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

“You have no choice in the matter.” Corruption was insistent. “You are rotten. All men are rotten. So is the rest of the world. It is true that I am spread thin, so it is a particular pleasure when I can give personal attention to individuals. I must say that I admire your calm. You will make a fine and entertaining guest until your tongue rots in your mouth and your lungs begin to putrefy.”

“I think not.”

Reaching back over his shoulder, Ehomba unsheathed the sky-metal blade and drew it across the tendrils that were growing into his sandals, feet, and legs. Normal steel they would have resisted, but against an edge drawn from the absolute purity of space they had no resistance. Corruption’s dull eyes were incapable of registering surprise, but they focused more intently on the tall man who now straightened atop the pile of dung.

“Hey bruther, don’t forget me!” Simna ibn Sind struggled against his own fungal bonds. Bending over, Ehomba rapidly and efficiently cut him loose. The garrulous traveler rose gratefully and removed one of a pair of swords from a single scabbard slung across his back. Corruption looked on, unperturbed.

“Right now, that’s for you, you pile of shit!” As an opprobrium to Corruption, it was not very effective, but the apoplectic Simna was too excited and angry to hazard a more effective imprecation. Bringing his sword around and down in a swift arc, he swung at their host’s head.

The blade struck the neck and stuck there. Teeth clenched, Simna tried to pull it free, to no avail. As the two men looked on, rust bled from Corruption’s neck, crawling up the flat of the fine blade like water through a straw, turning the gleaming steel a dull red-brown right up to the bone haft. Bone and metal disintegrated simultaneously.

Taken aback but still full of fight, the emancipated traveler drew his second weapon and crouched warily. “Clever it is then, but I warn you: I’m not going to rot quietly.”

“Everything rots quietly.” Corruption placed the tips of moldering, sausagelike fingers together. “Whatever you do will only put off the inevitable.”

“That is true,” observed Ehomba.

Simna turned on him quickly, eyes a little wider, stance more tense than a moment before. “Hoy, what’s that? You agree with this perversion? Whose side are you on, anyway?”

“The side of life,” Ehomba assured him, “but that does not mean I cannot see things as others see them.” He met the putrid gaze of their host without flinching. “Even Corruption.”

“You are a man of the Earth.” The thickset figure was bloating before their eyes, swelling with gas and putrescence, threatening to explode all over them. “I will miss your company.”

“And I will not miss yours.” Reaching into a pocket of his kilt, Ehomba felt of the beach pebbles there. They were not all he had brought along to remind him of home. What he wanted, he remembered, was in his other pocket.

He came out with a handful of … dirt. Simna stared at it in disbelief. “What are you gonna do with that? Offer to plant some mushrooms? This is a helluva time to be thinking about gardening!” He clutched the handle of his blade tightly in both hands, knuckles whitening.

Eyes that had become pools of scummed-over sewer seepage focused on the handful. “Even small contributions to the state of decomposition are always welcome. But it will not buy you your freedom.”

“The Naumkib do not pay bribes.” So saying, Ehomba threw the dirt at their implacably malodorous host.

It struck where the ballooning chest had been—with no apparent effect. The crouching, poised Simna was openly contemptuous. “Well now, that was useful! What was that you were trying to do, force him to take a bath? It’s done nothing at all.”

The herdsman did not comment, just stood and watched as Corruption continued to swell. And swell, and swell, until he filled half the hut. Now it was Simna’s eyes that widened.

“I think—I think maybe we ought to get out of here and reflect on the situation from a distance, bruther.” He turned to run. Though curious, Ehomba recognized the sense of the other man’s aside and turned to join him. Within the room, the stench of rotten eggs had become overpowering.

They reached the door just as Corruption exploded, spewing every imaginable kind and variety of filth and muck in all directions. This mephitic fusillade struck them from behind as they threw themselves out the door and onto the porch. The discharge would have swallowed them up had not the wood of the porch been rotted through. It collapsed beneath their weight and they tumbled onto the heavily vegetated slope below. Decaying bushes broke under their fall, cushioning their descent. Healthy growths would have cut and torn at them. Corruption, Ehomba mused as he rolled to a halt, really did have its uses.

Simna was up and on his feet, sword in hand, with commendable speed. He stared up at the hut through the gap their bodies had made in the rotted porch. Very little was left of the building, most of the walls and all of the roof having been blown away by the explosion. What was left was encased in a coating of solid—well, corruption. Above them, nothing moved.

Breathing hard, Simna turned to look at his taller companion. Ehomba had picked himself up and was wiping distastefully at the mire with which he was covered. When he saw Simna staring at him, panting slowly and evenly, he smiled.

Simna grimaced huffily. “What in Gorath are you squinting at, traveler?”

“You are a mess.” Ehomba’s smile widened.

The other man looked down at his coat of exceptional filth. When his gaze rose again, he too was grinning. “S’truth, I am, aren’t I? And you—if you sought refuge in a pig sty, the hogs would throw you out and hold their noses while doing it!” He started to chuckle.

“I have no doubt,” Ehomba admitted.

The swordsman nodded upward. “That wasn’t dirt you threw at our late unlamented host, was it?” Eager curiosity burned in his expression. “It was some kind of magic grit, or powdered thrall. Are you a sorcerer?”

Ehomba shook his head dolefully. “I am only a herdsman, from the south.”

“Yeah, yeah, so you said. But what was that stuff?”

“Just as I explained: dirt.” Ehomba eyed the obliterated hut speculatively. “But it was clean dirt, free of corruption, from my home village. In a desert country, soil that is good enough to grow food in is revered. It is a precious thing, and looked after with care. For what is more magical than the ability to bring forth food from the bare earth?” He nodded up the slope. “I kept it with me as a remembrance of my home. It came from a small plot that my wife tended that had been many times blessed by Oura, the mother of Asab, our chief. She is a wise woman, and skilled in the ways of the earth. I did not think its purity would suit Corruption.”

“Suit him? By Girun, it gave him a damned bellyache, it did!” Simna started upward, fighting the slippery slope with renewed energy. “Now let’s get after it.”

“Get after it?” The herdsman frowned. “Get after what?”

“Why, his treasure, of course.” Simna eyed him as if he had suddenly gone daft. “Everyone knows that wherever Corruption lingers for very long there is treasure. There are all kinds of corruption, you know. Somewhere up there should be a hoard of riches amassed from the morally corrupt, from crooked magistrates and bent politicians and backdoor guards.”

Ehomba wanted nothing to do with any treasure that had been gathered by Corruption. But as always, his curiosity tugged at him more powerfully than common sense. “I thought you were traveling in search of inner peace?”

Using broken stems and branches to pull himself up the steep slope, Simna ibn Sind smirked back at him. “Gold pieces first, my friend. Inner peace later.”

“I do not agree with your priorities,” Ehomba grumbled as he followed behind.

The shorter man leaped slightly to grab a thick root protruding from the hillside. With the agility of a gibbon, he pulled himself up and continued ascending. “You saved my life, Etjole. So I’m not going to argue with you. But I give you fair warning right now: Whatever happens, don’t ever try to get between me and treasure.”

“I have no interest in treasure,” the herdsman replied softly.

“Hoy, right, that’s what they all say.”

But as he continued to climb, the compact swordsman was less sure of himself, just as he was less than certain of his quiet-voiced companion. An odd duck for sure, he thought. The concern did not linger. There was treasure to be unearthed and he was going to find it—even if it meant digging through untold layers of exploded, accumulated foulness.

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Categories: Alan Dean Foster