(Book I of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 1999 BY
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Merle looked down to the land below, slowly looming larger and larger in the darkness. "We're definitely going to make the shore, but still I think we're coming down too fast."
"Can we use up more of our fuel?" Xaa asked.
"We're nearly out as it is. I think we've got enough for three, maybe four good blasts - that's it. If I use it too soon, we'll just delay the crash 'till later. If I use it too late, I won't slow us down at all. I have to time it just right. For now, let's try cutting another ballast bag," Merle replied.
Xaa nodded, drawing his knife. In a moment, he'd cut the small cord, and the bag fell away. "One more left - then we're out of ballast," Xaa said. A few seconds later, Merle heard the splash of the bag hitting the ocean below.
Merle fretted. "Well, I'd rather we come down too soft than too hard," she said, then turned to her pack. Pulling out Tree-Climb-Helper, she tied it to the longest piece of rope they had, then tied the other end of the rope to one of the cleats on the stern of the basket, just next to Xaa. "My invention, Tree-Climb-Helper - I guess you'd call it a grapnel," Merle said, tossing the coil of rope overboard. "When we get low enough, it might be able to snag something and stop us. From there, we can come down gently. I hope."
A minute later, Merle looked over the side again. "I think Tree-Climb-Helper is dragging in the water. Cut the last bag," Merle said.
Xaa's knife came out again, and the last bag fell to the ocean with a splash that sounded loud in the stillness of the night.
"It's not enough. Close your eyes," Merle said, and stood, grabbing the chain for the burner. She pumped it slowly, carefully, trying to eke the last few drops of alcohol out. The burner flared, then flared again. Three times, then four. A fifth sputtered slightly, and a sixth wouldn't come. "That's it. Now all we can do is wait and hope."
Ahead in the moonlight, Merle could see trees. They seemed to be coming up fast. The airship's downward motion was slow, but the wind was blowing them towards the beach quickly. Merle ducked down, and Xaa wrapped an arm around one of the ropes.
There was a sudden, hard jerk, and Merle bounced off the inside of the basket. The airship swayed in the breeze coming off the ocean - but it had stopped.
"Yay!" Merle shouted, and Xaa bowed to her in the darkness.
"Okay - we're stopped. Now what, love? We're too high to jump," Xaa said, looking down.
"This," Merle replied, hopping up and wrapping the rope to the air release around her paw. Gently, she pulled it down, held it for several seconds, then released.
The basket lowered itself down to the ground in a small gap between the trees that grew near the forest. There was some snapping of limbs as it did so, and Xaa and Merle stayed clear of the edges of the basket. Finally, it settled to the ground with a solid thump.
Merle whooped with joy, and Xaa picked her up carefully, setting her down outside the basket. Merle knelt down to kiss the ground. "Hello, Ground! Never though I'd see you alive again!"
"What, you were scared, too?" Xaa asked, grinning as he set their packs and their other supplies on the ground outside the basket.
"Well, let's just say that while I have discovered that soaring to enormous heights while dangling precariously below a bag of hot air is a lot of fun, doing it at night over open ocean with no guarantee that I will ever see solid land again and a really good chance I will become food for the fishies is something I find rather unnerving," Merle replied, and giggled. Xaa laughed in reply as he climbed out of the basket, then knelt to hug Merle gently. Merle giggled and hugged back.
"Well, Merle, congratulations again. You were the first mustie to fly, and you now are the first mustie to land on Forbidden Island," Xaa rumbled.
"Thank you," Merle giggled.
"Well, the first thing we should do is finish deflating the air-bag, then cut it loose from the basket. We can use it to make a tent for us, and perhaps some sleeping bags and other supplies in case it gets cold here in the winter - and it appears it does, as these trees are deciduous, not evergreen or tropical. We can also recover the rope, in case we need any of it. Then, of course, there's your grapnel - we've got to get that back. It may come in useful again. They had nearly a two-day head start, but even if Tinker stole a boat instead of building one himself, it would still take them almost a week to sail here. That means we are at least a week, possibly more ahead of them. That gives us a week to gather and set up anything we may need, and start searching."
"But-but if we cut up the air-bag, we'll never get back!" Merle objected.
"Merle, I think you already know that we aren't ever getting back. We can't make the alcohol the burner needs to inflate the bag, we don't have a frame to hold the bag up so it can be inflated. This airship isn't going to ever fly again. The only possible way we could get back is if Tinker makes it here by boat, and we steal his boat. And if he does make it here, we have to already have found the Forbidden Cave so we can prevent him from getting to it first. Even if he does make it here and we do stop him, I have no idea how to sail a boat across the ocean - and I can tell by the look on your face you don't, either. No, Merle. We're stuck here, together, for the rest of our lives, most likely," Xaa rumbled.
Merle was silent for a long while. She'd known
this already, of course, but hearing it from Xaa hammered it
home. She would never see her village or Old Gnarly or her comfy
burrow again. Her hope for saving the musties from enslavement
was vanished, and even the friends she had made in the lands of
the mus, like Tlahn and Lameh and Johm'rouh, she'd never see
again. She could accept that - she had already come to terms with
all of it yesterday. Merle looked up to Xaa. "Stuck here? On
this island? With you? For the rest of my life?" she asked,
and Xaa nodded. Merle grinned. "Somehow I am not seeing this
as a problem, are you?" she asked, then giggled. Xaa grinned
in reply. "Then let's get to work!" Merle said,
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