WELCOME TO THE THIRD SUNDAY BLOG CARNIVAL
FOR AUGUST 19, 2012!
[You can read Chapters 2-8 at my Labors of Ki'shto'ba Huge-Head blog, but I decided to post Chapter 22 here where I think more people will find it. This is a very funny chapter and if you can resist it ...well, you have no sense of humor! It shows Za'dut our trickster and A'zhu'lo the twin of Ki'shto'ba as they undertake to steal the na'ka'fi'zi -- the Holy Stone Image that keeps the fortress of Thel'or'ei safe (equivalent to the Palladium -- the statue of Pallas Athena that protected the citadel of Troy). The "magic skins" mentioned at the beginning are solar-powered thermal blankets that Kaitrin Oliva gave to Ki'shto'ba and Di'fa'kro'mi before they set out on their quest to help keep them warm and cool. It developed that these blankets also have the property of suppressing the big termites' bioelectric fields that make them perceptible to their fellows (thus functioning as the time-honored "cloaks of invisibility").]
On a warm, starlit evening with no moons shining to aid the sight of watchful Alates, the Tricky Lizard and the Twin of Ki’shto’ba, accoutered in the magic skins, set out on their mission. A’zhu’lo’s skin fit well enough with a little tucking down the middle, but Za’dut’s had to be folded in half crosswise because my wings are so much longer than a Worker’s body; and it had to be doubled under at the edges and tied on, because it had no leg holes like Ki’shto’ba’s. It made a rather clumsy package, even covering most of Za’dut’s head, with the antennae sticking out comically from under the edges, but extensive practice had rendered Za’dut adept at managing it.
We said goodbye to them with care, uncertain whether they would ever return. Ki’shto’ba was anxious, I am sure, although it hid it well.
Twa’sei said, “I could go with you. I am very quick and small and hard to notice.”
Za’dut whirled its antennae. “And weak and helpless, too. A Grower! How much stone can you carry?”
“I am not helpless!” said Twa’sei. “I used to cart big loads of fungus around. I could do a lot more than anyone thinks. I still have not had my adventure.”
Ki’shto’ba patted its helper’s belly comfortingly. “Do not be upset, little one. Your place is with me, helping me worry about our reckless friends. Is that not an important task? There will be plenty of adventures for all of us, if what Ju’mu tells us about its homeland is the truth.”
Wei’tu said to A’zhu’lo, “It is you and not your twin who will perform the wonder in this land, good Companion.”
But A’zhu’lo said, “It will not be a wonder, or worth remembering. It is simply something that has to be done and I was the luckless one fated to do it.”
I took Za’dut aside. “I never know exactly what you intend, dut’zei|, but if you abandon A’zhu’lo or get it in more trouble than is necessary, you will pay for it somehow.”
Za’dut scuffed its claws. “I am crushed, kind Remembrancer. Do you think I have no scruples at all? Well, perhaps I do not! But I do have feelings. I think you alone know that, Di’fa’kro’mi.”
I did know that, and I gave it a cuff on the head and sent them both off.
* * *
Now, Chi’mo’a’tu, now I am going to try that different narrative technique again! We will see what you think of it this time.
In order to stay out of sight as long as possible, Za’dut and A’zhu’lo passed down the shbu’cha’zei| siege line toward the west until they reached the swampy margin of the river, which was heavily grown with sweet grass and shbis’mu|. They tried to move speedily, heading for the place where the perimeter wall intersected the apron of the fortress, but the thick vegetation made for slow going. They had agreed to speak as little as possible and to communicate frequently by touch. The magic skins suppressed their perception of each other as effectively as others’ of them.
However, suddenly A’zhu’lo exclaimed, “Ouch!”
“What? Keep still!” said Za’dut.
“Something stung my posterior.”
Simultaneously, Za’dut hopped in the air. “tha’sask|>|| There are still shto’ug’zei| above ground on this mucky shore! Maybe that will hurry us up!”
They tried to scamper, but quick movement was next to impossible. They continually had to shake off the biters; the ground was soggy and the leaf-edges of the shbis’mu| were sharp as a mandible. They were not sorry to reach the area below the wall, where the growth had been cleared. Here they paused, sensing the hulking rampart above them, knowing that Warriors roamed the top of it and that there might also be Star-Winged sentries there.
“What is the matter now?” asked A’zhu’lo.
Za’dut was wriggling frantically. “I have a to’ug’zei| under the magic skin. It is burrowing between my thorax and the first belly segment!”
“Into the water! It might flush it out.”
They made a dash for it and plunged into the river at their left. The bank was sharply cut, but the depth was only about the length of a Shi. There was a considerable current, but fortunately they had trained not only in stagnant pools but in the flowing river. In spite of this preparation, they had to paddle desperately to keep afloat – and then an undertow banged them into the apron’s buttress, which was rooted in the bed of the river.
They succeeded in maneuvering around the buttress, clinging to it with their claws. On the other side they surfaced, swinging dripping antennae to orient themselves. Locating the bank, they hauled themselves up by grabbing hold of bis’mu| roots.
“Wonderful! I lost it!” said Za’dut, contorting its body.
“Lost what?” said A’zhu’lo, sprawled heaving on its belly.
“The biter, you idiot!”
“Whew! That is not an experience I want to repeat often!”
“Well, you will have to do it once more, and with a heavy bag in tow, and against the current!”
A’zhu’lo huffed, water squirting from its spiracles. They checked their gear, adjusted straps, felt out their surroundings. The flank of the fortress itself stretched away to the left, the apron to the right. There was no sign of any guards on the ground. Za’dut gloated.
The shore sloped upward steeply and was covered with young shoots of ti’re| and old waterlogged shbis’mu| bushes. They climbed to the wall and worked themselves along it.
“Where is the culvert opening in relation to this point?” asked A’zhu’lo.
“I have no idea.”
“You have no idea?”
“No! I came only half a length out of it! But it does not matter! When we exit, we simply remember to bear to the left!”
“What if it is on the other side of the postern where we first entered Thel’or’ei? If we bear left, we will run into the guards!”
“Uh … I truly do not think it is. Trust me, A’zhu’lo! I have a Builder’s instincts!” To forestall further discussion of this discomfiting topic, Za’dut continued hastily, “A’zhu’lo, will you defecate for me?”
“Defecate! I want to smear Da’no’no Shshi dung on my scent glands. You may not smell exactly like a thel’or’ei’zei|, but you smell more like one than I do! I do not want anyone to know who was in the shrine, but if I had dabbed myself before we left, the river would have washed me clean. Will you hurry up?”
Infuriated, A’zhu’lo retorted, “I am trying! Why did you not warn me about this? I would have eaten more and closer to when we left.”
When this annoying diversion was completed, Za’dut said, “Let us begin to climb here.”
“One place is as good as another. It is all up and ends at the top.”
A’zhu’lo huffed again. They searched out chinks between the building stones, dug in their claws, and began to climb.
“This is very steep,” said A’zhu’lo. “How can you Builders do this all the time?”
“I have no idea. But Warriors have superior muscles and formidable claws, although not quite so hooked as a proper Builder’s. Have courage, my valiant Da’no’no Companion!”
A’zhu’lo muttered some unintelligible imprecations. They continued to climb. It was joint-numbing work and occasionally they stopped to rest, clinging with one set of claws at a time. At length they sensed odors above and they slowed, feeling their way cautiously.
“What is this?” said A’zhu’lo, groping with its antennae. “The wall projects outward!”
“The edge of the first terrace. tha’sask|>|| I did not know it overhung the lower part of the wall!”
“It seems to me you did not know anything!”
“Bosh! This is not a real obstacle! Stick your claws into the mortar and pull yourself up!”
“Help! I am swinging free!”
“Hush your antennae! Pull up your belly!”
“tha’sask|>|| My head is heavier than your whole puny body!”
But they both managed to pull themselves over the rim and fall in a heap on the inside. With the luck of the neophyte, they found no guards nearby. They lay very still, getting their breaths, monitoring their surroundings.
Then they both detected a sentry approaching. “This way!” hissed Za’dut, and they scrambled to crouch against the inner wall. A single guard passed by, walking close to the battlement. It hesitated, cast about as if it sensed something it could not identify, then passed on, satisfied that nothing was amiss.
They both relaxed in relief, then Za’dut said, “Up again!”
A’zhu’lo projected a desperate sizzle and began to climb. “You said, my short-thinking comrade, that this way would be easier than mounting the inside of the culvert.”
“Well, perhaps I was wrong, but I still think going in one way and out another is a good idea. And there was the problem of tracking in filth. Now keep climbing!”
“And what else can I do, pray tell?”
The size of the building stones was growing smaller; the higher Builders have to climb during the construction of an edifice, the less they can carry. This made it easier for the climbers to find places to hook their claws. They discovered a good many plants and vines growing in the chinks, bespeaking a lack of wall maintenance in the besieged fortress. There were also some alarming cracks and gaps between the stones, some of which even seemed to have fallen out.
“The groundquakes,” said Za’dut. “I think this impregnable fortress is much less sound than it appears.”
They reached the second terrace. The overhang there was not so extreme and they had less trouble getting over it – only to tumble into the midst of a flock of shza’zei| that were being stabled out-of doors. With them were two Herders, both of whom were sleeping obliviously a short distance away. Fortunately, shza’zei| cannot speak (if their primitive antennae emit any kind of sending, Shshi cannot detect it), so there was nothing to wake the Herders. But all Little Ones have eyes and they immediately swarmed around these two interlopers in great curiosity, poking them with their antennae and trying to climb on them. To make things worse, the Thieves began to sense the approach of a guard some distance away. Desperate, they made a break for it, scattering the Little Ones in all directions, and bolted up the wall.
They continued to the third level where to their great relief they found no guards, no shza’zei|, and no adventure, and they began the final ascent to the eye at the top of the sacred shrine of Thel’or’ei.
They reached it and snuffled around, clinging to the edge of the hole. The wall here was made of smooth dressed stone and was very sheer.
“I think there is nobody inside,” said Za’dut. “I expected that.”
“I thought perhaps Ta’hat’a’pai would be waiting for us,” said A’zhu’lo.
“I did not. If her Seeing told her we are coming, she will be sure to be somewhere very public, like the Holy Chamber, so nobody can suspect her of … What?”
“Za’dut, you idiot! You said the hole was big enough!”
“Is it not?” said Za’dut in alarm.
“I say again, you forgot I have a Da’no’no Shshi Warrior’s head! My cranium will not begin to pass through this hole!”
Za’dut shoved A’zhu’lo aside and thrust its own head into the hole. It fit with room to spare. It turned and began to feel the head of A’zhu’lo, who twitched and wriggled away.
“Stop pawing me, you dolt!”
“Put your belly in first.”
“What good would that do? I would be left hanging by my head like a stopper in a water vessel!”
“That is humorous to contemplate! Can you not wriggle … ?
“tha’sask|>|| The head of a Warrior is like a stone! You cannot wriggle it – it is not flexible!”
There was a moment of wordlessness while A’zhu’lo huffed in despair. “Am I going to have to climb back down? That would be worse than climbing up! I would certainly fall to my death!”
“No, I cannot steal this thing without you. Here, I know!” Za’dut began to scrabble about on the rim of the hole. “The mortar is half washed out from between these stones. I can pull out a couple and then wedge them back in. No one will notice, at least not right away.” As it scraped the cracks with its mandibles, Za’dut swung its antennae in grim amusement. “How ironic if removing stones from the apex of the fortress made the whole edifice fall down in a heap! That would be justice!”
“Huh! Justice!” said A’zhu’lo sourly. “Tei’mo’ma’na’ta would be buried and we would be crushed to a pulp!”
“True enough,” returned Za’dut with brisk indifference. “There! Stick your head in and see how it is now.”
“It still scrapes on this side here. But I think – yes, it is through! … Za’dut! I cannot get it back out! Nameless One, help me!”
Za’dut was clutching the dislodged stones with two legs while swinging precariously from two others. The rear pair was flailing at the slippery surface of the cone. The claws hooked over the hole rim were getting squashed between A’zhu’lo’s head and the stones.
“Pull your body through! Jump!” cried Za’dut.
“What if somebody is down there?” came A’zhu’lo’s muffled sending from inside the hole.
“There was nobody just now. You will have to take the chance!”
A’zhu’lo wriggled frantically, trying to get its legs through the hole. Za’dut swung its body around and whacked A’zhu’lo’s posterior with its own belly. The Da’no’no Shi sizzled madly as its cerci disappeared through the opening.
Za’dut hoisted itself and thrust its head into the hole. “tha’sask|>|| This is the last time I ever include a Warrior in one of my tricks! A’zhu’lo! Are you receiving me?”
In a moment came the sending, “I receive you. It was not so far down, but I landed right on top of the na’ka’fi’zi|. Nearly speared myself on the damned mandible parts.”
“You were supposed to jump a little to the side.”
“When somebody is smacking your rear end and your legs are being scraped off, you do not have much leisure for choosing your landing site!”
“Is the image all right?”
“I think so. And I believe I am, too, thank you very much.”
Za’dut hastily wedged the loose stones back into their sockets. “Hold on! I am coming down!” And it jumped into the unknown.
It landed on top of A’zhu’lo and they rolled, coming to rest against the na’ka’fi’zi|, which had been knocked over in the scramble.
“We were supposed to not do a lot of thumping,” said Za’dut reproachfully. “Might alert the guards.”
A’zhu’lo simply cursed its annoyance. The eyeless ones could sense but not see the hollow emptiness that surrounded them. Above the hole in the ceiling the eye of the Nameless Mother was not watching. They pulled themselves together and assessed their situation.
There was no indication that anyone had detected them. They straightened their magic skins, which seemed undamaged, and checked their gear. A’zhu’lo extracted the mesh bag from a pouch under the skin and they tried to wrestle the na’ka’fi’zi| into it.
They found that the stone was mortared into a base, which had also tipped over when image fell. The base was heavy and would not fit into the bag. Desperate, Za’dut started chipping at the mortar while A’zhu’lo applied pressure to the joint.
“I cannot get over how well you had all of this thought out,” A’zhu’lo grumbled.
“Keep still and push!”
Finally the stone broke free from the base and they maneuvered the image into the bag.
“Where is this drainage duct?” said A’zhu’lo. “I suppose we will find they have plugged it up.”
“Very humorous! It is right here. I will remove the cover.”
Za’dut did so and A’zhu’lo dived into the culvert, dragging the na’ka’fi’zi| after it. Za’dut followed posterior first and replaced the cover. There was just enough room for it to turn around. “Go, A’zhu’lo!”
It did so. “At least you were right about the size of this shaft. My head actually fits inside it. I am amazed – you finally got something right!”
“Will you stop your carping? I am getting tired of it!”
They scuttled along with the na’ka’fi’zi| between them. The stone was heavy and kept sliding faster than A’zhu’lo could move so that it was continually bumping its rear end. Za’dut tried to restrain it with its mandibles. “Turn around and back down, A’zhu’lo. That famous inflexible head of yours would hold the stone back more efficiently than your tails do.”
“No room to turn around,” grunted A’zhu’lo. “Ouch! I have a biter sting on a cercus.”
“Wait. Stop a minute. We’re coming to the first turn.”
“Turn! You never said anything about turns!”
“What was there to say? It actually broadens a bit here. Try turning around now.”
A’zhu’lo squirmed and writhed and succeeded in reversing its orientation. “There is a hole above me.”
“It is an intake from one of the levels. Speak nothing! Someone might be up there.”
They continued with A’zhu’lo backing along, controlling the stone’s slide with its labrum and mandibles. The passageway began to level out midway along so that sometimes it was necessary to pull the stone or at least nudge it into motion. They made two more turns. One was tight and both the na’ka’fi’zi| and A’zhu’lo’s head became stuck, but they managed to work everything through. There was a lot of fresh dung along with spoiled honeydew in this part of the culvert and soon both of them, as well as the holy image within its mesh bag, were liberally smeared.
Then they came to the fourth turn and Za’dut said, “Hold up!”
“This is the entrance to the second level where I left the duct the first time. I want to go in again. There is something I need to do.”
“Go in!” cried A’zhu’lo incredulously. “What for? I do not want … ”
“I said nothing about your going in. Remember how I was forced to leave my tools behind when we fled? I want to recover them.”
“Your tools? I cannot believe what I am receiving!”
“I nearly broke a mandible prying this stone off its base! Imagine how much easier it would have been if I had had my tools!”
“You would jeopardize this whole enterprise just for … ? Besides, you do not even know what has become of them!”
“Yes, I do. There was a cubbyhole in the wall of our sleeping chamber, and I stashed my tools there behind a stone. I would wager anything they are still there.”
“But you do not know what the room is being used for now!”
“If it is occupied, I will simply turn around and leave.”
“You miserable little runt! You are enjoying this!”
“Of course I am, my stone-headed Companion! Now wait for me!”
“What if you fail to come back?”
Za’dut hesitated. “Wait a reasonable period and then … ”
“What is a reasonable period? There are no water vessels here!”
“I do not know. Use your own judgment. But if I should not … Then go on alone, A’zhu’lo. Do not be concerned for me. No one ever is.”
And Za’dut was gone, leaving A’zhu’lo muttering distractedly to itself. “‘No one is ever concerned for me.’ I do not know whether to find that humorous or pathetic. How long should I wait? I hope the Charnel Workers do not use this hole to dump rotten corpse leavings. There is a limit to what one can endure … tha’sask|>|| This stone is getting heavier. I am skidding! Za’dut, where are you?”
The stone continued to slip inexorably claw-length by claw-length, forcing A’zhu’lo downward before it. Soon A’zhu’lo could not feel the air current from the exit hole. “What if it does not come back? How can I leave it? Should I go looking for it? I am sure I would get caught, magic skin or no. I am not adept at skulking and hiding like that da’sask| rascally little worm. But how can I leave it without at least attempting a rescue?
“I am sure Ki’shto’ba would not leave it behind. My ni’a’zei| probably could have stopped it from behaving like such an idiot … Ki’shto’ba wanted to surname me ‘Good Protector’ … I could scramble over the na’ka’fi’zi|, I think, but how could I keep it from slithering all the way down while I am gone? Maybe hook the ties over a projecting stone … I shall have to try to rescue the little pest – it is one of the Twelve, of Ki’shto’ba’s Twelve … ‘No one is ever concerned for me,’ it said … ”
A’zhu’lo succeeded in clawing its way across the stone, which immediately started slipping away. The Warrior caught the bag loops in its mandibles and hung on, desperately feeling about for a projection. Then it sensed and smelled a presence some distance behind.
It was Za’dut. “A’zhu’lo! Where are you?”
“Ah … ” A’zhu’lo let its head sink to the mucky floor. “Here I am!”
Za’dut scrambled down the shaft. “Why are you all the way down here? tha’sask|>|| Where is the image? Oh, on the other side … What is it doing down there?”
“It kept slipping and pushing me ahead. And I was … well, I was coming back to look for you, you blasted nuisance!”
“You were? I told you not to do that.”
“You said, ‘Nobody is ever concerned about me.’ You miserable insect, that is not true, you know!”
Neither spoke for a moment. Then Za’dut said, “Well! Perhaps … I thank you, friend A’zhu’lo. I am sorry – I thought … I still think … oh, never mind! Here, I got the tools! What did I tell you?”
“What happened?” said A’zhu’lo a little shakily.
“Nobody noticed me skulking along the corridor. They are using the room for honeydew storage and there was no guard. The tools were right where I left them. Our supply of simples was gone, but of course it was right out in plain sight. I had a good drink of ti’wa’zi|. Do you want some?”
“I … yes, it would taste good.”
Za’dut regurgitated and fed A’zhu’lo, who gulped and sizzled. “I had forgotten how inferior the honeydew is in Thel’or’ei.”
“Yes, disgusting! But at least it quenches the thirst.”
“Sliding! Sliding again! Help!”
Together A’zhu’lo and Za’dut skidded down the corridor, hauling on the bag. Finally they got it stopped.
“We make a halfway decent team,” said Za’dut gruffly.
“You may be the death of me, though. Come on, we should get this over with.”
Quickly they negotiated the steep final segment of the culvert and came at last within sensing distance of the exit. They hauled desperately on the stone, fearing it would tumble out of the aperture, but a lip on the edge halted its progress. After scenting for danger and finding none, they pushed the na’ka’fi’zi| over the lip. It caught and hung in the shbis’mu|, which had grown thick here because of the fertilizing wastes that washed out of the culvert. They skittered after the image and caught and hung as well, the sharp leaves of the five-claw plant slicing their softer parts.
Cool night air swept refreshingly over them as they clawed their way out of the bushes onto a bed of fresh, sweet grass. An eye of the Nameless Mother had just risen above the horizon to gaze at them, but they could not see it.
“Well!” said Za’dut. “The holy image is outside the walls. Do you think they will fall down?”
“I hope they wait until we are clear of them!”
A cautious check of the air revealed a distant reek of Warriors to their right, reassuring them that the postern entrance was located as Za’dut had predicted. They extricated the stone from the bushes and eased it along the margin of the river until they sensed the apron looming before them, then let it slide into the water and plunged in after it.
Then the hardest part of the adventure began. The stone sank – well, like a stone – and transporting it along the bottom against the current was even more difficult than they had expected. The bed was covered with rocks that had fallen into the river during the construction of the fortress, and it was overgrown with projecting roots of shbis’mu| and tangles of water plants. Little water creatures flitted around them, tickling their setae distractingly. The only advantage was that the stone anchored them and there was no danger of getting swept downstream.
Finally they succeeded in maneuvering the image beyond the apron and they hauled it up on the bank, where it showed alarming signs of sinking into the swampy ground. A’zhu’lo hoisted it onto its head, the first time it had been able to carry it in a proper manner, and they made a ponderous dash for cover.
* * *
At the west end of the siege line we were all waiting for them – Ki’shto’ba and Nei’ga’bao and other Chiefs of the shbu’cha’zei|, along with Wei’tu and Twa’sei and myself.
Then at long last Za’dut and A’zhu’lo staggered into view. “We are expecting the walls to fall at any moment!” cried our Little Thief. “For here it is! The center post of Thel’or’ei!”
A’zhu’lo threw off its burden, an amorphous lump in a filthy bag, with streamers of weeds caught in the muddy mesh, along with a long, blue water-worm that squirmed unpleasantly. Everyone gathered around the object, knowing neither what to expect nor how to feel.
But Nei’ga’bao Swift-Foot cried, “My noble friends! You have worked a miracle!”
Then Ki’shto’ba jumped on its twin and they rolled happily together in spite of A’zhu’lo’s befouled condition.
“What is that you are carrying, Za’dut?” asked Wei’tu, snuffling the Thief with delicate distaste.
“My tools! Di’fa’kro’mi, my tools that you made me leave behind! I got them, too!”
“Was it difficult, A’zhu’lo?” asked Ki’shto’ba, paying no attention to Za’dut. “Did you have any close calls?”
“Routine!” interjected Za’dut, snapping its claws. “Would you not agree, A’zhu’lo?”
A’zhu’lo bounced and then sank exhaustedly to the ground. “Oh, yes, of course! Routine! Just do not ask me to do it again! But … ” It wagged its antennae. “If we ever must do such a thing again, we should enlist this crazy dut’zei|. It is the only individual I know of who could make a success of such an unlikely adventure!”
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