This is the most difficult story to tell of them all. Here in this emptiness of time where evil has cooked itself into the sands and seeped into our blood, where the anguish of every heartache is only reduced by the horrors of the next, this is the one that runs through them all, that darkens every step and labors every breath.
We were bedded down in a little depression behind some boulders in a fungus farm. Things were looking up because we’d harvested enough fungus to feed us for weeks.
First thing as ever that morning I checked on Enta. Felt her forehead and nudged her awake. While she packed her little bag, I checked the guns and ammo—my semi-auto rifle, and handguns. This creepy guy, Fadderhan, who we’d rescued from the Skreepers kept looking at Enta in a funny way.
“Here’s the plan,” I said to him. “We’re going through the upper side away from where we came through last night. If we’re lucky, none of the Skreepers who witnessed your todo will be over there. You owe me. So if they start taking interest, you run.” We both knew that would draw most, possibly all of them, off to chase him.
“Why no er shoot ers?” asked Fadderhan.
“Do you know what it takes to get ammunition? At the moment I have three rounds in my rifle, and seven rounds between my two handguns. It would take me several months of hunting to get enough meat for trade just to replace those—if I can find anyone who has some.”
Fadderhan grumbled something unintelligible, and we started off, Enta keeping by my side. I’d badly misjudged the nature of this colony the night before. The sparse area of the city had much more activity between houses than this more tightly packed part. And although some of the Skreepers sunk their hollow teeth into small animals and joined their siphon-like tubes to each other, no piece of the Desiderasha appeared anywhere.
I had once thought that Skreepers were unique feeders of the Desiderasha, having only one species conjugating deenay to the queen mother, but I’d killed one once, and the bladder-like form with all the siphons slithered off its shoulder and lay in the sand. The proboscis left on the triangular head was still too long to be man, but he didn’t look like too distant of kin.
The Skreepers ignored us until we hit another open square. Smaller than the one before, but a lot of them feeding and trading off both fang and siphon. A few in the middle sharing a rat followed us with their eyes, a telltale sputtering from them got the attention of a few others and they started moving in our direction. “Go!” I whispered. But instead of running, Fadderhan ducked through a doorway and shut it.
I tried the door in hopes he knew something I didn’t, but it wouldn’t open. “Dammit. Glide, Enta. Quick but smooth.”
It didn’t work. About a dozen Skreepers had taken notice and were following.
“Let’s go,” I said. I grabbed my dagger and took her hand, breaking into the fastest run I thought Enta could keep pace with. The alleys between the homes were small, so when a few Skreepers turned into the far end, I cut between houses, but was immediately blocked by three more of them.
“How?” I sheathed my dagger and brought out my pistols, which stopped them from crowding us. “That’s right. You know what these are, don’t you?” I pointed them in each direction. “Back off. We just want to get back to the plains and leave.”
One of the originals chasing us rasped. “You freed the goutrunner.”
What the hell was a goutrunner? “Yeah, well, you were about to kill him, and I hate to say it, but we’re kin to a point.”
“Feed the price,” the Skreeper croaked. They moved in on us. I shot the the three blocking our way between the houses, and they went down. I holstered the empty gun and picked Enta up, breaking into a sprint to the next alley. “Hold on, girl. If I tell you to run, you go on without me. You can find our last camp, yes?”
“Nooo,” she said.
“Enta, you’ve got to be strong. That’s where we’ll meet if we’re separated. Just be ready.”
Before even getting to the other alley, the Skreepers were swarming from all sides, skulking from their houses and coming down all streets. There was no way I could shoot enough of them to get through, but I might scare them with the dagger. I holstered the gun and pulled out the blade, then charged for the thinnest gauntlet of Skreepers, roaring at the top of my lungs.
They didn’t flinch, so I spun into the first few, cutting one across the throat and stabbing another in the belly, eluding a third. The fourth got its hands on Enta and pulled her by the arm, its siphons grubbing on her. She screamed. I whirled into it to relieve the pull on Enta’s arm and jabbed at its face, but it dodged and tripped me up with its feet. I twisted into it to take us both down.
The Skreeper continued to pull on Enta as a few more of them reached us. I stuck the dagger between my teeth and pulled a pistol, then shot all three. They crumpled to the ground, and I pointed the gun at the one pulling Enta, its grip getting farther up her arm toward her shoulder. It ducked its head behind Enta, so I pulled the gun back.
Fadderhan appeared, from where, I don’t know, but he was some welcome help. “Let er go and er git er away as er kill er Skreeper.” He reached for Enta, and I released her, then took the dagger from my mouth and sliced through the Skreeper arm that held her. I stood up and roared, the onslaught coming hard now. I beat them, stabbed them, sliced them, and even shot one more, keeping myself between them and the alley down which Enta went.
They seemed to tire and backed off a little but did not leave, now having me completely surrounded.
“I’ll take twenty more of you before I do down,” I said.
“You feed the Turngouter, so you must die.” I had already wounded the one talking, its siphon bladder lacerated, blood running down its side.
Not joining with the Desiderasha by giving her deenay like the Skreepers do was bad enough to these blood-suckers, but giving to a rival species seeking the Desiderasha’s favor would be intolerable to them.
“I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. I have nothing to do with Turngouters.”
“You gave them the kid.”
An horrendous fear gripped me. “He was a man.”
“He is a goutrunner.”
“What—” My body ran cold. “What’s a goutrunner?”
“They hunt men for the Turngouters.”
“No!” I screamed. I looked down the alley where Enta had gone with Fadderhan, but they were gone. I plowed through several Skreepers to get to the alleyway, pushing off a few that grabbed my rags, then I sprinted to the end of it. The streets were empty on both sides, so I ran to my left, looking down side streets, then turned back the other way to do the same. They were nowhere.
Thinking fast, I ran to the edge of the colony, hoping I would get a look on either side if he left the community, or out on the plains if he already had. I saw nothing either way, so I ran out to our camp in desperate hope that Fadderhan really was helping, or that Enta got away from him and did as she was told, but they weren’t there.
From that vantage I could survey the entire settlement. If anyone left, I would see them, and I would know my beloved Enta at any distance.
I sat watch barely breathing the entire day, and as night fell, I peered into the darkness, looking for the slightest movement.
“No.” I said. “No, no, no.” Tears poured down my cheeks. I wiped them quickly so they would not blur my vision and stopped myself from crying.
I stood vigilant over the town for seven days, then ventured into it, searching everywhere, killing a few more Skreepers that made trouble. They soon left me completely alone and even gave me free access to look through their houses, but I knew they were gone.
I’ve been searching for Enta ever since. With every breath, with every thought, with every move, I search for her. In the emptiness of time, it is the story that binds all others.