Hunger, Heat and Hallucinations

Chapter 1 – Astarion

What a fool he was. He thought… he thought he’d seen “his friend” disintegrate when one of the tentacles touched him. But it must have been trickery. Because here he is, this “Talven” or whatever his real name is, running around the bowels of the mind flayer ship like he owns the place, opening pods and operating all sorts of alien machinery, complete with a pair of well-armed friends and one of those brain things following suite.

Astarion should’ve known better than to meddle with a sorcerer, and a drow to boot. Talven must’ve used a spell to charm him, the bastard. Seduce him, and lure him here, as food for his Ilithid masters! Hmpf. If he weren’t furious, he might laugh at the irony. And to think, he was about to let him go! Because Talven had been so sweet. Astarion cried out in genuine anguish, thinking him dead. Not to mention the other genuine feelings he’d had while Talven held him. Ugh. He should’ve known that nothing that good could possibly be true. Gods, he feels sick.

Talven and his entourage have gone up what looks like a mesh of sinewy tissue, leading heavens know where, and left behind half a dozen dead imps and an eviscerated tiefling. Astarion strips the corpse of its weapons: a hunting bow, a few arrows, a well-worn but sharp knife. He picks up the slim purse too. Can’t hurt.

The body is still warm. The blood in it, fresh. Just the scent of it is enough to make him sway like a drunkard, fighting the hunger. He’s not fed for too many nights. Starved, he doesn’t stand a chance against whatever may come next. More imps? The four-legged brains? His soft-spoken “friend” and his allies? How close he’d been to biting that gorgeous, scaled neck of his, rules be damned! But he didn’t. Because Cazador would know.

Is it dawn yet, Astarion wonders, back in the city? Gazing through the tear in the belly of the beast, he can’t tell if it’s day or night. The sky burns, the clouds are churning masses of thick, black smoke, and there are damn dragons outside. Clearly, he’s not in Faerun anymore.

Oh, gods, he’s doomed. Even if he lives through this bizarre nightmare, Cazador will never believe him. Glamored by a drow with golden scales? Swallowed by a flying squid? Implanted with some worm and taken to the Hells? Sounds about as likely as the ridiculous fables Leon spins for that wretched child of his. Astarion can just picture Cazador’s lip twitching with distaste. Such adventures, he’ll snort. And yet you return empty-handed. Now, boy: speak the truth, or suffer our wrath.

What would it be this time? The rack? The scalpel? The spiked coffin?

Even if he makes up something more… down to earth, such as getting waylaid by a gang of thieves, Cazador will still punish him. For being too stupid to see the trouble coming, too slow to escape it, too weak to triumph over it.

Not that he needs a reason.

Astarion looks at the cooling corpse again, stoking his anger against rising panic. Fuck it. Fuck Cazador. He’s going to be castigated either way, so he might as well deserve it.

But his deliberations are rudely interrupted by the beating of great wings. Oh, no. Not another dragon! He scuttles up a pile of chitinous wreckage to the overhanging platform and takes cover behind a ruined pod oozing silvery Ilithid blood. A pair of cambions, armed to the teeth, swoosh in through the hull breach. One points at the bodies, gibbering in Infernal, the other at the trail of bloody footprints, and they take to the air again to follow after Talven and his friends.

Astarion makes up his mind to do the same. An opportunity to seize Talven and rip some answers out of him may present itself in the heat of combat with the devils. All he needs to do is remain unseen.

But just as he’s about to descend, the vessel shakes and lurches. The bodies slide as the floor tilts at a sickening angle and Astarion flails for balance. There’s a piercing cry, echoing from everywhere and nowhere, followed by the unmistakable thrum of an explosion. Flames lick through the breach. Debris plummets past it, some of it with arms and legs, and some, with tentacles.

He gropes for something to hold on to, anything. Shards of thick glass clinging to the pod’s broken hatch shred his palm but he barely notices the sting. Thunder roars, the same as when the creature materialized over the streets, and air is punched out of him. Suddenly it’s dark. The fiery skies are gone. He glimpses the moon, but then the vessel lurches again, the pod slips out of his bloody hand, and he tumbles through the breach into the clear, chilly night.

The ground rushes at him from an unbelievable distance. He sees the glimmer of a river in moonlight, the domes of some temple, a spiderweb of paths cutting through sparse woodlands. Wherever this is, it’s far from Baldur’s Gate.

Any moment, now. True death, at last. He closes his eyes and opens his arms to its embrace.

He hopes he’ll make a handsome splatter.


Well. That didn’t go quite the way he expected.

He’s alive. Miraculously undamaged by the fall. And even more miraculously—unburned by the sun.

He panicked when he woke in its dappled light. He scrambled for cover—the same broken pod he had clung to last night, he assumes—and there, in its long shadow, he felt his face and neck with trembling hands for burns and flaking skin. But there were none. The only injury he sustained in that entire unlikely ordeal is the ugly gash on his left palm. If not for the burning wreckage all around, he’d sooner believe he ended up in some macabre new form of afterlife than what his own senses are telling him.

But this isn’t the time, nor the place, to ponder. He must feed. Whatever magic allows him to stand in the sun apparently has not removed the curse altogether, because the hunger is still alive—so to speak—and kicking. Last night’s exertions have left him drier than he’d been in decades. And he can’t afford to be weak. Who knows what challenges await in this godsforsaken wilderness?

After food, he must seek shelter. At least till nightfall. This new condition of his may not be permanent, and he’d rather not be caught with his trousers down when it ends.

Gods, he feels lost in all this… light. Naked. Exposed.

There’s a path not far from the pod. Southwards, it’s cut off by more wreckage. Smoke foul of charred flesh issues from it in great clouds, darkening the sky. The other way is a steep descent to the beach. Shielding his eyes against the blinding glare, he spies an overturned cart amidst a scatter of flotsam and jetsam that used to be someone’s belongings. Might be worth a quick rummage.

But he freezes after a few steps. Someone’s down there. A fair-haired, dark-skinned figure clad in colorless leathers. Well, well. If it isn’t his wayward “friend”. His mouth waters. Talven’s alone, and he’s about to bleed.

Options flash through Astarion’s mind and he rejects them one by one. Sneak up on him? Impossible in the sun. Shoot him with the bow? But then he might die before he can answer Astarion’s questions. Hide in the shrubbery by the road and ambush him? Only he may walk the other way. Unless…

“Hello?” Astarion cries, doing the best impression of damsel in distress this side of the Sword Coast. “You there! I need help!”

And Talven, doing his almost equally good impression of knight in shining armor, heads in Astarion’s direction, at a jog, without a second thought. Divested of his frayed cloak and his bulging backpack, he seems smaller, somehow. Less substantial. Last night, Astarion fancied him taller than himself and heavier by far. He was mistaken. But he shan’t underestimate him again.

Astarion strikes a pose, holding his left arm out so Talven would see the injury and think him incapacitated. But recognition doesn’t strike till they’re almost within arm’s reach.

“Oh, no,” Talven says. “You too?”

He’s really good at this let’s-pretend-we’re-friends business, Astarion must give him that much. He looks positively stricken. Had Astarion not seen him on the ship last night, he would’ve believed him. A thought both frightening and embarrassing. Has he grown that desperate?

“Hurry,” he whines, giving Talven no time to pause and assess the situation. “There, in the bushes! One of those brain things!”

He curses himself even as the lie falls out of his mouth. If Talven is in league with the mind flayers, as he must be, what reason would he have to help Astarion against one of their own? He should’ve thought of something else. A wild boar or—or a kobold!

Talven squints, grimacing with effort, and Astarion recalls his words from last night. The sun kills me. At least that much seems to be true. The irony is almost as sweet as the scent that rolls off him in warm waves. He doesn’t look wounded, but his armor is sprayed, and the cloth lining it, soaked with blood.

Playing the hero to the last, he steps forward to put himself between Astarion and the alleged danger. “Where?” he says, shielding his eyes.

Astarion hesitates. For someone who outwitted him in the game he’d been playing for two hundred years, this Talven is remarkably stupid. To turn his back on Astarion like this, like he trusts him, doesn’t seem the sort of thing a kidnapper would do. Unless, of course—

But no. He’ll not let this act cloud his judgment again. “Just a little further.”

“Are you armed? If you go—”

Astarion seizes him from behind, clapping his razed hand over Talven’s mouth, and pressing the flat of his knife against Talven’s throat. “Stay still—”

But of course, he doesn’t. He jerks, elbows Astarion in the ribs under his left arm and grabs the wrist of his right, trying to pry it away from his neck. Astarion manages to hold on, but at the price of balance, and when Talven lurches back, using his superior mass to his advantage, Astarion looses his footing.

Fine, so he was not mistaken about Talven’s weight after all. He meets the packed dirt of the path flat on his back, cushioning Talven’s fall. A clever move, calculated to wind his assailant, but Astarion doesn’t care for air. Unhindered, he rolls sideways, hooks his knee over Talven’s thighs to lock him out of bucking back up on his feet, and bears down with the knife till the blade draws a string of tiny red pearls.

The smell of fresh blood, rich and hot like copper and fire, overwhelms his senses. Hunger grips him so savagely the world fades from his vision, leaving only Talven’s frantic pulse. Astarion feels the control of his body slipping from him. A familiar sensation, forced upon him countless times by Cazador’s compulsions. But this has nothing to do with him. It’s just Astarion and his dwindling will, eroded to tatters by starvation, fear and exhaustion. For a dreadful moment, he hangs over the precipice, about to turn into a mindless beast that knows nothing but blind, brutal need.

A stinging pain snaps him out of it. His captive is mumbling something, wetting the cut on his palm. Whether it’s Astarion’s blade, or something Talven gleamed in his expression, he seems to have sobered to his situation and has stopped struggling. His heart’s beating madly. It’s shaking his ribcage and throbbing under Astarion’s knife. Tears flow from the corners of his eyes as he strains to keep them trained on Astarion despite the unforgiving brightness of the sky. They’re the color of honey in daylight, flecked with golden dust. Almost a shame he has to die.

“Hello again, darling.”

Talven frowns, blinking furiously.

“You can drop the act. I know you’re in league with the mind flayers.”

Talven shakes his head and regrets it immediately as Astarion’s knife bites into his flesh once more. Astarion swallows, in very real danger of starting to drool.

“I’m going to let you speak. But no sudden movements, or you can say goodbye to that lovely neck of yours. Nod if you understand.”

Talven nods gingerly.

Astarion slides his hand off Talven’s mouth and grabs him by the hair on the back of his neck instead. “Now be a good boy, and tell me what in the nine hells have you gotten me into!”

“I’m not in league with them,” Talven croaks. “I was taken too.”

“Rubbish. I saw you on the ship. You knew exactly what to do and where to go.”

Talven shakes his head. “Guesswork. Luck. There was a—argh!”

Astarion feels it a moment after Talven winces. A hideous squirming inside his skull as his mind is flooded with alien thoughts, feelings and images. He’s back on the mind flayer ship, wondering the strange rooms, lost and frightened but still curious. He taps a glowing basin and the fire in his blood sets it aflame. He delivers a bloated brain from the skull of a dead man and watches it sprout limbs and tails, speaking to him without words. He leans away as a green-skinned, serpent-eyed githyanki barks at him to hurry, to fear, to fight! He prays to the goddess of dancing lights to guide his magic as he twines it with incomprehensible Ilithid enchantments and tries to bend them to his will.

The scenery shifts. He’s in a moonlit street he’s never seen before even though he knows it down to every wobbly cobblestone. Giddy with lust, glee and fear, he stares into a man’s dark eyes, awaiting his kiss—while an obscene, rhythmic buzzing prods at his back.

Astarion returns into himself with the understanding that, somehow, he just witnessed Talven’s memories from last night. That man in the end—it was Astarion! But the vision ran just short of showing him his likeness. Because, of course it would.

He clambers back on his feet, leaving Talven in the dirt. His head’s pounding. “What is this?” he cries. “What’s happening?”

“The tadpoles,” Talven says, pressing his fingers on his eyes. “We’ve been infected with mind flayer parasites. In a few days, we’ll turn into mind flayers too.”

Astarion stares at him. “Turn into—” Wild giggles bubble out of his mouth. “Turn into—”

Talven sits up, squinting at him tiredly while he laughs like a madman.