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

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"Now it looks like a big basket," Merle giggled.

Xaa nodded. With the original oak boat removed and replaced with the rattan, it did look like an enormous basket. "What was the result when they weighed all the wood?" Xaa asked, leaning over the side between the ropes and putting his and Merle's packs inside the basket.

"Forty-nine stone, by your system of measurement of twenty pounds to the stone. A bit short of half a ton. The basket weighs ten stone, our supplies weigh five, and I weigh one. You're the heaviest thing we'll be carrying - you weigh almost thirteen stone," Merle replied, then looked up at Xaa. "And before you say it, no, you're not too heavy and don't have to stay behind. We're still at least eleven stone less than what Tinker had," Merle said, sticking out her tongue.

"I wasn't thinking that at all, though it is nice to know," Xaa replied, smiling as he put his gun and his bowcase into the basket. "I was thinking you look very nice in your little green leather dress."

"Flatterer! You were not!" Merle said, giggling as Xaa picked her up and put her into the basket.

"Alright. I was really thinking 'I hope this thing will fly and not just fall out of the sky with us,'" Xaa said, carefully climbing after Merle.

"Well, I've been thinking about that. If we did have a tear in the air-bag, I don't think we'd go down very fast unless it was a big tear. Also, we could cut the ballast and toss things overboard to reduce our weight, and that would slow our decent. The only real problems I can see is that we may accidentally come down too fast and damage the basket when we land - we'll have to be careful about that - and that once we land, we won't have these nice poles to hold up the bag to help us inflate it again. We may simply land once, and that's that," Merle replied.

"Well, Tinker expected this to make it all the way to his home. That's about three hundred leagues as the raven flies - maybe more. If we're careful, we'll catch them. They're heading due east - the sea is only a hundred leagues from here, so they can't go far that direction. All the lands east of here belong to the mus, so they'll have to dodge patrols and hide a lot - Tinker isn't going to be able to explain T'Vril to Lady Ara's patrols. That means at some point, they're going to have to turn," Xaa explained, strapping his and Merle's gear into place, then settling into his seat. "Anything I can do to help?" he asked.

"No, like I told you - Tinker built this so only someone our size could really move around comfortably. Just have a seat, and I'll get things started," Merle replied, grinning.

Merle began by sliding open the cover beneath the boiler, slowly working the little pump Tinker had made to fuel the boiler's fire chamber, then turning the crank that rubbed the little metal wheel he'd made against a flint inside the heating chamber. With a quiet whoof, the alcohol caught flame, and the coal stacked around the heating chamber was lit within a few minutes. Merle lit a taper from the flame, closed the cover, then climbed up the little ladder Tinker made and applied the flame to the pilot light Tinker had made for the burner. Once it was going, she climbed back down, stood in the same spot Tinker had stood in the other day, and began to slowly pull the chain to activate the burner.

The bellows pumped quietly, blowing a jet of air across the pipe that led to the fuel tanks with a loud hiss as Merle slowly pulled the chain over and over. In a few moments, the first spray of alcohol was drawn out and sprayed across the pilot light, and the burner flared with a loud whoosh. Merle grinned, and looked over to see Xaa was grinning, too.

"Good luck, Xaa, Lady Merle!" W'mefa called. Merle looked up to the parapet and waved. The whole population of the castle and the nearby village was gathered around, some standing on the walls of the castle, the rest simply gathered around in a large circle. Children were boosted up on their parent's shoulders, and many in the front were seated on the grass so that those behind them could see better.

Two hours later, the air-bag was inflated, and the poles lifted off the ground. "Okay, Xaa - this is our last chance to change our minds!" Merle said nervously.

"Let's do it," Xaa replied with a grin.

Merle grinned back, and kept pumping the burner, building up the temperature in the air-bag. The wait was interminable.

Suddenly, Merle felt the basket shift, and begin to drift below her. "Whoa!" she yelped. Letting go the chain and turning to grab the rail, she looked. "We're going up!" Merle squealed, giggling. A roar of approval came from the crowd, and scattered applause.

"Congratulations, Merle. You're the first mustie to fly," Xaa rumbled, grinning.

Merle laughed. "Well, I'm still fairly certain Tinker intended to drop the supporting frame once the balloon was airborne. Let's pull his release rope and see what should have happened yesterday after he gave his little speech," Merle said, grinning. She then reached over and tugged on the rope. "Ack! It's stuck. Hang on," Merle said, and pulled down on the rope hard. It gave suddenly, and Merle found herself dumped on her bottom, bonking her head against the side of the boiler. "Ow!" Merle complained, then sat up to look over the edge. Her tummy had a funny sinking feeling in it, and when she looked over the edge, she realized why. "Oh, my! We're going up fast!" Merle squealed, giggling.

"So it seems. It appears that he expected us to come charging him, dumb animals that we are, and he'd pull the release rope and zoom up into the sky, laughing at us," Xaa replied dryly.

Merle gaped at the view as the castle got smaller and smaller, the waving people running behind the balloon shrinking to the size of ants in a matter of a minute or so. "Oooo! I hope nobody got hurt when the frame dropped. Look how tiny they are! Like little ants! And look at the castle!"

"Yes. Quite small. This thing will stop going up eventually, won't it?" Xaa asked.

Merle looked over to Xaa, and blinked. His eyes were half-lidded, and his paws gripped the rattan rail tightly. His tail was flicking back and forth, and he did not look happy. "You're scared!" Merle giggled.

"Let's just say I have discovered that soaring to enormous heights while dangling precariously below a bag of hot air is somehow a bit unnerving," Xaa replied.

Merle laughed. "Come on - open your eyes! You know these lands better than I do - I'll need you to tell me where to make the airship go! Don't worry, we'll be just fine."

Xaa slowly pried his eyes open, then looked around. "Well, we seem to be drifting south-southeast. That castle over there is Lady Ara's. Head for it - that's east," he said, pointing briefly, then clapped his paw down to the rail tight again. Merle giggled, then turned to the boiler.

By experimenting with the levers, Merle discovered that they worked identically to the model. Soon, she had the blades turning, and slowly turned the basket to point in the direction Xaa had indicated. When she went to have both blades push the ship forward, however, she noticed that it still tended to drift with the wind. By experimentation, she learned how to adjust the two blades so that they would push the ship slightly into the wind, and keep them heading generally east. Suddenly, she felt a shift, and looked to the little triangular flag Tinker had attached to one of the ropes - the wind had shifted, and they were now heading almost directly east. She shut off the blades, and looked around.

"You know, I think there are different winds at different heights. If we can stay at this height, we may be able to head due east for a long while."

"How do we tell how high we are?" Xaa asked.

"With this thing attached to the rail over here," Merle replied, stepping over to a brass contraption attached to the rail and bending over to use it. "You look through the tubes here. One eye is looking straight through the tube to the ground, another is looking at a reflection of the ground through two mirrors. You adjust it here until both eyes see the same thing..." Merle said, fiddling with the device for a moment, "And then you look here to see how high you are," she said, leaning back from the device and pointing.

"So how high are we?" Xaa asked, his tail flicking back and forth.

Merle looked. "Umm... You don't want to know."

"Just tell me," Xaa growled.

"Umm... About half a league, in your system of measurement."

Xaa didn't reply, he just closed his eyes for a moment and gripped the rail even tighter.

For the next few hours, Merle carefully kept track of their altitude, flaring the burner to keep them up in the air as needed. Merle noticed that the chimney for the boiler went up alongside the burner, and apparently the excess heat from the boiler and it's fire were also used to keep the air in the bag hot. Merle tapped the barrels of alcohol carefully, trying to determine how much they'd used, and checked how much coal they had burned. The boiler's pressure gauge was still reading in the little green zone Tinker had made for it, and seemed steady, with no leaks. Merle damped the fire beneath the boiler a bit by closing two of the three vents for it, then pondered for awhile, flaring the burner from time to time. Looking over to Xaa, she saw he had finally relaxed a bit - he wasn't gripping the rail tightly, but his tail still occasionally flickered about agitatedly.

"Xaa? I think that so long as we're careful with our fuel and don't run across any bad weather, like rain or something that might cool off the hot air in the air-bag, we may be able to stay in the air for about two days. Would that be enough to make it three hundred leagues?"

Xaa looked down to the ground, guessing at their speed. "Yes, if we keep going about this fast," he replied, his tail flicking back and forth as he spoke.

Merle nodded. "I still don't understand why they would head east, though. I mean, T'Vril would have to know that there are more mus lands to the east. Why would they do that?" Maybe they turned southwest already, and we're on a... What do you call it? A 'wild djuducu-bird chase'?"

Xaa nodded. "I've been thinking about that myself, and trying to keep an eye out for them on the ground below - well, trying, anyway," Xaa replied, grinning, and Merle giggled while he continued. "The birds in the stable and the guard were all attacked with the same weapon - a mallet. Probably Tinker's mallet, wielded by T'Vril - apparently she just reached through the bars for each bird's stall, grabbed the bird by the neck, pulled it's head through the bars and whacked it with the mallet. The healers say the guard will be alright in a few days, but the birds have thinner bones - the healers were only able to save four of them out of the nearly two hundred that were in the stables. Most were stone cold dead by the time they were discovered, and those four that survived will never be useful for riding animals again - just breeding. T'Vril would have to assume that we were all afoot, with no ability to chase them. Heading east to confuse their trail is pointless - they may as well simply head straight for the mountain if they were heading to Tinker's lands, or straight west if they were heading to the cat's homelands. Heading east is pointless," Xaa rumbled.

Merle pondered, flaring the burner a couple times as she thought. "Well, let's think about this. Tinker would have to have a really good reason to head east, then. We know he was angry - maybe vengeful? Is there anything to the east he could destroy that would help the cats win the war?"

Xaa snorted. "Only the sea. We have fishing boats that harvest from the sea. If he could destroy that, many mus along the coast would starve. Beyond that is nothing - just more water. Well, there's..." Xaa replied, then stopped, his eyes widening. "No!" he growled.

"What?" Merle asked.

"Forbidden Island, Merle! That's where he has to be heading!"

"Huh? Oh - you mean that island in your legends? What about it?"

"Merle, our legends say that there is a place - Forbidden Cave. In that cave, the last of the gods still sits. All the other gods finished with creation and left Oerth, never to return, but this one god remains behind, watching over the world. From him, we gained our size, our power, and our ability to strive and slay. Afterwards, we were bidden to leave the island, never to return," Xaa explained.

"Umm... But that's just a legend. Just a story - like stories about magic," Merle offered feebly, knowing where Tinker had gotten the information about the island's existence.

"Yes. And if I had told you a year ago that you would be flying through the air faster than you can run, half a league in the sky, the power of steam at your fingertips, you'd have told me I was just spinning a story. If I had flown over your head in this machine a year ago, you'd have called it magic," Xaa replied, and Merle nodded as he continued. "Merle, what if all our ancient legends have some basis in fact? What if the magic and sorcery and other things in these legends were just advanced technology, like this airship?"

"Then that would mean there might be something on that island, and Tinker might be able to use it as a weapon against the mus," Merle replied, shuddering. "Oh, Xaa! I'm so sorry! I'm the one who told him your legend! I did it to hurt him because he had destroyed Time-eater, I told him that his people had actually enslaved their own Lost Tribe! I never meant it to hurt you!"

Xaa held his arms out, and Merle came over to hug him. "It's alright, Merle. We weren't hiding Forbidden Island - it's common knowledge among us. He could have found out about it from any mus, if he'd bothered to learn our language. I supposed back when we first encountered the Little Ones, they probably discounted the whole idea that we might be their 'Lost Tribe' and forgot about it. As for us, we never thought we were their 'Lost Tribe', we only knew that once we were small mice, like him. Yes, I've heard his legends. Yes, I can see we are related to his people, but that doesn't make me unhappy. The way I see it, we've grown and changed. His people are still like children. It doesn't make me unhappy to learn that we once were children, too. And as far as him 'hurting' me, or the mus, he hasn't done it yet. Don't worry about it for now. What's important now is getting there before him," Xaa rumbled, hugging Merle gently.

Merle nodded, and wiped her eyes. "Alright - how far is it? Merle asked.

"About four hundred leagues or so - we can't make it in this airship. We'll have to land on the coast near one of the fishing villages, then somehow get a boat and pray we make it."

"We can make it that far if you can accurately guide me to from the air," Merle replied firmly.

"Well, yes, I can - it would actually be easier from the air, since we can see farther and landmarks are easier to spot. But how will we get the airship to fly that far?" Xaa asked.

"I have a plan," Mere replied.

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