Chapter 5: The Mighty Shrew
I stopped counting my steps after I reached a hundred thousand. Assuming that I’d taken two thousand steps a mile, I’d covered close to fifty miles. That was a long distance without any water. I try to never to second-guess myself but I was starting to wonder if I was doing the right thing by heading east. There was no way Akil or the jackals could have lived out there without a nearby source of water. Maybe I should have followed one of the jackals until it led me to the water source.

The gooey, sticky mess that covered my body and caked my hair had finally dried into a hard glaze. At least I wasn’t a fly magnet anymore. Despite this, I desperately wanted to clean myself off. I debated taking the time to use sand to scrub the crusted Akil off me. I knew that being clean wasn’t a priority. I had to find water to survive. It’d be better to wash this crap off with water anyway. Logic told me to wait until I found water, but I couldn’t help but think how much I hated being this filthy.

I’d been counting my steps as I ran east so that later I could count them back to the saucer but I used different length strides to go up and down the dunes. I’d been doing that most of the night. After a hundred thousand steps of slightly different lengths, the cumulative error made it highly unlikely that I’d be able to recount my steps and find the remains of the saucer again. Crap!

I’d left the sand dunes about ten miles back and was now going through desert that reminded me of southern Utah. I was jogging over sandstone with small patches of loose sand here and there. Every time I passed a dry streambed, I dug a little into the sand to see if there was any moisture; there never was.

Normally for a long distance run like this, I’d be keeping a six-minute mile pace. I was going much slower because I couldn’t afford to sweat. I had to conserve moisture, and the sweat reconverted the hard glaze that covered my skin back into a sticky mess. Anytime beads of sweat formed, I started walking. It helped that the nighttime temperature had been about thirty degrees cooler than it had been in the afternoon. I’d been running close to ten hours and the sun had risen a couple hours ago. I’d kept my orientation by heading directly toward the rising sun.

I had to pee again. That was a good sign. Even though I was thirsty, the fact that I could urinate meant I was still adequately hydrated. This wasn’t the first time I’d been in a desert without water. Drew, my oldest and only friend had needed my help on a job in Libya. The job turned to shit and we almost died. We ended up having to gargle our own pee. Worse, we never got paid. I also learned that you should never shoot someone who owes you money until after he’s paid you.

Like I’d done the last time I’d stopped to pee, I pulled off my backpack. I’d already collected about a pint and a half of urine in Akil’s bladder, so I used Akil’s stomach this time. I’d left eight inches of esophagus and a similar length of small bowel attached to the stomach. I tied off the small bowel in a knot and pissed down the esophagus. After I was done I tied a knot in the esophagus.

Before plastic and metal water containers, people used water skins. They’re not hard to make. You take animal’s stomach or bladder and you keep it constantly wet. I was peeing into Akil’s stomach and bladder to keep them wet. If I found water, I’d replace the urine with water. I really hoped I wouldn’t have to gargle with my pee again. A potentially fatal side effect of extreme dehydration is that your mouth and tongue will swell enough to interfere with your breathing. Even if you’re dying of thirst, you never want to drink urine, but swishing pee in your mouth will help bring the swelling down.

As I replaced Akil’s stomach in my pack, I decided it was time to bed down for the day. The temperature was rising quickly, and I needed sleep and shade. I found two boulders close enough together to set up a sunshade. I stretched the roll of hide between them and put rocks on it to keep it place. I brushed out the loose rocks and sand from where I wanted to sleep and lay down.

Fornik’s enhancement spell had boosted my strength, speed, and endurance. I’ve never fought a lycanthrope, but the reference texts had numerous accounts. During a full moon, a lycanthrope’s wounds heal almost instantaneously. I heal just as fast now whenever I need to—not just during a full moon.

When I fought Akil, I should have been stumbling like a noob—overshooting my jumps and mistiming my strikes because I was stronger and faster than I’d ever been before. I’d been fine—better than fine. Somehow, Fornik’s spell had seamlessly integrated my new enhancements into my reflexes. If I’d still been the old me, I would’ve had a much harder time getting on the sphinx’s back and I would’ve gotten a lot slower as I fatigued.

Paladins don’t need to exercise. We don’t age, we don’t get sick, and we stay fit no matter what we do or don’t do. I run three to four days a week because I enjoy it and it helps me relax. I usually run fifteen miles at a four-minute mile pace a couple hours before I go to bed. It takes considerable effort to run that fast for that long but it’s a ‘good’ pain—one I embrace and enjoy. These runs help me get rid of nervous energy and I always feel pleasantly fatigued. Afterwards, I eat a huge greasy meal full of saturated fat and bad cholesterol. The combination of high fat food and fatigue help me sleep.

After running fifty miles—even at a slow twelve minute per mile pace—I should have been beat; I wasn’t. I was ready to go to sleep because I’d stayed up all night. The long distance run hadn’t tired me out at all. I was going to need a new way to deal with insomnia.

There was a downside to the enhancement spell. My metabolism had been inhumanly fast. Now it’s even faster. The forty pounds of meat in my backpack should have been overkill. It should have lasted for three or four days and probably gone bad before I finished it all. During a long distance run, it’s best to eat continuously—to have a steady stream of new calories in your system. Every time I went from run to walk, I ate some Akil. I finished the last of it an hour ago.

I laughed when I realized that now I’m a human-shaped shrew.

The shrew must eat ninety percent of its body weight every day or it’ll starve to death. I don’t think I’ll need same ratio of food-to-bodyweight as the shrew—probably closer to ten percent—but that’ll still be problem in a dimension without convenience stores or fast food restaurants.

Shrews are one of only two venomous mammals on Earth, and routinely kill much larger animals. I’d grown up reading comic books, and there were plenty of super heroes with animal powers. The minions would piss themselves laughing if I started every fight with, “TREMBLE IN FEAR, EVILDOER! You face the AWESOME POWER of the MIGHTY SHREW!”

Good thing I don’t have the attributes of the other venomous mammal, the platypus—the flat tail, duckbill and webbed feet wouldn’t look good on me. I wonder what would happen if I don’t get enough food. During winter, some shrew species will lose up to fifty percent of their body weight; their skull, bones, and internal organs all shrink

I stopped laughing when I pictured myself three feet tall. The thought of starving to death in a day also isn’t funny. If I don’t get enough food, will I just lose my enhanced powers? Will I lose consciousness, will my body start cannibalizing less critical tissue, or what? I fell asleep wondering what would happen if I didn’t find food and water soon.

I dreamt I couldn’t move anything below my neck. I was dying of thirst. B, the asshole was using a teaspoon to dribble water over my forehead and down the side of my face. He laughed as I repeatedly struggled to get a few drops in my mouth. He delighted in directing the water so it was just out of reach of my tongue. There! I finally got a drop. WHAT THE FUCK! I woke up trying to spit the taste of rotting meat out of my mouth.

Thick, viscous, foul smelling liquid oozed from my scalp—some of it had dripped into my mouth. I could feel things wiggling in my hair. I reached up and grabbed one. Oh fucking GREAT—a maggot!

I shouldn’t have been surprised. Flies had swarmed all over me. Flies lay eggs, eggs hatch maggots—I just never expected maggots to hatch on me. To feed, maggots liquefy their food, which was all the caked blood and crap in my hair. Liquid maggot food had dribbled into my mouth. I told myself, “Chill out. Maggots are harmless” as I ran to a patch of loose sand and scrubbed handfuls into my hair until my scalp bled.

I healed instantly. The hunger and thirst I’d been holding at a distance became harder to ignore. I looked at my arms. I couldn’t tell if they’d shrunk any, but the stuff my body used to heal me had to come from somewhere. Shit! I had to get a grip.

My heart raced, and I could feel the adrenalin rush wash through me. Harmless or not, I just don’t have the mental fortitude to leave maggots in my hair. It was hot—hotter than it had been yesterday, probably in the low hundreds. From the position of the sun, it looked like I’d slept for about eight hours. I had to get back into the shade.

I took the hide scraper out of my pack and carefully scraped all my hair, the remnants of Akil, and the frigging maggots off my head. I spent an hour or so removing as much of the rest of the dried-on crap as I could reach with the blunt side of the scraper. I felt marginally better, but I’d still smell like the walking dead until I could find water. My instincts screamed at me to look for water and food NOW! Logic told me that wandering in the desert without a plan is a good way to die quickly. I had already gone east for fifty miles. I’d be best off waiting until it got cool.

I tried to go back to sleep. I gave up after a few minutes. I was too wired and my mouth was starting to swell. I pulled out a small scrap of steel from my pack, cut out a nickel-sized disc and rounded off the edges. I put the disc in my mouth and sucked on it like a cough drop. That got the saliva flowing and I didn’t feel so cotton mouthed. All night as I’d run, I’d looked for a small round pebble to suck on, but I’d only seen chunks of sandstone that would have rubbed my tongue raw.

I tried to go to sleep again. This time, I gave up after half an hour. Time crawled. My skin and scalp itched. My thirst and hunger grew stronger. I had to distract myself before I drove myself crazy.

I took a piece of steel, sliced a thin sliver of steel off, and then used a claw point to poke a needle’s eye at one end. I then took my loin cloth off. By folding the gray’s pants in half, I’d created four layers of cloth between my crotch and the air. I cut a suitable sized strip of cloth, teased a thread out from the remaining material, and hand sewed a hem around the edges. When I put my new loin cloth on, it was a lot cooler.

I took out Akil’s mane and started braiding it into twine. Anyone who depends on tools and equipment to stay alive needs a way to jury-rig shit together. Nowadays, there’s duct tape. Before duct tape there was baling wire, and before baling wire there was twine. Sooner or later, twine was going to be handy. I braided a fair amount, and still had some mane left over. When I quit, the sun was low in the sky.

I was too hungry, thirsty, and impatient to wait for full dark and the stars. I gathered up my stuff and attempted to roll up the hide. It had dried to the consistency of plywood. I briefly considered leaving it behind, but I’d spent too much time on it already to throw it away. I beat on it with a rock to soften it enough to roll up. I tied it onto my pack, and took off in a slow jog directly away from the setting sun.

For the last two hours, I’d been seeing more and more clumps of grass as the terrain transitioned from desert to savannah. I started seeing a few trees here and there but it was mostly grassland. I picked up my pace. About three miles later, I saw a massive slow moving river. It was at least a mile wide and was dark underneath the stars. The water flowed south to north just like the Nile does. I could feel my face break out into a huge grin; I wasn’t going to have to gargle my pee.

I went to the riverbank and listened. Small animals were coming and going to drink, and fish surfaced and slapped the water as they hunted bugs. I didn’t hear any large animals. I shrugged off my backpack, kicked off my sandals, dropped my oosik, threw my loin cloth on the ground, and waded thigh-deep into the river. I plunged my face into the water. I could taste the silt and feel the grit in my mouth as I drank. Drinking muddy water was infinitely better than drinking blood or cerebrospinal fluid.

I was tempted to drink until my stomach was full, but after a long dry spell it’s best to rehydrate slowly to avoid cramps and vomiting. I submerged and rubbed myself all over, then used handfuls of silty mud to scrub myself clean. I submerged again to rinse the mud off, waited about thirty seconds for the last of Akil to float downstream, and then had another drink.

It’s funny what a couple days of going without water and having maggots hatch in your hair will do to your standards. Normally, I would’ve showered if I’d been exposed to untreated river water like this. Now, I was thrilled to have it to drink and wash in.

All the while I used my sonar to watch for anything large coming my way. I located a herd of hippos three hundred yards upstream, and I picked up a wake on the river surface a hundred yards away. I put my head under water and whistled again; it was a fourteen foot long crocodile.

I went back to the bank and picked up the oosik. I got back in the water, stood calf-deep and intermittently kicked and splashed like a distressed animal. The wake changed course and headed toward me.

Crocodiles are ambush hunters. They lunge at prey near the water’s edge and pull it into the water to drown. About ten feet away from me, the wake disappeared. The croc was moving so slowly it couldn’t be seen. I prepared for its lunge. Seconds went by, and more seconds, and then still more.

The croc exploded out of the water at me. I stepped aside and as it went by and stabbed through the base of its skull into its brain. Its momentum carried it up onto the bank before it realized it was dead, then it lay there and thrashed and twitched.

When it finally stopped twitching, I grabbed its tail and pulled it about thirty feet away from the water. I didn’t want to attract more crocs. I gutted it and ate its heart and liver raw. Then I ate all the meat on its forelimbs and hind legs. The nearest tree was about a quarter of a mile away and I wasn’t in the mood to run back for firewood. Raw croc tastes exactly like raw sphinx.

I was still hungry, but had a couple of other things to attend to. I took Akil’s stomach and bladder, untied the knots on both ends and rinsed out my piss as thoroughly as I could. I planned to stay close to the river, so it was probably overkill to worry about carrying water. Keeping these water skins wet wouldn’t take much effort though, so I filled them and re-tied the knots. It never hurts to be prepared.

I went back to the croc and continued to eat as I deboned it. Once I was done I had a full stomach and a couple hundred pounds of meat on top of the croc’s skin. I took a length of the twine I’d made earlier and laced the croc’s skin into a meat bag I could drag behind me.

I went back in the water and took a long luxurious bath. I wasn’t stupid; I kept a close ear out for hippos and crocodiles. I stayed in the water until I was certain I’d washed the last of the stink off of my body. I geared up, grabbed the meat bag, and headed north. I’d keep going until I found firewood or signs of human habitation.

I walked for close to three hours without finding any firewood. There were extensive reed beds along the shore, but the reeds were all too green to make a cook fire with. I crested a small hill and saw a village downslope. There were twenty-one mud brick homes with thatched roofs. Small boats made of bundled reeds lay on their sides on the beach. Enclosed pens held cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs. Stubbled fields beyond the village revealed that they’d had a recent harvest. Everything was neat and tidy—the picture of Third World bucolic splendor.

The absence of sentries and defensive walls was a good sign; the locals didn’t think they were needed. Dawn was just a few hours away, and I decided it’d be best if I approached the village during daylight.

I opened up my meat bag and ate until I was full again. I was almost getting used to eating raw meat. I unrolled Akil’s hide and lay on top of it. Up ‘til now, I’d been too busy surviving to spend any time thinking about what I wanted to do with my life now that I was free of Jehovah.

I’d like to believe I’m an intelligent man—someone who thinks before he acts; someone who controls his own destiny. But when I look back on my life, I only see a fool who spent his entire life reacting to other people’s decisions and choices.

I was raised in a Catholic orphanage. When I was eleven, a bully decided to beat the crap out of me. He outweighed me by more than a hundred pounds and didn’t know his own strength. If he’d been content to just beat me, I wouldn’t have fought back. He convinced me that if I didn’t fight back he’d kill me. I fractured his skull and put him in a coma. I wondered what path I might have taken if I hadn’t learned that I was dangerous at such a young age—when I was too immature to understand that violence isn’t the answer for every problem.

Predators are drawn to prey. Pedophiles hang around kids. Every institution with a lot of kids has its share of sexual predators, and the Catholic Church is no worse than any other institution that deals with kids. Most Catholic kids never run into a pedophile. I was unlucky enough to cross paths with two. I was still just a kid when I killed the first one. Drew McDonald, my oldest and only friend, helped me kill the pedophile bastard and dispose of the body. The nuns and the cops suspected I’d disappeared him but could never prove it. A couple of months later, a visiting brother with a long history of inappropriate touching put his hand on my thigh with a little too much enthusiasm. I kicked his knee into an angle nature hadn’t intended.

The adults at the orphanage were afraid of me; when I crippled the brother, they were relieved to have an excuse to get rid of me. Most of the people who worked at the orphanage were there because they wanted to help kids. If I hadn’t scared the shit out of them, they probably would have tried to help me.

At thirteen, I went into juvenile detention. I learned how to be a criminal. A few years later in prison, I received a post graduate education in extortion, armed robbery, drug dealing, and money laundering. Organized crime generates the most revenue, so that’s where I went. When I was twenty-two, I had to kill my boss’ son in self defense. Afterwards, my choices were leave organized crime permanently or kill my boss and the rest of upper management and take over.

I left. I realized I despised all the people I worked with and couldn’t stand the thought of having to manage a group of scumbags, low-lifes, and assholes; the money just wasn’t worth it. After that I occasionally helped Drew but otherwise I was content to live a solitary, migratory existence. Until I was drafted into the Great Game a year ago, I had no idea that I’d been inadvertently using magic and was unwittingly doing things that would turn me into Jehovah’s unwilling servant.

I’ve escaped His reach purely by accident. I am FUCKING tired of NOT having control of my own life. I’m tired of bullies, pedophiles, criminals, minions, archangels, and Jehovah making decisions that change my life without my consent. How the hell do I stop this from happening again? What do I want to do with my life now that I’ve escaped from Jehovah’s sandbox? I don’t have a clue.

Go to Chapter 6.