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

Ehomba looked up at the sand ceiling overhead. “Not these dunes,” he commented reassuringly. “They are too big, and this land is too remote.”

“I hope you are right, my friend.” Loswee sighed, the diminutive exhalation comical in the enclosed space, like the wheezing of a mouse. “I am more sorry than I can say that you are not the magician we had hoped for.”

“So am I.” It cost Ehomba nothing to agree. Sympathy was cheap.

“I know that you must be on your way.” The tiny fighter summoned up a smile. Given the width of his mouth, it nearly split his broad, flat face in half. “At least you have had the chance to experience Swick hospitality. That is a treat few human beings have enjoyed.”

“We are grateful.” As a courtesy, Ehomba dipped his head slightly. “We will take away good memories with us.”

“And I, if not the Elders, will remember you fondly.” It seemed impossible that Loswee’s smile could grow any wider, but it did, defying the boundaries of his face. “Tomorrow morning I myself will conduct you back outside, and show you the easiest way to the north. Follow my directions, and you will not find yourselves pinched by the dunes and having to slog your way through sand. There is a particularly wide and flat gulch that runs all the way through this country. Keep your feet on it always and you will soon find yourselves once more in a land of green trees and running water.”

“How far from there to the nearest river or seaport?” Ehomba asked him.

Loswee spread his small hands apologetically. “That I can’t tell you. We Swick keep to the sand country, where we can live in peace and solitude among our dunes. Not all people are as understanding or kindly toward others as yourselves. Believe it or not, there are some who like to hurt anything and anyone who is smaller than themselves simply because they can.”

“The world is full of bullies,” Ehomba agreed. “I understand your desire to maintain your privacy. When people are squabbling over nothing, as often seems to be the case, I myself prefer the company of cattle.”

“Tomorrow, then.” Loswee backed away. “Sleep well, my friends, and dream of Swick choirs singing back the stars.”


THE TRAVELERS AWOKE REFRESHED AND RELAXED, READY TO resume their interrupted trek northward. After a final, sumptuous breakfast, Loswee himself escorted them away from the inner castle, through the rest of the town, and into the main tunnel that led to the world outside.

After the time they had spent underground, the unfiltered directness of the desert sun stung their eyes. They had to retreat back into the tunnel and reemerge gradually. It took almost half an hour before their eyes could once more handle the harsh clarity of the blue sky and the sun reflecting off the surrounding dune faces.

There was no shaking of hands as was the custom in Simna’s homeland, nor clasping of forearms in the fashion of the Naumkib and related peoples, nor even licking of faces as was common among Ahlitah’s feline tribe. Loswee simply raised a hand in farewell, then turned on his bird and rode back toward the tunnel that led to the wondrous subterranean world of the Swick.

But not before leading them around the base of the great dune whose unsuspected secret was the flourishing inner community it concealed. There, radiating out from a small salt pan, three waterless meanderings wandered off in search of the far distant sea. Pointing to the one in the middle, Loswee informed them that if they followed it, not only would it broaden into a wide, easily hiked desert highway, but eventually it would lead them into greener and more populated country. From there they would doubtless have better luck finding the oceanic transportation they sought.

Towing their diminished but still significant water supply behind them, they thanked the diminutive Swick warrior before starting off in the indicated direction. True to his word, the narrow wadi soon expanded into a sun-blasted, relatively gravel-free promenade that promised easy access to wherever it led.

By late afternoon, enough clouds had gathered to provide some surcease from the intolerant sun. This was not enough to assuage the mood of the valiant swordsman, who without anything specific to complain about was feeling decidedly peckish.

“If we were back among the Swick it’d be lunchtime about now.” Adjusting his pack so that it rode a little higher on his shoulders, he squinted at the cloud-masked sky.

From his position in the lead, Ehomba looked back at his companion. “Would you have ever left? I was afraid that we had overstayed our welcome as it was.”

“Of course I would’ve left, bruther. The food was good, for sure, but the appearance of the local ladies was not only a tad gruesome for my taste, they were also most proportionately incommodious.”

The herdsman was left shaking his head. “What a wastrel you are, Simna ibn Sind. You have built nothing with your life.”

“As opposed to you, with your nagging cattle and daggy sheep? If that’s a legacy for a man to be proud of, I’ll take cinnamon.”

“Excess!” Ehomba actually raised his voice slightly. “Your life is all about excess, Simna. Useless, wasting, scattergood excess.”

“And yours is about nothingness, Etjole. Empty, barren, sterile nothingness!”

“Barren and sterile, is it? I have a most beautiful wife, and two handsome, strong children to care for me in my old age.”

Simna would no more back down from a verbal challenge than from a physical one. “And when I claim my share of treasure I’ll buy a harem to care for me, and guards, and the best physicians. That I’ll enjoy while you toss and rot as old women chant lamentations over your withered, dying body.”

“You may be right about that,” Ehomba conceded, “but therein lies a difference between us.”

“And what’s that?” riposted the swordsman belligerently.

Ehomba held his head high. “Having already acquired my treasure, I have neither the need nor the desire to claim another.”

“What treasure?” Simna made a face. “Your ‘beautiful wife’? I’ve had, and will have, dozens, hundreds more of the most beautiful. Gold, you know, herdsman, is the most potent aphrodisiac of all.”

“It will not bring you love,” Ehomba shot back.

“Hoy! Love!” The swordsman laughed aloud. “Highly overpriced as well as overrated. Keep your love, bruther, and I’ll have my harem.”

“That is where you are wrong, Simna. If you are not careful, it will have you.” Angry, he lengthened his stride, forcing the stubbier swordsman to have to hurry to keep up with him.

“Is that so?” Simna really had no idea what his companion meant by the comment but was unwilling to leave him the last word. “I can tell you from experience that—”

“Scat on your experience! Be quiet !” Having viewed the entire argument with jaundiced detachment, Ahlitah had lifted his great maned head high into the clear, overheated air and was listening intently. Ehomba and Simna immediately put their discussion on hold as they tried to detect whatever it was that had alarmed the big cat.

For alarmed he was, or at the very least, suddenly wary. It was manifest in his posture: every muscle tense, every sense alert. Both men looked around uneasily but could see nothing out of the ordinary. A lizard with unusually broad, flat feet scampered up the face of a dune to get away from them. White-breasted dragonets circled on silent wings high overhead, hoping and waiting for one or more of the party to drop. Isolated insects buzzed about the fragmentary plants that clung to the dry ravine or fought the fringes of encroaching dunes. There was no noise, not a sound, as if the very constituents of the air itself had stopped moving. The stillness was as profound as stone.

Then a slight breeze picked up, ruffling the paralysis. The world, after momentarily holding its breath, seemed set in motion again. For an instant, Simna would not have been surprised to see one of the violent corkscrew storms they had battled on the veldt emerge from hiding behind one of the towering dunes. But all that showed itself was a pair of iridescent blue butterflies with white wing spots, flitting and fluttering about a common axis of anticipated procreation. That, and the slightly darker-hued sand that was blowing around the far corner of the dune on their left.

Except—far more sand was sifting from west to east than the barely perceptible breeze should have been capable of moving.

It was the color of powdered rust, stained with a hint of decay. Yellow blotches appeared here and there as the sand drift continued to increase. Now a small ridge a foot or two high where it was emerging from behind the motionless bulk of the other dune, it continued to pile up across the wadi. The first scouting grains had already crossed completely to the other side, leaving behind a rising, widening seam of dark reddish sand.

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Categories: Alan Dean Foster