I awaken. It hurts. But, on the bright side, I have not yet been consumed by the Hunger. By that huge growing mass of roots and tendrils that had chased me from my latest brief refuge. I try to roll over and my shoulder explodes in agony as whatever efforts my skin had taken to start healing around the burn are stretched by the movement. I’d given myself that burn. A necessary precaution to prevent infection. I am paralyzed by the pain for what seems like a long time, gasping and panting. The pain doesn’t really subside, but rather it seems to wear itself out, a troubling experience which suggests to me that my body is starved of basic resources. I am in bad need of water.
I try to push myself up into a seated position. Some of the pain returns at the movement, but not as much. I can’t really see what is around me. It is just tall grass, some of it flattened in a line by my crashdown. There are dark clouds roiling overhead, but there is still some daylight. I start to draw my legs up to my torso to get up, but my right leg suddenly locks up in a painful cramp. I try to stretch it back out, but it won’t go. I add the weight of my good arm on my knee and I manage to push it down and straighten the leg. The calf is still cramped and my foot is locked in a point. After the hamstring relaxes, I pull up the other leg, hoping to stand so that I can use my body weight to stretch the calf back into a relaxed position, but my other hamstring cramps up instead. I sit there, pushing down on my knees for several minutes. It is the lack of water that causes my legs to malfunction in this way.
When my leg muscles have calmed again, I very slowly draw them up and then use my good arm to get up into a crouch. From there, I manage to straighten up. The exertion triggers my hamstrings to try to lock up again, and I have to stand erect for a time until they give up and relax. I’m looking in the direction from which I had flown. The roiling clouds are coming from that way. Could be a bad sign. In the distance, I see bands of lighter color on the ridges. They are the giant roots of the Hunger which had consumed Revak’s dam sanctuary.
What had happened? I’ve seen the Hunger before, and it has never behaved like that. The Hunger is usually slow. I’ve seen samples of the Hunger infect living plants and animals before. The disease is called consumption, and it leads to wasting, then ravenous hunger, then death, and then often undeath as the disease attempts to use the afflicted to spread itself. It is a process that takes hours to days depending on the severity of the initial infection. The Hunger can consume most materials, but it acts very slowly on materials that aren’t soft flesh. This is the main reason that necromancers choose to become enliched. The Hunger that they like to employ as a weapon acts much slower on their dry bones.
What had I witnessed? The Hunger doesn’t just come out of nowhere. Revak had seemed so surprised and confused. There was that horrible sound. Perhaps it was some failsafe? Some trick that Revak had rigged up to dispose of the experiment if it went wrong? But then why had the lich moved to shield the poor creature? If one had set up such a device, and knew of its danger, then wouldn’t one just step back and let it run its course if it was mistriggered? And the speed, the horrible speed of it. This morning it had grown from the size of a table to the size of a foothill. Did Revak’s experiment somehow release some new form of the Hunger that he had created? But he’d claimed not be a necromancer. Indeed, he’d claimed to have warred against them with the magisters. There were too many questions, and no way to get them answered. Perhaps some God might know. It is said that they made the world after defeating the Hunger.
I think my legs can work again. To my left there is an edge to the grass. It could mark a depression which could be a creek or pond. I walk carefully in that direction. The grassy ground feels spongier as I get closer and there is a squishing sound to my steps. There is a wide, slow creek where the grass ends, I fall to my knees in the shallows and take a mouthful of water. I realize how dry my mouth is by how it feels now. I shallow a little. It hurts. Well, to be technically accurate, everything hurts, but in this case, the hurt of immediate concern is in my exceedingly dry throat. I swallow some more. The pain is less. I gulp down several mouthfuls. The water sits cool in my stomach. I try to get up and I am surprised by another round of cramps which cause me to crash down into the shallow water. My burned shoulder lands on a stone and a new shock of pain hits. It’s not a good day.
I lay in the shallow water for a while. I notice lightning flashes in the unnatural clouds above. I should get back to fleeing. I thought I’d escaped my doom earlier, but it has only changed forms. It has worsened considerably. I get my feet beneath me and stand. The Hunger roots in the distance appear to be more widespread, but the spread seems to have slowed for now. I pick my way back to the shore and follow the creek away from the Hunger.
“Where are you going?” I ask myself internally.
“Just away for now, just away.” I think.
“You should find help.” I tell myself.
“Help? Yes. That’d be nice.” I agree. This seems to end the odd inner dialog.
I walk until the light fades and I can no longer see a path. I focus my will through a headache and weave a thick blanket from the grass. Some bugs come out in the darkness, but I’ve got bigger concerns. I probe my burn with my will. It seems bad. I’ll try to address it in the morning. It’s hard to find anything near a comfortable position, but I fall asleep eventually.
I dream of the Hunger, and of the horrible sound that came when Revak’s creation awoke. He was trying to bring back the First People. That horrible sound. The growing Hunger. That poor person. The sound. The Hunger. I dream of the massive size of it. The way it spreads across the land, digging in, and infecting. I dream of people, shambling amid huge Hunger rhizomes that have broken into the walls of a city. Their skin is shining with a network of silvery Hunger, their mouths are gaping with insatiable need.
In the morning, I sense a fish in the creek when I go to take a drink. I will the water to hold the fish and I scoop it up. I kill it with a stone, and use my will to separate the meat. I place a large flat stone on three round stones to form an oven, and I will my grassy blanket to compact itself into a denser wood-like fuel for it. The flames heat the flat stone slowly, but the fish starts to sizzle. It cooks quickly and I pick off chunks of the flesh with my good hand to eat. It’s good and welcome, but I’m still so hungry.
“Eat more.” I tell myself internally.
“It’s all gone.” I reply, bemused.
“There is more.” I think, and I sense more animals around me. Rodents, rabbits, insects, and fish. “Eat.”
“I have to tend my wound.” I remind myself. “And then we’ve got to get moving.” I overrule the hunger and I shift my focus away from the animals and to my wound. I break up the destroyed flesh, and feed the nutrients to the living flesh around it, speeding up the healing. This method seals the wound quickly, but it leaves a nasty scar as there is no attempt to replace the destroyed flesh. But out here in the wastelands it’s more important to stop bleeding and prevent infection. This method also doesn’t do much for the pain, but in my rested state I can suppress that with my will if it gets too bad.
The clouds have spread far ahead of me, but they seem calmer and heavier. It looks like it will rain. I continue my trek down the pass, and after a few hours I start to feel droplets. I will more grass to form a hooded cloak for me. Not just woven this time, but with the tiny fibers separated and then closely tangled together to make a continuous fabric. I wonder at the source and contents of the rain. I suppose it could just be normal rain, but I have a strange feeling that it is alive somehow, that it, like me, hungers.
My senses search out again for food involuntarily. There is a family of groundhogs holed up in burrow not far away. I feel saliva flood my mouth as I study them. “No.” I think. “This rain is too suspicious, given the direction from which it came. I have to do everything I can to avoid infection with the Hunger.” I start walking again. “I’ve got to get to other people.”
“…To eat them.” The voice of my hunger suggests.
“No.” I argue. “To warn them. To tell them what has happened. To tell them what is coming.”
“Ah.” My inner voice chuckles, “But wouldn’t eating them tell them what is coming?”
“No. I mean, sort of. But no.” I change tactics, “Maybe they’ve got some food, eh? More like that fish?” My hunger seems pleased at the suggestion.
The rain continues. I notice that there are less signs life around me now. I dismiss the observation as being the result of critters buckling down to hide from the rain, until I spot a motionless duck next to the creek with a wing outstretched in the mud. I approach and use a twig to shift some of the feathers. There is a web of silvery lines on the skin. A telltale sign of death by Consumption. I prepare to incinerate the poor creature, but then I stop myself.
“Better to conserve your energy until you can feed.” My hunger suggests.
“Hmm.” I agree aloud. I look around the creek some more. There are some fish floating sideways in the water and some of the tall grass nearest the water has taken on a silvery hue. I hike up away from the water. “No more water, no more food. Not until we get away” I think.
“Why worry so much about it?” My hunger asks.
“I don’t want to end up like the duck.”
“You won’t.” My hunger states confidently. For a moment, I believe it.
“Nonsense.” I declare. “The Hunger always does the same thing, it’s simple and predictable.”
My hunger is incredulous, “The evidence suggests that statement is false. Do you feel well?”
I do. I feel great. Stronger even then before all of this. I look at my skin. The web of silver there shines in the light as I move. “I’m okay.”
“That’s okay then, let’s carry on.” the Hunger suggests. We move further down the pass. Feeling good, I start to jog.
I run all day without tiring. My leg muscles don’t burn, my heart doesn’t pound, and I’m never short on breath. In the evening, the rain has subsided. I stop and drink from the creek. There are more dead fish and there is more of the silvered grass, but these things don’t trouble me. I scoop up some of the fish and open my mouth. I find that I can open it much further than usual and I swallow the dead fish whole. Convenient. After the day’s running I’m visibly thinner. I reach out my senses to search for food.
Most of the animals are dead, but I sense their remains, and I feel the mass of plant life as well. I open my maw and will the food to fly in. I can feel the Hunger lending strength to my call. The matter rushes in and I leave a wide swath of land in front of me stripped bare of organic life. I’m certainly not thin now, and as the Hunger consumes the new biomass within me, I will it to enlarge my body. I grow several inches taller, my clothes strain. I turn and open my maw to feed again, taking in more of the available energy.
“Is… this wrong?” I ask the Hunger.
“Wrong? No. It’s this world that seems wrong. What is all of this stuff? I swept this world so clean, long ago. So clean that I could sleep in peace. But now… Look at all of this. None of this should be here.”
“That sound. What was that sound?” I ask.
“Just a minor alarm, triggered by detection of the enemy.”
“Like me?” My body grows another inch taller as the recently absorbed biomass is converted into my flesh.
“No. You are not the enemy, of course, though you once shared their form. I don’t understand why. You will help me to investigate this phenomenon.”
“I don’t know how I could…” I am interrupted by the sight and roar of an enormous fireball streaking across the sky above me, flying towards the direction from which I came. I can’t see the impact, but I feel the Hunger react to the attack on its main mass.
“That’s odd.” the Hunger states as it reaches my senses out in the direction from which the fireball came. Several miles away, there is an enormous will accompanied by a sizable group of smaller ones. “One of those you think of as Gods. Show it to me.” I start running toward the unknown God.
More burning missiles rise and start to fall from the sky ahead of me. These are smaller, and they explode some height above the ground, spreading a burning fluid across the infected wasteland. I speak to my internal companion, “Perhaps it is trying to contain and sterilize you.” Another huge fireball streaks overhead as the smaller ones continue to rain down. I get caught under one of the small ones and I am coated in the clinging fire. I feel it damaging my flesh but not as real pain. I stop and will the dirt below me to rise and cake itself around me, quenching and cooling the flames. I redistribute my remaining unburned flesh to be a more human form. Then I take flight, rising above the scorched pass amid the streaking fireballs. From my new vantage point I see the sea and the source of the fireballs.
There is a giant ship anchored off shore, with great metal tubes pointed towards me, flashing as they belch fireballs. “Endeavor.” I think.
“The ship?” The Hunger asks.
“No, the God.” I have to dodge a fiery missile. “I think the ship is named ‘The Brazen.'” I fly down towards the shore and land on a large rock. Waves crash against the stone below me, and I am illuminated by each burst from The Brazen’s tubes as if it were some rhythmic lightning. Down here the land is not infected, I cannot feel the Hunger all around me. Only within me.
“Get closer.” The Hunger demands. I dive into the sea. Beneath the waves, the sea is teeming with life. Clinging mussels, barnacles, algae, urchins, and starfish. I open my maw and feed on the sea life, taking on mass. The water complicates the process, but not terribly. I start to swim towards the ship, staying deep. I’ve never known such pressure. It causes me no harm. As I approach, two mechanical things detach from the underside of The Brazen, but they don’t seem to notice me.
“Seems Endeavor has sensed something, but he doesn’t know what to make of me.” I think. The mechanical things are squid-like, with bright shining cores that remind me of the scythe-beasts. Magical constructs.
“Let me try something.” The Hunger says, and my arms reach out and then separate from my body. They stretch into long silvery eels that swim at the constructs. New arms begin to emerge from my shoulders.
“Lots of new experiences for me today.” I muse.
“Oh yes.” The Hunger agrees. “For me as well.” The constructs react as the eels approach, suddenly brandishing bright steel stingers on the ends of long multi-articulated whips. One of them lashes out and chops an eel in half. Silver particles fill the water instead of blood. The too halves of the eel morph into smaller eels and dart in towards the construct’s body where they glom their bodies up against it and begin to liquefy. The Hunger spreads over the surface of the first construct. The second construct shoots away from its eel with a contraction of its body.
Above, the booms from The Brazen’s firing tubes stop and shortly after the massive anchor starts to rise. I swim to it and grab on. When the anchor is some distance clear of the bottom, a new vibration starts and two great impellers near the aft of the ship start to turn in opposite directions. I see the silver Hunger finish enveloping the first construct, the shining core is no longer visible, and it sinks towards the sea floor. The second construct continues to evade the second eel, trying to draw it away from The Brazen.
The anchor ratchets its way up to a stop near the surface and halts. I climb up the huge chain to a hole high on the side of the hull. It’s easily big enough to climb through but I search ahead with my senses first. There are several people within securing the anchor chain winch. I reach my will out to the anchor chain below my feet and begin to dissolve the matter into dust which I gather in the air above my shoulder. As my void roots weaken the chain link, the metal starts to bend and strain. It gives with a loud snap and the chain below the anchor falls to the depths.
The Hunger within reaches through me to the dust I’d gathered and it begins to become silvery. I sense that the people within are distracted by the noise of the link snap and the sudden change in tension. I will the now silvery dust to fly up into the chain port and disperse into their faces, as I climb my way up after it. I pull myself in and I see the uniformed crew clawing at their faces and screaming. By the time I climb down from the winch apparatus, they are all lying on the floor, twitching silently. I reach down and place a hand on each of their heads, using the trick that the Hunger showed me on the chain dust to transform more of their flesh directly into the Hunger. I feel it spread quickly within them and it takes control of the lifeless bodies. I will them to stand and I send them out to feed and spread the infection. These are not the shambling Consumption victims I remember, these run recklessly, locking onto targets and pursuing them relentlessly.
I reach down to the wood floor and will more Hunger to form from it. It grows out in a radiant root-like pattern from my palm. I have infected The Brazen now. It will be the Hunger’s ship. I walk out into the hallway belowdecks. There are shouts and screams as my new crew feeds and spreads. I feel Endeavor’s crew fighting back, but their blades and crossbows do little to dissuade their attackers. I sense some stronger wills fighting with more effective weapons. Endeavor’s officers fight with magic, but they avoid the use of fire in a mistaken hope of saving the ship. I drag my hand along the wall as I head up to the deck, creating and spreading more Hunger. I feel it growing around me and it makes me feel stronger.
I reach the deck and turn to look upon the bridge. A stony-eyed mustachioed figure stares at me from behind thick glass. I feel the God’s disapproval as if it has several hundred pounds of weight. But my body is much stronger now and I step forward. “Hmm…” The Hunger within me muses. “So this is what you call a God.” The God raises a hand, signaling to someone behind him. There is a sudden hissing sound as hatches open above the bridge and some sort of fabric inflates into huge rope bound balloons which float upwards and start to lift the bridge away. I try to move faster, try to reach and infect the hidden airship before it gets away. Endeavor frowns and the weight upon me increases. The bridge rises away from the decks of the ship. Fleeing human crew divert to diving overboard or fleeing to some of the vessel’s dinghies. They seem eager to clear the deck. The weight of Endeavor’s gaze is still upon me but it is getting lighter as the airship gains altitude.
On the underside of the airship, doors open and six of those firing tubes appear and start to swivel towards me. They belch flame and the missiles burst overhead, spreading the liquid fire over the deck and my body. I struggle to the rail under the weight of the God’s anger. The liquid burns and burns. I manage to flop over the rail and fall into the water. The liquid keeps burning. I swim downwards. The pressure builds and eventually snuffs the fire out. I shed the burned flesh and find myself much smaller than before. A shark catches me in its mouth. silver spreads out from my flesh and coats the beast’s teeth, and then moves into its flesh. It reopens its mouth to get rid of the problematic meal and I take the opportunity to swim deeper into it. The silver Hunger envelopes the shark and I will it to reshape the mass into my humanoid form. The airship thoroughly bombards The Brazen, and I see flames raging all around the shadow of the vessel above me at the otherwise black surface.
“You have done well.” The Hunger assures me.
“What are they then, these Gods?” I ask.
The question hangs without a response in my mind for a moment. “A nuisance for me. For you, they will be food. Let’s see if we can create more servants.” I swim back to shore, and I pause to watch the burning ship break apart and sink. I cannot see the airship, but I hear explosions from beyond the coastal highlands, as Endeavor continues the fight. I run back up into the pass, to the infected wastelands.
It’s late in the night now, but I feel no need or desire for sleep. When I get back to the infected lands I sit in the silver grass and I reach out to the Hunger. Its senses are enormous, too much to handle all at once. I concentrate on a familiar landmark, miles and miles away. A fortress in the hills on the border of the wastelands. Banonope. An ancient stronghold of the necromancers, conquered by the Order of the Magisters during the latest War of the Gods and converted into a prison for the immortal lichs that had survived to be captured and later for other magic using criminals. If any would make fitting servants of the Hunger, it would be them.
“Perfect.” The Hunger comments. “Would you like to attack tonight?”
“Impossible. It’s several days run from here.”
“Let me move you there faster.” The Hunger says, and I feel my body becoming liquid silver and flowing down into the grass. The Hunger pulls me along itself underground through a network of silvery roots and rhizomes along and just under the surface of the infected wastelands. I’ve no sense of direction for the journey, and I can’t quite grasp what is really happening as I travel. But shortly, I am reforming again, rising from the former flesh of a bear that was consumed by Hunger in an unfamiliar valley. I feel the same. I’m still me.
“Are you?” I new voice inside asks. “Don’t you even remember what you were thinking this morning?”
I remember that’d I’d been feeling a strong hunger in the morning. “Of course.” I respond and the voice disappears. I get the feeling that it had not achieved whatever it had wanted.
I reach out my senses and map the immediate terrain. I’m about five miles upland from Banonope. I exude a copy of my old magisters robe and I hide the silvery web that marks my skin. There is no God at Banonope, so I can just walk in under guise as myself. I start to walk down. It’s better not to use my unnatural running ability as I could be noticed by normal magical sense even at this distance, and I don’t want to appear to be anything more than a magister looking for a little refuge and shelter. The walk tests my patience, but I make it to the high walls of the fortress before daylight. The fortress was built from massive irregular blocks of granite that were inexplicably made to fit together perfectly. Nevertheless, the walls show age and battle damage, and a pile of fallen granite rip rap rings them.
A hooded magister waits in front of the gates, watching as I make my final approach. Two more wait on the walls, no doubt having prepared some magic to unleash against me if I should prove a threat. When he sees my robe he lowers his hood, and smiles, reaching out a hand to me. I smile back.