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

Safe to say that while many more died, we recovered at least half the sugar and perhaps a little more, so on balance the day might be accounted a victory for the colony. Discounting the hundreds who perished in both battles, of course. Regarding the visitant, it has not been seen since. Nor do the Queen’s advisers think it ever will be again.

Myself, I sometimes regret not being privy to the clumsy conversation that took place between the visitant and the remarkable if imprudent drone Imit. To actually communicate with so alien a creature, one so inconceivably much larger than ourselves, must be a wondrous and terrifying thing. Who can imagine what its perspective might be, how different from ours its view of the world? I think I would have the courage to try it, if I but possessed the ability. I think I would, but cannot really say. For who can envision standing before a titan and engaging it in small talk?

Now then, what lessons are there to be learned from this story? You, in the back, with the one antenna shorter than the other. No, it does not speak to us of the folly of trying to engage allies who are different from ourselves. I venture to say any outside help against the Reds would be gratefully accepted, even after Imit’s luckless encounter with the visitant.

No, what there is to be learned is this: First, do not expect reciprocity from the giving of gifts; second, remember always that just because your prayers are answered it does not mean that your enemy does not have a similar pipeline to heaven; and third, request of the gods all that you will, but never forget that the gods themselves may have an agenda all their own—one that does not include insignificant creatures such as yourself.

That is enough for one day. There is the work to be done: foraging to help with, eggs to be brooded, pupae to be rotated and attended to, and perhaps a raid on the Reds to be planned. There is no room in the colony for those who do not perform their assigned tasks. Here, the lazy are dismembered and consumed. The gods are out there, yes, and when carrying a leaf larger than yourself or moving rocks from the entrance you may call upon them for assistance all you wish, but never think for an instant that they have the slightest interest in helping poor little you, or any of our kind.


IF HE WAS HOPING FOR THE JUNGLE TO THIN OUT OR THE terrain to become easier, Ehomba was sorely disappointed. Not only did the density of the enveloping vegetation increase, but the relatively flat countryside gave way to ripples and then folds in the Earth. Soon he was not only walking but climbing and descending, pushing himself up one growth-infested ridge only to face the prospect of slipping and sliding down the far side to confront the equally difficult base of another.

Muttering under his breath as he advanced, he looked longingly and more than once at the rivers that sluiced through the narrow gorges between the ridges. But it was useless to consider utilizing them as a way out of the difficult country in which he now found himself. The streams were too shallow, rock-riven, and narrow to be navigable, even if he was willing to take the time to build a raft. Besides, they all ran from east to west, racing toward the distant sea, while his obligation pushed him ever northward.

At first he thought it was simply more of the mist that trailed from the tops of the green-swathed ridges, but on closer inspection he saw that it was thicker than the rising forest-steam and that it behaved differently as it rose, crawling upward through the saturated air with a purpose foreign to mere fog. He knew it could not be smoke from a fire: Nothing left out in this sodden clime would burn. Whatever fuel was combusting on the side of the ridge he was climbing had to have been gathered and dried specially and specifically for the purpose.

He considered whether to ignore it and continue upward on his chosen course. What kind of hermit would elect to live in so isolated and difficult a terrain he could not imagine, but such individuals were inherently antisocial at best. But he was curious—curiosity being his defining characteristic, insofar as he could be said to have one—and so after a moment’s hesitation he turned to his left and began making his way through the trees toward the narrow column of smoke. He approached cautiously. If from a distance the instigator of the fire looked unfriendly, Ehomba would simply avoid initiating contact and continue on his way.

The unprepossessing hut was perched on a bump on the ridge, commanding a fine view of the enclosing jungle in three directions. Fashioned of rough wooden slats, bamboo, and thatch, it was encircled by an almost elegant and inviting porch, a fine place on which to sit and watch the sunset—mist and fog permitting, of course. There were a couple of bentwood rocking chairs and a small table, and well-tended flowers bubbled from wooden planters set on the decking and atop the railing. Hermit or not, the hut’s owner was horticulturally endowed. A pair of small, iridescent purple songbirds flared their tiny arias from the confines of a handmade wooden cage. Far from being hostile or antagonistic, the isolated abode appeared calculated to draw a traveler in, as if frequent guests were expected.

Approaching along a narrow animal trail, Ehomba kept a tight grip on his spear. By asking many questions of his elders when he was a child he had discovered early on that in the desert, appearances were often deceiving. Many dangerous plants and animals were masters of camouflage. The brightly colored flower concealed toxic thorns, the garish pond frog poison glands within its skin, the slight bump in the sand a deadly snake. He had learned to warn himself within his mind: What looks like one thing can often be another.

So it was with the hut. Eager as he was for some company and converse after many days alone, he was not about to go barging in on anyone who willingly chose to live in such surroundings, cheery flowerpots, rhapsodic songbirds, and shady confines notwithstanding.

When he drew near he slowed and stepped off the trail and into the surrounding brush. Advancing stealthily, he approached the hut not via the steps that led onto the porch but from behind. If his choice came to be remarked upon he would be happy to explain the reasoning behind it. Living in isolation, the owner should understand.

Voices. There were two: one strong and persistent, the other querulous and a bit shaky. Occasionally the latter would strengthen for a sentence or so, only to weaken with the next phrase. From his position outside it was hard for Ehomba to tell if they were arguing or having a normal discussion. Both voices sounded human, at least. In the Unstable Lands he supposed that one could never be sure. On the other hand, being human was no guarantee of anything. Had he not recently dealt with a snake more honorable than many of his own kind?

Advancing silently through the forest, he crept to the rear of the hut. There were several windows there, which surprised him. He would have thought that anyone building in such a place would want to keep the less appealing denizens of the jungle at bay by restricting their access to the interior insofar as was possible. But all the windows were open to the forest.

Raising his head slowly until his eyes were over the sill, he peered inward. He was looking at a large, comfortable room with access to the porch visible on the far side. Seated on mats on the floor were two figures: a man about his own age and another with his back to the window. As he stared, the man facing him caught him looking in and shot him a glance, though whether of helplessness, surprise, or warning Ehomba could not say.

Somehow the other figure simultaneously became aware of his presence. Perhaps it noticed the direction of the other man’s gaze. Without turning, it announced in a tenor voice smooth as the syrup the women of the village made from distilled honey, “Come in, traveler. You are welcome here.”

Ehomba hesitated. The other man was still staring at him. An urge to turn, and to run, welled up sharply within the herdsman. But that inviting voice was compelling and besides, as always, he was curious.

Walking around the hut from back to front, he mounted the porch steps and entered. Like the windows, nothing barred the doorway. It was a portal without a barrier. Like the rest of the hut, it was enticing.

“Come in, come in!” The larger figure seated in the rear of the main room beckoned encouragingly. As he entered, Ehomba noticed that the man already present continued to stare at him. “Take a seat.”

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Categories: Alan Dean Foster