To survive in the emptiness of time you must know every monster that faces you, how to kill it and how it kills, and while you face one, you must know what other lethal creatures lurk around you.
I may not have told you, but every night I prepare my bed with an unchanging routine, putting down layers of defenses, herbs, chemicals, odor suppressers, poisons, things that keep killers, large and small, from catching me in the night, and that doesn’t include my treated clothing and the neutralizers I use to keep from absorbing the toxins out of the ground of this venomous land.
There are many dangers that live in the dirt, but the worst of these are the colobines, worms that are hard as rock, and they are everywhere. If they detect you, they will be in your viscera tearing up your gut before you register the pain of the skin puncture. I try to find rock to sleep on, but they will crawl onto it if they smell your sweat.
This is why one doesn’t lay in ambush. The very ground you lay in will end you before your prey arrives. I picked my spot behind a flat boulder, then squatted behind a cluster of bushes to keep between me and the approaching sleemerins.
When they drew near, I tore a rag and wiped a fragment on my forehead to absorb the sweat, then crept up to my spot. About two body lengths back I placed my hand in the dirt and pressed, then moved a couple feet away, pressed again, and dropped the rag fragment in the second impression. Before long, the colobines poked out of the ground where my hand had been.
With them drawn away from my spot, I tossed my travel bag next to the boulder and dropped to the ground with my elbows on the bag to keep them off the ground, rifle in position, the sleemerins almost in range. My hand burned from touching the ground unprotected.
To kill a sleemerin, you put the most powerful round of ammo possible dead center into the chest. A headshot will only anger it, the brain isn’t in there. The danger for me was their speed. I had to wait until they were close enough that the round would effectively pierce their skin, but if I waited too long, one might get to me before I got off all five shots.
They were close enough I could see their perpetually opened mouths like a knothole, their breaths in and out like a warbling whistle. No nose, eyes like acorns, they looked both dead and horribly alive, the puss and blood caking dry but seeping fresh from the cracks. The man followed the lead sleemerin, the other four fanned out behind him.
I shot the front sleemerin and it fell. Before I could aim at the second, they closed almost half the distance, much quicker than I’d estimated. I shot the second, and the one behind it stepped on its head coming for me. They were almost upon me when I shot the third one. I rolled from my position as the last two dove for me. I tumbled into a stand, aimed and fired, clipping the shoulder of the closest one.
It blared through its throat, slithered toward me at blinding speed and grabbed the barrel of my rifle, jerking it from my grip and throwing it behind its head. It reached for my throat. I punched it, bone-crushing pain burst from my knuckles. My knife in the other hand, I plunged it in the sleemerin’s middle. The blade broke, partly lodged in its chest.
The second one grabbed me by the neck and slammed me into the ground, landing on top, choking me, puss and blood dripping onto my face, my jugular about to collapse. The other twisted the arm I’d stabbed him with. I reached for my forty-five, and put several bullets into the one choking me, but I missed its center and it held on. I dropped the gun and heaved with all my strength, throwing him off.
The other twisted my arm further, a few snaps from my shoulder. I grabbed the gun off the ground, put the barrel point blank to its chest and fired. It fell lifeless and I pulled my arm loose, rolling over the top of the monster into a stance where I aimed at the last one’s chest and pulled the trigger.
The slide was already back and no shot fired. The sleemerin trumpeted and lunged. I side-stepped and smashed its knee with the pistol, but it didn’t faze him. He pivoted around. I grabbed the arm and leg of the dead one and raised it over my head. The last one lunged, and I smashed the body of his compeer onto his head. They cracked like colliding tree branches. I thrust my feet back to avoid its grasp as the live one fell to the ground.
I fell on top of them as their momentum undercut my feet. I rolled and landed upright on the other side. I picked up the dead one again and smashed him onto the other’s head. Again and again I smashed, not stopping until the other hadn’t moved for a while.
I stumbled to find my rifle, came back to the last one, and shot him in the chest.
I fell to my knees, sucking air, barely getting enough, nearly fainting. The man reached me and helped me stand.
“You’re behelot,” he said.
I had no inkling of his meaning.
“No belows to talk, soldier. I am a riot of whimpers, and I plow the swamps to reason my way back to the city of light.”
I stared at him, his eyes sparkling with lunacy.
“You say you’ve been to the city of light?” I asked.
“Aye, and a mariner’s tour have I been adrift from it.”
“Great. I rescued a madman.”