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

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"There, Xaa! Look!" Merle yelped, pointing over the edge of the parapet.

Xaa stepped onto the parapet from the stairs, then strode over next to Merle. "You were right - I'm glad you had the servant summon me. It looks like today will be the day," Xaa rumbled.

Below them, T'Vril was straining against the rope passed through the pulley at the top of the shed, trying to pull the completed air-bag into an upright position above the ship. Just shoving the ship out of the shed had taken an hour by itself, with Both T'Vril and Tinker using levers against the stern to inch it along. "No, no! Don't stand below the pulley, then you're just using your weight, and the balloon and its frame weigh more than you do! Pull back towards the balloon, this way!" Tinker ordered, coming over to grab the trailing end of the rope and help T'Vril pull. T'Vril nodded, and began pulling the rope towards the balloon.

Merle looked over the ship. It was an exact copy of the model that was hidden in her room - or, to be more precise, the model was an exact copy of it, just smaller. The ship was about the size of a rowboat, and had a small boiler sitting in the middle of it. Atop the boiler was a strange contraption Merle didn't recognize - it had several pipes, a long lever attached to a chain, and was very strange looking. To the sides were the wings, and the propellers that Merle had figured out before. The only differences Merle could see between the model and the final version was there were two seats in the final version, a large barrel at the bow and stern she didn't understand the purpose of, and the strange apparatus above the boiler.

Finally, the frame fell into place. It tipped far over as it hit the ground, and for a moment, it looked like it was going to fall into the shed, but then it fell back over the ship and was still. Tinker paused for a moment, gasping for breath, and T'Vril stood beside him and waited, looking equally winded. After a moment, Tinker trotted over to the ship and jerked a series of ropes, causing the lower bars that made the frame look box-like to fall away. What was left was the identical frame that had been on the model - basically a square holding the bag up in the air, the square held up by four very long poles. Tinker then began grabbing the ropes that trailed from the bottom of the bag and securing them to the cleats along the edge of the ship. T'Vril started to help, but Tinker waved her off. "No, they all have to go to a specific cleat. I'll do it, you just put my pack in the ship." T'Vril nodded, and went back into the shed, returning a few moments later with Tinker's enormous pack. After dropping it aboard, she climbed in herself, and sat demurely. Tinker paused, looking up at her, and grinned. "I am going to so enjoy showing you off back home," he said

T'Vril simply smiled.

W'mefa and O'dmemet came up into the parapet, accompanied by half a dozen warriors armed with bows. W'mefa looked down at the airship, then spat. "It looks like he's leaving, alright. Has he announced it yet?"

Xaa shook his head. "Not yet."

Merle was still looking at the airship below her, and it suddenly dawned on her what was wrong - that nagging suspicion she had first had when she saw the model that something was amiss with it's design. "Oooo! We must get his design papers!" she yelped.

"We will," Xaa said quietly, and stepped back from the edge of the parapet.

"You have a plan?" O'dmemet asked.

"Yes," Xaa replied, drawing his sword. He was at the far edge of the parapet, and couldn't be seen from the ground where Tinker was at. "We can't act until after he announces he is leaving - so far as he knows, we are dumb and ignorant mus, and are waiting for him to finish the airship and show us how it works before giving it to us. If we act prematurely, he may act rashly, in turn - perhaps destroying the airship. So, when he has filled the air-bag with hot air, he'll make his announcement that he is leaving, probably with a speech telling us how stupid we are, and so on. During which, I am going to run from the edge here, leap off the parapet and cut the side of that air-bag as I fall. That will let the hot air out, and yet the damage can be easily repaired. Cutting the ropes isn't an option - he may be able to take off before we cut enough of them. After I make my leap, have your archers kill the cat. You can send down a warrior to simply take Tinker prisoner afterwards, and search him for the design papers. What you do with him afterwards, I don't know or care," Xaa said, his face a mask.

W'mefa nodded. "Goodbye, Old Friend. We will watch over Johm'rouh for you."

"Thank you," Xaa said, and began breathing slowly and evenly, calming himself, focusing his mind before the leap.

Merle finally snapped out of her shocked silence. "NO! You'll be killed!"

"Of course, Merle - the fall is many times the height of a mus. I've known that for weeks, ever since you made me promise not to hurt Tinker when I stop him from escaping. This is the only way that keeps him from harm, and preserves the airship for us to study," Xaa replied quietly, his gaze now focused on the top of the air-bag.

"NO! NONONONONO!" Merle shrieked, and ran forward to throw her arms around Xaa's thighs.

"Merle, let me go. If you love me, let me go. I have sent two hundred and fifty of my enemies to the Void before me. My time has come, and this is the way I choose to die - helping my people. Let me go," Xaa rumbled.

"But it isn't necessary! You don't have to die to stop him from leaving, he isn't leaving! His ship won't fly! He isn't going anywhere!" Merle yelled.

"Hrm?" Xaa replied, startled.

"What is she saying, Lord Xaa?" O'dmemet asked.

"Merle says that Tinker's ship isn't going anywhere. It won't fly," Xaa replied, his face showing confusion.

"Impossible. We saw the model fly - we know it works. The larger version will fly. Look - it matches the small one in every detail," W'mefa replied.

"Yes! I'm sure of it! That ship will not fly! I can't explain it to you, but I know it won't fly! His design is flawed, I just know it!" Merle replied in the language of the mus, tears streaming down her face. "Please, Xaa! Trust me! He isn't going anywhere!"

"Alright, but why isn't he going anywhere?" Xaa asked.

"Exactly what I'd like to know," W'mefa said, and O'dmemet nodded.

"Because the square from pair is octet, not quartet!" Merle sobbed, hugging Xaa's thighs tight.

"Hrm?" Xaa replied, utterly confused.

"It's part of our numbers - oh, I can't explain it, I'm too upset! Please, just trust me! He isn't going anywhere! He did his math wrong! I'm sure of it! If I had his design notes, I could prove it to you, but for now, just trust me, please!" Merle said, then looked up to Xaa, and slowly let him go. "You said 'if you love me, let me go.' Well, I say that if you love me, then you will trust me and believe me when I say that Tinker isn't going anywhere."

Xaa opened his mouth to reply, then paused, closed it and nodded. With the single, smooth motion of an expert swordsman, he sheathed his sword, then bowed. "Yes, Love," he replied, then walked over to the edge of the parapet and rested his paws against it, watching Tinker below. W'mefa and O'dmemet turned their attention to Tinker's preparations below as well, after nodding to Merle.

Merle's head was awhirl with relief and thrilled excitement. 'He said it!' Merle thought to herself, wanting to dance with joy. 'Well, he sort of said it. He did say it, didn't he? Yes - he said it, he called me 'love' in front of eight witnesses - W'mefa, O'dmemet, and all these warriors here with us. Does that count? It has to count! Ack! I'm so confused and happy and thrilled and relieved and I think I'll go hug him again before I faint!'

Merle stepped up behind Xaa, wrapping her arms around his thighs again and hugging him tight - she couldn't reach any higher. Xaa turned and knelt, grinning, and they shared a proper hug. He then turned around. "Climb on - the view from my back will probably be better," he rumbled. Merle giggled, hiking up her green kimono a bit, then wrapping her arms around Xaa's neck and her legs around his back (as far as they would reach, anyway). Xaa carefully stood, then turned and rested his elbows on the edge of the parapet. Merle grinned - she was able to simply sit on his back with him slightly bent over like this. Merle hugged Xaa's neck tight, and he chuckled.

For the next two hours, everyone watched Tinker's preparations quietly. He slowly built up a fire beneath the boiler, tapping the pressure gauge he made for it on occasion. He lit a small flame in the strange apparatus above the boiler, and made some adjustments to some valves that led to it. He then began pulling the chain attached to the lever that came off of it, using slow, smooth strokes. Each stroke caused a puff of flame to rise from it into the air-bag above, and Merle finally noticed the bellows-arrangement that it operated. "I wonder what he's burning that could make a flame like that?" Merle said aloud.

"Alcohol, I believe. He commandeered all the alcohol we had in the castle the other day, with the cat translating. I'd love to know how he gets it to flare like that," W'mefa replied.

"I think it has something to do with the bellows just there," Merle said, pointing. "We'd have to have his design notes to know for sure."

"Or capture the airship intact," Xaa rumbled.

"You will, don't worry - it isn't going anywhere," Merle replied. 'I hope. I know I'm right, but... Tinker looks so confident. What if I'm wrong?' she thought nervously. The bag began to finally start to inflate, making her even more nervous.

"Look - the air is rippling around the edges of the air-bag," O'dmemet observed, pointing.

Merle nodded. "Like the air above a fire. It must be full of hot air by now and he's just trying to build up the temperature so it will be fully inflated and able to lift the boat. Oh - and I heard him ordering T'Vril around before, he calls it a 'balloon'," Merle replied, the last part in her language.

O'dmemet laughed. "So sorry, my lady, I don't think I can pronounce that. Besides - air-bag is more apt, I think," he said, and Merle nodded, grinning.

Suddenly, the wooden struts holding up the air-bag lifted from the ground, and the air-bag shifted slightly, swaying at the end of the taut ropes. "Finally! Yeesh!" Tinker squeaked. He then turned to look up at the top of the castle walls, spotting Merle, Xaa, W'mefa and O'dmemet on the parapet. He ignored the other mus on the walls, and those gathered at the gate of the castle, and instead just shook his finger up at Xaa and Merle. "I know you all expected me to show you how this works and then give it to you, but surprise! That's not going to happen! I am leaving! I am taking this airship and I am going home! Merle, you could have been my mate. I still love you, but if you are going to choose that big lummox Xaa over me, then to hell with you! Xaa, you can have her, and I hope she tears herself apart and bleeds to death on that oversized organ that apparently is all you are able to think with! O'dmemet, I hope you will enjoy being married to Xaa's daughter - I know you're disappointed that she's able to talk and think now, and were looking forward to someone who was able to put up with your obnoxious attitude! W'mefa, I hope the cats catch you and treat you exactly like you treated T'Vril, just so you know how mean and cruel you really are! And as for the rest of you," Tinker yelled, sweeping his paw to encompass all the remaining mus, "you're all morons, and I despise you all!" Tinker shouted.

"Don't bother to translate that, Cat. If you do, it's likely that you'll find your pretty little throat has an arrow in it. Just tell Tinker that he isn't going anywhere. That airship will never fly," Xaa called down to T'Vril.

"Mrowr! Master, the evil mus Xaa says that I am not to translate your speech, on pain of death by an arrow through the throat. He also says that you aren't going anywhere, and that your lovely machine will never fly," T'Vril yowled to Tinker.

Merle blinked. She had heard the expression "Hopping Mad" before, but never seen it until now. Tinker literally hopped up and down, he was so furious. "Oh really?! Well, we'll just see about that!" Tinker yelled back up to the castle, and began pulling the lever slowly and smoothly, letting jet after jet of flame roar up into the air-bag. Up on the parapet, Merle bit her lip nervously.

Minutes passed.

Merle slowly began to grin.

After half an hour, it became apparent to all the mus watching that the airship wasn't going anywhere. Slowly, they began to wander off, returning to their normal duties.

After an hour, Tinker finally pulled on the chain, and only a sputter came from the burner at the top. He was out of fuel.

"Tinker! You better pull that air-release cord there and let the air out. The top of the air-bag is beginning to smolder from the heat! I don't want to see you burn up in a fire!" Merle yelled down.

"No! It can't be! What is the matter?! Why won't it work?!" Tinker raged, looking above him. Sure enough, the inside of the balloon was beginning to fill with smoke from the superheated air.

"Fsst! Sabotage, master! They must have sabotaged the airship to deny you your glory!" T'Vril hissed.

Tinker screamed with rage, then snatched a cord hanging nearby him, pulling it taut and tying it off to a cleat on the rail of the ship. Immediately, a puff of smoke came out from the top of the air-bag, and it dropped back to the ground with a loud thump as hit's support struts hit the earth. For a brief moment, Merle was frightened the whole thing would catch fire, but fortunately she'd warned Tinker in time - after a few minutes, the silk sides had relaxed, and all the hot air had apparently escaped. The bag hung limply from the supporting frame - Merle realized that the frame was supposed to be dropped after a successful takeoff in the full-scale version, so that if Tinker had to abort the takeoff, the bag wouldn't fall over into the hot boiler or the burner.

Meanwhile, Tinker flipped a valve to release the steam from the boiler, and held down the steam-whistle for nearly a minute, glaring up at the castle and screaming with rage, his tail whipping back and forth. T'Vril simply clapped her paws over her ears and winced at the roaring steam, wailing whistle, and screaming mouse.

"What is he doing?" O'dmemet asked, having to speak up slightly to be heard over the commotion, even all the way up on top of the parapet.

"Lacking rocks to throw at us, he is apparently throwing a tantrum at us instead, my son," W'mefa replied, and guffawed.

Merle burst out into giggles at that, and Xaa joined W'mefa and O'dmemet in laughter. Soon, everyone on the parapet was laughing.

Finally, Tinker's tantrum petered out with the steam in the boiler, and he plopped himself down next to T'Vril. "They're laughing at me," he said, and sniffled.

T'Vril looked down at Tinker, and briefly a look of disgust flashed across her face. 'Of course they're laughing at you, you little twit. You have utterly failed, and have just finished throwing a tantrum that was probably heard twenty leagues away, showing you have no self control and no honor. Of course, they already knew that,' she thought. T'Vril flicked her tail, mentally flicking away her anger, controlled her face, and hugged Tinker gently. "Mrowr... Master, they laugh because they have sabotaged your work. Perhaps we can steal two birds and simply flee?"

Tinker snarled. "No, they can't have sabotaged it! I checked everything before we began this morning, and it was perfect! It should have flown! I've got to check my notes and see where I went wrong!"

Merle yelled down to Tinker, her voice cutting through his thoughts. "Tinker, you can come back into the castle if you want! Xaa says it might rain tonight, and I believe you'd probably prefer to sleep in your bed rather than that shed, there! I didn't translate what you said, Tinker! I know you're a nice person at heart, and you didn't really mean it! You're just upset! You can take the time to check over your notes and find out what went wrong, then try again another day, okay?!" Merle shouted.

Tinker looked up to the castle, his face showing disbelief. "You'd do that for me?! After what I said?!" he yelled back.

"Of course, Tinker! You're still my friend!" Merle yelled back.

T'Vril shook her head. "Miaow! Master, it's a trick. Don't believe them."

Tinker hesitated, looking at T'Vril. T'Vril's emerald-green, slit-pupiled eyes flashed at him, strange, unfamiliar, and impossible to read. He then looked up to Merle, high on the parapet, looking over Xaa's shoulder, and their eyes met.

For a brief moment, Tinker remembered all the good times, all the happy times back home. Chatting in the quiet shade beneath Old Gnarly. Laying on their backs in the soft, fragrant grass and seeing what shapes they could spot in the clouds that floated by in the blue, blue sky overhead. Hunting gooseberries in the forest. His heart ached to be back there right now, with Merle. He wanted so bad to be able to open his eyes and wake up in his own bed, and find that this last year had all been a dream.

Tinker looked around him, and saw the airship he'd built. A failed project. An enormous machine built from pride, anger, hate, longing, desire and unrequited love. It stank of burnt alcohol, scorched silk, varnished wood, oil, steam, and despair. There were no soft, gentle smells of the forest, here. His ears were still ringing from the wail of the whistle and the roar of the escaping steam. No quiet forest sounds, either. He suddenly felt very, very small and pathetic. They had all laughed at him - and rightfully so. He was pathetic, and had made an utter fool of himself.

"Thank you, Merle! Merle, I...I'm sorry! I really, really am! I know that doesn't mean much, now, but...I really am sorry!" Tinker shouted back, tears streaming down his muzzle. He then turned to T'Vril. "Grab my pack. We're going back to my quarters. Maybe they'll feed us tonight. We can try figuring out what went wrong, and what we'll do to fix it."

T'Vril blinked. "Miaow! No, Master! We should-" she began, but Tinker interrupted.

"Don't argue, just do it," he snapped, then looked at her suddenly. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean it like that."

T'Vril looked down at Tinker silently for several seconds. Her tail flicked once. She then reached out, picked up Tinker's pack and shouldered it, then hopped out of the airship. Tinker slowly climbed out, then took T'Vril's paw. T'Vril then led Tinker back to the gate, her head held high, disdainfully.

From the parapet, Xaa watched T'Vril's proud, nude body as she walked back into the castle. 'She is going to play it out to the end, then. So be it,' he thought to himself. Merle's snort interrupted his thoughts.

"Well, I said it. I didn't mean a word of it, but I said it. After what he said..." Merle growled.

"It had to be said, Love. Now, he will come back inside, where we can get at his papers. We'll give them a last night together, which will make Tinker happy and hopefully keep him distracted, and then act on the rest of the plan tomorrow," Xaa replied quietly.

O'dmemet snorted at Xaa's reply to Merle. "Perhaps, Xaa, but I find I am so angry at him right now, it takes a great effort to find it in my heart to continue to treat him as we would an honored guest, despite all the traditions of the mus. Right now, I just want to go down there, tear the plans from his little paws, tie him to the back of a bird and have an armed escort take him home immediately."

W'mefa nodded, his eyes locked on Tinker and T'Vril as they walked back inside the castle. "Indeed, my son. However, we don't need anything that will make him realize just how deeply he is hated and despised here, now. It would take several moments to capture him, if the cat interferes. In that time, he could tear all his notes to bits - or simply eat them, given the disgusting things we already know he eats," W'mefa replied, and snorted. "The Little One thinks we're all idiots, and we'll forgive and forget just by him saying 'sorry'. That won't happen. I'm glad you told the cat not to translate what the Little One said, Xaa. If she had, I don't think I could have stopped any of my warriors from killing the both of them. Hellfires, I nearly snatched up a bow and did it myself, when you explained what he'd said just for our ears. Lady Merle, I know you believe that deep down inside, he still is the gentle little creature you once knew and loved. Unfortunately, I don't see that. I see a little monster," W'mefa said, and spat.

Xaa nodded. "Such is what our ancestors observed. After the Night of the Long Knives, Nah'ap'Gotah bewailed the loss of gentle artists, poets, and craftsmen. Yet Dash'du'ragh did not bewail this loss, observing their darker side - the slave-master, the overseer, the harsh ruler. That is the heart of their people - the two sides of the same coin. On one side, the artist, the craftsman, the timid, gentle, loving spirit. On the other, the darkness, the spite, the selfishness, the hate."

Merle sighed. "I wish there was some way to get rid of the dark side, and just keep the happy, gentle side of them. Tinker really is, deep down, a wonderful little person."

"There is," O'dmemet replied. "The wish of Dash'du'ragh must come true. They must learn to fight their own battles, just as we learned to sing our own songs. When they do, when they learn the value of life by having to risk it, and lose it, then they will lose their disdain for the lives of others."

"That will happen. Somehow, I will make it happen," Merle said quietly.

"I hope so, love. All the mus hope so," Xaa rumbled, and W'mefa and O'dmemet nodded.

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