Catechist - A Triumph Of Souls Part 26

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"This is where the Naumkib come from, Daki." Raising an arm, Ehomba swept it before him in an expansive gesture to take in all that there was to be seen. "Too long ago to remember, our people settled here and built this place. They acc.u.mulated boundless knowledge and untold riches."

The youth looked up at him. "What happened to them?"

Ehomba patted his son on the shoulder. "When one feels one has no more to accomplish, the next thing one attains is boredom. The Naumkib abandoned this place. In ones and twos, in groups and in families, they scattered to the far corners of the world. Gradually they mingled with other peoples, and became one with them, and were content. Only a few remained behind."

"Us," the boy realized. "The people of the village."

"Yes. To not forget is a great responsibility. A legacy must be looked after, Daki. Not necessarily expanded upon, or exploited, but looked after." He started forward. "Now come, and I will show you more of yours."

They spent the remainder of the day exploring the deserted towers, and the great library, and the majestic arenas of knowledge. Daki marveled at the walls of solid gold, and the gemstone utensils the vanished inhabitants had left behind in their silent kitchens. Together, father and son turned the pages of ancient tomes bound in sheets of solid ruby, chosen not for its beauty but for its strength and ability to protect the far more valuable paper pages that lay between those crimson covers. They visited the observatory, with its telescopes still pointed at an especially large crack in the roof of the enormous cavern, and its congruent cupola with the ceiling that showed innumerable constellations fas.h.i.+oned from all manner of precious stones.

A captivated Daki did not want to leave, but Ehomba had to insist. "Your mother will be angry at us both if we are late," he reminded his son as they began the long hike back to the tunnel.

"Is this where you found the answers to all the questions you keep asking, Father?" the boy asked as they ascended wide stairs of marble and agate and sparkling goldenstone.

"No, Daki. This is where I find only more questions. I promise you: Someday, when you are a little older, we will come back here, as all men and women of Naumkib must, and you will find, whether you want to or not, many questions of your own."

The youth considered this reply as they ascended. Then he nodded slowly, hoping that he understood.

"Does it have a name, this place? Or is it just called Naumkib?"

"We call ourselves the Naumkib," his father replied. "The ancient city and place of learning is, and always has been, known as Damura-sese." He smiled as they neared the entrance to the tunnel. Mirhanja would have supper ready, and he was hungry. "The rest of the world knows it as a story, a rumor, hearsay. We keep it that way."

Daki picked up one of the torches they had left behind. "Part of our legacy?"

"Yes, son. Part of our legacy. A little secret of the Naumkib."

"But not the only one," the boy observed, displaying the wisdom for which his family was noted.

"No, Daki. Not the only one."

Etjole Ehomba, who was an honorable man, made his way with his son back out of the celebrated lost city, whose riches lay not in its fabulous trappings but in the learning it held, and back to the modest house by the sea, where as he had sworn to his friend Simna ibn Sind he was no more a renowned sorcerer than any man or woman of his village, be they herder of cattle, hewer of wood, thresher of grain or sc.r.a.per of hides.

About the Author.

ALAN DEAN FOSTER is the author of more than eighty books, including sixteenNew York Times bestsellers. Among his works areCarnivores of Light and Darkness, Into the Thinking Kingdoms, The Dig , and the Spellsinger and Flinx series. A world traveler, Mr. Foster lives in Arizona.

More Alan Dean Foster!

Please read on for a bonus excerpt fromKINGDOMS OF LIGHT * * *

FAR from the inaccessible canyon that protected the ramparts of the besieged fortress Malostranka, farther still from the ravaging host that was the Horde, deep within the ancient forest of Fasna Wyzel, a small troop of heavily armed men and women was wending its way toward a river. No homes graced its sparkling, no neat gardens were set carefully back from its steeply sloping banks. The depths of the Fasna Wyzel were a place of mystery, of robust rumors and ancient tales twice told. People went in, and sometimes came out, but on no account did they linger. The forest was too dark, too dense, too full of hollows and hedges where eyes peeped out at intrepid pa.s.sers-by and teeth flashed when the sun fell the wrong way.

No fear of the latter now, mused an introspective Captain Slale. Green as it was once, the forest, like the rest of the world, had descended into gloomy grayness thanks to the all-encompa.s.sing Mundurucu hex.

The birds that still sang in its trees, albeit fitfully and without enthusiasm, were tiny sad b.a.l.l.s of dingy fluff.

The other creatures who called the Fasna Wyzel home were little better off. Only the squirrels, charcoal to light gray of color before the application of the spell, could now revel in their natural griminess, and they chose not to do so. Since the coming of the Horde, the world was no longer a happy place, and the forest no exception.

Even the normally clear river, where the line of glum-faced soldiers turned off the main trail and headed upstream, had been reduced to a rush and gurgle of irritating drabness. No lights flashed from the small cataracts in its midst. Even the cheerful frogs had been mortified into silence by the persisting dearth of color.

In the absence of trail, Slale relied on the instructions he had received at Malostranka from the dejected minor wizard who had been one of those who had spirited the deceased Evyndd's body out of Kyll-Bar-Bennid ahead of the triumphant Horde. If these were correct, they should be very close now to their intended destination. Not that it mattered to him if they missed their goal. Nothing mattered anymore except killing as many of the enemy as possible. While serving in the defense of Kyll-Bar-Bennid, his own homeland had been overrun by the outriders of the Horde, the fine home that had been in his family for centuries had been burned to the ground, and his family, his wife and two sons ...

He concentrated on finding a path through the trees. They grew close together here, so near the nouris.h.i.+ng river. Moss hung from branches and sprouted like gray fur from the trunks of seasoned boles.

Invigorated by the absence of normal light, monstrous mushrooms and toadstools and liverworts clambered wildly over fallen logs and old stumps. Except for the unquenchable rumble of the river, the forest was unnaturally silent, as if its inhabitants had been ma.s.sively overdosed with some powerful tranquilizing agent. Slale wished for some such medicine himself. It might help him not to think so much.

Thinking was dangerous, as it led inexorably to remembrance.

"There it is, sir." A weary, perspiring sergeant-of-arms rose partway in his saddle and pointed. Slale could see the house, too, peeping through the trees. He was quietly relieved. They would, it seemed, be able to do what they had come for, deliver the contents of the silver box to the domicile that lay just ahead, and return by the secret way to Malostranka. He imagined the Princess Petrine would be pleased.

He hoped so. Very little pleased her these days. Even as small and insignificant a success as this would be welcomed. In that respect, he supposed, the troop's long journey was not a waste, even if he continued personally to think otherwise.

The house in the forest was surprisingly large, and of unusual design. But that was to be expected. The rear half appeared to have been hewn from the solid rock of an immense pile of boulders, while the front rose as high as three stories beneath the many-gabled thatched roof. Mullioned windows of stained gla.s.s greatly diminished by grayness gazed out across river and woods. The forest had been cleared away in front, and a small yard filled with diverse flowers would normally have greeted visitors with a carpet of color. Now their manifold petals hung low, drowned by the all-encompa.s.sing grayness.

As they approached the entrance, a dog ran out to greet them. He was of medium size, a wirehaired male who was nothing less than an energetic ma.s.s of textbook muttness. There wasn't a straight hair on his body, his tail curled back up over his rear end, and the tongue hanging out of the side of his mouth was splotched with black. Dark, lively eyes gazed inquiringly up at the tired visitors, and his whole countenance bespoke a nature that was ever sunny and alert. It raised the spirits of several of the disillusioned soldiers just to look upon this four-legged bundle of homey cheer. As the troop continued toward the house, the dog uttered a few desultory warning barks, but his heart was clearly not in it. The soldiers sensed this, and smiled. They, too, had often spent long hours on guard, with nothing to show for their efforts.

"Easy there, boy. What's the matter-you hungry?" From the heights of his saddle it was too far for Slale to reach down and pet the animal. Instead, he smiled and spoke softly, and was rewarded with toothy grin and wagging tail. The captain did not feel sorry for the abandoned dog. The life it led was doubtless better than his own.

"Dessevia," he ordered a soldier, "as soon as we're inside, see if you can find this poor friendly mongrel something to eat." It was the least they could do, he reflected, for a loyal animal whose master the visitors were bringing home in a box.

Once inside the rustic outer gate, they dismounted. Leaving half his troop to keep an eye on the horses and the forest, Slale and his remaining soldiers warily approached the house of Susnam Evyndd. The dog trotted alongside, long tongue lolling loose from the side of its mouth, spittle flecking the paving stones, eyes intent on these strange new visitors. With the silent abode looming before him, the good captain wished for the presence and advice of even a lowly wizardly apprentice, but it had been felt that none could be spared from Malostranka. The idea of entering the house of a powerful sorcerer, even a compa.s.sionate dead one, had not appealed to him from the start.

Yet there was nothing to be done but to do it, and if crossing the threshold uninvited caused him to be turned instantly into a newt, then at least he would be spared forevermore the unforgettable images of his ravaged home and defiled family that had been seared into his brain.

As his soldiers crowded tentatively close behind him he tried the front door, only slightly unnerved by the strange shapes that seemed to be swirling within the stained gla.s.s that flanked the entry. It opened at his touch, and he stepped inside. Nothing happened, except that the dog ran past him to vanish into the depths of the house. He and his troops were not blasted from the face of the earth, or transmogrified into vermin. He sighed, not entirely with relief.

"Come on," he ordered simply. "We might as well follow the dog." Clutching their weapons tightly and keeping close together, wary men and women followed in a tight knot close behind their captain.

Slale was not surprised when the animal led him straight to the kitchen. He did start slightly when he felt something rubbing up against his leg. Glancing down, he was relieved to see that it was only a very muscular black cat of average size. She had white spots on her muzzle and feet, and did not appear to be in any immediate danger of starvation.

"Must be plenty of rats and mice in a forest house like this, kitty. I expect you're better off than the dog." Reaching down, he stroked her absently, and she purred forth a grateful response. "Dessevia, Koscka; see if you can find something for these unfortunate creatures to eat." The two soldiers obediently began to poke through the mult.i.tude of cabinets, only too grateful for the duty. While the cupboards through which they were now searching might indeed contain food, they might also hold precious objects small enough for a sharp-eyed soldier to slip into a pocket.

Disappointed, they found only moldering food, utensils fas.h.i.+oned of base metals, and eventually, a bin marked "food for animals." The dog was almost hysterically grateful for the feed they gave it, and though they appeared well enough, the three cats who had one by one emerged from the hidden depths of the house readily joined in the feast.

The canary in the elaborate cage that hung near a far window was in more desperate need of sustenance, which the grumbling soldiers also provided. Unexpectedly, one let out a yell and nearly knocked his companion down in his sudden haste to escape the farthest corner of the kitchen, where a large wired crate sat upon a st.u.r.dy shelf among pots and bins. Instantly, weapons were drawn to deal with this new threat.

Sword in hand, the terrified soldier hovered halfway between his captain and whatever it was he had espied in the farthest reaches of the kitchen.

"What is it, Dessevia?" Slale asked tersely. Staring in the direction from which the shout had originated, he saw nothing.

"A serpent, sir! A bleeding great hideous nasty serpent!"

"It is said that wizards often keep dangerous familiars close about them," someone whispered from near the back of the invaded kitchen.

"True enough, but such sorceral servants are usually drawn from the ranks of cats and sometimes dogs, which creatures we have found here in plenty." An amateur scholar of some knowledge, Slale was proud of his book learning. "A sorcerer might keep a serpent to utilize in other ways."

Cautiously, the point of his own sword preceding him, he advanced in the direction of the cage.

Oblivious to the slow approach of the uneasy soldiery, the canary had begun to sing as it cracked and swallowed the seed they had placed in its cage.

It was a snake of a type Slale recognized: impressive in appearance, it was as long as a man was tall, and of substantial girth. It lay coiled peacefully within a tightly lidded cage of gla.s.s, eyeing them out of small dark red eyes, its tongue flicking continuously in their direction.

Relieved, the captain put up his sword. "Be at ease, gentlemen and ladies. The creature is secured within its pen, and cannot get out. Furthermore, it is one of those serpents that kills by embracing its prey, and not with poison."

"You be certain of that, Captain?" The tremulous query originated with a trooper named Taree, a simple but brave swordswoman who had managed to escape the havoc that had befallen Kyll-Bar-Bennid.

"Yes. I recognize the kind." Slale stood a little straighter, his voice taking on a tone of self-importance. "I have seen such creatures depicted in a book."

The soldiers murmured softly, those who were not inherently terrified of serpents or books crowding closer for a better look. It was indeed a handsome snake, with large diamondlike patterns running down the length of its back and sides. What its natural colors might be they could only imagine: the Mundurucu hex had reduced its scaly coloration to the same sad state of washed-out gray as now dominated the rest of the world.

"I wonder if it's as hungry as these others?" the trooper commented, immediately regretting giving voice to his curiosity. His comrades were not hesitant in responding.

"Why don't you try feeding it and find out?" The suggestion from the back of the crowded kitchen sparked a minor but much needed outburst of laughter.

"Snakes of this kind need to be fed only rarely." Turning away from the cage and its inquisitive but slow-moving occupant, Slale surveyed the rest of the kitchen. "This is as good a place as any to do what we came for, I suppose. Bring forth the box."

The soldiers who had been charged with transporting the silver crate promptly wrestled it forward and set it down in front of the basin that was used for the was.h.i.+ng and cleaning of food. Being forced to look after it all the way from Malostranka had left them with a less than sanguine opinion of its bulk, not to mention its contents.

Approaching the crate, Slale bent to unfasten the straps that secured it. Removing the lid, he gestured to his soldiers. From the midst of thick horsehair packing, they removed a smaller container. Simply fas.h.i.+oned of silver inlaid with an a.s.sortment of attractive but in no way remarkable semiprecious stones, they set it gently on the st.u.r.dy wooden table that dominated the center of the room. It lay there waist-high, the silver s.h.i.+ning dully in the muted, cursed gray light as if relieved to be free of its prison. In unblighted sunlight the carnelians and agates, amethysts and citrines that decorated its sides would have twinkled brightly. But there was no such liveliness in them now. They were as subdued as the rest of the world, reduced to lackl.u.s.ter lumps of rock that, like everything else, had been smothered by the Mundurucu hex.

Using his thumbs, Slale carefully pushed the two heavy latches in opposite directions and then lifted the hinged lid to reveal an inner nest of plush satin. In natural light this would have been a bright, regal red.

Now it was only a wan pillowed mush. A double handful of dust reposed in a covered crystal bowl-all that remained of the venerable sorcerer Susnam Evyndd.

In accordance with wizardly tradition, the sorrowful mages who had spirited his corpse safely out of Kyll-Bar-Bennid had cremated his body upon reaching the safety of the fortress Malostranka. The remains, much reduced in volume from the original, had been preserved in the silver box. There it had been decided, by the most knowledgeable among the scholars of wizardry present, that the ashes ought properly and in the absence of any other instructions for their disposal be returned to their owner's last known place of habitation to be scattered among his possessions. This also was in keeping with sorceral tradition.

Why this need be done, a number of the soldiers had grumbled on more than one occasion during the long march through the Fasna Wyzel, they could not imagine. Theirs was not to understand, however, but to do. At least they had been given the command of a rational, perceptive officer. Slale was no pompous a.s.s, no rich n.o.ble's ambitious progeny, drunk on decorations and ribbons, but a real soldier: one the men and women under him could identify with.

"What now, Captain?" Sergeant Hyboos looked on impatiently, anxious to be away from the daunting house of magic and back to the fighting. Every hand was needed in the defense of the fortress, and they were most certainly wasting their time here. Meowing hopefully, a long-haired blond cat was rubbing up against his ankle. He ignored it until, meowing rather more forcefully, it began to dig its claws into his lower leg. He pushed it away with his other foot, ignoring it when it hissed at him softly. No one had time to comfort or caress.h.i.+m . People were suffering, and he had no time for animals.

"I'm not sure, Hyboos. The scholar Popelkas gave no detailed instructions. 'Scatter the ashes in the house' was all I was told." Glancing at the sergeant, seeing the anxious, expectant faces of the rest of the troop, the good captain shrugged, picked up the bowl, removed the cut crystal lid, pursed his lips, and blew.

A cloud of gray ash erupted from the interior of the gleaming bowl to swirl and dissipate throughout the gray-toned kitchen. It was very fine ash, the cremators having done their task efficiently (as well they ought, having lately had all too many opportunities to practice their craft). It seemed to hang briefly in the still air of the high-ceilinged room, scattered only by the vigor of the captain's forceful exhalation. Then it began to sift down, until drifting particles of dead sorcerer could no longer be distinguished from the omnipresent acc.u.mulated dust of household inattention.

Slale waited hopefully, as did his troops, gazing anxiously at their surroundings. The l.u.s.terless sun continued to pour through the tall kitchen windows. The scruffy dog continued to crunch single-mindedly at his refilled food bowl. Cats moved silently, or claimed for their temporary territory muted patches of gray daylight. A single querulous meow ruffled the stillness. In its cage the canary chirped once from its perch and was still.

Among the silent, a.s.sembled troops, someone finally made a rude noise. The ensuing reflected only a moderate degree of discouragement. No one had really expected anything to happen.

"Let's get out of here." Frustrated and disappointed, Slale turned and directed the soldiers to pick up the valuable box and bowl. These he consigned to the care of those unlucky ones who had escorted it all the way from Malostranka. Grateful to be at last on their way, the soldiers thus charged offered no fresh objection to this duty. Who knew what might happen between house and fortress? One or two of the gemstones set in the sides of the box might inadvertently manage to work their way free of their restraining bezels.

Peaceful though it was in the dwelling's vicinity, none of the soldiers desired to linger. In more cheerful times they might have felt differently. Trapped as they were in the gloom of the hex, with the threat of final conquest by the Horde looming over all of them, they wished only to return to Malostranka to partic.i.p.ate in the defense of the fortress. There was no time to lie by the side of the singing stream, luxuriating in its enforced drabness, on gra.s.s drained as gray and lifeless as the ashes they had just scattered inside the house.

The dog saw them off, his whiskery terrier countenance giving him the aspect of a sorrowful beggar afflicted with a mustache too big for his face. For a moment, Slale thought the animal might follow.

Another time, he might have encouraged the friendly mongrel to do so. Not now. At Malostranka there was food enough only for those able to fight. A last look back, when the residence was nearly out of sight, showed that the dog had gone back inside. He hoped they had left it food enough until some friend or relative of the dead wizard thought to pay a visit to the house. Twisting in his saddle, he turned his gaze and his thoughts firmly to the path ahead. They were done with this honorable but frivolous mission, and he was anxious to be out of these endless woods and back to the fortress.

The house of Susnam Evyndd fell behind, until it was lost to sight among the trees. Despondent birds flitted between the ma.s.sive boles, too dejected by their dismal surroundings to sing. Forest animals crept listlessly from den to food. In the slow eddies of the river, even the fish swam with manifest despair, barely able to muster enough enthusiasm to chase tadpoles or water bugs. A pair of dun-colored unicorns cropped absently at a purpleberry bush, their actions motivated more by instinct than actual hunger. Melancholy suffused the wood like fog and dripped from the eyes of its manifold denizens like tears.

But within the gabled house of one dead wizard, something was stirring.

It caught the attention of Oskar the dog, who had recently bid an uncomprehending farewell to the strange humans who had paid an all too fleeting visit to the humanless home. Closely resembling an ambulatory ma.s.s of dirty steel wool, the inquisitive mutt found himself sniffing curiously at a corner of the kitchen where a small pile of dust had acc.u.mulated. To his slightly addled canine mind, it smelled oh so very faintly of the intimately familiar. Atop the kitchen worktable, a slightly built calico cat caught in the process of cleaning its paws paused to watch.

The perplexed Oskar sniffed again, more deeply this time. What his doggy mind decided could not be known, but his reaction was easily deciphered. Some of the dust went up his nose, whereupon he let out an impressive and reverberant sneeze that echoed throughout the otherwise silent house.

At which point he unexpectedly found himself gazing at the world from a significantly different vantage point.

He still stood on all fours, but very different fours they were. He was more naked than even when his master had taken to shaving him in antic.i.p.ation of the hottest months of the summer. Gray-tinged bare flesh met his startled gaze. Sitting back, he found his head and upper body rising of their own accord, until he was standing, yesstanding, on his two hind legs. His eyes looked down at the world from a height considerably greater than before. Stunned quite beyond anything in his open, good-natured experience, he let out a howl of surprise.

Catechist - A Triumph Of Souls Part 26

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Catechist - A Triumph Of Souls Part 26 summary

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