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

“That is interesting.” Yawning, Ehomba slipped back beneath his own blanket. “What were you falling through? The sky, or maybe the sea?”

“No—not either of those.” Suddenly Simna tilted back his head, craning his neck as he stared open-mouthed at the night sky. “I was falling through everything. I—saw everything. Well, maybe not everything, but an awful lot of it.” He lowered his head. “As much of everything as I think I ever want to see.”

Lying prone beneath his blanket and tucking it up around him, Ehomba nodded drowsily. “I can understand that. To see everything would be too much for any man. It is hard enough to look at and make sense simply of that which is around us. Myself, I am content simply to see something. I have no wish to see everything.”

Simna nodded without replying as he slowly settled himself back beneath his own blanket. As he did so, his gaze inevitably returned to the dome of the night sky and the tiny points of light that twinkled in the darkness. He knew what they were now, and shuddered. Few men are capable of dealing with the world around them, he mused, so how could anyone be expected to handle the immensity of everything else? Certainly it was too much for him.

It had been a terrible dream, but an efficacious one. From now on he would leave strange weapons alone, no matter how much they might tempt him. Even if they belonged to someone who was simply a fortunate herdsman and not a sorcerer. He was lucky he had only dreamed about stealing—um, borrowing—the sky-metal sword. Had he tried to take possession of it, the harrowing visions he had experienced while sleeping might have become real.

Turning away from the no longer amicable sky, he lay on his side gazing in Ehomba’s direction. Tomorrow they would resume their northward trek. With luck they would come to a river that could carry them to the sea, where they would find a town at which seaworthy vessels called. They would book passage westward, to the fabled lands of Ehl-Larimar, where dwelled Hymneth the Possessed, and the treasure he knew in his soul must be at the heart of the poor herdsman’s quest.

As he lay still, his head resting in the cup of his right hand, he saw that Ehomba’s weapons were no longer neatly aligned on the smooth rock above his head, but had been put askew. Perhaps the herdsman had disturbed them in his haste to awaken and free his friend from the anguish of his nightmare.

Ignoring the feathered spear and the tooth-edged sword, he found his gaze drawn inexorably to the scabbarded blade of wondrous sky metal. It seemed to be partly drawn, just enough to expose an inch or so of the metal itself. The Widmanstätten lines etched into its side caught the moonlight and twisted it the way a child would knot a rope. A nimble pain shot through part of his forehead as he felt his left eye poked with too-sharp perception.

He rolled over quickly and closed his eyes tight, resolving to look upon nothing save the inside of his eyelids until dawn renewed both the day and his trust in the authenticity of existence. Some dreams drifted too close to reality, and some realities too close to dream. In the company of a perambulating curiosity like Etjole Ehomba, he decided, it was important for one to concentrate with unwavering determination on the path between the two, lest one’s world suddenly slip out of focus.

Opening his eye just a crack, it was filled with a flash of light. For a dreadful moment he was afraid it was one of those hellish globes of fire he had seen floating in emptiness. Almost as quickly as he started to panic, he relaxed. It was only the glint of moonlight off a chip of quartz embedded in the rock close to his face.

He closed his eyes again, and this time did not open them until the sun began to sneak its first rays over the eastern horizon.


MORNING ARRIVED NOT WITH THE EASE OF AWAKENING WITH which Ehomba was most comfortable, but with a thunderous declaration of life that had both him and Simna ibn Sind erupting from their place of sleeping. Initially panicked, the men relaxed when they saw it was only Ahlitah, greeting the arrival of the sun with an ardent bellowing that all but shook the rocks beneath them as his robust roars detonated against the vast expanse of the veldt.

“Must you play the lord of all roosters?” Exhaling sharply, Simna sat back down on the smooth, cool granite.

Standing with his forefeet on the highest point of the kopje, the litah turned his great black-maned head to glower down at him. “I am king of this land, and must so remind my subjects every morning.”

“Well, we’re not your subjects,” Simna snapped, “and we’d appreciate it if while we’re traveling in each other’s company you maybe just waved to your subjects every once in a while.”

“Yes.” Ehomba was already packing to depart. “I am sure the mere creatures who inhabit the veldt already recognize your suzerainty, and that it is not necessary for you to remind them of it quite so loudly every morning.”

“Oh, I do beg your pardon. From now on I’ll do it like this.” Looking away and throwing back his head, the massive jaws parted and Ahlitah let loose as resounding a meow as Ehomba had ever heard.

“Much better,” Simna commented tartly.

“I am so pleased that you approve.” Tomorrow morning, the great cat vowed, it would roar again as loudly as ever—making it a point to place his lips directly opposite one of the stocky swordsman’s ears as he did so.

But he would not argue the point now, when they were about to set off for a portion of the veldt that was new even to him. While he was embarrassed at having to keep company with humans, a part of him was anticipating the forthcoming opening up of new territory. He looked forward to meeting the inhabitants, and to eating some of them.

As they descended the kopje, which had proved to be an agreeable refuge in the midst of the all but featureless veldt, Ehomba found himself again questioning the suitability of his companions. Given alternatives, he would have chosen otherwise. One was inhuman, tremendously strong, but reluctant to the point of apathy. He wondered how he was going to be able to rely on someone to watch his back who would do so only out of a sense of enforced obligation.

His other associate was fearless, wily, experienced, and tough, but interested in only one thing: the domineering illusion of false wealth. Again, not the truest motivation for standing behind someone in need. Still, he supposed it was better to have them at his side than not, to have company and companionship in strange country than to be traveling alone. If nothing else, it gave potential enemies someone else to shoot at. For all his unrelenting babble about treasure, Simna ibn Sind would prove useful if he took but one arrow meant for Ehomba. And Ahlitah the same if he did nothing at all but stand still and frighten off a single stealthy assassin.

Yes, it was better to travel in the company of an entourage, however small and however uncommitted. They would be of no use against someone as overawing and powerful as this Hymneth individual, but if they could simply help him to achieve that final confrontation then all would be worthwhile. Until that ultimate moment he would suffer their company, dealing with Simna’s endless harping about treasure and Ahlitah’s incessant muttering.

* * * *

Another day’s walking brought them within sight of a line of trees. This was greatly to Simna’s liking since, as he put it, he had seen enough grass and weeds to last a million cattle the rest of their lives, and him not able to eat a blade of it. Ahlitah was more circumspect.

“Trees make good places to hide behind.”

“Maybe in the veldt, where trees are few and far between.” Simna was leading the way. “In lands where they’re the rule rather than the exception, they’re no more dangerous than taller grass.”

But the trees did hide something: a river; broad, murky, and of indeterminate depth. Ehomba resigned himself to another swim.

“Don’t be in such a hurry.” Simna was leaning over the bank. It was a short drop, less than a foot, to the water. There was no shoreline, no beach of sand or mud. Short, stubby grass grew right up to the water’s edge. “It looks shallow.”

“Fine,” commented Ahlitah. “You try it first.”

The swordsman nodded at the big cat. “Your legs are longer than mine, but if you’re that afraid of water, then I’ll break trail for you.”

Making sure that his pack was secure against his back, Simna stepped off the bank. The water barely reached to the tops of his ankles. Turning, he spread his arms and smiled.

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Categories: Alan Dean Foster