Catechist - A Triumph Of Souls Part 21
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"The butterfly-" Simna looked up sharply. "Hoy, I remember you putting something on my hand! It set me free."
Ehomba nodded. "A salve prepared for me by Meruba. I was told that it was useful for dealing with cuts and scrapes, burns and punctures. When I saw what had caught ahold of you it was all I could think of to use." He gestured downward. "It cured your arm."
Holding his right hand in his left while gently rubbing it, Simna nodded gratefully. "My arm, yes, but that doesn't explain the butterfly." He shuddered once. "What I saw first, when it was visible to me, was no butterfly."
"No," the herdsman agreed solemnly. He smiled as he reminisced. "Meruba is known for her salves. It is said that, if applied in sufficient strength, they can cure anything. I used all that she gave me." Turning his head, his braids bouncing slightly against his neck, he gazed thoughtfully at the northern horizon.
"Whatever it was that had hold of you, I think we healed it."
"Should've killed it," the swordsman grumbled. Releasing his hand, he started to shake it sharply.
"Hurt?" Ehomba looked suddenly concerned.
"Hoy, it throbs like my head the morning after a three-day binge! But it's nothing I can't handle, bruther." Rising from his seat, he straightened his pack on his back. Some of the straps had become loosened while he was being dragged along by the revolting apparition. "It's too damn hot here." He nodded briskly in the direction of the foothills and the rocky crags they fronted. "Let's find ourselves some cool shade and fresh water."
The ascent into the Curridgian Mountains proved arduous, but less so than their trek into the Hrugars.
Deep gorges allowed them to avoid the need to scale the highest peaks, providing a natural approach to the towering escarpment. Where there was snow there was runoff, and the same canyons that guided them westward soon boasted of swiftly running streams and even small rivers. Ehomba was grateful they would not have to worry any longer about water. As they climbed higher the air grew cooler. The awful heat of the Tortured Lands receded until it was no more than a disagreeable memory.
Pines and redwoods, firs and kauris soon replaced weedy grasses and small-leaved brush, until they once again found themselves traipsing through forest. Ehomba and Simna were rejuvenated by the fresh air and increased humidity, while Ahlitah was largely indifferent. But Hunkapa Aub was positively exhilarated. Of them all, he, with his heavy, shaggy coat, had suffered the most by far from the unrelenting heat they had left behind and below.
He even welcomed the mist that settled in around them as they climbed a slope luxuriant with wildflowers, their petals splashed with extravagant shades of scarlet and teal and lemon yellow. As the moist haze thickened, the blossoms took on an air of unreality, their variegated faces staring brazenly at the shrouded sun, kaleidoscopic denizens of a languid dream.
Soon the mist had congealed to the point where even the black litah was hard pressed to espy a route upward, and they were reduced to following the stream that had cut the canyon. Though the humid air was still temperate and the climbing not difficult, Ehomba found himself glancing around apprehensively.
Noting his friend's unease, Simna edged close.
"Hoy, long bruther, something's troubling you." The swordsman strove, without much success, to penetrate the haze. "You see something?"
"No, it is not that, Simna." As the herdsman licked his lips he tried not to suck in any of the prevailing moisture. "I was-I am-trying to remember something." Raising a hand, he gestured imprecisely. "It is this fog."
Simna took a look around, then shrugged indifferently. "It's fog. Accursedly thick fog, but just fog. So what?"
"I remember it."
The swordsman couldn't help himself: He laughed without thinking. "Hoy, Etjole, a man remembers the deaths he escapes and the lovers he's had. He remembers long, restful mornings and nights awash in celebration. Hedoesn't remember fog."
Ehomba ignored his friend's good-natured chiding. There was something not in the air, but about it. A quality that stirred a particular memory. He struggled to recall it. Perhaps Simna was right. What was fog, after all, but droplets of moisture that hung in the air, too tired to rise as cloud, too lazy to fall as rain?
How could anyone "remember" something so transient and ordinary?
Then he did. It was not just a fog, butthe fog. The one that had tried to hold him back, the one that had attempted to enshroud and restrain him from ever beginning on this journey. It was the fog he had encountered not long after first leaving the village, so seemingly long ago. Failing to slow him then, it had come after him, abandoning its ocean home to confront him here, in these distant and foreign highlands.
Close by, the lumbering, mist-veiled mountain that was Hunkapa Aub called out uncertainly.
"Etjole, Hunkapa can't move. Hunkapa's legs not working."
A frustrated snarl sounded from just in front of the herdsman. Despite its great strength, the black litah too was finding progress suddenly difficult. Massive paws clawed at the sodden atmosphere in a futile attempt to advance.
The two humans were not immune to this sudden hindrance. Ignoring Simna's ensuing eruption of profanity, Ehomba concentrated on trying to take another step uphill. The sensation was akin to trying to walk through thin mud. It did not hold him back so much as slow him down to an unacceptable degree.
At this rate they would be years getting through the mountains. Lifting his other leg, he struggled to take another stride. The result was the same. It was as if he had been wrapped in a waterlogged sheet not heavy enough to stop him, but sufficient to slow him dangerously.
Leaning forward, he put his weight into his next attempt. The gummy damp continued to cling to him, to drag him down and hold him back. Wanting to make certain that he had truly identified their adversary, he scanned every foot of the flower-laden meadow he could see, but with his range of vision reduced to a few feet, he was not able to make out any visible nemesis. For him to be able to see an enemy clearly in the fog, it would have to be right on top of him.
Which is when he was convinced once and for all that that was exactly the case.
"Go baaaackk...."It was an auricular specter, a verbal shadow, a ghost of a voice, as though wind had momentarily been manipulated and palpitated to form a word in the same ponderous manner as a baker kneads heavy dough.
The unexpected voice induced him to take one last look around, but there was nothing else to see; nothing but flowers and field and fog. Determined, he tried to push on, only to experience the same sensation of being slowed down and held back. He was covering ground, but trying to force his legs forward through the persistent impediment would soon exhaust him completely.
"Go ... baaackk...."the sepulchral voice moaned. It seemed to come not from one particular place but from all around him. Which made sense, since that which was restraining himwas all around him. But how to fight it? A man with a knife he would have known how to deal with immediately.
He searched in vain for a face, for eyes or a mouth, for something to focus on. There wasn't anything.
There was only the fog, evanescent and everywhere present. "Why should I?" he asked guardedly, addressing his query to the damp, gently swirling mist.
The vaporous moan seemed to gather the slightest bit of additional strength from his reply. "Go back," it intoned in a dark whisper. "Go home." Airborne droplets of cool water eddied before his face. "It is all here, waiting for you. I have seen it. Disaster, complete and entire. You are doomed to unremitting misery, your quest to failure, the rest of your life to cold emptiness. Unless you end this now. Go home, back to your village and to your family. Before it is too late. Before you die."
This wouldn't do, he decided. Twice before, he had been compelled to listen to those exact same words-first from a seeress, then from a dog. Arms upraised in a gesture of defiance, he turned a slow circle and challenged the sky.
"A beauty gave me that augury, and then a witch. I did not heedtheir warnings, and I certainly will not heed this one!"
Nearby, his friend Simna ventured to comment hesitantly. "Etjole, you're arguing with the weather.
That's a quarrel any man is bound to lose."
Ehomba begged to differ, but silently. Question he would, even the weather if need be, or he and his companions might never break free of the malicious atmosphere. They could not stay, and he would not turn back. Choosing, he reached back over his shoulder and drew the sky-metal sword Otjihanja had made for him. Crystallized iron caught the few isolated flashes of light that managed to penetrate the haze and broke them into sparks.
With his arm restrained by the cloying, clinging mist, he could not slash and cut with his usual ease, but he hacked away at the surrounding fog with as much strength and determination as he could muster.
Results were immediate.
Bits and pieces of fog, cut off from the rest of the main body by the otherworldly blade, fell to the earth.
Each squirmed glutinously across the ground as if seeking to rejoin the rest of the hovering gray mass, before finally falling motionless and evaporating. A louder moan surrounded him: a malign breeze off the mountain slopes wending its way among the rocks-or something else. He found himself wondering if fog could feel pain. It did not matter. There was work to be done, and he was the only one who could do it.
Patiently, wielding the sword with skill and care, he began to excavate a clear space for himself within the enveloping mist. As soon as it was large enough and his arms and legs were free, he cut his way over to Simna and liberated the swordsman. Hunkapa Aub and Ahlitah were next.
"Everyone all right?" he inquired. Looking at him, it was impossible to tell if the water pouring off his face and arms was perspiration or amputated mist. Assured that they had suffered nothing more than fatigue in their own efforts to free themselves, he turned and started work on chopping a path forward. Instead of wielding a machete against a wall of intervening jungle, or a shovel against a rampart of packed earth, he hacked away with something that was not of the Earth at that which was little more than nothing.
As he toiled, tendrils of fog strained to clutch at him afresh, reaching out with quivering slivers of damp gray for his arms and legs. He slashed away mercilessly, ignoring them as they fell among the flowers and grass, trampling the condensed moisture beneath his sandals. No more maybe-almost words teased his ears, but the moaning continued without pause. The fog did not bleed beneath his blade-it simply asserted its mastery of melancholy as it continued to do its utmost to detain him.
A man used to dealing daily with cattle and children was not about to have his progress denied by a recalcitrant mist. A tunnel appeared behind Ehomba and his friends as he pressed forward, a cylindrical tube in the fog into which the occasional grateful, sodden insect or arthropod found its way.
"Get off me!" he would shout from time to time. "Leave me be! I am near to my destination and will not be denied here. No mere weather, no matter how tenacious, is going to stop me!"
There was no reply. Only the continuous moaning, and the persistent, repetitious attempts to restrain his arms and legs. Occasionally he was forced to pause and hack clutching tentacles of moisture from the limbs of his friends. But for the most part, now that they once more had room in which to move, they were able to keep themselves relatively mist free.
He hewed his way forward for more than an hour. If the retentive, obstinate fog thought it could outwait him, or discourage him, it was more than wrong. It had never encountered anyone like Etjole Ehomba, whose arms rose and fell methodically, mechanically, as he cut his way forward, dead dew dripping like transparent blood from his blade of crystallized nickel-iron.
Then, realizing that all its efforts were doomed to failure, the fog began to dissipate. Vast quantities of it drew back, rising upward in the direction of the cold mountain peaks from which it drew sustenance, while isolated pockets fled downslope to evaporate. A few persistent tendrils continued to clutch at the arms and shoulders of the determined travelers, but these were soon cut away. As they ascended through the uppermost reaches of the fog bank, the sun returned, warming their damp bodies. The clinging fog had soaked Ehomba to the skin, but in the thin air the unobstructed sun made quick work of the lingering moisture.
A last gob of thick mist trailed him at a distance, darting and hiding behind one rocky outcropping after another. Used to watching for prowling predators while tending to the village herds, he kept track of it for a while, wondering at its intent. Perhaps it planned to drift down upon him when next he slept, covering his face, restraining not his arms and legs this time but his heart and lungs. He would not give it the chance.
Whirling, he rushed past a startled Simna to challenge the compacted cloud. Finding itself discovered, it immediately attempted to flee upward. The herdsman ran it down, catching up to it and dispatching it with his blade. Only the faintest hint of a moan rose from the wad of condensation as the meteoric sword-edge cut through its center, scattering droplets and inducing the rest of the gray blob to suicide beneath the unyielding rays of the morning sun.
Satisfied that he was no longer a source of interest to the vanished fog, or to any of its component parts, Ehomba sheathed the weapon and resumed his pace. Grass and soil in equal measure slid away beneath his sandals.
Free of the constraining, intemperate mist, they once again began to make good time. They had to.
There was an obligation to fulfill, and a family and herd anxiously awaiting his return.
If anything else attempted to stop or slow them, Ehomba found himself musing, he hoped it would do so more openly and with some substance. He had not enjoyed fighting the fog. Instead of anger, or evil, there had been about it only an ineffable sadness, and he had found no satisfaction in slaying what was after all little more than a haunting melancholy.
After all, it had only, to its unfathomable, unknowable way of thinking, been trying to help him.
It was not long after they had left the inimical fog behind that they encountered the procession of humans and apes. Trudging along a trail that crossed the river gorge from north to south, the procession was heavily laden with baggage, from household goods dangling from stout poles supported by two or more individuals, to blanket-wrapped infants riding on the backs of females.
They shied in terror at the sight of Ahlitah and Hunkapa Aub, and Ehomba had to hasten to reassure them. Their accent was thick and heavy, but with repetition and gestures each side managed to make itself understood. These were poor folk, the herdsman decided, simple and unsophisticated. Judging from the expressions they wore, their burdens were more than physical.
"Ehl-Larimar?" he asked of several individuals. After a number of inquiries a long-faced macaque clad in heavy overcoat and cap finally responded. Raising its long arm, it pointed westward up the canyon and nodded.
"Good. Thank you." As Ehomba started past him, the ape reached out and grabbed his arm. Simna's hand went immediately to the hilt of his sword, while among the column there was an anxious stirring.
Primate hands fumbled for axes and clubs. Ahlitah growled low in his throat, his claws seeking purchase on the hard ground.
Ehomba hastened to calm his companions. "It is all right. He is not hurting me." Glancing down, he saw that the macaque's face was fraught with concern, not animosity. "What is wrong, my long-tailed friend?"
It was uncertain if the ape comprehended the herdsman's words, but he certainly understood his tone.
Releasing his grasp, he raised a spindly arm and jabbed a finger violently upcanyon. "Khorixas, Khorixas!"
"Hoy, what's a Khorixas?" Simna's hand had slid away from his sword, but his fingers remained loose and easy in its vicinity. "Maybe an outlying town this side of Ehl-Larimar itself?"
"Possibly." Smiling reassuringly, Ehomba stepped away from the visibly agitated macaque and retreated slowly, taking one careful step at a time. "It is all right. My friends and I can take care of ourselves."
Even as he tried to explain he wondered if the ape understood any of what he was saying: These people spoke a language different from that of old Gomo and the People of the Trees.
Arm rigid and still pointing westward, the aged macaque rumbled "Khorixas!" one more time before lowering his hand. With a sad-eyed shrug, he turned and rejoined his comrades. When he paused briefly for a last look back at the travelers, it was to shake his head dolefully from side to side.
"Grizzled old fella must not care much for this Khorixas, whatever it is." Striding confidently forward, Simna kept a careful watch on the steep slopes that walled them in. Nothing he saw or heard as they continued to hike upward led him to believe they might be walking into some kind of ambush, or a trap.
Silhouetted against the scudding clouds, a few dragonets and condors soared on the updrafts.
Marmosets and pacas scampered over the boulders and talus in search of nuts and berries. Thanks to the deep canyon, the travelers' line of march remained well below the tree line. The temperature dropped at night, but not precipitously so. When their blankets proved inadequate to the task of warding off the cold, Ehomba and Simna simply moved their bedding closer to the radiant bulks of Hunkapa Aub and the black litah.
They had just crossed the crest of the Curridgians, discernable by the fact that all streams now flowed westward instead of to the east, when they heard the first roll of thunder.
"Hunkapa no see clouds, no see storm." The hirsute hulk had his head tilted back while he squinted at the sky.
"It does not sound like that kind of thunder." Holding fast to his spear, Ehomba strode along in front, maintaining the same steady pace as always.
Simna ibn Sind cocked his head sideways as he regarded his tall companion. "There's more than one kind?"
The herdsman smiled down at him. "Many kinds. I myself have been trained to identify dozens of different varieties."
"Hoy then, if it's not a far-off storm clearing its throat that we're hearing, then what is it?"
"I do not know." A brilliant black-and-green spotted beetle landed on the herdsman's shirt, hitching a ride. Ehomba admired its glossy carapace and let it be.
"I thought you said you knew dozens of kinds of thunder?"
"I do." Ehomba's smile thinned. "But this one I do not recognize."
Whatever its source, it grew louder as they began to start downward. Its measured, treading rhythm was abnormal, suggesting an origin that was anything but natural. Yet the percussive volume was too loud to originate with anything man-made.
Only when they came around a cliff and entered a small alpine valley did they see that both of their assumptions were correct.
It had not been much of a village to begin with, and now it was in the process of being reduced to nothing at all. The stately thunder they had been hearing was caused by the concussion of hammer against stone. The stones ranged in size from small boulders to chinkers light enough for a child to move from place to place. The head of the hammer, on the very much larger other hand, was bigger than Ehomba.
It was being wielded by a giant-the first giant the herdsman had ever seen. The village elders knew many tales of giants, with which they often regaled their attentive, wide-eyed children. While growing up, Ehomba and his friends had listened to fanciful fables of one-eyed giants and hunchbacked giants, of giants with teeth like barracuda and giants lacking any teeth at all who sucked up their victims through straws made of hollow tree trunks. There were giants that swam in the deep green sea (but none that flew), and giants who lived in the densest jungles and never showed themselves (but some that were too big to hide).
There were ugly giants and uglier giants, giants who cooked their victims in a casserole of palm oil and sago pastry, and giants who simply swallowed them whole. Oura had once told of a vegetarian giant, and of another who was shunned by all others of his kind for washing his hair. Sometimes there seemed to be as many different kinds of giants as there were storytellers among the Naumkib, and that meant there were a great many varieties of giant indeed.
The one that stood before them using its great hammer to demolish the village was neither as horrific in appearance as he might have been nor as good-natured. Shoulder-length red hair tumbled in tangled tresses down his back and the sides of his head. Long hairs sprouted from pointed ears that stuck through the raggedy locks, and he had orange eyes. From his splotchety, crooked nose hung a booger the size of a boulder. His teeth were surprisingly white, glaring out from the rest of a baggy visage that as a face was mostly a failure. Dark and dirty treelike arms protruded from the sleeves of a vest comprised of many sewn-together skins, not all of them overtly animal. His furry lower garments were similarly fashioned, and his sandals with their knee-high laces bespoke the crudest attempts at cobblery.
He was three times the size of Hunkapa Aub, and when he swung the heavy hammer with its leather-clad head, the peal of disintegrating rock reverberated down every one of the surrounding canyons and gorges. Sweat poured from his coarse countenance in great rivulets, and even at a distance his stink was profound.
"Hoy, now we know what happened to the village of Khorixas." Simna's expression was grim. Another reverberantboooom echoed as the back wall of what had once been a fine two-story house came crashing down. "We also know why those hard-up folk we met a while back were migrating across the crest with their kids and all their possessions."
"We do not know anything." Ehomba was keeping one eye on the giant while assessing possible alternate routes with the other. The village lay directly athwart the most direct and easiest route westward and downslope. "We will go around," he announced resignedly. He started to turn away.
Hand on sword hilt, Simna all but jumped in front of him. "Hoy, long bruther, we have a chance to right a wrong here!" He nodded sharply in the direction of the crumbling village. "Whatever transpired between those poor wretches and this brute couldn't possibly justify the total ruination of their homes."
He grinned knowingly. "Why, this great blundering ogre isnothing compared to the dangers you and I have dealt with these past months! Watch him work. See how slow he is, how ungainly his movements?
We should teach him a lesson about picking on those smaller and weaker than himself and send him on his way. It will also earn us the undying gratitude of those simple mountain folk." His expression was eager. "What say you?"
Ehomba replied in his usual unshakable, even tone. "I do not need their gratitude, undying or otherwise."
He nodded leftward, to where the giant was maintaining his steady rate of destruction. "Nor am I in the business of teaching lessons to rampaging giants or anyone else. My obligation draws me westward, to a destination that is, at long last, within reach if not sight." Supporting himself partially with his spear, he took a step to his right. "We will go around."
Catechist - A Triumph Of Souls Part 21
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Catechist - A Triumph Of Souls Part 21 summary
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