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

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Merle gaped in wonder as Jendara led their small group through the halls of the Great Cavern. As lovely and fascinating as the Crystal Cavern had been, Merle found the Great Cavern to be even more so.

The main hall was an enormous, bowl-like room with countless stalactites, stalagmites and columns of limestone. Lights were few and far between - the little lantern Smith carried provided most of the light. Yet, what little Merle could see left her breathless. It was incredibly, gloriously beautiful.

In the walls of the chamber, hundreds of yard-high holes had been carved - each covered with a light spider-silk drape which apparently acted as a door. Each was connected by a system of terraces, and little stairs carved into the limestone walls. Inside each hole was a little house, where a family of mice lived. The 'door' concealed nothing inside, really, and Merle wondered if she should keep her eyes averted after she saw a few mice peering myopically back at her through the doors. None of them came outside their little houses, though, and those that were outside ran away whenever they spotted Merle and the others, squeaking fearfully at the sight (or perhaps the scent) of Xaa and Kahgah.

In the center of the cavern were several low buildings, apparently constructed of limestone rubble from the carved houses in the walls, then plastered together somehow. Jendara led everyone to one of the larger buildings near the center of the cavern, then stopped. She squeaked something in her ancient language, then darted inside the small building.

"My lord, Jendara asks that we remain here, as the inside of the Council-Building is far too small to accommodate you and Lord Kahgah, anyway," Smith translated.

Xaa simply nodded, but Kahgah snorted. "Bah. Judging by all the fearful looks we received walking here, I doubt they'll come out anytime soon."

Smith looked to Kahgah, and Merle could see a fire light Smith's eyes. "So sorry, Lord Kahgah, but they have every right and reason to fear you. Your people committed genocide against my people, and drove us out to live in the wilderness. What few had survived the Night of the Long Knives either fell to bears and other dangers of the wilderness, or simply froze to death when the first winter came, simply because they had no idea how to survive in the wilderness. We once numbered in the millions, even as you do, today - but the majority of our ancestors had lived a quiet, sheltered life all their days, and were totally unprepared and unequipped to survive in the wilderness. Now, so far as I know, there are about a hundred in the Wild Wood who refused to join our village, there are a bit over fifty in my village itself, and perhaps a thousand here - and those that are here are inbred albinos blinded by a lifetime in darkness. There may, perhaps, be other villages of my people scattered here and there in the wilderness that you may find as time goes on, particularly in the mountain ranges that border the lands of the mus to the north and south - but I doubt that even this brings our numbers to more than three thousand. With respect, Lord Kahgah, they have every right to fear you. You have destroyed us."

Kahgah glared down at Smith, but the little mouse did not flinch. Merle stared - Smith truly had been hardened by his experience of being a captive of the cats. Merle had never seen a mouse speak like this... Except for Tinker. 'Now I see where Tinker got his stubborn streak,' Merle thought.

Smith passed the lantern about, casting it's light around the cavern. "Look about you, Lord Kahgah. What do you see?"

Kahgah paused, then crossed his arms. "Houses, small stone huts, and a cave," he growled.

Smith looked to Merle. "And you, Lady Merle? What do you see?"

Merle paused, surprised she was even dragged into this conversation at all. "Ummm... Well, I see all the houses and the cave, too. It's very pretty, though. Really."

"And you, my lord?" Smith asked, looking to Xaa.

Xaa shrugged. "I agree with Merle. It's quite beautiful, here."

"This is what my people see," Smith replied, and clapped the cover closed over the lantern.

Instantly, the little group was plunged into darkness. Merle blinked, startled. It was several long moments before her eyes began to adjust, and she saw the dim, flickering flames of tiny candles in a few of the homes. Most, however, were in total darkness. As Merle's eyes adjusted to the reduced light that escaped from behind the lantern's cover, Smith spoke again, his voice soft. "Darkness. That's all there is for these people. The darkness of oblivion, perhaps," he said, then slowly opened the lantern's cover, giving everyone's eyes a moment to adjust. Smith then looked to Lord Kahgah firmly. "Lord Kahgah, you sought, perhaps, to have Jendara, or others of my people, serving you. I put it to you that what is far more important is that our Age of Darkness come to an end, and our people prosper and grow again. We cannot prosper and grow scattered in pairs or small groups among the mus. We must be all in one place, that we may meet, marry, and bear many children for the future. I do not ask you to respect our choice to remain in Lord Xaa's service, for I already know that you are an honorable mus, and shall do so. No, Lord Kahgah, I ask you to do as Lord Xaa and Emperor W'mefa are doing. Help others to understand our choice, and the necessity of that choice. Someday, when there are more of us, we will take service with other lords who may also wish us - but not before. For now, we must prosper and grow, or our people face the darkness of extinction, and oblivion," Smith said, then bowed to Kahgah.

Kahgah was silent for a long moment, looking at Smith. Merle wondered what he was thinking, but his face was unreadable. At that moment, Jendara came back out, an older male mouse in tow, and Kahgah's gaze fell upon her. Kahgah's eyes softened slightly. After a moment, Kahgah uncrossed his arms, and bowed in return. "Of course, Smith." Kahgah then looked to Xaa. "You were right, Lord Xaa. He is Dash'du'Ragh's dream come true."

Xaa simply nodded. He'd said that many times, to many of the lords and ladies he'd spoken to over the last year. Though Xaa hadn't spoken to Kahgah before this adventure, it was apparent he'd heard from someone else.

Jendara squeaked something in her language, and Smith spoke up again. "My lord, Jendara introduces the mouse beside her as Lannan the Elder. He is the Leader of their Council, and has been empowered to speak for them."

Merle looked to Lannan. He was quite old, with wrinkles around his eyes and a dewlap beneath his muzzle. His gnarled paws rested on a walking stick which was elaborately and intricately carved - Merle guessed (quite correctly) that it was more than a walking aid, but was the symbol of his power among the mice of the Great Cavern. She could tell by his eyes, however, that he was completely blind - his gaze was unfocused, and his glazed, pink-irised eyes did not fix on the same thing, but rather each looked off in their own direction. That, to Merle, was remarkably disquieting.

"Smith, tell him I said this," Xaa said, then bowed. "I greet you, Lannan the Elder. I am Lord Xaa'ap'Gasha, Lord of Clan Xaa. To my right is my mate, Lady Merle Mousefinder of the Musties of Laughing Wood. Beside her is Lord Kahgah'ap'Jhakt of Clan J'taash. Speaking for us is my honored and respected servant, Smith Forgersson of Clan Xaa. We have come in response to Jendara's request for help, Lannan, for you see... We mus forgave you mice a long, long time ago."

Lannan remained silent, listening to Smith's translation as Xaa straightened up. For a long moment after Smith had finished, Lannan said nothing. Finally, Lannan lowered his head, sighed deeply, and wept.

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