Dark Hunger


Page 45


That, she thought, has never happened before.

But it paled in comparison to the sensation that followed.

A feeling straddling pain and ecstasy swept over her. Her flesh grew gooseskin beneath her robe, a chill crept down her back, wrapping about her spine like a centipede with icy, frigid legs. She felt her voice catch in her throat, unsure how to respond to the feeling. Then, with a suddenness that made her knees buckle, the chill twisted inside her body, becoming violently hot.

The sun seemed incredibly oppressive at that moment, as though it reached down with a golden hand to glide past cloth, flesh, muscle and bone. It seized her essence in a scalding, fiery grip and shook vigorously. She could feel it pushing down upon her, a great pressure forcing her skin in upon itself.

She would never have noticed Dreadaeleon’s hand clenching about her arm had she not spied his scrawny fingers. He seized her with a strength belied by his frailty, he stared at her with an intensity she’d never seen in him. Behind the dark orbs of his eyes, crimson light danced like a flock of agitated fireflies.

‘What . . .’ Her voice came reluctantly to her lips. ‘What are you—’

‘You feel it.’ He spoke with a firmness not his own.

‘Feel . . . what?’

‘It. Cold. Hot.’

With surprising strength, he tightened his grip on her left arm. She felt her heart leap into her throat. He knows, she screamed in her own mind, he knows, he knows, he knows. Of course he knows. He knows everything. He knows what it is. She tensed her fingers, the burning returning. It’s hot enough to torch him. He knows.

If he intended to act on that knowledge, however, he did not. At least, not the way she expected. Instead, he pressed his palm against hers. It felt freezing, then hot enough to rival even her own heat.

‘You can sense it,’ he whispered, ‘can’t you?’

‘Sense what?’ she asked, hysteric as she tore her hand away from his. ‘I don’t know what you’re—’

‘Venarie. Magic.’

The fireflies behind his eyes, the ever-present, if faint, mark of wizardry in his stare, went alight. His gaze became a pair of pyres, crimson energy seeping out in great flashes. He turned his scowl out to sea, the pyres becoming thin red gashes.

‘There is . . . a wizard out there.’

Her gaze followed his, towards the only thing present upon the sea.

The black ship drew into Irontide’s ominous shadow, blending into the darkness. But Asper could still see it, clear as a fire on fresh-fallen snow. Though she knew she stared into darkness, she felt the ship, sensed it as she might an itch between the shoulder blades. She felt it throb, felt it twitch.

And then she felt it stand up and stride to the prow of the ship.

Something stirred atop the tower’s battlements. A chorus of chattering teeth and throaty gibbers cut through the sky. The great crown of white shifted as a hundred bulbous blue eyes spotted the ship.

Like a wound bleeding white, the Omens toppled from the tower, pouring over the side with flapping wings and gnashing teeth. In twisting, chattering harmony, they reared, their mimicked voices of the long dead clashing off one another in a hideous howl as they rose, then descended upon the purple invaders.

‘NYUNG!’ The command went up from the longfaces, audible even over the cacophony.

The vessel came to a sudden halt, bobbing upon the water like a floating coffin. Purple figures rose, drawing back bows made of the same black wood as the ship, arrows aimed at the descending gibber.

The male stood before them, his white hair whipping about his face, his robes billowing about his frail body as he turned a defiant stare towards the winged frenzy.

‘Here it comes.’

Asper was numb to Dreadaeleon’s voice, numb to everything save the freezing sensation coursing through her body and the sudden weight in her left arm.

The Omens swooped upon the ship in a twisting column, shadow and sky painted writhing white as they tucked their wings against their plump bodies and turned their hooked noses and yellow teeth to the longfaces.

With an eerie casualness to his movements, the male raised his hands. His purple, bony fingers knotted together in agonised symmetry as they bent in ways they were not meant to. He shouted a chorus of words not in his own tongue, nor the tongue of humans. They were familiar, if incomprehensible to Asper, and her eyes widened as she realised she had heard them from Dreadaeleon’s mouth before.

‘Magic,’ she gasped.

His voice boomed, granted an unnatural echo. An un-present wind swept his hair back, revealing a frigid blue glow engulfing his eyes. He continued to speak the words and the azure energy bathed his fingertips, sweeping up his arms.

The spectacle was not lost on the Omens.

Those in front reared in mid-descent, colliding with the ones still swooping, and the column became a messy cloud. The flying parasites beat each other with their wings, bit each other with their needles, struggling to get free of the mob of feathers and flesh. Their crazed gibberish became a unified howl of terror as the blue glow rose from below.

‘This,’ Dreadaeleon gasped, ‘will be big.’

He was not mistaken. The longface’s words of power ended with an echo that stretched into eternity as his mouth opened wide. In the wake of his voice, a howl rose.

The ship shuddered as an angry gale tore itself from the longface’s mouth. The air became blue, shimmering blades tinged with razor shards of frost. From the slight, wispy creature, a maw of frigid azure and ivory swept up to crunch rime-laden teeth about the Omens.

The gale grew high, kissing the battlements and devouring the creatures’ wailing. The Omens were swept inside it, caroming off one another in bursts of black blood and broken bones. They thrashed, bit, rent each other as they struggled to escape. Many died immediately, limp bodies twisting silently in the wind. More lived, thrashing even as their feathers hardened upon their flesh.

The maw glowed with a horrific blue. The Omens lost their colour in it, frozen bodies becoming so many flakes inside it. Still and silent, the statues clashed against each other, frozen anatomies snapping to become lost in the wind. Hooked noses, lipless mouths, bulging eyes: one by one, they snapped off, crashed against wings, feet and heads before twisting off to crash into torsos, tails and scalps.

Only after there was nothing left to crash did the longface close his mouth.

His trembling fingers undid themselves, his eyes returned to their heavy-lidded whiteness and the wind that had whipped his hair vanished. Folding his hands inside his sleeves, he turned and took a seat at the end of the ship.

As though nothing had happened, the females took up their oars in resignation to duty. The chant resumed, the rowers worked. The ship glided across the sea, towards Irontide, through an artificial snowfall of powdered blood and pulverised flesh.

Asper could but stare. In an instant, the harbingers of hell, the precursors of horror, the Omens had been reduced to nothing. Reduced to nothing, she added to herself, by a display of magic she had not even dreamed possible. And now the ship continued forwards, the male’s expression as casual as the hand that brushed red flakes from his shoulder.

Asper could but stare as they continued towards Irontide. Asper could but stare as such a force continued towards her friends.

Dreadaeleon seemed much less indecisive.

‘Come,’ he said, brushing past her with a forcefulness that she might have gone agog at, were she not already dumbstruck. ‘We have to go.’

‘What?’ she gasped, breath returning to her. ‘Now?’

‘That longface is a heretic.’

‘You don’t even know what religion he is.’

‘Not a heretic of whatever made-up god you choose to serve,’ the boy snarled at her. He gestured towards the ship. ‘Look at him! He’s not even breathing hard!’

Asper frowned; she could sense his calm well enough, as she had sensed his power before. Without seeing the longface, she knew Dreadaeleon was right. Dreadaeleon, of course, wasn’t waiting for her approval. He waded out from the shore, inhaled deeply and blew a cloud of frost over the ocean. In the few gasping breaths that followed, a small ice floe had formed, bobbing upon the surface.

‘It violates all laws of magic, all laws of the Venarium.’ The boy climbed upon the white sheet, surprisingly sure-footed. ‘That, at least, is worth getting involved over.’

‘But not your friends?’ Asper asked, raising a brow.

‘Friends die. Magic is for ever.’ He glanced down at her, extended a hand that seemed far too big for him. ‘Are you coming, or would you rather sit and savour the irony for a bit?’

She glanced out over the sea at a sudden stirring. The male was up and at the prow again, she sensed, his hands outstretched. She felt with her arm the explosive power boiling between his palms. She saw with her eyes the prow aimed at Irontide’s great, rock-scarred wall.

Waiting to see what he was about to do seemed decidedly unwise. With a grunt, she waded into the surf and took the boy’s hand.

‘It’s not ironic . . .’

Twenty-Five

THE PROPHET

The explosion came to Lenk as a muted thump, shaking the stones in the ceiling and sending gouts of dust to lie upon the black water. He rose to his feet, scrambled to the wall.

‘Kat?’

The wall gave no answer.


‘Kataria?’

The stone offered no reply.

‘Kat! Denaos!’

His fist against the rock slab was half-hearted, all his energy drained from previous pummellings with nothing to show but throbbing fingers and a stone that seemed to smile at the futile effort. He did not expect it to miraculously crumble under his desperation, but the dull rumble spurred him to action.

If his pitiful attempts could be called such, he thought.

He had heard only faint noises since the slab had fallen behind him: the gurgling sounds of the Abysmyths, a shrill whining and the collective croak of the frogmen. Of his companions, he had heard nothing; nothing to suggest they had heard his furtive cries, nothing to suggest they were still alive.

What, he wondered, had made him not listen to Denaos? What had made creeping into a demon-infested, dying fortress seem the logical choice? Greed? Some bizarre, misplaced desire to do the proper thing? No, he told himself, that doesn’t work for adventurers.

A lust for some breed of unpleasant death, then?

That seems more likely.

Whatever the reason, the stone did not answer. With no more hope to drive him to beat answers out of it, he sought to bring it down with his head. Sighing, he rested a hot brow against cold rock, giving up on it as he had given up trying to find a way out of the forsaken chamber.

He had wondered, when panic had dissipated and calm prevailed, if there was a mechanism of some kind to make the slab rise. After all, he had thought, something must have made it fall. That hope was foetid and rotting now as calm gave way to futility. He swept his gaze about the large, circular room; if such a device existed, he’d never find it.

What floor there was extended ten paces before him into a stubborn outcropping of rock. The rest had long disappeared, swallowed up by a pool of black water that writhed like a living thing. Torches burning emerald lined walls that rose high to form a domed ceiling, glistening with a macabre shimmer of green and ebon.

Whatever had operated the slab before was long-decayed or long-drowned.

The meek thought of searching the waters had been banished long ago. Black enough to eat even the emerald light, there would be no way of finding anything in its depths. The thought of something lurking in there, like the somethings he had seen lurking in brighter waters, was just one more reason to stay on land, however meagre.

Logic and sense abandoned to futility, he turned and, with nothing else productive to do, screamed.

‘KATARIA!’

He froze. His echo was joined.

A melodic giggle reverberated through the chamber, bouncing off walls like a chorus of tinkling bells. The harmony was tainted, however, as though those bells were scratched and cracked. He felt it, rather than heard it, slithering across the water, over the stone, through the leather of his boots and into his skin.

He whirled, eyes narrowed, hand on sword. Nothing but stale air and flame shared the room. Or rather, he corrected, shared the part of the room he could see. With the laughter ringing in his bones, he felt his gaze going ever wider, pulled to the water.

‘No,’ he muttered, ‘not a chance.’

The giggle emerged once more, twisting in the air and becoming a stinging cackle. It rang familiar in his ears; his face twisted into a scowl.

‘Greenhair.’

At the accusation, the laughter became a horrid, shrieking mirth, loud enough to urge his hands to his ears. Resisting, he instead slid his sword from its sheath and snarled at the water.

‘And what’s so damn funny?’

‘If you knew, it wouldn’t be quite so.’

The voice was alien and convoluted, as though it couldn’t decide what it wanted to convey. It was deep and bass, but tinkled like glass, and carried with it a shrill, mirthful malice.

‘Tell us,’ it spoke, ‘what drives the landborne to try the same thing over and over and expect different results?’

Lenk arched a brow. Wherever the speaker was, it seemed to see this.

‘You have been pounding at the stone for some time.’ It sighed. ‘Have you not yet realised it moves by will? Our will?’ It giggled and spoke at the same time. ‘All moves at our will, at Her will, earth and water alike.’

‘You haven’t moved me.’ He spat into the water.

‘Haven’t we? You drew your horrid metal at the sound of our song.’

‘Conceded,’ Lenk muttered, ‘but it’s no great accomplishment that the sound of your voice makes me want to jam something sharp into you.’ He raised the weapon in emphasis. ‘Show yourself so we can get this over with.’

‘Curious. What is it that drives you to fight? To think that we wish to fight you?’

‘I’ve been doing this sort of thing long enough to know that if someone’s referring to themselves as “we”, they’re typically the kind of lunatic I’ll have to kill.’

‘Astute.’

‘Time is too short for that sort of thing, you understand. ’

‘One would think all you have is time, unless we decide to move the stone.’

Lenk ignored the echoing laughter that followed, searching the waters for any sign of the speaker.

The stirring began faintly, a churn in the water slightly more pronounced than the others. He saw a dim shape in the gloom, the inky outline of something moving beneath the surface. Soon, he saw it rise, circling at the very lip of the rock.

It was when he saw it, so dark as to render the void pale, that it dawned on him.

‘Deepshriek . . .’

‘The servants of uncaring Gods and the blind alike have spoken that name,’ the creature replied, its voice bubbling up from the gloom. ‘To others, we are Voice and Prophet to Her Will. The landborne forgot all those names long ago, however.’ Its voice was quizzical. ‘Tell us, what green-haired maidens have you been consorting with?’

‘Hardly the point.’

‘The point? The point?’ It became wrathful, a great churning roar that boiled to the surface. ‘What heathen consorts with blasphemy with such casualness? Such callousness? ’

‘Yeah, I hear that a lot.’

‘Speak to us.’ The black shape twisted towards his outcropping. ‘What did she promise you in exchange for vengeance? Treasures of the deep, perhaps, the laden gold of the drowned? Or were you overcome with sympathy for her plight? Perhaps she appealed to your love of false, uncaring deities.’ Its voice became a slithering tendril, spitefully sliding up from the deep. ‘Or are you the breed of two-legged thing that lusts to lie with fish-women?’

‘I’ve come for the tome.’

The shape froze where it floated. The voice fell silent, its pervasive echo sliding back into the deep.

‘You cannot have it.’ It spoke with restrained fury.

‘Landborne . . . you all covet things you have no desire to learn from, you seek to steal them from their proper authority.’ Its echo returned with a tangible, cutting edge that seeped into flesh and squeezed between sinew. ‘Do you even know what holy rites this book contains?’

‘I don’t care,’ he snarled through gritted teeth. ‘I gave my word I’d return it.’

‘Your word is an iron weight in deep water. What is your true purpose to come with such heresy in your heart?’

‘One thousand pieces of gold,’ he answered without hesitation.

‘Meagre riches!’ the Deepshriek roared. ‘Fleeting! Trifling! They give you pleasures you will forget and in exchange forsake your purity and chastity. You would trade power, the power to return the Kraken Queen to her proper seat for shiny metal? There are infinite worlds of golden garbage in the deeps, forever clenched in the drowned hands of those who would die with it. You are no different.’

‘I haven’t been paid yet. If I die, I won’t even have gold to drown with.’ The irony was lost on him in a sudden fury. ‘I’ve seen what comes out of the deeps. I’ve seen it die, too.’

‘So it was you,’ the Deepshriek seethed from below. ‘I heard the cries of the Shepherd as you callously cut it down. And so did Mother Deep hear the wails of Her children.’

‘I didn’t kill it,’ he replied, ‘but I put a sword in it. That’s one thing I can do to demons.’

‘Demon?’ It loosed an infuriated wail. ‘Demon? A word birthed by the weak and covetous to rail impotently against the righteous. You display your ignorance with such callousness. ’

‘I don’t care.’

‘You are blinded and deafened by hymn and terror for your false Gods. You would deny your place in the endless blue. You were not there, as we were, in ages past when Great Ulbecetonth reigned with mercy and glory for Her children.’

‘If you really are so old as that, you’re well past due for a sword in your face.’

‘This book has the power to return Her,’ the Deepshriek ignored him, ‘to return Her from worlds of fire and shadow to which She was so cruelly cast.’ Its voice became shrill, whining, pleading. ‘Join us, landborne. It is not too late to forsake this quest and aid our glorious mission. You, too, have a place in the endless blue . . . for the moment.’

‘I’ve heard stories that a demon’s promise is the bait to hook the mortal soul.’ Lenk eyed the shape, growing larger and darker beneath the surface as it slid towards his ledge. He held his sword tightly, planted his feet upon the stone. ‘I’d sooner believe that shicts bottled my farts than believe ... whatever in Khetashe’s name you are.’

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