THE PRICE OF TERROR


PART ONE: THE PROPHET OF THE QUAG


CHAPTER FIVE


     Over the past two weeks, Evi's life had changed in ways she would never have dreamed possible. Grundig's prolonged stay had fundamentally altered her human-centered view of life. Appearances could be deceiving and, in the case of the quatic, they were.
     Even after fourteen days, she wasn't sure why he was with her. At first, it had seemed likely he was seeking shelter from the inclement weather, but there had been several breaks in the snowy pattern since, and he had not taken the opportunity to depart. Not that she wanted him to go. For the first time in recent memory, she felt alive and could see a purpose in waking up each morning.
     At first, it had been difficult to teach Grundig the basics of human language. During the initial part of his stay, communication had been difficult, beginning with hand signals and progressing to a few select words. Evi learned she didn't possess the vocal ability to master the quatic language, so Grundig was forced to attempt her less-guttural tongue.
     The breakthrough had come on the third day, when Grundig revealed something wondrous to Evi. Through a simple magic trick, he exposed his powers and, after obtaining her consent, used them to form a mind-link. The connection of their thoughts was not deep enough to be intimate, but it gave Grundig the opportunity to absorb a portion of Evi's vocabulary, which he was struggling to master.
     Evi had not been out of the house since Grundig's arrival, except to help him fix the front door he had burst from its hinges. Given the unpleasant weather, she might have spent most of the time inside anyway, but the quatic had decided to provide for her during his stay - it was the least he could do, he claimed, since he was sharing her "shelter." Every morning, he went out hunting, and usually returned with a sack full of small animals. Evi didn't eat much, which was fortunate, since Grundig had a huge appetite and devoured most of what he caught.
     Today was Midwinter's Day, which caused Evi nostalgic pangs. Once, when she had been a child, this had been a special day: a time of singing, playing, and gift-giving. Central Tsab had a huge carnival from dawn to dusk, and her parents had always taken her into town to join the festivities. Now, although she would find little joy there, Evi felt a wistful sadness remembering those days and regretting that they would never come again, at least not in this lifetime.
     At the moment, Grundig was on his daily meat-gathering expedition, and Evi found the house empty without his presence. Until his arrival at her door on that cold, snowy night two weeks ago, she hadn't known how lonely she was. The idea of finding companionship in the person of a quatic was bizarre, but after she had gotten over her initial reaction of fear and awe, she had found Grundig to be warm and generous, an impression belied by his physical appearance.
     She dreaded the day he would leave. Even though she had no idea when that might be, she awoke every morning with fear in her heart that his space by the common room fireplace might be empty. Thus far, he had been there with the approach of each dawn, either resting or strengthening his understanding of the written word by perusing her book. Evi sensed, however, the time was approaching when he would move on. To where, she didn't know, but it was apparent these blissful moments of companionship could not continue indefinitely. So she fretted, and perhaps enjoyed his stay less because of her worrying.
     

* * *

     Grundig snapped the neck of the rabbit and deposited it in the burlap bag with his other fifteen kills of the morning. There was hardly enough meat in there for one of his appetite, but foraging for small animals was tedious, and it was bitterly cold. The time had come to return to Evi's house, and Grundig hoped she had enough bread to fill the void created by the meager fruits of the day's hunt.
     The snow beneath his feet had turned to ice by the cycle of melting and re-freezing it had undergone, making the terrain treacherous. The normally sure-footed quatic had fallen twice this morning, once striking a sharp, protruding rock and gashing his left forearm. He did not like this climate - it was hostile to those of his kind - but he would have to get used to it if his life's ambition was to be fulfilled.
     Soon, it would be time for him to return to the swamps and make plans for the invasion. He had met a human, explored the way her mind worked, and learned her language. Unfortunately, Evi did not seem like the enemy. There was something broken deep within her, something worthy of compassion or pity, and Grundig could not bring himself to hate so sad and lonely a creature. Of all the lost souls he had encountered as chieftain of his tribe, none could compare to that of his human contact.
     Grundig had decided that when his army marched into this part of Devforth, he would ensure Evi was given immunity from the violence to come. Of course, in war, one could never be certain of the outcome of events, but it was Grundig's preference that she not be a victim. She had shown him the sort of open-minded kindness he doubted others of her race would offer, and he didn't wish to repay that with blood and pain. Humanity as a whole might deserve his wrath, but Evi was an exception.
     Having spent enough time outside for now, Grundig turned back to the house, climbing the frozen landscape which during springs and summers past had been richly-sown fields. At this time of year, with Devforth caught in the grip of a bitter winter, all was barren and bleak, from the outlying farms of Tsab to the borders of the central city.
     Grundig had been there once, during the dead of night, while Evi slept. He had crept out of her house and made his way to the city, sneaking up unawares behind two watchmen near the western gate and dispatching them. That brief encounter had told the quatic all he needed to know about human resilience. Men's bodies were not formed to endure the harsh, brutal combat his race relished. Humanity was soft; their conquest would not be difficult. Grundig would not fall into the traps laid for his ancestors. Ultimate domination, not to mention a measure of heady revenge, lay in the future.
     As always, Evi was waiting for him and, as he tossed the sack at her feet, he thought again of how sad it must be to live out one's days without companionship. Grundig had touched Evi's mind briefly during their magical link and, while he hadn't reached her innermost thoughts, the images of isolation had impressed themselves upon him. From that point on, any consideration of harming the young woman had been banished from his list of alternatives.
     They passed the rest of the morning as usual, talking about any number of inconsequential things so Grundig could practice his newly acquired language skills. Although the quatic was not yet fluent, he knew his grasp of the human tongue was improving. Soon, he intended to request another, deeper link with Evi. If she agreed, which he was sure she would, his knowledge would be rounded and he would be able to return home.
     "Today's the coronation day," said Evi as she came to sit beside the fire. Grundig was near the door, staring out the window at a white landscape made brilliant by reflecting sunlight.
     He sorted through his memories, trying to remember which human ruler was underage. In addition to learning the language, Grundig had been gathering as much information as he could about human culture and society. Evi's knowledge was parochial, but it was more than enough for him to absorb.
     "Queen Lea," he said at last, identifying the name. "Ruler of Vorti. Daughter of King Sor the Apath." That exhausted his knowledge of the subject. Other than Tsab, Evi was able to tell him little of Devforth's cities.
     "That's right. There must an impressive celebration in Vorti - coronation and Midwinter's Carnival. Maybe with Her Majesty on the throne, there can be peace."
     "I no understand," said Grundig. "You and Vorti...no peace?"
     Evi shook her head. "There hasn't been open war for fifteen years, but the threat is always present. I'm sure King Guc would have attacked long ago if he had the army to do it with."
     "Tsab have no army?"
     "We have a small one, but it's a token force, and certainly nothing with which to mount a full-scale offensive. Most of Tsab's military was destroyed in the failed invasion of Vorti during the last war."
     "Tsab no defend itself during attack?"
     "Hopefully it won't come to that," said Evi. "But if Vorti sent its army here, there isn't much we could do. Token resistance, then the city would fall."
     Grundig's expression remained impassive. It was odd how these meaningless conversations occasionally revealed some piece of critical information. Ever since arriving in human territory, he had been trying to decide where the best place to open the campaign might be. Evi had unwittingly given him the answer.
     The remainder of the morning passed uneventfully, and it was moments after noon when the sky suddenly darkened. By the time Evi and Grundig opened the door to see what was happening, the sun had vanished and all the lands were plunged into a darkness to rival the blackest midnight.
     "What's happening?" whispered Evi in a small, frightened voice.
     Grundig said nothing, understanding no more of the situation than his companion. Above, the stars had twinkled into existence, but there was a great black circle where the sun should have been. Something was blotting it out - and its light - completely. The quatic had seen eclipses before, but never one as all-encompassing as this one.
     "Back inside," said Grundig, ushering Evi through the door and slamming it behind them. His actions were impelled as much by uncertainty as by the inclement conditions outdoors. With the vanishing of the sun, the temperature was plummeting and the frigid day was becoming more inhospitable.
     Suddenly, Grundig felt pain rip through his body, shredding reason and conscious thought with its intensity. His senses disintegrated in a blast of psychic energy and he lost all connection with the physical world. His final impression as he faded away was Evi's distant cry as his body toppled to the packed-dirt floor of her house. Beyond that, the only reality was in his mind, dissociated from sensation, but not awareness, and powerless to control what was happening.
     Through vision that had nothing to do with his eyes, he saw a face - it was an old face, a human face. The brown eyes were lifeless, the expression bleak. The man wore a black hood and did not flinch from Grundig's stare. With this vision came a name - Vas - and a title - Chancellor of Vorti. It had been fifty-two long years since this person had last been numbered among the living.
     Then, as the face dissolved, the flood of images began. They rushed at Grundig - through him - at a dizzying pace, allowing the quatic no time to digest what he was being bombarded with. Yet it took only a moment to realize that he was absorbing memories - those that were, yet at the same time were not, his own. Glimpses of his previous life - the body his essence had inhabited before Grundig - were things that should never be recalled in this one. The barrier of death was a boundary no living creature was meant to cross, in mind or body, yet it was now being breached.
     As a child, he had been unloved. The eighth of nine children, his parents had seen him as another mouth to feed. There had never been any affection, no kisses or hugs. His older siblings had despised him as much as his mother and father. At the tender age of four, he was sent to work mucking stables at the local inn, and often felt the sting of the stablemaster's whip. His parents never cared, taking his pitiful wages and giving little in return. There was hardly a day when he wasn't hungry, and the aches of his body kept him from ever enjoying a good night's sleep.
     As an adolescent, after his magical powers had manifested, he had been feared. All those who had shown him contempt in his early years were forced to suffer ten times his agony. He killed no one, but made them all endure torments worse than those he had been subjected to. Mother, father, sisters, brothers, neighbors, and the stablemaster - all received the wages of their cruelty, and only when he was satisfied that every wrong had been redressed, had he stopped the torture. Then he departed Fels, the city of his youth, forever.
     The middle years of his life were taken up with wandering, and as he journeyed across Devforth, he explored his powers. Magic, he learned, was a wondrous thing, but without formal training, there were dangers he didn't understand, the greatest of which was the slow drain on his emotional reserves that his wanton use of energy caused.
     Then there was Kye, a girl he met in a small Northern Plains settlement. He wanted to make her his wife; he tried everything in his power to impress her, but she wouldn't have him. No display of magic was enough to soften her heart, and when he left her village, he was a broken man, weary of human company. So he went into a solitary retreat and lived the next half-dozen years on his own in the northernmost of the Whitetop Mountains, using magic to keep himself alive.
     Eventually, longing simply to hear another human voice, he decided to return to the lands of men. On an impulse during his southward trek, he made a detour to Kye's village, thinking that perhaps one more glimpse of her would resolve his confused feelings. But he arrived to the remnants of a disaster. All that stood of the settlement were the charred, burned-out husks of houses. Human skeletons were in abundance, some missing limbs, others with crushed skulls. The brutality of what had happened was unthinkable, but that was the danger of life away from the cities. The bandit raid had come many months before, so it was impossible to identify individual bodies. But he knew hers was one of the skeletons, and he would never see her fair face again.
     At last he ended up in Vorti, but by then his powers were fading. Nevertheless, he continued to use them when he could, and his growing recognition as a wise man brought him to the attention of King Kan, who appointed him to his council of advisors. With access to the Royal Library, he studied as many books as he could find on magic, and through them he learned of his folly - and his danger. He was perilously close to the wizard's end, called Burgeoning Apathy, and must cease all use of magic or die.
     As the years passed, he became an important member of Kan's inner circle and eventually was named Chancellor. In that post, he devoted all of his remaining emotion to the service of the city, subordinating his own desires, and even those of the king, to the greater good of Vorti. In the beginning, there had been few conflicts, but the balance did not last.
     When Kan's son Sor was revealed to be an Apath, the boy's tutoring was given into his hands. Some of the lessons he taught were harsh, but Sor learned well, and when he later assumed the throne upon his father's death, he was ready to rule. The reign which started with such promise, however, quickly encountered trouble.
     Sor's choice of Joi for a wife was inappropriate, threatening to plunge the city into civil war - nobility against commoner. To save Vorti, the chancellor reluctantly conspired with the king's mother to murder the new queen. At first, the plot had gone according to plan, but some outside agent entered the palace that night and disrupted the carefully-orchestrated sequence of events. Not only did Joi perish, but Sor's mother was slashed to death. The investigation which ensued turned the king's suspicion to his chancellor, who was arrested and held accountable for all that had happened that night.
     His trial at the hands of a grieving Sor was short and brutal, the sentence inevitable. On the way to a public execution, he made one bid for escape, using his last precious magical resources. Breaking free from his guards, he soared skyward, intending to flee as far from Vorti as his powers could take him. For a moment, it seemed he was destined to succeed, but the king, refusing to be cheated of his vengeance, mustered his own powers and lashed out at his airborne chancellor. It was there that the memories ended.
     Reality came crashing back to Grundig, and he found himself lying on Evi's floor, his clawed hands dug deep into the dirt, his body trembling. His mind continued to reel and his head was throbbing. Two small, warm hands stroked the back of his neck, trying to soothe his agony. Belatedly, he noticed the light streaming through the window. The sun was no longer blotted out.
     "Are you...all right?" asked Evi, her voice quavering. She continued to massage his neck and shoulders.
     The memories were all in place, not as those of a different person, but as his own. It was another lifetime - his previous lifetime - but he recalled everything. And suddenly he was no longer ignorant of human customs or of how his magic could be used. As Vas, his education had been detailed.
     Grundig forced himself into a sitting position, turning pale amber eyes on his companion. Tears streaked Evi's face and she looked vulnerable and frightened. The quatic imagined what the experience must have been like for her, seeing him collapse, then watching the convulsions.
     "I'm fine," said Grundig. "Just a little shaken. And I have a tremendous headache."
     "What happened?"
     That was a good question, and one for which Grundig had no answer. What had happened? How and why had he suddenly come into possession of Vas' memories? The connection to the black sun couldn't be denied, but what did it all mean? How was it possible? Even his newly acquired knowledge offered no solutions.
     "I don't know," he replied honestly. "Something transfixed me. It must have to do with my abilities, but I don't understand how. It's as if the eclipse weakened the barrier between death and life, and allowed knowledge which should be hidden to slip through."
     Grundig noticed that Evi's expression had changed to one of astonishment. "What is it?" he demanded.
     "Your speech… you're speaking flawlessly."
     It was true. Vas' understanding of the human language was another element of his former self he had assimilated. At this point, he felt that he understood the language of men almost as well as he did his native tongue.
     "Something happened to me, Evi. Something I don't understand. In some way, I've been given access to the memories and knowledge of my previous life, when I was a human called Vas."
     Her face mirrored the incredulity he felt. "What does it mean?" she gasped.
     "I don't know. I really don't know."
     
* * *

     Three days later, on a sunny day that promised temperatures well above freezing, Grundig informed Evi the time had come for him to depart. He thanked her for her hospitality and for all she had taught him, and promised that at some future time he would find a way to repay her generosity.
     "Isn't there any way you could stay?" she asked as they stood together by the open doorway, her head not even reaching his chest.
     "I'm not human, Evi, for all that my new memories might make me seem so. I'm still a quatic far from home, and my mission is complete."
     "Mission?"
     "To learn about humans. To make contact with one, and understand what they are like."
     Evi laughed at that, but there was no gaiety in her laughter. "You picked a poor specimen in me. I'm far from a normal human."
     "Were I given the choice again, I would choose none other than you. You are perhaps the single worthy human in this world, and I will make sure that no harm befalls you, no matter what fate has in store for the rest of your race."
     "Who are you? You aren't simply an itinerant quatic, are you?"
     Grundig ducked his head, acknowledging her perceptiveness. "The truth is never easy to hide. Among my people, I am a leader, and many quatics will follow the banner of war when I raise it. There has never before been a quatic Apath, and because of my powers, I am known as the 'Prophet of the Quag.'"
     "Who are you going to war with?"
     "You know the old stories," said Grundig, gesturing the direction of Evi's book. "You know the hereditary enemies of the quatics."
     "Elves and humans. But they no longer hate you."
     "They hate what they do not understand. They destroy what they hate. The only reason the quatics have survived through the years is because they have retreated to the swamps - places which humans find distasteful."
     "So you're going to destroy two races?" gasped Evi. Grundig couldn't tell whether her reaction was one of surprise or horror. He had gambled revealing his plans because he knew of her disdain for her own kind, but perhaps he had risked too much.
     "Not destroy," lied the quatic. "Subjugate. Humanity is an inferior race, and it has too long dominated this world. My people have been forced to live in hiding for centuries. The swamps are becoming overcrowded and food is growing scarce. It is time that we emerge; not as supplicants, but as conquerors."
     "Are there enough of you? If they perceive you as a threat, the humans and elves will band together as they did under Garvad."
     "There have been enough of us for the past hundred years. We are hearty creatures, and breed easily, but tribal feuds and factions have split the quatic race. A leader was needed to mold us to a single purpose. Because of my abilities, I am that leader."
     "And how long will all this take?"
     "Who can say? The task will not be an easy one. Even with the Prophet of the Quag calling out to them, many will be reluctant to leave their beloved swamp lairs. But when we emerge, it shall be with the speed and violence of a lightning storm."
     Evi was silent for a moment, weighing all she had heard. Grundig watched her, trying to gauge her reaction. The last thing he wanted to do was kill her, but if he had misread her loyalties - if her feelings for her race ran deeper than those for him - he would have no choice. In the war to come, surprise would be his greatest advantage, and he couldn't risk losing it because of the actions of a desperate woman.
     Fortunately, she didn't look to be on the verge of panic. In fact, her appearance was composed. But it was equally clear she was contemplating an issue of importance.
     "Take me with you," she said at last.
     The request caught Grundig off-guard, prepared as he was for some plea on behalf of her race. He had never anticipated she would ask to accompany him. Yet, given her loneliness here and the bond that had developed between them, perhaps he shouldn't have been surprised.
     "You know I can't do that," said Grundig. "This is your home, not out there. The swamps are no place for your race."
     "I don't care. I don't want to stay here alone."
     Grundig shook his head. "You're too fragile to survive in my environment for long. Three months from now you could be dead from any number of diseases that quatics shrug off but which would prove fatal to someone of a lesser constitution."
     "And you think a life alone in this house is worth living? I have no prospects, Grundig; no one to rely on. Since my mother's death, every day has been a struggle to find a reason to go on. Even if it's only for a few months, I want to experience life."
     Grundig considered. Evi was sincere enough now, but how would she react when the relative comforts of her home had been stripped away? What would it be like for her to sleep on a cold, wet hummock of land? And what cure would it be for her all-pervasive loneliness when Grundig's responsibilities afforded him little time to spend with her? Here, it had been only the two of them. In Flaz' Quag, Grundig had two-hundred females awaiting his attention, all of whom were capable of satisfying him in a manner a fragile human was unable to.
     "My people would never accept you. Humans are the ancient enemy. They will see in you a threat, if not a betrayal on my part."
     "You're the leader, and an Apath. You can force them to understand, make them accept me."
     Grundig looked at her sadly, considering her plea, and the reason she was making it. At that moment, he made his decision about how to settle the situation.
     
* * *

     Later that afternoon, Grundig emerged from Evi's house to glance skyward. The ground was slushy, with melting snow mixing with water, and the temperature was almost warm enough to be considered pleasant. While not ideal traveling weather, it would do, at least as far as he was concerned. So he set off alone, heading back toward the place he called home. Behind him, the house was empty. The grounds around it were undisturbed except for the small patch of snow that had been cleared to dig a grave. There, covered over by dirt and rocks, lay Evi's still form. Grundig had dispatched her gently from behind – it seemed a kinder fate than leaving her on her own or bringing her with him. And now, for the first time in his life, he regretted the necessity of having to kill. It would not be so with any of the other members of her misbegotten race.


© 2006 James Berardinelli

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