With Enta tucked under my arm, all my fears, all my doubts, all my rage became intense determination.
Scrabbling through the filth of the Desiderasha’s viscera, I made a little distance from the beasts behind me. When the space widened and gave more light, I turned to get a better look. The Desiderasha’s Children, a blue, two reds, and an orange, crawled our way, the blue in the lead. I set Enta down and pulled my rifle from my back, but it was covered in torn flesh, some clogging the barrel. I slung it back onto my shoulder and pulled my forty-five.
I waited for a good shot to the blue’s throat and fired. He thrashed, then quieted, dead. The others put their heads down, hiding their vital throats, and continued crawling. I hoped to gain a good head start from the kill, but I would be lucky to get out of their eyesight. I picked up Enta and crouch walked until I found the edge of the low space and a way back into the corridors. The Children reached the widened area as I turned the corner and ran.
Two kazhashas sprang from an adjoining conduit, and I shot each one in the eye. One fell and the other reeled. I shot him in the other eye and ran by him, untouched. I recognized a tunnel and turned down it, hoping to get back to my pack. A green Child of Desiderasha appeared from a chamber and charged us. I shot him in the neck with the forty-five and he fell.
After I killed several more spawn and reloaded, I found the tiny alcove with my pack and the dead blue.
I was loathe to put Enta on the floor where she would touch the abomination, but I had nothing to put under her. I gave her a drink from the water skin.
I used a wooden needle to clean out the barrel of my rifle, pulled the small gun from the blue’s mouth, and collected the rest of my ammo, weighing down another belt pouch. My pack ruined, I made a quick bundle with a blanket. I folded in my ground treatments and a few supplies, tied it into a role, and strung two loops of rope on each end.
I picked up Enta, and she squeaked as the floor clung to her, releasing with a splatch. I grimaced and tried to stand her up. She wobbled as I supported her. Chunks of Desiderasha flesh, some thicker than her arms hung from her, her breeches punctured or in tatters where it had broken through and grown into her.
“Can you stand? Can you move your legs?” Her lips thinned and her eyes narrowed.
I let her go, and she wobbled, but stayed on her feet.
“I’m sorry, Mallo. They’re not mine anymore.”
I winced. She spoke as if they were traded-away seashells.
“Can we play lolly-loo?”
“Later. I promise.”
I created a harness from the rest of the rope, incorporating the blanket bundle as a seat for her, and I strapped her to my back.
The howls and screams of the Desiderasha’s beasts grew louder.
I holstered my guns, hoisted my rifle, and stepped into the passage. Two longsnouts trotted from one direction and three Children, two reds and an orange, howled from the other. The longsnouts being faster, I pulled my forty-five and shot each in the head, then holstered it and turned my rifle on the Children. Three shots in the neck. Three kills.
I ran past them, looking for one of the conduits out of this hellish monster. More and more of the Desiderasha’s creatures appeared, and after spending twenty or so rounds I started thinking about conserving them again. Instead of killing every one I encountered, I fled and reacquired them as I could, killing and picking my way around to find a way outside.
The beasts covered all the passages that way, and I knew it couldn’t be an accident.
I withdrew deeper into the Desiderasha, my prevailing thought to create a threat and draw them away from the entrances. I found the ancient halls and searched for the line of angry men, imbedded and grown large. When I found them, they scolded me as before, and Enta twisted my shirt and wailed.
“It’s okay. I’ve been here before.”
She quieted, but her grips held tight.
I worked my way to the gigantic woman who spoke as the Desiderasha, her lurid nose and mouth black as tar. I took the light kits from my pocket and dumped several of my small ammo into my hand.
A gurgle and hiccup came from the mouth. “My Children are coming.”
I could feel Enta trembling on my back, her face buried in my shirt. I bit open the bullets and poured the powder into a pile at the base of the wall in front of the Desiderasha’s voice.
“They will kill you.”
I emptied the oil from the light kits, splashing it up the wall.
“You cut out my flesh. You burn my voice. These do nothing.”
I spread the substrate along the base and around the powder, made a line with the filaments out from it, then squeezed the last bit of oil in the material close to the pile.
“You cannot harm me.” Her voice crackled. “Even if you killed this entire body, I am everywhere. The feeders and my children have spread my presence throughout the world, and it belongs to me.”
I picked up my rifle and checked to make sure everything was in place. I snapped the flint and jumped back. The filament flamed, the powder flared.
“Why did you invade me for a mere chunk of flesh?” She made a high-pitched growl.
The flame climbed the oil on the wall and the substrate burned, spreading both ways.
The voice shrieked. “Stupid man. You can’t kill me.”
I looked at her for the first time, her lips twisted into a diseased rictus, her eyes bulging and her stubby arms flailing.
“I don’t care,” I said. I threw a few more rounds in the fire and fled.
Outside, I shot several of her spawn and Children. They swarmed from every direction, forcing me to run as much as fight. I’d drawn them out too fast, or I’d misjudged everything. Either way, they would overwhelm me and wear me out soon. I found one of the spirals going upward and scrabbled about halfway up, not daring to go clear to the top, where the tube could grab us, and loathe to go back into the swarming corridors below.
Many creatures passed beneath, but the spiral gave me some respite, and I got my wind back.
“Can we go, Mallo?”
“I want to go.” I felt her playing with my hair.
“A little while longer.”
A longsnout’s head appeared around the bend below and snarled.
I shot him with my forty-five and he tumbled backward. Howling and roaring came from below. I scrabbled to the top of the spiral, hoping the fire had the Desiderasha’s attention so one of her giant crushing tubes wouldn’t find me.
The upper chamber was round and small. Two openings provided exits, one up to my shoulders and a smaller one to my waist, but I could hear sounds of many beasts approaching from both. I shot a red Child that came around the spiral’s bend, but I knew it was almost over. I had nowhere to go, and there were too many.
“Thanks for cutting me out, Mallo.” Enta’s arms spread across my back, giving me a hug.
“You’re welcome, Enta.”
I would go through three hells like the one I’d been through to cut her out again. I suddenly realized we weren’t done.
I stepped to the lowest part of the chamber where I could just reach the roof. I drew my knife and plunged it into the flesh, tough and as thick as my entire leg. I sawed an opening.
“Enta, when we get outside, watch for giant siphons, like the long nose of the rocomant, but bigger than… than a gobahr. Bigger than a sea worm. Understand?”
I turned my rifle on a stooped red Child approaching the larger portal and shot him in the neck. He kept coming and I shot two more times, but another appeared after he fell. More came on the other side.
I stopped cutting, went to a knee, and alternated shots on each side, then pulled my big handgun and shot two longsnouts coming up the spiral. More approached, and a hundred howls surrounded us.
“If one turns toward us, yell ‘dive.’” I cut a gash just wider than my shoulders, then cut a cross-line. I shot two more orange Children at the larger door, but another came in the smaller. I swung my rifle around, but he was too close. I ducked his swinging fist, brought my forty-five to the side of his neck, and fired. He staggered, and I shot him twice more in the front, then kicked him out of the way.
Children of the Desiderasha came in from each side. I grabbed the lip of the opening I’d cut, and with Enta on my back, I pulled myself up and through. The bright light of the sun nearly blinded me. I surveyed my position and located the closest edge of the Desiderasha, a hundred deformations obstructing the way.
I ran and picked my way between them as the giant hand of a red came out of the gash in the monster’s skin.
“Dive, Mallo. Dive!”