Carnivores of Darkness and Light: Journeys of the Catechist, Book 1 by Alan Dean Foster

Whatever pulled them was invisible to him. Their roaring was continuous and unrestrained. That, at least, was not surprising. Crowded together as tightly as any herd of wildebeest or brontotheres, their need to communicate with one another was obvious. Each held, locked away from the outside world, anywhere from one to a dozen people. Perhaps because they whipped past him at incredible speed, he was unable to tell if they were utilizing these remarkable means of transportation of their own free will, or if such a method had been forced upon them. Studying their faces as best he could, he strongly suspected the latter. Certainly few of them looked happy. Most wore masks of pure misery.

Many of their expressions turned to startled surprise as they shot past him. A few even turned to look back, which, at the velocity they were traveling, struck him as tweaking Death far too boldly. Several managed to yell something at him in passing, but he did not understand their words.

Though he was sure the people were traveling within vehicles, like wagons or oxcarts, they conformed to a pattern that more closely resembled organized animal migration. Half raced helter-skelter westward, while the other half sped past in the opposite direction. As for himself, he pressed hard against the wall that divided these two flows of people and vehicles lest he be run down. None swerved in his direction, the area immediately next to the wall apparently being inviolate or protected by some magic spell. Though it was not always so, he reminded himself, remembering the damage he had observed along its length. Not to mention the break through which he had vaulted.

A vehicle different from the others was coming toward him, from the west. As it approached it slowed and drifted over until it was operating in the otherwise unused region proximate to the wall. The top of the vehicle boasted bright flashing lights that reminded the herdsman of the aurora that could occasionally be seen on long winter nights, or the colors that experienced conjurors could bring forth out of seeming nothingness.

It stopped some forty feet away from him and two people emerged from within. They wore strange, flat clothing that except for the absence of scales was not so very unlike the skin of his friend the serpent. Finding the similarity unnerving, he began to back away from them. They responded with shouts and gestures that left him feeling even more uncomfortable.

When they broke into a run toward him, he had only a split second to decide which way to go. Realizing that to charge out into the ceaseless migration of vehicles was to invite a quick death, he turned the other way and in a single bound, cleared the wall back the way he had come. If nothing else, it would separate him from the onrushing snake men. Behind him, he heard them yell.

He landed solidly on cushioning soil, decaying leaves, and other forest detritus. Almost as startled as he had been the first time, he whirled to look behind him. All that could be seen was dark green rain forest, stretching endlessly in all directions until it closed off every horizon. All that remained of his unsettling experience was the wall, which continued as before to run in a white line to the west and northeast. That, and his memory of the experience.

A hand reached out and grabbed him firmly by the shoulder, strong fingers digging deep into his flesh. Jerking around sharply, he saw that one of the men who had been running toward him and shouting was leaning through the break in the wall. His face was red with anger and excitement, and the peculiar headgear he wore lay slightly askew on his skull. Glaring furiously at Ehomba, he mouthed incomprehensible words as he started to pull on the herdsman’s arm. Ehomba started to reach back over his shoulder for one of his swords.

Then the man glimpsed the forest behind his quarry, saw the soaring trees, the arcing vines, the struggling rain-forest plants and saplings. Heard the musical chorusing of the canopy creatures, smelled the pungent odors of decaying vegetation, inhaled the oxygen-rich air, and fainted.

Ehomba was never sure whether the man slid back over the wall or was pulled back, perhaps by his companion. Regardless, he did not reappear. Letting loose the haft of his tooth-lined sword, the herdsman turned away and resumed his hike along the wall. A couple of times he looked back uneasily, but there was no sign of his former pursuers.

No wonder he was traveling in what were known as the Unstable Lands, he reflected. Crossing the wall had seen him, for a few brief, unpleasant moments, stranded in another country. No, he corrected himself. In another world. One that, while superficially fascinating, he had no desire ever to revisit.

He eyed the wall, a constant companion on his left. If he jumped it again would he once more find himself in that same choking, clangorous place? It was a conundrum he had no desire to resolve. As for the hapless inhabitants of that world, none of them sprang forth to confront him again. Perhaps the wall, or the section of it that was easily crossed, was more readily accessed from Ehomba’s side.

When the wall finally disappeared, leaving him free to turn in any direction, it did not sink into the soil or rise magically into the sky. It simply stopped. Frowning at the abruptness of it, he cautiously examined the terminus. Long, ribbed bars of metal as thick around as his thumb protruded from the end, giving it an unfinished look. Perhaps that was its status in that other world—incomplete. Mischievously, he plucked a large toadstool from the fallen log on which it was growing nearby and placed the beige-hued fungal disk carefully between two of the metal bars. That should give the inhabitants of that other world something to think about, he resolved with a grin.

Leaving the jagged terminus of the wall behind, he continued on his way. From now on, until he left the Unstable Lands, he would be careful what artifacts he handled, what doors he entered, and what walls he leaped.

The rain forest grew denser, packing in tight around him, the trees pressing together, impenetrable undergrowth more prevalent. Clouds gathered, turning the visible sky the color of wet soot. Without the setting sun to guide him, it became more difficult to maintain his bearings.

Unsheathing the sky-metal sword, he hacked a large arrow into the bark of a nearby tree. With its thin, greenish outer covering thus distinctively incised, the much paler inner wood was revealed. Yellowish white, it would be visible from a distance. Letting the blade hang at his side, he strode on.

He was preparing to blaze another tree when a glimpse of pale not far in front of him made him hesitate. Hurrying forward, he found himself staring at the same arrow mark he had incised only moments ago. The edges of the cut were still fresh. Turning a slow circle, he studied the intense verdure that engulfed him on all sides. It was impossible to tell one growth from another. Angles blended together, and one bush looked much the same as its neighbor. Amidst all the greenery, only the blaze mark on the tree stood out distinctively.

He would have bet a whole steer that he had hewed to a straight line through the forest, but the marked tree gave lie to that claim. There was no questioning it: Somehow, he had become turned around and walked in a circle. He was back where he had been not long before.

Even though he had seen no one for days, he took the precaution of adding a straight line beneath the arrow. Sheathing the blade, he walked forward. Every few seconds he paused to look back, until the blazed tree was no longer in sight. Satisfied, he continued onward, marking his progress carefully. If not in a perfectly straight line, he was certainly walking north.

A flash of diminishing light illuminated a trunk and his eyes widened. He did not panic. That was a concept known to Etjole Ehomba only through example. It was not an emotion he had ever experienced personally. If ever he was going to, though, now was probably an appropriate time.

There was the tree again, the hewn arrow shape stark on its side, the secondary straight cut gleaming prominently beneath it.

Consider every possibility, he told himself slowly. Ask the necessary questions, beginning first with the most obvious. That was what he had been taught to do as a youngster, whenever a cow or sheep went missing. The chances that the animal had been carried off by a giant bird of prey or an invisible spirit were invariably less likely than the probability that it had wandered off and become stuck in a ravine somewhere, or was lying ill from eating madroot.

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Categories: Alan Dean Foster