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

With a last outraged howl it came asunder, fell to pieces, and collapsed in upon itself. The great pillar of conflicted energy blew apart, hurling its internal collection of dead fish and broken branches and river beach sand and the limbs of the unfortunate dead flying in all directions. As the radiance from the sword faded and the unearthly wind it had called up died with it, Simna was released from his imprisonment and allowed to slump to his knees. Something smacked against the stone where his head had been pinned only moments before, and he turned to see the upper half of a carp lying on the rocks where it had fallen.

The boiling clouds from which the tornado had derived its strength shattered silently, their constituent parts dissipating into the resultant blue sky. In a little while all was as calm and peaceful as it had been before the storm’s arrival. Lizards emerged from their dens in the rocks, small dragons took wing and resumed their singing in concert with the birds, and vultures appeared as if from nowhere to feast on the widely strewn, discarded contents of the tornado’s belly.

Taking a deep breath of uncommitted air, Ehomba slipped the sky-metal sword back into the scabbard lying flat against his back and turned to reflect on the cause of all the commotion. The huge black cat was sitting on its haunches in the grass, which was only now beginning to spring back to the vertical from the effects of the deviant wind. Licking its left paw with a tongue thicker than the herdsman’s foot, it was grooming itself silently, working its way from nose back to mane.

It did not let Ehomba’s approach interrupt its labors. “You saved me.”

“You speak well in a tongue not widespread among your kind.”

“Humans presume to know too much about cats.” A paw that could easily have taken the herdsman’s head off with one swift stroke daintily combed through the long black ruff that formed the fluffy mane. Claws like daggers isolated individual hairs.

“That is certainly true. I am Etjole Ehomba, of the Naumkib.” When silence ensued, he added as he leaned on his spear, “What am I to call you?”

“Gone, as soon as I can get myself cleaned up.” The stroking paw paused and piercing yellow eyes met the herdsman’s. “I am a litah.”

“A litah,” Ehomba echoed. “A small name for so big a brute.”

“It is not a name.” The cat was mildly annoyed. “It is what I am. My father was a lion, my mother a cheetah.”

“Ah. That would explain your lines, and your legs.”

Brows drew together like black ropes thick as hawsers. “What’s wrong with my legs?”

“Nothing, not a thing,” Ehomba explained hastily. “It is just that it is unusual to see such a combination of speed and strength in one animal.”

“A lot of good it did me.” Grumbling and rumbling, the litah set to work chewing on his hindquarters.

“What did you expect?” Out of the corner of an eye, Ehomba saw Simna ibn Sind approaching, slowly and cautiously. “For the wind to play fair?”

The litah turned back to him, his tongue scouring around his snout. “Animals as well as humans always expect too much of Nature. I was truthful, but tactless. I admit I did not think the wind would take it so much to heart, if heart it can be said to have had.” Bright eyes glanced heavenward, searching the sky behind Ehomba. “You are a sorcerer.”

“See? See?” Coming up alongside the herdsman, Simna chimed in his agreement with the cat’s assertion. “I’m not the only one.”

Ehomba sighed tiredly. “I am not a sorcerer,” he told the litah. “I am only a herdsman from the south, bound by an obligation set upon me by a dying stranger to travel to the north and then to the west in hopes of helping a woman I do not know.”

The litah grunted. “Then you are right. You are no sorcerer. Any wizard, human or animal, would have better sense.”

Simna drew himself up proudly next to his friend. “He won’t admit to it, but he’s really after treasure. A great treasure, buried somewhere in the lands across the western ocean.” Beside him, Ehomba was shaking his head sadly.

“I have no use for treasure,” the litah growled softly. “I need water, and sex, and a place to sleep. And meat.” With this last, he eyed Simna thoughtfully.

“Now wait a minute, whatever your name is.” Putting his hand on the hilt of his sword, Simna took a step backward. In addition to putting a little more distance between himself and the cat, this also had the effect of placing him slightly behind the herdsman. “My friend here just saved your life.”

“Yes, curse it all.” Idly, the cat inspected the claws of his right foot, holding them up to his face as he studied the spaces between for thorns or bits of stone. “Since humans cannot talk without having names to address, and since you already know me as a litah, I suppose you may as well call me Ahlitah as anything.”

“Very well—Ahlitah.” Ehomba eyed the great black feline uncertainly. “But why ‘curse it all’? Most creatures express gratitude and not irritation when someone saves their life.”

The heavy paw descended and the brute rolled over onto his back, rubbing himself against the grass and the ground with his paws flopping loose in the air. A wary Simna was not yet reassured, and continued to keep his distance despite the kittenish display.

“I suppose it’s not in my nature. Therefore I am not especially grateful. I am, however and unfortunately, indebted. This is a legacy that both my lines are heir to, and I am sadly no different.” Concluding its scratching, the cat twisted with unnatural quickness back onto its feet and began to pad toward Ehomba. The swordsman held his ground, as did Simna—behind him.

“Easy now,” the swordsman whispered. “This Ahlitah’s idea of gratitude may be different from our own.”

“I do not think so.” The herdsman waited, hand on spear, its butt end still resting unthreateningly on the ground.

The great cat finally halted, its face less than inches away from Ehomba’s own. Its jaws parted slightly, revealing major canines more than half a foot long. From between them emerged a giant pink tongue that proceeded to slather the herdsman’s face in drool from chin to hairline. The tall southerner gritted his teeth and bore the infliction. The sensation was akin to having one’s face rubbed hard in the sand.

Taking a step backward, Ahlitah dropped to one knee and bowed his massive, maned head. “For saving my life—even though I didn’t ask you to interfere—I swear allegiance and fealty to you, Etjole Ehomba, until such time as you have successfully concluded your journey, or the one or the both of us die. This I vow on the lineage of my father and of my mother.”

“Oh now, that’s not necessary,” the herdsman responded. From behind, Simna nudged him in the ribs.

“Are you crazy?” The swordsman had to stand on tiptoes to place his lips close enough to whisper into his companion’s ear. “He’s offering his help, Etjole! Willingly! When looking for treasure, it’s always best to have as many allies as possible.”

“It is not willingly, Simna. He is doing so out of a sense of enforced obligation.”

“That’s right,” concurred the cat, who easily overheard every whispered word.

Simna stepped back. “And what’s so wrong about that? Seems to me I know someone else who’s doing something against his will in order to carry out an unsought-after obligation.”

Ehomba’s brows rose slightly as he regarded his friend. “Contrary to what many people believe, too much common sense can be bad for a man.”

“Hoy?” Simna grinned challengingly. “For me—or for you?”

The herdsman returned his attention to the watching four-legged blackness. “I do not like the idea of having in a moment of danger to rely on another who accompanies me unwillingly.”

Yellow-bright eyes flared and enormous teeth made their second appearance in the form of an exquisitely volcanic snarl. “Do you doubt the steadfastness of my vow?”

“Oh no, no, we would never do that!” An anxious Simna forcefully jogged his friend’s arm. “Would we, Etjole?”

“What? Oh, sorry—I was thinking. No, I suppose you should be taken at your word.”

Teeth disappeared behind thick folds of lip. “How very magnanimous of you,” was the acerbic response.

“But this is not necessary. I did not help you with the intention of indenturing you to me. Maybe it would be best if you simply returned to your home.”

The litah began to pace back and forth, looking for all the world like an ordinary agitated house cat made suddenly gigantic. “First you doubt my word, now you scorn my help.”

Ehomba did his best to appear reassuring without sounding condescending. “I speak to you out of neither doubt nor scorn. I am simply saying that your assistance is not required.”

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Categories: Alan Dean Foster