Dark Hunger


Page 50



‘The tome,’ he whispered, smiling.

And under his head, it smiled back.

Twenty-Nine

BURN

A blade was a peculiar thing to feel, Asper thought.

She had never held one before, only stared at them with envy as they danced to a tune played by more capable hands. Now that she did feel one, it was heavy in her grip, like an iron burden wrought with jagged teeth.

Dripping with blood, she added mentally, Gariath’s blood. The thought of holding such a thing had occasionally crossed her mind, in her darkest anger against the dragonman.

But now that she held it . . .

‘I can’t do this,’ she gasped, ‘I can’t do this, can’t do this, can’t ...’

Reassuring denial was lost in an errant roar from the distant hall.

The battle, as Denaos might say in his cruder moments, had long since spent its best affections and now slid into sluggish, sleepy, blood-glutted cuddling.

The precise strikes from the longfaces’ iron spikes had become vicious, slovenly chops as their purple kindred lay beside their feet. The endless stream of frogmen had choked to narrow trickles, the pale creatures glancing around with dark eyes to seek out their emaciated Shepherds. The demons themselves had either fled or lay in smoking husks that still sighed white plumes of steam as they sank into the salt.

And even the water seemed disgusted, sliding out of the great wound in Irontide’s hide in an effort to escape the battle. Water shunned the place, she thought, and begged her to go with it. Neither of them belonged here.

They were healers. She was a healer. She served the Healer. What place did she have in this slaughter?

She did not desire an answer, but received one, anyway, at the end of her left arm. It twitched now, throbbing angrily. It did not doubt, it snarled. It did not beg, it demanded. And with each moment, it grew harder to ignore.

‘Not now,’ she whispered to her appendage. ‘Not now. I can fight this. I can resist this.’ Only remotely aware of how much of a squealing whisper her voice was, she felt the tears slide down her cheek to land upon her sleeve. ‘Not . . . now.’

‘Then when?’

Asper’s head snapped towards the longface standing over her. For a woman bludgeoned and cut, she looked remarkably calm, regarding the priestess from behind a circular iron shield. The unpleasant grin that split her face, however, left no motive unclear.

‘You look lost, pinky,’ the longface said. She raised her iron spike, slammed it against her shield. ‘Need some help?’

‘S-stay back.’ Asper retreated a step, raising her left hand, then forcing it down against her side and holding up the blade. ‘I’ve got a weapon.’

‘One of our own gnawblades.’ The longface tilted her head to note the gore dripping down its handle. ‘But you don’t look like you could have done that with it.’

‘I . . . I did.’

‘I haven’t seen you in the fight. Hiding is reserved for males.’ The longface smiled, took a step forwards. ‘Females fight.’

‘Stay away from me!’

‘Do your breed proud and stand,’ the woman hissed. ‘If I have to stick you in the back, I’m going to be unhappy.’

Asper took a step backwards and the longface’s grin grew broader. Unhappy, indeed. Calling the woman a liar would seem a bit futile, though. Instead, she tensed, ready to turn, ready to flee.

‘QAI ZHOTH!’ A grating roar split the air. ‘DIE, OVERSCUM! AKH ZEKH LA—’

The war cry was cut short with the sound of paper splitting. Both longface and Asper looked up, seeing a great red fist thrust into the mouth from which it had poured. Gariath offered no war cry in retort, no insult or unpleasant cackle. His blow was vicious, but his fist hung in the air long after his victim collapsed. When he finally lowered it, he gasped with such exhaustion that the rest of him threatened to follow his hand to the floor.

Still, it was enough to send three other longfaces leaping backwards, shields raised. And in the parting of purple flesh, Asper could see the red pools at his feet, the tears dripping from his flesh, the waning hatred in his eyes. His knuckles were purple, wings flaccid on his back, but his smile was large and unpleasant.

‘Lucky, lucky.’

Her attention was brought back to the longface before her, who snorted, spat and hefted her shield.

‘Looks like the darker you pinkies get, the more trouble you are.’ She flashed a grin at the priestess. ‘I don’t need you any more. I don’t want you any more.’

‘What?’ Asper could not help but look incredulous as the longface stalked away. ‘That’s it?’

‘I’ll be back later.’

‘But . . . you were going to . . . I mean, I’ve . . . I’ve got a gnawblade!’

‘There are always more weapons.’

‘You can’t just—’

Stop that. Her thoughts echoed in the sound of iron soles. This is your chance. Run. You don’t belong here. Her eyes narrowed upon Gariath, swinging wide against an encroaching longface. He doesn’t want you here. He wants to die. She swept the rest of the battle. No sign of Dreadaeleon, either. He’s dead . . . you can’t bring people back from the dead. No one can.

There’s nothing you can do here.

The longface swung her iron spike, testing its weight. Her left arm twitched.

You shouldn’t even be with these people.

Gariath buckled to one knee under a sudden blow from behind. Her left arm throbbed.

What, she asked herself, could you even do?

She clenched her jaw, tightened her grip upon the weapon. And, in the faint flash of crimson that ran down her arm in time with the beating of her heart and the burning of her skin, she knew her answer.

The longface’s ears twitched at the sound of whistling iron. She whirled, just in time to see the blade go spinning past the side of her head. The blow was slight, a faint tug on her shoulder that she might have ignored if not for the trail of red that followed the tumbling weapon.

Lips drawn tightly, the woman regarded the empty, trembling pink hand extended at her.

‘Fine, then.’ The longface rolled her shoulder, even as her wound wept. ‘There’s plenty of time left in the day.’

‘Stay away from my friends,’ the human female warned.

The longface smirked at the sudden hardness in the human’s voice. ‘Stay away from you, stay away from your friends.’ She hoisted her weapon and advanced in slow, clanging strides. ‘Make up your mind.’

One quick swing, the longface thought, and it would be over. Pink flesh was soft, weak and tore like paper saturated in fat. If the female turned and ran, it would take only a little longer. Even though the longface’s own gnawblade was quivering in a motionless body somewhere, the chase would be a pleasant distraction before returning to the business of slaughtering underscum and whatever the winged red thing was.

The human did not turn and run, however. Her advance came in bold, decisive steps. ‘Bold’, the longface had learned, was the overscum word for ‘stupid, but admirable’. That made sense, the purple woman decided, since this one approached her without fear. Without weapon, without armour, but without fear, the human extended her left arm like a fleshy, flimsy shield.

‘Master Sheraptus would like you,’ she said.

The woman showed no reaction, no wide-eyed honour that such a proclamation should entail. The longface narrowed her eyes. This one’s death suddenly became more necessary.

They closed without haste, the longface swung without urgency. One quick swing, she thought in one moment and cursed in the next. The woman side-stepped the blow; clumsy, the purple creature scolded herself, but nothing urgent. The next one would do it.

The woman’s left arm shot out, clamped around her throat, and the longface couldn’t help but smile at the weak and sweat-laden grip.

‘This is it?’ she chuckled. ‘You won’t be a great loss to any—’

In a twitch of muscle, the pink arm became something else, something stronger. The fingers tensed, skin tightening around the bony joints as they dug into hard, purple flesh. The longface’s voice was strangled as she felt her own blood mingle with the cold sweat. Impressive, she thought, but netherlings were hard, netherlings were strong.

That thought abandoned her, a sudden panic seizing her as the human female’s hand began to glow. Her eyes went wide, alternately blinded and captivated by the pulsating light that drifted between bright crimson and darkest black.

‘Nethra,’ she tried to sputter through the choking grasp.

No more time wasted, she resolved. No more humouring the little pink weakling. One quick swing and it would be over. She kept that thought as she raised her iron spike to the sky.

‘No,’ the human whispered.

There was a sudden red flash. The longface became a trembling symphony, her shriek accompanied by the sudden snapping of bone, the snapping of bone accompanied by her sword falling to the stones. She looked to her arm, the folded, bunching mass that used to be her appendage as it twisted of its own sudden, violent accord, cracking and bending backwards like a wet branch.


She had felt bones broken before, blood spilled, iron in her flesh. This pain that raked through her was nothing like that, no cause, no physical presence. It was simply a blink of the eye, a twitch of muscle, a snap, and then her arm folded over itself violently again, her elbow touching her shoulder.

‘What . . .’ she screamed through the sound, ‘what is this? WHAT IS THIS?’

‘I’m sorry,’ someone sobbed.

She turned to the human female, saw the tears in her eyes, flooding down her cheeks with unrestrained swiftness. She saw the sleeve of the pink creature’s robe rip and burst apart into blue ribbons, exposing an expanse of glowing red beneath. The light that engulfed the woman’s arm pulsed, and with every heartbeat, blackened bones, joints and knuckles flashed through the crimson.

‘I’m so sorry,’ the woman whispered again.

‘Then stop! Stop it! STOP—’

Another snap. The netherling collapsed to her right knee, her left leg a knotted mass of folded bone and sinew, her heel touching her knee, her iron-clad toes brushing against her rear. The woman collapsed with her, her entire body shaking, save for the arm that dug its skeletal claws deeper into the purple throat.

‘I can’t,’ the human whimpered, ‘I can’t . . . I can’t stop.’

The sensation of tears was alien to the netherling. She had never cried before. Netherlings were hard. Netherlings were strong. Netherlings did not cry. Netherlings did not beg.

‘Please,’ she shrieked, ‘please! It hurts! It hurts so—’

Snap.

She felt her teeth touch the back of her tongue, her jaw folding once, twice over itself. Salty tears pooled in her mouth, leaking out over her shattered jaw. She felt her spine bend, groaning like an old and feeble tree before breaking.

Snap; her other arm.

‘It’s not my fault,’ the human whispered.

Snap; her other leg.

‘What could I do?’ the human whimpered.

Snap; her neck.

‘Forgive me,’ the human pleaded.

Asper would have thanked Talanas for her tears, thanked the Healer that she could not see the abomination she had created through the liquid veil. She would have praised Him for the fact that she could not hear the screams emanating from what used to be a mouth over the shrieking inside her mind. But she could not bring herself to utter any thanks, to remember that she had lips with which to praise.

The pain, the searing red and black that engulfed her, would not allow it. The arm could not let her stop.

Her body was limp behind it, so much useless flesh leaking tears that hung from the rigid, glowing appendage. She could not pull her arm from the longface’s throat, could not form a prayer for salvation. She could do nothing but close her eyes.

She tried to ignore the loud cracking sound that followed. She tried to ignore the feeling of her palm closing in on itself. She tried to ignore the bright flash of red behind her eyelids.

She tried, failed, and whispered, ‘Forgive me . . .’

She had prayed before that she would never see what she did when she opened her eyes again.

There was nothing left of the longface. There was no iron, no black hair or even a trace of purple flesh. Nothing to even suggest that anyone had ever stood there, knelt there, died there.

Nothing, except Asper, upon the floor, and the black, sooty stains that surrounded her. Her arm was a testament, a whole, pink thing that now lay in her lap, satiated. It was whole again, free of burning, free of glowing. It felt normal, good.

Why, she asked her thoughts, does it feel good?

Whoever heard her had no answer.

Three times now, she thought next. Once for the frogman in the Riptide’s cargo hold. Twice for the longface. Three times—

That was an accident, she interrupted herself, no . . . that was . . .

‘Interesting . . .’

She didn’t bother to look up at the sound of the masculine voice. It was far away now, the shadow cast by his slight form nothing but a wisp of blackness to join the smears upon the floor.

‘What do you call that?’ he asked.

‘A curse,’ she whispered in reply, ‘that the Gods won’t take away.’

‘There are no such things as Gods.’

She had no answer.

‘Power, however, is absolute. And you, little creature, have such a thing.’

Asper craned her neck up, feeling its stiffness, to regard the man. The male longface, clad in robes that looked untainted despite the water, blood and ash that seeped through the great hall, looked almost friendly compared to the woman. His face, narrow as it was, had a smile that was not unpleasant and his eyes flashed with an intrigue, rather than malice.

Or perhaps she was just too numb to see it.

‘I . . . I killed her,’ was all Asper could choke out through her tears.

‘She is . . . was just a female. There are more.’

‘I . . . but . . . I didn’t just kill her. I . . . made her go away.’ She stared down at her arm again. ‘There’s nothing left of her.’

‘Truly impressive.’ His bony hands applauded. ‘Imagine my shock. I had no idea females could even use nethra, much less to such . . . ends.’

‘It’s a curse,’ she repeated, more to herself than to him.

‘Whatever you choose to call it, it’s worthy of the attention of Sheraptus.’ She felt his eyes wander over her, felt his grin grow broader. ‘Other appreciable qualities considered. ’ He thrust his hand towards her like a weapon. ‘So, if you would please rise - our business here is concluded and we must be off.’

He was right, she thought as she looked up. The hall was largely abandoned now, the battle concluded in the moments when she had held her eyes tight and asked questions no one would answer.

Who had emerged victorious, she could not say.

The defeated lay dead in the dozens, stacked in heaps, strewn across the floor, floating listlessly in the pools of salt water. Flakes of ash drifted lazily on the breeze as the pulsating, fleshy sacs still burned like grotesque pyres. There were grunts called out in harsh tongues, iron scraping on stone as the longfaces hurried back to their vessel, leaving the bodies of their comrades where they lay.

Of her own companions, there was no sign.

Not such a bad thing, she reasoned; they wouldn’t have seen what she had just done. They wouldn’t have known she had the power . . . the curse to unmake people, to reduce them to nothing. Dreadaeleon’s magic still left ash behind, Gariath left bodies in his wake. Of her foe, there was nothing left: no skin, no bone.

No soul.

She had not the strength to explain it any more, to justify it to them, to whoever Sheraptus was, or to herself. She could not bear to look upon the arm masquerading behind its pink softness, concealing the crimson and gloom. Three times had it emerged, two times it had left nothing, a thousand times had she looked up to the sky and asked why.

And a thousand times, no one had answered.

The male looked up at the sound of a wailing, warbling horn and frowned. ‘The time has come to depart, I’m afraid.’ He scrutinised her through his white eyes. ‘It has been a long day. Frankly, I am not sure you are worth the trouble it would take to bring you along.’ He snapped his fingers, sending a blue electric glow crackling at the tips. ‘Your arm will have to suffice. You can keep the other parts.’

Asper looked up as he levelled the finger at her, watching the sphere of lightning grow. It was not with apathy that she stared, but weariness, relief that came with the grim knowledge that there was only one way to ensure there would never be a fourth time.

The male muttered a word of power. The electricity burst forth with a loud cracking sound. Asper stared at it through eyes with no more tears to shed. The male’s own stare went alight with energy. One more word, she knew, and it would all be over.

That, too, was not such a bad thing.

‘BURN, HERETIC!’

A wall of flame erupted between the two of them. The electric blue faded as the male recoiled, snarling angrily. He turned, more annoyed than anything else, to regard the boy standing at the end of the hissing fire.

Dreadaeleon looked ready to keel over at any moment. His coat hung loosely, tattered in some places, bloodied in others, from a body that appeared shrunken and withered. The veins creeping up from his jawline and the violent quaking that seized his body suggested that whatever damage had been done to him was by his own hand, his magic having eaten at him deeper than any blade.

Asper could muster no excitement at his appearance, nor concern for his frailty. She felt a twinge of scorn, diluted by pity. All this meant was that someone else had to die before her curse could finally be lifted.

‘Ah.’ The male longface smiled at the newcomer with the familiarity of two old friends meeting. ‘I was wondering who that was.’ He glanced at the wall of flame and, with a word and a wave, reduced it to a sizzling black line upon the floor. ‘Decent enough work, really. I was beginning to wonder if any of your breed could use nethra at all.’

Dreadaeleon tilted his head to the side. The male grinned and held up a hand.

‘Apologies. “Magic” is your word for it, I believe.’

‘We have laws for it, too,’ the boy said sharply. ‘There are rules to practice by.’

‘Law . . . rule . . .’ The longface shrugged. ‘I have not learned those words yet. They sound like weakness to me, though.’ He smiled. ‘I suppose I should not be too surprised, though, since all your language seems to convey varying degrees of that. From my home, we—’

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