Dark Hunger


Page 7



‘Yes ...’

It came too quick for anyone to scream, the lightning leaping from his fingers and onto the chain with electric vigour. Men became insects in a hail of sparks, tattoos lost amidst the blackening of skin. They collapsed, fell into the water and were lost to the tide.

‘Good.’

‘Gariath,’ Lenk muttered.

The crimson hulk stared down at him for a moment, eyes narrowed, challenging him to give an order. Whatever the others had seen in Lenk that made them obey, he didn’t see it or didn’t care.

Inside his head, Lenk’s mind clenched, as if agitated that the dragonman would not obey. Whether he finally resisted out of inner discipline or pure fear, Lenk kept such ire from reaching his lips. He did not break his stare from Gariath’s black gaze, did not back down.

And when Gariath finally did move to the chain, he did not care why. He looked, instead, to the deck of the pirate ship and their siege engine. He spied the shadow there again, the man with the bone for a head who looked like some displaced spectre amongst the crowd. Again, the man met Lenk’s gaze, again the man smiled.

The dragonman hooked his hands into the mother chain’s clawed head, gripping it firmly. Snorting, he gave it a great shake, dislodging a corpse caught by the wrist in its links, throwing off the pirates who still tried to set foot on it. Lenk watched with narrowed eyes and empty thoughts.

Gariath grunted, muscles straining, wood cracking as he began to pull.

The shadow of a man held up a hand, waved it.

‘No.’

Sailors flocked to the railing of the Riptide, roaring challenges at their calm foes.

Two Cragsmen rushed to the engine, pulled a rope.

‘No!’

Gariath’s wings unfurled like great sails, the wind filled with a shower of splinters as the chain’s head came tearing loose. With a great iron wail for its lost charge, the mother chain collapsed into the sea and its little linked children followed, clinking squeals, while the Riptide drank the wind and tore away from its captor.

Men cheered. Denaos and Kataria shared an unpleasant cackle at the victory. Dreadaeleon managed a smile, looking to Asper, who managed a sigh of weary relief. Gariath snorted disdainfully, folding his arms over his chest.

It was too soon for Lenk to rejoice, not while his ears were fixed to a sound.

The siege engine came to life without boulders or spears or arrows. It shifted upon its wooden wheels, an iron monstrosity of spikes and blades, swinging back and forth. It sang.

A church bell, he suspected, by the look and sound, but forged from a mould more misshapen than was intended for any godly instrument. Its chorus was no echoing monotone droning, but something of many voices that sang out in horrid, discordant harmony.

A shriek banged against a moan, raucous laughter scraped against agonised weeping, a wistful sigh ground against a violent roar. The bell spoke. The bell sang. And it did not fade from Lenk’s ears, even as the Linkmaster shrank in his eyes.

‘That was it?’

Lenk turned to see scorn in Gariath’s eyes, the dragonman looking down at him with scaly lips pulled into a snarl. The young man regarded him coldly, forcing the horrid song from his thoughts long enough to meet him with an equally contemptuous look.

‘You got to kill someone, didn’t you?’

‘I barely bled,’ Gariath replied.

‘That’s . . . a problem, is it?’

Gariath regarded him carefully for a moment before snorting. He turned, forcing Lenk to duck the sweeping tail that lashed out spitefully behind him, and began to stalk along the deck.

‘Don’t call me again,’ he grunted, ‘unless there’s real blood to be spilled.’

‘One wonders,’ Asper said snidely as he passed, ‘just how much blood needs to be spilled before it qualifies as “real”.’

Gariath did not reply, did not even seem to notice her or the bodies he crushed under his feet. That only seemed to cause her face to contort further, teeth grinding behind her lips. Her voice still brimming with ire, she turned to Lenk.

‘I’m going to help the men remove the bodies, someone has to—’ She hesitated, flinching, and seemed to exhale her anger in one long, weary sigh, offering the young man something of a smile. ‘At least it’s over and we’re safe.’

‘Yes, isn’t that interesting?’ Denaos commented as he walked away. ‘Violence solves yet another problem.’

‘That doesn’t mean I have to like it.’

‘You don’t, of course,’ he replied, ‘but what would you have done differently?’

She looked down, rubbing her arm. ‘Nothing, I suppose. ’

‘Then let us content ourselves with the present, bloody and body-strewn as it may be.’

‘Don’t act like you’re some great warrior,’ Kataria snarled at his back. ‘You were more than willing to run away when it was still an option.’

‘I was,’ he said without turning around. ‘And if we had done as I suggested, there’d be much less dead and we’d all be happy.’ He offered a limp-wristed wave as he headed for the companionway. ‘Let us consider this the next time we all decide that I’m not worth listening to.’

Asper muttered something under her breath, fingering her pendant as she walked towards the sailors who were already pulling up bodies, sighing over their companions and tossing their fallen adversaries over the railing. Dreadaeleon made a move to follow, but staggered, leaning on the railing.

‘I can . . .’ He paused to take a deep breath, a thin sheen of sweat on his brow. ‘I can help. I’m . . . just a little winded, is all. Strain and all that. Just . . . just give me a moment.’

‘Take all the time you need,’ she said coldly. ‘There will be a lot of prayers to be said. I wouldn’t want you to subject yourself to that kind of ordeal.’

He made an awkward attempt to follow her after an even more awkward attempt to retort. Instead, he was left furrow-browed and sneering as he stalked the opposite way, leaning heavily on the railing.

‘As though it’s my fault I’m surrounded by the ignorant masses.’ He stopped, glowering at Lenk. ‘You swing a big piece of metal and make a mess on the deck and you get a smile.’ He poked himself hard in his sunken chest. ‘I electrocute three men as humanely as possible and I’m the heathen?’

‘Well,’ Lenk replied, admiring his own blade, ‘you must admit . . . it is pretty large.’

The boy’s face turned as red as his eyes had just been as he staggered past the young man and disappeared into some corner of the ship, muttering under his breath.

Lenk paid it no mind as he walked to the railing and the angry chew-mark where the chain had been dislodged. The Linkmaster continued to dominate the horizon, even as it became a black beetle on the water. Even as its prey continued to outrun it, he could see no hurry aboard, no frenzy of movement as orders were barked for the ship to give chase. It faded into the distance, until he could see nothing of the men aboard it, hear nothing of their voices.

But he continued to hear, continued to see. The bell’s song lingered, echoing inside his head just as loudly as if it were next to him. Just as if they were before him, he could see the black-clad man’s bone-white lips, twisted into a wide and knowing smile.

And, lingering behind them all like gently falling snow, the sound of a thought given a voice, muttering . . .

‘Are you aware that we won?’

He whirled about with a start to see Kataria smiling, leaning on her bow. Her eyes were soft now, two emeralds gleaming lazily under heavy lids.

‘If you want to cheer,’ she said, ‘I won’t think any less of you than I already do.’

‘If there’s anyone who should be cheering and demeaning themselves, it’s you,’ he replied, glancing at the cleanup taking place along the deck. ‘Lots of dead humans . . . must be a good day for you.’

‘Only a few over a dozen,’ she said with a shrug. ‘Barely a dent in their numbers. Nothing worth celebrating.’

‘You’re aware that I’m human, right? Because, really, I’m not sure how I’m supposed to take that remark.’

‘Well, it’s not as if any of the humans I like died.’ She followed his gaze as a drowsy-looking Quillian appeared to assist Asper. ‘In fact, several humans I don’t like survived.’ She sniffed the air, scratched herself. ‘Still, good day.’

Supposedly.

He suspected he should agree; a day that ended with someone else dead instead of himself usually qualified as ‘good’ for an adventurer. He suspected that his next thought should have disturbed him quite a bit more than it did.

This time, dead bodies just aren’t enough.

Had this been a chance raid, some simple act of piracy like he had originally suspected, of course he could take pride in the fact that he could still stab people and thus was still employable. But this hadn’t been a chance raid, there were too many factors screaming that this was something worse.

The calm demeanour of a famously bloodthirsty and deranged breed of murderers, a man who had no business being in the company of such towering and fierce creatures, a bell that sang instead of a ballista that shot.

A chill crept up his spine.

‘Staring . . .’


He could feel it immediately, almost heard her eyes turn hard behind him as they bore into him, digging under flesh, searching, studying. He gritted his teeth, tried not to twitch under her gaze. But something inside him lacked willpower. He felt something shift under his skin.

‘Make her stop.’

‘You’re worried.’

When he turned, her smile was gone. He saw her, then, without the heat of battle to cloud his mind. She was weary: sweat slicked her skin and seeped into the cuts on her muscular physique, her hair clung in dirty clumps and the feathers she wore whipped about her wildly. She was the very vision of savagery, the image conjured up when people spat the name ‘shict’.

And she was staring at him with eyes full of concern.

‘You’re thinking.’ Her ears twitched, as if hearing his very thoughts.

His breath caught in his throat at that idea. ‘We won,’ he gasped, ‘they lost.’

She nodded intently.

‘But they didn’t curse. They didn’t scream. Wouldn’t you have?’

‘If we had lost and I wasn’t dead, probably.’

‘They were calm.’ He turned a glower over the sea. ‘They shouldn’t have been.’

A hand was laid on his shoulder. He felt her through the leather of her glove and the cloth of his tunic, felt her heartbeat just as he knew she could hear his. Just as he knew he should pull away, just as he knew that she didn’t touch humans if she wasn’t pulling arrows out of them.

Just as he knew he could not.

Everything went silent inside him. The wailing drone ceased, the smile vanished from his mind. He could feel himself grow warm again, feel the blood pump through him, coursing under her touch.

She turned him to face her, he did not resist. Her eyes were not soft, but not hard. He had no idea what lurked behind her green orbs as she stared into him, just as he had no idea what to do.

‘It’s over,’ she said with a certainty he hadn’t heard from her before. She smiled. ‘Stop thinking.’

He watched her lay her bow upon her shoulders, looping her arms up and over it. Her hair drifted in the breeze and carried the scent of her sweat into his nostrils as she walked away. It filled his breath, now deep and regular again as he repeated calming words to himself.

‘It’s over.’ He rubbed his eyes, laid his sword against the railing and leaned backwards. ‘It’s over.’

He heard the voice. It was soft, fading even as it spoke, but he heard it. He heard it speak a single word, ask a single question.

‘Over?’

And then, he heard it laugh.

Three

PRESIDING OVER RUIN

By the time Lenk clambered up the stairs leading to the helm, the cheering had died down. A few fellows enthused at not being killed had dared to clap him on the back once Kataria had left his side, finding boldness in the absence of his maligned companion. Their enthusiasm was slain as surely as their fellows, however, when they cast a glance upon the deck and surveyed the work that had to be done.

There were dead to tend.

Lenk spared a glancing frown for the men below. Some were veterans, having seen the deaths of comrades before, though likely none so gruesome. Most were young men who’d only seen elders pass away in their sleep. He hesitated at the top of the helm, his gaze lingering upon a young man dragging one of the dead from the deck.

A part of him wanted to turn back around, put a hand on the young man’s shoulder and move him below where Asper tended to the wounded, mortally or otherwise. The sailor was possibly the same age as Lenk. Hands on shoulders should be wrinkled, he thought, weathered with age and experience, broad from embracing children and wives. Young hands, calloused hands, were not meant to be placed on shoulders.

Old hands grip people. Young hands grip swords.

His grandfather had told him that once. His grandfather’s hands had been young to the day he died. He blinked, drew in a deep breath. Something in his mind stirred: the roar of fire, shadows dancing against sheets of orange, people falling beneath flashes of silver, smiles that twisted into screams. His grandfather . . .

No. He commanded himself to force the images from his mind. Not today. Not now.

He turned his back on the deck. There were plenty of men with weathered, wrinkled hands on the ship. His still gripped a sword.

At the ship’s impressive wheel stood Captain Argaol, looking decidedly less fazed than he should have with dead men on his deck. His dark features were stern, eyes fixed straight ahead, not even looking at the young man. His only movement was to reach down and smooth the sash of commendation medals he had earned from his various charters.

His mate, Sebast, a man who had spent so much time in the sun that he had both the appearance and smell of jerked beef, dutifully moved aside as Lenk stepped onto the quarterdeck. He sniffed, dipped a mop into a wooden bucket and proceeded to wipe away the blood that had been spilled on the ship’s timbers as casually as if he were wiping away the lunch that Lenk had spilled some days earlier.

Lenk gave him a cursory nod before stepping up to the captain’s side.

‘Well, we did it.’ His voice sounded alien to his own ears.

‘Did what?’ The captain’s voice seemed much deeper than it should have, given his size. The man stood only a little taller than Lenk, his height perhaps diminished due to the lack of hair upon his head.

‘Drove off the pirates.’

‘And?’

‘I thought you’d like to know.’

‘I can see the whole Gods-cursed ship from up here, boy. You think I didn’t see that?’ He glanced at the young man with a sneer. ‘What? You wanted some credit for breaking the chain? Smart move there - wish you’d thought of it early enough to spare my men.’

‘It was a fight,’ Lenk replied coldly. ‘People die.’

‘How fortunate we have you to be so casually nonchalant about it. I’ve been in this business awhile, boy. I know what happens.’

‘Then you’ll also know to choose your insults carefully. Many more of your men would have died if not for us.’ The young man gestured to the deck. ‘Or did you not see how many pirates we killed?’

‘Oh, I saw,’ the captain replied, seething. ‘I also saw you making eyes at the escape vessel while you were down there.’ He levelled an accusing finger. ‘You’d have run like the heathens you are and left the rest of us to die if you could have.’ He grunted and glowered at his first mate. ‘What’d I tell you about taking adventurers aboard?’

‘Bad idea,’ Sebast replied without looking up. ‘Bad philosophically, bad practically. Still, they did undoubtedly save about as many as they killed, Captain. Perhaps a little gratitude wouldn’t be inappropriate?’

‘I’m grateful enough that the heathen scum didn’t decide to slaughter us to try and curry favour with the Cragscum, aye,’ the captain agreed.

The adventurer reputation for opportune betrayal was not unknown to Lenk, but he still took slight offence at Argaol’s accusation. It wasn’t as though he had seriously considered turning on the crew.

Not until now, anyway.

‘So, you’ll forgive me if I’m not at the pinnacle of appreciativeness’ Argaol continued, scowling at the young man. ‘And you’ll forgive me for saying that if you ever so much as think of fleeing and leaving my men without escape again, I’ll chop you up and serve you in the mess.’

‘Hope you’ve got a bigger sword,’ Lenk muttered under his breath.

‘What was that?’

‘I said if you’re so concerned for your crew, perhaps you should be down there moving corpses and grieving.’ Lenk cast a sneer of his own back at the captain. ‘I promise I won’t look if you start crying.’

‘Ah, we’ve got a merry jester here, in addition to a filthy adventurer. I bet a man of such diverse talents would like a lovely strawberry tart.’ He snapped two thin fingers. ‘Sebast, fetch the fanciful adventurer a tart!’

‘As you like, Captain.’ The mate set aside his mop and began to trundle down the steps.

‘Get back here, you nit,’ Argaol snarled. ‘I was being sarcastic.’

‘Facetious,’ Lenk corrected.

‘What?’ He sighed, slumping at the wheel slightly. ‘You got word for me, boy? Or did you come up here to demonstrate your impeccable wit?’

‘A little over a dozen of the Cragsmen dead, fewer of our own.’

‘My own,’ Argaol snapped back fiercely. ‘The Riptide sails under Argaol, the men serve under Argaol, not some runty adventurer.’

The mate leaned upon his mop, peering thoughtfully at the young man. ‘Where is it you said you came from, Mister Lenk?’

‘Steadbrook,’ the young man replied, ‘in Muraska.’

‘Steadbrook, is it? That can hardly be right. I’ve travelled up, down, through and around Muraska and I’ve never heard of any such town.’

Lenk opened his mouth. His voice caught in his throat as he blinked. ‘It’s gone,’ he whispered, choked, ‘burned.’

‘Such a shame.’ Whatever sincerity the first mate might have hoped to convey was lost as he returned to his mop-ping. ‘It would have been interesting to visit a place that produces such short men with grey hair.’

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