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

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"My lord, Jendara says that is the place," Smith said in the language of the mus, indicating the small cave Jendara was pointing at.

"Bah. That little hole leads to this... 'Great Cavern' the Little One speaks of?" Lord Kahgah snapped. The cave wasn't much to look at, in truth - a small hole in the side of a wooded hill, perhaps only five feet high. The mountains were still leagues away, and though they loomed large before them, it didn't seem possible that the vast complex of caves Jendara described could be concealed within a small little hill.

Xaa simply nodded. "She told us on the trip here that it goes down quite a bit, once one gets past the entrance. She also said that she had to wait two days until the bear that inhabited that cave had wandered out in search of prey before she could sneak out."

Kahgah snorted. "Bah. It will probably be too small a spot to use a proper bear-spear, and I'm in little mood to wrestle around in the dark. I'll bring my rifle."

"Merle, can you manage my bowcase until we've gotten past any bears that may be inside?" Xaa asked, checking the pan of his own rifle.

"It's a bit long, but Smith and I can carry it until you're ready to switch back. We've got all our packs ready, too. Plenty of food for all of us for the moment, counting what Jendara's carrying in her pack," Merle replied in the language of the Little People.

Smith looked to Xaa, and a sudden thought occurred to him. "My lord... If I may ask... Is that the same rifle my son made for you?"

Xaa nodded. "It's still the best rifle I've ever shot, so I still use it. He made it from a cat's musket, and forged the bullet-mold for it, as well. The trigger is light and crisp, thanks to his work, and the lock is quite reliable."

"May I... May I see it, please, my lord?" Smith asked, his tail trembling.

Xaa held out the rifle to Smith, who took it in trembling paws. "It's loaded," Xaa rumbled.

Smith nodded, his little black eyes wide. The rifle was a bit longer than he was tall and he had no intention of cocking it anyway, so Xaa's warning meant little to him. Instead, his eyes roamed the rifle's surface, looking into the muzzle, examining the lock, and seeing the marks of his son's handiwork. "He... He rifled the barrel well. Very precise work - the lands and grooves are perfectly spaced. And look - he re-worked the lock completely. He polished it again to smooth his work, but I can still see the tool marks. I'll bet he replaced the spring entirely - this is much like the work he used to do, back when... When we worked together at my forge."

Xaa looked down to Smith, and could see Smith's little mousie-eyes were misting with tears as he held the rifle back out to Xaa. Xaa took the rifle gently, and nodded. "He was a fine smith, my friend, and a good boy. You should be proud of him."

Smith simply smiled, wiping away his tears with the back of a paw.

Once Xaa and Kahgah's warriors had made camp, the small party proceeded to the cave entrance, Xaa and Kahgah leading the way. The two mus-warriors had to crouch slightly as they entered the cave, but Merle, Smith and Jendara had no such problems, as they were so much smaller. Jendara walked beside Smith and Merle, in the rear, carrying the torch that everyone else would need to see by. Jendara was extremely nervous - she could smell that there was most likely a bear in the cave, and her sharp ears picked out soft breathing from within.

As the cool darkness of the cave enfolded them, flickering shadows from the torchlight casting eerie shapes on the walls of the cave, Kahgah snorted again. "There he is, behind that rock. Sleeping, I wager."

Xaa nodded. "Or waiting in ambush. Either way, we can't shoot him from here, and there's not enough room to wrestle him over there."

"Then let's wake him," Kahgah rumbled, and taking a deep breath, he roared.

Jendara shrieked in terror, dropping the torch and clapping her paws over her ears against the sheer volume of Kahgah's roar. Merle and Smith, whose hearing wasn't as sensitive, were used to the roaring of mus and knew what to expect once Kahgah took his deep breath. Still, even they jumped at the sound, amplified as it was in the narrow confines of the cave. Xaa simply snapped his rifle to his shoulder, flicking back the hammer, as did Kahgah a moment later.

The bear, which apparently had been waiting in ambush, roared back, shuffling around the boulder it hid behind to charge. Immediately, Kahgah fired - the loud report amplified by the narrow confines of the cave to an ear-shattering BOOM that echoed from the tunnels beyond. The bullet struck the bear in the center of it's head, just atop it's brain-pan, digging a bloody furrow out of flesh and bone as it ricocheted away. "Damn!" Kahgah swore as the bear swiftly closed the distance between them, roaring in pain and fury.

BOOM - Xaa's rifle bucked against his shoulder, and the bear stumbled, then tripped, it's swift charge shattered into a stumbling gait, then a sliding impact with the cave floor. The bear flopped and trembled spasmodically, blood pouring from the ruin of it's black nose as it lay at Xaa's feet.

"You have to aim for the nose when they're charging, Kahgah. The top of the skull is too thick. Hit them in the nose, though, and the tunnel of their nasal passages guides the bullet right into their brain," Xaa rumbled calmly, already reloading.

"Bah. I just need a bigger gun. What caliber is yours?" Kahgah asked, pulling out his powder flask to reload his own weapon.

"Sixteen," Xaa replied, citing the caliber-numbering method the mus had devised. Sixteen lead balls formed in Xaa's bullet mold weighed a pound. "It was originally made from a cat's musket."

"Bah, mine's only fifty-six. But you wait and see - I recently took Bateh into my service!"

"Oh? I heard she was quite good."

Kahgah nodded, grinning. "She is - perhaps even as good as your own Little Ones! She's working on a sixteen for me, and I can hardly wait until it's completed."

"Let me know when it's completed, Kahgah. Perhaps we'll hunt together, sometime."

Kahgah blinked, then grinned and bowed. "Thank you, Lord Xaa. I would enjoy that." Xaa smiled, nodding his head in return.

Jendara simply stared in shock at the bear as it's tremors finally ceased, blood pooling about it's head. She looked to Smith, her little eyes wide. "They... They didst slay that monstrous beast with ease!" she squeaked.

Smith nodded. "Of course," he replied in Jendara's ancient tongue. "It was merely a bear. They are mus."

Merle, once Smith had translated the exchange, simply giggled.

A few minutes later, once Xaa had handed the loaded rifle to Merle and strapped his bowcase to his back, Jendara picked up the torch she had dropped. Quietly, the small group advanced past the dead bear, and into the dark tunnels beyond.

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