of the Last God
(Book IV of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 2001 BY
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Pup-Chup gazed in stunned silence at the corpse, unable to believe his eyes. Despite everything he knew or believed was reality, the impossible lay before him, the ants and flies already crawling over it. Yes, somehow, incredibly, impossibly, the Snap-Snap was dead.
"See, Chief?! Told you so did I!" Chi-Chi chittered excitedly. "Here stood the Strange Ones, from the water did the Snap-Snap leap - ROAR! Bite one stranger hard it did - but not even hurt was she! Then BANG! BANG! Hurt was the Snap-Snap, with much blood! Then jump, grab, and stab did the older one! Snap-Snap died!"
"Shhh!" Pup-Chup hissed insistently. "Wanting more Snap-Snaps to come are you?! Hush! Close is the water - maybe close are the Snap-Snaps, as well."
Chi-Chi instantly fell silent, making a quiet mustie-sign with her paw that meant 'sorry.' Pup-Chup acknowledged her apology with a silent nod, his eyes scanning the waters carefully. From what Chi-Chi, Lar-Tar and the others had said, the strangers had killed the Snap-Snap several hours ago. If the Snap-Snaps were going to fetch the body, they already would have by now. Of course, it had been the musties' experience from killing Snap-Snaps who raided their villages that they never collected the bodies of their dead. When enough stones had fallen and killed or maimed enough of them to convince them that their attack was futile, those who still had unbroken legs would flee, leaving their dead and wounded behind. The wounded were still extremely dangerous, of course, but usually a few carefully-thrown stones from high above them would crush their skulls and put an end to those who had been abandoned to their fate. No, the Snap-Snaps would not fetch this corpse - they were not musties, after all. Yet, that did not mean they were not lurking nearby, in the swamp. Caution was still a necessity.
Finally, Pup-Chup decided to take a gamble. Slowly lowering himself to the ground, he silently crawled closer to the body. He had to know how it was done. That the strangers were musties, everyone was certain of. Their footprints were those of musties, their voices those of musties (though their language and accent was very strange), and when they pulled off their strange hats, one could see by their heads they were musties. Thus, if a mustie killed a Snap-Snap in paw-to-paw combat, if a mustie survived being bitten by a Snap-Snap unharmed, then Pup-Chup had to know how it was done. He was the chief of his tribe - it was imperative he learn the secret, so that his people might be able to do the same thing, themselves.
Carefully avoiding the stream of army-ants which already attacked the corpse, Pup-Chup silently crept closer, then gazed at the damage to the Snap-Snap's head. The strangers had flayed the scalp from the skull, and already the army-ants had snipped that bloody bit of flesh loose and were in the process of tearing it into smaller pieces - yet, what had happened could still be seen beneath their teeming soldiers. Something had struck the Snap-Snap in the right eye, destroying the bones that made up the socket, and cracking the Snap-Snap's skull. From there, it had been stabbed right atop it's brainpan - and the weakened skull had given way. Yet what had done the damage to the eye and skull, Pup-Chup could not say. It was as though someone had taken a thumb, and simply swiped away the flesh and bone that had been there before - yet, at the same time, the cracked skull showed it had been done with great force. The knife-wound was also very strange - it's edges were smooth, not bumpy, as that a stone-knife of the musties might leave. Only a bone-blade carved from a deer's rib and carefully sharpened could leave a smooth-edged hole like that - yet such a blade was too brittle to have done it. Bone-knives were only useful for neatly filleting fish or other very soft things such as organ meats, and could not possibly have penetrated even the damaged bones of the Snap-Snap's skull. More, the question of what made the loud noises everyone mentioned was left unanswered. Chi-Chi and Lar-Tar had both mentioned seeing a flash of fire and large puffs of smoke, and smelling an acrid stench - and even now Pup-Chup could still catch a very faint whiff of that from the grass and the corpse. It was obvious from the description of what had happened that the strangers had some new kind of weapon that spat fire and death, a stick or club they pointed - yet what that might be, Pup-Chup had no idea.
A sting on the back of a paw alerted Pup-Chup that one of the soldier-ants had found him. Pup-Chup flicked it away with his other paw, then backed away from the corpse silently. The army ants had staked their claim, and Pup-Chup would not argue with them. They would tear at the corpse for weeks, and patrol their territory vigorously. Pup-Chup didn't mind - he had no intention of returning to this spot anytime soon. No, he had other plans for the immediate future.
After returning to the bushes Chi-Chi and the others were hiding behind, Pup-Chup signaled silently with a paw. The others nodded, and together they slipped away into the forest, following their chief.
Once they were well clear of the edge of the swamp, Pup-Chup signaled for everyone to gather 'round. "What now, Chief?" Chi-Chi asked, scratching her head. The others watched quietly, waiting for Pup-Chup's answer.
"To talk to Strange Ones we shall go. Lar-Tar, Zu-Zu, back to the village you shall go. Tell everyone, return we will when we can. Chi-Chi, Ban-Go, Mo-Mo, with me you will come. To talk to Strange Ones we shall go, and to make friends shall we try."
"Ooo! And if liking us they are, then teaching us the way they killed the Snap-Snaps they may do, yes?" Chi-Chi replied, immediately grasping what was on Pup-Chup's mind.
Pup-Chup nodded, again mentally noting that Chi-Chi was still the wisest among all the possible candidates in his village to replace him, when the time came. "Yes. So be nice, everyone. Be very nice. Different than us are they. Very different, maybe. Be nice anyway. Make friends we must. Now, come," Pup-Chup called, waving a paw. The others nodded and Lar-Tar and Zu-Zu slipped away towards the village while the other three followed their chief.
It wasn't a long walk to the stranger's camp, though the strangers had hidden themselves well. The two enormous birds and the strange, deer-like creature they brought with them were carefully concealed - food supplies, Pup-Chup guessed, should hunting prove difficult. Of course, game was plentiful in the jungle, but being as they were strangers, they might not be as successful hunting in a new environment. It made sense for them to bring along food, just in case - musties were, in the end, a very practical people.
As they approached the camp, Pup-Chup could see two of them watching the jungle around them, guarding their camp. Pup-Chup nodded - it was exactly what he expected. Pup-Chup signaled a halt, and Chi-Chi whispered that the one on the left was the one the Snap-Snap had bitten. Pup-Chup could see marks in the strange clothes the female wore, like dents and scratches, but she seemed completely unharmed. The other signaled quietly, hissing something, and both then tucked their strange weapons under their arms, pulled off their strange hats, and smiled warmly.
Pup-Chup Blinked in surprise, staring at the female on the left.
"Mishi!" Chi-Chi hissed, echoing Pup-Chup's thoughts.
Pup-Chup looked again, his heart pounding in his chest. From the gleam in her eye to the whiskers on her muzzle, the female was the spitting image of his late mate, dead now nearly three months. "No... Not Mishi. Cannot be. Dead, she is," he whispered back.
Ban-Go and Mo-Mo held their tongues, but Chi-Chi persisted in a quiet whisper. "Maybe ghost?"
Pup-Chup almost replied "yes" - then he remembered Na-Nu's box. Pup-chup thought long and carefully about what Na-Nu had said, his fingers feeling the shape of the box as it sat in his pocket. Finally, he shook his head. "No. Not ghost. Killed by ghosts the Snap-Snap was not. Maybe-so, maybe-not-so thing, ghosts are. Real and live was the Snap-Snap. Dead it is now. Killed by maybe-so thing, it was not. Real she is, and Mishi she is not."
Chi-Chi simply nodded, gazing at the strange mustie-girl.
After a long moment, the older male on the right waved a paw. "Hoyo!" he called, smiling.
Pup-Chup scolded himself silently. He was chief - he would not let himself be scared away by simple coincidence or thoughts of ghosts, which were things that many musties thought were a 'just-so' thing. Pup-Chup had learned from Na-Nu that many things he thought of as being "just-so" might not be that certain. He had seen musties who looked alike before. Most were twins, but sometimes they were not. Sometimes cousins, even distantly related ones, looked very much alike. Pup-Chup supposed it was even possible for strangers to look alike, if they shared an ancestor many generations back, and every mustie knew that simple arithmetic showed that once, long ago, there were only two musties, one male and one female. By their own beliefs, all musties were related, if through nothing else than the first two musties that appeared in the world, created by the spirits of the forest.
Pup-Chup shook his head. He would
not allow himself to be frightened away by what was probably
simple coincidence. A chief had to be braver than that, or they
were no true chief at all. Pup-Chup Stood up from behind the
bush. "Be very nice," he hissed. "Make
friends we must - and make friends we will."
Pup-Chup then smiled broadly, and waved a paw back at the
strangers. "Hoyo!" he called in return, and stepped out
from behind the bushes, hoping his nervousness didn't show.
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