Dark Hunger


Page 6



And now a trio of them surrounded her, their eyes locked on the gleaming arrowhead that drifted menacingly from body to body.

One shot. One arrow was all that kept them at bay, each one hesitant to rush, to force her to choose him to plant the angry metal seed in. After that, they would be upon her faster than she could pull another one free of her quiver.

Her ears twitched, recalling the threats and declarations they had inflicted upon her from the safety of their ship. Those same threats, that same hunger lurked behind their eyes now, dormant for fear that she would see them in their gazes and extinguish them with an arrow.

The sea roared behind her; the terror of humans was an invitation for her. It would be better that way, she knew, to kill one and then hurl herself into the froth. She would die, certainly, but it was infinitely better than the alternative, better than submitting to the human disease.

A bit late for that, isn’t it? she asked herself, resentful. She forced that from her head, though, determined to think.

Options were unsurprisingly limited, however: shoot and die in the sea, shoot and die in the arms of a human . . . skip the third party and just shoot herself?

‘Get down, Kat!’

She heard Asper’s voice first, Dreadaeleon’s second. The instant she recognised the alien babble emanating from the boy’s mouth, she fell to the deck as her assailants looked to the source.

Then screamed.

Fire roared over her head in a wicked plume, the smell of stray strands of her own hair burning filled her nostrils. The stench of burning flesh, however, quickly overpowered it, just as the angry howl of flame overpowered the shrieks of the Cragsmen. She could feel the deck reverberate as feet thundered past her, carrying walking pyres over the railing to plunge into the water below with a hiss.

She got up, patted her head for any stray flames, then looked at the fast-fading plumes of steam rising from the sea.

That works, too.

‘Are you all right?’ Asper’s voice was joined by the sound of bronze on wood as she dragged Quillian to the shict’s position. ‘One moment. I can check you over as soon as—’

‘Oh, yes, sure, be certain to check her over.’ Dreadaeleon wore a look of ire as he walked beside her, one hand folded neatly behind him, the other flicking embers from his fingers. ‘I mean, it’s not like I did something incredible like conjure fire from my own body heat.’

‘Like that’s hard,’ Kataria growled. She pointed out to sea. ‘Those don’t count, by the way.’

‘Don’t . . . what?’

‘Only kills you do yourself count. Wizard kills aren’t real kills.’

‘Real kills?’ Asper looked up, disgusted. ‘These are human lives we’re taking!’

‘We?’ Kataria asked with a sneer. ‘What did you do aside from try to choke me with moral indignation?’

‘I . . .’ The priestess stiffened, looking down with a frown. ‘I can fight.’

‘Don’t waste your breath on a reply, Priestess,’ came a mutter from the deck, ire unimpeded by her barely conscious stagger. Quillian rose to her feet on trembling legs, turning a scowl upon the shict. ‘One can hardly expect in-humans to understand things like mercy and compassion.’

‘What? Your sword is just for show, then?’ Kataria asked, smiling.

Quillian did not smile back, did not even offer a reply.

Perhaps it was the clarity that the hatchet blow had robbed her of that caused the Serrant’s mask of contempt to crack, or perhaps it was that she simply didn’t want to bother keeping it up anymore. But in that moment, the displays of righteous indignation and palls of virtuous disgust fell away from Quillian’s face.

Hate remained in abundance.

It was a pure hate that Kataria had seen before, albeit rarely, a hate that flowed like an ancestral disease. Quillian hated Kataria, hated her mother, hated her father, hated everything with pointed ears as she hated nothing else, not even the pirates swarming about the deck.

‘Go! GO! He’ll kill us all!’

Or running, anyway, she thought as a tattooed blur rushed past her.

The moment of tense readiness collectively and quickly faded into befuddlement as the Cragsmen rushed towards the companions and then, without even looking, right past them. Precious steel was forgotten, wounded men were ignored, terror shone through every inked face. Kataria watched, baffled and wondering whether shooting them in the back counted.

More men rushed past, these ones belonging to the Riptide’s crew. She knew the source of the panic before she even turned about, much less before she heard the screaming.

‘MONSTER!’ one of the Cragsmen howled. ‘RUN, GENTS! THE LOUTS BROUGHT A BLOODY DRAGONMAN!’

Blood-soaked, she thought, would be a more accurate descriptor of the towering creature striding casually after them. A small heap of broken bodies, twisted limbs and ripped flesh lay behind him: the brave and foolish few who had decided he might not be quite as tough as he looked.

Gariath looked as unconcerned as someone covered in gashes and blood could be. Almost bored, she thought, as he stepped upon, rather than over, the bodies before him, continuing a slow pursuit after the fleeing pirates.

That expression gave her the courage to shoot him a pair of scowls. Once for his cold, arrogant stride when he clearly had only about one more kill to his name than she did, if that. Her deepest scowl, accompanied by a matching frown, was for the fact that he walked alone.

Lenk was nowhere to be seen.

‘Stop running, rats,’ Gariath growled. ‘The Rhega were made for better fights than you can offer.’

A body stirred on the deck. A Cragsman, apparently trying to hide amongst his dead fellows, came sprinting off the deck, only to crash back down as a corpse selfishly tripped him.

He did not remain there for long, however.

‘No! NO!’ he shrieked, a pair of clawed hands gripping him by the heels. ‘GET AWAY, BEAST!’

‘Oh, Talanas.’ Asper flashed a sickened look as Gariath pulled the man off the deck. ‘Gariath, don’t.’

The dragonman didn’t seem to notice her, much less acknowledge her words. Kataria stepped forwards, looking past his terrified victim and into his black eyes.

‘Where’s Lenk?’

He looked at her as he might an insect, shrugging.

‘Dead?’ she asked.

‘Probably,’ he grunted. ‘He’s human. Small, stupid . . . not quite as stupid as the rest of you, but still—’

‘Put me down,’ the Cragsman pleaded, ‘please. PLEASE!’

‘Shut up,’ Kataria snarled at him. Her eyebrows rose suddenly. ‘Wait a moment.’ She knelt before him, looking into eyes that threatened to leap from their sockets. ‘Did you kill a silver-haired man?’

‘Looks kind of like a silver-haired child,’ Dreadaeleon piped up.

‘You’re one to talk,’ Asper replied snidely, ‘and he’s not that short.’

‘I . . . I didn’t kill anyone! I swear!’ the pirate squealed.

‘You’re only making this more unpleasant.’ Gariath sighed. ‘Shut up and see if you can’t die without soiling yourself.’

‘How come you didn’t watch him?’ Kataria asked the dragonman.

‘If he can’t watch himself, he deserves whatever happens to him.’ Gariath snorted. ‘Hold that thought.’

‘NO!’ the man screamed as his captor pried his legs apart with no great effort. ‘It’s . . . it’s all cultural! I was pressed into service! Please! PLEASE!’

One by one, groans of impending horror escaped the companions. No one dared to look up, much less protest, as Gariath drew his leg back like a hammer and aimed squarely between the pirate’s legs. Kataria stared for as long as she could, until the sight of the dragonman’s grin finally made her look down.

There weren’t hands big enough to block out the crunching sound that followed.

She looked up just in time to see a flash of red and brown as Gariath tossed the man overboard like fleshy offal. That, she knew, was about as much honour as he would offer creatures smaller than himself. That thought, as well as his massive, suddenly wet foot, kept her tense as she addressed him.

‘We have to go back,’ she said, ‘we have to find Lenk.’

He glanced over his shoulder. ‘No.’

‘But—’

‘If he’s alive, he’s alive,’ he snorted. ‘If he’s dead . . . no great loss.’

He’s right, you know, she told herself. It’s one human. There are many of them. You shouldn’t want to look back, shouldn’t care. It’s one human, one more disease.

She sighed, offering no further resistance as he pushed his way past her, trying to convince herself of the truth of her thoughts as he moved through the companions. No one bothered to stop him. No one she cared about, at least.

‘So!’ Quillian placed a bronzed hand on her hip, unmoving as Gariath walked forwards. ‘The battlefield is further profaned by the presence of abominations? There is hardly any redemption for this—’

‘Shut up.’

The dragonman’s grunt was as thunderous as the sound of the back of his hand cracking against the Serrant’s face. Her armour creaked once as she clattered to the deck and again as he stepped on and over her.

‘What . . . I . . .’ Asper gritted her teeth at his winged back. ‘I just pulled her off the ground!’

‘Don’t encourage him,’ Kataria warned. ‘Come on. We look for Lenk. Gariath handles the rest.’

‘Oh, is that all?’ Dreadaeleon pointed over her shoulder. ‘There’s one part of our problem solved, then.’ He coughed. ‘By me.’ He sniffed. ‘Again.’

She turned, fought hard to hide her smile at the sight of the young man rushing across the deck. That task became easier with every breath he drew closer. For with every breath, she saw the blood on his sword, the uncharacteristic fury in his stride . . .


The angry cold in his narrowed eyes.

‘Does this mean we have to help Gariath?’ Dreadaeleon asked, sighing.

She ignored him, cried out to the other short human.

‘Lenk!’

‘Chain,’ he grunted as he sped past. ‘CHAIN!’

It occurred to him, vaguely, that the voice snarling those words from his mouth was not entirely his. It occurred to him that she looked at him with those same, studying eyes and he had ignored her. It occurred to him that he was weary, dizzy, surrounded by death and rushing heedlessly into more.

What did not occur to him was that he should stop.

Something was driving him like a horse, spurring him on. Something compelled his feet to move beneath him, to ignore the footsteps following him. Something forced his hand on his sword, his eyes on the mother chain.

Something spoke.

‘Go.’

The chain grew larger with every step, as did the sight of the crimson hulk in the corner of his eye. Gariath had stopped before the chain, muscles tensed and quivering. No matter, Lenk thought, he must keep going, he must fight, he must obey the need within him.

In some part of his mind, he knew this to be wrong. He felt the fear that crept upon him, the terror that the voice was some part of the void to which his mind was slowly being lost. Madness; what else could it be? What else could compel him to fight, to rush into impossible odds? What else could override reason and logic with its own frigid thoughts?

‘Stop.’

He obeyed, not knowing what else he could do.

The reason became apparent quickly enough, reflected in the jagged head of a bloodied axe clenched in meaty, tattooed paws. The Cragsman was massive, apparently of the same stock that had bred the giant Rashodd, with grey hair hanging about a grizzled visage in wild braids.

He stood upon defiant legs, regarding the companions with eyes unwary, challenging them to take the mother chain. Lenk looked past his massive shoulders to the chain itself, swaying precariously as leathery bodies twisted over each link.

‘Reinforcements.’

‘And this one’s the vanguard,’ Lenk grunted in reply to the thought.

‘Meant for me . . .’

Lenk glanced up at the dragonman as he heard the others come to a halt behind him.

‘What?’

‘This is it,’ Gariath whispered, taking a step forwards. ‘This one was made for me.’

‘That’s stupid,’ Kataria said, ‘I can put an arrow in him from—’

‘MINE!’

She recoiled, with everyone else, as he whirled on her, teeth bared and claws outstretched. ‘Those other ones were weak, stupid. This one . . .’ He turned back to the massive man, snorting. ‘I might die.’

She blinked. ‘What?’

‘More than a chance of that, dear boy,’ the vanguard boomed, hefting his weapon over his shoulder. ‘Defiance of man’s law is our trade, but expunging an abomination is the work of the Gods, I am assured.’

‘Yes.’ Gariath’s eyes lit like black fires, his hands tightened into fists. ‘Yes.’ His wings unfurled behind him, tail lashing angrily. His jaws craned open, a roar tore free from his throat. ‘YES!’

‘COME, DEMON!’ the Cragsman howled, beating his chest. ‘COME AND TASTE THE—’

His speech was cut short as his body stiffened with a sudden spasm. He smacked his lips, furrowed his brow, as though he had just forgotten what he was going to say. When he opened his mouth to finish the challenge, a faint trickle of red appeared at his lips.

‘Well . . . that’s . . .’ The light behind his eyes extinguished along with the fire in Gariath’s as the pirate collapsed to his knees. ‘That’s . . .’ He groped uncertainly at his chest, seeking to scratch an itch beneath the skin. ‘That’s . . . rather ...’

He fell face down. A bright-red flower bloomed from his neck, dripping onto the wood.

Denaos’s grin was short-lived as he looked at his companions, wiping clean the long knife in his hands.

‘That one was MINE!’ Gariath exploded in a roar, the deck shaking with the force of his stomp. ‘He was put here to fight ME!’

‘He just crawled over the chain, actually,’ Dreadaeleon said quietly.

‘You gutted him like a fish!’ Asper said, grimacing at the corpse. ‘You killed him as if he was nothing!’

‘Is that . . . praise?’ Denaos shook his head. ‘No, no. Of course, you’re whining. Isn’t that typical? I’m demeaned for not killing anyone and the moment I save us all some trouble by indulging in an act of practical butchery, I’m suddenly at fault?’

‘I never asked you to take a life,’ Asper protested.

‘You don’t even think that it might be necessary!’ Kataria spat back. ‘If you had your way, we’d all sit around praying to some weak round-ear god for an answer while they sodomised us with steel!’

‘Don’t talk to her like that!’ Dreadaeleon piped up, trying hard not to wither under her scowl. ‘She’s right to have conviction, even if it is in imaginary beings on high.’ He blinked, eyes going wide. ‘Did I say that part aloud or think it?’

A hand cracking against his head made a proper answer.

‘Who told you to even scurry out of your hole, rat?’ Gariath growled. ‘You were meant to eat filth and drink your own tears. The Rhega,’ he thumped his chest, ‘were made to kill and die.’

‘Plenty of time for the latter,’ Denaos replied, holding his arms out wide. ‘Humanity didn’t fight its way to the top of the food chain to be condescended to by lizards.’

Well, that figures, Lenk thought to himself. The one time he musters the spine to confront someone, it’s one of our own.

‘Useless . . .’ the voice muttered.

Agreed. He blinked. No, wait. Don’t talk to it.

‘Fight.’

Fight back! Resist! It’s madness, you know it’s madness! You aren’t mad! You can—

‘NOW.’

The voice came with a sudden insistence, a frigid howl that drowned out the sounds of argument, the sounds of clinking chains. The voice left no room for fear or for thought as it gnashed its teeth, fangs sinking into his brain, grinding his skull between them, filling his mind with fury.

‘Command.’

‘S-stop ...’ he whimpered.

‘Lead!’

‘Hurts—’

‘KILL!’

‘STOP!’

He didn’t know how loud he had screamed, but everyone had snapped to attention. He didn’t know what expression he wore on his face that caused them to look at him so.

He didn’t care.

‘Dread,’ he snarled, pointing to the chain, ‘burn them.’

‘Right . . .’ the boy said, swallowing hard and moving towards the links. ‘But I need time to—’

‘NOW!’

No time even to stutter an agreement, the cold rigidity in Lenk infected Dreadaeleon as well. His fingers knotted together in a gesture that was painful to watch, his lips murmured a language that was painful to hear. Lenk watched him open his eyes, watched the crimson energy flower from behind his eyelids as tiny electric sparks began to dance along his sleeves.

‘Enemies.’

‘Right,’ Lenk muttered, spying the hatchet-bearing pirates move to the chain on the Linkmaster. ‘Kat.’

‘Uh-huh,’ she replied, already drawing the fletching to her cheek. The arrows sang in ugly harmony, wailing from her string to catch them in the throat and chest. She wasted no time in turning a smug grin upon Gariath. ‘I win.’

‘What . . .’ Asper asked, her voice as hesitant as her trembling hands, ‘what should I do?’

‘What can you do?’ Lenk replied coldly, his mind focused on other things.

No cry had arisen from the Linkmaster, none of the collective panic that had plagued them upon Gariath’s appearance, not so much as a harsh word from Rashodd. The pirates simply took a collective step backwards, their expressions unnervingly serene. Even Rashodd appeared not at all displeased as failure loomed in his iron-clad face.

Why?

They parted like a wave of flesh, opening up a space at the railing. Lenk’s eyes widened.

The siege engine.

It rolled to the railing, a mass of iron and wood whose immediate purpose he could not decipher. A ballista? Of course, how else would they have got the chain across? Then why weren’t they firing it?

‘What are they waiting for?’

No answer was heard over the sound of Dreadaeleon’s chant as it rose to an echoing crescendo. The sparks that were birthed on his sleeves grew into full electric snakes, crackling eagerly as they raced down his arms and into his knuckles. He extended his fingers, trembling as though they sought to jump free of their fleshy prisons, and knelt down to press two single fingers against the chain.

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