Catechist - A Triumph Of Souls Part 7

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But in taking her crew, the islanders had overlooked one who was not.

Something that was not even faintly human stirred in the bowels of the otherwise abandoned vessel. It had retired there in search of some peace and quiet during the raucous festivities of the night before.

Perceived as entirely inhuman by the Tiloeans who had scoured the ship from stem to stern in search of slumbering crew, it had been relegated to the category of livestock or ship's pet and subsequently ignored.

Now it stretched, yawned, and slowly made its way upward until it was standing on the main deck.

Confusion confounded it. A whole day had obviously passed, yet the detritus of the wanton celebration supplied by the faceless islanders still lay scattered everywhere about the ship. The big cat's heavy brows drew together. This was most unlike the human Captain, who experience had shown not merely favored but demanded a taut, spotless vessel.



Wandering through the quarters of officers, crew, and passengers, the black litah's unease increased as every successive cabin turned out to be as empty as the one before. Padding to the railing, it observed numerous lights onshore, indicating that while life had abandoned the ship, it was present in plenty on the nearby island. Clearly, something was seriously amiss. Not that the cat particularly cared about the individual fates of an assortment of ill-smelling, ill-bred humans, but it was painfully conscious of a still unpaid debt to one of them. Also, despite its exceptional physical abilities, it could not sail the ship by itself. For lack of an opposable thumb, it thought, many things were lost.

It was the possessor, however, of certain compensations, not the least of which was exceptional physical strength and senses that would put those of the most sensitive human to shame. Putting both massive forepaws on the railing, it pushed off the deck and plunged over the side, landing with a surprisingly modest splash in the calm black water. Powerful legs churning beneath its sleek body, it paddled steadily toward shore.

Arriving safely on a deserted beach south of the main cluster of lights, it shook itself several times.

Ignoring an inherent impulse to pause and dry itself further, it contented itself with fluffing out its magnificent black mane before heading north. Trotting along the beach with eyes and ears alert and nose held close to the ground, it inhaled an excess of odors both familiar and exotic. No stranger by now to salt water, it was able to discard quickly hundreds of natural scents as immaterial to its search. When it encountered human spoor it slowed slightly, continuing onward only when it identified the odor as unfamiliar.

When at last it intersected a shallow beach that reeked not only of one but of a number of familiar body odors, it knew it had come to the place where its friends had been brought ashore. There was neither smell nor sight of a struggle, which the cat found most peculiar. Knowing that the human Captain would not have left her ship wholly untended and therefore suspecting foul play, the litah had expected to find evidence of a fight. In the absence of such evidence, it grew, if possible, more wary than ever.

Voices approached and the litah hunkered down behind one of the small boats that had been drawn up onshore. Two figures passed, faceless like those who had come aboard the ship to participate in the human festivities. The litah could have killed them silently and easily, with a single bite to the neck of each.

But ignorance made it cautious. Not knowing what it was up against, the big cat held off doing anything that might alert the locals to its presence on their island.

Instead, it waited motionless for the two blank-visaged humans to pass. Dark as the night, it was virtually invisible in the absence of a bright moon, and the strollers did not even look in its direction. When their silhouettes and voices had faded into the distance, the litah left the beach and moved inland.

So recent and strong were the multiple smells of his friends and the crew that he was able to diverge from the actual path whenever it seemed he might pass into the open. Always picking up the scent trail after such momentary digressions, the litah soon found itself concealed within a patch of brush, eyeing the entrance to a single impressive stone structure. A quick circumnavigation of the edifice turned up no traces of his companions. Therefore it was reasonable to assume that they had been taken inside, where the spoor vanished.

Two islanders stood guard at the entrance. At the moment they were chatting with one another, relaxing beneath cloudy but otherwise clement skies. As guards their presence was more ceremonial than necessary. More than anything, they were there to attend to the needs of those fettered within should any of them become hysterical beyond the bounds of expectation or tradition.

This pair the litah slew. Not because it was unavoidable or because it felt a sudden surge of bloodlust, but because it was the quickest way to ensure their silence for as long as should be necessary. Padding through the unbarred doorway, it entered a corridor awash in darkness. Any human wandering about in such circumstances would have quickly stumbled into walls or tripped and fallen to the floor. The litah's eyesight, however, was infinitely sharper than that of any man.

Those same feline senses enabled it to locate its companions quickly. Faceless they might be, but nothing could disguise their individual odors, especially after a day and a night of struggling frantically against their bonds. Delicately employing bloodied teeth and claw and always keeping an ear alert for the sounds of approaching islanders, the litah freed them one at a time from their restraints.

Freedom brought only minimal joy to men and women who had lost their faces. It was one tall, easily recognizable individual who, exhibiting profounder perception than any of the others, caught hold of the litah's mane and led it not outside but deeper into the structure.

Turning a final corner, they confronted an elderly wise man with an impressive white beard that covered most of his otherwise vacant face. Sensing their presence, he rose from the cross-legged position in which he had been resting to brandish the ceremonial spear he held. Before he could throw it or utter a warning, he fell beneath the litah's huge paw, his neck broken and his upper spine shattered.

Behind him was a heavy wooden door. From the other side of that door arose a constant, relentless hum. It was the kind of noise a hundred subdued beehives might generate. Striding forward, the tall faceless human began to pound on the door. It was braced with double bolts and the bolts themselves secured with large padlocks.

Backing up as far as it could in a straight line, the black litah let out a reverberant roar that shook dust from the walls of the enclosed space and exploded forward. Beneath its onrushing mass, bolts, locks, and door went down together.

Beyond lay a single expansive, domed chamber. Buzzing like a million wasps, hundreds of eyes, ears, noses, and mouths rushed the sudden gap. The intruders, human and cat alike, ducked away from that torrent of fleeing lineaments.

Separating themselves from the choleric mass, six specific features slowed before the tall man. Pausing to ponder the vacant countenance-as-canvas to make certain it was the appropriate blank, they slowly drifted forward to reattach themselves to the smooth skin. The eyes went first, signaling to their fellow facial traits the correctness of the decision. Mouth followed, and then nostrils and ears, until the face of the tall man had been fully restored.

In the outer chamber other bits and pieces of individual countenance were searching out and relocating themselves on the faces from which they had been detached. It seemed impossible that every feature should find its proper owner, and there was some contentious bumping and fussing when, for example, two noses tried to fit on the same face or two ears to occupy the same side of a head. But eventually everything straightened itself out, much as individual seal pups somehow manage to find their mothers amidst tens of thousands of identical-appearing females.

Faces reinstated, the members of the ship's crew vowed to die fighting rather than surrender them again to the pernicious machinations of the islanders. The faceless bodies of the two guards lying athwart the entrance were favorably remarked upon by the escaping sailors. Arming themselves with branches of wood or pieces of stone, they made their way down toward the waterfront where the fishing boats were beached.

As it developed, there was no need to take up arms. The islanders were far too busy trying to fight off their liberated facial traits. Virtually attacking their former owners, the organs that had matured in isolation now instinctively sought to reattach themselves to visages that had never known them.

Tiloeans were seen fleeing their homes in the middle of the evening, swatting and flailing at aggressive noses and ears, their arms swinging wildly to keep persistent eyes from taking up residence in the location of former sockets. Never having known the senses that had been banished since birth, they had no idea how to cope with them. Those islanders whose ears found the right heads were stunned by the loudness a couple of convoluted slabs of flesh could convey. Others kept newly restored eyes shut tight lest they be mentally blinded by the shock of sharply outlined images delivered direct to the brain. Noses brought not satisfaction but nausea, and mouths a mindless, disconsolate wailing that began to spread all across the island-and to other islands, as freed features flocked to owners living there.

With the aid of nets and clubs, the aroused populace tediously began to bring the situation under control.

Eyes and ears were rounded up and bagged for return to the domed chamber. Stunned noses fluttered and hopped on the ground, to be recovered and placed in bags by busy, faceless children. A carnival of the grotesque was on view as Tiloeans with one eye and a mouth, or two ears and nothing else, struggled to clean up the mess engendered by the mass release of features.

Nor were the impatient, agitated organs always precise in their deployment. Stumbling along the paths and past the village, the departing crew saw men and women with ears where their eyes ought to have been, noses taking the places reserved for mouths, and individual eyes occupying the high points of faces where nostrils ought to reside. All of which contributed to the general chaos and allowed the sailors to escape unchallenged.

Commandeering several fishing boats, they rowed their way back to the waitingGromsketter. Ignoring the danger inherent in attempting to pass through close-set islands at night, the Captain ordered all sail put on. Not one of the grateful crew challenged her decision. Had she so ordered it, they would have jumped into the water in a body and pushed and kicked the heavy craft with their own hands, so frantic were they to flee that gentle, kindhearted, accursed land.

It was only when they were safely clear of the Tilo Isles and their bizarre inhabitants that the mariners took the time to note that not everything had been put back the way it had formerly been. There was some question as to which eye belonged to whom, and what lips ought rightly to reside above certain chins. This posttraumatic confusion was understandable and was soon sorted out. Personal disappointments aside, it was understood that everyone had recovered his or her rightful features, and that if anyone held any second thoughts on the matter, they were best kept to oneself, since nothing could be done in any event to further alter the current state of affairs.

What lingering discontent existed was quickly swallowed in the wave of euphoria that followed the last peak of the Tilos falling behind the horizon astern. Everyone realized they should be grateful for having had the proper complement of features returned to them. After all, everyone knows it is better to have the wrong nose than no nose at all.

There was one attempt made to honor and praise the black litah for effecting their freedom and the restoration of their countenances, but the big cat forcefully demurred. Such frivolities were time-wasting activities fit for humans, it avowed curtly, and not for nobler species like himself. Besides, it went on to explain, it was by nature already lionized, and had no need of gyrating, genuflecting humans to remind it of that fact.

But despite the cat's insistence, a few brave sailors did manage to slip in a stroke or two when it was not looking, before dashing quickly back to their posts. After a while the litah gave up trying to frighten them off, even going so far as to tolerate their accolades and attention. Once when it was being the recipient of such attention, the lankier of its human companions caught it purring thunderously to itself. Confronted with this embarrassing contradiction, the litah promptly retired below, and thereafter showed itself as little as possible except at mealtimes and when taking the occasional feline constitutional around the deck.

VII.

After the remarkable occurrences of the past week it was a relief to passengers and mariners alike to find themselves navigating a calm sea devoid of preternatural spectacles. Except for the flock of web-footed pink and white sea dragonets that glided gracefully past one morning, nothing out of the ordinary presented itself for their perusal. Life aboard ship resumed a normalcy it had not known since the Gromsketter had first cleared the mouth of the now distant Eynharrowk delta.

They were still in waters foreign to Stanager Rose and her crew, but sailing on the right course to make landfall somewhere north of the trading town of Doroune. The sometimes gruff Captain seemed pleased with their progress, and voiced aloud the hope that they would encounter no more unaccountable interruptions.

It was a false hope.

Contrary to what landsmen think, there are many kinds of fog. These are as familiar to mariners as the many varieties of wind and rain are to a farmer. There is the fog that sneaks up on a ship, scudding along the surface of the sea until it begins to cling in bits and pieces to its hull, gradually building up until it is heavy enough to creep over the bow and obscure a skipper's vision. There is fog that arrives in thick clumps like gray cotton pulled from some giant's mattress. Some fog drifts down from the sky, settling over ship and crew like a moist towel, while another fog rolls over the ocean in the proverbial bank that is more like a dark gray wall than a line of mist. There are almost as many species of fog as dog and, like dogs, each has its own peculiarities and unique identifying characteristics and habits.

There was nothing striking about the fog that began to assemble itself around theGromsketter. At first.

It announced itself as a single patch drifting out of the west, neither especially dense nor dark. Gray and damp, it floated toward the bowsprit and sailed past on the starboard side. Few of the crew paid it any heed. All of them had seen fog before, sailed through it, and come out safely on the other side.

When additional patches showed themselves later in the morning, it occasioned some comment among those on duty. The lookout in particular was concerned, and announced that they appeared to be entering a region of fairly contiguous mist. Stanager Rose directed Terious to make the usual preparations for running through cloud. These consisted of placing additional lookouts in the rigging and reefing some of the canvas. Better to go a little more slowly and be sure of what lay ahead than to charge blindly onward at full speed.

Sensing the ship slowing, her passengers came out on deck, to find themselves greeted by the congealing grayness.

Ehomba commented on the unhurried activity aloft. "You are taking in sail."

"Ayesh." They were standing on the helm deck. Stanager's attention was focused on her crew, not on curious passengers. "When general visibility's cut, a wise seaman doesn't take chances with what can't be seen. Don't want to run into anything." She smiled tersely. "Don't worry. Either this will lift or we'll plow right through it. That's the nature of sea fog."

"Run into what?" Standing at the railing, Simna was peering into the thickening gloom, struggling to penetrate the damp haze. "Another ship?"

"Possible, but most unlikely," she told him. "A floating log could do real damage, but I am more concerned with drifting ice." She squinted skyward, sighting along the mast. "As far north as the liberated winds blew us, we run the risk of encountering one of the great floating mountains of ice that sailors sometimes pass. Run hard into one and we could easily be hulled. I've no wish to be cast adrift, marooned on an island that's steadily melting beneath me."

"I'd melt beneath you."

"What's that?" Her gaze swung sharply from sky to passenger.

Turning and leaning back against the railing, Simna smiled virtuously. "I said that I felt you entreating your crew."

"Oh." Eyes narrowing, she looked away from him and back toward the main deck. "Certainly is thick.

I'd hate to wander into another group of islands like the Tilos. No way to navigate unknown straits in this. We'd have to drop anchor and wait for it to lift."

No islands presented themselves, but neither did the fog slide away. Instead, it continued to thicken, to the point where sailors could only see but a little ways in front of them, and had to do a certain amount of work by feel. It was not the density but the darkness that began to concern Stanager.

Standing by the wheel, she surveyed the brooding layer that had engulfed her ship. "Never seen fog this dark. This thick, ayesh, but never so black. And it seems to be growing worse. But that's not possible.

Fog, even the heaviest fog, is gray and not black."

Simna's eyes widened as he remembered another boat crossing. "Eromakadi!"

"What's that?" She blinked at him.

Ehomba interrupted before his companion had a chance to explain. The silent herdsman had been studying the fog for some time now. "No, Simna. It is not what you fear. Bad enough, but not what you fear." Reaching out, he swirled one long-fingered hand through the dank atmosphere. "Not thick enough to cut, but not eromakadi, either. See how I stir it?" He waved his hand back and forth. "Being a live thing, eromakadi would react. This is truly an ocean fog, and of a kind I have seen before, that rolls in off the ocean as easily as it clings to it." He looked over at Stanager, partially obscured by the black fog even though she stood only a few feet away.

"But on land, it does not linger. And a man carrying a lamp through his village does not have to worry about running into floating logs or drifting mountains of ice." He smiled encouragingly. "Only into sleeping dogs and laughing children."

"This is no game." Her expression was grim. "If it gets any thicker or darker, my people won't be able to see well enough to perform their duties." Without being able to see him, she shouted to her first mate, knowing that he was somewhere below on the main deck. "Mr. Kamarkh! Light and set all lamps! And be careful! A burning ship will cut through this fog, but that's not the kind of light I want to see!"

"Ayesh, Captain!" came the mate's stalwart reply.

Moments later, pinpoints of light began to appear throughout the ship: in the rigging, at the ends of spars, atop both masts and along her sides. But so dense and dark had the mist become that they barely shone bright enough to illuminate their immediate surroundings, much less the water through which the Gromsketter was cutting.

"This won't do," Stanager muttered. "Lookouts can't see a thing. Even if they did, it'd be too close to avoid. We're going to have to furl all sail and put out the sea anchor until this thins or lifts."

"That will cost us time." Ehomba did not phrase it as a question.

"Ayesh. But I've no choice." She stared at him through the gloom. "I won't risk my ship."

"How long do you think before it clears enough to continue?" Simna asked.

Her response was not encouraging. "Impossible to say. Something this intense, it might be days. Or weeks."

"We do not have weeks," Ehomba observed quietly.

"I know. I hope you gentlemen like fish, because if we're forced to remain here for very long, we're going to be eating a lot of it." She turned away from them to give the necessary orders.

"Wait."

Her gaze swung back to the tall passenger. "Wait for what, herdsman? I respect you for what you've done, but don't try to tell me my business."

"I would not think of it. It is only that I would like to try something." He glanced in his friend's direction.

"Simna, would you bring me the sky-metal sword?"

"Would I like to be locked in the Pasha of Har-Houseen's harem for a week?" Elated, the swordsman dashed to the nearest hatch and vanished within as swiftly as a meerkat diving into its burrow.

Stanager eyed her enigmatic passenger warily. "More wind? Should I alert the crew to be ready for some sorceral gale?"

Ehomba sighed heavily. "As I have had to tell my friends repeatedly, there is no sorcery involved. I am only making use of what the wise people of my village have been kind enough to provide me."

"I'm only interested in the consequences, Etjole. Not the source."

"There will be no wind." He smiled to himself. "Simna is a good man and a fine fellow, but sometimes his enthusiasm gets the better of his thinking. The sword of sky metal is not for calling up a casual breeze when one is too hot, or a gust of wind to fill a sail. When loosed to do all that it can, it is an extremely difficult blade to control." He nodded skyward. "It might as easily sink this ship as blow it free. But there are all kinds of winds. Eminent sailor that you are, you know that there are winds within the sea as well as above."

"Winds within the sea?" She frowned. "Are you speaking of controlling the currents?"

"I am not mariner enough to chance such a thing, and the effects of the sword are not so precisely controlled. But I think there is one path I might explore." His smile widened even as his tone grew increasingly speculative. "It is a good thing that I have lived all my life close to the water. One does not have to spend time on a boat to know what wonders lie beneath the waves. Simply walking a beach can also be highly instructive."

He was interrupted by Simna's return. The swordsman held the sky-metal sword carefully in a double-handed grip. Having seen what it could do, he had no wish to find out what might happen if it was accidentally dropped.

"Here you are, bruther!" He passed the sword to its owner. "Now, by Geulrashk, call us up some wind and disperse this muck! Clear the air, Etjole!" Eyes shining, he stepped back.

"I cannot," Ehomba told him. "Too dangerous. A ship is a fragile thing. We already have enough wind.

What we need is a way to see clear to making use of it."

"Gojom help me, I don't understand, bruther." It was a sentence Simna ibn Sind had come to use frequently in the presence of his enigmatic friend.

Grasping the hilt of the sword firmly in both hands, Ehomba slowly raised it skyward in front of him, the blade held vertically and as straight as one of theGromsketter 's masts. An intense blue glow began to emerge from the metal, pale at first but intensifying rapidly to azure and then indigo. It pushed back the fog instantly-but only for a few yards on either side of the radiant sword.

Expecting something grander, Simna was openly disappointed. As for Stanager, she was quietly grateful for the modest improvement in the clarity of her immediate surroundings. At least the men and women on deck and up in the rigging would be able to see her without straining. Down by the mainmast, a seated Hunkapa Aub saw the blue luminescence and delightedly clapped two massive hands together.

"Pretty light!" he exclaimed in the tone of a delighted child. "Pretty, pretty blueness!"

"It's pleasing to look upon, all right." Simna grunted. "But it's no beacon sufficient to guide this ship."

"No, it is not. Nor is it intended to be. But perhaps like will follow like." Holding the resplendent sword as carefully as if it were a cauldron of boiling oil, Ehomba turned and slowly made his way to the side of the ship, trailing the gently pulsating blue aurora around him.

One of the several emergency boarding ladders that always hung over the side scraped wetly against the stern. Still holding the blade vertically, Ehomba transferred his grip to one hand. With the other, he grasped the uppermost rung of the rope-and-slat ladder and started over the side. It was a delicate balancing act that did not allow the herdsman to relax for a second.

"Hoy, Etjole, what do you think you're doing?" Seeing his friend disappear over the side, Simna rushed to the railing. Leaning over, he watched as Ehomba, carefully balancing the length of refulgent metal in a single-handed grip, made his way down the ladder toward the dark sea below. Only the circle of blue light from the blade made it possible for the swordsman to follow his friend's progress. Without it, the frightful thickness of the mist would have quickly swallowed him up.

"What's going on?" Though intensely curious as to what the tall passenger was about, Stanager would not abandon her position by the helm.

"I don't know." Tensely, the swordsman watched his friend continue his descent. "But I can tell you this much-he's not out for an afternoon's swim."

The bottom of the ladder trailed backward in the dark water. Ehomba reached a rung where his feet were occasionally submerged and stopped there. Still firmly grasping the tough, sea-cured rope with one hand, he abruptly let gravity take hold of the mass of the weapon and swing the point downward.

Keeping the fine edge facing forward, he was able to maintain his grip as the blade cut through the water.

The deep blue radiance was clearly visible beneath the surface.

Catechist - A Triumph Of Souls Part 7

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Catechist - A Triumph Of Souls Part 7 summary

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