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

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Pup-Chup sat before the enormous deer-like creature, Amani, taking her large fore-hoof between his tiny, callused paws and closing his eyes. It had taken nearly an hour of careful explanation, but eventually, the Strange Ones had managed to explain what they were truly after. For some reason, their whole goal to this point hadn't been mastering the language of Pup-Chup's people - apparently, that was a task of many moons, and Byarl, the leader of the Strange Ones, was unwilling to wait that long. No, apparently the goal Byarl had been driving at was simply to be able to teach Pup-Chup how to hear Amani.

Pup-Chup understood - or thought he did, at any rate. Apparently, hearing the strange deer-girl was a matter of quieting one's thoughts, and listening carefully, as though for a whisper. It seemed simple enough. Byarl had said that many musties in his village in the far north learned the trick immediately, some within an hour or so, and a few within a few days to a week. Either way, no one of his village had apparently failed to learn the trick, save for very young children, whose active and energetic minds lacked the attention span necessary for it. Pup-Chup had quietly resolved that he would learn the trick as quickly as possible - he had no intention of having the strangers look upon him as a child. So far as he could tell, he was only a few years younger than Byarl, and he was chief of his tribe. He would not be looked down upon. Of course, where Byarl apparently had his goals, Pup-Chup had goals of his own.

Pup-Chup wished desperately to learn the secrets of the fire-weapons the strangers carried. He could easily see that weapons like this in the paws of all the adults in his tribe would make short work of any attacking mob of Snap-Snaps. Yet, it was obvious that it would take many, many moons for Byarl to learn his language well enough to explain how they were made. This was time Pup-Chup was more than willing to spend, of course. However, it was apparent that Byarl was not. "You learn talk Amani," Byarl had explained. "Then all much easy, much fast." Pup-Chup had simply nodded - if the strange deer-girl could, indeed, make talking more convenient, then perhaps he might learn the secret, after all.

Ayori, whose paw rested lightly upon Amani's arm, chittered something to Byarl, who spoke up immediately. "Amani say you think much. Stop think. Relax. Empty mind. Listen for Amani voice. Like whisper. Very quiet. Must listen careful," Byarl said.

Pup-Chup nodded, and tried to still his mind, and not to worry about what might or might not be should this succeed. It was difficult, as there was much riding on the success of this, but he struggled to simply sit quietly, and listen.

*Can you hear me now?*

Pup-Chup nearly leapt out of his skin at the strange, silent whisper that echoed in his mind. "Hear you, I do!" he yelped, startled.

"Woo-hoo!" Bessie cheered, and Ayori applauded. Byarl, however, just pointed at Amani.

"Listen more," Byarl said, and Pup-Chup nodded.

*There is much to tell you, and little time to tell it in,* Amani's silent voice continued, once Pup-Chup had resumed listening. *My chief does not intend to stay here too much longer. His mate and the rest of his tribe await, far in the north.*

Pup-Chup looked at Amani in confusion. "Chief?"

*Byarl Bearkiller, the mustelid sitting to my left, is my chief. I am the mate of Ayori Treeclimber, the mustelid sitting to my right. I have been accepted by him and his people as a member of their tribe,* Amani replied, and nickered in amusement at the surprised thoughts that passed through Pup-Chup's mind. *Yes, you are right. I am not a mustie - I am a horse. But I have been accepted and embraced by the musties of my tribe, and they consider me to be a mustie - although a very large one who only eats greens.*

Pup-Chup stared. Amani was hearing his very thoughts. He did not need to speak at all - she simply knew what he was thinking.

Amani smiled again. *You are correct again. I hear your thoughts easily - though it takes a bit of practice for you to hear mine, as you are a carnivore, and mind-deaf.*

Pup-Chup's mind filled with countless questions he wanted to ask, all at once. How was it that Amani could hear his thoughts? How was it that she could be mated to Ayori? And most importantly, how was it that the Strange Ones made the fire-weapons? That, most of all, Pup-Chup wanted to know.

Amani whinnied with laughter, and Ayori grinned as he squeezed his mate's arm. "Amani says he's thinking a thousand and twenty-four different questions right now, Chief."

Byarl nodded. "Try to answer each one as best you can, Amani. Take your time, and ask us if you need help."

And that is precisely what Amani did. Over the next two hours, she spoke with Pup-Chup, answering all the questions he had with the help of Ayori, Bessie, and Byarl. Pup-Chup was very eager to learn how to make firearms - and very disappointed to learn that without iron mines, smelters and many, many more things that they did not have in the jungles, it was impossible. He learned why Byarl, Bessie, Arori and Amani had come to the jungles in the first place - to invite all the musties of the jungles to come north, and join with them and the mus. In the north, Amani explained, there would be no fear of Snap-Snaps. Though there were bears in the north, which were just as dangerous, once equipped with rifles just like Byarl's tribe, none of Pup-Chup's people need fear them. All this and much, much more Amani explained as best she could - and, in truth, it was perhaps a bit easier for her to do so. Pup-Chup's language lacked many of the concepts that Amani explained, such as what a rifle was, what gunpowder was, what iron and steel were, and many, many more things. Yet, because Amani understood them, Pup-Chup understood her explanations.

Amani smiled - her aphasic mind was, perhaps, a great advantage in expressing these ideas, and the first time she truly felt useful on this journey. Rather than communicating in words, which represented ideas, she communicated with the ideas themselves, without words. She sometimes would have to stop and explain many other things that her ideas brought up that Pup-Chup did not understand, or was curious about. And more, Amani knew from his thoughts that Pup-Chup was beginning to find the limitations of his own language somewhat frustrating - he realized that though he understood what Amani was saying, he could not explain to his people what he understood, simply because their language lacked the words to explain it. Still, he did understand.

Finally, Pup-Chup's last question had been answered. He stared at Amani for a long moment in silence. What the Strange Ones offered was something he had never considered before - it was, in fact, almost inconceivable. To leave the tribal lands? To abandon their homes of countless generations? Impossible. And yet...

*That is precisely what my mate's ancestors did, countless years ago,* Amani replied to Pup-Chup's thoughts. *In the north, you would no longer fear the Snap-Snaps. You would also learn the skills of my tribe, and be able to make the very weapons and armor you see them wearing. And yet, there is more. The musties of the north have much, much more knowledge that I have not even begun to learn, and the mus still more besides, and the mice even more than that. All of this knowledge could be yours, should you choose to come. And, you would have the mus, the mice, and the horses as friends.*

Pup-Chup nodded, thinking. To go north with the Strange Ones... It would be a vast journey, to be sure. Many would not want to leave their tribal lands, abandoning their home of countless ages. Yet, Pup-Chup could see that Amani was right - there would be enormous advantages to doing so. Vast knowledge would become available to them - better medicines to cure disease and heal injuries, better weapons to hunt and defend themselves with, and new allies who were helpful and nice.

Pup-Chup sat, staring at his lap in silence. After a long moment, he released Amani's fore-hoof, and rose to his feet. "Too much. Think on this awhile, must I. Talk to the others in my tribe, must I. Later shall I tell you what I decide," Pup-Chup replied, then turned and began climbing up the tree.

"Do you think he'll come with us, Amani?" Bessie asked, looking after Pup-Chup as he climbed up to the lodge, high above.

Amani closed her eyes for a moment, then opened them, looked to Bessie, and shrugged. Ayori spoke up after a moment. "She says he might, Bessie. It's hard to say. She says that when she turns her inner eye to the question of whether he'll stay or come with us, either possibility seems equally likely."

"I hope he decides to bring his tribe with us," Byarl said, looking up to the lodge above. "Lord Xaa is right - the more musties in the north, the better."

Bessie nodded. "I'll talk to him, Chief," she replied, and began climbing up the tree, following Pup-Chup.

Byarl simply nodded, but Ayori looked at Bessie, blinking in confusion. "Ummm... She's going to talk to him? How? She barely knows an octet of words in his language!" he asked, after a long moment.

Amani nickered in amusement. *She will make herself understood, my little love.*

"I think she'll find a way around that, Ayori," Byarl replied with a grin, echoing Amani's thoughts.

Ayori grinned back at Byarl. "Well, I guess she will, at that."

Byarl looked to Amani. "Do you think any of them will come at all, Amani?"

Amani paused, closing her eyes for a moment, and turning her inner eye to the question Byarl had asked. She could see the immediate nexus quite easily - Pup-Chup would, eventually, tell those of his tribe, and many others, as well. As she relaxed her mind, following the nexi of probabilities with her inner eye, she suddenly stopped. Amani's eyes went wide, and her heart pounded.

Amani could see by the vision of her inner eye that the Snap-Snaps would grow in numbers endlessly. Already they were within a few years of being too populous for even the vast swamps to support their endless appetites, and they hunted the edges of the jungle. If they were not stopped, a great catastrophe loomed on the horizon. Within a century, perhaps two, as their numbers continued to grow and grow, they would expand northward, coming into conflict with the other races. A colossal war would be fought - the armies of the Felines and the Mus struggling to hold back the surging tide of millions from the south. In the end, only the cold winters in the northern lands would hold the Snap-Snaps back, and only the superior technology of the northern races would allow them to win against an enemy who had little more than teeth, claws and raw numbers on their side. But before the war ended, hundreds of thousands of innocents would die. Amani knew the Snap-Snaps had to be stopped - and more, she knew they could be stopped, though she knew not how. The vision of her inner eye only told her that it was possible. She could not see how it could be done.

But what made Amani's vision all the more terrible was that she knew, in the end, all of it was entirely her fault.

"What is it?" Byarl asked, seeing Amani's expression.

Ayori looked to Amani, squeezing her arm reassuringly. After a long moment, he looked to Byarl. "Amani says she's had a vision - and it's not a nice one," he replied, and explained what Amani had told him.

Byarl stared at Amani. "Wait, wait. Your fault? How is that your fault?"

"Amani says that the Snap-Snaps don't have to hunt the jungle. They could expand farther to the east, or to the south. But they're going to go into the jungle, and the musties who stay here will die. And all because of her," Ayori replied.

"Yes, but why?! Why is it her fault?"

"Because she hurt the Dark One, and made it angry. It thinks she's like it is, and all the musties are like the Snap-Snaps - mindless pawns. It can't sense our minds - only hers. It will expand out into the jungle looking for her, and eventually will expand north, looking for her. She'll be long dead of old age by the time the first Snap-Snap crosses the mountains - but it won't know that. It's thousands of years old, Chief, and it thinks she's the same," Ayori explained, and Amani nodded, hanging her head. As tears slipped from her eyes, Ayori continued. "She's really upset, Chief. She thinks that many, many people are going to die, and it's all her fault."

As Ayori reached out to hug and comfort his mate, Byarl frowned, his mind working furiously. "Well... Okay. First things, first. This is not your fault, Amani. You didn't do anything wrong, okay? Ayori shot that Snap-Snap, not you. You helped us kill it, yes - but you didn't kill it by yourself. And not only did you not know that would happen when you screamed at it, even if you did know, you didn't have any choice in the matter - it just happened. Besides, if you hadn't done what you did, one of the three of us would be dead. Maybe all of us. Also the real blame for this, if it even happens, will be with this... Dark One, whatever it is. And, really, the blame ultimately lies with the Last God, who created the Snap-Snaps in the first place. Alright? This is not your fault. You may have knocked over the this long string of dominoes, but they were set up to fall by the Last God a long time before you ever were born. Okay?"

Amani smiled weakly at Byarl's reference to a mustie-game, and nodded. Still, her eyes misted with tears.

"He's right, Amani," Ayori said, and nuzzled his mate. "This isn't your fault. Someday, some horse would have come down here, and run across the Snap-Snaps. Maybe they'd get eaten, maybe they wouldn't - but either way, just simple curiosity might have caused it to expand out of the swamps, looking for more. It's not your fault."

Amani sighed as Ayori wiped away her tears again, then nodded. After a moment, she looked to Byarl.

"Amani wants to know what we'll do about this, Chief. They have to be stopped, somehow. But how?"

Byarl sat silently for a long moment, stroking his whiskers in thought. "Hmmm... That, Ayori, is a very good question. Let's sit here a bit, the three of us, and see if we can't think of an equally good answer."

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