

‘Why?’

‘SCREAMER!’

Asper staggered back twice; once for the sudden snarl from the woman’s mouth and twice for the fact that she was apparently speaking the human tongue. She froze, fearing that the sound of her rump scraping across the dirt might have attracted attention. For the strange woman’s part, however, she seemed much more concerned with the state of the beach than anything else.

And the beach seemed to annoy her immensely. With another growl, she hefted her huge weapon and brought it down in an explosion of sand. Sand, Asper noted, that was suddenly green as it landed in sizzling blobs upon the shore.

She squinted and, upon eyeing the sickly emerald shimmer to the weapon’s edge, the reason for the Abysmyth’s death at the longfaces’ hands became apparent.

‘Semnein Xhai!’

Another voice, far less hurried and harsh, lilted from the ship as another figure stepped to the prow.

In shocking contrast to the others, this woman was a head and a half shorter than the rest, clad in silken fineries as opposed to heavy black plate. Her face was more rounded, as though better nourished. The billowing velvet of her black and gold robe could not obscure her figure, either. Where the others were lean and hard, this one was frail and slender, where the others bore the modest swell of breasts . . .

‘Oh, you can’t be serious . . .’ Asper muttered to no one in particular.

The male looked wildly out of place amongst the metal and muscle. Where the females sat attentively, grips shifting between oars and weapons, he reclined lazily upon the prow, daintily covering a yawn with a slender hand.

He looked almost approachable, Asper thought, at least compared to the others. The images of the frogmen, frozen upon the earth, and the Abysmyth, shrieking out its last breath, were fresh in her mind. That, and the imposing white-haired female between them, kept her still and silent.

For that reason, though, a thought occurred to her. Fierce as they were, these longfaces had slain an Abysmyth, an impossible task done to an impossible foe. Whatever their motives, they had removed one more piece of filth that stood between herself and the tome.

After all, she reasoned, it wasn’t as though she travelled with the most gentle-looking people herself. Perhaps these longfaces could be trusted, perhaps these longfaces could be her key to delivering Lenk and the others from Irontide.

Of course, perhaps they’d simply carve her open and wear her intestines as laurels and call it a day.

At the very least, it would have helped to have known what they were saying.

The male at the prow called to the white-haired warrior with a lazy lilt, the language not quite so foul from his lips. In response, she whirled about, howling what were undoubtedly curses in her twisted tongue. The male repeated himself with a smirk, holding up a single digit, one of five, Asper noted, and wiggled it.

The female bristled, hard body trembling with restrained fury.

Though she looked like she would have, and could have, hurled her giant cleaver at the male, she settled for stalking back to the ship. Her angry snarl commanded the sound of two sets of boots rumbling up the deck and, within moments, two more of the females had disembarked and stood before her with hard-faced attention.

She barked orders, accompanied alternately by wild gestures and ironclad slaps across the chin. Barely fazed, the females grunted in response, smashing gauntleted fists together in a gesture that appeared half-salute, half-challenge and uttering a unified roar in response.

‘QAI ZHOTH!’

The white-haired female gave them a long, hard stare, as though appraising them. Apparently satisfied, she snarled at them and hefted her weapon over her shoulder. Asper noted grimly the ease with which she hoisted both herself and the weight of metal upon her back into the ship. Tense as she was, though, she couldn’t help but spare a relieved breath as the females’ grunting rose with their oars, pushing the ship away from the shoreline.

The longfaces were departing, leaving her with two heavily armed, possibly deranged purple women.

The thought momentarily crossed her mind to make her move now: as powerful and fierce-looking as these two were, they still resembled dainty purple milkmaids in the shadow of the white-haired one. Perhaps the opportunity to discover what they were about and whether they might be of use was now.

She quickly retracted that thought as they slid short, stabbing spikes of iron from their belts. Exchanging a momentary scowl with motives unreadable, they turned and began to stalk off towards opposite ends of the beach. Like narrow-faced hounds, they swept the shore with hard stares, searching.

But for what?

Horror’s icy fingers suddenly seized her by the throat, her breath dying with the sudden realisation: it didn’t matter what they were searching for, so much as what they would find. And, if their eyes were for more than just looking menacing, they would undoubtedly find tracks.

Her tracks.

If they didn’t think to search the forest after that, she would have been shocked. However, an old adage involuntarily came to her mind: the Gods frequently offered gifts in threes. Given that she had already been handed giant purple men-women in addition to giant black fish-things, it would seem a shame if they both didn’t try to kill her.

Her options were so slim as to be an emaciated wretch begging for food.

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