of the Last God
(Book II of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 2000 BY
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"Mrowr... With humility, my lord, it is true. The mus are driving us back." Lord R'Narr replied. "On the southeastern flank, Lady T'Mrr reports she has lost half of the lands he had gained from our initial push six years ago, and Lord T'Chang has been slain, his warriors scattered to the four winds. Others under our banner are experiencing the same. The situation is a bit better on our northeastern flank, but as the mus spread their new guns and their airships, the situation grows progressively worse."
Shazad D'Zhin, Lord and Emperor of all the cat-clans, leaned back on his throne, looking down at R'Narr as he knelt on the carpet before him. The brown tabby's armor and the light clothing beneath it were filthy from two weeks of hard riding to get here, but his report had been too important to wait for the niceties of hygiene. R'Narr didn't tremble as he knelt, his forehead pressed to the carpet, and though the grime and dust ground into his fur was obviously incredibly distracting to him, he controlled himself well. This was good - weakness was something D'Zhin couldn't abide in any of his underlings.
D'Zhin considered his words carefully, smoothing a wrinkle from his soft, purple silk robe to give himself a moment to think. As emperor, his greatest tools and most powerful weapons were not his claws or his sword, driven by the lean muscles that lay beneath his ebon fur, but rather his tongue, driven by the keen wit behind it. His first instinct was to simply tear R'Narr's tabby-hued throat out for being a bungler and a fool. He controlled this instinct with an iron will. Dead, R'Narr was merely another cooling corpse. Alive, he could still be useful. "Mrr... You have annoyed me, R'Narr. This campaign should have ended a year ago." he rumbled, his deep voice echoing in the quiet throneroom.
"Mrowl... Forgive me, my lord, but even I cannot control the weather. Early snows prevented us from sending reinforcements or supplies for months. By the time the weather cleared between the capital and our eastern front, the mus had already begun their counter-assault with their new weapons. We've simply been struggling to hold them back, at this point."
D'Zhin was silent again, thinking. The flintlock rifles of the mus had significantly greater range than the simpler, smooth-bored flintlock muskets of the cats - and as the mus continued making them, it was inevitable that they would slowly improve their range and accuracy. The cats had yet to capture any of the guns of the mus, and had no idea how or why their weapons were superior - they only knew they were.
"Mrr... And our poisons are useless..." Tzihn said. It was not a question, but rather a rumble of disgust.
"Miao... Yes, my lord. They have discovered an anti-toxin of some sort."
"Mrr... R'Narr, you are a fool. Your delay in launching our final assault gave time for the weather to move in, and this gave them the additional few months they needed to develop their new guns and their anti-toxin. Had you moved earlier, the mus would now all be under our claw, or under the ground."
R'Narr said nothing at the insult, and D'Zhin eyed him quietly. 'You still have good control over your emotions, R'Narr, just as my father noticed in you. Perhaps there still is a few useful years left in you, after all.' D'Zhin thought silently. "Mrr... Sit up, R'Narr. I would show you something." D'Zhin rumbled.
R'Narr did as he was bade, sitting back on his heels. D'Zhin snapped his fingers, pointing to one of his many advisors who knelt quietly along the walls of the throneroom. The jellicle she-cat rose, padded over to the throne, then knelt, holding a scroll above her head. R'Narr's tail twitched slightly as he gazed at her, but he controlled himself otherwise. She was spectacularly beautiful, and clad in a garment that consisted of three triangles of cloth, one over each nipple and another over her sex - and nothing more. D'Zhin chuckled. "Mrr... I see you like L'Sala, R'Narr."
'Damn, his eyes are keen.' R'Narr thought to himself, keeping his face smooth and expressionless as he could. "Mrow... She has a passing beauty, my lord, and is pleasing to the eye." he replied, politely.
"Mrr... And what is your assessment of her?"
"Mrowl? I am afraid I don't understand, my lord."
"Mrr... Look at her, and tell me what you see. Exactly, and in detail."
R'Narr gazed at the she-cat as she knelt, still holding out the scroll to the Shazad. After a moment, he shrugged. "Miao... A serving-wench, my lord, of perhaps eighteen summers. She is quite attractive, but that is all."
"Mrr... Very good. That is exactly what I want others to see when they look at her. Her body, and nothing more." D'Zhin replied, taking the scroll from L'Sala's outstretched paws. "Mrr... Rise, L'Sala. Come sit by me." he purred. The jellicle cad smoothly rose to her feet with feline grace, stepped demurely to the right of the throne, and knelt again, sitting on her heels. R'Narr looked into her green eyes - she was powerfully attractive. D'Zhin smiled. "Mrr... Now tell me, L'Sala - what is your assessment of R'Narr?"
L'Sala paused for a moment, looking R'Narr over. Her expression was cool, distant. R'Narr wasn't exactly certain he liked that expression on any female, much less one that had just taken a seat to the right of his emperor. "Miao... My lord, I see before me a warrior. I would guess his age at about fifty, give or take five years. His armor bears the sign of Clan V'Nass, his speech carries the twang of the eastern hinterlands, so I would guess that his identity is as was announced - Lord R'Narr, of Clan V'Nass. I see no less than nine scars visible in his fur, and when he walked in he carried himself with an easy, light-footed stride. I would guess he is a highly skilled warrior, with many years of battle-experience. He appears to be right-pawed, and the sword he bears is a rapier with a rather well-worn hilt, so I would be wary of standing anywhere but to his left. Judging by his bearing and other small signs, I believe he would fight in the style of the D'Lass-school of fencing, and I would say he either trained at that school or was trained by a master of that school. He limps ever so slightly, and seems to have some small discomfort in his right leg as he kneels there - I would imagine his armor is hiding a rather large scar over his upper right thigh across his quadriceps. This would make him vulnerable to any sword-technique that would force him to shift rearward and to his right. His paws are large and his forearms well-muscled, so I would imagine that taking him bare-pawed would be somewhat difficult, as he appears to be experienced at grappling - I would recommend in a bare-pawed encounter that he be kept at no less than arm's reach, and that one use low kicks and other extended-range claw maneuvers against him to play on the slight weakness he has in his right leg. In personality, he strikes me as being a loyal servant who enjoys serving you with honor, and is deeply shamed that he has to report his failure to you now, even though he feels that this failure was no fault of his own, but a simple quirk of fate and weather." L'Sala replied, then bowed her head. "That is my assessment, my lord."
R'Narr simply stared.
D'Zhin chuckled at the old general's expression. "Mrr... As you can see, R'Narr, things are not always as they appear. L'Sala is no mere female, useful perhaps for her skills in the Art of Manipulation passed down from mother to daughter, or perhaps her skills in the Art of Love. No, she was specifically trained at my request by the Nuns of T'Masa Keep as a Mentalt. I have half a dozen like her, but she is perhaps the best." he said, and opened the scroll, skimming it briefly with his emerald-green eyes.
R'Narr looked at L'Sala with renewed respect - a true Mentalt was a rare and precious thing, to be cherished and protected more than a mountain of gold. 'And D'Zhin has six? By the gods...' R'Narr thought to himself. For her part, L'Sala continued to gaze at R'Narr with the same cool, distant expression, and he felt a chill pass through his spine. He wondered if the legends were true, and they could really see into the soul of another being just by gazing at them. Judging by what she'd said about himself, all of which was absolutely correct, R'Narr realized she just might be able to, at that.
"Mrr... And this, in fact, is part of your problem with the mus, R'Narr. Your eyes saw only the surface. There as something small you missed - yet it was of critical importance." he said, then gave the scroll to L'Sala again. "Mrr... Give that to the general."
L'Sala took the scroll again, rising to her feet smoothly and stepping over to R'Narr. When he had taken it, she resumed her seat beside D'Zhin while R'Narr unrolled the scroll and skimmed through it.
"Mrow? It's a summary of two different reports from the late D'Larith T'Chang, my lord - one a weekly report, and one a monthly report, both dated last fall. I'm afraid I don't see their significance." he said, his expression confused.
D'Zhin controlled his annoyance with an effort. "Mrr... L'Sala, explain to our old friend the significance of these reports, and why you brought them to my attention."
"Miao... Yes, my lord. The first report summarized is a weekly report. Please note that it mentions the return of a scouting party which followed a group of twelve mus far past the peak they call Grah'nahdo Mountain, into the southern plains and to the edge of a large, untamed wood, where they met them in combat and defeated them, then returned. However, only nine of the party were warriors - the other three were, apparently, servant-caste mus, unarmed and unarmored. First Question: What were they doing there? Second Question: Why did they have servant-caste mus with them? Next is a summary of a monthly report, which mentions that the depredations of the mus called 'The Slayer', Xaa'ap'Gasha of the Clan Xaa, had been noticeable for the last several months by their total absence. It was concluded that perhaps he had been wounded in the last encounter with him early in the previous summer, and perhaps he had later died of his wounds. Please note that we know for a fact he is not dead, so this conclusion by the late D'Larith T'Chang was false. Third question: If he was not dead, then where was he?" L'Sala explained, her face cold and expressionless. R'Narr silently cursed himself for an old fool - but then again, there were so many reports that passed by his eyes, it was easily understandable how he might miss these two incidents as being significant. If L'Sala noticed R'Narr's thoughts on this face, she made no sign, however - she simply continued her explanation.
"Mrowr... It occurred to me that the reason The Slayer's activities might have been curtailed for so long was that he was in the southlands, with that party. It is conceivable, given that the scouts that had tracked them were desperately low on food and eager to return, that he was with the party they attacked, but was not killed - only wounded - and was left for dead with the others. Please note that the scouts did not bother to verify the clan affiliations of the mus they killed - it is highly likely they didn't bother to verify they were all dead, either. Several months later, The Slayer reappeared, and killed D'Larith T'Chang with some new gun with a phenomenal range, which the mus have apparently been reproducing since then. A few months after that, their forces began to use airships, which allow them to attack us from the air with near impunity, so long as the weather is clear, and allow them to traverse long distances quite rapidly. Thus, I brought this to my lord's attention because I believe these events are related. I believe that Xaa found the secret to the gun and the airship by traveling to this distant forest. I do not know how, but..." L'Sala said, then paused.
"Mrr... Tell the general what is on your mind, L'Sala." D'Zhin purred.
L'Sala bowed her head. "Miao... I beg your pardon, my lord, as it is still quite unbelievable to me, yet it is the only explanation that fits. I believe that the mus went south, and met with the Little Ones of our ancient legends. These same legends say that the Little Ones once built a mighty empire with the mus as their servants, once the mus had freed the Little Ones from our bondage. The legends clearly describe effects that can only be attributed to them having the technologies the mus have suddenly discovered, and far more. Perhaps the mus made a deal with them, or perhaps they simply kidnapped one of their number, and forced them to work for them. Knowing the mus, I suspect the former rather than the latter. Either way, it is my belief that these untamed woods the scouts mentioned in their report contain the answer - and should be investigated. Preferably with a skilled party of warriors, accompanied by a linguist or scholar familiar with the ancient language the Little Ones once spoke."
D'Zhin's eyes flashed as he gazed at the old general before him. "Mrr... And that, R'Narr, is exactly what you shall do. I have already ordered D'Vring and D'Lahst from our western borders to march with their armies to reinforce your troops. Combined with the troops you already have there under the command of your son, they should be able to hold back the mus until winter comes, and they withdraw. In the meantime, you will go to the southlands and explore this forest mentioned in this report, and see what there is to see. If there are some of the Little Ones remaining there, then it is your duty to bring them back, that we may harness their skills against the mus. If they exist, I want them all to be taken alive, R'Narr - even a single one of them dead or escaped may be a catastrophic loss, for we know not which mind among them contains the knowledge we may need to defeat the mus. Afterwards, you will go back to the eastern front, take command of the armies, and drive the mus back. If the Little Ones exist, their knowledge shall help - but even without it, you shall be able to defeat them, once you have my sword in your paw."
"Mrowl? Your sword, my lord? I beg your pardon most humbly, but I fail to see how a single sword may win a war."
D'Zhin smiled, and stroked the back of L'Sala's neck with an idle paw. L'Sala purred quietly, her eyes closed. "Mrr... This sword, R'Narr. I give you L'Sala. Have a care that you bring her back to me unharmed when you are finished using her skills. If even a single tuft of fur is harmed, it shall be your life. She is no mere female - she is a Mentalt, and you and your warriors will treat her as such."
R'Narr bowed again, placing his forehead on the
floor, grinning broadly. "Mrowr! It shall be as you
command, Shazad D'Zhin!"
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