Simna looked back and down. Already the raw red sand of the Dunawake was three-quarters of the way up the side of their inadequate asylum and climbing fast. “Well you had best find something to use, by Gostoko, or in minutes we’ll all the three of us be good and buried, leaving nothing behind but our memories.”
“Ah.” Straightening, Ehomba withdrew something from the interior of the pack. Simna’s hopefulness was replaced by disbelieving eyes and lowered jaw. In his right hand his good friend, his resourceful friend, his knowledgeable friend, held—a rotund, stoppered clay flask smaller than his fist. A single thin cord secured the rubber stopper to a ring carved in the side of the bottle.
The swordsman struggled to remain calm. “Poison?” he inquired hopefully. “You’re going to poison it?”
“Do not be an idiot.” Closing up his pack to keep out the swirling sand, Ehomba turned to face the rising, oncoming hulk of the Dunawake. Absently he juggled the clay bottle up and down in his open palm. “You cannot poison sand. I told you, to affect it you must impact its integrity.”
“With that?” Simna gestured at the bottle with his free hand. “Well then, by Gwipta, what’s in the pharking phial if not poison?”
Ehomba did not take his eyes off the oncoming Dunawake nor the tide of red granules that would soon be lapping at their feet. Behind them, more rivers of red sand were creeping up the backside of the dune, further extirpating any lingering hope of flight.
“Whater,” he replied simply.
Striving to retreat farther, Simna found himself slipping down the eastern, back face of their dune. “Water?” he mumbled, more like a drowning man than a moribund one.
“No.” Ehomba gestured at the pond remnant Ahlitah had dragged up the dune face with them. “That’s water. This is whater.”
Feeling more than a little taste of panic in his mouth, the baffled swordsman looked on as the herdsman carefully removed the stopper from the clay flask. The crest of the red dune was now very close to overtopping and swamping the dune on which the travelers stood. The glowing, fiery eyes had slipped up the face of the oncoming mountain so that they were now nearly level with Ehomba. Sliding farther down the backside of the crest, Simna bumped into the litah. The big cat snarled at him but held his ground, using his much greater weight and all four feet to keep them from tumbling down the steeper, unstable slope.
Above, they saw the herdsman lower the point of his spear and rap the bottle sharply against it once, twice. The clay cracked but did not come apart. Then Ehomba drew back his right arm and threw the fractured container directly into the face of the swollen, howling Dunawake. As he did so, the shattered bottle came apart, its contents spilling onto the hissing red sand. Simna strained to see, but it looked like the bottle contained nothing more than a swallow or two of water. Or whater, as his friend had insisted.
A mammoth curl of sand rose high, higher than the dune peak, pausing before surging forward to crush the stoic herdsman and his companions beneath its hot, smothering weight. And then a strange thing happened. Simna, for one, was not surprised. He had already had occasion to observe that in moments of difficulty, strange things had a tendency to transpire in Etjole Ehomba’s vicinity, and that at such times it was a good idea to be on the herdsman’s beneficent side.
The unimaginable tons of sand that comprised the malevolent structure of the Dunawake began to shiver.
IT WAS A MOST PECULIAR SIGHT, TO SEE SAND SHIVER. FIRST the dune face and then the entire scarlet mass commenced to tremble, shaking and quaking and shuddering in place. Ahlitah’s lower jaw fell, revealing huge canines in a gape of amazement instead of threat. Simna stared grimly, wondering how his tall friend had managed to freeze an entire dune with one tiny bottle of water. Only it was not water, he reminded himself. It was whater, whatever that might be.
But he was wrong. The Dunawake was not freezing, not turning from sand to ice or anything comparable. What it was doing was coming apart, shaking itself to pieces. How something that was already composed of billions of tiny grains could come to pieces was yet another wonder that the awestruck Simna had no time to ponder.
What was happening before their eyes was that the Dunawake was shivering itself into its individual components. A small dune of pure quartz began to rise alongside a sibling dune of feldspar. Next to them a glistening cone of mica rose from the desert floor, and beside it granulated black schist heaped up in dark profusion. There were other colors and cones, stacks and mounds, to which Simna could not put a name. Their identities did not matter to him. What was important was that none of them moved, and none glared up at him out of baleful, pulsing red eyes.
The once fearsome Dunawake continued to tremble and quiver until it had shaken itself apart. Where it had once loomed there now rose a dozen separate dunes far more modest in size, each composed of a single different, unadulterated mineral. The herdsman’s companions climbed the short distance back up the east face of the dune from where they had sought refuge to rejoin their friend.
Thin as a stick stuck in a child’s mud pile, tall and straight as a tree rooted in the depths of the earth, Ehomba was standing at the very apex of the yellow dune staring down at the disassociated remnants of the Dunawake. Wind whipped his shirt and the hem of his kilt. Had he suddenly raised his arms to the sky and drawn down lightning from nothingness Simna would not have been surprised. Nothing of the sort happened, of course. As the subject of the swordsman’s stare would have been the first to remind him, he was nothing but a simple herdsman.
Coming up alongside him, Simna grabbed his friend’s arm as together they gazed downward. “Tell me now you’re no sorcerer, Etjole Ehomba. Tell me now to my face that you’re not a man who can work magicks!”
“Sorry to disappoint you yet again, friend Simna, but I am not.” Lips firm, jaw set, the laconic southerner looked down at his disbelieving companion.
“Oh, I see. And how, then, do you explain what you just did?” He nodded at the dozen or so new, unalloyed dunes that rose from the desert floor below where they stood.
“That was not me,” the other man protested humbly. “It was the whater that did that.”
“Perhaps we would understand better,” Ahlitah put in from behind him, “if you told us what this ‘whater’ is? Or was.”
Ehomba nodded agreeably. “Before I set out on this journey, the women of my village gave me several things to carry with me, to help me along the way. Old Fhastal, clever Likulu, bright-eyed Omura; even my own woman, Mirhanja, helped. It is a tradition among the Naumkib that when a warrior leaves for any length of time, the women get together to bundle useful items for him to take with him.” His gaze angled downward once more, toward the remnants of the Dunawake. “Sadly, that was my only bottle of whater.” He started down the dune, positioning his body sideways as he descended, the better to balance himself against the shifting sand.
Simna simply walked straight down, paralleling his friend and exhibiting the remarkable physical poise of which he was capable. The four-footed Ahlitah, of course, had no trouble at all with the steep slope. Not nearly as agile as his companions, Ehomba stumbled several times in the course of the descent.
“This whater,” the cat asked, “what does it do?” The maned head nodded tersely in the direction of the neatly disassociated dunes. “What did it do?”
“It was for purifying water.” Ehomba stepped over a rock that protruded from the lower dune face. “The women say that one drop of whater will make an entire basin of water fit for drinking. It purifies liquid by separating out all the dirt and scum and little bugs we cannot see from the water itself.”
A much puzzled Simna wore a deep frown. “‘Little bugs we cannot see’?”
Herdsman and cat ignored him.
“So that’s what you did to the Dunawake,” Ahlitah mused aloud. “You ‘purified’ it.”
“Into its individual parts.” They were almost down, stepping back onto the hard, unyielding, blissfully motion-free bed of the ravine where the monstrous apparition had almost had them trapped. “In this instance, the sum of the parts is much less than the whole. A man would be no less,” he added thoughtfully, “if he were similarly purified. Skeleton here, blood there, muscles in one pile, and organs in another.”
Simna’s mouth twisted. “Now there’s a pretty picture. Remind me not to go sampling the contents of any other bottles you happen to be carrying.”