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

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"Just climb on carefully, Amani," Ayori called. "Try to keep your weight balanced in the middle."

Amani nodded, carefully pulling herself from the hip-deep water onto the raft that she, Byarl, Bessie and Ayori had made. Built from a dozen logs lashed tightly together, It was a square, flat raft twice as long as Amani was tall. It was also quite heavy - despite Amani's fear that it might tip over while she tried to get aboard it, the raft lay quietly in the waters of the swamp, undisturbed by her movement. Amani sat in the middle of the raft for a moment, feeling the gentle bobbing of the waters, then grinned.

Ayori grinned back, and reached for the packs which contained their supplies. Byarl and Bessie sprinted and hopped from the bank onto the raft, then set down their rifles and helped Ayori transfer their equipment to the raft. A few moments later, Ayori joined them on the raft, and the three musties slung their rifles over their shoulders.

"Okay, Amani," Byarl began, handing the longest and thickest pole to her, "you'll be doing most of the poling, since you're the strongest, and you know where we're going. The rest of us will take turns helping you, and standing guard. For now, Ayori will be on guard. Bessie and I are going to set up the tent, so we'll have a place to sleep. Any questions?" Byarl asked, looking to his three companions.

"No, Chief!" Ayori and Bessie chorused, grinning, and Amani shook her head with a smile.

Byarl then looked to Ayori. "Okay. Ayori, you have an important job, too. On top of everything else, I need you to help Amani stay alert, and stay strong. This will be very hard for her, I imagine. But it's the only way it can be done. Alright?"

"Alright, Chief," Ayori replied, standing next to Amani.

"Alright. Amani, push us off, and let's get underway."

Amani nodded, rising to her feet and wrapping her fore-hooves (which were really like large, thick fingers) around the long pole she'd been given, and pushing against the bank. Amani was, indeed, very strong, as were all horses - in a moment, the raft was drifting across the waters of the swamp. Amani placed herself at the stern of the raft, using her pole to push against the soft, muddy earth beneath the waters of the swamp. Ayori stood beside her, the fingers of his left paw resting lightly upon her hip, his rifle tucked beneath his other arm. His keen eyes roved the swamp carefully, but he knew that Amani would sense any enemies long before he would see them.

The Wild Musties had not seen them off as they began their voyage. Byarl had asked them not to - they needed to attract as little attention as possible, and it was already going to be quite difficult to do so, considering the effort involved in building the raft. So, there was little but the quiet buzz of the insects of the swamp, and the calls of distant birds to send them off. Pup-Chup, the leader of the Wild Musties, had agreed to care for the djuducu-birds while they were gone. Of course, there was little care the enormous animals needed, other than to be carefully penned with plenty of water, and to have large amounts of grass and leaves tossed in for them to eat. Still, once the raft was complete, everything was taken care of, so they decided to set off in the morning, a week after Byarl, Ayori and Amani had sat down and discussed what to do about the Dark One and the threat of the Snap-Snaps.

Ayori looked up to his mate's face for a moment. "Are you alright?"

Amani nodded, trying to watch where she was steering the raft, and hopefully avoid any logs or other submerged objects that might stop them. *I am fine, my little love... Just nervous. It is a dangerous thing we are trying to do, and I am not a brave carnivore, like you, but merely a timid mare.*

Ayori grinned, clapping his paw to his mate's broad hip, feeling the muscles beneath her skin flex as she poled the raft along. "You'll be alright. If what you've guessed of the Dark One is right, this plan will work. Trust yourself - and trust that all three of us will be watching out for you, okay?" Amani nodded, and Ayori grinned again, reaching up to squeeze her muscular rump. "Besides - I won't let the Snap-Snaps eat you. Nobody gets to nibble on you but me," he said, and giggled.

Amani stuck her tongue out at Ayori, and flicked the long hair of her tail across his muzzle. Ayori only giggled louder.

The day passed slowly, and it was an effort at times to pole the raft beyond snags and underwater logs. They had been unopposed so far - but Amani knew that couldn't last. Byarl and Bessie sat quietly on the edge of the raft, fishing, while Ayori kept watch, his paw resting lightly upon his mate's hip. Strangely, the swamp was actually a beautiful place - though a bit gloomy, the constant chirping of insects and the mournful calls of swamp-birds lent a quiet, melancholy song to the swamp.

Finally, towards noon, Amani sensed two of the Snap-Snaps had entered her range. *So, you seek me now, mind-sister?* the Dark One's voice hissed in her mind.

Amani trembled for a moment, then firmed her jaw. She made no reply, and simply continued to pole the raft onwards, towards the center of the vast mentality she sensed, like a glowing light on the horizon.

*I shall kill you, of course.*

Amani snorted. *Dare you even try? Remember what happened the last time you angered me, Dark One. Remember the pain, the terrible pain of death - and remember that I caused it. Trifle not with my patience, again, lest I do something worse.*

It was a bluff, of course.

Amani had not caused the terrible pain the Dark One had experienced - that, in fact, had been caused by it's own actions, in focusing it's entire mind upon controlling one Snap-Snap, and having Ayori kill it. Nor could Amani repeat that experience at will - the Dark One's sensation of all the Snap-Snaps was normally diffuse, and unfocused. Yet, Byarl said it almost certainly would work, and the bluff would be believed. 'The Dark One, or whatever they are, may be incredibly old, but they have never dealt with any mind other than their own, Amani,' Byarl had explained that fateful night a week ago, when Amani, Ayori and Byarl had sat down to discuss the problem. 'I'm betting that they can be bluffed, because they've never been bluffed before. They can be tricked, because they've never been tricked before. And they can be hunted, because they have never been the prey, as we musties have - only the hunter. They think that you are like them. I think that means there is a central mind to this 'hive mind' of theirs - a single Snap-Snap, very old. They may have countless ages of memories to draw upon, but they will be very inexperienced when it comes to some things. And being bluffed, tricked and hunted will be something outside their experience.'

Amani waited breathlessly. If Byarl was right, their plan would work - but if he was wrong, they would, most likely, all be killed.

*I... Perhaps I shall not kill you. Perhaps I shall toy with you awhile longer... Yes. I find you interesting, mind-sister. I believe I shall not kill you just yet,* the Dark One replied, and the Snap-Snaps at the edge of Amani's range withdrew.

Byarl and Bessie looked up at Amani's whinny of joy. "What is it, Amani?"

"What's happened?" Bessie asked, setting her fishing-pole aside and reaching for her rifle.

Ayori listened for his mate's silent voice, then grinned. "Amani says the Dark One believed her bluff."

"Hee!" Bessie crowed, setting her rifle down again and picking up her fishing pole. "You were right, Chief! It's just like you said - they've been alone all this time. They've never played Hottop!"

Byarl grinned. "No, they haven't. Now let's hope I was right about the rest of our plan, too," he replied, then suddenly whooped as the line of his fishing-pole drew taut. "Hey! I've got a bite!"

"Woo-hoo!" Bessie crowed, setting her pole down again and hopping up to get the net.

Hours later, the shadows grew long as afternoon approached. Amani smiled as she poled the raft along. Her mate, her chief and her friend had finished the last of their fish, then, despite the danger, despite the gloominess of the swamp, despite the knowledge that they all might die in this adventure, they sang a happy mustie song. 'It is very good to be a mustie,' Amani thought, and was very glad to be counted among their number.

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