Dark Hunger


Page 49



The air left Kataria in a sudden sigh as she collapsed to her rear. She could hear nothing but the pounding of her own heart and the lonely drip of salt water falling from the ceiling to dilute the sticky red smears on the floor. She felt the sweat of her body cold upon the stone, she felt her breath come in short, ragged bursts.

‘Sons of the Shadow,’ Denaos gasped, crumpling against the wall. ‘I thought she’d never leave.’ He glanced down to his belt, ominously empty. ‘Pity . . . she took my best knife with her.’

‘If you’d like, I’m sure she can come back.’ Kataria resisted the urge to laugh, pressing a hand to her sore ribs. ‘How do you feel?’

‘About the same as any man who’s been beaten by demons and purple harlots in the same day. How do I look?’

‘About the same.’

‘Yeah? You should take a look at yourself before you decide to sling stones.’

Kataria didn’t doubt his claim. She didn’t need eyes to know the extent of her injuries. She could feel the purple bruise welling up on her midsection, the blood dripping from her nose, the lungs that threatened to collapse at any moment. She smiled, hoping the gesture was as unpleasant as his grimace would suggest.

‘I’ll be even less of a prize when we’re done.’

‘We are done,’ Denaos replied. He rose from the stones, knuckled the small of his back. ‘There’s nothing more we can do here, Kat.’ He gestured to the great stone slab. ‘We couldn’t lift that even if we weren’t both half-dead.’

The realisation hurt worse than any of her wounds. He was right, of course. Staying behind was lunacy, a short period of contemplation and repentance before a demon or another netherling stumbled upon her. And, as she heard her next words, she knew there would be much to repent for.

‘I’m staying.’

He looked at her, frowned.

‘He’s not a—’

‘I know.’

Quietly, he nodded. He plucked up her bow and quiver from the floor, giving a quick count before tossing it to her.

‘Thirteen arrows left,’ he said. ‘Unlucky number for round-ears.’

‘Shicts, too.’

‘Mm.’ He lingered there, watching her readjust her weaponry. ‘It seems a shame to leave you after you threatened to kill me for leaving earlier.’

‘You’ll get over it.’ She gestured down the hall. ‘Go. Don’t choose now to pretend we’ve got camaraderie.’

He nodded, turned. ‘I’ll bring back the others.’

‘No, you won’t.’

‘I might.’

She made no reply, merely staring at her arrows. He paused at the edge of the water, looking over his shoulder at her.

‘What are you going to do, anyway?’ he asked.

‘Something.’

He slipped into the water without a sound, vanishing. The sound of carnage was quieting now, nothing more than whispers of pain on a stale breeze. A pity, she thought, there might be no one left to come and kill her.

That might be less painful, she reasoned, than living to see the shame of waiting for a human she had dared to call her own.

Twenty-Eight

TASTING THE SCREAM

So ... that’s why it’s called the Deepshriek.

The musing flitted through Lenk’s brain, swimming on a ringing cacophony and disjointed panic. He could feel laughter echoing in the water, crawling over his lobes on skittering, shrieking legs. Even through such a wretched fury, however, the voice was clear and cold.

‘Air,’ it commanded, ‘we need air!’

Eyes snapped open, aching reverie was banished. The water was thick and oppressive around him, clung to him with a lonely desperation and smothered him with black liquid quilts.

Not nearly black enough, he noted, to obscure the horror barrelling towards him.

The Deepshriek’s six golden eyes, alight with wicked glee, were a stark contrast to the shark’s glimmering onyxes, just as the fiend’s great white teeth were a terrifying comparison to its dead stare.

‘AIR!’ the voice shrieked.

Fear fuelled his legs, tearing his body from the foggy trance. He struggled, kicked, thrashed as though he were on fire. He pulled himself up to the shimmering green light above him. The water moaned frothily as he shattered the surface, begging him to return, groping with lonely liquid claws.

It shuddered beneath him at the passing of the shark. That was a fleeting terror; for now, he sought to fill his lungs with every stale breath he could. It was only after the danger of drowning had passed that he felt the first pangs of cold fear.

The liquid trembled in sympathy. Six golden eyes peered out of the blackness, three fanged grins pierced the gloom. A great, axe-like fin broke the surface of the water, drifting with a casual menace before vanishing again.

‘Toying with us . . .’ The voice, its need for breath satiated, was a fiercer cold than any fear. ‘Take us to land.’

‘Right,’ he muttered in reply.

He spied the decaying stone ledge hanging over the water, reaching with fumbling hands. Breath burned in his lungs as he flailed, struggling against the fierce water. His heart thundered in his chest, sending ripples upon ripples. Undoubtedly, he thought as he felt something pass him, it did not go unnoticed.

The outcropping grew closer.

He yearned for a sword, leather, something solid to wrap his hands around. A man with a sword was a man with a chance, however thin either might be. A man with a sword had a satisfying death to look forward to, a shrug of the shoulders and a knowledge that he had done all he could. A man without a sword was nothing more than . . .

‘Bait,’ the voice suggested in response to his thoughts.

He ignored it. The outcropping was within arm’s reach.

His hand shot out desperately as a chorus of twisted laughter filled the air. He snapped his head about, regarding the three feminine faces snaking high above the water, staring back at him with broad grins and wide, excited eyes. More distressing than that was the great grey fin jutting between their stalks, looming over Lenk’s head.

‘Oh, damn,’ he whispered.

He saw the crimson first, the thick red upon the darkness, before he felt the teeth sink into his thigh. His scream was short and stifled. The shark, unsympathetic, continued to swim, deaf to his agony as it dragged him through the murk. Lenk threw back his head, opened his mouth to scream again.

‘Bad idea,’ the voice snarled.

The shark dived. Darkness filled Lenk’s mouth as the green firelight waxed and grew fainter above him. He was pulled deep, to the bottom of the foetid pool, leaving a crimson cloud behind. He flailed, pounded the shark’s head, raked at its rock-hard flesh with painfully human hands. The sheer futility did not occur to him. He was well past the point for logic to be of any use.

The shark’s teeth dug further into his flesh in response. He screamed, his voice lost on bubbles and blackness, and through thoughts clouded by pain he wondered why the demon simply hadn’t sheared through his leg.

The beast twisted, turned sharply upwards to bring him to the surface. He was spared a choked gasp, a triumvirate of giggles, before the shark angled sharply and pulled him under.

It’s . . . he realised, it’s tasting me.

And it did so with macabre discerning. It chewed on him thoughtfully, fondled his thigh with a thick tongue, saliva cold even in the brackish depths. The three heads shifted, licking their own lips, sharing their grey host’s experience with water-choked enthusiasm.

And Lenk continued to strike it, still. The liquid slowed his fists, pulled at him, defending the demon even as impotent as his assault was. And yet, such a futile fury was all that kept him alive. When he ceased struggling, when panic faded, the abomination would become bored.

Hunger, if the thing did indeed eat, would not be far behind.

But his body was running out of fear to fuel his survival. His lungs tightened, vision darkened. A chill seized him, as though the water seeped into his very skin, drowning his panic, consuming fear and replacing it with numb resignation.

This is how it ends. The thought was a sigh on a wisp of bubbles, a slowing of his fist. Eaten by a shark with three heads. His strike was an infant’s against a stone wall. It’ll make a good story, at least.

His thoughts were faint against the creature’s laughter. All sounds were fading, drowned by the water rushing into his ears. Even the sound of his heart groaning, ready to burst in a sloppy eruption, was but a distant whisper.


It wouldn’t be long. And, as the water reached to caress his mind with liquid tendrils, that didn’t seem such a bad thing.

‘Fight.’

The voice, colder than all the water and pain coursing through him, muttered from a distant corner of his head.

‘Kill,’ it uttered, faint, like someone screaming from behind a great wall of ice, but growing stronger.

‘Kill!’

As water reached from without, something reached from within. A hand with fingers of frigid mist snaked through his body, expelled the invading liquid. His heart went hard, stopped beating. The fear that such a reaction should cause was gone, the need for air less desperate. The pain in his leg was gone, the limb felt numb even under the saw of teeth.

‘Kill!’

The numbness spread to his entire body, a coldness that quieted the demands of his flesh, silenced the shrieking laughter. He could not feel his arms moving, but saw his fingers guided by something not himself. They slid down with focused precision to the shark’s side, sank into something soft and fleshy. He did not know the beast’s weaknesses, but whatever moved his limbs did, and it seized them, merciless.

‘KILL!’

Lenk felt his hands dig into the ridges of the gill slits. He felt an impassive, uncaring strength course into his grip. He felt flesh tear.

A gout of red wept in the gloom. The shark’s groan was long and echoed through the blackness. The heads above went into a snaking, writhing agony, sputtering through the cloud of blood that drifted into their faces. The jaws relinquished him to the water and he watched the thing twist sharply, retreating into the darkness.

He remembered air, the taste of it in his lungs. He saw the green light shimmering above him. But the strength that coursed through him, the rivers of ice that replaced his blood, would not let him go to it.

Instead, his legs became as lead, pulling him to the bottom. He did not resist, did not feel fear at such a thing, did not hear the cry of his body for breath. All thoughts were gone, retreated from the voice that muttered in his brain, hidden in some forgotten corner of his mind.

His eyes were jerked, forced upon a glimpse of metal in the darkness. He swam to it, heedless of his bleeding, heedless of his need for air. He felt the massive demon swoop over him, heard it scream, but ignored it. Only silver existed.

His fingers groped the rocky bottom of the pool, the glint of silver vanishing as his shadow fell over it. He caught something in the darkness, a strap of some kind. Unthinking, he took it in one hand and reached again. His hand felt a familiar hilt, a leather-bound grip in his own.

Lenk remembered his sword.

‘And now, we are strong.’ The voice spoke to him with what sounded like an attempt at soothing reassurance. It would have caused Lenk to cringe, if not for the smile he felt creep across his face. ‘Kill,’ it commanded.

And, in the death of sound that existed between the blade sliding from the rocky floor and the tightening of his hand around its hilt, Lenk answered.

Yes.

The presence fled him in an instant. He was once more aware of the blood pumping in his arms, out of his leg. He felt his heart pound in his chest. He remembered the need for air.

Twisting, thrashing, he pulled himself skywards. Out of the corner of an eye wide with returned fear, he spied the Deepshriek spearing towards him. Its jaws gaped, six golden eyes narrowed furiously. He thrashed harder, straining, lusting for the surface.

The water stirred under him, the sound of bone cracking filled the dark as teeth clamped shut over emptiness. It sped beneath him. He felt three pairs of fangs gnash at him, grazing the leather of his boot and growling in frustration.

Lenk sundered the surface with a gasp and tore towards the outcropping. He grunted, grabbed and hoisted himself upon the rocky ledge. The stale air felt as sweet to his lungs as the hard, unyielding granite felt welcome to his body. He lifted his sword above him, smiling at the thick steel as he would an old friend.

And in his reflection, his old friend smiled back.

It wasn’t until he rose that he felt the weight in his other hand, the leather strap wrapped around his fingers. A satchel, he realised, water dripping off its black, slick leather. Its mouth hung loosely open, exposing a glimpse of its contents. Yellowed parchment, he recognised with widening eyes, bound between planks of dark leather that reflected no light.

As he stared down at it, the book stared back up at him with papery eyes and smiled.

‘It can’t be—’

‘VILE LANDBORNE FILTH!’

He looked up, simultaneously tossing the satchel behind him as he took up his sword in both hands. Three heads snaked before him, ominous golden scowls narrowed upon him as they spoke in a unified trio of spite.

‘What disease of your feeble grey brain afflicts you so to persist in this stupidity?’ they snarled. ‘You know nothing, less than a fraction of what lingers within those pages, and you come, suffer our wrath, even as your fellow mortal pests are butchered beyond this chamber.’

‘What?’

Lenk knew he shouldn’t have said it, shouldn’t have let the fear show even for a moment on his face. He should have ignored the demon, drowned its words, but they echoed in his ears.

‘This . . . shocks you?’ The three heads bared fangs in unpleasant smiles. ‘We see all that occurs in this tomb of rock and froth. We see mortals dying, blood being spilled, agony, fear, panic—’

‘It lies,’ the voice came rushing back into his brain. ‘Kill it now.’

‘They are broken, mortal.’ Their mouths twisted, caught between joyous grins and hateful grimaces. ‘They have suffered much. They begged for salvation from uncaring Gods.’

‘Ignore it.’

Lenk could not hide the despair flashing on his face, despite the voice’s command. Did it truly lie? The demon had powers, powers he could not contemplate. Could it know? Could it speak the truth?

‘And when none came,’ the heads spoke, ‘they begged for death.’

‘Kill it now!’

Lenk’s sword drooped in his hands and he stared out into nothingness. He didn’t notice the golden-haired head rising above its swaying kin on a neck gone rigid.

‘Fret not, poor creature,’ the red- and raven-coloured heads purred. ‘Your fates are tied. Their mercy was cruel, but swift.’

‘LOOK, FOOL!’

Lenk spied the bulge rising up the centre stalk. The golden-haired head’s mouth stretched impossibly wide.

‘YOURS,’ the other two heads shrieked, ‘WILL BE MUCH MESSIER!’

The air shattered, the stones trembled. Lenk’s vision rippled as the shrieking thunder split the world before him. He flung himself to the side, narrowly avoiding the vocal onslaught as it bit into the stone slab, digging a crater in a spray of granite shards.

Snarling, he pulled himself away from the edge. His ears rang, but he heard nothing, not the lapping of water or stones sinking into the gloom or the curses of the Deepshriek.

He heard but one cold, angry voice that swiftly became his own as he tightened his grip on the sword.

‘DIE!’

Three great bulges rose up the stalks, three mouths gaped wide.

Silent, ignoring the voices of reason and instinct, he charged. Silent, ignoring the quake of his heart and the scream of his leg, he leapt. Silent, heeding only the voice in his head and in his hand, he struck.

He landed, straddling the shark’s slippery back. He teetered, narrowly avoiding toppling back to eager jaws by reaching out to grasp the central stalk. The golden-haired head let out choked protest, jerked down as he struggled to keep atop the beast.

The air split with the other heads’ shrieks, their fury launched at nothing. His grip tightened as he pulled himself to his feet. The other heads snaked about, snapped at him, nicking multiple cuts on his arms. He ignored them, focusing only on the central head’s bulging eyes and the sickly shade of blue it turned as the bulge of air was choked beneath his grasp.

His sword came up and down in a silver blur, sundering the thick flesh of the stalk. His grip slipped as golden locks tumbled into the air and disappeared beneath the water with a satisfying plop.

Time stopped suddenly. The shark came to a halt, the four remaining eyes went wide, and even the blood from his wounds seemed to stop seeping.

Then, chaos.

Their screams filled the chamber, their heads flailed with such fury as to seem ready to rip off from their stalks. The air within the now-headless central stalk came bursting out, heralded by a torrent of black, sticky blood. Lenk released it, seizing the shark’s fin as the stalk went wild, spewing black ichor.

The remaining heads shrieked in unison, barely audible through their agony. ‘What have you done, mortal? What wicked blade do you possess?’

Odd, he thought as he reached for the red-haired head, until that moment, he had never wondered if demons felt fear. Nor did he care as he raised the sword, ready to add another head to his tally.

His arm was jarred as the entire chamber shook. The shark rammed its snout into the rocky wall, causing Lenk’s swing to go wide. He snarled, swept his blade up to carve a gaping gash into the beast’s hide. It groaned, thrashed suddenly and sent him flying to crash against the wall.

He peeled himself from the stone, winded, but still with his wits about him as he hit the water. His sword was up, its silver bright in the water’s gloom as he prepared to finish the demon off.

Through the water, though, Lenk spied the Deepshriek, thrashing madly, its heads screeching. He watched it, squirming about like a wounded animal before it turned to the bottom. He watched it as it passed through the floor, staring in curiosity as its tail vanished into a gaping, black hole, its screaming echoing off the water as it disappeared.

He stared at the hole, waiting for it to return. When moments had passed, he surfaced. His breath was heavy as he hoisted himself onto the outcropping once again. Heavy, but clean.

He stared at the waters for ages, sword clenched tightly as he waited for the demon to return. The surface would yield no signs from its blackness, though, and, with a great sigh, he allowed his sword to fall and himself to collapse onto his back.

His head felt like lead, but through his hair he could feel something resting under his skull. He remembered then: leather, unadorned and black, in the satchel. What he had come all this way for . . .

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