“What do you mean it’s not an animal? What else could it be?”
“Wind,” Ehomba explained simply.
Simna frowned, then listened closely, finally shaking his head. “That’s no wind. I don’t know what it is, but it’s alive. You can hear the anger in it.”
Crouching nearby, using the smooth rock for support, Ehomba leaned his spine against the unyielding stone. “What makes you think, my friend, that the wind is not alive, and that it cannot feel anger?” He gestured. “Not only does this wind sound angry, it looks angry.”
The screaming grew still louder, rising with its increasing proximity. Then the source of the shrieking came into view, making no attempt to hide itself. It was like nothing Simna ibn Sind had ever seen, not in all his many travels. Frightful and formidable it was to look upon, a veritable frenzy of malice galloping across the veldt toward them. It displayed every iota of the anger the swordsman had heard in its voice, confirming all he had suspected. But to his wonder and chagrin, Ehomba’s explanation proved equally correct.
The fiend that was racing toward them, howling fit to drown out a good-sized thunderstorm, was wind indeed, but it was unlike any wind Simna had ever seen.
That in itself was extraordinary, for the wind rarely manifested itself visually. Usually, it could be felt, or heard. But this wind could also be seen clearly, for it took upon itself a form that was as appalling as it was imposing. Rampaging across the veldt, it ground its way in their general direction even as it wound deliriously inward upon itself. Nor was it alone. Again Simna squinted eastward. No, there could be no mistake. Unlike the winds he knew, this one was advancing purposefully and in a decidedly unerratic manner.
It was chasing something.
“There’s something running from it,” Simna called out as he put up his sword. Of what use was steel against an unchecked force of Nature?
“I see it,” Ehomba avowed. “It looks like some kind of cat.”
“That’s what I thought.” His companion nodded agreement. “But it doesn’t look like any kind of cat I’ve ever seen before.”
“Nor I. It is all the wrong shape. But it is definitely running from the wind, and has not merely been caught out in front of it. See how it swerves to its right and the wind demon turns to follow it?” He turned away briefly as a rising gust sent particles of dust and fragments of dry grass smacking into his face.
“Not again!” Simna pointed over the rocks. “What kind of demonic hunt is this? Whoever heard of wind deliberately chasing a cat—or any other creature, for that matter?”
He expected the ceaselessly surprising herdsman to say, “I have seen …” or “In the south I once knew of …” but instead the tall spear carrier simply nodded. “Certainly not I, Simna.”
“You mean you haven’t experienced everything, and you don’t know all there is to be known?” the swordsman responded sardonically.
Ehomba looked over at him, now having to shield his eyes from blowing debris. The wind was much closer, and therefore that much more intense. “I have tried to tell you on several occasions, Simna, that I am the most ignorant of men, and that everything I know could fit in the bottom third of a spider’s thimble.”
“I didn’t know spiders used thimbles.”
“Only certain ones.” This was said without a hint of guile. “They have sharp-tipped feet, and it is the only way they can avoid pricking themselves when they are weaving their webs.” Keeping low, he looked back out across the rocks. “The cat is exhausted. You can see it in its face. If something is not done, the wind will catch it soon.”
“Yeah, you can see how its stride is growing slo—What do you mean ‘if something’s not done’?” As warning signs flared in his brain, Simna eyed his friend with sudden wariness.
His worst fears were confirmed when the herdsman rose from his crouching position and moved to abandon the comparative safety of their rocky alcove. “Wait a minute, bruther! What do you think you’re doing?”
Standing atop the bare granite, Ehomba looked back at the other man, that by now familiar, maddening, doleful expression on his long face. “There is something strangely amiss here, my friend, that has led to a most unequal contest. I am by nature a peaceful fellow, but there are a few things that can rouse me to anger. One of these is an unequal fight.” Lowering his spear, he stretched it out in the direction of the advancing wind and its failing prey. “Such as we see before us.”
Simna rose, but made no move to follow the taller man. “What we see before us, bruther, is a contest of unnatural will and unreasoning Nature in which we are fortunate not to be a part. Leave circumstances alone and get back under cover. Or would you think to debate with a thunderstorm?”
“Only if it was a rational thunderstorm,” the herdsman replied unsurprisingly.
“Well, this is no rational wind. I mean, just look at it! What are you going to do—threaten it with harsh language?”
“More than that, I hope.” Gliding easy as a long, tall wraith across the rocks, Ehomba made his way down the slight slope of the kopje toward the onrushing disturbance. Behind him, Simna cupped his hands to his lips in order to make himself heard above the ever-rising howl.
“All right, then! If suicide is your craving, far be it from me to interfere!” As Ehomba bounded off the last rock and down into the grass, the swordsman’s voice became a shout. “But before you die, at least tell me the location of the treasure!”
Perhaps the herdsman did not hear this last. Perhaps he did, and simply chose to ignore it. Looking back, he raised his spear briefly over his head in salute, then turned and jogged out into the grass, heading directly into the path of the onrushing cataclysm.
If the exhausted cat saw him, it gave no sign. Nor did it react by changing its course and heading in his direction. Why should it? What could one mere man do in the face of one of Nature’s most frightening manifestations? Lengthening his stride, Ehomba hurried to intercept the storm’s quarry.
Certainly it was the strangest and yet most magnificent cat the herdsman had ever seen. Jet black in color, with yellow eyes that burned like candles behind the old magnifying lenses of a battered tin lantern, it had the overall look and aspect of an enormous male lion, complete to inky black neck ruff. But the heavy, muscular body was too long and was carried on absurdly elongated legs that surely belonged to some other animal. An unnatural combination of speed and strength, its lineage was a mystery to the curious Ehomba. From having to guard his flocks against them, he knew the nature and countenance of many cats, but he had never seen the like of the great black feline form that came stumbling toward him now.
While its pedigree remained a mystery, there was no mistaking its intent. It was trying to reach the shelter of the kopje. Given the speed at which it was slowing, Ehomba saw that it was not going to make it.
Breaking into a sprint, he raced to insert himself between the faltering cat and the pursuing tempest. Once, he thought he heard Simna’s anxious cry of warning rising above the growling wind, but he could not be sure of it. As he drew near, the great cat stumbled again and nearly fell. It was not quite ready to turn and meet its apocalyptic pursuer, but from studying its face and flanks Ehomba knew it had very little strength left in those extraordinarily long legs.
Spotting the approaching human through its exhaustion, the cat followed him with its eyes, eyes that were strangely piercing and analytical, as Ehomba slowed to a halt between it and the storm. Standing tall as he could, willing himself to plant his sandaled feet immovably in the solid earth, the herdsman confronted the storm and threw up both hands.
The storm did not stop—but it paused. Not intimidated, not daunted, but curious. Curious as to what a single diminutive human was doing placing itself directly in the storm’s unstoppable path.
It towered above him, reaching into the clouds from where it drew its strength, a coiled mass of black air filled with flying grass, bits of trees that had been ripped from their roots, dead animals, soil, fish, and all manner of strange objects that were foreign to Ehomba’s experience. It was wind transformed into a collector, running riot over the landscape gathering into itself whatever was unfortunate enough to cross its path. In shape it most nearly resembled far smaller wind-cousins of itself that the herdsman had seen dancing across the desert. But those were no more dangerous than a momentary sandstorm that nicked a man’s skin and briefly rattled his posture. This was to one of those irritating dust-devils as an anaconda was to a worm.