Children of the Last God
(Book IV of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 2001 BY

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Ayori sighed. "She won't go, Chief. She says if she does, she'll die."

Byarl sighed as well, pulling his helmet off and sitting on it like a stool. "Alright, but from what? Those... Creatures she senses? Are they hostile, now?"

Bessie stood nearby, watching the exchange as she guarded the birds. Amani had completely frozen about noon, and refused to take another step. Instead, she stood stock still, beneath the shade of the ever-present jungle canopy, right beside the trunk of the large tree whose roots she had been in the process of carefully stepping over. It was funny, at first - but once Ayori relayed what she was really thinking, the situation lost it's humor-value rather quickly. Now, an hour later, she still would not move - and Bessie could not only see Amani was trembling with fear, the scent of her fear was very strong in the air, to Bessie's carnivore-nose.

Ayori shook his head, his paw resting lightly on Amani's hip. "She says that she still doesn't know. She only knows the vision of inner-eye shows her if she moves from this spot, she'll die."

"What can we do to help her, Ayori?" Bessie asked.

Ayori shrugged, tucking his rifle under his free arm. "I don't know. It's not a seeing like with the eyes, it's a knowing. And she can't explain how she knows, she just... Knows. She didn't have this feeling this morning - that means something's changed around us. All we can do is try to change the circumstances we're in. She's too scared to really concentrate on it, and try to explore it and find out what to do. I don't think she's ever been more scared in her life, really," Ayori explained, then sighed. "Her mind's not like ours, Chief, and she doesn't respond to danger like we do. She could probably at least sit down and relax, but she's like a rabbit who heard a hawk's screech and freezes, hoping it won't be spotted. She's really, really scared, chief. If we jumped up and yelled 'boo!' right now, I think she'd bolt and run. Something she senses in the future has her scared to death."

Bessie scratched under the strap for her helmet. "Could she be wrong?"

Ayori shook his head again. "No, not when it's this strong. She's never wrong when it's this strong. Things that are farther in the future, she can be wrong about, because other things can change - like guessing the end of a checkers match from the middle. But this is like... Like seeing the next move in a checkers match. It's immediate, only a step away. She knows what's going to happen."

Byarl nodded. He didn't believe Amani was wrong - far from it, in fact. No, Byarl was simply trying to determine how to change the future Amani sensed. He didn't want her to die anymore than she did, herself. "Alright. Amani, try to relax. You do not have to move, okay? You can stand right in that spot from now until the end of time, if necessary, and we'll gather food for you to eat - though in a few years, we may grow a little old and gray, waiting, and I think your legs might get tired," he said, and managed a grin.

Amani looked down to Byarl, and managed a weak grin herself, then nodded.

"Okay. Ayori, you'll be staying here with Amani and the birds. Bessie, you'll be coming with me."

"Right, Chief," Ayori and Bessie chorused. They both then smiled at each other - their chorused reply was funny, but yet they didn't laugh. Amani's strange behavior was simply too serious.

"Does that help, Amani?" Byarl asked.

"She says it helps a little, chief. If she doesn't have to move, she says... Gah! There aren't words in our language for what she's saying, sorry. Ummm... She says the pressure of the event lessens if she doesn't have to move, but only if you continue with what you are thinking. I don't know what she means by that, though."

Byarl nodded, tucking his rifle under an arm and stroking his whiskers with a paw as he examined his own thoughts. "Alright. You don't move, then. Try to relax, and tell me if the others you sensed are still out there."

Amani nodded, and closed her eyes for a moment, trying to relax. After a moment, she opened her eyes, and looked down to Byarl.

"Umm... She says she still senses one of those tiny minds out in the swamp, near us - and along with it that larger mind she sensed before. She also says she still senses the musties she noticed this morning. They're watching us from the jungle."

Byarl nodded. "Yes, Bessie and I spotted them awhile ago, and we've been keeping an eye on them. I was more concerned with the strange thing in the swamp, though. Is it still waiting to see us?"

Amani nodded, and Ayori spoke again. "Yes. It's still trying to catch a glimpse of us, and find out what Amani is. It can't sense our minds, only hers. There are also two other tiny minds with it, though she still can't explain that because she doesn't really understand it herself. She says..." Ayori paused, listening to his large mate's mind-voice. "She says if you go there to see it, there will be great danger. Yet, if you do go... What she calls the 'pressure of the event' she's scared of will ease."

"Hmmm..." Byarl replied, then looked up to Amani suddenly. "It sounds like if you go, whatever is waiting for us in the swamp will attack you, yes?"

Amani blinked in surprise, then nodded emphatically.

"Ummm... She says... Wow... I don't even know how to explain it! We just don't have words for this!" Ayori chittered in exasperation.

"Take your time, Ayori," Byarl said calmly. "Make up words, if you have to. Pretend it's a game," he said, and grinned.

Ayori grinned back as Bessie giggled. "Okay, Chief!" Ayori thought about it for a long moment, listening to Amani's silent voice, then tried again. "Ummm.. She says that what you said helped her understand the vision of her inner eye better. Umm... It's like in Hottop, with a noggy-center. Or checkers, with one piece in a position to be jumped by a dozen others. The thing in the swamp is one threat. The musties are another. And there are others... Things in the trees... Ah! Traps, she means. There are more traps around, too, all made to snag someone tall or heavy, like her. All of these things suddenly came together in one big vision that just made her go 'eeeeeek!' and freeze tight right where she was... Kinda like a happy little rabbit that sees nothing in the sky, but then suddenly hears a hawk's screech and freezes tight."

"More traps?!" Bessie yelped, then rolled her eyes. "Yeesh. The musties around here sure love traps, Chief."

Byarl nodded - they'd had to disarm several traps yesterday, and lead Amani and their birds around several more that they spotted in the forest floor. Deadly pits with sharpened stakes, young trees bent over with lethal spikes attached, and many, many more - all instantly fatal to anyone Amani's size or weight, but harmless to most of the smaller creatures of the forest. Someone the height of a mustie would literally walk under the lethal sweep of the spiked saplings, or be too light to fall through the covers for the pits. "I am beginning to think that it's not that they love traps, Bessie. I'm beginning to think they have a race of big-people as their enemies," Byarl said, thinking. "And I'm beginning to think that their enemies are the same creatures you sense in the swamp, Amani."

Amani shrugged helplessly, and Ayori spoke up. "She says she doesn't know, Chief. Maybe. She's just too frightened to be able to relax and explore the thoughts of those musties nearby very deeply."

Byarl nodded again, and came to a decision. "Ayori, watch Amani and the birds carefully. If something's coming, shout out, and we'll come running. Bessie, come with me."

A few minutes later, Bessie and Byarl silently moved through the bushes, approaching the edge of the murky waters of the swamp. They stopped within a few yards of the shore, side by side, hiding behind a bush at Byarl's silent paw-signal. Byarl's keen eyes scanned the water carefully, but he could see nothing other than a few floating logs and the twisted trees of the swamp protruding from the water as they reached gnarled branches towards the sky. 'Looks like a good place to fish,' Byarl thought to himself. And indeed, while he watched, a fish snatched a water-strider from the surface of the water with a ploop! As Byarl's eyes resumed scanning the waters, he suddenly paused, his heart skipping a beat.

One of the submerged logs that he'd noticed a few dozen yards away was gone.

"Back!" Byarl shouted, already swiftly backing away from the water, himself.

In an instant, it was upon them in a roar and a violent spray of water. Byarl had a fleeting impression of something huge, with a gigantic maw, then he was knocked aside as the creature leaped upon Bessie, catching her in it's enormous jaws as Byarl's rifle went flying. There was a sickening crackling, like breaking bones...

And the creature dropped Bessie from it's jaws with a shriek of pain, half the teeth in it's jaws snapped off against the steel plates of her armor.

Bessie gasped, rolling to her rump as she flicked back the hammer of her rifle, then fired from the hip. With a loud BANG, the creature lurched back as a dark hole appeared in the center of it's chest, blood pouring from the wound an instant later. Yet, it did not fall, it merely shrieked in pain, then raised the terrible claws it had on it's paws, intending to rend Bessie limb from limb.

Snatching up his rifle from where it had fallen, Byarl rolled to his feet, took aim, and fired. The creature howled in agony as it's right eye, so closely resembling the bumps on a submerged log, disappeared in a spray of blood and gore.

Yet, it still did not fall.

Bessie gasped, unable to rise, and tried to quickly drag herself away as the creature clutched uselessly at it's ruined eye. Tossing his rifle aside, Byarl drew his knife. With a shrill and wordless carnivore's howl, Byarl leaped at the creature, grappling the enormous beast.

The creature struggled, first flicking it's enormously thick tail at Byarl, then reaching for him with it's long claws - but Byarl was no inexperienced mustie, easy prey for any large carnivore that might want to kill him. No, he had not been given the adult name Byarl Bearkiller for nothing. In the blink of an eye, he had leaped over the massive tail as it lashed at him, ducked under the grasping claws, and scrambled up between the beasts shoulders. Flipping his knife and clutching the hilt in both paws, he screamed "DIE!", and rammed his knife down between and behind the beast's eyes, on top of the beast's flat, triangular head, with all the furious strength his little body could muster.

The creature spasmed, and collapsed even as Byarl leaped nimbly from it. Byarl rolled to his feet, then cast his eye about for a moment. Snatching up his rifle again, he turned to the beast, intending to use his weapon as a club and beat it to death, if necessary.

But, it was not. The beast let out a long, shuddering sigh and a long, violent tremble.... And then lay still.

Byarl snarled, and smacked the hilt of his knife with the butt of his rifle, just to make sure. The creature did not move.

Byarl turned to Bessie, kneeling by her side. Her dull green lacquered steel cuirass was scored and dented both front and back from the marks of two dozen separate teeth - each of which had snapped under the tremendous force of the beast's jaws. "Are you alright?"

Bessie nodded, gasping. "Yeah, Chief - he just squished all the breath out of me."

Byarl examined Bessie closely while she caught her breath, then nodded. "You've got a small cut on your right arm - it's nothing, though, just a scratch. We can put some bloodmoss on it later to keep it from getting infected."

"Thanks, Chief."

"For what?"

"You saved my life, silly!" Bessie replied, then grinned.

"Bah. The armor saved your life. I just killed that big ugly, there."

"Yeah - but you made the armor!"

Byarl grinned. "Well, I guess I did, at that."

Bessie sat up, reaching for her powder flask and beginning to reload her rifle. "What was that thing?"

Byarl turned and stood next to Bessie, looking the beast over as he began to reload his own rifle. "I don't know. It's head reminded me of a snake - all flat and like a triangle. So, I stabbed for where a snake's brain would be, and it died. I think my shot weakened it's skull, though. It looks way too big for me to just pierce it with my knife." Byarl and Bessie looked the creature over in silence after that as they finished reloading their rifles.

It was nearly as tall as a mus, and very broad at the shoulders. It's hide was like that of a snake, and covered with scales. It had a thick, double-ridged tail that Byarl guessed was used in swimming - though the beast had tried to swipe at him with it during the fight, it hadn't been quick enough to succeed. It walked on it's hind legs, like all intelligent beings of Oerth, yet it possessed enormously long claws on it's paws and feet that no intelligent being did. Indeed, they were more like the wicked claws of a bear, and Byarl couldn't see how one could possibly create or manipulate tools with claws like that. Most impressive, however, was the beast's enormous jaws, easily large enough to snatch Bessie bodily and tear her in half had it not been for her armor. Bessie and Byarl had never seen a crocodile or alligator - indeed, though they did not know it, neither animal lived on Oerth any longer, nor had they for ten thousand years. Yet, that was what they were seeing - a humanoid version of these long-gone animals.

"You know," Byarl said, finishing priming his rifle and flicking the pan shut, "I think that's a Snap-Snap."

"Oooo! Do you really think so, Chief?" Bessie yelped once she'd closed the pan on her own rifle and put her powder-flask away.

Byarl nodded. "It matches all the legends, anyway. It lives in the swamp, it's the right size... Look - walks on it's hind legs, like us, and has skin like a snake. And the 'enormous jaws that can gobble a mustie up', too."

"Woo-hoo! My Chief killed a Snap-Snap!" Bessie crowed.

"Well, I had a little help, you know," Byarl replied with a grin.

"Yeah, I broke it's teeth and annoyed it real good for you. Some help," Bessie shot back, making a face.

Byarl chuckled. "Now, now. You helped. Alone, I don't think either of us could have taken it. It was too tough. Together, though, we did it." he said, and held out a paw to Bessie. She took it with a grin, and pulled herself to her feet.

It took a bit of doing, but eventually, Byarl managed to wriggle his knife out of the Snap-Snap's skull. Byarl took a moment to peel back the scalp over the wound, and nodded. "Look - my bullet cracked it's skull. Here, and here. I'd never have gotten through otherwise. But, that's where it's brain is - right where I stabbed. If we have to kill another one, aim for here, like a snake."

Bessie nodded, then tapped the bare skullcap of the dead Snap-Snap with the butt of her knife. "What a tiny brain-pan! Why, I bet it's brain would just barely fill in your paw!"

Byarl nodded. "I think this is what Amani's been sensing, too. Tiny brains."

"But what about that... 'Larger Mind' thing she talks about being around when they're around?"

"I don't know. Maybe she'll figure it out, knowing what we know now. Either way, I now know why she couldn't come here."

"Oh? Why?"

"Bessie, you only lived because of the armor I made for us. She has nothing - it would have torn her in half. Look at these teeth!" Byarl said, picking up a broken tooth from the ground. It was as long as his thumb, and as sharp as a dagger.

Bessie nodded, then suddenly brightened. "Ooo! I think we have a little hand-drill in the toolkit on the birds! We could drill these and make things out of them! A necklace would be neat!"

"Bah, it'd rattle against your armor and you'd never get any hunting done. Just save a couple to show Ayori, and to show the others when we get back home," Byarl replied, tucking the one he had into a pocket. Unlike the mus, who wore a sash over their armor to carry their swords, the musties just wore a little leather belt with a few pockets to carry things in - which, for them, was far more convenient.

"Okay, Chief!" Bessie replied, slipping a few of the larger teeth into a pocket.

As Bessie and Byarl slipped away through the bushes, heading back to Ayori and Amani, Bessie spoke up. "I wonder how come the wild musties that were watching us didn't come up and take a look when we killed the Snap-Snap?"

Byarl shrugged. "Probably scared. Give them some time to sneak up on the carcass, look it over, and decide whether or not they want to talk to us. I'm guessing from all the traps we found that they've been fighting the Snap-Snaps for awhile, now. Eventually, they'll decide to talk to us."

Bessie nodded, and together the two musties slipped silently off into the trees and vanished - though not to the half-dozen eyes that had watched the encounter quietly from the shadows of the jungle.

* * *

"Well?! What happened?! I heard the shots! Are they alright?!" Ayori yelped, clutching Amani's wrist in his little paws.

Amani sighed deeply, and slowly sat, her legs trembling with exhaustion from standing rigid and still for so long. *Yes, my little love. They are both alright. Bessie has a small cut we will have to treat, but her armor saved her. It appears they have killed what you call a 'Snap-Snap' - and it also appears that they are what I have been sensing all this time.*

"Really?! That's incredible! I thought they were just a story!"

Amani shook her head. *They are not. They are real, and just as dangerous as your legends describe. But, Byarl and Bessie are alright, and the Snap-Snap is dead.*

Ayori sighed with relief. "Well, so long as they're alright. Okay, I'll get the herbal supplies and the bandages from the back of the supply-bird. Can you move yet, though?"

Amani shook her head. *Not quite, my little love, though the situation has changed. Their actions have changed the nexi I sense with my inner eye. We must remain here awhile, and wait. Eventually, the wild musties we seek will come to us.*

"Okay. Whinny if you need to tell me something," Ayori said, grinning, and trotted over to where the two birds sat beneath a nearby tree, resting.

Amani nodded, leaning against the bole of the tree behind her, and tried to relax. It wasn't easy - the fading adrenalin in her blood made her limbs tremble, and her heart still pounded in her chest.

Amani had sensed the whole encounter from the minds of Byarl and Bessie - and more, the closer they came to that encounter, the clearer the danger was, to her. She had wanted to run to them, to warn them - but she could not. If she had tried, the Snap-Snap would have gotten her, instead. She had wanted to scream to them of the danger that lay in the water - but she could not do that, either. Her little friends were mind-deaf carnivores, as was her mate. All Amani could do was wait, and hope.

*You are quite interesting, Mind-Sister. Tell me, why did you kill my eyes?*

Amani nearly leapt out of her skin at the silent hiss that echoed in her mind. The mind-voice that spoke to her now was that of the Larger Mind she had sensed for days, now - and though it contained no malice, it contained no friendship, either. Merely dry curiosity... And somehow, a dark threat of danger. Looming and immensely powerful, Amani could not help but fear that silent voice. Amani glanced over to her little mate, who whistled quietly as he worked, unpacking the supplies from the bird. 'I am not alone,' she thought to herself. 'My mate, my chief, and my fellow tribe-member are with me. They are strong where I am weak, just as I was swift across the mountains and the plains where they were slow. They will protect me.'

Amani mustered her courage, and firmed her jaw. *You do not frighten me, and I am not your mind-sister. You are what the musties call a Snap-Snap - or, perhaps, some greater mind above them, that sees through their eyes. I do not know. Perhaps it is both. Perhaps it is neither. But, no matter - you still do not frighten me.*

*Frighten you? Mmmm... What an interesting thought. I have never experienced fear. Tell me, what is it like?*

Amani blinked, startled, then narrowed her eyes. It was as she suspected - the vast and towering mind that communicated with her could not sense her thoughts or feelings unless she intentionally sent them in reply. The intellect that brushed at the edges of her range, somehow inexplicably linked to the two tiny minds who had moved to just within her range shortly after Byarl and Bessie killed the Snap-Snap, could not read her thoughts directly from her mind. It's mind was closed, unempathic... All it could tell was that Amani was near, and that she was a thinking being. The minds of Byarl, Bessie, and her mate, Ayori, were invisible to this mind. It could feel Amani's range, and hid itself from her when it chose to do so - but it knew little else about her.

'It is immensely powerful, yet limited... How very strange,' Amani thought. Amani, though far weaker, was not limited, and the more she concentrated, the more she could sense from the very edges of the vast mind that loomed just beyond her range. It had not felt her fear when Amani trembled in terror for the lives of Byarl and Bessie - nor had it felt her fear earlier, when Amani trembled in fear for her own life. It simply could not. *I will not waste my time explaining color to the blind, dark one. I sense that your mind is incapable of comprehending my feelings, or much of anything else about me. Go away, and leave me alone.*

A dry, silent chuckle echoed in Amani's mind. *I think I shall not. You interest me. I have never sensed another mind in all the many ages I have been aware. Even in my earliest memories, now faded with time, I recall having always been alone. You fascinate me greatly. I think perhaps you are like me, and the furry ones are your eyes and claws, in some way I do not understand.*

And in that moment, Amani caught a glimpse of the thoughts and memories within the mind of her cold enemy, and understood. Amani's eyes widened as she saw the memory of the sun and moon passing through the sky in their daily dance not a few thousand times, as one might expect in a life of decades, but over a quarter of a million times. The trees of the swamp sprouted, grew to maturity, then faded, died, and fell to the water-logged lands below. The waters themselves shifted as though alive, now revealing a bit of land, now smothering it in a cool embrace. And all this was viewed not through one eye, or a pair - but many.

The dim memories Amani's enemy pondered, the memories of the Dark One's earliest existence, were but simple thoughts - primitive impressions of the world, and hardly more complex than that of an animal. Yet, even these dim early impressions were seen through a hundred pairs of eyes. As time passed, these memories grew clearer - and the number of eyes slowly grew. Now, tens of thousands of eyes roamed the vastness of the swamp, which extended for hundreds of leagues to the east.

And through it all was endless, horrific carnage.

An endless stream of fish, deer, pigs, goats, water-birds, and even musties slid down thousands and thousands of throats, over and over again. An endless river of blood ran through the Dark One's memories. The endless thrill of the kill echoed through the Dark One's mind - even now, at the periphery of the Dark One's mind, Amani could sense some of the thousands of minions which made up the Dark One's mentality were killing and eating. Mating was annual and spontaneous, and was given as much thought as scratching an itch. Eggs were laid in a central place where they could be guarded and their temperature watched, but little more thought than that was given to the subject. Sleep and dreams were nonexistent - though parts of the whole may sleep, the Dark One was always awake. But the central focus of it's life was the constant gorging, the endless blood, and the dark pleasure of the helpless squeals of it's victims.

Amani shuddered as that brief glimpse into the Dark One's mind ended, and she felt physically ill.

*I wish to learn from you what Fear is. I think that I shall gather my claw, and bring you to me sometime. Perhaps if I bring you closer to my center, I will be able to focus upon you more clearly, and learn from you what fear is. Perhaps you will be as tasty as the furry ones, as well,* the Dark One thought, and with that, the two tiny minds at the edge of Amani's range moved off, taking the edges of the Dark One's vastly greater mind with them.

Amani trembled, her mind filled with horror. She had easily seen in the Dark One's mind what they intended - herself, tied to a pole, and carried deep within the swamp. Days of torment as the Dark One amused herself with Amani's helpless body and mind. Finally, the horror of being eaten alive, torn to shreds by the teeth and claws of the Snap-Snaps.

Amani nickered quietly, terrified.

"Are you alright?" Ayori asked, stepping over to her quickly. Ayori could see the terror on her face, and easily feel her shudder beneath the fingertips he rested upon her arm to hear her silent reply.

*Yes... I... I am alright, my little love. Just frightened.*

"Is there anything I can do?"

*Just hold me, please,* Amani replied, trembling.

Ayori grinned, and wrapped his little arms around Amani, hugging her tight.

Amani reached her arms around her little mate, and hugged him in return. 'I will be alright,' she thought silently to herself. 'My mate will protect me. I will be alright.' Yet, Amani could not convince herself of that. The dreadful vision her inner eye had revealed still remained.

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