“Oh, I don’t know.” Turning away, the swordsman also directed his gaze to the open sea that lay before them. “Maybe when I’m in your company and Corruption doesn’t falter, great winds don’t perish at your hand, and your sword doesn’t call down a shard of heaven to scatter and confuse our enemies.”
“All that was accomplished through the knowledge and work of others. I was only a means of conveyance. We have been damned lucky.”
“Right. And I am a monk, one much versed in disguise.” He chuckled affably. “I’ll give you one thing, though, Etjole Ehomba. You’re one of the most skilled liars I’ve ever met. Not the best, by any means, but the most persistent.”
“Oh, very well,” the herdsman snapped, “believe what you will.”
“That’s the spirit!” Simna’s face was full of admiration. “Stick to your story no matter what.” He nodded forward. “It may help us on the other side.”
“You have never been to these northern lands?”
“More questions.” It was the swordsman’s turn to shake his head tiredly. “No, not to these.” He jerked a thumb back in the direction of the friendly seaport whose citizens had been so accommodating. “Among the Maliin, those who’ve made the crossing say that the northern lands are nothing like here, or where we’ve come from. They say that the level of civilization and enlightenment is such that they’re embarrassed to visit there. It makes me wonder what these northern eminencies will think of us. I’ve been around, but you’ll be out of your depth, and the cat will be little more than a novelty.”
“I will manage.” Ehomba wished he felt more confident. Villages and hamlets he was familiar and comfortable with, but a proper city was something entirely different. No matter. He had no choice. They had to go north to find a ship large and capable enough to cross the Semordria.
The Aboqua chose to be kind as they set out. There were waves, but they were curious rather than threatening. There was movement, but it was calming to the spirit instead of disturbing to the digestion. Flying fish exploded from the water in front of the ship’s onrushing prow, shooting away like silver darts to port and starboard before splashing and sinking anew into the welcoming whitecaps. Gulls harassed the stern, taking their ease on the mainspar and railings as they nagged the cook for scraps.
As paid passengers, the travelers were mostly left to themselves, though when Ahlitah would come on deck to nap in the sun the more courageous among the crew would make a game of tiptoeing near for a better look. It was a matter of some merriment among the mariners to see who could creep the closest. There was betting, and a fair amount of money changed hands until Ahlitah, irked at having his naps continually interrupted by the seamen’s chatter, finally favored one of the brave sailors with a nip on the leg. That put an end to the encroachment, though for the rest of the voyage the seaman involved wore the bite marks like a medal of honor.
They were several days out when the sky began to darken.
INITIALLY, THE CAPTAIN FOUND NOTHING AMISS WITH THE sudden change in the weather. Although the Aboqua was a comparatively benign body of water, it was no stranger to the sudden storms that could affect any sizable sea.
The usual precautions were taken. The mainsail was reefed, hatches were battened down, the pumps were made ready, and all hands were sounded to stations. After being apprised of the situation and the possible dangers, passengers were left to their own devices. Ehomba and his companions could remain belowdecks, relatively dry and warm, or they could wander about above to experience the as yet undetermined vagaries of the weather. All that was asked of them was that they stay out of the way of working seamen.
The nearer the storm drew, the stranger became its aspect. Neither lightning nor thunder announced its impending arrival. Even more astoundingly, there was no wind. Though black as night, the approaching clouds did not writhe and roil. They simply came closer and closer, blotting out first the horizon and then the sky, like the unrolling of some vast, cumbrous black blanket.
Every man stood ready at his station. They were an experienced crew that had run safely before many storms, some mere rain squalls, others of impressive dimensions. But not a sailor aboard could recall ever encountering anything like this.
The dark clouds swept over the ship, enveloping it in a heavy, damp gloom. And still there was no wind. It was as if the storm entire consisted only of the eye of a hurricane, the ferocity of the tempest having absented itself elsewhere.
Uneasy now, the heretofore self-assured and confident mariners nervously eyed the baneful murk that had engulfed them. Where was the driving rain, the strobing lightning, the crashing seas that were the harbingers of any honorable storm? The ship drifted forward on calm seas, her stays barely rattling, her helm responding to the lightest of touches.
First they noticed the smell: a faint, fetid stink that portended no good. It was not the distinctive odor of rotting fish or seaweed. One mate declared that it reminded him of the ancient sewers of the abandoned city of Vra-Thet, whose people had been dead for thousands of years but whose decrepit essence still lingered in its multifarious catacombed depths. Another contended that the stench must have been carried hence on the wind from some great far-off battle in which tens of thousands had perished.
Ahlitah, whose sense of smell was infinitely more sensitive than that of any man aboard, wrinkled his nose so tightly it threatened to curl up and hide beneath his upper lip.
“What is it, cat?” Simna warily eyed the darkness that had swallowed the ship.
“Don’t know. Decay, putrefaction, rot. But of what I can’t tell.”
The swordsman turned to the tall southerner, who was staring out across the bow, one hand holding on to a trembling stay fashioned of finely corded rope.
“How about it, Etjole? As a herder of cattle you should be intimately acquainted with stinks. Any ideas?” The other man did not look back. “Etjole?” Taking a step forward, Simna grabbed his friend by the arm.
“What?” Blinking, Ehomba looked back at his companions. “I am sorry, Simna. Yes, I know what it is.”
“Then tell us,” Ahlitah prompted him. “I’m not familiar with the smells of the sea, but I know storms, and this reeks like no storm I have ever encountered.”
The herdsman’s mouth was set in a thin, tight line. “That is because this is not a storm.”
Cat and swordsman exchanged a glance. “It’s clouds, Etjole,” Simna avowed gently. “Racing black clouds usually herald the coming of a storm.”
“These are not clouds, either. They are the substance of what has engulfed this ship.”
Simna ibn Sind did not like the sound of that. Especially Ehomba’s use of the word “engulfed.” “Then if not a storm, what?”
Tilting back his head slightly, the herdsman looked upward, scanning the sky from side to side like someone standing at the bottom of a deep well searching for a ray of light. Having overheard, several sailors had left their posts and were hovering nearby, watching the rangy foreigner intently.
“It has been following me for a long time, gathering strength. I first saw it when I helped the People of the Trees defeat the slelves.”
Simna’s expression twisted in confusion. “The what?”
“It was before you and I met. You may have seen this also, friend Simna, when we fought Corruption. It gyred through the winds that helped to propel the Dunawake, and its essence was everywhere in the shattered lands of the Queppa. Especially in the Wall.” He was silent for a moment as he considered the lowing sky. “Ever since the time when I was with the People of the Trees it has been tracking me, waiting for the right moment.”
“The right moment?” Staring at the sky, Simna tried to peer through the raven clouds, to see something else where to the naked eye there appeared to be only arching blackness. “The right moment for what?”
Ehomba was as somber and serious as the swordsman had ever seen him. “To swallow.”
That conjured up an image even less palatable than the one that had been induced by the herdsman’s use of the word “engulfed.” “You mean this whatever-it-is is going to try and eat us?”
“It already has.” With unshakable calm, Ehomba studied the ominous dark. “We are inside it now. But it has not begun to swallow. It must be stopped before it can.”
“Hoy, right, I am in agreement with you there, bruther.” Wide-eyed but undaunted, the swordsman beheld their surroundings anew. Had anything changed since the black clouds had first enveloped them? Yes, everything had grown even darker, black as the inside of a chunk of coal. And it was pressing tight upon them, congealing like oil, a cloying, oleaginous mass that was acquiring more weight and substance than was natural for an honest cloud even as they spoke.