Hunger by Todd Stewart

“For a young Taldan mercenary, the markets of Katapesh hold great promise. Adventure and glory, and on their heels gold, and then back to the marketplace for food, wine, and women. What you never expect are the delights of the back alleyways; their danger and their downfalls. Pesh burns hot in your veins, hotter than the midday sun. And when it burns, it takes some of you with it.”

Raven-haired and violet eyed, Corin Salavon’s confidant looked up at the Taldan from her apothecary’s table. Her lips were pursed in a small, appreciative smile. Despite the Katapeshi heat, Iaenusalia dressed in black silk and velvet. She wore none of the cosmopolitan city’s cosmetics, and her exotic features and accent defied his attempts to place her origins.
“Did it begin with pesh?” she asked, grinding carefully measured herbs in her mortar. Her intense gaze never left his face despite the delicacy of her task.

Corin strummed his fingers impatiently on the arm of his chair before he could stop himself. Despite his need, he didn’t want to appear like some common addict. He merely had a predilection for the substance, a refined taste for its finer aspects. She was an artist, and he appreciated her skills. She was hardly one of the greedy pack of common dealers who supplied dirty, half refined, often-cut-with-something-else pesh.

Her dulcet voice brought him back from his self-absorbed thoughts. “Please do continue. It won’t be long before I’m ready, and once I am, you won’t be nearly so eloquent.”

He savored the sweet smell rising on the air, different from anything she had enticed him with before. “Yes. It was pesh. Refined pesh, not the raw, milky garbage the locals use. It was no more than a taste that first time, but I remember everything from those few minutes. The faint hint of lavender in the vial, the burn in my nose, and the moment I inhaled. Even the name of the man who gave it to me; Amarus, if it matters.”

She smiled, giving every evidence of intense personal interest. “All of it matters. But let me guess. You remember nothing else after?” Briefly, she passed a flame over a vial that was not dissimilar to the one etched in his memory. She held it in her hand like a priestess of Saranrae calling down the sun’s fire.

“I woke up the next morning knowing nothing except that I wanted another taste. It was a moment of ecstasy more poignant than the touch of the most beautiful whore.”

“It made you happy.”

“It did. But it didn’t last.”

She nodded. “And here we are.”

Corin stared at the empty vial, the tip of his tongue just wetting his lips. “It’s a slow spiral. You need the pesh. You –need- it. In my case I could afford it, and it was on every street corner. I had it when I wanted it. But you always need more. So I took more, but it wasn’t the same religious experience. The light fades to a shadow of itself, and you need more and more…”

“More refined and exotic things.”

He looked away, lost in memory.

“Eventually cost ceases to be the limiting factor. It is the potency which fails to suffice.”

It was true. He had despaired, but as desperation set in, one of his companions on this road had given him a name. The man made a warding sign after saying it, and hurried away quickly, his face ashen pale. Corin never saw him again.
Once he found her, she had been his salvation, his enabler and his messiah. And like a faithful worshipper, he always returned.

“Iaenusalia, please hurry.” Her name was like honey on his lips.

“It will be worth it, Corin, I promise.” Her smile became predatory as she proceeded at an even slower pace, making him fidget, letting him squirm. It would be even better if she waited.

“I just have one question, if you don’t mind.” The thick, sweet fragrance grew even more potent amid the hiss and bubble of her alchemical apparatus. His fingers twitched again, and he shoved his hands in his pockets to restrain them.

“Ask. I might answer.”

“The Pactmasters. Your shop’s not licensed. I’ve seen what happens to those who flout their authority.” He grimaced.

Her response was dry, unconcerned and arrogant. “They have to find me first. And if they do, they’re welcome to try.”

He blinked at her casual dismissal. Either she’d been sampling her own wares, or she had either power or political connections beyond his imagining. And he had never seen her take so much as a taste.

A subtle smirk played across her face as she reassured him. “My shop is much too small for the Pactmasters’ notice. I serve select clients of my own choosing, those who can appreciate my wares, and -need- them enough to be discreet.”
She was probably right. He’d certainly never heard of her before another addict had told him her name. No, not addict. Connoisseur. He had too much class and too much fine Taldan blood running in his veins to be like the street rats begging for money or just for another hit. He prided himself on being something special, much more refined than the common sort.

Yet here he was, the yearning –need- burning him to a dry husk. He clenched his fists as he glanced at the wilted flowers and dying potted herbs on the windowsill. He knew how they felt. They needed water, he needed something else.
He’d walked that street a hundred times, but he’d never seen her shop and its sickly pale purple frontage. It simply hadn’t been there. It was as if it didn’t exist till he knew to look for it. Like the delusional hallucinations of tainted pesh, suddenly it had just been there for him to ring the bell and present himself, his money, and his –need-.

“Before it’s ready, I should thank you. For more than just the drug.”

She gave a small, sardonic chuckle, waving away his gratitude.

“No, really,” the Taldan insisted. “Every time I’ve come, you’ve upped the ante with a more potent extract, or a more exotic substance, one I didn’t have a tolerance for. You never merely gave me a larger dose, and you always watched me the entire time. Truly, I owe you my thanks.”

Every time he’d screamed and thrashed, laughed and wept through the throes of each ecstatic episode, she had been there, her eyes locked on him. He always saw her when he came to, but he’d never seen her taking notes, writing every detail feverishly in a heavy black book. He hadn’t seen her salivating, digging her nails into the table with the shrill shriek of breaking stone. And he hadn’t seen her twice stumble towards him, eyes wet with –need-, before stopping, inhaling, and holding herself back.

She gazed at him intently. “Oh, yes. And I will be paid in full.”

He reached into his belt pouch for a generous handful of gold, but she ignored it. As if she was the one who could no longer wait, she decanted the apparatus in a single swift movement and offered him the flask. Trembling, he gazed at its golden, swirling iridescence. His desperate expression was reflected back at him in the brief, dark moment before he swallowed.

A rush of pleasure/ecstasy/terror/bliss/memories-not-his-own washed over his senses. It was as if he were drinking the purified bliss of a dozen other people. He shuddered, hardly able to stand.

A silken whisper, much too close to his ear.“I know how you feel.” Iaenusalia was touching his cheek with a bare hand. He hadn’t seen her remove her gloves.

“No. No. No.” Corin was trembling. “You can’t have any idea how it feels unless you’ve taken it yourself, and you never partake of your work. Nothing compares. Nothing. You can’t know.”

“I know how you feel.” She spoke with an intense certainty. “You ride that edge. You need, you hunger. Each time you catch a glimpse of that moment, it fades, and becomes harder to reach. You need more.”

Corin twitched and gasped, barely hearing. He never saw her features blur, the human visage melt away like candle wax, evaporate like an oasis mirage. Iaenusalia the Lady of Wasting Intoxication resumed her true form, baring her fangs and filling the air with an alchemical chlorine stench mixed with blood, vomit, and offal. Claws touched his face and burning eyes of violet flame stared back at him, helpless in his ecstasy.

“I know how you feel,” the meladaemon whispered, drooling in her finally unrestrained hunger. “Lesser, more prosaic souls simply will not do any longer. You become inured to them, to the high of their consumption. You need….more. You need souls who have experienced the heights of sensation, experience, and bliss. Souls that ride that edge.”
“I know how you feel, Corin. Because I hunger just like you…”