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


THEY FOUND NOTHING IN THE HUT, BUT THERE WAS A SLANTING cave behind it that was high enough for a man to enter, if he bent slightly. Remarking that corruption burned well, Simna fashioned torches for them both and started in. Ehomba was content to follow. If anything, the stench in the enclosed tunnel was even worse than that without, but nothing could compare with the odor that had momentarily filled the air during the detonation of Corruption himself.

“Who told you there would be treasure here?” Ehomba kept his attention on the well-slimed floor instead of his eager companion.

“You hear things.” Simna kept flashing his torch from side to side to ensure nothing was overlooked. “Besides, doesn’t money always follow corruption?”

“I would not know,” the herdsman replied frankly. “There is none of it in my village, nor among my tribe.”

“‘Tribe,’” Simna muttered. “Hoy, that figures. You’re not exactly a sophisticate from the big city, are you, bruther?”

“Kora Keri is the biggest town I have ever seen, and that only recently.”

“Well, lemme tell you, Etjole—I can call you by your friendly name, can’t I?”

“You just did,” Ehomba pointed out pragmatically.

“Etjole, if there’s one thing I know, it’s corruption.” If it occurred to Simna that admitting to this body of knowledge might reflect less than favorably upon him personally he gave no sign that he realized it. “And believe me, money follows it the way a honey badger tracks bees.” His torch swept back and forth, the swinging flame leaving behind a wake of flickering light. “It’s got to be here somewhere. It’s got to!”

“Perhaps that is what you are looking for up ahead.” “What?” Simna had been gazing back at his companion. Now his attention shifted forward. Raising his torch as high as the tunnel would allow, he saw what he had hoped to find glittering back at him.

The gold was piled higher than a man, higher even than one as tall as the rangy herdsman. Coins, bracelets, rings, chokers, tiaras, bullion, slabbed bars, goblets, plates, and all manner of other devices lay in a single imposing heap, as if casually discarded during a trash pickup. Peering from the small mountain of gold like iridescent insects were jeweled earrings and buttons, rings and wristlets, and all manner of elaborately carved lapidary decorations.

Eyes wild as a mad kudu, Simna ibn Sind had prepared to take a flying leap onto the golden hillside when he felt a hand restraining him. Attempting to shake it off, he was startled by the strength of the grip. Tough and well built himself, he quickly became frustrated at his inability to loosen that unyielding grasp.

Cobalt blue eyes flashed at Ehomba. “What’s the idea, bruther? Let me go! Or are you going to stand there like a disapproving priest and tell me you have no love for gold yourself?”

“Actually, I do not,” Ehomba told him, quite honestly. “It is you I am concerned for.”

Licking his lips in anticipation, Simna’s gaze darted between his eccentric friend and the kingdom’s ransom that dominated the chamber. “Don’t worry about me. This will fix anything that’s wrong with me.”

“When I was young,” the herdsman went on, still keeping a firm grip on the other man, “I learned that many delicious-looking fruits are safe from grazing animals despite their enticing appearance because they contain one form or another of deadly poison.” He nodded at the hoard. “Here is the treasure of Corruption. Think a moment, my friend, on what we have just seen. Corruption corrupts everything it comes in contact with. The instant our eyes and minds cleared we saw that his house was corrupted, the furniture within was corrupted, everything that grew inside and nearby was corrupted. What makes you think this is any different? The fact that it is shiny?”

“C’mon, Etjole! This is gold, and jewels! Not plants or wood.”

“It is the provenance of Corruption.”

“Let go of me.” The swordsman struggled furiously in the other man’s grasp. Eventually, one flailing hand encountered the knife sheathed at his waist. “Let me go or by Gwetour … !”

Ehomba released him. Simna staggered a moment before regaining his balance. “Take it if you will, then,” the herdsman said, “but do me one favor first. Pick only one piece, one coin, and examine it closely before you hurl yourself upon the rest.”

Simna squinted at the tall southerner. “That’ll shut you up?”

Ehomba nodded, just once. “That will shut me up.”

“More than worth it, then.” Pivoting, the slim swordsman bent and chose a coin from the bottom edge of the pile. It was a fine coin, lustrous as the day it was minted, with the silhouette of some obscure emperor stamped on one side and an obelisk surrounded by cryptic symbols on the other. Simna turned it over and over between his fingers, flipped it into the air, and caught it with the insouciance of an experienced juggler.

“There! Satisfied?”

“Let me see.” Ehomba leaned forward and the other man held the golden disk out for him to inspect. “Yes, it is a large coin, and based on what little I know about such things, real gold.”

“Of course it is!” Simna did nothing to try to hide his contempt and impatience. “What else did you expect?”

“I was not sure. Something like what is happening to your hand, I think.”

“Something … ?” The swordsman blinked and looked down at the coin in his palm. “What are you babbling about?”

“Beneath the coin. See?”

Simna squinted, and then his eyes widened. With a yelp as if he had been stung by a hornet, he flung the coin away from him with a spasmodic twitch of his arm. Holding his wrist, he gaped open-mouthed at his hand.

A neat hole the exact diameter of the coin had appeared in the flesh. The edges of the quarter-inch-deep wound were black and festering. White pus oozed from the center and a mephitic miasma arose from the rotting meat. It was a stink with which both men were by now all too familiar.

“Ghontoh!” Simna exclaimed. Still tightly clutching his wrist, he started to tremble as he looked back over his shoulder at the gleaming, beckoning golden hillock. “If I’d gone and jumped onto that, buried myself in it like I wanted to …” He left the rest of the thought unvoiced even as he tried to expel the synchronal vision from his mind.

Ehomba had slid his pack off his back and was rummaging through it. When he rose from the inspection, he had a small piece of sealed bamboo in one hand.

“Here,” he said gently, “let me see it.”

Shakily, the swordsman held out his ulcerated palm. The herdsman examined it thoughtfully for a moment, then unsealed the bamboo. Pushing a finger inside, he smeared it thoroughly with the milky sap the container held and proceeded to rub this across the injured man’s open palm. After repeating the treatment several times until the wound was thoroughly invested with the sap, he resealed the bamboo vial and replaced it in his pack.

“Give me your other arm,” he directed Simna. The swordsman obeyed without question. Ehomba promptly tore a long, winding strip from the sleeve of the other man’s shirt.

“Hoy, that’s Bakhari silk! Do you know what that costs in a Thalussian marketplace?”

Ehomba eyed him darkly. “Which is more important to you, Simna—your shirt, or your hand?” Wordlessly, he began to bandage the circular lesion with the silken strip. The swordsman did not comment further.

Satisfied, Ehomba stepped back and examined his handiwork. “The dressing should be changed every three days. If you keep the wound clean, it should be healed in a week or two.”

“A hole like that? Are you crazy? Even if that goo you smeared on it is worth anything, it’ll take at least a month for the flesh to replace itself.”

“Oura is mistress of many unguents and salves. I have seen her reduced sap from the leaves of the kokerboom tree save a child from a mamba bite.” He offered the other man a thin smile. “Of course, if you think you can do better, you are welcome to do so. Perhaps immersing it in gold bullion would be more to your liking.”

“I never met a herdsman with a sense of humor,” Simna grumbled. His tone changed quickly. “That’s the second time you’ve saved my life. How am I ever supposed to repay you?”

With a shrug, Ehomba turned. He was more than ready to leave the tunnel. He had been ready to leave before he had entered it. “I know that had our situations been reversed, you would have done as much for me.”

“Oh, sure, hoy, absolutely.” The swordsman nodded too vigorously. “I would’ve done so without a thought, bruther!” Holding his torch in his good hand, he followed Ehomba as they started out of the stench-filled cavity. “I guess you’re not as green as you look. For a start, I expect you know more about certain kinds of corruption than me. Organic corruption, anyway. Meself, I’m more conversant with the societal variety. I just didn’t think there’d be that much difference between the two. Urban corruption wouldn’t have rotted a hole in my hand.”

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Categories: Alan Dean Foster