When Enta was with me, the world changed. With all the evil in this emptiness in time, there was still something more, something inexpressibly big as long as she was in the world. It seemed this hell had to exist for Enta to exist, and everything I did either honored her or dishonored her. Every now and then I come to a nexus of the world before her and the world after, where my mind gets rent between them in a decision that breaks my heart.
As the sun thinned upon the barren horizon, the hive dimmed, but I could still feel it throbbing, filling the night with its obscenity. Inside was Holblasha, a half-man, who knew something of my beloved Enta, and I would find out what.
I’d studied the giant bugs called kazhashas for months, but I still didn’t understand them like most monsters. I can tell you how many quills you’d find on the bottom of an adult tscheemaroc just by looking at one, and I could predict the behavior of a ghowat with precision that would astonish you, but these monsters were a different kind, and I still hadn’t fully understood their intelligence or learned all their sensitivities.
They sensed most things through taste, I believed, but it seemed to me their tongues caught scents from a ways off, and their globular eyes were powerful for seeing all-around, but I sometimes had the sense that they couldn’t decipher details well. I knew well enough, though, that they would not let me walk up and enter the hive without interfering.
When the sun went down, the lines of bugs seemed to go dormant, but the guards at the ground-level openings were alert, constantly scanning.
I left my bag behind, but fixed a sack tied to my waist with flints, rags soaked with litchy oil, and a small bladderful of the oil straight.
Gribs were my way in. Nasty rodents with scaled heads and barbs on their tails, and a stench that scalded the inside of my nose. They would hide my scent from the kazhashas. The kazhashas ate gribs, but during the day the vermine stayed far away from them, and during the dormancy of night, the kazhashas didn’t hunt, so the gribs scuttled close to the bugs and the hive throughout the night. The dawn was their dangerous time, for they didn’t notice enough to leave before a few bugs awoke and skewered them with their claws.
I managed to kill eleven of them and stitched their corpses together in a cloak. Even with a cloth soaked in urine strapped over my face, my nostrils burned as I pulled the vermin over me. I approached the hive through the scrub, ducking low until it would no longer hide me. I lay on the ground and crawled, arms and legs out as far as I could manage to keep the lowest possible, hopeful that I would look like a pack of gribs scrabbling around for food.
I worked my way to the hive as far away from the dormant ones I could manage, and reached the base of it away from the conduits with the guards. The side was rough, yet malleable, as I’d hoped, giving me plenty to grab onto. The night was pitch black, so I started up the side, shedding the cloak of dead glibs, and an outcry of hisses, screeches, and grinding teeth arose from all the bugs, just as I ducked into the first tunnel.
I’d underestimated their vision, I think. Inside, the floor was spongey beneath my feet, and I heard banging and stomping of frantic creatures that had awoken. One came from an adjoining tunnel, and I quickly dispatched it with my long blade through his eye, deep into his head.
The hive quaked as if trying to shake me out, but I kept on, pistols out, killing bugs and losing count. I had to guess where Holblasha was, so I went upwards, searching every conduit, but didn’t find him. When I started my way down, I set fire to litchy-oil cloths and left them behind to smoke the bugs out. I found an alcove and hid to catch my breath, the walls undulating. They seemed to breathe and murmur.
“Holblahsa,” I whispered. The wall rippled, and I knew it observed me. Probably told the kazhasha where I was, so I ventured into the tunnels again and ran across several bugs coming at me. This was the advantage of these tunnels. I could count five of them, but only one could reach me at a time. Two appeared on the other side to show me the disadvantage. I had nowhere to go. I fired my forty-five at the five to slow them, and shot more carefully at the other two, hitting them in the eyes and dropping them. I clambered over their bodies and ducked into a conduit sliding downwards into a lower chamber.
Inside I found him. I expected half of a man, but what I beheld horrified me. The man was imbedded in the wall, part of the hive, much of his body taking on the texture, undulating and quaking along with it. His arms stretched outwards as if he leaped to escape something, and his mouth gaped open in a frown gushing dread.
He screamed at me.
I lit some litchy-oil rags and tossed them out each tunnel, and smoke came back into the chamber, but the wet rag over my face filtered it well enough.
“Holblasha.” I slapped him, and he screamed all the more. “Where is the little girl.”
He stopped and looked confused. “You’re the hunter?”
“She needs no food. Begone.”
“Why doesn’t she need food?”
“They have plenty for her.”
“Who has plenty?”
“The core gets all it needs from the colonies.” His voice grew into a yell. “So they have no need for a hunter.” He screamed again.
A bug appeared through the smoke from one conduit, and I shot him.
“Where is this core?”
He screamed again. “You’re not a hunter! What are you doing?”
I held my knife up to his eye, ready to gouge it out for the location of the hive, but I couldn’t. This was one of those moments, a nexus between Mallocrest before Enta and after, and I could not torture him for it.
I ground my teeth. “Where is the core hive?”
He screamed a long wordless scream.
A bug came down the conduit I’d slid from. I shot it, but another followed and then another. It was difficult to see through the building smoke, and when I stepped toward one to slash at his eye, I was stopped by Holblasha’s firm grip on my arm with the gun. I kicked at the bug and arched my blade underneath to stab Holblasha where his heart should be. He choked and collapsed motionless, but remained suspended in the wall.
I turned on the bug and shot him, ducking under as another nearly took my head off with his claw. I slashed at it, partially severing it, then twisted away into the smoke. The tremors in the hive increased as if building to a grand crescendo. I fought my way down, with knife and guns. It would take me years to replace this ammo. I dropped more litchy-oil cloths and lit them.
I could see the horizon through a conduit ahead, but there were frenzies of bugs coming in. I turned away and found an alcove where I carved out some of the wall. It shuddered as though feeling the pain. I poured the oil out of the bladder and lit it. It burst into flame, and I watched, hoping this thing was flammable. When I saw the flame climb the wall, I couldn’t help letting a small ‘whoop’ escape. I stepped back into the tunnel and fought my way to another opening, but soon the bugs were scattering to the outside, uninterested in me, attempting to escape the smoke and the inferno.
I stumbled out with them, and as soon as I hit firm ground I broke into a sprint, and didn’t stop until I’d reached my hiding place and my bag. Before I’d even caught my breath, I could only think of the next step. I had to intercept another feeder working among the kazhasha, and interrogate him on the whereabouts of this core hive.
Both horrified and excited I realized that for the first time someone had told me—not where they’d last seen her or where I might look—but where he knew she was at that moment. The only beloved soul who ever gave meaning to the emptiness of time was in the core hive of the kazhashas.
Flames engulfed the hive.