The troop leader nodded sagely. “I hope you will prove as good an undertaker.” A hand came up to rest gently on Ehomba’s knee. “For a human, you possess almost enough natural nobility to be counted a monkey.”
“They’re coming.” Ehomba tensed. “Make ready.”
“Everyone knows what to do. You briefed them thoroughly. My people will not let you down.” With that final quiet assurance, Gomo went silent.
There were indeed more of the slelves than before. Their swooping, darting movements as they crossed the river suggested agitation as well as anger. To find a human in the monkeys’ midst must have surprised them. To find one fighting on behalf of his fellow primates had surely left them enraged.
Onward they flew, brandishing their spear-sticks and small knives, intent this night not merely on abduction but on murder. Their collective demeanor suggested an intention to deliver a lesson to the monkeys: that resistance was futile, and that death would always be met with more death.
Rising from the branch on which he had been kneeling, Ehomba raised his spear above his head and waved with his free hand. “Here! We’re over here!”
Like a dark river, the flush of slelves shifted in midflight to home in on the dead tree. Spears were drawn back in readiness for throwing. The high-pitched squealing of the attackers rose until it drowned out the sound of the river, of the forest.
Gomo held his ground, or rather his branch, silently, but several of the other armed members of the troop found themselves stealing nervous glances in the human’s direction. What if his plan didn’t work? they found themselves wondering. After all, it was a human and not a monkey plan, and everyone knew that the People of the Trees were vastly more clever and devious than any ground dweller. Still, none of them ran, as much out of fear of what Gomo would do to them if they did than from any terror of the approaching slelves.
Certainly Ehomba waited a long time, until the slelves were virtually upon them. Then, swinging his spear in a wide arc to clear a path through the first of the attackers, he shouted at the top of his lungs, “Now!” and scrambled down the tree trunk as fast as his clumsy human arms and legs would carry him.
His descent was not nearly as agile as that of his companions, but he still made it before the monkeys at the bottom removed the covers from their fire gourds and tossed the blazing containers against the base of the dead, lightning-hollowed tree. The troop had spent the previous day filling as much of the empty trunk as they could with a loose packing of dry leaves, twigs, flammable tree sap, and anything else that would burn fast and hot. They had done their job well. Converted almost instantly into a giant torch, the dead bole exploded in flame. Yellow-red tongues of fire erupted skyward, temporarily splashing the night with light that was brighter than that of morning.
Arrayed in the surrounding branches and on the ground, grim-faced members of the troop prepared to do battle. Their watering eyes struggled to adjust to the sudden, intense illumination. But if the human was right, the nocturnal slelves would have a much more difficult time handling the abrupt, unexpected flare of brightness. If his assumptions were correct, those attackers flying closest to the unexpected blaze ought to be momentarily but thoroughly blinded. The actual result, however, was different in a fashion quite unforeseen by the meticulous herdsman.
Gomo was gesturing madly with his spear-stick. “See! They are not blinded.”
“No.” Ehomba stood next to the troop leader and watched the tree-torch light up the night sky. “It is worse for them than that.”
The monkeys waited for the fighting to begin. And waited, and stared in amazement.
Reacting like moths, the night-dwelling slelves found themselves irresistibly drawn to the towering blaze. Mesmerized, they darted up and down, in and about the length of the blazing tree. And like moths, an individual would swoop in too close to the conflagration, only to be consumed. One after another the slelves incinerated themselves, erupting one after another in a burst of flaming wings and charred bodies whenever they crossed into the critical zone.
Instead of finding themselves in a desperate fight for survival, the monkeys found themselves with time to cheer, jumping up and down and turning somersaults as they gleefully watched their enemies annihilate themselves in individual bursts of incandescent flame. A few of the slelves managed to resist the lure of the giant torch, but they were as blinded as Ehomba intended they should be. Fluttering dazedly toward the river, they flew into trees and branches, stunning themselves and becoming easy prey for the rancorous, vengeful monkeys.
It was all over within an hour. Near the end, the females and children emerged from the place of hiding where they had been sent for safety to cheer the final vestiges of the jubilant massacre. Ehomba took no part in this sorry business, preferring to stay on the sidelines and let the monkeys take out their frustrations on those who had for too many seasons stolen their children. When the troop was finished, not one slelve who had crossed the river was left alive.
Lingering behind, something barely glimpsed from the corner of his eye caught his attention. No member of the troop saw it, being fully engaged as they were in the slaughter of the surviving slelves. But Ehomba did. He froze, one hand stealing toward the sky-metal blade that hung ready for use against his back.
The bulging teardrop shape was a black smudge against the firelit sky. Two burning red eyes of pure vileness glared back at him above a mouth-slit that reminded him of a sword cut on ebony skin. When it parted slightly, the mouth shape bled malignance. As he watched, it darted through the air and took a bite out of the firelight. Not the fire itself, only the light. Slowly he slid the iron blade halfway from its scabbard, doing his best not to draw the nebulous entity’s attention.
Then, on its own, it whirled and departed. Perhaps the light of the fire was too intense for it, he thought, or the taste not to its liking. In any event, it was not the illumination from the fire it was after but the light of triumph being expressed by the victorious monkeys. That was what its kind would truly delight in consuming. As soon as he was sure it was gone, he let the blade drop back into its sheath.
Something touched him. Turning sharply, he saw Gomo at his side. The troop leader had recoiled in response to the tall human’s reaction. “What’s wrong, friend Ehomba? You had the strangest look on your face just then. I have never seen you so tense, or so rigid.”
Solemnly, the herdsman pointed in the general direction of the blaze. “I saw something by the tree.”
Leaning slightly to his right, the troop leader peered past him. “I was looking in the same direction. I saw nothing.”
“They are very difficult to see, for men as well as monkeys. It takes the eye of an experienced tracker. It was an eromakadi.”
Gomo made a face. “I do not know that animal.”
“It is not an animal. It is one of those creatures that lives in the spaces that fill the gaps in the real world. An eater of light. Not the kind of light that comes from the sun, or even from a fire like that.” He pointed again at the flaming tree. “The eromakadi thrive on the light that comes from a new mother’s joy in her babe, or an artist’s delight in a new way of seeing the world around him. When they fixate on quarry, they are relentless. They are responsible for much of the misery in the world. We do not see them a lot in the south, where life is hard and there is little of glowing happiness for them to prey upon. The elders of my village know them, and from infancy all Naumkib children are taught how to recognize and deal with such creatures.”
“I see.” Gomo considered. “From what you tell me, I think I am glad I cannot see them.”
“They are all around, but very sly and unpredictable. Some days they are themselves preyed upon by the eromakasi, the eaters of darkness, but this is uncommon. Unlike the eromakadi, the eromakasi seek to avoid confrontation.” He turned toward the river. “It does not matter. I thought we might have to deal with this one, but it was quite a small specimen of its kind, and it did not stay long. Perhaps it smelled a greater happiness or inspiration elsewhere and went to seek it.”
“I hope so,” Gomo replied with feeling. “I dislike the idea of having to fight something I cannot see.”