Dark Hunger


Page 9



‘STOP!’

By the time the word had escaped Lenk’s lips, the sailor’s hand had come down and clapped the boy on the shoulder. In one slow, painful blink of the eye, Dreadaeleon’s stare shot wide open, eyes burning with crimson energy. Lenk barely had time to turn away before his companion instinctively whirled around, bellowed a single, incomprehensible word and extended a palm.

The world erupted into flame, and as the flashing orange faded, screams arose. The sailor’s hands went to his head, trying to bat away the mane of lapping fire that had enveloped his hair. The line of sailors parted as he tore through their ranks, his shrieking following him as he hurtled towards the railing.

‘I TOLD YOU!’ Dreadaeleon barked, suddenly aware of what had happened. ‘NO distractions! I told you NOT to let anything break my concentration or THINGS could happen!’

‘Well, I didn’t know that THINGS involved setting people’s heads on FIRE, you crazy bastard!’ Lenk roared back.

‘What in Talanas’s name is going on?’ Asper appeared on the scene in a flutter of blue robes and a flash of hazel eyes. ‘What happened?’

‘Isn’t it obvious, you shrew?’ Denaos barked at the priestess. ‘We’re under attack!’

‘Get back below!’ Lenk ordered.

‘I should stay,’ she contested. ‘I . . . I should fight!’

‘The next time we’re attacked by pirates who are deathly afraid of sermons, I’ll call you,’ he roared. ‘Until then, GET BACK BELOW, USELESS!’

‘No,’ the rogue countered, ‘stay up here and see if your God loves us.’

Before she could form a retort, her eyes were drawn to the railing. A cluster of sailors had formed, straining to keep their immolated companion from hurling himself overboard while more men poured water on his blazing head. Suddenly, her gaze flitted past Denaos and Lenk, towards the scrawny boy trying to hide behind them.

‘Dread! Good Gods, was it not enough to nearly incinerate him the last time?’ she snarled and turned towards the men at the railing. ‘Douse him and bring him below! I’ll tend to him!’

Lenk watched her go with a solemn stare. Her medicine, he reasoned, would do little good in the heat of battle. And she was in no mood to linger near Dreadaeleon.

‘I knew this was a bad idea.’ The wizard shook his head. ‘I knew it, I knew it. My master always said I’d face this someday.’ He began to skulk off, trembling. ‘Oh, Venarie help me, I’m so bad at this—’

‘Where the hell are you going?’ Lenk howled. ‘What about setting something on fire?’

‘I already DID that!’ Dreadaeleon shrieked. ‘Venarie help me . . . Venarie help me . . . why did I listen to idiots?’

‘No, no, no!’ He rushed to seize the boy by his collar, pulling him back to the railing. ‘Take a deep breath, mutter something, inhale the smell of your own fart, do whatever it is you do to get your concentration back.’ He pointed to the black ship. ‘Just do one more little poof.’

‘Wizards don’t poof.’

‘Well, you’ll be one if you don’t burn that ship down! Just fire it up! Any part of it! We can still outrun it and let it burn.’

‘Right . . . right . . .’ The wizard inhaled sharply, moving to knit his fingers together again. ‘I just need to . . . to set it on fire.’ He licked his lips. ‘Then I’ll be the hero.’

‘Yes.’

‘No,’ a rumbling voice disagreed.

Before Lenk could cry out, before he even saw the flash of crimson, Gariath’s tail had lashed out to smash against the boy’s jaw. Dreadaeleon collapsed with a shriek, unmoving. Lenk stared up at the dragonman, eyes wide.

‘What was that for?’

‘Magic is weak. It didn’t work. It’s a sign.’

‘A sign of what? That you’re a complete lunatic?’ He began to glance desperately about the deck, searching for something, anything that might help. ‘All right, this isn’t lost. Someone just go up and tell Kataria to—’

‘No.’

His breath erupted out of him, driven by a hard crimson fist in his belly. He fell to his knees, gasping. His eyes felt like they wanted to fall out of his skull and roll over the ship’s side as he looked up at Gariath, gasping.

‘What?’ he coughed. ‘Why?’

‘This battle was meant to happen. I was meant to fight it.’

‘We’ll . . . die.’

‘If we’re lucky.’

‘This is . . . insane! I had a . . . a strategy!’

Gariath looked down at him coldly. ‘I can cave your face in. I make the strategies now.’

‘Damn . . . damn . . .’ Lenk cursed at his back as he stalked away He felt the shadow of Denaos behind him and snarled, ‘What now? What the hell do we do now?’

‘Well, you know my advice,’ Denaos offered.

‘No, what do you—’

He looked up and saw the empty space behind him.

‘Right.’

His ears twitched, hearing the sailors behind him take a collective step backwards as the Linkmaster loomed up before them, drawing level with the Riptide. As the first hooks were thrown, the first war cries bellowed, Lenk’s focus was on Rashodd. The great iron hulk’s helmet angled down upon him, over the bone-white arms that grasped the railing to pull up slender, hairless bodies.

‘Gentlemen,’ the hulking pirate boomed, ‘good day.’

Four

THE LORD EMISSARY

‘Useless?’

The rip of bandages being yanked from their roll echoed in the confines of the ship’s mess, just as Asper’s snarl did, sticking in the timbers like knives. The man struggled, but she didn’t pay him any mind. She kept pulling the bandages tight about his charred face, growling.

‘Sermons, indeed.’ She tied the bandage off with a jerk. ‘The stupid little savages could all use one, coupled with a few swift blows to the head.’ Her hands trembled as she pulled another roll from her bag. ‘Swift blows to the head with a dull, rusty piece of iron . . .’ She ripped the cloth free, wrapping another layer about the man’s face. ‘With spikes. A few to the groin wouldn’t hurt, either . . . well, it wouldn’t hurt Kat, anyway.’

‘No disrespect, Priestess,’ her patient meekly said, ‘but the bandages, they’re—’

‘Soaked in charbalm,’ she finished, wrapping them around his head. ‘I apparently have to keep a lot on hand when I’m dealing with heathens who can’t even control their oh-so-impressive fire. You know he gets the shakes after he casts that fire? Loses bladder control, sometimes, too. He’s probably pissing himself right now.’

Don’t piss yourself, don’t piss yourself, don’t piss yourself.

The boy should have been more worried about passing out, he knew. His body felt drained; the heat that coursed through him was all but spent; he’d already reduced two men to slow, smouldering pyres. His hands felt dull and senseless, the electricity that ran through them having been expended on dislodging a chain.

And still they kept coming. The sailors put up an admirable defence, even in the face of the new, pale-skinned invaders. But they couldn’t hold out for ever. Neither could he, and he knew it. Nothing was left of him but spit.

He narrowed his eyes as he spotted two of the pale creatures rushing towards the companionway.

He inhaled sharply, chanted a brief, breathless verse and blew. The ice raced from his lips across the deck between the two and formed a patch of frost in the doorway. His foot came down, hard, frigid spikes rising up to cage the passage off. The creatures turned black scowls upon his red-glowing eyes.

‘No one,’ he said through dry lips, ‘gets in.’

‘I cured that,’ Asper said to the charred man, ‘with a tea I learned after four years of study. I can cure the shakes, heal their little cuts and scratches and make sure they don’t all die of dysentery. That’s what I do. I’m the priestess of the feather-arsed HEALER, for His sake!’ She coughed. ‘Forgive the blasphemy.’

‘Of course, Priestess, but—’

‘But do they appreciate it? Of course not!’ She snarled and jerked the bandage tight. ‘The stupid little barbarians think that killing is the only thing in life. There’re other things in life . . . like life. And who tends to that?’

Her patient said something, she wasn’t sure what.

‘Exactly! I’m the Gods-damned shepherd! I keep them alive! They should be following me! The only person on this whole stupid ship with more godly authority is—’


‘Pray, does there exist some turmoil amongst the good people in my employ?’

She froze, breathless, and turned.

The Lord Emissary spoke with no fury, no sadness, no genuine curiosity at the sight before him. He raised his voice no higher than he would were he consoling a wailing infant. His conviction was that of a mewling kitten.

Yet his voice carried throughout the mess, quelling hostilities and fear with a single, echoing question. Eyes formerly enraged and terrified went wide with a mixture of awe and admiration as a white shadow entered the mess on footsteps no louder than a whisper.

‘Lord Emissary.’ Asper turned to face him, her voice quavering slightly.

From under a white cowl, a long, gentle face surveyed the scene. A smile creased well-weathered features, eyes glistening brightly in the dim light as Miron Evenhands shook his head, chuckling lightly. One hand was tucked into the cloth sash about his narrow waist while the other stroked a silver pendant carved in the shape of a bird, half-hidden by the white folds of his robe.

‘And what evil plagues my humble companions?’ he asked gently.

‘N-nothing,’ she said, suddenly remembering to bow.

‘Instances of “nothing” rarely beget so strong a scent of anger in the air.’

‘It . . . it was simply a . . . disagreement of sorts.’ She cleared her throat. ‘With . . . with myself.’

‘Good for the soul and mind, always.’ The incline of Miron’s head was slow and benevolent. ‘I find it better to voice concerns before violence comes into play, even if it is with oneself. Many wars and conflicts could be avoided that way.’ He turned to Asper pointedly. ‘Could they not?’

Her eyes went wide as a child’s caught with a finger in a pie - or perhaps a child caught with a finger in burned flesh.

‘Absolutely, Lord Emissary.’

Miron’s smile flashed for only an instant before there was the sound of something crashing above. He glanced up, showing as much concern as he could muster.

‘We are . . . attacked?’

‘My com—’ She stopped herself, then sighed. ‘Those other people are handling it, Lord Emissary. Please, do not fret.’

‘For them? No,’ Miron said, shaking his head. ‘They have their own Gods to watch over them and weapons to defend themselves.’ He looked with concern at her. ‘For you, though—’

‘Lord Emissary,’ she said softly, ‘would you permit me the severe embarrassment of knowing how much you overheard?’

‘Oh, for the sake of discussion, let us say all of it.’

His voice was carried on a smile, gentle as the hand he laid on her shoulder. She started at first, having not even heard his approach, but relaxed immediately. It was impossible to remain tense in his presence, impossible to feel ill at ease when the lingering scent of incense that perpetually cloaked him filled her nostrils. She found herself returning the smile, her frustrations sliding from her shoulders as his hand did.

‘Goodness,’ the priest remarked, padding towards the bandaged man. ‘What happened here?’

Her shoulders slumped with renewed burden. ‘Adventure happened,’ she grunted, momentarily unaware of the fact that such a tone was inappropriate in the presence of such a man. ‘That is, Lord Emissary, he was wounded . . .’ she paused, balancing the next word on her tongue, ‘by Dreadaeleon. Inadvertently. Supposedly inadvertently.’

‘A hazard with wizards, I’m informed. Still, this may have done more good than ill.’

‘Forgive me, Lord Emissary, but I find it difficult to see the good in a man being torched.’

‘There is yet joy in simply staying alive, Priestess.’ He looked down at the man’s bandages and frowned. ‘Or there would be, had you left him a hole through which to breathe.’

She began to stutter an apology, but found no words before Miron gently parted the bandages about the man’s charred lips.

‘There we are.’ He placed a hand on the man’s shoulder. ‘After your capable treatment, sir, I must insist that you retire to whatever quarters you’re permitted. Kindly don’t scratch at your wrappings, either; the charbalm will need time to settle into the skin.’

On muttered thanks and hasty feet, the man scurried into the depths of the ship’s hold, sparing a grunt of acknowledgement for Asper as he left. Though she knew it to be a sin, she couldn’t help but resent such a gesture.

He would have thanked me proper if I had killed for him, she thought irritably, if only out of fear that I might have killed him. He’d be at my feet and mewling for my mercy if I were a warrior.

‘Tea?’

She turned with a start. Miron sat delicately upon one of the mess benches, pouring brown liquid from a clay pot into a cup: tea that had been left cold when the Cragsmen arrived.

Unperturbed by the temperature, the priest sipped at it delicately, smacking his lips as though it were the finest wine. It was only after she noted his eyes upon her, expectant, that she coughed out a hasty response.

‘N-no, thank you, Lord Emissary.’ She was suddenly aware of how meek her voice sounded compared to his and drew herself up. ‘I mean to say, is this really the proper time for tea? We are under attack.’

So much blood.

The air was thick with it. It clotted his nostrils, travelled down his throat and lingered in his chest like perfume. Much of it was his. He smiled at that. But there was another stench, greater even than the rank aroma of carnage.

Fear.

It was in the tremble of their hands, the hesitation of their step, the eyes of the man who struggled in his claws. Gariath met his terror with a black-eyed scowl. He drew back his head and brought his horns forwards, felt bone crunch under his skull, heard breath in his ear-frills.

Still alive.

He drew back his head again, brought forth his teeth. He felt the life burst between them, heard the shrieks of the man and his companion. He clenched, gripped, tore. The man fell from his grasp, collapsing with an angry ruby splotch where his throat had been. He turned towards the remaining pirates, glowering at them.

‘Fight harder,’ he snarled. ‘Harder . . . or you’ll never kill me.’

They did not flee. Good. He smiled, watched their fear as they caught glimpses of tattooed flesh between his teeth.

‘Come on, then,’ he whispered, ‘show me my ancestors.’

‘That being the situation, it would seem wiser for us to stay down here, wouldn’t it?’ Miron offered her that same smile, the slightest twitch of his lips that sent his face blooming with pleasant shadows born from his wrinkles. ‘And, when confined to a particular spot, would it not seem wise to spend the time properly with prayer, contemplation and a bit of tea?’

‘I suppose.’

‘After all,’ he spoke between sips, ‘it’s well and good to know one’s role in the play the Gods have set down for us, no? Fighting is for warriors.’

She frowned at that and it did not go unnoticed. The wrinkles disappeared from his face, ironed out by an intent frown.

‘What troubles you?’

If fighting is all there is, what good are those who can’t fight? Her first instinct was to spit such a question at him and she scolded herself for it. It was a temporary ire, melting away as she glanced up to take in the full sight of Miron Evenhands. Of course, it’s easy for him to make such statements.

The Lord Emissary seemed out of place in the wake of catastrophe, with his robes the colour of dawning clouds and the silver sigil of Talanas emblazoned upon his breast. She had to fight the urge to polish her own pendant, so drab it seemed in comparison to his symbol’s beaming brightness.

The Healer Himself even seemed to favour this servant above all others, as the cloud shifted outside the mess window, bathing the priest in sunlight and adding an intangible golden cloak to his ensemble.

Evenhands cleared his throat and she looked up, eyes wide with embarrassment. One smile from him was all it took to bring a nervous smirk to her face.

‘Perhaps you feel guilty being down here,’ he mused, settling back, ‘attending to an old man while your companions bleed above?’

‘It is no shame to attend the Lord Emissary,’ she said, pausing for a moment before stuttering out an addendum, ‘not that you’re so infirm as to require attending to . . . not that you’re infirm at all, in fact.’ She coughed. ‘And it’s not merely my associates - not companions, you know - who bleed and die above. I’m a servant of the Healer, I seek to mend the flesh and aid the ailing of all mankind, just not—’

‘Breathe,’ he suggested.

She nodded, inhaling swiftly and holding the breath for a moment.

‘At times, I feel a bit wrong,’ she began anew, ‘sitting beyond the actual fighting and awaiting the chance to bind wounds and kiss scratches while everyone else does battle.’

‘I see.’ He hummed thoughtfully. ‘And did I not just hear you rend asunder your companions verbally for taking lives themselves?’

‘It’s not like they were here to hear it,’ she muttered, looking down. ‘The truth is . . .’ She sucked in air through her teeth, sitting down upon the bench opposite his. ‘I’m not sure what good I’m doing here, Lord Emissary.’

He made no response beyond a sudden glint in his eyes and a tightening of his lips.

‘I left my temple two years ago,’ she began.

‘On pilgrimage,’ he said, nodding.

She returned the gesture, mentally scolding herself for not realising he would know such a thing. All servants of the Healer left the comfort of their monasteries on pilgrimage after ten years of worship and contemplation. This, they knew, was their opportunity to fulfil their oaths.

She had been given ample wounds to bind and flesh to mend, many grieving widows to console and plague-stricken children to help bury, and had offered many last rites to the dying. Since joining her companions, the opportunity for such services had doubled, at the very least.

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