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

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"I can't. I can't, I can't, I can't, I can't," Kahgah's voice muttered from the darkness.

"You can do it, Kahgah," Xaa rumbled quietly.

"Do you need some light, Lord Kahgah?" Smith offered helpfully.

"I... I..." Kahgah replied, his voice trembling.

Merle sighed. It was hard enough crawling around in the twisting, narrow tunnels that Jendara led them through - and it was even harder doing it in total darkness. Jendara had quickly discovered that she simply could not lead the party with torches or candles, once they got away from the furthest reaches of the light from the entrance, now several days behind them. Her people navigated completely in the dark, using their other senses, and what Jendara described was a "mental map" of the places one had traveled. Being able to see only confused her memory, and made her unsure. In the darkness, however, she felt comfortable, and was leading them with confidence. But it was the darkness that made the trip all the harder, for everyone else.

Smith and Merle were not afraid, of course. Their natural homes were little burrows, and the idea of being underground was not a bother to them. Nor were tight, enclosed spaces a problem, or darkness. Besides - to Smith, Merle and Jendara, the tunnels were quite roomy, for the most part, and only infrequently narrowed to the point where they had to crawl, like now. They had no idea where they might be and couldn't possibly find their way back out without Jendara, but the close spaces and the darkness of the cool caves did not bother them. The first day in total darkness had been difficult to adjust to, of course - their eyes strained to see something, anything in the endless blackness that surrounded them, and often they saw flashes of color where there was nothing at all. Jendara simply told them not to worry, and said they'd get used to the darkness, and the flashes of color would go away. And, she was right - eventually, they did.

For Kahgah and Xaa, however, it was a completely different story.

Being as they were so much larger, Xaa and Kahgah had to crouch or crawl in nearly all the tunnels so far, and the spaces were very close to them. Oppressively, smotheringly close. The impenetrable darkness, for them, only made it worse. Merle slept snuggled with Xaa each night (though 'night' was only a relative term, as it was always pitch black), and she was fairly certain that her presence calmed him. Kahgah, however, had no one to reassure him. Kahgah had controlled himself well the first two days, but eventually, the strain began to show in his voice. Now, he had frozen in the dark, unable to move. Xaa was behind him in the tunnel, while Merle, Jendara and Smith had just finished crawling out and now waited in a cave-room beyond.

"Lord Kahgah? I can try to spark a candle, if that will help," Smith offered again.

"After this long in darkness?" Xaa rumbled. "You'd probably just blind him. Come on, Kahgah. You can do it. Pull yourself forward."

"I... I can't!" Kahgah replied, his voice near the edge of hysteria.

"Kahgah! Listen to me! Listen!" Xaa shouted, his voice echoing in the caves.

"What?! What, dammit, what?!"

Xaa shuffled forward closer to Kahgah, then dropped his voice to a quiet hiss. "Do you want to look like a coward before a Little One?"

Kahgah was silent for a long moment before he replied. "No."

"Good. Now pull yourself forward."

Kahgah did not move.

For a long moment, there was silence.

Finally, Kahgah whispered back. "I'm sorry. I just can't stand these little narrow spaces, and the dark, and the endless chill, and... Gods! This doesn't bother you at all?"

"Of course it does," Xaa whispered back, "but my mate is watching me. I will not embarrass myself before her. I thought I was going to die yesterday when I got stuck. Remember? That narrow part?"

Kahgah nodded in the darkness, then found his voice. "Yes. I nearly got stuck there, too. You're broader than me, though. Gods... If I'd been stuck there..."

"But you weren't, you made it past. And even I got past it, eventually. I just had to calm myself enough to back up, pull off my armor, and pass it forward before trying again. That's the key, here. Calm yourself. Follow the Little One, Jendara, and just remain calm."

"Easier said than done," Kahgah growled softly.

Xaa's patience wore thin, and he was about to snap something at Kahgah, when he heard him start to move. The whiskers on his muzzle also allowed him to feel the shift of air as Kahgah pulled away from him, and he let out a quiet sigh of relief. Xaa now understood why Jendara's whiskers and tail were so long - just as the tail of a mouse had many fine, light hairs that could discern shifts in the air, so did her long whiskers allow the same thing. Her large ears could hear the echoes of her own soft movements, and give her a sense of the caverns around her. Yes, Jendara was perfectly adapted to a life in the caves. Xaa was not - but he did not envy her adaptations, either. Xaa silently vowed to himself that if he survived this little adventure, he would never enter another cave again in his life.

Jendara scratched her head for a moment. "What be the matter, Friend Smith?" she asked in her archaic language.

Smith sighed. "Lord Kahgah doth experience some distress. His people art not ours, nor art they yet musties. The mus be yet very large people, and the caves art quite narrow, for them. The dark also be yet something his people art unaccustomed to. Though they and the musties both doth see very much better than yet do our people at night, as they can yet see quite easily by merely the light of stars and moon, here there be yet no light at all. All this doth fray Lord Kahgah's nerves, I fear."

"Lord Xaa be yet unaffected?"

"My lord be yet made of sterner stuff, Jendara," Smith replied, grinning in the darkness with pride in his liege.

"Over here, Xaa," Merle called once she heard Xaa pull himself from the tunnel and enter the small cave-room beyond. She couldn't see him, but she could smell him and hear him easily. As he drew near, she reached out a paw to him, catching him by the arm. After a moment, they sat together in the darkness.

Kahgah breathed heavily in the dark, trying to calm himself.

After many minutes, Kahgah finally spoke. "Thank you, Lord Xaa."

"It was nothing, Lord Kahgah," Xaa replied politely.

After a long moment of silence, Merle spoke up. "Is it my imagination again, or is there light over there?"

"I see it, too, Merle. A greenish light," Xaa rumbled.

"What? Where?" Kahgah's voice asked from the darkness. Merle heard him shuffling around from where he sat. "Wait - I see it, too? What is that?"

After a few moments, what it was became obvious - it was Jendara, carrying some sort of glowing green blob in her paws. She smiled pleasantly, and set it down before Lord Kahgah, who stared at it in wonder. She then chittered for several seconds in her ancient tongue, and sat down before him.

"Lord Kahgah, Jendara says that this is a type of fungus that grows in these caves," Smith translated, stepping near to look at it. "When stroked, it glows for awhile. She says it's not much, but she hopes the light will be of some comfort to you. She also says to treat it carefully, as that clump is rather fragile. It's growing about the corpse of a bat."

"Ick," Merle said, looking at the little glowing ball and making a moue'.

"I agree, Lady Merle," Smith said in the language of the Little People, "but she is trying to be helpful."

"That's true," Merle replied, and smiled at Jendara.

Kahgah reached out, stroking the little fungus-ball with a finger. The light flared a little brighter where he touched it. "Hmm... I can feel it beneath the moss. It's little more than skin and bone, all tightly curled," he muttered, then looked up to Smith in the dim green light. "How do you say 'thank you very much' in her language, Little One?"

"I do thank thee muchly," Smith replied in Jendara's ancient tongue.

Kahgah snorted. "Bah, I could never pronounce that. Just tell her for me, please." Kahgah then looked to Jendara, and grinned.

Smith nodded, and did so. Jendara looked to Kahgah, and grinned back.

Xaa looked to Kahgah in the dim green light. It was obvious Kahgah was feeling a bit better, but Xaa realized he probably still needed a few minutes more to recover. "Well, let's rest here for a moment, then continue on. Smith, ask Jendara how much farther it is before we reach the caves her people live in?"

Smith did so, then turned back to Xaa. "She says we are nearly there now, my lord. She says we have been traveling nearly a week, and will most likely come upon the edges of the Great Cavern within the next few hours. She says she's made an effort to take us past the safest routes, but up ahead in the Great Cavern, there is an underground river. She asks us to be very careful, as the waters are quite chill, and very swift. Those who fall in are sucked beneath the earth, never to be seen again. The paths are very narrow, and some are ledges carved by the river itself. She is concerned that you or Lord Kahgah may slip from the edge and be lost."

"Bah. Give us a little light to see by, and we'll keep our eyes on the path. We'll be alright, so long as we're not blind in this cursed darkness," Kahgah replied, crossing his arms.

Xaa nodded. "I agree. Smith, ask Jendara if we're close enough that a bit of light wouldn't affect her ability to find her way home?"

Smith did so, then turned to Xaa again. "My lord, she says it will not be a problem, though she asks that we make the light a small one, as too bright a light would dazzle her eyes. I can carry a candle in my lantern, my lord, to light the way."

"So long as that's alright with her, then that's what we'll do."

"Yes, my lord."

"I've got the tinderbox in my pack, Smith. I'll get it out, and you can get out a candle and the lantern."

"Yes, my lady," Smith replied, already slipping off his pack while Merle set Xaa's rifle across his lap. It took a moment to do - the dim light shed by the little fungus-ball was hardly enough for the task, and once Merle struck the first few sparks to the tinder, she found she was blinded by the flare of light as flint met steel. Still, eventually, she had it, and gave the lit candle to Smith. As Merle blinked away the dancing spots before her eyes, she looked around at the cavern they found themselves in...

...and gasped in wonder.

The light from the little candle reflected off countless crystals in the walls, sending faint rainbows wherever the flickering light touched. They were at one narrow end of an enormous cavern, perhaps three hundred yards long, and nearly a hundred yards wide at it's greatest point. More colors than Merle had ever imagined all were gathered in the countless crystals in the floor and wall, and she found her heart skipped a beat at the incredible beauty of the silent, cathedral-like room.

Jendara grinned, then giggled when she saw all her companions had the same expression. Taking the candle and lantern from Smith's nerveless paws, she slipped the candle into the lantern and closed the cover. She then walked over to a large crystal nearby, moving the lantern about it and sending shimmering rainbow beams dancing about the vast cavern. Jendara grinned again, chittered in her language for several moments, then gave the lantern back to Smith.

"My... My lord, she says that this is the place her people call 'Crystal Cavern.' It was where she trained in running and other skills she might need in the surface lands... She says the floor is flat because once, eons ago, and ancient underground river flowed through here. Now, however, that river has gone, leaving only the smooth, flat, stone floor which once was it's bed, and these glorious crystals we see about us. She says that this is the smaller area, however."

"Smaller?" Xaa asked, gaping at the enormous cavern.

"Yes, my lord. She says that at the other end of this chamber the tunnel turns, and opens out into another chamber several times as long as this one."

Merle gaped in wonder. "They must love it here... It's so beautiful..."

Smith translated Merle's comment, listened to Jendara's reply, then sighed. "Sadly, my lady, most of their people can hardly see clearly beyond two yards, and many are nearly completely blind, only able to sense light from dark. Though they enjoy the colors, most cannot truly enjoy the beauty of this place, simply because they cannot see it."

"How tragic," Xaa rumbled quietly, awed by the majesty and splendor of Crystal Cavern.

"Hrm? What's tragic?" Kahgah asked, looking to Xaa.

"The Little Ones who live here. Smith explained that most cannot see the beauty of this place, as the constant darkness shortens their vision, over time," Xaa replied.

"Even her?" Kahgah asked, nodding to Jendara.

Smith nodded. "Yes, Lord Kahgah. She is rare among her people, as her vision is close to what we would consider 'normal.' I've spoken to her over these last few weeks, and I believe that the only reason her vision is as clear as it is now is simply because as a child, she enjoyed spending many hours seeing the beauty of this cavern, and as her father was and is a candlemaker and was teaching her the trade, she made her own candles to see the true beauty of this room. Still, if she remains in the eternal darkness of these caverns, her vision will eventually fade, and she will be as blind as the rest of her people."

"That... That is truly tragic, indeed. I hope, for her sake, she and her people choose to leave this place," Kahgah replied quietly, reaching out to take Jendara's tiny, white-furred, pink paw in his enormous ebon-furred one. Jendara listened to Smith's quiet translation of Kahgah's words, and smiled shyly at Kahgah.

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