Catechist - A Triumph Of Souls Part 24

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Throwing himself on the torso, Simna used both hands to wrench the valiant herdsman over onto his back. Ehomba's eyes were closed and his body limp. There hung about him a sharp, acrid smell, as if he had been singed by something as lethal as it was invisible. The swordsman shook the smooth, lean shoulders; gently at first, then more forcefully.

"Etjole! Bruther!" To his frantic entreaties there was no response. Pressing an ear to the herdsman's chest, Simna's eyes grew wide as he detected no sound from within. Hastily moistening a palm, he held it in front of the herdsman's unmoving lips. Nothing cooled his skin.

"It can't be." He drew back from the motionless body."It can't be."

Dipping his maned head low over the prostrate form, Ahlitah listened and sniffed once, twice. Then yellow eyes rose, flicking first in the direction of Hymneth the Possessed, then meeting those of the stricken swordsman.

"It's over, Simna. He's dead. The herder of cattle is dead."

And he was.

Ehomba felt no pain. In fact, he did not "feel" at all. He knew instinctively, unarguably, that he was dead.

Dead at the hands of another. Hymneth the Possessed had killed him. This knowledge caused him neither regret nor discomfort. Those were concerns that belonged to the world of the living, and he was no longer a part of that. He did not think of his condition as a failure, or lament for his lost family, or sorrow for anything left behind. After death, everything changed.

He was conscious that some time had pa.s.sed, though whether seconds or years he could not have said.

At first he had been aware of being above his body, utterly divorced from it and from everything of the living flesh. Very quickly thereafter and without any sense of transition or traveling he found himself in a void, an immeasurably vast s.p.a.ce that would have been completely dark except for the presence of distant, unblinking stars. They were not the stars one saw in life. Somehow they seemed much closer, yet infinitely distant. There was no sense of ground, of up or down or direction, or of the presence of the Earth. Only the void, stars-and souls.

He thought of them as souls for lack of a better term. Present around him in the starry vastness was everyone who had ever lived. Though they were packed together in a single immense, amorphous ma.s.s, there was a feeling of adequate s.p.a.ce between individuals. It was crowded, yet with no sense of crowding.

There was no movement of bodies. Everyone hung limp, drifting, eyes open and unblinking as they contemplated the star-washed heavens with a silent fusion of curiosity and wonderment. Ehomba was surprised to discover that he retained a sense of body, of the physical self. Gazing about, he was unable to identify or categorize individuals either as to s.e.x or age. There was only the powerful, detached feeling of being surrounded by uncounted people.

He was able to sense more than this from only one nearby individual, whom he felt to be a foot soldier of young to middle age who hailed from an earlier eon. Only his eyes conveyed any familiar impressions at all. No one breathed, or smelled. It was possible that they, and he, could hear, but there was no noise, no sound in the accepted sense.

He was conscious of understanding words without actually hearing them as modulated waves pressing against his inner ear. The words were simply "there." Otherwise it was infinitely peaceful and quiet despite the drifting, floating ma.s.s of humanity. There was an inescapable feeling of equilibrium, of everything and everyone being held in silent, sensationless suspension. This despite a steady, unending flow of new arrivals who added wordlessly to the ever-increasing volume of individuals.

The only words he could comprehend seemed to be whispering "What time is it?" and "Does anyone here know the time?" Though conscious of, aware of, others around them, this was all that anyone could think of to say. Ehomba found it interesting that no one asked, or thought to ask, what day it was, or what month, or what year. Only, "What time?"

That, and endless self-reflective queries of "Didn't I just get here?" This gently querulous mantra was repeated over and over, yet without any feeling of repet.i.tion or tedium. There was never any sense of more than one minute pa.s.sing before the question was heard again from another source, and then another, and another. "Didn't I just get here?" This even though an immense amount of time had obviously pa.s.sed. How many millions, or billions of times the question had been ethereally posed Ehomba could not have said. It was the same for him as for everyone around him. The feeling, the certainty, that regardless of real time, no more than a minute had ever pa.s.sed.

There was one other sensation. An inescapable, powerful, overriding sense of purpose to It All. What that might be, he never got a feel for. Catechist that he was, he was pleased to believe that there was a reason, a purpose behind It All, just as he was disappointed not to learn what that might be. It was frustrating, though he never felt frustrated in the familiar sense of the term.

There was no heat or cold, no feeling of weight. No pain or pleasure. Physicality without sensation. Just a sense of being-and the Purpose. No sense of a deity, either, or of anyone or anything watching or manipulating. Just souls, people, acc.u.mulating, wondering about the Purpose ...

Standing tall and a.s.sured before the throne, Hymneth the Possessed straightened his helmet, which had in the course of the preceding clash been jolted slightly askew, and regarded the tableau of intruders below him.

"See to them, Peregriff."

"Yes, Lord," came the always prepared voice off to his left.

"As soon as they have recovered from their bathetic grieving, find out what they want to do. Offer the mercenary a position with the army-not my household staff. I'm not in the habit of recruiting the potentially vengeful. The cat is clearly intelligent beyond the level of his more modestly proportioned cousins. I suspect it will want to leave. Let it. As for the bloated rug-creature-I'm not sure what to do about it. Hopefully, it will depart in the company of the cat, and without soiling the floor on its way out."

Turning to his right, he extended an arm.

"Come, my dear. I think this has been enough entertainment for one night."

Crouched alongside the motionless body of his tall friend, a disbelieving Simna cried unabashedly, the tears spilling copiously down his cheeks. "You crazy, singleminded fool! You gaunt, self-righteous b.a.s.t.a.r.d! Hoy, you weren't supposed to die! What am I going to tell your family?"

"Excuse me," murmured Hunkapa Aub as his huge frame inclined over the corpse, "would you please step back, Simna?"

"What difference will it make?" The swordsman sobbed angrily, consumed by pa.s.sion and self-pity.

"Why should I-" He broke off, sniffed long and hard, and gaped uncertainly at his oversized companion. "Wait a minute here. What did you say?"

Eyes of arctic blue gazed back at him. "I asked you to please step aside. I need room."

"You need ... ?" The swordsman's expression narrowed. "All of a sudden it's not 'Hunkapa need' or 'Hunkapa want Simna move.' It's 'Would you please step back, Simna'-glib and polite as a thrice-bed.a.m.ned court orator." He straightened and took a couple of steps backward, staring hard, hard, at the ma.s.sive, looming figure. "By every G.o.dd.a.m.ned G.o.d I've ever sworn by-what's going on here?"

"I need room in which to work." Having concluded his hasty but thorough examination of the herdsman's corpse, Hunkapa Aub rose to his full height, tilted his s.h.a.ggy head back until he was gazing at the ceiling, closed his eyes, and stretched both arms up and out.

Opposite, Ahlitah was in stealthy retreat, muscles tensed, head held low. "I knew there was something about him. I knew it."

"What's that?" Simna shouted across Ehomba's prostrate body at the big cat. "What did you know?"

The black litah growled softly, its rending claws fully extended as they sc.r.a.ped backward across the floor. "He neversmelled stupid."

"Simbala!"cried Hunkapa Aub, imploring forces that lay deeper than his words."Acenka sar vranutho!"

A brilliant white glow appeared above his head, a fierce effulgence that pulsed with scarcely restrained energy. Descending on the far side of the dais, Hymneth the Possessed and his new consort paused and turned. Behind the helmet, the ruler of all Ehl-Larimar-blinked.

Eyes closed tight, chanting to himself, Hunkapa Aub lowered his arms until both hands were pointing at the floor-and at the figure of Etjole Ehomba."Haranath!" he rumbled, and the pulsating, glittering orb responded. Drifting down from its location above the s.h.a.ggy head, it impacted the body of the herdsman, and sank into it like milk into a sponge. A pale brilliance suffused the slender cadaver, overflowing it with radiance from head to toe. Eyes still shut, Hunkapa sustained the incantation as an obviously agitated Hymneth released the Visioness Themaryl and started hurriedly back around the base of the dais.

"'A master of all the necromantic arts' is coming, the Worm said-but it never described what he would look like!" Raising one hand, the sovereign warlock threw a crackling, virulent green sphere at the hulking hirsute figure. Lethal lightning darted straight for Hunkapa Aub's eyes.

Standing bolt upright, engulfed in a torrent of unadulterated white energy that was the shadow of the lingering breath of a billion unfinished, unfulfilled souls, Etjole Ehomba caught the sickly emerald globe square in the chest. It exploded on impact, shriveled green spikes flying off and spilling away in all directions like startled snakes. As Ehomba started toward him, Hymneth once more began throwing sphere after destructively lambent sphere. Those directed at himself the herdsman shattered with a simple wave of his hand, each finger armored with the ma.s.sed white energy of a million souls. Any orbs aimed at Hunkapa Aub he merely deflected, sending them cras.h.i.+ng destructively into the far corners of the quaking hall.

Crouched off to one side, Simna ibn Sind watched the clash of forces whose scope he could not judge and whose strength he could not imagine, and found himself struck most by something that was less than overwhelming but just as distinctive. Throughout all that had happened, his friend Ehomba had never lost his poise. His expression had been the same when first he had attacked Hymneth, when he had lain before the swordsman in death, and now when he was-what was he? Simna did not know. He was a man of the blade and not of the mind. As always, struggling with the latter caused him far more pain than any edge, no matter how sharp.

Ehomba's advance was deliberate and relentless. No matter what Hymneth threw at him, no matter how awesome the energy or irresistible the might, the herdsman continued to approach. Green and white lightning flooded the great chamber and obscured much of what was happening at its far end.

Until a burst of verdant ball lightning taller and wider than Hunkapa Aub smashed the sh.e.l.l of protective white energy that surrounded Ehomba. Exhausted but triumphant, perspiring heavily within his armor, Hymneth the Possessed prepared to raise his tired, trembling right hand one last time.

"Now, whatever you are become, we'll make an end to this,and to the secret master who has manipulated you all along!"

Like his expression, the herdsman's voice never changed. "I am Etjole Ehomba, of the Naumkib, and no one manipulates me." Parting his jaws and before Hymneth could bring his arm up and forward, he spat forcefully at the supreme sovereign of the central coast. Two dark, wet, black blobs flew from his lips, to strike the looming, armored figure right in the eye slit that creased the upper part of his helmet.

Hymneth's arm continued to rise-only to halt, quivering, halfway from the ground. The imposing figure stumbled once, shook itself, then staggered sideways. There came a metallic cracking sound as deep fissures appeared in his armor, running from magnificent helmet to mailed foot. The Visioness Themaryl screamed as the ruler of Ehl-Larimar collapsed sideways onto the floor. Struck by the half-digested essence of not one but two eromakadi, he lay in his useless armor, unmoving where he had fallen.

Reaching for his sword, Peregriff started forward, only to be intercepted by a still uncertain but increasingly confident Simna. Holding his blade out in front of him, the swordsman ventured a strained smile.

"No, my venerable friend! By Gequed, we'll see this thing done with by those who matter. You and I are insignificant components of any final rendering."

An awkward pause ensued while Hymneth's general glared down at the itinerant swordsman. Then he nodded, once, and dropped his hand from the hilt of his weapon. Together, both men turned to look.

Rus.h.i.+ng forward, Themaryl had knelt beside the supine figure of her monarch. Concern wracked her countenance, but there were no tears. Fearful, she looked up at the rangy, solemn-visaged herdsman.

"Is-is he dead?"

"No." Ehomba studied the motionless figure somberly. Bits and pieces of fractured armor were starting to slough away from the body. "Only paralyzed, and that I think just from the shoulders down.

Eventually, he should recover all movement."

She started to smile gratefully, then thought better of it, and instead turned her attention back to the rec.u.mbent torso.

Breathing hard, Simna ibn Sind joined his tall friend in gazing down at the motionless form. "Hoy, only paralyzed? Why leave the job half finished?" He aimed the point of his blade.

"No, my friend." Reaching out, Ehomba forestalled the swordsman's fatal intent. "That is not what I came for."

Simna eyed him imploringly. "By Gulvent, bruther, he tried to kill you! Hedid kill you! Speaking of which ..." The swordsman turned to look at the indefatigable hulk that was Hunkapa Aub. Through his fur, the biggest member of their little party was smiling.

"I get it!" Simna blurted in sudden realization. "You weren't really dead! You were faking it all along."

Ehomba shook his head slowly. "No, my friend. I was dead. Well and truly dead. I know, because I spent time in the place where the dead go."

"Tell me," asked Hunkapa Aub seriously, "what is it like, the place where the dead go?"

"Slow," the herdsman told him. Reaching out, he put a firm hand on the swordsman's shoulder and smiled rea.s.suringly. "I knew that I was going to die, Simna. It had been foretold. Not once, but three times. Once by a seductive seeress the memory of whose beauty and wisdom I will always treasure, once by a dog witch whose insight and affection I will always remember, and once even by a fog whose persistence I will never forget. 'Continue on and die,' they said-and so it had to be before we could triumph." Turning, he gazed gravely at the still unmoving body of Hymneth the Possessed: warlock, sorcerer, eminent ruler of ill.u.s.trious Ehl-Larimar.

"But that was as far as their predictions went. Nothing was said about what might happenafter I died."

Raising his eyes, he smiled gratefully at the imposing, attentive, fraternal figure of Hunkapa Aub. "Nothing was said that would preclude my being resurrected."

Simna gaped at him, struggling to digest the import of his friend's serene words. Then-he grinned. The grin widened until it seemed to encompa.s.s the majority of his sweat-streaked face. And then he began to chuckle softly to himself. It never grew loud or boisterous like before, but it did not go away, either.

"Two sorcerers. All this time I've been traveling in the company oftwo sorcerers." Turning, he confronted Hunkapa Aub, whose eyes had become suddenly wise as well as blue. "As many days and nights as I have spent in your company, as many evils and dangers as we fought side by side, and I never suspected. I neverwould have suspected."

Hunkapa Aub's smile widened slightly. "Not all wizards look alike, good swordsman. Not everything in life appears as one imagines it to be. And it is not required that one be human to be a master of the thaumaturgic arts."

Simna could only stare and shake his head in lingering disbelief. "Why? Why the sham and the continuing charade? Why did you let the people of Netherbrae keep you in a cage and throw food at you and torment you with insults and curses?"

Clasping both immoderately hairy hands behind his back, the hulking wizard considered Simna's flurry of questions. "You would not understand, good swordsman. Even a sorcerer needs to learn by experience.

I was traveling through that part of the world when I was accosted by the simple, shallow folk of that otherwise charming mountain town. I could easily have avoided capture, or freed myself at any time. But I was, and am always, curious as to what would motivate otherwise apparently intelligent and compa.s.sionate people to act in such a shameful fas.h.i.+on toward another of their fellow beings who had done them no harm. One can learn much about one's peers by spending time in a cage.

"Then you appeared in Netherbrae, and freed me. Finding you more interesting than anything else that tempted to engage me at that time, I chose to accompany you on your journey. It promised much of interest and elucidation. Suffice to say, I have not been disappointed."

"But why the pantomime?" An unsatisfied Simna persisted. "Why didn't you just tell us who and what you were from the beginning?"

Hunkapa Aub's smile was as sage as the look in his eyes. "Wizards have this 'effect' on people, good swordsman. In the presence of one they become muted things and no longer act themselves. I wanted to study you as you are, not as you would have become had you known my true ident.i.ty."

Simna stammered angrily. "Study us? And what have you learned, maestro of a mumbling disguise, from the specimens you chose to keep so long in ignorance?"

"The best thing there is to learn about another. That you are good, all of you. Yea, even you, Simna ibn Sind, though you would argue long and hard to deny it. I know you well. You, and the great and n.o.ble cat." Raising his gaze, he considered the lanky figure of Etjole Ehomba. "Your friend and guide I am still not entirely sure about." Hirsute shoulders rose and fell in a prodigious shrug. "I think I will stay with you a while longer. I sense there is still more to learn from your company."

"Well, it's a good thing you turned out to be more than the untutored, shambling simpleton you seemed to be," Simna declared, adding hastily, "I mean nothing untoward by that, master. Who would have thought you the more powerful sorcerer than Hymneth the Possessed?"

"Who said I was more powerful?" Hunkapa Aub's smile faded. "I caught him unawares, after he had been tired and worn down by your friend Etjole. I did not defeat him. Ultimately, it demanded the combined efforts of both of us."

"Hoy, however it was done, the important thing is that you were able to overcome him." The swordsman glowered down at the rec.u.mbent, motionless figure from which ruined metal was sloughing like a second skin. As he did so, his eyes widened.

Exposed to the flicker of lamplight without his omnipresent armor, Hymneth the Possessed, lord of the central coast and absolute ruler of Ehl-Larimar the sublime, was after all had been said and done not all that he had appeared to be.

Curly black hair almost as thick as Hunkapa's covered the barrel chest as well as the long, ma.s.sive forearms. But beneath the bulky upper body were tapered hips and shockingly short, stunted legs. These too were intermittently overlaid with still more of the thick body curls.

Formerly strapped to and now detached from the undersized lower limbs and feet were a pair of whitened, dying legs that had been taken from a much taller man. Amputated from an unknown owner, these fleshy prostheses were dying before the onlookers' eyes, the magic that had kept them attached to the warlock's feet having been shattered along with the rest of his protective spells. Nothing less than stilts made of meat, they had covertly provided a good portion of the lord of Ehl-Larimar's imposing height.

Atop a bull neck sat a ma.s.sive head that seemed too large for the rest of the body. Thick, almost blubbery lips fronted a prognathic jawline. The ears were overlarge and set toward the rear of the skull.

Most striking of all was the forehead, sloping well back from the thick, bony ridges that shaded the eyes.

The raven hair atop the head had been trimmed short to eliminate the profusion of greasy curls to be found elsewhere on the squat body. It was a surpa.s.singly ugly face, a visage that fluctuated uneasily between homely and repulsive. A face that was not quite human, though Ehomba knew what it was.

Simna recalled a recent statement of Hunkapa Aub's.

"It is not necessary for one to be human to be a master of the thaumaturgic arts."

Hymneth the Possessed was a neander.

The partially paralyzed wizard was impotent to smash in the faces that were staring down at him or strike the pitying expressions from their countenances. Defeated, frustrated, revealed, naked, and exposed, he could only moan and howl helplessly.

"Go on; look, stare, gawk at me. My people wonder why I never appear among them unhelmeted or without armor. It's because if they saw me like this, as Iam, they would repudiate me despite all my power and no matter what threats I rained down upon them. My forebears are from the far north, from the frozen wastes that cap the roof of the world. There they huddle, miserable and cold, dying young and struggling to eke out an existence I would not bequeath to a bird. Driven there by the 'healthy' ones. By people like yourselves." Unable to move more than his head, he glared defiantly up at a silently watching Ehomba.

"OnlyI was different. Only I devoured everything the wise ones muttered and mumbled, storing their knowledge within my heart as well as my head. I studied, and learned, and vowed to make a life different from theirs. A life of power and dominion over those who shunned and jeered the neanders.

"When I had learned enough, I found my way here, to Ehl-Larimar. The journey almost killed me, but I took the throne from the weakling who sat upon it and remade it in my own image. I extended my control to encompa.s.s all of the central coast. I could have done more, could have conquered farther to the north and south, but I did not. Power I'd wanted, and power I'd gained.

"Having attained so much, still I was not satisfied. Having acquired power over the real world, I sought the same over the supernatural. I immersed myself in whatever necromantic lore I could find. But nowhere did I encounter a spell that would render me human. That would make me 'normal.' On learning that there was nothing I could do to alter my ugliness in the sight of people, I resolved angrily to surround myself with beauty." Lifting his head, he nodded as well as he was able.

"The consequences of that obsession you see all around you. This castle, its furnis.h.i.+ngs, even the attendants and retainers who serve me within its walls; everything has been chosen as much for its attractiveness as for skill. It, and I, lacked only one thing: a consort. Someone to sit by my side, to be my queen. Feeling this great emptiness inside myself, I determined to seek out the most beautiful woman in the world. I found her, and took her from her lackeys and lickspittle suitors, and brought her here. A vain hope, perhaps, but I thought that given time and consideration and honor, she might come to at least tolerate, if not to love, me."

Kneeling beside him, the Visioness Themaryl took up the refrain. "He stole me away from my home and my family. My anger was boundless as the sea and the land I was carried across. I would neither converse, nor dine, nor sit with him.

"Then in the very late of one evening, when I thought the castle asleep, I stole downstairs in my endless search for a means or route of escape, and caught him slumped over his table, drunk-and unhelmeted.

At first I was repulsed. But my const.i.tution is not frail. I approached, and looked into his face that was half unconscious, and I saw the pain there." She sighed deeply, remembering.

"After that, it was different. I was cautious, and I believe that he was afraid to chance too much, but in time we came to know one another. All my life I have been courted, and promised, and drawn back from a chorus of suitors and swains that sometimes seemed to stretch from my home to the moon itself. I found them all much alike: vain, unambitious, conceited, too much in love with themselves to love another." She rested a hand on the exposed, thickly bearded chest. "Here I found something-different.

If your journey homeward should take you back through Laconda, please a.s.sure my family that I am well, and content with my lot."

Simna finally stopped laughing. Shaking his head at the irony of it all, he gave his tall companion a friendly slap on the back. "Well, that's that, I suppose. All this way to rescue a princess who doesn't want to be rescued. Let's have a look around for the treasure and then I suppose we'll be off. There's nothing to hold us here any longer." He started past the herdsman, heading for the main entrance to the audience chamber.

For the second time that remarkable night, Etjole Ehomba said, quietly but firmly, "No."

Catechist - A Triumph Of Souls Part 24

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Catechist - A Triumph Of Souls Part 24 summary

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