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

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Amani sighed, looking at the two djuducu-birds in her care as they sat beneath the trees. The last three weeks had been extremely difficult, and were it not for the musties helping by gathering greens for the birds and for herself, she was quite sure she'd have collapsed long ago.

It started that night they went to the village of the wild musties. As it turned out, they lived high in the vast trees of the jungle, well above the forest floor. Though climbing the trees was a simple thing for a mustie, it proved impossible for Amani. With only a single fore-hoof at the end of each arm and a single hoof at the end of each leg, Amani simply could not get the same kind of grip that the nimble musties could with their fingers and toes. Ayori suggested that she use her telekinetic powers to grip the bark of the tree, but that also proved impossible. Powerful though Amani's mind may have been, she was not that powerful. The force of Amani's will made manifest through the touch of her fore-hooves was strong, but not quite that strong. The musties considered making a long, knotted rope, that Amani might wrap the large, finger-like fore-hooves she possessed about them, and perhaps pull herself up that way. Yet, that plan failed, as well, simply because Amani was too heavy. A normally-sized mare, Amani weighed as much as twelve musties, and Ayori would not even allow her to try, for fear the vine-rope the Wild Musties had woven would break, sending Amani to a fatal fall.

Thus, Amani had to remain on the ground - though, in truth, that was no real penalty, to her, as the thought of perching precariously hundreds of feet above the ground in a little tree-lodge made for people a tenth her mass sent shivers down Amani's spine. She could easily envision the light little houses collapsing under her greater weight, and sending her and everyone else crashing fatally to the ground. The Wild Musties assured her that would not happen, as their lodges were far more sturdily built than that, but it still did not alleviate her fear.

Of course, because Amani had to remain on the ground, that meant that her mate remained on the ground by her side, most of the time. And, because she was needed to help Byarl understand the meaning behind the words of the Wild Musties, Byarl, too, had to remain on the ground most of the time. Byarl worked day and night to learn as quickly as he could, and the Wild Mustie chief, Pup-Chup, worked with him almost constantly.

The learning process itself left Amani very frustrated. Her people's aphasic minds simply could not grasp the concept of language. To them, words were so much meaningless sound, and writing so much unintelligible scratching. Amani's people, the horses, did not think in words, but rather thought in ideas. The other races all thought in words, which were comprised of ideas and represented ideas, but Amani did not sense the words within the minds of others. Instead, she sensed the ideas that were in their minds, the ideas behind the words, and the subtle shades of meaning that were truly meant by the speaker. The words themselves, however, were merely sound. Thus, Amani grew quite weary of the whole process, as no matter how hard she tried, she simply could not understand what her mate and the others took for granted. Pup-Chup, having finally grasped what Byarl was trying to do, had now reached the point where he would simply think of a word, and speak it. Amani would tell Ayori what he was thinking, and Byarl would write it down - yet, Amani herself simply could not connect the sound to the idea, and she found this blind spot in her mind very frustrating.

In this way, the days ground into weeks, and Byarl quickly picked up a mastery of the basic vocabulary of the Wild Musties. Byarl discovered that their language was actually quite simple, really. The Language of the Little People of the Wild Wood was, in fact, far more complex, having a vocabulary of a hundred thousand words - Byarl had once seen a dictionary of the mice many years ago when he was visiting the late Mayor Cooper back in the Wild Wood, and it was quite a thick book, indeed. The language of the Wild Musties, however, had a vocabulary of easily less than a third the size of the Language of the Little People, with only about two thousand words being used in common conversations. As Byarl's language still retained many of the words Pup-Chup's people used, he found that by the end of two weeks, he was able to make himself fairly clearly understood with a combination of half-learned words and ancient mustie hunting signs. Still, despite the success Amani had helped her chief achieve, as Pup-Chup grinned and scrambled back up the tree to rejoin his tribe, Amani found she could not suppress an enormous sigh of frustration.

"What's the matter?" Ayori asked, looking up from where he sat in Amani's lap.

*I am... Quite frustrated with myself, and my own limitations, my little love,* Amani replied, sighing again.

"Oh, don't worry! Sure, you can't talk like we do. That doesn't mean that you can't do other things, you know. You told me once that you were happy for what I was, and you weren't sorry for what I wasn't. Well, I accept you as you are, and I'm not sad for what you're not."

Amani nodded, smiling weakly. Her mate was trying to comfort her, and in the end, he was right. Her ability to read the thoughts of others was, from a mustie's point of view, incredibly useful - and indeed, had made what little gains they had made so far with the Wild Musties possible.

Byarl paused in looking at the sheaf of papers he'd been writing on, and looked over to Amani. "She's unhappy because she can't speak our language?"

Ayori nodded. "She can't speak any language, Chief. Master Healer Kargh says he thinks that the horses lack whatever it is in our brains that let us talk. He says the mus have studied stroke victims and warriors who get hit in the head, and the mus think that the brain is divided into sections. A section for thinking, a section for hearing, a section for memory, and so on. He thinks the horses are like animals, and they don't have a section for language. He thinks they have something else, something that lets them hear thoughts and do all the other things they can do, instead. He's not sure, though. To the mus, how the brain works is still pretty much a mystery. Master Healer Kargh says once the mice have finished their library in a few years, he wants to see what they might know about it."

Amani nodded. *Master Healer Kargh is probably right, my little love. I can feel in your minds the understanding you have, but I cannot grasp this understanding myself. It is, in many ways, as though I was blind, and trying to comprehend color. We horses can share the memories of sight with the blind, but if the horse we are sharing these memories with has been blind from birth, their minds cannot grasp the concepts of color. Vision itself they may eventually grasp, but the memories of color are imperfectly stored in their minds, simply because their minds cannot grasp it.*

"I understand," Ayori replied, grinning.

"Understand what?" Bessie asked, climbing down from the tree above. Ayori repeated what Amani had said, and Bessie nodded. "Well, I hope you don't mind, Amani, but a lot of us musties feel very sorry for you horses. You can't talk normally, you can't fight, and all you can do is run away - and some of the bigger horses like the stallions of the Dark Flame clan can't even do that!"

Ayori frowned. "Well, yeah, but my mate can hear thoughts at three leagues which is more than any other horse I've ever met, and she can pick things up without even touching them and she can even thread a needle with only one paw and not even have to look at the needle to do it!" Ayori snapped, and crossed his arms.

Amani nickered softly, and hugged her little mate. *Do not be angry with her, my little love. She simply states fact, and she truly does feel sorry for me.*

"Sorry, Ayori, I didn't mean it like that," Bessie replied, hanging her head.

"That's alright, Bessie," Ayori replied, grinning sheepishly. "I just... Well, you know! She's my mate!"

Bessie grinned back. "Yeah, I know. And you make us all jealous sometimes, too," she replied, shucking her pack as Ayori giggled. "Chief, I got a couple rabbits from Ban-Go for you and Ayori. Should I start the fire and cook them up?"

Byarl, who had been lost in thought studying his notes from today's work with Pup-Chup, blinked for a moment, then nodded. "Yes. Remember to cook them really well. That tree-frog poison is nasty if you haven't cooked the meat well, and that's all Pup-Chup and his people use."

"Okay, Chief! And... Ummm... Can I...?" Bessie asked, blushing.

Byarl nodded. "Yes, you can go up and eat with Pup-Chup again."

Ayori made a moue'. "I don't know what you see in him. You can hardly talk to him at all."

Bessie grinned. "Ummm... Well... We don't really talk much, but we manage to make ourselves understood," she replied, and giggled.

Byarl looked firmly at Bessie. "Now, Bessie, remember - we are not staying here. Eventually, we'll be going back home again. I understand Pup-Cup recently lost his mate and you like him a lot, but you can't stay here. Our tribe needs you, too, you know. Besides - you couldn't stay here, anyway. You don't speak the language, you don't know their customs, nothing. You'd never really be happy."

Bessie sighed. "I know you're right, Chief, but really... I mean, all that's not important. I could learn their language, and I could learn their customs. Still... Well, I like Pup-Chup a lot, but... Well, I want to know that he likes me for me, not because I look like Mishi. I don't think I'd ever really know that if I stayed here. They all look at me like I'm some kind of ghost or something. Sometimes Pup-Chup does, too."

"Well, alright. Go ahead and get started on those rabbits, Bessie. I want to look over my notes some more for now."

"Okay, Chief," Bessie replied, and turned to the task at paw.

Two hours later, Byarl and Ayori had finished the last of the rabbits, and Byarl bid Ayori and Amani goodnight as he scrambled up the tree. Ayori let out a quiet little burp, then leaned back against his large mate, laying his rifle across his lap. "Byarl thinks he knows enough of the Wild Mustie's language to maybe help teach Pup-Chup how to listen for your voice. I suppose he'll probably start teaching him tomorrow. Once Pup-Chup masters that, it will make things a lot easier."

Amani nodded silently, her gaze lost in the forest.

Ayori felt his mate's tenseness, and looked up to her face. "They're back again, aren't they?"

Amani nodded. *Two are even now just at the edge of my range, to the southeast.*

"Ho, Chief!" Ayori shouted.

There was a pause, then Byarl's shout came back from the trees above. "Ho, Ayori! What is it?"

"The Snap-Snaps are back again! Amani says two of them, about three leagues away, to the southeast!"

"Alright, I'll tell Pup-Chup! Let us know of any more come, or if they get closer!"

"Okiedoke!" Ayori shouted back, then looked down at his rifle. After taking a moment to check the charge, he flicked the pan shut and leaned back against Amani again.

*So, Mind-Sister... Shall it be tonight?* the dry, familiar voice hissed in Amani's mind.

Amani sighed. This was the last reason she was near the edge of collapse. For the last two weeks, the Dark One had sent Snap-Snaps to the edge of Amani's range, and tormented her during the hours of darkness. Sleep was impossible, save for naps during the day, and terror had become her constant companion at night. The Wild Musties, once alerted to the presence of Snap-Snaps in the area, had simply tripled the number of traps in the surrounding jungle. That had been sufficient - after the first attempt by the Dark One to capture Amani left fifty Snap-Snaps dead from the lethal traps the musties had set and another ten dead from stones thrown by the musties and shots fired by Ayori, Byarl and Bessie, the Dark One had not tried again. Still, each night, they returned in small numbers, and the Dark One came with them, that enormous mental presence carried with them, somehow. And each night, the Dark One amused itself until dawn neared, it's silent mental whispers and it's dark, sinister thoughts frightening Amani greatly. *Leave me alone!* Amani shot back, nearly in tears.

*Oh, I think not...* the dry voice replied, mild amusement behind it's thoughts.

'I will be alright. My mate will protect me,' Amani thought, hugging Ayori's tiny steel-armored form as he sat in her lap.

"Awww... You're scared again, aren't you?" Ayori said, looking up to Amani.

Amani simply nodded, her eyes brimming with tears.

"C'mere..." Ayori said, reaching up to Amani's head and pulling her down to nuzzle with her gently. "Don't you worry, okay?" Ayori said, wiping Amani's tears away with a paw. "You'll be okay. I'll watch out for you." Ayori then hopped to his feet, and looked out into the shadows of the jungle. "And if they come within shooting range, they won't live long." Ayori then looked to Amani, and could easily see she was still very upset.

Ayori pondered what to do for a long moment. Finally, he grinned. "Well, let's do something to take your mind off your worries, okay?"

Amani looked to Ayori curiously, and held out a fore-hoof.

Ayori grinned again. "Nah, we won't need that for this. This is going to be like 'Charades', Amani. You still like Charades, right?"

Amani nickered softly in amusement. 'Trust my little love to think of a mustie game when danger is about,' she thought, and nodded.

"Aha!" Ayori yelped, and pointed to Amani. "Right there! You know that nodding means 'yes', and shaking your head means 'no'. You horses may not be able to speak, but you can communicate without words and without using your mind-voice. Like nodding for 'yes', shaking your head for 'no', or touching a nose to mean 'you are right' in Charades."

Amani blinked - she hadn't thought of it like that. After a moment she grinned and nodded again.

Ayori grinned back, then set his rifle across Amani's lap, stepping in close. "Okay. I think what we'll do is teach you how to say one word. You don't have to worry about what it means - we'll just be teaching you like we'd teach a hunting sign, or like charades. Okay?" he asked, reaching up to take her muzzle in his paws.

Amani smiled - as her mate was touching her, she could speak to him again. *Alright, my little love, I am willing to try it.* Amani could sense what Ayori was planning in his mind, and was very excited.

"Okay. First, I want you to relax, like this, see?" he said, placing his paws on her throat and feeling her large windpipe and larynx. "Just make a sound, like "aaaaah". Like that."

Amani nickered.

"No, no. Open your mouth, like this. Aaaaah. Feel what I'm thinking and doing in my mind."

Amani concentrated. "Hur-hur-hur-hur," she nickered.

"No, like this. Aaaaaah."


"Open your mouth wider. Again."


"Very good!" Ayori said, grinning, and Amani grinned back. "Now bring your tongue up, then down, and use your throat to make the same sound."

"Yuh," Amani replied after a moment, sensing what Ayori was trying to say from his mind.

"No, move your lips like this, too," Ayori said, shaping Amani's soft lips with his paws.

"Yoh," Amani replied after a moment.

"Okay, now the hard part - or hard for you, anyway," Ayori said, and grinned. "Make your tongue go like this, and pull your lips back like this. Reeh."

"Ruh," Amani replied.

"No, no, no. Don't try to think about what any of it means, just think about feeling what I'm doing with my mouth from my mind, and trying to imitate it. Now try again. Reeh."

"Reeh," Amani replied after a long moment.

"Okay, now put it all together."

"Uh-yoh-ruh," Amani replied, fascinated at the whole concept of being able to make sounds with her mouth that might carry meaning.

"No, no. Try again."

"Ah-yoh-reeh," Amani replied.


"Ah-yoh-reeh," Amani said, and smiled.

Ayori grinned broadly, then reached down to take Amani's fore-hoof in his paws. "There you go - you just said my name. Ayori."

Amani blinked in surprise. *I did? To me, it was just a sound! Just a noise I made with my mouth!*

Ayori nodded. "But to anyone else, it's more than that, Amani. It's the same as making a hunting sign or playing charades. It's just something you learn to do with your body. The meaning of the sounds don't have to be within your brain, just within the listener's brain."

"Ah-yoh-reeh!" Amani whinnied, her eyes widening.

Ayori grinned. "Yup, that's my name. Feel free to wear it out. You are my mate, after all."

"Ah-yoh-reeh! Ah-yoh-reeh! Ah-yoh-reeh!" Amani winnied with joy.

"Hey! What's going on down there?!" Byarl's voice called from the trees, above.

"Oh, nothing, Chief! Just teaching Amani to talk!" Ayori shouted back, and grinned impishly.

"Whaaaaaat?!" Byarl shouted back, incredulous. "I'll be right down!"

Amani whinnied with laughter at her mate. "Ah-yo-reeh!" she said, grinning broadly. To her, it was still only a sound - just something she could do with her body, and nothing more. But to know that this sound carried meaning was a discovery bordering on an epiphany, for her. "Ah-yoh-reeh! Ah-yoh-reeh! Ah-yoh-reeh!"

"What?! What?! What?!" Ayori replied, then giggled.

Amani curled her fore-hoof around her mate's little paw. *You have taught me to speak! You have taught a horse to speak!*

Ayori grinned wryly. "Well, actually, I just taught you to say my name. I don't think you'll ever be able to really learn to speak, because the sounds of words to you don't mean anything. Still, you don't have to be able to talk to call me over. You can just make the sound I taught you to make, and I'll know it's my name, and I'll come over. Or you could make the sound to any other mustie who knows me, and they'll come get me, or take you to me."

Amani nodded, grinning. "Ah-yoh-reeh! Ah-yoh-reeh! Ah-yoh-reeh!" she whinnied, and hugged Ayori tight.

Byarl, who had just finished climbing nearly to the bottom of the tree, hopped down to the ground and stared at Amani. "Spirits, Ayori! You did teach her to talk!"

Ayori giggled as Amani let him go, then picked up his rifle and turned to Byarl. "Well, not really, Chief. I just taught her to make the sounds - they still don't have any meaning to her. It occurred to me that even though she can't understand what the sounds mean, she might not have to. The meaning of the sounds don't have to be within the speaker's brain, just within the listener's brain."

Byarl nodded in understanding. "You're right. It's like when I first learned what the mus say for 'hoyo.' It didn't mean 'greetings' or 'hello' or 'hi there' or anything else to me, it was just a sound," Byarl replied, and slipped his rifle from where it hung, slung over his neck and shoulder. Byarl then tucked his rifle beneath his arm and stroked his whiskers for a moment. "Hmmm... I think you're right, Ayori. Meaning lies in the mind of the listener, not the speaker. Writing's the same - the words-that-stay are just marks. Putting meaning to them is something that's done by the reader's mind."

Ayori nodded. "And Amani's mind can't do that. It's made to do other things, instead."

Byarl looked to Ayori. "When we get back home, you should write all this down, and give it to the mice to add to their library. Maybe they know it already, maybe they don't. Still, I know they don't have much about the horses and how their minds work. Maybe, someday, someone will read what you wrote and find a way to help the horses talk with their voices, as well as their minds. Maybe a machine or something, I don't know. But write all of it down - and write down everything else you learn about this, too. Okay?"

"Sure, Chief!" Ayori replied, grinning.

Amani grinned broadly. The thought that someday her people might be able to speak as easily as the carnivores did was a pleasant one. Even more, however, she was enormously proud of her mate. He had accomplished the impossible, and taught her to speak a word. Perhaps he had not taught her speech, but even this small accomplishment was astounding, to her. *Hah!* she thought with a snort to the Dark One. *I am not afraid of you! My mate shall protect me! He is a brave and dangerous carnivore, and he can do anything! I have seen him battle fierce and terrible cats, I have seen him slay a snake three times as long as I am tall with nothing but his knife, and I now wear that snake's skin! He has taught a horse to speak - he can do the impossible! If you do not leave me alone, he may choose to turn his skills against you, to your regret!*

*We shall see about that...* came the dry reply.

Amani's eyes widened as she sensed the mind of the Dark One. "Ah-yoh-reeh!" Amani whinnied, leaping to her feet, then holding out her fore-hoof to her mate.

"What is it, Amani?" Ayori replied, grinning as he laid the fingers of a paw lightly on her wrist.

*The Snap-Snaps are on the move! One of them draws closer, trying to sneak up on us! I would have noticed it sooner, but... Well, your efforts to teach me made me happy, and made me forget to watch out for them!*

"That's alright, Amani. Like the old mustie saying goes, 'even the sharpest eye can blink.'" Ayori then whipped his head about to Byarl. "Chief, one of the Snap-Snaps is trying to sneak into the camp!"

"Where? How far away are they?"

Ayori paused, listening to his mate, then nodded. "Amani says they're very close. She says... She says the 'Dark One' is completely focused, and the Snap-Snap is moving carefully, avoiding the traps."

"Completely focused? What does that mean?"

"I don't know how else to explain it, Chief! There aren't words for what she's thinking in our language. Ummm... Like paying attention to one little thing, and ignoring everything else. Focused, mentally."

Byarl nodded. "Well, we'll figure that out later," he replied, and looked up to the tree-lodge above him, cupping his paws about his muzzle. "Ho, Pup-Chup!"

After a pause, Pup-Chup's voice came back. "Ho, Byarl! Wha manga bashto?"

Byarl shouted a quick explanation - though it was perforce brief, as his grasp of the tongue of the Wild Ones was still quite limited. Pup-Chup shouted an acknowledgment, then began passing shouted orders in the tree-lodges above.

Suddenly, there was a movement from the trees. Ayori and Byarl turned, raising their rifles as an enormous Snap-Snap dashed from behind the shelter of the nearby trees, and raced towards Amani. Amani stared in surprise. It did not run in a straight line as had all the others, but rather ran a zig-zagging course. The stones tossed by the musties above missed the large, darting form of the Snap-Snap, as none had ever dodged before. No, before, all had simply charged, nearly mindlessly. Amani had then sensed the Dark One, nudging one here, pushing another there, but not truly guiding any particular one. Now, the Dark One's will was entirely focused on this one, and all it's intellect was brought to bear in getting it to it's target. Amani could sense, beneath the Dark One's influence, the tiny mind of the Snap-Snap. Like all of his species, he could not breathe and run at the same time, and his dashing charges, though very swift, were normally short and straight to the target. The Snap-Snap's lungs burned with the effort of the long, zig-zagging run, and it was all the Dark One could do to maintain it's control over the Snap-Snap.

A shot rang out from the trees, above - Bessie, firing at the Snap-Snap - but all she managed to do was dig a bloody furrow down one arm. The combination of the steep angle of her shot and the erratic movement of the target had caused her to miss.

"It's dodging like a rabbit," Ayori muttered, trying to lead the Snap-Snap with the muzzle of his rifle. Byarl said nothing, and simply squeezed the trigger of his rifle.

Amani jumped at the BANG of Byarl's rifle beside her, and saw a deep, bloody furrow appear on the side of the Snap-Snap's head, below it's left eye. Byarl spat out a curse, and began to reload. "Amani, run!" Byarl shouted, his eyes on the Snap-Snap. Amani nearly did - but at the last moment, she sensed the intent within the Dark One's mind. It was not her the Dark One was after at all.

The goal of the Snap-Snap's zig-zagging charge was the mustie that stood beside her, Ayori, her mate.

A whinny of terror mixed with horror and outrage escaped her lips at the plan she could sense in the Dark One's mind. The Dark One meant to strike at her mate, not her. The Dark One meant to wound her soul, not her body - and all because Amani had taunted it.

*NO!* Amani screamed, her silent mind-voice powerful enough to be heard by a horse at many leagues of distance.

The Dark One recoiled from the sheer force of Amani's mental scream, startled. As the Dark One's mental grip loosened, the Snap-Snap stumbled, then paused, then gasped as it took a breath.

In that instant, Ayori fired.

The Snap-Snap's head jerked back, a dark, bloody hole atop it's skull. Amani gasped in sheer horror.

The strength of the sensation, the power of that dying scream of the Snap-Snap, was magnified and echoed ten thousand fold by the focus of the Dark One's mind. It had never felt the deaths of any of it's components this strongly before - but it did now.

A dozen stones from above struck the Snap-Snap in the next instant, smashing it's bones, driving it to it's knees, then down to the ground. Yet, they were unnecessary - Amani knew it was already dead.

Amani shuddered, that terrible, horribly amplified dying shriek still echoing in her mind. 'A horse would have died from that,' she realized. Amani had never in her life hoped for the death of any living being - not even her former master, the tom-cat D'Keng T'Sarin. Despite the fact that her former master raped her from time to time, using her body whenever it amused him to do so, despite the fact that her former master had even murdered her brother and sister, Amani had never wished him death. Yet, Amani found herself now deeply, desperately wishing death for the Dark One - and that thought left her even more ill than sensing the massive death-scream did.

*You will pay for that...* the Dark One whispered weakly, and the lone Snap-Snap at the edge of Amani's range withdrew.

Amani sighed, her knees trembling with fading adrenalin, and sat beside her mate. The Dark One lived. It had been weakened, that was certain. It's mind-voice showed terrible strain, and great weariness. But, it still lived. A sensation of death that would have slain a horse instantly had only caused it great pain. It was, perhaps, indomitable.

"I think Amani's whinny stopped it long enough for you to get a clean shot," Byarl said as the last of the stones from above smashed the limp form of the Snap-Snap. Byarl finished reloading, his eyes again scanning the forest for danger. Already the musties in the trees above were cheering their victory. Soon, they would lower woven baskets on long vines to recover their stones, and a dozen or two would scurry down the tree to gather them up from the ground again.

Ayori nodded as he reloaded his rifle. "I think so, too, Chief." Once Ayori had finished reloading his rifle, he stood beside Amani, resting a paw upon her shoulder to hear her mind's voice. After a long moment, he shook his head. "She says no, Chief. That wasn't what stopped it."

"Well, what was, then?"

"She says she screamed at it. With her mind. That startled the Dark One, they lost their grip on that Snap-Snap for a moment, and it stopped to take a breath. They're not like us - they can't run and breathe at the same time."

Byarl looked to Ayori in confusion. "What?"

"She says... Well, she says that she understands the Dark One better, now. It's not one mind in one body - it's a..." Ayori sighed. "We don't have a word for it. The mus or the mice might, but we don't."

Byarl grinned. "Like I told you - make them up as you go along, if you have to. Pretend it's a game."

Ayori grinned back for a moment, then pondered his words carefully. "Well, it's kind of like a mosaic. Lots of little bits make up a bigger picture, you know? You can look at one part from a mosaic, and it doesn't mean anything - it's just a little chip of color. Blue or green or whatever. But all together, it makes a picture. Understand?"

Byarl nodded. "Yes. Nona makes nice mosaics, now that we have lots of new materials we can make colored tiles out of from the mus."

"Well, Amani says the mind of the Dark One is like that. Each Snap-Snap is only a part of it. That's why each one is so stupid, but as a whole, they can be smart. She says the Dark One was focusing it's mind on controlling that one Snap-Snap, just to get it close enough to kill. A... A 'guiding intelligence', she calls it."

"Ah! A 'hive-mind'," Byarl said, nodding and sitting down beside Ayori and Amani.

"A what?" Ayori asked, sitting in Amani's lap and draping his rifle across his knees.

"Well, I've talked to Smith from time to time, and that's what the mice call it. They think bees and ants have a sort of 'hive mind'. It lets them all work together like they were smart, even though individually, each ant or bee is mindless. Of course, the horses say that ants and bees have no mind they can sense, either individually or collectively, so the mice may be wrong about that. Perhaps it works some other way the mice haven't even thought of. Still, that's what the mice call what you're describing."

"Ah, okay," Ayori replied, then paused, listening to his mate's silent voice. "Amani says that the Dark One is very much like that, but still is different. Each Snap-Snap has it's own mind, and it's mind is like that of a snake, really. Yet, each one is also a part of a much greater whole that she calls the Dark One," Ayori said, then scratched his head. "It's really strange, Chief. She says they're carnivores, and their minds are closed to the thoughts and feelings of others so that they can hunt for food, just like us. Still, the Dark One can hear her voice when she talks to it, and can sense the presence of her mind. She doesn't understand it."

Byarl nodded. He had heard Merle's story, and he knew the origins of all the races of Oerth, from that. Merle had unwittingly shared it with Amani simply by thinking about it two years ago, and as such Ayori had eventually learned of it, as well. "I understand it. The Snap-Snaps are the opposite of the Horses, Amani. Where your people are herbivores, they are carnivores. Where your people are warm-blooded and have fur, like us, they are cold blooded and have scales, like a snake. Where your people are peaceful and pacifistic individuals, they are a vicious and brutal hive-mind," Byarl said, and paused for a moment, thinking. "The Last God made the races of Oerth from the dreams of the Ancient Ones. But if the Ancient Ones were like us, even a little, then that explains the Snap-Snaps," Byarl said, and rose to his feet, looking into Amani's brown eyes. "Not all dreams are pleasant, Amani. Some are nightmares."

Amani nodded, and as Byarl slung his rifle and climbed back up the tree, Amani hugged her little mate Ayori for a long, silent moment.

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