of the Last God
(Book IV of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 2001 BY
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Jendara stopped, and leaned against the slender tree nearby to rest, her little mousie-tail drooping to the ground with exhaustion. For the thousandth time, she wondered if her decision had been the right one.
The Elders had initially opposed the idea, of course. To them, the passing of eight centuries would hardly have eased the genocidal hatred of the Defenders for the Mice, and the Night of the Long Knives still loomed large in their minds. Yet, in the end, there had been little choice.
Thus, the competitions had been established, to find the best from among the younger mice of the Great Cavern, the one most likely to survive and succeed. The darkness of the caverns and tunnels their people called home, lit only by flickering candles and guttering sconces, had changed their people - many had vision that was simply too poor to be able to succeed in the mission, faced with the glaring light of the sun. The short distances and twisting tunnels in their home of the last eight centuries had meant that many of their people were poor at running, and would not be able to cross the distances involved - nor escape should they be attacked by a predator. No, it seemed the only advantage that her people had was that one of her ancestors had been a minor scholar, interested in the language of the mus - and that knowledge had been preserved over the centuries, one of the few treasures of knowledge they had from the former glory of their ancient civilization.
Jendara had entered the competition, of course. It was a matter of family pride - her mother and father could not be seen as having raised a child who did not understand the seriousness of the situation, and was unwilling to sacrifice. Thus, she spent four years preparing. She studied the strange, growling language that was recorded in the ancient tomes, and trained daily in running the Crystal Cavern, the largest and longest of the caves of the Great Cavern, where the light of a single candle sent gleaming rainbows of color glittering about endlessly. And, when the competition finally arrived, Jendara was judged the best runner, and the most proficient speaker of her people, and possessed of the best vision at the end of that two-week ordeal. Now, she was alone, in the enormous emptiness that was the Surface Lands - and, at times, she found herself terribly frightened.
It was not the Defenders she feared - she had, over the course of four years of preparation, managed to overcome that fear. It was her belief that she would either succeed, or they would simply kill her the moment she was spotted. Either way, she had no real control over that, so she had, eventually, learned to not worry about it. No, it was not the Defenders she feared - it was, rather, the truly enormous bowl of the sky that hung endlessly above.
In all her eighteen years of life, Jendara simply had never experienced anything like the Surface Lands. The Great Caverns were safe, secure. Often, one could reach out a paw, and touch the cave roof above. Even in the largest of caverns, the roof was still something that was visible above (though blurry, to most). Yet this... In the day, the sky hung far above, an enormous bowl of blazing, painful blue that went on and on, endlessly. The sun was a searing torture to the eyes - a million times brighter than she could ever have imagined. Even now, Jendara turned her face from the enormous blue emptiness that drew her breath away. Weeks of traveling on foot had still not eased the chilling sensation of seeing the vast emptiness of the daytime sky. Yet, the sky at night was no better. An endless black expanse, full of glittering stars that hung at an enormous and terrifying distance above, the moon a gleaming silver sphere like the baleful eye of an angry god staring at her from above... No, the night-time sky was no better. Jendara shuddered, adjusting the woven spider-silk band that covered her eyes from the glare of the sun. She was, of course, nearly blind while wearing it. Still, the mice of the Great Cavern had learned to use more than merely their eyes when navigating their way through the dark world of the caves, so she was hardly lost.
A soft, almost inaudible sound caught her ear, and Jendara sniffed, the long whiskers of her muzzle twitching. The scents of the Surface Lands were strange, indeed - but the sound and scent of food was something familiar. Jendara knelt, then lowered her muzzle closer to the ground, listening carefully. After a moment, she heard the sound again. Jendara opened her eyes beneath the spider-silk band, squinting against the glare of the sun, and spotted it - a beetle, crawling through the grass. She lashed out a paw, snatching the helpless beetle up and popping it into her muzzle gleefully.
The Surface Lands were, to a mouse of the Great Cavern, full of food. Endless greenery that was nearly all edible, countless varieties of berries, even more varieties of edible roots and delicious worms that only required a moment's digging, and of course, the familiar tastes of insects and mushrooms. Jendara remembered her lessons carefully, of course. Not all that grew in the Surface Lands was edible - particularly the mushrooms, some of which were deadly poison, just as in the caves. Yet, so much of what grew was edible, that Jendara was constantly amazed by the endless variety. Jendara sometimes wondered if her ancient ancestors even bothered to move about much, or if they simply sat down and gorged themselves on the endless amounts of food that grew about them until they grew so fat, they were little more than round, furry balls with little blinking eyes and little pink tails.
That thought sent Jendara to giggling quietly, and she nearly missed the buzz of a fly nearby her head. With hardly a thought, she snatched the fly out of the air with a paw, needing no more than her large, pink ears to know where it was, and popped it into her muzzle, as well.
After taking a sip of water from the skin she bore at her hip, Jendara felt much better. The slender tree she was beside provided little shade that she could feel, yet it seemed as good a place as any to rest and eat. Jendara sat at the base of the tree, and leaned back against it.
To her utter surprise, the tree shifted.
Jendara squeaked in surprise, leaping to her feet, her tail lashing in alarm. Her eyes were open beneath the thin silk that covered them, yet she saw no sign of the vicious predators the ancient texts recorded roamed the Surface Lands. No, it was merely a tree - or was it? Squinting against the glare of the blazing sun, Jendara lifted the spider-silk cloth from her eyes, and looked again. Jendara blinked in surprise - what she had thought was a tree, was not a tree at all.
It was a signpost.
The sign was quite old, and almost certainly in need of repair. Jendara slowly pieced out the symbols on it - they were not exactly the same as what the ancient texts recorded of the language of the Defenders, but they were legible. It seemed she was near a road - which would explain the bare ground she had felt beneath her toes as she walked up to what she had thought was a tree, at any rate. Probably she would have noticed it easily had it been night, when she did not need to wear the spider-silk blindfold, but that had not been the case. Jendara carefully considered what the sign said. To the east, lay something called Djasto-city. To the west, lay something called Castle Naash. No distances were given - though judging by the lack of care of the sign, it was probably many leagues.
'It seems I have a choice to make,' Jendara thought, covering her eyes again and sitting down to think. The city may be quite large - and the mus were very large people. She might simply be ignored, or perhaps even trampled by one of their beasts of burden, should the streets prove crowded and busy. A castle, on the other paw, should prove a more controlled environment. It was remotely possible, should they let her live, that she might be able to present her story to the Lord or Lady of that castle - and, perhaps, enlist the aid of the Defenders.
After a few more moments of rest,
Jendara came to a decision, and rose to her feet. Turning west,
she followed the bare ground of the road beneath her toes,
heading towards where the sign said Castle Naash lay. It seemed
her journey was, perhaps, close to it's end - and, perhaps, her
life, as well, should the Defenders prove to still be hostile to
her people. Yet, there were no thoughts of turning back in her
mind. She had trained for this for the last four years. Her
entire life, it seemed, was mere preparation for this journey.
She had to continue, and she had succeed, if it
was at all possible. The terror her people had suffered under for
over a decade had to come to an end.
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