“Yes. How fortunate.”
Just because Ehomba could survive comfortably on little food did not mean that he was averse to a filling meal. Knowing that the meat would not keep for very long and that they had no time to spare to jerk it, they ate their fill of delicious wandala. Nothing was left to waste, not even the marrow of its bones, as Ahlitah possessed an appetite to match his size. When the unlikely trio finally drifted off to sleep, more than content, it was with an ease in mind and body none of them had known for days.
Except Simna. Troubling thoughts woke him several hours before dawn. Nearby, Ehomba lay on his side beneath his blanket, his back to the swordsman. On the other side of the vanquished campfire Ahlitah snored softly, his shadowed bulk like a storm cloud that had, silent and unnoticed, settled to earth for a moment’s unnatural rest.
He had seen Ehomba utilize the power of the sword smelted from sky metal, but until the fight with the spinning storm cloud he had never imagined the extent of that power. What not could a man do who possessed such a weapon? The herdsman had declared that, just as its substance was not of this world, so it had powers that were not of this world. Certainly whoever wielded it could defeat more than clouds and Corruption.
Sitting up, he gazed out across the veldt. Distant moans and occasional sharp barks broke the stillness of the night, but nothing troubled them on their isolated stony outcropping. Ehomba had yet to vary from his path northward. He, Simna, had come from the east. What if he were to return that way? Would the herdsman try to come after him, or would he accept what had transpired, absorb his loss, and maintain his course? How valuable was the sword to him, how important to his journey? A wondrous weapon it was, true, but it was only a sword. Simna would not be leaving him weaponless. Ehomba would still have his spear, and his other sword, not to mention the protective, intimidating company of the litah.
Visions of conquest swam through the swordsman’s tormented thoughts. He had never been what one would call a greedy man. Acquisitive, yes, but hardly rapacious. Overlordship of a small city would be sufficient to satisfy his desires. With the sky-metal sword in hand, what minor nobleman or princeling would dare stand before him? Again he gazed at his lanky companion’s sleeping form. Ehomba was a generous soul. Surely he would not begrudge a good friend the loan of a wanted weapon.
By Giopra, that was it! Not a theft, but a loan, a borrowing! A temporary adoption of a singular arsenal, to be returned as soon as vital objectives had been achieved. As he slipped silently from beneath his blanket, he reflected on the worthiness of rationalization. The herdsman would understand. Humble and unsophisticated he might be, but he was compassionate as well. While he might not feel the need to take control of a town or trade route himself, surely he could empathize with the preoccupation of another to do so.
Advancing more quietly on hands and knees than a beetle on its six legs, he made his way over to where his friend slept. With his back to the humans, Ahlitah did not stir. The sky-metal sword lay alongside its tooth-lined bone companion and the strangely tipped spear, all three within easy reach of their owner in case of emergency.
Ever so gently, as though he were handling a king’s newborn infant and heir, Simna slipped his right hand beneath the fur-covered, quaintly beaded scabbard. It was heavy, but not unmanageably so. At any moment he expected the herdsman to turn over, or rise up, and innocently ask what the swordsman was doing with his property. But Ehomba never stirred. He was worn out, Simna knew. Exhausted from his battle with the elements. Poor fellow, the best thing for him would be to forget all this nonsense and return home to his family and his cattle, his flocks and his friends. He might have the fortitude for this kind of journeying, but he most surely did not have the zeal.
If it induced him to turn back, Simna decided virtuously, then by borrowing the sky sword he was actually doing his friend a favor. Probably saving his life, yes. Certainly the herdsman’s family would thank him for it.
Returning to his blanket with the sword gripped firmly in one hand, he prepared to gather up his kit. The moon would guide him eastward, and by the time Ehomba woke, Simna would be well out of sight and on his way. He could move fast when the occasion demanded.
But before departing, best to make sure he could make use of the weapon. Though Ehomba continued to insist he was no magician, Simna would look the prize fool going into battle someday with a sword he could not draw. If he could but remove it from its scabbard, that would be enough to reassure him that its owner had cast no locking spell on it.
Gripping the handle, he gave an experimental tug. The polished metal was slick against his palm, and the oddly etched blade slid effortlessly upward. The smooth, gray edge with its peculiar right-angle markings gleamed dully in the moonlight. No problem there, he saw appreciatively.
One series of cross-hatched markings in particular caught his eye. They looked a little deeper than the others, though by no means deep enough to threaten the integrity of the blade. They drew his attention to smaller markings still, and others still smaller, until he felt that he was looking into the very elementals of the metal itself.
Suddenly the parallel scourings flew apart. It was as if he had been staring at a painting, a painting rendered entirely in gray, only to be drawn in, sucked down, cast helplessly into a gray metallic pit. Now the picture’s frame was flying to pieces all around him, and he found himself falling, kicking and flailing helplessly at ashen emptiness adrift in a leaden vacuum.
Fiery globes of incandescent energy rushed past him, singeing his skin and clothing. Around these colossal spheres of coruscating hellfire spun worlds whole and entire, swarming with life-forms more fantastic than the word spinnings of any storyteller. Immense, billowing clouds of luminous vapor filled the spaces between the fire globes and their attendant worlds, along with tailed demons and rocks that seemed to have been launched from God’s own slingshot.
And in the middle of it all was he, tumbling and kicking, screaming at the top of his lungs even though there was no one to hear him. Not that it mattered, because despite his frantic efforts, no sound emerged from his throat. Perhaps because there was no air in his lungs with which to make sounds. As this new horror struck home he began to choke, gasping for the air that was not there. His hands went to his throat, as if by squeezing they could somehow force nonexistent air into his straining, heaving chest.
Something pushed at him, rocking him even as he fell. Invisible hands—or claws, or tentacles—were wrenching at his body, threatening to divert him from his endless eternal fall to a place where unfathomable horrors could be wreaked on his impotent person. Screaming, crying, he kicked at the unseen presence and flailed at it with his hands. Though he could see nothing, his extremities made contact with something.
He was struck across the face, the blow stinging but not hard enough to draw blood. Dimly, distantly, he felt he heard a voice calling his name. Gojura, the Lord of Unknown Places, or some other deity? He was in no shape to meet his sister’s daughter, much less a god or two. Not that he had any choice. Beyond caring, long past mere fear, he opened his eyes.
Ehomba was leaning over him, looking down into his friend’s tormented face. The herdsman’s expression was full of sympathy and concern, notwithstanding the fact that he held one hand upraised and poised to strike downward.
A gruff, inhumanly deep voice somewhere off to his left growled, “There—he’s around. No need to hit him again. Unless you’re simply in the mood.” The speaker sounded sleepy, and bored.
Ehomba lowered his open palm and sat back. Feeling of his body to assure himself it was still intact, the swordsman sat up. Around him were darkness, night sounds, veldt smells, and wistful moonlight. The comforting solidity of the kopje’s naked rock chilled his backside.
Relieved, the herdsman leaned away from his friend. “You were having a bad dream, Simna. Bad enough to wake us. You were kicking and screaming in your sleep as if something was after you. What was it?”
“I …” The swordsman put a hand to his perspiring forehead. “I’m not sure I remember, exactly. I was falling. Not into something, but through it.”