of the Last God
(Book IV of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 2001 BY
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Merle crouched down a bit, sniffing the cave floor as she hid in the long shadows cast by the sunlight streaming in from outside. Silently, she looked back to Xaa, then nodded. "I smell one mouse, and the same two scents that we picked up back in the caverns. They definitely came this way - and not long ago," she whispered.
Xaa nodded. The nose of a mustie was quite keen, even sharper than that of a mouse, and certainly sharper than that of a mus. Xaa glanced back to Lord Kahgah. "Stay here and guard the Little Ones," he rumbled quietly, meaning Smith and Jendara, who stood in the shadows beside Kahgah. "Merle and I will scout ahead, then return."
Kahgah nodded silently, checking his rifle for a moment, then kneeling behind a large stalagmite. Smith and Jendara simply remained where they were, hidden nearby. Smith was carrying Xaa's rifle for him, as though it had a longer range than Xaa's bow, it was also slower to reload and far noisier. Both were wearing their armor and helmets - Merle, of course, had simply worn her armor as clothing for the entire trip, as it was more convenient. After quietly nocking an arrow, Xaa followed Merle as she stealthily slipped to the entrance of the cave, and peered out into the valley beyond.
It was a strange and beautiful place, and Xaa found he was taken aback for a moment. Unlike any ordinary valley, it was nearly perfectly round, and about two thirds of a league across. Immensely tall, sheer cliffs surrounded it, as though it had been carved from the heart of the mountains themselves by the paw of a precise and careful god. Filling the valley was a vast forest made of countless trees, mostly oaks and ancient pines, and all appearing to be incredibly ancient. The fur on the back of Xaa's neck stood up - he didn't like the look of this place, not at all. It was too strange... Too perfectly formed... And far too quiet.
"It's too quiet," Merle whispered, looking around.
"I agree," Xaa replied, his eyes scanning every nearby bush and tree for any possible signs of danger.
"No, I mean it. Listen," Merle hissed.
Xaa paused, and listened. He could hear, high above them, the mountain winds blowing over the tops of the cliffs. A gentle breeze stirred the trees, flowers and bushes in the valley itself, but apparently the height of the cliffs prevented the brunt of the chill mountain winds from coming down into the valley. A quiet buzz of insects could be heard, but that was all. "I hear nothing," Xaa whispered after a moment.
"Exactly," Merle replied, her fur standing on end. "No bird-sounds. Where are the birds?"
Xaa blinked. "You're right. There aren't any bird-sounds. How strange..."
Carefully, quietly, Xaa and Merle slipped out from the small cave. Merle alternated between glancing down to follow the tracks of the canids, and glancing around at the forest. Xaa, for his part, kept a careful eye on their surroundings, so they wouldn't be ambushed. In a few moments, they were deep within the ancient, silent forest, slipping from shadow to shadow in the gloom beneath the tall canopy of leaves above.
After an hour, Merle paused. "Xaa..." she whispered, nervously.
"What?" Xaa hissed back quietly.
"There's no rabbits here, either. No rabbits, no opossums... And no snakes, I'll bet."
"What do you think has happened?"
Merle shook her head. "I don't know - but I haven't found a single rabbit pellet or 'possum dropping, no signs of bird nests, nothing. Just plants and bugs is all that's here. Either there never were any, or..."
"Or these canids, whatever they are, hunted everything out."
"The latter seems more likely, to me," Xaa whispered. "Look here," he said, holding his bow and arrow in one paw, and pointing with a finger to the side of the tree nearby them.
Merle looked up. "I can't see anything from here."
Xaa quietly slipped the arrow back into the quiver on his back, then shouldered the bow and picked Merle up. Lifting her to his head-level, he looked to the tree. "There. See it now?"
Merle nodded, looking at the small hole in the bark of the tree. It was an ancient wound, and Merle could tell it was made years before she was ever born. "Yes, I'd seen a couple others like that. I thought they were Woodpecker holes, at first - or maybe some kind of bug."
"No. It's a bullet-hole. Look again," Xaa said, and Merle did. After a long moment, she drew her knife and pried at the small hole in the soft bark of the pine. A few moments later, she had it out - a small, lead ball, half of it darkened from exposure to the elements, but the other half still somewhat shiny.
"It's been here a long time," Merle commented, examining the ball carefully. "Decades, maybe. It's about fifty-six caliber, the way you measure it."
Xaa nodded, setting Merle down silently, then readied his bow again, nocking an arrow. Merle slipped the ball into her little pouch of slingstones, then resumed silently leading Xaa, following the scent-trail of the canids.
It was the scent of meat that caught Merle's nose first. The gentle breezes that wafted through the strange, silent forest brought the smell of a cookfire, and the scent of roasting meat. Merle's stomach growled, and her mouth watered. She, like Xaa and Kahgah, had been eating jerky for weeks, now. Merle pushed aside pleasant thoughts of roasting meat with an effort. The smell also meant they were close to the camp of the canids - if the mice were right, there were only a dozen of them. It was likely they all lived in the same place.
After another hour of stealthily, silently creeping through the woods, Merle stopped, peering from behind a large tree. "What is that?" she whispered.
Xaa, hiding behind the same tree Merle was, gazed silently at the strange construction. It appeared to be a building of some kind, but beyond that, it was difficult to say.
The main body of the building was covered with vines and other growth. Yet, beneath the vines and creepers, the shape of some alien building could be seen. It was unlike anything Merle had ever seen before - the buildings of the mice and the musties were, of course, small, dome-shaped, and partly underground. The buildings of the mus were tall, and had many baroque details of roofline and frame. Merle wondered if it might be like the buildings of the felines, then discarded that notion. From what little she remembered of Castle V'Nass and the buildings in and around it, the cats preferred smooth, graceful lines to their architecture. No, the strange, low building, covered in creepers and vines and mosses, was nothing Merle had ever seen or imagined before. Yet, what lay behind it was even more strange.
In the center of a vast clearing, rising from the forest floor, long, arched beams of carved wood curved and reached for the sky. To Merle, it looked like the ribcage of some ancient and enormous beast, slowly rotting, the creepers and vines already beginning their ascent. Scraps of fabric clung to the arcing wooden ribs, eerily reminiscent of tattered strips of flesh dangling from bare bones. The whole construction was huge - perhaps a hundred feet high at it's tallest point, and several hundred feet long. "What is that?" Merle whispered.
"I don't know, Merle - I've never seen anything like it," Xaa rumbled quietly. "It's as big as a whale... Whatever it was. It looks... I don't know. Wrecked, like a crashed ship, or a building in ruins." Xaa pointed with the arrow he had nocked. "The smoke from the fire seems to be coming from the other side of that building. Let's sneak around to the right, here, and see if we can't get a better look."
Merle nodded in agreement, and slowly they made their way around the edge of the clearing. Merle grinned as Xaa silently moved behind her, following. She remembered the first time Xaa had followed her on a hunt, back in the Wild Wood. She'd been concerned that the enormous carnivorous mouse would be somewhat noisy, but he was not - he was as silent and sneaky as she was. 'As quiet as a mouse,' she had joked to herself. Of course, now, she knew the reason why - Xaa had spent years scouting and raiding the cats who had stolen his lands, and had become one of the most deadly warriors the mus had ever produced as a result.
As they slowly worked their way around the edge of the vast clearing, the smell of roasting meat became stronger, and Merle's stomach growled. Merle frowned - it wouldn't do to make any extra noise. A gentle paw on her shoulder stopped her, and she looked up to Xaa. "What is it? You hungry, too?" she whispered.
"No. I just noticed something..." Xaa whispered back, jerking his chin towards the strange, rib-like wooden girders. "Merle, I think that thing was once an airship. Look there - and there, on the ground. Engines, of some kind. With propellers."
Merle looked at the vine-covered heaps of metal Xaa indicated, and nodded. They weren't steam engines, but they were engines for an airship, that was obvious. "Maybe it crashed here, next to that little vine-covered building?"
"Or was landed a long time ago, and couldn't take off again," Xaa replied, nodding. "Whatever happened, it must have been an incredible vehicle, Merle. Look at it - it's easily ten times the size of our own airships. Those ribs, there... They must be pine, or some other light wood, reinforced, somehow... Incredible."
"Look! There's one of them!" Merle hissed, resisting the urge to point, which would only have given their position away.
Xaa gazed curiously at the strange creature Merle had spotted. It was a bit taller than he was, but slender, like a cat. It's tail was short and furry, like Merle's, but it's ears were pointed. The clothing it wore over it's ash-gray fur was little more than tatters and rags. It carried a long knife in it's paw, and as they watched, it walked around the edge of the vine-covered building and was lost from view. Merle had never seen a wolf, and so could not truly recognize what the creature was - nor, for that matter, had any living being on Oerth today ever seen a wolf. There were no wolves on Oerth today, nor foxes, nor any other kind of dog, nor had there been for ten thousand years.
Merle and Xaa moved a bit farther along around the edge of the clearing, and after a moment, the campfire and the rest of the canids came into view. Some were sitting on logs and eating, while others were working, carefully preparing strips of meat to be smoked and jerked. There were about twelve, in all, just as the mice had thought. As two of them stepped away from the cookfire, Merle caught sight of what they were cooking...
"Oh, Spirits!" she shrieked, horrified.
Xaa wasted no time - as the heads of the canids turned to look in the direction of Merle's horrified shriek, he acted. Stepping from behind the tree they were hiding behind, he roared his challenge, and drew his bow. The canids stared at Xaa in shock and surprise, and only when the first arrow caught one of them in the throat, sending him thrashing to the ground in a bloody agony of dying, did they begin to move.
Six of them immediately began to run towards Xaa and Merle, long and wicked knives in their paws. Merle stood there, behind the tree, unable to move, her mind numbed with the horror of what she had seen. Xaa's bow thrummed four times in rapid succession, sending four enemies to the ground thrashing and dying, then he tossed it aside, and drew his sword.
There were two canids facing him, and they were very fast and agile. Xaa slashed at the nearest one, but it nimbly dodged his cut. The other began to circle behind him - it was apparent they intended to attack him from both front and back at once.
Merle snarled, drawing her knife, and leaped from behind the tree at the one trying to get behind her mate, slashing at the back of his legs. The canid howled in agony, slipping and falling to the ground, it's hamstring cut. In a flurry of violent fury, Merle stabbed the creature over and over in the back. It rolled over, grappling with her, trying to stab and to bite, but Merle's armor was proof against it's blade and her helmet was proof against it's fangs. Merle stabbed over and over in a violent rush of rage, fury and horror.
The one facing Xaa looked at Merle in surprise, and in that moment of distraction, Xaa drew his sword over his right shoulder, leaped forward in a short balestra with his left foot foremost, then slashed his sword horizontally in a whistling, lethal arc to send the canid's head spinning free from his body. At that moment, the one Merle had stabbed with her knife gave one long, violent shudder, then lay still, the effects of twelve knife-thrusts finally taking their toll.
"Come on!" Xaa roared, and charged the remaining canids. Merle leaped to her feet and ran, following as fast as her little legs would carry her.
It was short, bloody work, and by the time Merle finally caught up, it was mostly over. Two more tried to fight with the knives they carried - Xaa cut them down after a few moments. Two simply lay there on the ground, trembling and spasming in some sort of fit - Merle finished each with a quick thrust to the heart, her fangs bared in rage. The last stepped out from the vine-covered building, a strange musket in it's paws. The muzzle of the musket was flared and wide, like a bell, and Merle had never seen the like. The canid lifted the musket, aiming at Xaa, and pulled the trigger. There was a flash, and a sputter of ancient powder in the pan, but that was all. Xaa snarled, stepping forward to decapitate his foe, then looked around for more enemies.
There were none. The clearing was silent, save for the crackling of the campfire, and their own heavy breathing.
Merle looked to the skinned, roasted and partially-eaten remains that hung over the campfire, and wept.
Xaa took one last look around, then wiped his sword on his sash and sheathed it, kneeling beside Merle to hug her. He knew, of course, that long ago, the felines had eaten the Little Ones. Such was the fate the mus saved the mice from many, many ages ago. The cats, today, had changed, and now considered such things disgusting. The canids, however, apparently did not. Perhaps they had never matured as a people - or, perhaps, they were driven to it by desperation, as there was nothing else for a carnivore to eat in this strange little valley. Either way, it mattered little to Xaa. They were dead - that was all that mattered. "It's alright, Merle. They're dead, now."
A strange voice interrupted Merle's reply. "Yes, quite so, Lord Xaa'ap'Gasha. Their suffering is finally at an end. I'm sure they would thank you - if they could."
Xaa leaped to his feet, his sword flashing to his paw as he turned to face the threat - then he paused, staring in surprise. Merle, too, gaped at the strange person standing in the doorway of the low, vine-covered building.
"It's another god!" Merle yelped.
"More like a goddess, from the look of it," Xaa growled, and spat.
Merle nodded, looking the creature over. It - or perhaps she - was a bit taller than Xaa, and unlike the Last God whom Merle and Xaa had encountered four years ago, stood on a pair of legs. Her lower legs and feet were very strange, by Merle's standards. She did not walk on her toes, as did all intelligent creatures of Oerth, but on the span of foot between heel and toe. The large metal plates across her chest were shaped in a manner undeniably reminiscent of breasts, but more as an artist's afterthought, rather than anything functional. She was naked, as the Last God was, but this meant little - like him, her hide was all of armor-like metal, and she had no external genitalia. Her head was smooth, like an oval, with no visible eyes, ears, or other features - and not resembling the head of a normal person in any way, as it had no muzzle.
The creature laughed, a sound like tinkling crystal. "I am neither, as both of you well know," she replied in the language of the Little People. "I am a machine of the people you call 'The Ancient Ones', even as was the machine you found and destroyed four years ago, which you called 'The Last God.' As you should now realize, it was hardly a god, and it was hardly the last." She turned, gesturing towards the open door of the vine-covered building. "Won't you come inside my little house? I'm afraid I cannot offer much in the way of amenities, as the only food is what the canids were eating, and I can tell from your minds that you would find it quite unpalatable. Still, if I cannot feed your bodies, I can at least feed your minds. I sense that both of you are simply bursting with questions, and I do believe I can answer most of them."
Xaa sheathed his sword - he knew that it would be useless against the creature, even as his weapons were useless against the Last God. "No," he rumbled. "First, we must bury what is left of their victim."
The creature nodded, then stepped inside the building for a moment, returning with a shovel - apparently once belonging to the dead canids. Merle wiped her knife clean, then sheathed it as Xaa began the work of digging the grave.
An hour later, the grisly task was done, and all the corpses were buried in shallow graves. The strange machine again gestured invitingly. "Shall we go in?" she asked.
Merle reached up, taking Xaa's enormous, callused paw into her tiny one. "Let's go, Xaa."
Xaa nodded, and together, they
followed the strange, ancient machine into it's small home.
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