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


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Merle sat back down beneath Old Gnarly's branches again, her stomach growling. It had been a miserable hunt, and she had come up empty-pawed. By the ways of the musties, that meant she didn't get anything to eat. She didn't have a mother and father to provide for her, so she ate from the communal cookpot with the other unmated adults. Unfortunately, that meant she also had to accept the same responsibilities as the other adults, and bring something home to the village to toss into the pot. It wasn't that her hunting skills were lacking, or that the game wasn't there - she'd seen three rabbits that would have been just fine for dinner. Unfortunately, the breeze shifted as she was closing the range, and each of the three rabbits caught a whiff of her scent and ran for their lives. If she'd had a little more time before the hours of darkness, she might have resumed the hunt and been able to bring something back. Unfortunately, the sun was now well hidden behind the trees, and the sky was growing red as sunset approached.

Merle sniffled for a moment, a deep sense of loss aching in her chest. She missed her parents deeply. The other musties sympathized, but by their own rough code, Merle was nearly an adult. If her parents had done a good job of raising her, then she should be able to make it without them. Had Merle been a few years younger, one of the other mustie couples might have taken her in, but she wasn't. Even if she was, Merle probably wouldn't have accepted. No, all the musties, Merle included, felt that Merle should be able to make it on her own. That's what the Coming of Age ceremony was about for Musties - an acknowledgment that the parents had done a good job, and the child was ready to become an adult. And Merle felt that she was ready. But, she was still sad. When her parent's were alive, she had never gone hungry. Now, she sometimes did go hungry when the hunting was bad, and the hunger always brought the pain of her loss to the forefront of her mind, fresh and sharp. Merle was thinking of her friend Tinker, who was probably sitting down to a dinner with his family right now, filling his tummy with delicious gooseberry pie.

"And probably some of that icky acorn-bread and a salad or something like that," Merle said aloud, making a face to no one in particular, then giggling. 'When trouble stares you in the face, smile,' her daddy always used to say. Merle plastered a grin on her face, chuckling to herself. That was the mustie way - face adversity with a smile.

Merle's thoughts wandered to the strange noise that she and Tinker had heard in the forest earlier. She still had no idea what it could be - but her curiosity was piqued. 'I do believe I shall go and find out what that was,' she thought, and stood, shouldering her pack.

An hour later, Merle was standing at the spot she and Tinker had parted company. Merle's eyes, like that of all musties, were quite sharp and she could see fairly well at night - unless it was pitch black with no moon. Tonight, however, a full moon hung high in the sky, lighting the forest clearly enough for her to spot her and Tinker's footprints in the soft soil. Orienting herself carefully, she carefully proceeded in the direction the sound had come from.

After a long while, Merle began to worry this would be a fool's errand. After all, the sound she and Tinker had heard was hours ago - the forest was filled only with night sounds, now. A moment later, just as she drew near the northern edge of the Wild Wood, the shifting night breezes brought a strange scent to her nose, and she gasped in surprise.

"Blood. A lot of blood," she muttered to herself, and followed the scent carefully. Whatever had spilled that much blood probably was very dangerous, and might still be in the vicinity. Whatever it was, though, it now was her duty to investigate. If something dangerous had come to the Wild Woods, it would be the duty of all musties to try to deal with it before any harm befell their friends and allies, the mice.

The moon's shift in the sky told her that several hours had passed since she first began searching for the source of the sound. She was quite near the edge of the Wild Woods - beyond were the unexplored plains that the mice and musties just called "The Unknown Lands." All sorts of legends were passed down about these lands. There were stories of great birds that could snatch up a mustie and gobble them at a single gulp, stories of giant, intelligent cats twice the height of a mustie that would sneak in and steal naughty mousie-children at night and eat them, and other terrible, horrible stories that made all the mice and musties avoid the Unknown Lands like the plague. Merle paused as she neared the edge of the forest. Her nose was filled with the scent of blood and slaughter, and she felt herself tremble in fear, wondering if the legends were true.

Great events in history often turn on the smallest moments, and those moments usually go unnoticed by the chroniclers and sages who try to record such things. For the Little People of the Wild Woods, the course of history had been changed for them over eight centuries before by the caw of a raven, and the leaders of their two tribes meeting in peace instead of in enmity. Now, the fate of two mighty empires hung in the balance, and the future of Oerth rested on the unknowing shoulders of a trembling little mustie, alone in the dark. The world would have held its breath, if it had breath to hold.

After awhile, Merle mastered her fear. She could see nothing moving in the darkness, nor hear anything dangerous. She reasoned that someone had to look, and that someone may as well be her.

Stealthily creeping the last few hundred paces, Merle looked about in the moonlight that bathed the vast plains of the Unknown Lands in amazement. There were bodies laying scattered about hither and yon. About a dozen, in all. Each was far larger than a mustie - as big as a bear, in fact. Her keen eyes easily spotted the tracks by the moonlight. They told the tale that some of the corpses had been gnawed at by ravens during the daylight - though with the fall of night, the feathered scavengers had apparently wandered off, their bellies full of meat. Other creatures had been here, though - there were enormous, bird-like tracks if a kind Merle had never seen before, and she shuddered at the thought of the legends coming to life. Still, there were no great birds around here now, she noticed.

Merle crept up, her curiosity finally getting the better of her, and examined the scene. The bodies of the fallen were those of creatures unlike any she had seen in her life. Some had large plates of metal that covered parts of their bodies, but the rest did not. Merle had never seen armor before, and had no clue that was what she was looking at. Weapons were scattered about, and many of the corpses had little sticks thrust into them, with feathers tipping the ends. Merle had never seen an arrow, a sword or a spear before, and had no idea what they might be. The knives she recognized, however, and the rest she could deduce quite readily. What had happened was obvious - a great battle had been fought here between those who lay on the ground and another group. The tracks on the ground told the tale that the winners had apparently taken their own dead and wounded away with them, leaving only their enemies behind. In curiosity, she examined the corpses more closely, and was surprised and amazed at what she saw.

Whoever these people were, they were large. Their legs were as thick as Merle's waist and their arms almost as thick as their legs. The fingers of their paws were tipped in small, sharp claws. They looked powerful and dangerous, even in death. Most surprising, however, was their teeth. Though they had the canine fangs of a carnivore, they also had large, rodentine incisors. Their ears were pale and hairless, and when Merle rolled a mostly-intact corpse over using a broken spear as a lever, she was shocked to see a long, pale, almost hairless tail.

"Mice!" Merle exclaimed in surprise - though not like the mice of the Wild Wood. These were enormous - and judging by their teeth, either omnivorous, or carnivorous. They also had fur of several different colors - two were brown, two were gray, and one was a dark black. Merle found that very unusual - all the mice of the Wild Wood were of the same color - gray, with black eyes. The musties, likewise, were all colored very similarly. They all had brown eyes and brown fur, though unlike the mice there were more variations in fur shading. The musties' fur ranged from a golden brown to a warm, dark brown, and the fur of the throat, chest and tummy almost always was lighter than that of the head and back.

Merle looked around at these strange beings, trying to imagine what creatures could possibly have killed them, and shuddered in fear. These beings who lay dead before her looked mighty enough to kill a bear empty-pawed - whatever had slain them must have been dangerous, indeed.

Merle nearly leapt out of her fur at a sudden sound, and looked around. It was several moments before she realized that one of the "corpses" wasn't a corpse at all. The sound had been a groan of pain - though the sound had been lower-pitched than any voice of any mustie. Trembling, she approached the lone survivor.

The enormous creature fumbled for a bit with a strap below its chin, pulling off its helmet using only its left paw, then letting the helmet fall. The helmet had been dented by a mighty blow from a mace, though Merle didn't know that. Matted blood covered the gray fur of the creature's face, and its eyes were yellow and wild. It spotted Merle and snarled, reaching to its armor-covered side and drawing a knife. The creature fumbled for a bit, trying to lever itself up with its other arm, but this only brought a renewed groan of pain and a snarl.

Merle held up both her paws, showing they were empty, and smiled in what she hoped was a disarming manner. "It's okay. I'm not here to hurt you," she said. 'Oops!' She thought, too late. 'This is a mouse - a big, mean mouse, but still a mouse. What if my smiling scares him?'

The creature before her lowered his knife, and raised a tuft of fur above its left eye that was its eyebrow. It then spoke, its speech harsh and growling. Merle shook her head, not understanding a word. 'Well, apparently smiling was the right thing to do,' she thought. "It's alright. I'm not going to hurt you. Can you understand what I'm saying?"

The creature growled out a short reply, then gestured for her to come closer, sheathing the knife. Merle edged a bit closer, and the creature struggled to right itself. Merle nervously reached over to it, grabbing its left arm and pulling to help, and finally it was sitting on its haunches. It groaned again, and reached over to prod its right upper arm. It grunted, then spat out a single word.

"I'm sorry, I don't understand," Merle said in reply.

The creature nodded, then picked up one of the arrows that lay on the ground nearby, holding it up against its upper arm. It then snapped the arrow in its powerful fingers, and repeated the word.

"Ah! Broken! You're trying to say your arm is broken!" Merle exclaimed.

The creature nodded again, and proceeded to stretch its legs. After a moment, it put its good paw on the ground, and levered itself to its feet. It stood there for a moment, swaying. Merle nearly leapt away in fear when the creature reached for her, but it only placed a callused paw on her shoulder to steady itself.

Merle looked up at it in a mixture of awe and fear. It was over twice as tall as she was - the top of her head only came up to the sash it wore around its waist, over its armor. Its armor covered its shoulders, torso, forearms, wrists and the backs of his paws, and also draped down over its hips in a skirt-like arrangement. Its legs were arranged normally, Merle observed. It walked on its toes, like the musties and mice did, but its feet were covered in hard leather boots of a type Merle had never seen before - they went up past his ankle, and up to his knee, covering the achilles tendon, and had a metal plate along the back side that covered the tendon. They were also laced up along their L-shaped side, and the toe was covered in a steel cap. Merle looked to its face, but it wasn't looking at her. Instead, its yellow-gold eyes were glancing about the ground in the moonlight, looking for something. As it stood there, its paw on her shoulder, Merle got a deep whiff of its scent. 'Well, whatever it is, it's a carnivore, and it's a male,' she thought.

The creature released her, then stepped behind her, stooping to pick up two sticks from the ground and tuck them into his sash. Merle realized they were made in the same fashion as the knife and the scabbard that he wore, and that they must be longer knives of some sort, in their scabbards. She'd never seen swords before, and certainly nothing like these. The scabbards were lacquered wood, not leather, and the crossguard was a circle of metal, not a simple flat metal bar.

Stooping to one of the dead, the creature tugged loose the bloody sash about the corpse's middle and began fumbling with it one-pawed. After a moment, Merle realized he was trying to make a sling for his arm. "Wait - let me do that," she said, and reached for the sash. The creature raised an eyebrow at her again, but gave her the sash when she smiled and repeated what she'd said. "Come - sit," she said, gesturing.

He nodded, then knelt before her. Merle quickly measured about his torso, then tied a simple knot in the sash and draped it over his neck. "You'll have to set that break, you know," Merle said, wondering if he understood her at all.

He nodded, then rose again, and let his broken arm hang. Leaning over to one of the other corpses, he wrapped its sash about his wrist several times, then straightened up, pulling his arm straight. He snarled in pain for a moment as the bones shifted back into their proper position, then leaned forward, relaxing. Merle hunted about until she found the broken haft of a spear that was about the right size, then pulled the sash off one of the corpses and neatly tied the stick to the side of the creature's arm in three separate spots to keep the bone from shifting. She had to lift the armor plate that protected his shoulder to get it right, and she could hear the creature breathing heavily in pain as she worked. Finally, she gently lifted his wrist and placed into the loop that hung from his neck, then stepped back. When she was finished, he gently probed his arm for a few moments, then nodded in satisfaction. Standing, he said a single word, then bowed, holding his injured arm to his torso with his other arm.

"Well, if that means 'thanks', then you're welcome," Merle giggled, and bowed back.

He looked about for awhile longer, stooping to pick up arrows and gather them into a bundle in his fist. Finally, his eyes lit on a long wooden case, and he set the arrows aside, sitting on the ground beside it. Merle followed along with interest.

He opened the top end of the case, then smiled, slipping the arrows inside it. He then closed the case, and shouldered it with a leather strap attached to it, and stood. Bowing again, he turned and began to limp away.

"Hey! Wait! Where are you going?" Merle yelped.

The enormous mouse turned, his tail lashing in what looked like irritation. He spoke at length in his guttural, growling language, but Merle still didn't understand him. He pointed off in the direction he was going several times during this, then finally fell silent. Merle just shook her head.

"Uh-uh. You've got a broken arm! Broken!" she said, pointing. "Whoever or whatever killed all your friends," she said, sweeping a paw to encompass all the still forms around her, "might find you out there, alone, with a broken arm, and finish you off." Merle then crossed her arms firmly.

The mouse looked at her, looked at the bodies strewn about them, growled for a moment, then nodded.

"Besides, you haven't even told me your name. I think that it would at least be polite to introduce yourself, don't you? My name is Merle. What's yours?" she asked.

He grunted something in reply that Merle guessed (quite correctly) meant "I don't understand."

Merle thought for a moment, then pointed to herself. "Merle," she said, then bowed.

The mouse's eyes lit up in comprehension. He pointed to himself, and said "Xaa." Then he bowed in return.

Merle reached out and took Xaa's enormous, callused paw in her own tiny one. "Come on, Xaa - you'll need time to rest and recover, and to let your arm heal. You can stay at my house until you recover."

Xaa hesitated, and for a moment, it was as though Merle was trying to tug a tree along behind her - he simply didn't budge. Then, he seemed to come to a decision, and limped along behind her. Merle led him quietly into the gloomy forest, wondering just what the response of the village would be upon seeing him.

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