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

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Amani poled the raft firmly into the bank of the low hill that made up the island. It wasn't much to look at - a low and wide mound of earth rising from the murky waters of the swamp, and a few gnarled and ancient trees that grew from it. It had taken them days to get here, but now their journey was finally at an end.

"Is that it, Amani?" Byarl whispered, checking the charge in the pan of his rifle. Bessie and Ayori did likewise, then looked to the enormous mare. Amani simply nodded, pointing with a fore-hoof as she jabbed the pole into the muck. Byarl nodded in return, then made a silent gesture to Ayori and Bessie, a mustie hunting-sign. Amani understood it, as she could read the meaning from Byarl's mind. Quietly, the four companions stepped off the raft, and onto the soft, squishy earth of the low hill that was their goal.

*You have come to kill me, now...* the Dark One said, it's voice tinged with fear. Over the last three days, as it became apparent where they were going, the Dark One had slowly grown more and more afraid, until now, it's mind-voice fairly quivered with terror. Now, it was definitely in fear of it's life - but it was too terrified of what Amani might do to act against her or the musties.

*Be silent,* Amani snapped in reply, her tone the same as one might use for a recalcitrant foal. It was difficult to maintain the facade - Amani was as terrified as the Dark One was. Yet, it had to be done.

They four companions walked up the hill, a hundred pairs of eyes watching them from the waters of the swamp. After a few moments, they crested the rise, and Amani found she and her friends were looking down into a small depression in the top of the hill. There was not a scrap of grass or weed about - all had been worn down ages ago by countless feet, and the movements of the depression's occupant. Amani stared in surprise and horror - the creature before her was beyond anything she could possibly have imagined before now.

Lying in the depression at the top of the hill was a long, grotesquely bloated Snap-Snap, at least three times the length of any others they had seen watching them these last four days. It's arms and legs were stunted, as though they had reached their maximum growth, but the body continued to grow. The horribly bloated thing could not possibly walk - Amani doubted it's stunted limbs could even lift and carry it out of this shallow depression (though it seemed likely it could swim, if it ever managed to enter the water). The scales of the creature were faded in color, and like the faded bark of an ancient tree, had the appearance of immense age. The tip of it's massive tail flicked nervously, and it rumbled a low, thunderous sound of fear. Beside and around it were a dozen Snap-Snaps, who caressed it gently with their paws, and eyed Amani and the musties warily. What Amani found most surprising was the eyes of the large Snap-Snap. They were milky, and obviously blind. Scattered about on the compacted earth were countless bone fragments - the relics of endless amounts of game brought by countless hunting-parties, crushed to powder by ages of innumerable feet, and the massive bulk of what was obviously the Dark One.

*You asked me once to teach you of fear,* Amani said, gazing at the immense and ancient reptile.

*So I did, mind-sister, and so you have. I find I tremble in your presence. It is a terrible feeling. I want to kill you. I want to rend your flesh, and feel your meat slide down my gullet. Yet, I cannot. I find I fear what may happen if I try to kill you just as much as I fear what may happen if I do not,* the Dark One replied, and her massive body shuddered.

*I am not here today to teach you fear. That is something I believe you have already learned quite well.*

*Then why are you here?*

*To teach you two lessons. The first is that the musties, whom you thought were merely an extension of my mind, even as the Snap-Snaps are of yours, are not. They are independent, thinking beings - it is simply that their minds are closed to you, and you cannot sense their thoughts.*

*Impossible. They are animals. They have no mind. They are not part of me. Yet, they use tools - they must be part of you.*

*And I say they are not. I am an independent mind, as well. And I shall prove this.*


*One of the musties will walk up to you, and touch you. They will not harm you, so long as you do nothing - but if you make any sudden moves, I'm afraid they will kill you.*

*I will not be harmed?*

*If you make no move to harm them.*

*I will do nothing, then.*

Amani nodded, and Byarl set down his rifle, then walked over to the enormous Snap-Snap as Bessie and Ayori aimed their rifles at it's head. Amani could sense the Dark One exerting her will ever so slightly, and the Snap-Snaps that attended her slipped away, down the hill, and into the murky waters of the swamp. Her control over them was not perfect - they would instinctively attack Byarl should he approach too close. Thus, she sent them away.

All the fur on Byarl's body was fluffed out - but he did not falter. This was, without a doubt, the most dangerous part of the plan, and the vision of Amani's inner eye could not see what the outcome might be - whoever tried it might just as easily succeed, or die. As such, this was something Byarl would only do himself - he would not allow Bessie or Ayori to try it. Now, looking at the enormous, horrifying beast before him, he knew his decision was the right one. It's jaws were large enough to simply swallow him whole with one gulp - his armor would not save him. It's limbs, though appearing stunted and small on this massive body, were still longer than he was tall - and were equipped with claws half a foot long. Though Ayori and Bessie probably were aiming directly at it's brain, it was so huge, Byarl knew it was unlikely to be killed even if their shots were perfect. It's skull was, at a guess, at least an inch thick over it's brainpan, and it's hide looked old and tough. If it decided to turn violent, Byarl knew he was doomed. Still, the decision had been made - the plan had to be carried through.

Gingerly, Byarl reached out, and laid a paw on the thick, scaled arm of the Dark One. After a few moments, he closed his eyes, and concentrated.

*I... I heard it's voice!* the Dark One exclaimed after a moment.

*It is even as I told you - they have minds, just as you and I do, but their minds are closed to you,* Amani replied, and smiled. It was as she had hoped - just as touch aided Amani's communication with the musties, the vast and enormously more powerful mass-mind of the Dark One could reach through it's own limitations and hear the minds of the Musties at their touch. Amani nickered softly, and Byarl backed away. A few moments later, he had picked up his rifle again, and stood beside Amani.

The Dark One rumbled quietly, her mind awhirl. The notion that there were, perhaps, thousands and thousands of minds about her, none of which she could sense, was a unique and somewhat disturbing thought. After a moment, she spoke again. *You said there were two things you would teach me, mind-sister. What was the second?*

*Though your mind is thousands of years old, I imagine that the blind, bloated body I see before me is only a few centuries old. I can tell from the memories I sense in you that you are not quite unique among your kind - Perhaps every hundred years or so, one like you is hatched, and joins your mass-mind. While the ordinary members of your kind grow, reproduce and die without a thought, these are beings greater than them, and like yourself, live centuries. There are many, many lesser minds scattered among the mindless ones of your people, their mentalities suppressed by your own dominance. Here, close to your center, I can sense a few of them nearby, hovering, waiting. Someday, this body I see before me will die, and the strongest of these lesser minds will expand to fill the void, your consciousness continuing unchanged. It is so basic to your existence you do not even recognize it - but I am a seer of my people, and more skilled at reading and understanding the minds of others. Now that I am near your center, near the physical body that houses your central mind, all your mind is laid bare to my mind. And now, I shall teach you something important, something that you shall need to know, if you are to survive another ten thousand years.*

*And what is that?*

*Mercy,* Amani said, and smiled, projecting thoughts of warmth and tenderness to the grotesque, swollen, hideous beast before her. *The musties here could kill this body now, and the pain of that would probably hurt you deeply. Instead, they simply ask that you stop hunting the jungle, and stop hunting their people. They ask that you expand eastwards, and southwards. If you will agree to leave their people in peace, if you will agree to expand away from their people, then they will agree to leave you alive, and unharmed.*

There was a long silence, broken only by the first quiet notes of the bullfrogs, warming up their voices for the coming evening's chorus. The Dark One paused, digging it's claws into the dirt beneath itself, feeling the grit of the little bone fragments beneath it's fingers. It took a breath, savoring the familiar and comforting smells of the swamp. It listened, hearing the singing of thousands of frogs beginning, the omnipresent buzz of insects, and the quiet, mournful call of a night-bird. Amani could tell it was thinking, searching it's feelings, exploring itself, and it's memories.

Finally, the milky eyes blinked. *I agree,* she replied, and said no more.

Amani nickered softly, jerking her head towards the raft, behind them. Byarl nodded, and gestured to Ayori and Bessie. Silently, they left the small depression at the top of the hill and went back down to the raft. Byarl, Bessie and Ayori stood guard as Amani snatched up her pole and pushed them off into the waters of the swamp again. Quietly, she poled them away from the Dark One's little island. The Snap-Snaps did not follow.

For a long time, no words were spoken on the tiny raft. The musties remained alert, watching the waters of the swamp with their keen night-vision, their paws gripping their rifles. An hour passed, and finally it was too dark for Amani to see. She poled them over to a tree whose trunk rose from the dark, chill waters, then stopped, setting her pole onto the raft and tying the raft off to the tree so it wouldn't drift in the night. Once done, she sat quietly in the darkness.

Ayori stood beside his enormous mate, and rested his paw upon her shoulder. After a moment, he looked to Byarl. "She says we're safe, Chief. She says the vision of her inner eye has changed, too. The Snap-Snaps will leave the mustie-jungle alone, and expand to the east and south."

"Woo-hoo!" Bessie crowed, and Byarl grinned. Amani, however, sighed deeply.

Byarl looked to Amani in confusion. "What's wrong?"

Ayori listened to his mate for a moment, then looked to his chief. "She's sad, Chief."

"Why?" Bessie asked, pulling off her helmet and sitting on it.

"Because many, many musties died to the Snap-Snaps, and even though now it knows they were intelligent, it doesn't feel remorse, only a kind of idle curiosity. It now knows it's safe, and won't be hurt - but it doesn't feel happy, only content. Amani says that despite it's vast mind, it's really not very much different than a snake - just many, many times smarter. It doesn't have much of any kind of strong emotions, really. Just the one emotion she taught it - fear. And that's kind of sad."

Byarl and Bessie nodded. "Yes, it is," Byarl said, pulling off his own helmet and sitting beside Bessie.

"There's more, too. She says the vision of her inner eye shows her that fear will make it never want to approach any of the other races. She says that it's her vision that someday, the races of Oerth will reach for the stars - but not the Snap-Snaps. They will hide in the swamps and bayous and jungles, and will never come out again. They will live with fear, because of her - perhaps until the end of time. That, to a horse, is a very terrible thing to do to someone, even if they are mean and cruel like the Dark One is and do deserve it. She says..." Ayori paused, then sighed. "She says she feels very ashamed," Ayori explained, and set his rifle down on the raft, reaching out to hug his enormous mate.

"Awww!" Bessie replied, setting her rifle down and hopping over to hug Amani. Byarl did likewise, and in a moment, all three musties were hugging Amani. "Don't you worry about that, Amani! You did the right thing!" Bessie said, stroking Amani's mane.

"And the just thing, too," Byarl added, patting Amani's shoulder. "The Dark One has caused our ancestors to live in fear since time immemorial. It's only fair that the Dark One learn fear, in turn, and live with it for a few thousand years, as we did."

Ayori nodded. "Besides, Amani - you taught it fear. Maybe, someday, another horse will come by, and teach it something else. Like happiness. Or love," he said, and nuzzled his mate lovingly.

Amani smiled, then reached over and hugged Bessie and Byarl in turn. She then looked to her mate, and nuzzled him back long and tenderly. *Perhaps they will, my little love. Perhaps they will.*


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