Catechist - A Triumph Of Souls Part 19

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"Hunkapa not like." Though the big hulk was suffering visibly beneath his thick coat of silver-gray hair, he plodded along determinedly, his head hung down and his arms almost dragging the ground.

Ehomba was in better shape than any of them, but took no credit for it. He was used to spending long days standing out in the merciless sun, watching over the village herds. Now he squinted at the sky. They had awakened early from the day-sleep and had been marching for more than two hours westward into the advancing evening.

"Take heart. The sun will be down soon." He nodded toward the mountains. They loomed massively before the weary travelers, but the foothills still lay more than a day's hike distant. Or rather, a night's. To avoid the worst of the heat, they had opted to sleep during the day and trek after dark. "It will grow cooler, and walking will become easier."

"Hoy, you mean it will become less hot." The swordsman wiped perspiration from his brow and neck.

"Not in any way, shape, or form does the word 'cool' apply to this place."



In the course of their travels they had encountered many strange life-forms surviving in equally strange environments. From the blizzard-cocooned crests of mountains to the high dunes of the desert, from swamps shallow and deep to the vast open reaches of the Semordria itself, there had always been life, be it nothing more than a limpet or a leaf. Until now, until this tormented, perfectly flat plain of desiccated salts. There was not even, a panting Ahlitah pointed out, a warm worm to tickle a cat's taste buds.

With the onset of evening the heat fell, but not as fast as the sun. Even after dark, parching temperatures persisted. Mentally, walking was easier without the brilliant bright bloodshot eye of the sun staring you ruthlessly in the face. Physically, it was only a little less difficult.

Their meals, such as they were, had been necessarily skewed by their topsy-turvy schedule. Supper became breakfast, lunch a midnight snack, and breakfast, supper. Not that it mattered. Their stores were limited in quantity and consequently offered little in the way of variety. What one ate was often the same, meal after meal. Such victuals kept them alive, but their bellies were not entertained.

At least the moon was on their side, Ehomba reflected as they trudged along. Nearly full, bright as stibnite crystals and almost as hard of aspect, it allowed them to stride forth with some idea not only of where they were going, but also of what lay in their immediate path. By its providential brightness obviating the need for torches, it allowed them to advance with a modicum of comfort.

By midnight the air had cooled sufficiently to raise their spirits. Water was still in plentiful supply. In light of the other hardships they were enduring, Ehomba had not had the heart to propose rationing. When he finally did venture to broach the subject, he was shouted down by all three of his companions. They might not have much else, but at least they could drink their fill. Furthermore, the more they drank, the less weight they had to carry. And as Ahlitah pointed out, he was confident he would be able to smell water as soon as they reached the mountains. It might not seem like much, but even the herdsman had to admit that a long, cool drink compensated for much of what they did not have.

Resuming the march rejuvenated and refreshed but acutely conscious of the ominous presence of the sun lurking just over the eastern horizon, they entered an area of the salt pan that was not flat. Merged as it was with its identically tinted surroundings, it was not surprising they had missed seeing it from a distance.

Though equally devoid of food or water, it at least gave them something new to look at and comment upon.

Towers of salt rose around them, not numerous enough to impede their progress but sufficient to alter it from time to time. Worn by the wind and the occasional infrequent storm, they had been weathered into a fantastic array of shapes. Amusing themselves by assigning names to the formations, the travelers competed to see who could identify the most outrageous or exceptional.

Pointing sharply to a column of whitened, translucent halite that had been undercut by the wind, Hunkapa Aub conveyed childlike excitement in his voice. "See that, see there! An ape bowing to us, acknowledging our passage."

Simna cast a critical eye on the structure. "Looks more like a pile of rubbish to me."

"No, no!" Moving close and nearly knocking the swordsman down in the process, Hunkapa jabbed a thick, hirsute finger in the column's direction. "It an ape. See-the eye is there, those are the hands, down at the bottom are the-"

"Ask it if it can show us a shortcut out of here," Simna grunted. Nodding to his left, he singled out a ridge of distorted, eroded salt crystals. "Now that looks like something. The jade wall of the Grand Norin's palace, complete with open gates and war turrets." He gestured with a hand. "If you squint a little you can even see the floating gardens that front the palace over by ..."

But Hunkapa Aub was not listening. Elated by one discovery of the imagination after another, he was prancing from the nearest formation to the next, gleefully assigning a name to each and every one as proudly as if his fanciful appellations were destined to appear on some future gilded traveler's map of the territory. Ehomba looked on tolerantly. Of them all, their hulking companion was suffering the most from the heat. Simna obviously thought the brute was making a fool of himself, but Ehomba knew that no one is a fool who can find humor in desolation.

He found himself playing the naming game. It was irresistible, the first harmless diversion they had enjoyed in many days. Not only was it gently amusing, especially when made-up names for the same formation were compared side by side, but it helped greatly to pass an otherwise disagreeable time. He and Simna wordlessly agreed to compete to find the most suitable cognomen for certain structures. The game was left to them in any case, since the black litah found it repetitive and Hunkapa Aub was quite lost, happily adrift on a sea of a thousand multitudinous namings of his own.

"That column there," the swordsman was saying, "see how it sparkles and dances in the moonlight?" He singled out a formation spotted with many small crystals of gypsum. "I once knew a dancer like that. She would glue pearls and precious gems all over herself. Then when at the end of her dance she removed the last of her veils it was revealed that the jewels were glued not to the fabric of her costume but to her naked skin, and that all along they had only been glistening through the sheer material she had been wearing." He turned to his companion. "What does it look like to you?"

"I would not think of disputing such a deeply felt description." The herdsman stepped over a series of inch-high rills that ran across the surface in a straight line. Deposited eons ago by water action, they looked fragile, but were in fact hard as rock and sharp enough to slice open a man's flesh where it lay exposed between the protective straps of his sandals.

"Over there I see a fisherman's hut by the ocean," he declared. "Not the ocean below my village, but another ocean."

"How can you see a difference?" Simna squinted in the indicated direction.

"Because this sea is calm. It is rarely calm beneath my village. There are always waves, even on clear, windless days. And no Naumkib would build a fishing hut so close to the water. Too much effort for too little reward, as the first storm would wash it away."

"I see the sea," the swordsman admitted, "and the hut, but what makes it a fishing hut?"

Ehomba pointed. "Those long blades of crystal salt there near the bottom. Those are the fisherman's poles, set aside while he rests within."

"I could use a rest myself, and something to eat that isn't dried and preserved." The swordsman turned slightly in the direction of the formation and wandered away for a moment before rejoining the others on their chosen course. In response to the herdsman's slightly stern, questioning look, he shrugged diffidently. "Hoy, I know it's made of salt-but it doesn't hurt to dream for a few seconds."

"That's a sentiment I'll confess to sharing." Ahlitah had come up behind them. As usual, so silent was his approach that even the reactive Ehomba was unaware of his presence until he spoke. With his head, the big cat nodded leftward. "For example, over that way I can see a large herd of saiga standing one behind the other, fat and plump and slow of foot, just waiting to be run down and disemboweled."

Peering in the indicated direction, Ehomba had to admit that the resemblance of the broken ridge of salt to a column of plodding antelope was remarkable.

Evidently Simna was of like mind. "Sure looks real. Like they could take off in all directions if somebody made a loud noise."

"You're already making a loud noise." Crouching low and making himself nearly invisible even in the bright moonlight, the big cat had begun to stalk the wind-sculpted ridge. Realistic they might be, but the salt formations did not move. Ehomba was about to say something when the swordsman put a constraining hand on his arm.

"Leave him alone. All cats need to play. Don't you think he's earned a few moments of amusement?"

"Yes, of course. But he is being so serious about it." Uncertainly, Ehomba watched as Ahlitah continued to stalk the weathered parapet of halite crystals.

Simna shrugged it off. "I've never seen a cat that wasn't serious about its play. He'll catch up to us when he's through. Remember, he can cover a mile in the time it would take either one of us to run to that big ridge over there." He pointed. "See it? The one that looks like the entrance to a castle?"

Reluctantly, the herdsman allowed his attention to be diverted. Something did not feel right. Maybe, he thought, it was him. The heat was beginning to melt their thoughts. Behind them, the litah dropped even closer to the ground, maintaining its hunting posture as it stalked the salt. Try as he would, Ehomba could not see the harm in it.

Ahead and slightly to their right rose a massive hill of achromatic salts that had been eroded by the wind into a fantastic assortment of spires and steeples, turrets and minarets. The gleaming citadel boasted an arched entrance and dark recesses in the salt fortifications that during the day would not have commanded a second glance but which at night passed easily for windows. A breeze sprang up, advancing unimpeded across the dry lake bed. Whipping around the extravagant towers that had been precipitated ages ago out of a viscid solution of sodium chloride and other minerals, it imparted a carnival air to the formation, whistling and trilling through the hollows that had been worn in the salt. At a distance it almost sounded like people laughing and joking.

"Hoy, Etjole," the swordsman prompted him. "Come on now, don't let me win without a fight. I say it looks like a castle. What would you call it?" As they walked past, salt crystals crunching under their sandals, he studied the pale ramparts admiringly.

"I cannot argue with you this time, Simna. A castle or fortress of some kind. I could not imagine calling it anything else, because that is exactly what it looks like."

"Then we are agreed." Turning to his right, the swordsman started toward the silent formation. "Come on, bruther. Don't you want to see what it looks like up close?"

"I am certain it looks the same at close range, except that individual crystals of salt will begin to stand out."

Shaking his head, the swordsman continued toward the looming structure. "All this traveling in my company still hasn't made you a more jolly companion. Go on, pass up the chance to study up close a fascinating phenomenon you'll never see again."

As always, Ehomba's tone was unchanged, but his thoughts were churning fretfully. "Let me guess: You'll catch up to me in a few minutes."

"Depend on it, bruther." Turning away, Simna continued blithely toward the salt castle, moonlight reflecting off the hilt of the sword he wore against his back.

In front of Ehomba, nothing moved on the lake bed. No pennants of gleaming salt waved in the clear, stark light. No white-faced figures emerged from the weathered hill to greet him. Except for the barely perceptible breeze, all was silent, and still.

Frowning, he pivoted to look back the way they had come. It was with considerable relief that he saw the reassuring oversized shape of Hunkapa Aub standing and waiting patiently not more than a few yards behind him.

"Come on, Hunkapa. If these two want to amuse themselves with silly nighttime fancies, they will have to hurry to catch up with us." The massive, hirsute figure did not stir. Ehomba raised his voice slightly.

"Hunkapa Aub? Come with me. There is no reason for us to wait here until these two finish their games."

When the hulking shape still did not move, a puzzled Ehomba walked back toward him, retracing his steps across the lake bed. He knew he was retracing his steps because he could see where his feet had sunk a quarter inch or more into the bleached, caked surface. He was on the verge of reaching out to grab his ungainly companion's shaggy wrist when something made him pause.

Despite Ehomba's proximity, Hunkapa Aub had yet to acknowledge the herdsman's presence. No, the tall southerner decided: It was worse than that. Hunkapa Aub was ignoring him completely, treating him as if he wasn't there. Now Ehomba did reach out to take his massive companion's hand. He pulled, none too gently. He might as well have been tugging on a tree growing from the side of a mountain. Hunkapa Aub did not budge, nor did he react in any way. Instead, he continued to stare straight ahead.

Turning uneasily to seek the source of the brute's fascination, Ehomba found his gaze settling on a tall, heavily eroded pillar of salt.

A pillar of salt that looked exactly like Hunkapa Aub.

The resemblance was more than a fortuitous coincidence, went deeper than something that looked vaguely like a shaggy head attached to a cumbersome body and limbs. The degree of detail was frightening, from the flattened nose to the wide, deep-set eyes. Edging closer, the herdsman found himself staring intently into hollow pits of fractured salt crystal. Should they shift, however slightly, to look back at him, he was afraid that he might cry out.

They did not. The image was composed wholly and unequivocally of salt; immobile, inanimate, and dead. Nothing more. But how then to explain the startling likeness? Not to mention Ahlitah's herd of sculpted prey and Simna's inviting castle. Reaching out, he took Hunkapa Aub's left wrist in both his hands and prepared to pull again, this time with all his strength. He did not. There was something odd about his hulking friend's hair. Usually it was soft and pliant, so much so that Simna often teased its wearer about its feminine feel. Now, suddenly, it felt granular and gritty. Releasing his grip, Ehomba put two fingers to his mouth and touched them cautiously with his tongue. The taste was all too familiar.

Salt.

Whirling, he raced back the way they had come. He found the black litah with his teeth sunk deeply into the side of a mound of slightly reddish salt. The big cat's burning yellow eyes were still open, still alert, but dimmed. As if slightly glazed over. With salt.

"Ahlitah, wake up, come out of it!" He pulled hard on one of the cat's front legs, then on its tail, all to no avail. Equally as heavy as Hunkapa Aub, the black litah was just as difficult to move. Stepping back, the herdsman saw to his horror that the sleek ebony flank was already beginning to show a crust of rapidly congealing halite crystals.

Uncertain what to do, he turned a slow circle. This part of the lake bed was a maze of mounds and pillars, knolls and motifs, configurations and oddly organic shapes. If he burrowed into some of the more recognizable forms, what might he find concealed in their brackish depths? How many of the formations were natural-and how many molded on unlucky travelers both human and otherwise who had preceded him and his companions to this occulted corner of reality? Did he dare dig within? High above, the blanched moon shone down and proffered no explanation.

His mouth set in a grim, determined line, he swung his backpack around in front of him and fumbled inside until he found the vial he was looking for. Little of the inordinately pungent liquid within remained.

Hopefully, it would be enough. Since Ahlitah was the first and most seriously affected, Ehomba determined to try to emancipate the big cat first. But as he prepared to remove the stopper from the bottle, something off to his right caught his eye. He stared, then found himself staring harder, but it would not go away. Three pillars, streaked with brown and less so with red. One tall and two short, gazing back at him out of hollow, glistening eye sockets. Three pillars of accumulated, weathered, freshly precipitated mineral salts. Together, they formed a family of salt.

His family.

There was no mistaking the identity of the tallest figure. It was Mirhanja, complete to the smallest detail, her ashen arms extended pleadingly in his direction. He took an instinctive, automatic step toward her.

Preparing to take another, he forced himself to halt. His right leg, his whole body trembled. A battle was taking place within, a war between himself as he was and himself as what he knew. It was a conflict that, if lost, would find him once more in the bosom of his family. Embraced by the ones he loved most in the entire world-and encased in patient, precipitating, all-embracing salt.

He would join his companions and their hapless predecessors not in crossing the surrounding sickly, bloodless terrain, but in becoming a part of it.

Always dispute what is happening around you, his father had told him. Never, ever, stop questioning everything and anything, even that which you perceive to be indisputably and undeniably real, for reality can play all manner of unpleasant tricks on the cocksure. Ehomba had grown up skeptical and politely suspicious of the world around him. As he was now.

Think!he screamed at himself. What has happened here? Whatis happening here? Ahlitah saw a herd of prey animals, and the salt became prey animals. Hunkapa Aub saw himself reflected in the salt, and the salt became his reflection. You see your family, the thingyou most want to see.

But Simna ibn Sind had walked off toward a salt castle. Other travelers and animals could have wandered into this ghastly place and become embalmed by the salt, creating so many of the strange and now ominous formations surrounding him. But a castle couldn't just pick up and move. Therefore what they were seeing was being drawn, had to be drawn, from the hidden places of their own minds. Simna might dream a castle full of willing concubines, but he would want to take possession of the castle first.

So the salt had, by inimical magicks unknown and unimaginable, risen up from the lake bed, precipitated out, and formed itself into a small castle for him to inspect. If he entered it fully, Ehomba sensed, his friend would never come out.

Reaching down to scratch an itch, his fingers came away with tiny white grains beneath the nails.

Employing every ounce of energy and every iota of determination he could muster, he wrenched himself away from the heart-rendingly realistic figures of his family. As he did so, a cracking sounded beneath his sandals as he broke free of the encrusting salt that had already begun to crawl up his legs. He was free again, but for how long? And what of the fate of his friends?

No!he shouted silently. He had not brought them this far to lose them now, so near to their goal.

Realizing that the nearly empty bottle of oris musk would not be enough to shatter the saline illusions the accursed landscape had precipitated around his friends, he fumbled anew with the contents of the backpack. But what could he possibly use? There was nothing, nothing he knew of that was stronger or had a more powerful effect on the living than oris musk.

No, he thought as he stopped digging through the jumble at the bottom of the pack. That wasn't true.

There was something more powerful. Furthermore, he had plenty of it.

Slinging the pack around to where it rested comfortably against his shoulders once again, nestling against the twin scabbards, he unlimbered his water bag and tucked it firmly beneath his right arm. It was nearly full, brimming with the stuff of life hard-won in sinister Skawpane. Carefully he removed the stopper and let it dangle by its cord from the lip of the bag. The contents sloshed gently in response to his actions.

Turning his back on his imploring but inanimate family, he walked up to where the black litah stood frozen in the midst of suffocating halite. Taking careful aim with the mouth of the bag, he brought his right elbow and arm roughly against his side, squeezing the bag sharply. Water sprayed from the opening to drench the big cat. It struck his mane and shoulders, ribs and legs. It got in his eyes and nose.

For the first time in many long moments, Ahlitah blinked. Thanks to the water that had gone up his nostrils, this was followed by a sneeze of truly leonine proportions. Running down his flanks, the precious water dissolved away the salt. Even as the big cat was cleansed, fresh salt was trying to precipitate out around his feet, to make its way up his legs and trap him anew.

Shaking his head, the litah sent a shower of sparkling halite crystals flying in all directions. "What happened?" Wrinkling back his lips as only a big cat can do, he spat disgustedly to one side. "What have I been eating?"

Ehomba pointed out the places where the uncannily saiga-shaped lump of mineral salts showed claw and tooth marks. "Everyone likes a little salt with their meal, but there are limits. While you were trying to eat the salt, the salt was starting to eat you. It was not meat that was salted-it was your thoughts." Steeling himself, he turned and gestured in the direction of the three sculpted figures of his family. Now that he was fully conscious of the slow, terrible death they symbolized, he was able to look at them more clearly and see them for what they really were. This time they looked less like Mirhanja and his children than they did like three small pillars of accumulated whiteness.

Revelation proved sanguinary for Ahlitah as well. "I can't believe I was chewing so single-mindedly on that." His snarl of antipathy and contempt echoing across the lake bed, he brought one massive paw around in a great arc and decapitated the nearest formation. Lumps of shattered salt went skittering across the hard, crusty ground.

"Bring your water." Ehomba spun on one sandaled foot. "We have to free the others." He stamped down heavily as he walked. "And keep moving. Do not linger too long in one place. As swiftly as the salt distorts and affects your mind, it also clutches at your feet."

It took the contents of an entire water bag and part of another to free the hulking Hunkapa Aub from his saline entombment. When confronted with the reality of his mirrored self in salt, he could not be dissuaded from pushing it over. It smashed to bits, leaving a pile of salt rubble where moments before had stood a perfect likeness of the shag-covered man-beast.

Continuously brushing salt crystals from their arms and legs, they hurried on to the knoll of salts that had assumed the guise of a small castle. Breathing hard, Ehomba slowed before the sculpted entrance-but of his good friend and companion there was no sign.

Scratching ceaselessly as he fought off the persistent salt, Hunkapa Aub turned a slow circle. "Not see friend Simna."

"I don't smell him, either." Head back, the black litah was sniffing repeatedly at the air. "Between the new dampness and the old salt it's hard to scent anything else."

"Keep trying." Grateful for the moonlight, Ehomba strained to see through seams in the salt formations.

They appeared to be taunting him, mocking his efforts to penetrate their encrusted secrets, laughing silently from origins he preferred not to contemplate.

His eyes widened slightly as he realized what must have happened. Whirling to face the blocky, crenellated formation once more, he aimed the water bag he was holding and directed Hunkapa Aub to do likewise with his. Bereft of hands, Ahlitah could only look on and watch.

Water gushed from the mouths of both bags to play over the flanks of the consolidated castle. Minarets dissolved into soggy lumps, and then the lumps themselves became components of thin briny rivers that flowed down the flanks of the formation. Turrets and spires sagged and crumbled, melding into the walls as they liquefied beneath the soaking assault.

It took more of their supply than the herdsman cared to think about, but halfway into the castle they finally caught a glimpse of Simna ibn Sind's backpack. Still riding high on the swordsman's shoulders, it gleamed dully in the moonlight. The surrounding, enclosing salt imparted a sickly blue cast to the exposed portions of his skin.

Moving closer and wielding the shrinking water bags like firearms, Ehomba and Hunkapa Aub dissolved the salt from around their friend's encrusted body. He had been completely entombed. Salt plugged his ears and formed a crust over his eyes. But his nostrils were still unblocked, though barely, the advancing salt having been held back by the moisture breathed out by his lungs.

Stiff and unbending, his body was dragged out into the open air and laid gently across Ahlitah's back.

Lying him down on the ground was not contemplated, as it would just be returning him to the grip of the relentless, inimical salts. Water from still another bag was poured over him, drenching his body and clothing, soaking his face. When he finally revived, the herdsman did so sputtering violently and shaking his head.

Sitting up, he wiped animatedly at his face and took a long, deep breath. "What happened? I feel as if I've come back from the land of the dead." Rising to his feet, he suddenly pointed and yelled, "That cursed castle tried to kill me! It grabbed me and tried to suffocate me!"

"Salt you down is more like it." Careful to keep moving his feet and arms, Ehomba proceeded to explain. "I think that if we had been five minutes longer in melting you out, the salt would have filled your nose and stopped your breathing. And your heart."

Wiping at himself as if he had just emerged from hiding in the depths of a cesspool, the swordsman found himself prone to a momentary case of the shakes. He was prepared to face death, had been ever since he had taken up the sword, but suffocating alive was among the least pleasant ways imaginable for a man to expire.

"Away from this place," he declared with a sweep of his arm. "Let's get away from here."

His companions needed no urging. The matter of their suddenly and severely depleted water supply, which they had worked so hard to obtain in Skawpane, was not mentioned. Commentary was unnecessary. Having utilized the greater portion of it to free themselves from the grasp of the alkaline prison, it would now have to be rationed severely, and quickly replenished. In the waning moonlight, the silhouette of the Curridgian escarpment loomed before them more meaningful than ever.

There would be water there, Ehomba knew as he moved forward at the run. The snowy peaks promised as much. The only question was, how high up and how far back would they have to go to find it?

Behind them, fantastic contours and extravagant shapes stood silent sentinel over the salt plain. They did not move, and none uttered so much as a whisper. Rising from pools of rapidly dispersing and evaporating water, crystals of halite and gypsum sparkled like diamonds as they precipitated out of the chloride-heavy solution. In most places such a wealth of crystals would have been zealously guarded and protected, for salt was necessary to the perpetuation of life.

Only here, in this forsaken and barren place between mountain and misery, had it turned deadly.

Catechist - A Triumph Of Souls Part 19

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Catechist - A Triumph Of Souls Part 19 summary

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