Mallocrest ran so short on food, they had to take a chance and cross the Skreepers’ settlement to the fungus farm at the base of the mountain. By himself he could climb down the cliffside on the other side, even with his guns and backpack, but not with his dear Enta.
They couldn’t eat the coarse and splintery grasses on the barren plain, they’d tried for a few days now, plus they were almost out of water. Greenish brown blades scratched their legs as they approached the colony. Jummy brogs stalked them, too, but they weren’t quite big enough to worry about as long as he didn’t go to sleep.
He cupped Enta’s chin in his hand and turned her face up to him. “The Skreepers are scary, but they’ll leave us alone if we keep to ourselves and stay quiet.” Her lips tightened, that adorable determination in her blue eyes staring up at him, her brown hair covering an eye and sticking to her cheek. Mallocrest brushed it aside.
“I’m not afraid,” she said.
“Fungus stew tonight,” said Mallocrest.
Enta smiled and took his hand. There was no main street, just a jumble of decrepit houses and huts, a little thinner on the left swathe, so they went that way.
Enta’s eyes went wide when they encountered their first Skreeper, triangular head, hollow fangs perpetually dripping saliva down its chin, proboscis leading out to a sac exposed by the off-shoulder garment, the sac draping front and back, several more fleshy siphons stretched out from it, squirming and stretching.
Before Mallocrest could turn Enta away, the Skreeper brought a tiny primate to his mouth and pierced it’s neck with one of its hollow fangs. The creature screamed and convulsed, but the Skreeper held it firmly, sucking its blood. Mallocrest hurried Enta along, but regretted it when they passed the next building into an open square.
Much of it looked normal, like parked wagons and stacked barrels, but in the center lay several Skreepers on a round mass of rippling brown flesh about as wide as their shacks, a pool of bloody mucus in its center. Three of them had their fangs sunk into a pig, another plunged his into the back of one of the pig suckers. All of them had at least one of their tubes dipped into the bloody mucus, the rest of them joined to each other’s. More Skreepers hung around them like they were waiting for a turn. This had to be a piece of the Desiderasha herself.
There was some commotion on the other side, but Mallocrest couldn’t see it.
“Stay close and move very slowly,” he whispered.
Enta did as he said, huddling close to his leg. Almost to the other side, he could see the cause of the disturbance. Three Skreepers subdued a man dressed in black with his hands tied behind his back, their siphons nipping at him as if looking for the best spot to bore into him.
“Mallo, they’re hurting him.”
“Keep walking, love.”
“We have to help him,” she said.
“I can’t leave you,” he said.
“Nooo! Don’t let them kill him,” she said. She pulled him back. “I’ll hide behind these barrels while you help.” She teared up and her voice squeaked. He sensed some of the Skreepers taking an interest in them.
“Okay, hush.” He led her behind the barrels and guided her to the ground. “Keep low and don’t move.”
He reached under his rags for his dagger. Just discourage them and pull the man out, then run to cover somewhere—at least men were faster than these things, but one scratch on any of their siphons and they would hunt him down without relent. Speed. Get in, and get out.
He approached them almost casually, but at a body length away he leaped, plowing into them and knocking all three of them to the ground, taking the man with them. They tumbled off of the victim. Mallocrest pulled the man to his feet and cut the rope. A Skreeper recovered and came at him, but Mallocrest held his dagger up and hissed, which stopped him, but resulted in more Skreepers turning toward them.
The man in black spoke. “Let er get—”
“Shut up,” said Mallocrest.
Mallocrest swung the point of his dagger a thumbnail away from the man’s eye. “Shut up.” He motioned him to follow back toward the pile of barrels. As they backed away, a number of Skreepers followed. Mallocrest grabbed Enta by the arm and pulled her up to his chest. “Hold on,” he said, and she wrapped her arms and legs around him.
He bolted down a row of shacks, weaving between them and taking several corners. Finally he slowed, the man in black still with them. He relaxed his grip on Enta, and she slid to the ground.
“You can whisper now,” said Mallocrest.
“Wul, what er goddim shit were det to slap er down fer—”
Mallocrest boxed him on the ear.
“What er hell if er—”
Mallocrest grabbed the front of his shirt. “Shut up,” he said. “If you can’t talk without cursing in front of the girl, keep your trap closed.” He mimicked the man’s voice. “Unnerstan er what now?”
“Gory guess er do. No mean er badly.”
“Well enough, then.” said Mallocrest. “What’s your name?”
“Fadderhan is what er. Un eeber.”
“You’re an eeber?” asked Mallocrest. As a group, the eebers were about the only decent people Mallocrest had ever known. “I’d peg you for a jitter before ever an eeber. Why are you here?”
“Thut er git a mealer, but er don’t cook er. So er kill a rabbit and er raging fer it. Then er come and thank er.”
“You’re welcome. Let’s keep it quiet now until we get to the food.”
They wove through the rest of the town seeing only a few Skreepers, and then found a depressed area behind a boulder in the fungus field to lay low.
Mallocrest patted Enta on the back and handed her a pouch. “Go collect enough for three,” he said. “Stay close.”
She hopped up and went to work cutting chunks of the fungus from the ground, always happy to be doing something. Mallocrest smiled and cut a small piece off the ground next to him.
“Er nice et one,” said Fadderhan.
“She’s my soul,” said Mallocrest. He pulled the metal bowl he cooked in out of his backpack along with a firestarter kit he’d made. He poured half of what was left in his water skin into the bowl and worked on the fire. “It’s going to be a lot harder getting back out, tomorrow,” he said. “We’ll need each other’s help, but once we’re on the plain, you go the opposite direction than us.” He cut tiny pieces of the fungus into the water. “Are we clear on that, eeber?”
Fadderhan looked at the ground and fidgeted. “Got er.”