The desolation that filled my heart after losing Enta, knowing nothing of where she was, equaled the despair when I pursued the tenuous hints of her fate among the feeders, but neither could measure the deep agony wracking spirit and body as I followed the kazhasha demons without relent in hopes they would take me to their core hive, where I now knew she was.
If they hurt her, they would know the wrath of Mallocrest, but they would know nothing of me if I did not find her.
The kazhasha haunted my dreams, their wormy tongues slathering messages upon my chest and neck, telling me to do horrible things, then grabbing me with their spiny legs to drag me down, down, deep into a hole in the scrub, pinning me in the dark, though I could see their eyes, globes as big as my hands staring into my face as the ragged flesh around their mouths nibbled at my chin. Mauled, fondled, and devoured by these demon bugs.
I awoke from them gasping for air, always lying on dirt or sand or rock, somewhere off the trail of one of their caravans. I sometimes found ways to interrogate the feeders that administered to them, and news was always the same, endlessly traveling from feeder colony to feeder colony and from hive to hive. Then one day among the blur of everlasting trudgery, the demons turned due north.
The only thing due north would be the deserts of Anathaway, endless sands with scorching days, freezing nights, and nothing else. I don’t scare easily, but the thought of traveling these deserts frightened me, even more so having to travel at the whims of the bugs, without respite when I might need it.
Water was scarce enough, so I stole a few extra skins from the feeders and filled them with every source I could find. I hunted, killed, and ate whenever I could, sometimes taking risks with creatures that might be poisonous, to add fat to my frame to sustain me through leaner times. I filled my satchels with fungus and roots.
Scrub turned to sand as I knew it would, and the bugs marched inexorably under the roasting sun, seemingly unfazed by it. Feeders would sometimes fall, and the bugs would rip them to pieces and eat them. I wrapped an old skin around my head, a vertical slit enough for me to see.
After many long days, I don’t know how many, my fungus and roots depleted, my water gone, and the fat on my carcass scant reserves for my survival, I let the kazhashas get a lead on me and waited face down in the sand. My body baked for what seemed like hours when I finally heard the sound of a bird landing at my feet. Then another. They picked at my leather, I heard it rip, then worked their way up, a third dropping by my head.
Through the thin line of my nearly closed eye, I watched them move up to my arm, carrion dackles, which I could eat, and when I visualized it perfectly, I snatched the neck of one of them, and snapped it with a shake. The bird flailed, not knowing it was dead, and the other two fled.
I tied the bird to my haumper sack and jogged to catch up with the bugs, still visible far ahead on the wide open sands. I went ahead of them that day, settling farther away than usual from where I expected them to stop. I found the beginnings of a dune to put between me and them, and I dug a fire pit where I cooked the bird and ate it entirely. The meat tasted rotten, but I lingered at the edge of desolation in the emptiness of time. There would be nothing else.
I knew we were close when the bugs picked up the pace in jolts and fits. I stayed far behind them, waiting for the tail end of them to disappear over the wall of dunes ahead. I fell into a sprint, not thinking, not caring, only following the hope in my heart that maybe this day I would find my beloved.
I reached the crest of the dunes and peered over the horizon looking for the core hive, and my heart shrank, leaving a hole in my chest that stole my breath and filled up with rancor.
Before me, scattered across endless dunes, stood hundreds and hundreds of hives, as big as the one that held Holblasha, kazhashas swarming over them, crawling from one to the other. The core was not a single hive, but a city full of them, bigger than any city I had ever seen. A dry waft fluttered my cheek, bringing bitter smells of rotten flesh, charred excrement, and virulent molds.
If Enta was there somewhere, how would I find her? Desolation, despair, and agony stalked me to this dune, where they converged upon a heart that could little bare it and crushed it. Though unceasing determination had held it off for longer than I could remember, that night would be a night of weeping.