In hopes of confusing the tsheemarocs and possibly splitting their swarm, I shot two of them, both in front of the ear, and they went down. It was a fruitless act of desperation. Even worse, a gobahr landed not far from us when it bounded into a run and leapt up to grab a tsheemaroc, coming down with a handful of quills. Never had I been so close to one of them.
I could have started shooting to take out as many tsheemaroc as I could, but to what end? It wouldn’t thin the swarm, and I would only lose bullets needed to shoot the ones that attacked us directly. I handed Burr and Leeta each one of my handguns. “Only shoot when they’re upon us.” Enta clung tightly to my leg. I wondered how long we would last.
The tsheemaroc reached us and I started shooting. Reports from the pistols sounded at each side of me. We took down eight or nine, but this was the thin leading edge, and they would overwhelm us soon.
The gobahr near us lunged for the tsheemarocs, and the swarm pulled away from him, leaving open ground.
Is an insane choice truly insane if it’s the only possible choice?
I shot the next tsheemaroc, pulled Enta onto my side, and yelled, “Come with me!”
Running and shooting, I lead them to the gobahr. It roared as it thrust at the tsheemarocs, missing them again and again, but it kept thrashing. We fell in behind it, launching ourselves in whatever direction we had to to stay behind it. Only a few tsheemarocs dared to come close enough to attack us, and we shot them out of the air. We scrambled to stay behind the gobahr as the teaming birds of hell flew by.
The tail of the swarm neared us, the swarm starting to thin again, and I believed for just a moment that we would all live, but then the gobahr caught one of them. He brought it to the ground and mauled it, halting all his thrashing and lunging, so the tsheemarocs closed in. In the back of my mind I screamed in horror, cursing myself because I put Enta behind me—between me and the gobahr, a creature that, given a chance, would break her, and delight in the little snaps her bones would make one at a time.
My kill rate was fantastic, the tsheemarocs falling all round me, but Leeta screamed. I turned in time to see a tsheemaroc carry Burr away. He dropped my gun and went limp, blood dripping to the ground as the hellish bird flew away. I took quick aim and shot it in front of the ear. It dropped Burr, but another snatched him before he hit the ground, and he was gone.
Leeta aimed her pistol toward me and shot just above, hitting one of the devil birds in the neck. I dodged it and put another round in front of its ear. And then they passed, leaving desolation and the sound of gobahrs grunting and bones snapping.
We stood far from the foothills and even farther from the dead forest with nowhere to run, surrounded by gobahrs that would soon finish with the dead tsheemarocs and go berserk over any survivors, hunting us down for their pleasure.
And yet, we were alive against insuperable odds. It was impossible, but it was so, and I knew of only one more impossible act to accomplish to achieve our survival.
I left my beloved Enta behind and charged the gobahr with its back to us. Nearer now than I’d ever been to one, I examined it as I closed. The joint between the head and neck where shell met shell. I leapt upon its back and jammed my rifle into the crease like a spear and shot off three rounds, moving it from one side to the other.
The gobahr collapsed on its tsheemaroc.
“No one will believe this one.” Enta had crept up behind me.
“Stay back, Enta.”
“I know, Mallo.”
I cut and pried at the neck joint, dulling the edges of three knives. It sprang from the body enough for me to squeeze through and released a smell like burning plastic and mold. I frantically cut away the soft insides with a dull knife and my bare hands. By the time I’d hollowed out enough room, several more gobahr came our way. I hoped they didn’t have vision as good as mine.
I lifted Enta and lowered her into the gobahr’s head. She made a face like the first time I fed her swamp fungus.
“Now you,” I said to Leeta. “Don’t touch the tsheemaroc quills.”
She wiped tears from her face and crawled in, then I squeezed in with them and pulled the opening shut.
We waited in the darkness, and for many hours we could hear the marauding stomps of the gobahr, but eventually—for however long, I don’t know—the noise passed. By then the girls slept, so I allowed myself to drift off as well.
The heat of the morning awoke us.
While the girls boiled water in a tsheemaroc’s beak to wash ourselves, I sat crosslegged by the river bank, checking my ammo, appalled that I only had twenty or so rounds left.
We’d just survived the most horrific onslaught of monsters I’d ever faced, and the only thing I could think of was that it took me months of hunting and hundreds of kills to provide enough meat in trade to the Nezzers for that ammunition. It didn’t seem like such a bargain then.