A sailor struck out at a limb of murk as it threatened to crawl up his arm. At the blow the gloom broke apart, but the pieces hung in the air, ebony wisps floating in a sable duskiness. Around the ship, a deathless night was descending, threatening to overwhelm and suffocate everyone on board. Sailors brushed at themselves, and cursed in frustration, but their efforts were proving increasingly futile. It was like trying to fight a cloud, a shadow, and that shadow was growing stronger by the minute. Stronger, and all-consuming.
Simna flailed at the deepening gloom as if assailed by giant, ephemeral black bugs. It was midmorning, but not a splinter of sunshine penetrated the ambient obscurity that had enveloped them. Ahlitah snapped at the lazily coiling lengths of deeper blackness that curled around his muscular form like indigo snakes. They broke apart, re-formed, and drew strength and sustenance from the deepening shadow all around them.
“What is it?” Like the rapidly panicking crew, Simna was brushing and slapping furiously at the terrifying blackness. “By Gidan’s eyeteeth, what is it?”
“Eromakadi.” Ignoring the suffocating blackness that swirled around him and threatened to invade his ears, his eyes, his mouth, Ehomba held tight to the rigging. “Eater of light. It consumes the light around us as well as the light that is life that emanates from us.”
“From us?” Next to the swordsman, the litah was tiring as he struggled to do battle against something without substance. His jaws were still mighty, his teeth still sharp, but it is hard to take much of a bite out of an evanescence.
“Our thoughts, our souls, the way we project our animate being into the world. Life is light, Simna, and the eromakadi cannot stand light. Sometimes they are weak and scattered, sometimes potent and powerful. The eromakadi are why bad things happen to good people. Their allies are pestilence and war, bigotry and ignorance. A tiny eromakadi will flock to a contemptuous sneer, a larger one to a gang beating, a great and more powerful one still to a politician’s lies. This one has grown especially focused.”
Much of what his friend declaimed made no sense to Simna. It was babble and gibberish of the most impenetrable philosophical kind. But whatever it was, the darkness closing tight around them was real enough. He had never been afraid before because his fears had always assumed physical shape and form. Anything that would respond to a sword could be dealt with. But this—it was like trying to fight air.
As he spun about and flailed madly against the insistent, encroaching gloom, he saw Ehomba climb up onto the bowsprit and stand facing the silently boiling blackness, alone. As the swordsman looked on, his lanky friend methodically removed his clothing and let it fall to the deck behind him. Naked, a lean and slender scarecrow of a man who looked even slimmer devoid of his simple raiment, the herdsman braced himself against a pair of stays and spread his arms wide as if invoking the sky.
The frantic crew ignored him. Those among them who saw what was happening thought he had gone mad, and not a few expected to join the tall passenger in madness at any moment. Because the final blackness was closing in tight around them, suffocating sight and sound and thought, if not yet heaving, straining lungs. Could a man be suffocated while still breathing?
Etjole Ehomba stood alone on the bowsprit, detached from the rest of humanity. Stood there by himself, and inhaled.
His chest expanded. Simna could hear it, even above the cries and wails of the raving crew. The sound was that of an ordinary man inhaling deeply, but what happened next was anything but ordinary.
Tiny wisps of blackness began to drift backward, and not of their own volition. They vanished into Ehomba’s wide-open mouth, sucked down, away, and out of sight. More voluminous coils of gloom followed, straining to sustain their position but unable to resist. They too disappeared into the innards of the herdsman. And all the while Ehomba continued to inhale, not pausing to breathe normally, his chest distended in a steady, unvarying inhalation.
For the first time since the ship had been overtaken by the darkness, wind assailed its mast and spars and deck. Gusts arrived forcefully from over the bow, but also from abeam and from athwart the stern. It howled down out of the sky, and up from the supporting surrounding waters.
Ehomba never paused, never faltered. He inhaled, and inhaled, and in so doing sucked up that all-encompassing gloom and shadow as if it were essence of cinnamon and myrrh, drawing it all down into him, into somewhere within himself that Simna could not begin to imagine. And still the herdsman did not stop to breathe. Clinging exhaustedly to the rail for support, Simna looked on and wondered at the southerner’s stamina. How long could he maintain the suction, keep up the pace? Would what he inhaled fill him up until he exploded, or was it after all nothing more than evil air, a malignant atmosphere that in actual gist amounted to no more than a desolate burp?
Light appeared above the ship: healthful, heartening, natural sunshine. The crew saw it, felt it fall upon them, and set up a ragged cheer. And still Ehomba continued his unnatural insufflation, until the last of the blackness had vanished, drawn deep down within himself. Only then did he close his mouth, give a slight shiver, slump, and fall backwards, limp as a child’s cheap ragdoll, onto the hard deck.
Simna was at his side in an instant, and Ahlitah as well, the big cat looming anxiously over the fallen herdsman. Solicitous members of the crew crowded close, wanting to help, until an angry Simna ordered them to stand back and give the fallen herdsman some air.
Putting a hand beneath his friend’s head, Simna raised it gently. “Come on, Etjole—breathe! Open your mouth and breathe. Drink in the fresh air of the sea and clear your lungs of that murderous blight.” He jiggled the head slightly. “Breathe, damn you!”
The herdsman’s eyelids fluttered like small moths on a chill morning. Then his head jerked upward as he coughed, not once but several times. A tiny puff of black vapor squeezed out from between his lips. No bigger than a cotton ball, it drifted upward until it finally dissipated beneath the pellucid blue of the cloud-flecked sky. Simna followed it with his eyes until he was sure it was gone.
Inhaling sharply, exhaling slowly and wearily, Ehomba opened his eyes. When they met Simna’s, and Ahlitah’s, he smiled. “My friends.” Looking around, he frowned to himself. “Why am I lying here like this? Help me up.”
A plethora of willing, eager hands made themselves available to exalt the herdsman. Standing by himself, he took stock of his surroundings, then walked forward to where he had dropped his clothes and began to dress himself. When that was done he crossed his arms and leaned forward against the railing, resuming the position he had favored before.
Vigorously discussing among themselves everything that had transpired, the crew returned to their duties. The captain had many questions, but courteously restrained his curiosity. No doubt the remarkable southerner needed some time to himself. Queries about what had happened, however burning, could wait until later.
Simna operated under no such restraints. He was at Ehomba’s side as soon as the herdsman had finished dressing. “For the last time, my friend—tell me you are not a sorcerer.”
The herdsman glanced sideways at him and smiled. “It will not be the last time, Simna, but I will say it again anyway. I am not.”
“Fine. Good. I accept it.” The swordsman let his arms dangle over the railing. Dolphins ran before the ship’s prow, energized by its presence, glorying in the pressure wave it pushed before it. “All you have to do is explain to me what just happened. I remember you mentioning this thing, this eromakadi, once before. It was when we were about to confront the Dunawake.” He struggled to remember. “You said then that nothing could slay it except an eromakasi.”
Ehomba hardly heard him. He was thinking of the warm, dry, clean homeland that now lay far to the south. Of a small and unprepossessing but accommodating house, of the music of children’s voices at play, and of the woman who was his wife. The remembrances warmed him from within, and made him feel better about continuing to live. Made him feel that he had greater reason, and sweeter purpose, for being.
“I told you the truth, my friend. The eromakadi are eaters of light. They cannot be killed—except by an eromakasi, an eater of darkness.” Turning his head sideways, he peered direct and deep into the swordsman’s eyes.
“I am a simple herder of cattle and sheep, Simna ibn Sind—and I am also eromakasi. A man can be both.” He returned his unblinking gaze to the sea ahead, and to the shore that could not yet be seen but that he knew was there. “That does not make of me a necromancer.”