The kazhashas were tireless, their spiny legs marching in long strides with single purpose, visiting crusties, polbrets, ulderines, and some kinds of feeders about which I’d never known.
I got to recognize the demons individually. ‘Roller,’ whose body turned more than the others because of his longer legs and slow strides. ‘Screecher,’ who never stopped whining like a sick battimore bird. ‘Sniffer,’ ‘Dancer,’ ‘Chink,’ and ‘Beady,’ because his eyes were so much smaller. The others would nip at him, but when he retaliated they always got the worst of it. There were twenty-three of them. Two more than the total rounds I have for all three of my guns.
After following them for months, I learned nothing and seemed no closer to my beloved Enta. They handled the feeders with a sinister tenderness that made my skin feel like something creeped up my ribs and the back of my neck, but they did little other than touch and lick them.
I had no idea if these were the kazhashas who took my Enta. I had no idea if they would lead me to her or to the ones who did. For all I knew, they would endlessly travel from feeders to feeders, and nothing more. I felt as though this was my fate. My final punishment from the master of hell, damning me to march after creatures that took me nowhere but to witness the most repellent men reduced to mindless beasts. My heart was breaking, my mind failing. My feet grew tired.
Yet every night I gathered nourishment, cleaned my guns, thought long and hard about what I’d seen that day, and slept until morning, when the kazhashas marched on their way again and got me to my feet for the day’s travel.
In this timeless haze, it took me some time to realize a visit to a cell of oolblasts was different. Oolblasts moved like men, but it was difficult to gauge the shapes of their bodies because they had a mantle of skin that hung over them like a bell. It was mercifully impossible to see how they fed because they did so by overlapping mantles, the undersides out of sight. They took shelter in many compartmented clay walls, fit together in one uneven structure they all shared. During the day, they milled around the shelter in a loose ring, exchanging with each other.
But it wasn’t the oolblasts that were different. It was the kazhashas. A second group had joined with them and now outnumbered the oolblasts, making it look like the oolblasts were the visitors. The behavior was little different than before, except for one that corralled a man in front of him wherever it went.
The man wasn’t a feeder. There were no deformities or blemishes on him, and he did nothing to take flesh in any form from another. The kazhasha nudged him toward an oolblast, and the oolblast lifted it’s mantle to accept him, but the man recoiled and refused. The kazhasha tried several times with different oolblast members, but the man wouldn’t go.
“He’s insane,” I muttered, remembering Trace’s words. “Like my beloved Enta. And me.”
The next morning, the two packs of kazhasha broke from the cell and headed in different directions, so I had to decide which group to follow. Knowing that the wrong decision might take me farther away from Enta or that it might make no difference at all, I chose the new group with the captive man. I counted sixteen of them, then realized they’d traded two of their own for Sniffer and Chink.
They traveled much faster than the other group, and when night fell, I approached them with my knife drawn and looked for the man. They all stood perfectly still, facing the direction they’d been moving, the man lying on the ground snoring lightly.
The bug-demons didn’t seem to have eyelids. I didn’t know these creatures, so when I drew near enough where there was no cover, I moved slow enough to appear asleep myself. I was almost upon the man, even bending to cover his mouth and grab his arm, and the bug grabbed me and pinned me to the ground. I sliced at his leg, and the knife glanced off, so I stabbed it where leg and body joined, eliciting a chirp as it jumped away, but two more had roused to the battle and came at me.
I dodged to one side, and the wounded one lunged, two big pinchers popping out of its feathery mouth. I parried the pinchers like a blade, and my knife cracked the one it hit. The monster’s mouth rattled like falling bones, and the other two turned back upon me.
There is nothing for me in life but survival. To live as long as I have in this time of hell, horrors, and perils, I’ve had to assess every adversary with quickness and accuracy or die. I live because I am very good as such things. The joints were weak, and I thought shoving my hunting knife into their mouths might deter them, but the parts that looked most vulnerable were the eyes.
I lunged to the opposite side as before, putting one of them between me and the other two. It hinged its neck after me, and I thrust the knife in his orb. It screeched and pulled away, thrashing at its head and tumbling to the ground.
I lunged again, this time to the middle one, and jammed my blade under his eye. It sprang backward and thudded to the ground, twitching and writhing.
The third one circled, keeping a wary distance, but the others now converged upon us. The man sat up and stared at me, mouth agape.
“Get up. Let’s go,” I said.
He got to his feet, his expression unchanged.
The third one lunged again, but jerked back when I slashed at its face.
I pulled out my pistol and hooked the man by the arm. “Come on!”
Several kazhashas followed.
“Why don’t you shoot them?” asked the man.
“It takes a month of hunting to get meat and fur enough to trade for a single round. That’s reason enough to reserve them.”
“You can’t hunt if you’re dead,” he said.
He was a very naive man. He claimed the name Capstain. We made distance, and the kazhashas finally gave up the chase, but the next day I picked them up again to follow.
“Do you know where they’re going?” I asked.
Capstain widened his eyes and nodded. “It’s a good wager they were taking me to their hive.” One more thing to terrify me about my beloved Enta’s safety. His tone conveyed clearly he thought I was an idiot.
“What do they do there?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Am I the keeper of the world’s clockwork? It’s the next step.”
“Next step to what?”
“They try to integrate us into feeders first.” Capstain frowned and squinted. “That’s all I know for sure. But if they fail—like they did with me—I’ve heard tell there are a few possibilities. They kill you or they bring you to the hive to absorb you.”
“Absorb you?” The words astonished me. “How can that be?”
“I think you know. You just don’t want to say it, and I don’t blame you.”
The fear for Enta twisted my spine. “You said a few possibilities. Is there another?”
“Yeah. If the captive is right, they’ll take them as a prize for the Desiderasha.”
I never thought fear could cripple me, but the weakness in my knees, and the pain in my ribs became so intense with it, I expected it to bring me death.
At the first sign of a city, Capstain left me to follow the kazhasha alone. Several days I trailed at a good click, until a giant mound appeared in the distance. It was very strange, and I couldn’t seem to focus in on its shape. I followed until it was close enough to understand. It moved continuously. Shrinking slightly, expanding, and shrinking again, undulations coursing through its exterior, and kazhashas crawling all over it.
There were many holes, and I first thought they were the size of a melon, but I soon realized the kazhasha crawled in and out of them, putting the size of the holes about as wide as a man is tall and the size of the mound itself as big as a mountain. My group of kazhasha went straight for it.
The closer I got to it, the more difficult to find cover, and I eventually allowed my group to go on and watched this abomination from afar, considering what I might do. I studied it for hours and wondered about my Enta. Had she been through here? Had she been… I took a long, labored breath…Had she been absorbed by this living mound of madness? Or had she never been this way, instead carted off to some unknown horror worse than this?
I had to find out what I could. I had no idea what these creatures would expect, but I adjusted my pack and my guns, stepped out of the low shrubs I used for cover, and walked toward the quivering obscenity ahead.