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

The fire was burning low. A single distant but penetrating roar of particular resonance briefly jarred him, but he was too contented to let anything disturb him for long. They had crossed the seemingly impossible high veldt without injury or difficulty, saving weeks of difficult walking through dangerous country. He was traveling in the company of a mysterious but pleasant and unthreatening foreigner who was going to lead him to a trove of untold riches. True, this individual possessed abilities he refused to acknowledge until the time came to make use of them, but Simna had seen fakirs and magicians at work before, and was not intimidated by their ruses. Not even by those of one who could talk to animals. He was certain he was ready for whatever surprise his traveling companion might choose to spring next.

No he wasn’t.

It was the light that woke him. Stealing in under his eyelids, prying at them with insistent photons, raising both his lids and his attention. The explanation was simple and natural: The sky had become lit by a rising full moon. Smacking dry lips, he prepared to roll over, away from the light in the sky. As he did so, he opened one eye to check on the position of the night’s light. At the same time it occurred to him that there had been only a sliver of moon the night before, and that it was usual for the moon to move with stately and regular procession through its phases and not to jump from one-eighth full to wholly rounded.

He was wrong. The light did not come from the moon. He sat up, the thin but warm blanket sliding down to his thighs, his eyes now fully open and alert.

The campfire had been reduced to a pile of coals from which curls of smoke continued to rise, taking flight into the night and making good their escape from the company of man. Ehomba sat cross-legged on the other side, staring not at the sky nor at his companion but at the intense glimmering that was drifting, will-o’-the-wisp-like, in front of him. No random, irregularly shaped glob of luminance, the light had form and shape.

What a form, an enchanted Simna thought dreamily, and what a shape.

It hovered in the air before the herdsman, draped in tight folds of silk in many shades of blue flecked with silver stars and laced with pearls and aquamarines. Though long of sleeve and skirt, the binding of the royal raiment was such that he could see the curves that folded upon curves. It was at once entirely modest and unrelievedly arousing.

The young woman who was thus encased, like a spectacular butterfly about to be born from a glistening cocoon, had skin the color of love and smooth as fresh poured cream. Her eyes were bluer than the silks she wore, and they sparkled more brightly than any diamond sewn to her gown. In striking contrast to the color of her skin, her hair was impossibly black, wavy filaments of polished onyx that spilled down her back and around her shoulders, as if a portion of the night itself had attached itself to her being.

She was staring not at the unmoving, attentive Ehomba, but off into the distance. Her expression was resigned, determined, wistful. What she was looking at Simna could not imagine. He knew only that he would, without hesitation, have given his very life to be the subject of that stare.

Something made her frown, and as she did so the light in which she was enveloped curdled like souring milk. A second presence stepped into the ragged splotch of efflorescence. It was huge, monstrous, and overbearing.

You could not see the eyes, concealed as they were within the depths of the horned helmet. Spikes and scythes protruded from the rough-surfaced black metal. Below the helmet began the body of a wrestler and a giant, immensely powerful, the muscles themselves occasionally visible beneath flowing garments of purple, gold, and crimson. The cape that trailed behind the figure, which Simna estimated to be close to eight feet tall, was decorated with the most horrible visions of hell, of bodies being torn limb from limb by demons and devils, all of whom were performing their dreadful activities under the supervision and command of that same towering, helmeted figure.

As both men looked on, there in the night in the middle of the veldt, the giant put a massive, mailed hand on one flawless bare shoulder. Instantly the woman whirled, her far-off look abruptly replaced with one of utter loathing and revulsion. Her reaction did not seem to trouble the giant. Though she did her utmost to remove his clinging hand, at first shaking and then grabbing at it, she was unable to dislodge the mailed grip even when pressing both hands and all her weight upon it.

Until now Simna had sat motionless, enthralled by the vision and the distant drama of what he was seeing. But suddenly, the giant was looking past the woman held in his bruising, unyielding grasp. Looking beyond the room in which he and his prize stood, beyond even the building where his prisoner was bound in unwilling consort.

He was looking straight at Etjole Ehomba, a herdsman from the dry, desiccated lands to the south.

With a bellow of outrage that dwarfed anything that the veldt had produced, the figure brought its other hand forward. Something that was the consequence of an unholy union between fire and lightning sprang from the mailed palm, leaping toward the seated southerner. Ehomba ducked instinctively and the blast of luminescent diablerie passed over his left shoulder to strike the center of the dying campfire.

Those flames that remained within fled in terror of a greater fire than they could know. As the air screamed, the very molecules of which it was composed were torn and rent. The image of giant and entrapped beauty collapsed in upon itself, twisting and crumpling like a sheet of paper in the trembling fingers of a scandalized warlord. And then it was gone: giant, empyreal prisoner, and the light that had framed them, leaving behind only the veldt and the scandalized night.

Not a sound emanated from the surrounding leagues of grass. It was as if the earth itself lay stunned by the apparition. Then, somewhere, a cricket resumed its violining. A frog croaked from within its prized puddle. Night birds and insects resumed their timeless chorus.

Aware that he had neglected to breathe for a while, Simna ibn Sind inhaled deeply. The perspiration in which he was drenched began to dry and cool on his body, causing him to shiver slightly. Shunting aside his blanket, he crawled over until he was beside his companion. It took a moment, because he had to avoid the foot-deep, smoking ditch of scorched earth that occupied the place where their campfire had been and that now drew a line in the soil between them. It stank of carbonized malignance and inhuman venality.

“Pray tell, bruther, what that was all about? And in the same breath, deny to me one more time that you are a sorcerer.”

Ehomba looked over at him and smiled tiredly. “I have told you, friend Simna, that I am but a simple herdsman. Believe me, I would rather be lying with my wife than with you, listening to my children instead of the growls and complaints of strange animals, and in my own bed than here in this alien land. But through no wish or desire of my own, I have become involved in something bigger than myself.” Turning away, he looked at the patch of sky where the phantasm had appeared and subsequently burned itself out.

“I did not conjure up what we just saw. I did not call out to it, or beckon it hither, or ask it to appear before me. I recited no litany, cast no spells, burnt no effigies. I was having trouble going to sleep and, having trouble, thought to sit a while and contemplate the majesty of the sky.” He shrugged so lackadaisically that Simna almost believed him.

“So that just ‘happened’?” The swordsman waved at the space in the sky where the figures had appeared. The air there still shimmered and smoldered like distant pavement on a scorching hot afternoon. “You did nothing to make it happen?”

“Nothing.” With a heavy sigh Ehomba lay back down on the comforting earth. “I was sitting, and it appeared before me. The auguries of a dead man, Simna. The burden of Tarin Beckwith of Laconda, North.” He nodded at the disturbed patch of atmosphere.

“I believe that the woman we saw was the Visioness Themaryl, and the frightful figure that appeared behind her must perforce be her abductor, Hymneth the Possessed. She fits the allusion of comeliness the dying Beckwith described to me, and he no less the likeness of concentrated animus. How or why they should appear to me now, here, in this isolated and unpretentious place, I cannot tell you.”

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Categories: Alan Dean Foster