Dark Hunger


Page 46



The black shape rose wordlessly to the surface. Straining his eyes, Lenk thought he could make out the edges of stubby, jagged fins, like those of a maimed fish, and a long, thrashing tail that spanned an impressive distance from the creature’s already impressive mass.

Shark, he recalled, was the name of such a thing.

‘We tried, Mother Deep, how we tried.’ The Deepshriek muttered, whined and snarled all at once. ‘Let this waste of promise not enrage You.’

The surface rippled, parted. Lenk hopped backwards, levelling his sword before him. A pair of glittering, golden eyes peered up at him and he stared back, baffled. A woman’s face blossomed from the gloom in a bouquet of golden hair wafting in the water behind her.

Somehow, he had expected the Deepshriek to be more menacing.

Slowly, her visage rose from the gloom entirely and Lenk found himself staring at a pair of enchanting eyes set within a soft, cherubic face the colour of milk. She smiled; he found himself tempted to return the expression.

And she continued to rise. There were no shapely hips or swelling breasts to complement the beautiful face. From her jawline down, she rose from the darkness on a long, grey stalk of throbbing flesh. Her smile was broad, delighting in Lenk’s visible repulsion as he recoiled, sword lowered.

But he could not turn away, could not stop staring. He spied another feminine face, another pair of golden eyes framed by hair of the blackest night. Another bobbed up beside it with a mane of burned copper. They shared their golden-locked companion’s smile, revealing sharp fangs as they rose on writhing stalks.

In hypnotic unison, they swayed above Lenk, their sharp teeth bared, golden eyes alight against the green fire. They glided gracefully through the water to the outcropping’s flank, visibly delighted as Lenk hesitated to follow their movement.

‘What,’ he finally managed to gasp, ‘in the name of all Gods are you?’

‘We,’ they replied in ghastly symphony, ‘are your mercy.’

The golden-haired head snaked forwards suddenly, its lips a hair’s width from Lenk’s face.

‘And no God will hear you down here.’

The demon threw back all its heads and let out a hideous, screeching laughter that echoed through stone and skin alike. Lenk resisted the urge to clutch his ears, finding solace in the grip of his sword. He eyed the stalks the heads were mounted upon; they looked flimsy at a glance, like boiled corn.

Corn cuts easy. He took his weapon in both hands, narrowed his eyes and prepared to strike.

The golden-haired head snapped forwards once more, eyes unnaturally wide, mouth agape to an extent that should not have been possible. Lenk stared, horrified, as the very air trembled at the beast.

A great bulge rose up through the fleshy stalk. The demon’s mouth stretched even wider. The remaining two heads smiled broadly as, in one great exhale, the Deepshriek screamed.

The air was robbed from him, turned into a fist that struck him squarely in the chest. His ears threatening to burst in tiny blossoms of blood, he was hurled from the outcropping to slam against the chamber’s rough-cut wall.

His sword fell from his hand, disappearing beneath the waters. He didn’t feel it, didn’t feel his heart slowly stopping, didn’t feel his body peeling off the wall to slide slowly into the waters, so numb it was.

Fear was forgotten, fury fled. The creature’s wail had robbed him of all sense and emotion; he had not the feeling left within him to know to scream before his head slipped beneath the blackness.

Through the gloom of the water, he saw it. The fish hurtled towards him like a grey arrow, skin the colour of rock, save for its bone-white underbelly and spattered maw. Three fleshy stalks crowned its forehead, snaking about in the water. Somewhere far above, he heard three laughing voices.

As he saw the fish’s white, gaping jaws and the rows of jagged teeth, he wondered absently if he would feel it when they ate his head.

Twenty-Six

A BEAUTIFUL DEATH

It wasn’t until after Gariath pulled himself up out of the water and into Irontide’s gaping wound that he felt his breath stop. Ear-frills spread, eyes wide open, he was terrified to blink for fear that he might miss a single moment of what unfurled before him.

He had begun to think he’d never see it. He had begun to think he was doomed to die a miserable, peaceful death, slipping away in his sleep or being laid low by a particularly noisome cough. He had begun to think that he would never see what all Rhega yearned to see before they left this world for the spirits.

Beautiful.

It occurred to him that others might think him morbid for describing the carnage blossoming before him in such a way. But then again, he reasoned, that was why they were stupid and dead and he was Rhega, soon to die.

Carnage, a symphony of metal and screaming, permeated the vast hall, pain and glory bled out of the gaping hole in Irontide’s hide on saltwater tides.

That he had missed the beginning of it all bothered him little. The fight was still unfolding when he arrived, a humble child well on its way to becoming a furious adult of slaughter. And Gariath could see that it grew amidst the great mass of purple and white in the centre of the vast and sprawling chamber.

That the longfaces held the advantage was obvious enough. They moved in tight, concentrated packs, bristling with their iron spikes and circular shields. Frogmen descended upon them with wailing fervour, undeterred as one after another were impaled and tossed into growing piles of humanoid litter.

But the creatures did not falter, compensating for their lack of skill and weapons with their sheer press of flesh. The passages and archways of the hall were choked with rivers of them, pouring out in ever-greater numbers to fight the violet invaders.

One of the muscular women went down, skewered by a press of five bone-tipped spears. Magnificent, Gariath thought.

A jagged throwing blade was hurled, bouncing off the stone floor to catch a charging frogman in the groin. Incredible.

A white-haired female at the centre cut down throngs like great hedges, shearing through bone with a massive blade. Beautiful.

And all through it, the shrieks of battle filled the air, striving to be heard over the din of agony.

‘Ulbecetonth!’ the frogmen screamed, rattling spears. ‘These ones shall be rewarded!’

‘Qai zhoth!’ the females roared in their guttural language, banging iron to iron. ‘Akh zekh lakh!’

‘Let all defilers know Her mercy!’ the pale creatures shrieked.

‘Chew them alive, netherlings!’ the white-haired female howled, the human tongue delightfully harsh on her tongue. ‘Akh zekh lakh!’ Her roar sent the tiny pale creatures scurrying into the water, sent her purple fellows shrieking with collective fury. ‘EVISCERATE! DECAPITATE! ANNIHILATE!’

At that moment, Gariath decided he liked her best. She would be the last, he told himself, the one to give him his beautiful death.

It was only out of a fleeting sense of fading loyalty that he scanned the melee for any signs of pink flesh. Amongst the fluids and metals exchanged, the humans were nowhere to be seen. Perhaps they had fled, or perhaps they were already dead.

Perhaps, he told himself, is a good enough reason for vengeance.

The thrum of bowstrings was an insult to the glory of personal combat, and its sound annoyed Gariath. Quickly spying its source, a trio of the longfaces loosing jagged-headed arrows into the throng, he narrowed his eyes.

Cowards would serve as decent preludes.

They did not deserve to be made aware of his presence, he knew, but for this death to be true, they would have to. His chest expanded, his roar was a flash of thunder, coursing over the melee and lost in the sound of battle. The rearmost archer turned to regard him curiously, no trace of fear in her white eyes.

He smiled at that; he had forgotten what such a thing looked like.

Honour was satisfied. His presence was announced. Whether the females realised it or not, the time for fighting had come.

He lowered his head and rushed towards them, salt kicking up behind him, eyes alight with fury. His intent was unmistakable; a cry of warning went up, a clumsy arrow flew over his head. He fell to all fours, another pair of arrows shrieked towards him, one sinking into his shoulder.

He did not feel it. He did not hear their threats. There would be time for pain later. There was time for fear never. His horns went low, glittering menacingly. More arrows flew, nicking his flesh, kissing the stones.

By the time they were throwing their bows down to draw swords, he was already laughing.


The archer at the fore was met in a violent burst of crimson. His horns found a hard, purple belly and dug in. His laughter grew to be heard over her howling as his head jerked upwards, his horns grating against her ribcage. He rose to his full height, the female kicking and shrieking like some macabre living hat.

With a great snap backwards, he sent her flying, then skidding, leaving a smear of red upon the stones.

His remaining foes were painted red in his eyes. Their horror was momentary, replaced by expressions that seemed to vaguely resemble jagged smiles. With eager glee, they kicked their bows aside and drew hard iron.

Gariath had to fight the urge to shed joyful tears.

The more eager of the pair rushed him; no shriek determined to intimidate him, no scowl to mask her fear. There was nothing on her face but a hard smile to match her iron. There was no sound from her but the thunder of her boots and two words tearing themselves from her lips.

‘QAI ZHOTH!’

He caught her chop in his hand, feeling the metal bite into his palm. His grasp had tasted blades before; he did not flinch. Snarling, he tore it away from her as a stern parent takes a toy from a petulant child. Tossing it aside, he snapped both hands out to wrap around her throat.

It was almost disappointing to feel the weakness with which this one fought back: not quite as firmly as the one on the beach, but equally as fierce. There was no confusion in her milk-white eyes as he had seen in the eyes of humans, no unspoken plea, no desperate murmur to a God suspected to be merciful. Instead, she spat into his eyes as he hoisted her from her feet. Her hatred was unabashed, her fury pure, her fate sealed.

Refreshing.

With another snap of his arms, he brought her crashing down to the stones. Bones shattered, salt water sprayed, and the longface still twitched. He did not laugh as he seized her by the hair and forced her to kiss the rock once more; he owed her that much. And in return, she did not scream, did not beg, did not put up a pathetic struggle.

When he rose, he did not see a wretched corpse, a dead coward. He had taken that from her, leaving only a good death.

A beautiful death.

Even if she wasn’t quite as strong as the one on the beach, hers would be a death better than most. The same could not be said of her companion. He glared over his surroundings; nothing but the clash of battle and the sound of carnage. Wherever the third one had gone, she apparently had found a better way to die than at his hands.

‘Coward,’ he snorted. Just as well, her death would have given no satisfaction.

His ear-frills pricked up. The sound of whirling metal was faint, but distinctive enough to be recognised between the sound of someone grunting behind him and something sinking into his back.

He jerked forwards, his own growl more angry than painful. Something gnawed at his flesh, worming its way in deeper on jagged metal legs with every twitch of his body. Far too concerned with who had thrown it, he ignored the sensation of warm liquid trailing down to his tail and turned with anger flashing in his eyes.

This one’s smile was not eager, but haughty. It was the breed of grin reserved for a weakling who believed themselves to have struck a decisive blow through cowardice. A human grin.

Gariath could not help but grin back; he had always enjoyed the mess of teeth and gum such grins inevitability became. If the longface saw her fate in his teeth, however, she did not show it. Instead, she slammed her spike against her breastplate in a challenge.

‘You pinks should pay more attention,’ she spat through her teeth. ‘Bites hard, doesn’t it?’

Gariath had no reply that could be voiced with words. He merely stalked forwards, his grin broadening as she took a cautious step backwards. In two quick strides, his claws were outstretched and he opened his jaws wide to offer his answer.

There was little about Gariath that surprised Asper any more. That hardly made him any less pleasant to be around, but while she might never grow used to his style of solving problems, she wasn’t prone to go running and screaming from him any more.

Though, she had to admit, when she pulled herself into Irontide to find him standing over a trio of corpses, a leather-bound handle jutting from his back, chewing what vaguely resembled a piece of jerked meat well, well past its intended consumption date, the urge was hard to resist.

In light of that, the concerned pair of words she uttered was a reasonable response, she thought.

‘You’re hurt.’

‘Good eyes, stupid.’ He spat something red and glistening onto the floor, licked his chops. ‘Better hope they don’t get cut out, otherwise your only use will be as food.’

Asper looked past him, to the thundering melee. Her first thought was not for the chaos raging in the hall, the bodies falling, the metal flashing, but rather for the pulsating sacs that hung from the pillars, the ceiling, that bobbed in the swiftly draining water. Amidst the bloodshed, they seemed disturbingly placid, like fleshy, throbbing flowers in a red-stained garden.

Occasionally, a longface broke free from the melee to dig a sharp implement into one of them. The frogmen shrieked in response, turning attentions away from other opponents to descend upon the assailant in a hail of spears and daggers.

The longfaces fought with equal vigour, welcoming the attacks with an upraised shield and a cruel smile, warding off their web-footed foes as their fellow females hacked into backs with spikes and jagged blades. The fight seemed scarcely even to Asper, with only five longface corpses on the ground and many more standing, against the quickly piling heaps and shrinking throngs of frogmen.

It was just as she had turned her attention back to Gariath and his new, metallic growth that the stones shook.

Heralded by a great, choked roar, they came pouring out of the fortress’s orifices: great, white serpents of salt and spray, churning the waters ivory in their wake and kicking up bubbling clouds as they swept towards the battle.

As titanic dead trees, their bodies glistening onyx, their eyes vacant and expressionless even in fury, the Abysmyths exploded from the water. With gangly, ungainly grace, they swept towards the throng, heedless of the cheering fervour from their smaller, paler companions. Claws lashed as they waded into the purple, rending flesh under talons, snapping bones in great webbed hands, tossing bodies aside with contemptuous disinterest.

The longfaces scurried backwards, closing against each other. In the span of a few screams, the three demons had diverted the tide, crushing and scarring without the slightest thought for the iron sinking into their hides.

Asper fought the urge to look away as an abominable claw seized a longface by her throat. Her struggling, snarling and kicking were nothing to the creature. Her companions, like so many gnats, were swept away by its free claw. In one blink of her white eye, the creature’s hand brimmed with glistening mucus.

In another breath, she hung like a limp, lamentable trophy in its grasp.

A silver blur cut the air. With an angry popping sound, the demon’s emaciated arm twitched, then fell from its shoulder. It looked to the stump with momentary confusion for the pulsing green ichor that gnawed at its flesh. It could scarcely form a surprised gurgle before metal flashed once more and a great, single-edged blade burst through its ribcage.

The sound of the creature’s agony was not a pleasant one. Asper threw hands to ears at the wail that burst from its jaws, winced as it collapsed to knees. In a spray of emerald, the blade was out and painting a silver moon at the thing’s neck. When she blinked, the fish-like head sank into the water with a plop.

‘QAI ZHOTH!’ the longfaces howled.

‘ULBECETONTH!’ the frogmen shrieked.

The Abysmyths remained silent, looking up from their slaughter as a hard, purple figure rose atop the fallen fiend’s corpse.

Asper immediately recognised the stark-white hair of the leader, her heavy iron wedge slick with green and black as she held it aloft and loosed a cry to her underlings. The shout was taken up, the throng was pushed forwards, and the killing began anew.

‘Ha,’ Gariath chuckled blackly. ‘Now it’s a fight.’

Asper was hard pressed to disagree as the female leapt from the demon’s body and hacked a swathe through frogmen, wading deeper into the battle. With purpose, the priestess realised, noting the shadowy archway at the farthest corner towards which she was cleaving.

Gariath, apparently, noted it too, taking a step forwards before she cleared her throat.

‘You’re aware there’s a knife jutting from your back, aren’t you?’ She took a step towards him, reaching for the handle. ‘Here, just hold on for a moment and I’ll—’

‘NO!’

He whirled on her with eyes flashing and the back of his hand colliding with her jaw. She collapsed to the floor, more shocked than pained. The dragonman loomed over her, blood pooling in the furrows of his scowling face, and levelled a single accusatory claw at her.

‘You will not ruin this for me.’

‘Ruin . . .’ There was not nearly enough room on Asper’s face to express her incredulousness. ‘Are you demented?’

‘This is a beautiful fight,’ he said, sweeping a trembling arm over the melee. ‘You don’t belong here.’

That wasn’t entirely untrue, she realised as she clambered shakily to her feet. There was no reason to be here, trying to convince a murderous reptile to let her pull a chunk of metal out of his back. There was no reason to be here, in the midst of a battle between two breeds of creatures that should not be. There was no reason to be here, chasing friends who would kill each other in a heartbeat and undoubtedly deserved to die on their own merits.

Then why am I here? she wondered as she rubbed at her left arm. It still burned, seared her from the inside. She grimaced; the pain was coming in sharper now. It wasn’t supposed to come so soon, she thought, not after what had happened on the Riptide. But it still throbbed, still seared, still was angry.

Perhaps that was why she was here. For as she looked out over the melee, filled with people who wanted to kill her, to kill her companions, she knew of only one way to make it stop hurting.

No, no, no. She shook her head. Bite through it. You know you can. You don’t have to—

‘GNAW! BITE! GNASH!’

The war cry shattered her thoughts. She looked up as Gariath whirled about, both spying simultaneously the frenzied longface charging with shield and spike held high. Shrieking, the female lunged into the air, her weapon slick and whetted, her eyes crazed and bulging.

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