I’ve told you about many, many abominations, ‘feeders’ who exchange deenay to scatter it throughout the world in the emptiness of time. You understand why it is obscene? It’s because it corrupts and spreads horrible deformities. Deformities that they honor and applaud, even while rebuking the non-feeders, the natural species, like man, who trade deenay to birth children, not spawn them directly from the flesh of the Desiderasha.
I sometimes wonder what the people were like when they let the world go wrong. Did they care that we might pay for their sins? Were they so much stronger than all other beasts that they could not fathom monsters that grew out of their work powerful enough to hurt man? Did some deceptive ideology convince them to disregard the sanctity of life and unknowingly send the world toward hell?
Or did they know? Were they so depraved that they knew the monstrosities they were creating?
What would they make of this abomination in front of me and all the kazhashas tending to it?
The closer I came to the hive, the louder it thrummed with the undulations, sometimes falling out of rhythm and quaking erratically. From this distance it looked like a pile of fungus riddled with gravel and many openings tunneled through.
I approached a line of the buglike kazhashas that escorted some dolnits carrying parcels.
Projecting from the back of the dolnits’ heads is a scoop of bone, usually greenish, and inside is purple liquid swirled with red and blue. Jutting from the front is an arch of cartilage and spongy flesh, mostly black, that easily dips into the scoop of another, their adapted method of exchanging deenay. Some of them dipped while they walked. They were otherwise very manlike, though the variation of the colors of the scoop and arch could sometimes be striking.
I didn’t know how to speak to these kazhashas, so I called out to the dolnits.
“Are you in need of a hunter?” Everyone needed hunters.
The dolnit at the end of the line called back. “We have need.” He called himself Blen.
“What have you to trade?” I didn’t need anything, but they had to believe I was bartering.
I admit I inhaled sharply. Relying upon plants and the blood of animals, I hadn’t had plain water since before I found Enta. The rivers are full of unimaginable pestilence, and rainwater will burn out your stomach. For truth, I didn’t really believe they would give me anything drinkable. I followed next to the line, and we settled on ten haffets weight of meat for a handful of water.
“I must know the creatures I’m hunting for to provide appropriately. What kind of meat do dolnits prefer?”
“Small.” Blen smacked his lips. “We like to tear their limbs off.”
I held up my hand, palm opened toward the closest kazhasha. “And these? Where do these things come from, and what do they eat?”
“The fatty meat of the haffets will please them, but they eat anything. They are Children of the Desiderasha.”
My back froze like ice, and the skin on my nape twisted. I should have realized. I’d known only a couple kinds of her children, and they were both scaly beasts—not like these, hard shells and big eyes.
I had difficulty swallowing. “Good. What others have come through here?” I mentioned a few more kinds and noted the kind of food they ate. “And men?”
“You are the only man who now works for the hive.”
“What about the insane men?”
“All men are insane. You are insane.”
I wanted to hit him. “The captives. They must eat.”
His face darkened. “Yes. They must eat.” He suggested surmets, filthy creatures with spines and a scaly tail that scavenge for excrement.
“What about small girls? Surmets are not suitable for them.”
“I never see small ones.”
We were getting uncomfortably close to the hive, and the kazhashas started to eye me and clack the pincers coming from their feathered mouths.
“But there may be some here?”
Blen adjusted his parcel. “I don’t know.”
“Can you find out?”
“I could ask Holblasha,” he said.
“Who is he?”
Blen lifted his chin toward the hive. “He’s half absorbed.”
I cringed. I’d heard stories of such things, but to be this near to one disturbed my calm.
“Inquire of him, please, of all kinds that are through here, and be sure to specify female children. They require very specific foods.”
The jaws of the nearby kazhasha rattled at me.
“Tell them I am working for them.”
“They don’t talk.”
I fingered the butt of my pistol. “How do they communicate?”
“Holblasha tells us what they want.”
The rattling became a fierce buzz that made my teeth hurt. The front legs of one of them began to twitch out toward me with every step.
“You better turn back or they will kill you. I will return with the species counts for food.”
I turned off and veered away from the line, heading back to my hiding place and waiting, glad to be away from the bug-demons. Many turns later Blen came out of the hive.
I trotted his way and intercepted him. “What did you find?”
He listed off many species, even mentioned a couple insane men.
“What about a small girl?”
“We don’t need food for her.”
My heart jumped. “What do you mean?”
“The girl—Holblasha says she needs none where she is.”
Every muscle wanted to choke the information from him.
The kazhashas attacked us, one lunging at me and another biting Blen’s arm and slicing into it. Blen screamed. I fell to the ground and rolled away onto my feet. I pulled my knife and the bug turned for another lunge, but I dove for him and sliced an eye. Its mouth rattled like breaking bones, and it lunged again. I plunged my knife in the other eye.
He continued to thrash and turn, looking for me, but orange ooze covering his wounds seemed to blind him. I charged the other, which had ripped into Blen’s face and chest. I buried my knife in its eye and pulled him off the dolnit, then grabbed Blen’s unwounded arm and pulled him up onto my shoulder.
I sprinted farther beyond than my hiding place and finally dared to put him down. The fluid in his headscoop spilled onto the ground.
I pulled some cloth from my pack and tried to stave off his bleeding wounds. He gritted his teeth and looked at me through thinned eyes.
“Why?” I asked. “Why did they attack us?”
“Holblasha must have willed it.”
“What did he say about the girl?”
Blen squinted and shook his head. “She needs no food.”
His lack of understanding caused me pain in my chest. “What else. Where is she?”
He rasped. “He knows of her, but not….” He flinched and moaned, then dropped into sleep.
I did everything I could to keep him alive, but he soon fell into the unwakeable sleep that is the only sure deliverance from the hells in this world.
“Holblasha,” I whispered. The name of the man—if he still truly is one—who may know where my beloved Enta is right now.
I looked up at the pulsating hive, and it filled me with a foreboding that I was close to an unescapable perdition, but I had to go into it. I had to find this Holblasha. And I had to find out what he knows about the flower of my heart.
Whatever men thought before they played God, rejected life, and started draining time from this world, it now comes to me to face their monsters. Whatever else they knew, they did not know me, Mallocrest, and though they might have despised me, it is I who face the temporal madness of their sins for the sake of a love, about which they can only have wondered.