The Last God
(Book I of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 1999 BY

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"I don't care, Merle, tell them all to get out of the way!" Tinker squeaked.

Merle sputtered, extremely flustered. Tinker had already been acting strange enough, and now what he asked her to do was just impossible. There were hundreds of people in the courtyard where Tinker had set up his strange devices, and they were all walking back and forth between them. Most of them were either tending to the animals that had been placed in the temporary pens, or they were in the long line to receive roasted meat from the kitchen staff, who were cooking non-stop to feed them all. In amongst all this tumult, Tinker had set up twenty wooden stands, each holding a square, white piece of linen about as long as Merle's arm stretched taut across each, the top of the linen squares being about level with Merle's chin, and the center of the first one being marked with a round splotch of black ink about a finger-width across. Tinker and Merle were standing on the eastern end, near one of the courtyard walls, where Tinker had the gun he'd been working on securely clamped to a strange vice-like invention he'd bolted to a table. On the opposite end, Tinker had a heavy log leaned up against the far wall. The whole arrangement was set up in a long line, running from the muzzle of the gun to the log on the opposite end. Unfortunately, none of the other activity would stop, and Tinker was getting very upset about that.

"Tinker, I can't talk to everyone, there's too many people, and - wait, here's Xaa. Let me see if I can get him to help," Merle finally managed to say, then waved. "Xaa! Come here, please! We need your help!"

Xaa was already heading straight towards them, W'mefa and O'dmemet close behind. When they came up to her, W'mefa and Od'memet looked over what was going on. "You were right, Xaa, it looks like the Little One is finally ready to fire the gun he's been working on all week. Son, have everyone stand back and not walk between the targets," W'mefa ordered.

"Yes, father," O'dmemet replied, then took a deep breath, and roared.

The sound of O'dmemet's roar was still echoing off the walls in the silence that ensued - even the big riding bird's squawking had been silenced. 'Wow!' Merle thought. 'They sure can yell when they need to - or when they're mad,' Merle thought, remembering a similar bellow Xaa had let out months ago. Tinker was cowering from the shout, but after a moment he recovered as he realized that the bellow wasn't directed at him.

O'dmemet then began shouting in a somewhat quieter tone, gesturing rapidly. "The Little One, Tinker, is going to fire the gun he's been working on. Everyone stay well clear of the white targets or he might accidentally shoot you. We don't know how many times he will fire, or how long this will take. Be patient."

Several hundred mus in the courtyard bowed, and stepped away from the targets. "Ah. That's more like it," Tinker said, and hopped onto the stool he'd placed by the table. He then began turning little knobs he'd attached to the vice, pausing to place his cheek against the stock of the gun and peer down the barrel several times.

"Tinker, what are you doing?" Merle asked.

"I'm laying the gun's sights. I've already smoothed the sear - silly cats made it too hard for me to pull," Tinker replied distractedly, pulling back a lever near the end of the barrel.

"Cover your ears tight, Merle," Xaa snapped.

Merle was about to turn and reply "Huh?", but before she could even begin to turn, Tinker slipped two fingers of his right paw into a little metal loop at the bottom, and tugged on a small lever there.

There was an enormous BANG, and Merle jumped in surprise. A cloud of acrid-smelling white smoke from the gun drifted over them, and Merle's ears were ringing. "Tinker! You couldn't have warned me about that?!" Merle yelped.

"Oh, sorry, Merle, I didn't think about it," he replied, hopping down from his chair and then turning to walk over to the targets. Merle grumbled quietly while Tinker pulled a cloth tape measure from his pockets, taking careful measurements of the position of each hole the bullet had left in passing through each target, then pulling out a small piece of leather and marking on it with a bit of coal. He then went back to the first target, measured the distance between the hole and the center of the little black spot, made a note, then went back to the table.

"Please ask the little one if he would like some paper, brush and ink to work with, Lady Merle," W'mefa rumbled quietly.

Merle translated, and Tinker grinned. "That would be nice, thanks - but just bring the paper and ink, if you don't mind," Tinker replied, and walked over to one of the pens to pick up a loose feather from one of the Djuducu-birds that was lying on the ground nearby.

W'mefa ordered one of the servants to go get what Tinker needed, and Tinker dragged the chair around to the front of the table, and carefully reloaded the gun. "He's not removing it from the vice. I wonder how he'll get the powder down in the bottom?" O'dmemet muttered. He was soon answered, as Tinker pulled out a fluffy-tipped ramrod he'd made to swab the barrel, then poured the powder in the muzzle and tamped it down with another ramrod he'd made with a leather tip that neatly fit the muzzle.

"What is he doing?" Merle whispered to Xaa. While Merle watched, wondering what was going on, Xaa rumbled out a quiet explanation.

"This much we do know: When the powder in the pan is ignited by a spark from the flint in the hammer, it burns rapidly. Flame from this goes through the touchhole and ignites the powder in the barrel, which also burns rapidly, pushing the bullet out of the barrel faster than the eye can see. At the moment, he appears to be reloading the gun in preparation for another shot. Why he's doing it this way, though, I've no idea." W'mefa and O'dmemet nodded - it was equally a mystery to them.

Tinker was just about finished loading the pan again when a servant came out into the courtyard, carrying an ink bottle and some paper. After Tinker had set the paper and ink on the table, he pulled out a very small knife from his pocket and sliced off the end of the feather's shaft, then split it with the blade. Slipping the knife away, he hopped back up onto the chair, dipped the trimmed end of the feather into the ink, and began writing.

"I was wondering how he was going to write with a bird's feather," W'mefa muttered.

"Do you know what he's writing, Xaa?" O'dmemet asked.

"I've no idea - I haven't learned their written language," Xaa rumbled quietly in reply.

"Me know. Him write numbers. Now know word. Number-work," Merle replied.

"Mathematics. He's doing something with mathematics. Damn! We have to get that paper when he's finished," W'mefa muttered.

"Not likely he'll just give it to us, father, as secretive as he's been. He'll probably destroy it when he's done. He appears to be doing a lengthy calculation of some kind. He also seems to be making notes," O'dmemet commented.

W'mefa growled a word that did not sound polite. "Wonderful. He's even taking notes, too. Fate is teasing us. How do we get that paper from him?"

"Me not know," Merle replied.

"I do. I can get it when he's finished. If I'm guessing right about his personality, that is," Xaa rumbled quietly.

At that point, Tinker sat up, put the stopper back in the ink bottle, set the quill aside, and turned to the gun again. He pulled out a file, and began filing a little flange on the back of the gun for a bit, stopping every few seconds to peer down the barrel again. After a moment, he pulled out a small hammer and a slim bit of metal, and tapped the flange a bit from the right side of the gun, peering down the barrel after every few whacks. He then made a tiny adjustment beneath the vice while he glanced over the barrel again, peering intently. Then he grinned, put his tools away, and pulled back on the hammer again.

Merle clapped her paws over her ears just in time. The gun went off with another loud BANG! Merle looked, but didn't see where the bullet went. "Did you miss?" Merle asked.

"Nope. Dead center," Tinker replied, hopping down from the stool and trotting over to the target. He pointed at the black splotch of ink there, and Merle blinked. There was a hole right in the middle of it. Tinker puffed his chest out with pride for a moment, and Merle realized what he was expecting.

"Why, Tinker, you're so incredible! I've never seen anything like that!" Merle gushed, clapping her paws with pretended glee. 'And I feel so...dirty for having to say that, somehow,' Merle thought to herself, keeping an awed look plastered on her face.

Tinker grinned, and then went back to the table, picking up the paper, folding it, and tucking it in his pocket. As he loosened the vice to release the gun, he spoke. "There. All done - the gun's sighted in. If you always use only this powder, lead bullets made only from the bullet-mold I have sitting next to it, and always measure your powder using the brass tip on the powder flask, it'll shoot true. It should shoot dead on with the sights for about twenty five paces, then about a palm higher out to fifty paces, and a palm lower out to seventy-five paces. After that, the bullet will drop fast. About five palms at one hundred paces, ten at one hundred and twenty five paces, twenty at one hundred and fifty paces, forty at one hundred seventy five, and eighty at two hundred paces," he said, pulling the gun out of the vice and setting it on the table.

"Tell Tinker I don't understand what he means by a palm. Tell him I need to know how much distance that is. Also, what does he mean by a pace - his little paces or mine?" Xaa rumbled.

"He probably means his palm's width, and his paces," O'dmemet commented, and Merle nodded.

"I know that, Lord O'dmemet. Tell him anyway, Merle," Xaa rumbled.

Merle shrugged, and translated Xaa's questions. Tinker made a face. "Yeesh. I mean the width of my palm, and the length of my pace. A pace is two of my steps. Like this, see?" Tinker replied, and demonstrated.

"Tell him I still don't understand. Tell him need him to draw two lines on a paper, one to each side of his palm, so I can compare it with our measurements and know exactly how far he means."

"Tinker, Xaa says he still doesn't understand what you mean about a palm. He wants to know if you could draw a line on each side of your palm on a paper so he can compare it with his measurements."

"Yeesh. Alright, alright," Tinker replied, pulling the paper back out of his pocket and slapping it on the table. After he'd opened the ink bottle and dipped the quill, he slashed two lines on the back side of the paper, one to each side of his palm. "There - that's how far I mean," Tinker said, holding up the paper.

"Tell him I don't understand how he used those things on the top of the gun to aim like that. We just point with the barrel. Ask him to explain it to me."

Merle translated what Xaa had said, and Tinker rolled his eyes. It was obvious to Merle what Tinker was thinking, and she was glad Tinker remembered that Xaa did understand their language, even if he couldn't speak it well. She did not want to see Xaa's response to being called a 'lummox'.

"Okay, it's simple. Come here, and I'll show you," Tinker said, and sketched on the back of the paper. Xaa stepped over to look, watching over Tinker's shoulder. "This is the back sight. This is the front. Line the two of them up so they look like this. Put your target dead center, like this. You can raise it if they are far enough to where the bullet would drop, or move to the side to account for wind, but this is how you align the sights. Got it?"

Xaa reached over Tinker's shoulder and picked up the paper, examining it closely. "Xaa maybe soh. Xaa must t'rah," Xaa rumbled, folding the paper up and sticking it into his sash. Without pausing, Xaa picked up the gun and began to reload it.

"Umm..." Tinker began, looking at Xaa nervously.

"Hrm?" Xaa rumbled, not pausing as he reloaded.

"Umm... Can I have that paper back, please?" Tinker asked nervously.

"Tell him I said I need it, Merle. Tell him I have to look at the sight picture to understand, and I will need his palm-mark for reference," Xaa rumbled, not looking up.

Merle translated what Xaa had said, and Tinker's tail lashed nervously. "Umm... But I'm not allowed to show the math on the back to anyone. It's part of our secrets."

"Merle, tell him I'm a warrior among my people - I don't even know what mathematics is, and the only way I can count to twenty is to pull off my boots. All I can tell is he scribbled on the back of that paper for ten minutes," Xaa rumbled, priming the pan of the gun.

"Tinker, Xaa is a warrior among his people. He doesn't even know how to do Mathematics - he doesn't need to. All he needs to know how to do is fight. He can barely add and subtract," Merle translated.

Xaa looked up suddenly, and brought the gun to his shoulder, flicking back the hammer. Merle clapped her paws over her ears just in time as Xaa fired into the sky. Tinker, who was caught unprepared, jumped a bit, and was badly startled. "Wh-what did you to that for?" Tinker asked nervously.

From above the courtyard, a pigeon tumbled to the earth to land with a solid thud on the flagstones. Tinker looked at the dead bird in horror. "Guhn shuht guhd. Xaa happeh," Xaa rumbled, and the people gathered in the courtyard applauded politely. "Merle, tell him I said thank you for explaining how to use the sights on the gun, and for drawing the picture for me. Tell him I am sorry I don't understand what is on the other side, but I'd be happy for him to explain it to me if it's something I need to understand."

Merle looked at the dead bird and then to Xaa. 'Yeah, right. You have no idea how to use one of those things. You just point it and hope. Suuuure,' she thought, and then translated what he'd asked her to say.

Tinker shook his head. "No, no. Nothing there he needs to understand - just some scribbles. Nothing important," Tinker said, sighing with apparent relief and glancing at the dead bird nervously.

Xaa walked over, picked up the bird, then began to walk away. Suddenly, he looked to the side. There, in the line waiting for food, was T'Vril and her guard. T'vril was dressed in a kimono, clutching her wooden bowl nervously, and looked very out-of-place amongst the mus. When Xaa stopped to stare at her, she instantly knelt on the ground, pressing her head to the flagstones and trembling.

Xaa stared at her in silence for several seconds before he spoke. "Here, cat. Lunch," he growled, dropping the dead bird before her.

"Thank you, most gracious Lord Xaa," T'Vril replied meekly, not looking up.

Xaa then strode inside the castle without a backwards glance.

T'Vril looked up, picking up the dead pigeon and dropping it into her bowl. "Mmm! Much better than cooked meat! Guard, I am ready to go back to my cell, now," she rumbled, grinning as she stood. The guard nodded, and led her away.

"Eww! Is she going to eat that?!" Tinker squeaked.

"Yes," Merle replied. "Xaa said the other day that the cats like raw meat, mainly, and don't like cooked meat at all. The mus are more like we musties - we prefer cooked meat, if it's available."

Tinker shuddered. "I'm sorry, Merle. I know you're carnivore, and so are they, but... It's just icky sometimes, I'm sorry."

"What did he say?" O'dmemet asked. Merle translated, and O'dmemet grinned. "Ah - well, you can tell him that the cook has prepared a special lunch for him - all roots. Sliced carrots, potatoes, turnips, all diced up fine and boiled into a nice soup. It's probably already hot and ready for him in his room."

"Me think that sound nasty, Lord O'dmemet," Merle commented, making a face.

"I do, too, Lady Merle," O'dmemet replied, still grinning. W'mefa grinned quietly, and for a moment, it looked like the old mus warrior was struggling to stifle an outburst of laughter.

"Tinker, Lord O'dmemet says that the cook has prepared you something very nice - a root soup, I guess. Carrots, potatoes, and..." Merle made a face. "Turnips, too. Bleah. He says it should be all hot and ready in your room. Do you need me to lead you back?"

"No, I see the servant they gave me coming out now. He can lead me back to my room. See you later, Merle! Oh - tell them they can clean up all the targets and stuff. Just put them in that little shed I built next to the smithy to keep my extra stuff in. Bye!" Tinker squeaked, and scampered off.

As soon as he was gone, W'mefa and O'dmemet burst out into roaring laughter. Merle jumped startled, and then giggled when she looked at the two - they were laughing so hard, tears were coming from their eyes. "What's so funny?" she asked.

"C-can't count t-to twenty without pulling of his b-boots! BUAHAHAHA!" W'mefa managed to reply after a few moments. O'dmemet was unable to reply at all - he was too busy laughing.

Merle suddenly got the joke - it hadn't struck her as funny at the time, because she'd been so worried about getting the paper from Tinker she hadn't really thought about it. As she laughed, all the tension drained from her body. They had done it - or a part of it, at least. They knew exactly how Tinker had done what he'd done, they had learned what the effect was, and they had learned all they could without Tinker becoming wise to their plans. Now, it was a matter of sitting down and trying to understand it all.

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