PART ONE: THE PROPHET OF THE QUAG
Flaz' Quag teemed with life, much of which was malignant. Even in the heart of winter, with the temperature across most of Devforth hovering near the freezing point, the land's southernmost swamp exuded an aura of warm, humid decay. Mosquitoes and other insects, fat on the blood of their animal victims, thrived here when the cold had killed off their brethren elsewhere. With its capricious footpaths and teeming winter vegetation, the Quag was like no other place in Devforth. For that reason, among many others, few humans ventured into it - and none emerged.
One biped lifeform thrived in the rancid moistness of Flaz' Quag. With hides as tough as sun-hardened leather and constitutions that not even the most virulent sickness could conquer, the quatics were among Devforth's fiercest and most-feared races. Cousins to their mountain-bound kindred trolls, quatics were similar in form and temperament, but superior in intelligence. While trolls preferred the high, dry climate of Vorti's peaks, quatics prospered in the swamps.
Legend had it that centuries ago quatics had freely roamed Devforth, raping and slaughtering as they saw fit, with little to impede their progress. No race on its own was strong enough to stop the quatics, and only the Confederation of Garvad - a desperate allegiance of elves, humans, and various crossbreeds - had driven the quatics back to the swamps. Since that time, the remnants of the once-powerful race had hidden away, sullen resentment festering like a sore.
Following their defeat at the hands of Garvad's army, a change had come about in quatic society. Once a social race, the creatures became recluses, shunning contact with their own almost as zealously as they avoided other races. Small, closely-knit communities sprung up throughout the swamps, each interacting with the others only to trade females to keep the bloodlines from becoming stale.
By the year 600, nearly four centuries after their cataclysmic defeat, the population of quatics had surpassed that of the time when they had been Devforth's dominant race. However, with no central leadership to band the creatures together, they posed little danger to the elves and humans who had once dreaded a quatic resurgence. Quatics kept to themselves, hidden away in their marshy dens, until 610 when Grundig the prophet announced himself.
Born in 580, Grundig did not come into power in his own tribe until 603 when, at the age of 23, he killed his father, the previous chieftain. By right of combat, Grundig took over leadership of his people, inheriting his father's one-hundred fifty wives. Added to the sixty he already possessed, that gave Grundig over two-hundred mates capable of bearing him children. Since quatics measured wealth and prestige by the number of wives and children, Grundig was considered rich.
Nearly three years after his elevation to the position of chieftain, Grundig revealed to his people the truth about his power. The disclosure not only raised his name to legendary status, but changed the fabric of quatic society. Since childhood and a violent sickness that had nearly killed him, Grundig had been aware of his abnormal abilities. However, not until the blood-rituals of adulthood when he had listened to the lessons of the elders had he realized what those abilities signaled. He, Grundig, son of the chieftain Zaab, was an Apath, a user of magic - the first in the history of his race.
Magic, he learned, was one of four energies, the other three being emotion, electricity, and lifeforce. Since energy could neither be created nor destroyed, but merely changed in form, and because magic did not exist naturally, it had to be transformed from one of the three other energies. Electricity and lifeforce were too potent and mysterious for any creature to dabble in, but a select few - those born as Apaths - could manipulate their own emotions, changing that energy into magic. The penalty was that every time an Apath used magic, he drained his emotional reserves. The amount of available power corresponded to the depth of the user's emotions, and emotion, once transformed, could not be replaced. Those who pushed themselves beyond the limits of their emotional reserves, invariably died.
Grundig did not use his abilities often, but he had put on a spectacular display when proof of his claims was demanded by the doubters in his tribe. Since then, further use of magic had not been necessary. His reputation spread throughout Flaz' Quag and even to the distant Vorti Marsh. Quatics began to travel to Grundig to pay tribute. It was not until the year 610, however, that Grundig formulated a plan by which he could use his abilities and status to increase his power and prestige, as well as better the lot of his race.
It was a cool afternoon when Grundig decided to put into action the first phase of his campaign. A low-hanging fog blanketed much of Flaz' Quag, including the hummock where Grundig's lair was located. Alone on this day, having dismissed those who normally served him, the self-proclaimed prophet of the quatics paced from one side of his strip of land to the other, mists eddying around his body as he moved.
By quatic standards, Grundig was a powerfully handsome specimen, standing taller than a horse and weighing at least as much. His body was excessively muscled and his midsection lacked the customary bulge that characterized nearly every adult male quatic. Although his hairless skin, shaded blue-green and covered with a variety of knobby growths, scars, warts, and other assorted blemishes, was weathered and toughened, he nevertheless wore a suit of crude plate mail fashioned from the bones of some giant creature. Grundig didn't use a weapon, relying instead on the talons of his webbed, four-digited hands and feet. His face was elongated, with small, yellow pupiless eyes under a bony ridge from which a gigantic, three-nostriled nose sprouted. The lipless mouth below his nose was large and filled with dozens of blackened, rotting teeth that made Grundig's breath reek of decay.
At the moment, Grundig was unsure of himself, an unnatural feeling for one of his boundless self-assurance. Never in his seven years of rule had any of his underlings seen him waver or falter. Had any of them witnessed his current state, they would have marveled at his uncertainty.
The reason was the immensity of the task Grundig had set for himself. Having never faced a legitimate challenge, he had never been forced to consider failure. The result of every action Grundig had undertaken - even something as momentous as the killing of his father - had been assured. However, to attain the next level of power - a step demanded by his towering ambition - Grundig had to expose himself to risk. The secure life he led here, hidden safely within the bosom of his tribe in the reedy southern reaches of Flaz' Quag, had to be terminated. It was now necessary for Grundig to face the dangers of the unknown, including possible failure, physical injury, and even death.
For quatics, humans and elves were the enemy. The stories of the atrocities committed by Garvad's army had been passed along from father to son and mother to daughter, a never-dying oral tradition to keep the race aware of who deserved their hatred. Women had been violated with swords and red-hot pokers, children spitted and roasted alive over blazing bonfires, and men trussed up and made free sport of. The Confederation had not been content merely to kill quatics. They had humiliated and brutalized them in every manner possible. War had become genocide, and quatics like Grundig did not forget.
Grundig had never been outside of Flaz' Quag. It was not in the nature of quatics to be adventuresome - a tendency which Grundig would have to change for his aspirations to be achieved. Of course, the first obstacle to overcome was his personal fear of the unknown. He would have to investigate the outside world to see what unforeseen dangers it held for his kind. It was shortsighted and dangerous to make plans based on old stories and second-hand information.
Although Grundig had never seen a human or an elf, he had once looked upon their bones. Based on their skeletons, they appeared to be puny creatures, and he wondered how an army of even superior numbers could have defeated his ancestors. They were no match for the might of quatics.
Grundig did not know for how long he would be absent from the swamp. If all went well, it might be as short a span as a season. Adverse circumstances, however, could easily require more than a year's worth of travel and exploration. Grundig did not intend to inform his people of his departure. As a ruler, he was beholden to none. If the tribe had need of his leadership while he was away, they could turn to his firstborn son, the natural heir to his position, who was capable of ruling for a short period. The danger existed that Castabal might become too accustomed to the position, which would be unfortunate. Grundig would prefer that his first act upon returning to Flaz' Quag would not be the execution of his favorite child.
The only map of Devforth possessed by Grundig was an old goatskin drawing that dated back to the time of the war. While its accuracy was in doubt, the basic representation of terrain was unlikely to have changed over a several-centuries span of time. Grundig intended to head west, into the Merk Woods, then toward the coast, where one of the great cities stood.
It was not in the nature of quatics to collect possessions. So, other than the bone armor that adorned his body, the prophet of the quatics had nothing to bring with him on his trek. One of his greatest concerns was whether he would find food to sustain him outside the swamp, but he had eaten enough over the past weeks to store some excess away in case hunting was lean in the forest and beyond.
Admittedly, Grundig would miss his wives during this excursion. Since his ascension to the position of chieftain, there had been few nights when he had not enjoyed the company of at least one of them, and now he was about to forsake such pleasures for an indefinite period. However, in the overall scheme of things, it was a small price to pay.
Grundig's passing from the lands of his tribe went largely unnoticed, with the exception of a lone hunter he encountered near the marked perimeter. The quatic, an elderly and bloated creature whose name Grundig could not recall, executed a clumsy bow the chieftain ignored. Without a word or action to acknowledge the other's presence, he continued on, his attention already captured by the distant backdrop rising out of the mists - the splash of darkness and shadow that represented the Merk Woods.
The forest was a place where elves dwelt. Legend had it that they enjoyed capering about in that gloomy place, and some of their larger settlements were built high above the earth, supported by the interlacing branches of the more prodigious trees. Having only seen the stunted specimens that dotted the marsh, Grundig found it impossible to accept the likelihood of a "tree city".
Darkness was approaching as Grundig moved beyond the outskirts of the swamp, heading southwest. His ultimate goal was the city of Tsab, assuming it existed after all these years. Grundig felt that humans, because of their greater numbers, represented a more legitimate challenge than elves. He needed to observe his quarry in order to be prepared to move against them.
To Grundig, the Merk Woods were a strange and frightening place. In the marshes, quatics were ferocious and fearless, but amidst the towering trees - behemoths that stretched over a hundred feet into the air - Grundig felt insignificant. The ground was carpeted with dead and decaying leaves and the quatic found it impossible to move silently. With each footstep, he expected to be confronted by the elves he imagined to be lurking about.
It was a dark night, with the moon hidden behind a lowering bank of clouds. To the north, these would hold the promise of a steady snow. In the forest and its environs, however, the temperature was high enough that the precipitation would fall in the form of a cold rain. Grundig looked forward to this. As a creature of the marshes, he appreciated water in any form.
The eyes of quatics were capable of seeing in darkness. As long as there was the faintest trace of light, Grundig could make out his surroundings. The world of the forest challenged him, however. On a night when even the stars were obscured, the only source of illumination came from insects with glowing abdomens.
Initially, Grundig had intended to travel through the night and rest, when rest was needed, while the sun stood high in the sky. Given the difficulty of maneuvering through the forest's deepening gloom, not to mention the possibility that members of one of his race's ancient enemies could be close by, he decided to wait until early morning to continue his journey. So, resting his back against the bark of a gigantic tree, Grundig closed his eyes. He wouldn't sleep - quatics needed less than an hour's sleep every fortnight and Grundig had enjoyed nearly two hours of undisturbed slumber three nights ago.
More than half the night had passed before Grundig was disturbed. The sound of a twig snapping close by caused his eyes to pop open. The blackness surrounding the quatic was nearly impenetrable, but Grundig could make out a thicket to his left, two-dozen strides away. It was likely that the noise had come from there.
Tensing in anticipation of an attack, Grundig shifted his position so he could be on his feet instantly. He neither liked nor trusted this strange land of trees, and he suspected the elves, as denizens of the forest, had been watching him since he had first walked beneath the canopy of interlocking branches.
Moments passed with no further indication of danger, but Grundig knew he had not imagined the sound. Unwilling to play pawn to tension and waiting, the quatic took action, springing upright and sprinting in the direction from which the noise had come. When he was less than two strides from the thicket, a large, hairy animal burst from cover, charging directly at him.
Despite its obvious mass, it was a squat creature, low to the ground, with a pair of curved tusks and a large snout. Two beady eyes glared at Grundig as the beast lunged in his direction. Never one to refuse a challenge, and finding an opportunity to obtain food for a stomach already feeling empty, the quatic faced the onslaught squarely.
The battle, such as it was, was short-lived and one-sided. Grundig had intelligence, agility, and strength on his side. It took little effort to avoid the first deadly thrust of the tusks. A powerful leap took the quatic over the beast. He then attacked from behind, slamming the creature to the ground and twisting its neck until the crack of bone signaled that the struggle was over.
Accustomed to eating uncooked meat, Grundig wasted no time ripping off a leg and tearing into the bloody haunch with his teeth. By daybreak, he had devoured nearly all of the animal, leaving behind a carcass with little meat or sinew remaining for the carrion creatures to ingest.
With the dawn of a new morning, Grundig resumed his trek through the Merk Woods. On this occasion, he experienced the sure sensation of unease that comes from being observed by unseen eyes. Whoever - or whatever - was watching, however, Grundig could not spy. The forest around him seemed as lifeless as ever.
Shortly after noon, the size of the trees diminished, and their density thinned, as the Merk Woods became the Plains of Tsab. Unlike in the east, where the edge of the forest was distinct, the line here was blurred. Grundig was not certain where the Merk Woods ended and the Plains began.
The quatic's first view of humans came shortly after his journey had moved from beneath the trees. Some distance to the north, a ten-wagon caravan was moving west, probably toward the city of Tsab. At this distance, Grundig couldn't distinguish individuals, so he didn't know how many he would have to battle if he chose to approach. Estimating that there would be at least one or two per wagon, that was more than he was willing to engage, at least until he had ascertained the relative strengths and weaknesses of these creatures. Grundig wanted his first encounter with humans to be with a small group - preferably only two or three.
Although his knowledge of lands outside of the swamps was limited, Grundig guessed that the presence of such a large convoy likely meant there was a road to the north - something he wanted to avoid. So Grundig struck out to the southwest, angling away from the wagons. Eventually, he turned his footsteps directly west, knowing that if he reached the coast he had gone too far.
As the afternoon wore on, clouds moved in rapidly, indicating the approach of a storm. It was cold out on these plains, far colder than in either the swamp or the forest, and Grundig's body was occasionally wracked by shivers. With temperatures as low as they were, any precipitation that fell was sure to come in the form of snow.
At this time of the year, the days were short, and the building blackness to the west curtailed the span of daylight. Nevertheless, there was enough light for Grundig to travel for a short time after normal wayfarers would have halted. Eventually, however, even the quatic was forced to halt his progress, or risk losing his direction. Grundig settled down amidst the thigh-high grass as the first flakes of snow began to fall.
Having never seen frozen precipitation, Grundig was at first fascinated by it - how if a flake fell on his tongue, it would melt into a tiny droplet of water. However, as the night matured and the temperature dropped, discomfort overcame fascination, and the quatic began to long for morning.
The only evidence of dawn's approach was a lessening of the darkness of a bleak and forbidding sky. Clouds hung low to the earth, spitting forth fitful squalls of snow as frigid winds howled across the plains. Grundig, hugging his arms to his chest as he moved westward, searched vainly for shelter that was nowhere in sight. His feet were numb from treading through the three inches of snow that coated the ground, and his teeth were chattering.
He was in no danger of dying, of course. Quatics were tough creatures, with bodies that could adapt to a variety of environments. But being able to survive and enjoying it were different things. It was possible to live and be miserable and, for Grundig, that was the case at this moment. It had been years since he had suffered this much. Thoughts of his warm swamp lair were like a pleasure long denied.
Grundig came upon the coast before mid-day. The plains ran to the edge of a vertical cliff which dropped away over a hundred feet into a swirling surf below. The waters, stirred up by the violence of the storm at sea, crashed with a roar into the smoothed wall of rock at the base of the cliff. Awestruck, Grundig stared at the spectacle below him. For the past half-hour, he had heard the crashing of the waves, but had assumed it to be distant thunder.
The snow had abated, but the frigidity of the air had not. If anything, it was colder now than it had been during the height of the storm. With the wind whipping off the sea, this promontory was unbearable. Grundig headed a distance inland, intending to make his way up the coast from a locale where it was less bitter.
Night was approaching when the quatic was granted his first distant view of a human city. Even he, biased against the race as he was, could not help but be impressed. In the deepening twilight of a cloudy evening, much of Tsab was already alight, with lanterns hanging at regular intervals along the streets, and lights blazing through the unshuttered windows of every tavern, inn, and after-hours gathering place. From a distance, it was a place of enchantment, an edifice of stone and mortar set aglow by forces more potent and ancient than magic.
Grundig looked down on Tsab from the apex of a gentle slope that led to the city from the south. He was still some distance away, so humans were too small for him to see. Nevertheless, their handiwork gave the quatic reason for concern. Creatures that could create such a majestic settlement were not without their abilities and, regardless of how puny their individual strengths might be, such a race would not be easy to overcome, even for a group as powerful as the quatics.
It would not do for him to approach the city. That would be a mistake. Grundig could watch from afar, but it was mandatory that he remain hidden from Tsab. He needed to encounter representatives of humanity, but not in such mass quantities that they would overwhelm him. He had not come so far through such unpleasant circumstances without a plan. Now was the time to implement it.
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