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

“Sounds like magic to me,” Simna avowed.

“Not at all,” Loswee countered. “It is simply sound engineering, in every sense of the term.”

“It is a wonderful thing.” Ehomba was openly admiring. “Of what other marvels are the Swick masters?”

“Come and I’ll show you.” Loswee led them back toward the plaza.

They were shown the vast underground storehouses and fungi farms, the workshops where Swick craftsfolk turned out superb works in leather and in fabric woven from desert fibers, the narrow-bore but deep wells that brought cool water up from unsuspected pools deep beneath the dune, and the extensive stables for the care and breeding of running birds and other small domesticated creatures. A dark seep at the end of a tunnel so long and low they could not enter produced an endless supply of fine black oil that kept the lamps of the community burning around the clock.

“This country is full of such seeps,” Loswee told them. “I think there must be enough of the black liquid here to fill all the lamps of the world.”

Ehomba’s nose wrinkled at the thought. “It smells badly, though, and it stains clothes, and animals could become trapped in it. Give me a clean wood fire any day.”

“Same here,” agreed Simna readily. “The stuff’s not good for anything else anyway. I say take what you need for your lamps and leave the rest of it in the ground.”

“That is what we do.” Loswee turned back toward the main square. “You have seen much in a short time. I am hungry again myself.”

Simna rubbed his hands together. “I wouldn’t have thought a man could get fat on such small portions, but your cooks are as adept as your singers.”

It was as they were finishing the midday meal that Loswee reappeared to confront them in the company of half a dozen senior Swick. These Elders had long, curly white whiskers emerging from their chins, like gypsum helectites protruding from a cave wall, but not one could boast of sufficient chin hair to be labeled the father of a real beard. The two females among them had manes of scraggly white hair corkscrewing down their backs. Instead of the familiar Swick attire of shorts and upper garment, these respected seniors wore voluminous cloaks whose hems scraped the ground.

Despite their impressive appearance, both individually and as a group, it was still Loswee who did the talking. Ehomba found himself wondering if the Swick warrior had volunteered for the position of go-between or if he had been delegated to the task. Whatever the truth of the matter, he did not act like someone laboring under a compulsion.

“These are members of the Council of Elders,” he explained. The half dozen senior Swick promptly kowtowed spryly. “As the first among Swick to encounter you, I have been asked by them to beg your help.”

Leaning to his right, Simna whispered to his companion, “Hoy—here it comes. I knew all this food and friendship had to come with a price.”

“Hush,” Ehomba admonished him softly. “Let us see what they have to say.” Louder he responded, “What kind of help?”

For such a small warrior, Loswee could muster an impressively steely gaze. “We want you to fight the Dunawake.”

“I knew it,” muttered Simna sourly as he put down his latest barrel of beer.

As always, Ehomba’s tone remained unchanged. “You said that magic was necessary to battle this creature. We told you before you brought us to your castle-town that we had no magic. Nothing has changed since we first talked.”

Loswee’s demeanor began to show some cracks. “When I said that we wanted to beg your help I was being truthful. The Dunawake is very close and comes nearer every day. You have seen how much work has gone into the building of our home here. Can you imagine the effort involved for people our size?”

Ehomba nodded slowly. “I think I can.”

“I told you outside that we cannot fight the Dunawake, that we can only try to keep ahead of it.” He gestured expansively, taking in the central square, the surrounding towers and buildings and shops. “How many times do you think we have had to move? How many times do you think we have had to rebuild our homes starting outside the face of a virgin dune?” When none of the visitors responded, Loswee quietly informed them, “This castle in whose center you sit, this thriving community wherein we dwell, is our forty-fifth. Forty-five times we have raised a castle-town like this, and forty-four times we have had to abandon it and move on, to keep clear of the Dunawake.”

Ehomba did his best to imagine the effort of which Loswee was speaking, the heartbreak of picking up and moving everything, down to the last miniature shovel and hearth. Of hurrying off through the desert between inhospitable dunes that were hills to him and his friends but gigantic sand mountains to people the size of the Swick. Of starting again from scratch, with the first choir singing out the first hole in the base of a fresh, untouched dune.

Of doing it forty-five times and now having to face the unholy prospect of doing it for a forty-sixth.

He took in the wondrous construction surrounding them, all of it fashioned from nothing more than laboriously worked sand. Contemplated the humming, thriving community, alive with craftwork and farming and art. Considered, and tried to envision abandoning it all to inevitable ruination and starting over again from nothing.

His gaze returned at last to the waiting Loswee. “I am sorry, but we cannot help you.”

Simna looked momentarily startled, then relieved. Clearly, he had been expecting a different sort of response from his friend. Behind them, Ahlitah rolled over and snored.

Loswee accepted the response gravely. “Outside, you agreed that if not help, you might be able to give us some advice.”

Ehomba shrugged diffidently. “I said ‘might.’ Loswee, I do not know what to say. You told us that magic was needed to fight this Dunawake, and I replied that we had no magic. I am sorry to say that we have no advice, either. We do not even know what a Dunawake is. Believe me, I feel terrible about this. Men I know how to fight, and animals, and even certain circumstances of nature, but not a Dunawake. I have never heard of one, seen one, or had it described to me.”

“Perhaps if you saw it you would know how to respond.” Backed by his silently watching Elders, Loswee was unwilling to drop the matter.

“I do not see why. And if it is as dangerous as you say, and we confronted it without knowing how to respond or react, I imagine we would probably die. I do not want to die. I have an obligation of my own to fulfill that does not, regrettably, include the Swick, and also a family that I am missing more than I can say.”

“Also friends,” Simna added quickly.

“Yes, even that.” Ehomba took a long, deep breath. “I am sorry, Loswee. For you and for your people. But it is not like you are unused to moving.”

“It never gets easier,” the Swick soldier told him. “But if there is nothing you can do, there is nothing you can do. These Elders and I will convey your response to the rest of the Council.” Behind him, the senior Swick genuflected once again. They had spoken, and having had their say, now added not a word. “Finish your meal,” Loswee advised as he turned away.

This the visitors proceeded to do: Ahlitah quietly, Simna without a thought, and Ehomba with perhaps one or two—but they were fleeting. He could not change the world, and in actual fact had no desire to try.

If their hosts in general or Loswee in particular held any resentment against the travelers for their refusal to help in the endless ongoing battle against their nemesis, they did not show it. The rest of the day was spent touring other parts of the remarkable underground complex and in learning more of Swick culture. It was ancient but not widely known, in large part because of the perpetrators’ secretive style of living.

“There are other dunes in other desert parts of the world where our distant relations thrive,” Loswee informed them, “and the human beings who live in close proximity to those dunes are completely unaware of our presence nearby. They see tracks in the sand, but the tracks are those of the birds and other animals we make use of.”

“You are a very resourceful people,” Ehomba admitted respectfully.

“Yes,” declared Loswee with pride. “Our lands have always been safe from all trespass except that of the Dunawake, though I fear that someday this may change.”

“Why’s that?” inquired Simna, only half interested.

Loswee turned quite serious. “Humans have a great love for lamps, and our land floats on the liquid they use to fill them. I am afraid that one day they may come to take it, smashing down the dunes and trampling the plants in the ravines and wadis.”

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Categories: Alan Dean Foster