To Guc, it seemed like the flight from Tsab had lasted forever. Now, under cover of darkness, with Pipit’s Cove just to his south, he could rest. Having not slept the previous night while planning the day’s strategy, his energy level was at a low ebb, and he needed at least a short period of slumber in order to think clearly.
     The refugee group that Guc was a part of numbered fewer than one-hundred. While it was possible there were stragglers who hadn’t found the encampment, most of the survivors were present.
     Guc hadn’t given much thought to the future - either near-term or far-term. While his immediate goal was to meet the approaching reinforcements from the Twin Cities, it had occurred to him that those troops would not be enough. Even factoring in Llam’s minor contribution, and Vorti’s more significant one, Guc didn’t think there were enough human soldiers to stop the quatics. The fate of Devforth might ultimately rest on the shoulders of the cities’ few Apaths, and the use of magic in any battle was fraught with uncertainties.
     “Your Majesty,” inquired a voice. “Are you all right?”
     Guc’s eyes snapped open, and he was surprised to realize he had closed them while standing. “You wanted something, Lieutenant?” he replied, taking note of the young man’s insignia.
     “Captain Yob was wondering if you wanted couriers dispatched to the other cities to inform them of what happened?”
     “Tell Yob to find the six most rested riders and send them in pairs to the Twin Cities, Llam, and Vorti. Make sure they follow the most direct paths, since all the armies are likely on the march.”
     It was an order Guc should have given already, but his mind was so benumbed by weariness it hadn’t occurred to him. What other critical factors was he forgetting?
     As the king found a spot near one of the fires to lie down, and wrapped a blanket around himself, his thoughts turned to the events of the past few weeks. At this point, all of his maneuvering to marry Lea seemed pointless. His goal, to elevate Tsab to her former glory, had gone up in flames along with the city’s buildings and inhabitants. Now, he was a king in exile with a ragtag band of six-dozen followers. No longer a ruler, really - just another refugee fleeing the scourge of an enemy his race had ignored for far too long.
     As consciousness faded, the lurking nightmares emerged into the open.

* * *

     “I don’t have a good feeling about this, Wil,” admitted Lea. The two were on horseback near the center of Vorti’s army, with hundreds of soldiers buttressing them from any possible frontal or rear attack - not that any was expected, with the quatic force at Tsab, half a continent away.
     “Understandable,” said the chancellor. “The only certainty in war is that people will die.”
     “I wish my father was here. He would have known what to do.”
     “Sor was no more a leader in war than you are.”
     “He saved Vorti from Tsab and the dwarves. And he eliminated the nobility. That was a war of sorts.”
     Wil shivered at the memory. He had always hated Vorti’s upper class, but the king’s ultimate solution had horrified even him. The death sentence had been implacable; its execution, swift and merciless.
     “He did what he had to do. Which is how you must react to the situation at hand.”
     “Would Father have gone to Tsab’s aid, the way we are?”
     Wil considered. Never having had a personal relationship with Sor made him uncertain of his response. “Yes,” replied the Chancellor at last. “I think he would have. Your father was someone who could put old enmities aside if the cause demanded it. The survival of our race is definitely such a cause. As you know, he and I were once the most bitter of enemies, but in the end, we worked side-by-side to turn back the dwarves.”
     “Could I tell you something about him?”
     “Of course,” said Wil.
     “I hope you don’t think this is foolish, or that I’ve been imagining things, but several times since I assumed the throne, I’ve had... visions... of a man who could only be my father.”
     “Visions? Like at the coronation?”
     “Yes...and no. That was the only time he’s spoken to me, but the other times, he’s looked the same, and I could always see through him, as if he wasn’t fully there.”
     “Lea, how many times has this happened?”
     “Three times. All three at night, when I was alone in my chambers.”
     “And you’re sure these weren’t dreams?”
     “It was before I went to sleep. They weren’t dreams.”
     “What did he do?”
     “Watched me, mainly, and not for long. The last time - several nights ago - I asked him if there was something he wanted from me. He just smiled a little sadly, then faded away.”
     “Faded away?”
     “The way he always does when he leaves. Vanishes, but slowly. You do believe me, don’t you?”
     “Of course I do,” said Wil. In many ways, he wished he didn’t. The consideration that Sor’s spirit might be roaming this world was not a comforting one. The lines of life and death should not be so blurred and, as Meg had said when they had previously discussed this, if Sor could pass through, who could say what else might be able to do the same?
     “Do you think it’s really him? I mean, can I trust him?”
     “Shortly after your coronation, I spoke to the seeress about this issue. In her opinion, your visitation on that occasion may have been from your father’s spirit.” And his warning had been prophetic. “I think we would be foolish to discount any information he may have to impart, whoever or whatever he is.”
     “But don’t trust him.”
     Wil nodded. “He may indeed be the spirit of our late king. But it is just as probable, if not more so, that he could be something masquerading as your father’s ghost.”
     The day passed slowly, with the army gradually making its way southwestward, following the North Vordi river to its confluence, then moving across the Halcyon Meadows toward the northern fringes of the Forest of Llam. Fortunately, it was a pleasant day for marching, with clear skies and mild temperatures, and the men were in good spirits by early afternoon, when they reached Falnora.
     Gav, flanked by three-dozen mounted guards, rode out to meet Lea’s army. After greeting his father and the queen warmly, Falnora’s leader offered the hospitality of his small settlement, as well as the aid of the men who had accompanied him.
     “Regretfully, we can accept neither,” said Lea. “If we are to reach Tsab as quickly as possible, we must press on with minimal delay, even traveling by night, if necessary. As for these valiant warriors,” - she indicated Gav’s escort - “I would not deprive Falnora of the heart of her defense.”
     “Begging Your Majesty’s pardon, but we are aware thirty-six men will make little difference to the survival of this village if the quatic army reaches this far east. But it is possible they may make some difference as part of your army, and it is their desire that Falnora be represented in this upcoming campaign.”
     Faced with Gav’s plea, Lea glanced to her chancellor for advice, but Wil’s expression was unreadable. This was to be her choice - and possibly her error - to make.
     “In that case, I gladly accept the service of these men.”
* * *

     For Grundig the Terrible, as his troops now called him, the battle of Tsab had not been a complete success. Yes, his army had routed the humans, captured and ravaged their city, and slaughtered their women and children, but the king - the one whose death the quatic wizard had coveted - had escaped. Or at least his body had not been discovered amongst the legions of human corpses littering the battlefield.
     Two-hundred one quatics had died. Far too many, considering the weakness of their opponents, but these had been among Grundig’s weakest, and it was necessary to find some method of separating out those undeserving of the new world order. Death was the most convenient means.
     With a few exceptions, the humans had not fought well, which encouraged Grundig. In the battles that would follow this one, he had anticipated losing half his force. Now, circumstances looked less bleak.
     No quarter or mercy had been given within Tsab once the paid traitors had opened the gates for the waiting quatic army. Those scum had been the first to die. Grundig despised humans, but his contempt for those who would sell out their own kind for money went beyond words. He could hardly believe the men who had made the deal had kept their part of the bargain - but they had been expecting payment. Half in advance, half after the quatic “occupation” was complete. That was the deal. The Prophet of the Quag felt no sting of consciousness for reneging on it. Such worthless creatures deserved no better. Death was too good a solace for them.
     Now, with the first triumph behind him, it was time to wait. The quatic in Grundig was anxious to move forward and carry the battle to his enemy, but the wily part of his consciousness, the element that called itself "Vas", urged patience. The armies would come to him, but not at full force, and his superior quatics could rip them apart one-by-one.
     Still, none of the cities would send all their troops to Tsab's aid, so it would eventually be necessary to march from this place. All Devforth would be expecting the next target to be the Twin Cities, or perhaps Fels, but Grundig would fool them again. Vorti, the farthest city from Tsab, and the strongest bastion of human habitation, would be next. After that, the rest would be easy.
     The wholesale slaughter did not please Grundig. Much as he despised humanity - and elfdom - for their treatment of his race centuries ago, the hatred was not personal (except in two cases). But Garvad's armies had made one costly mistake - they had let the quatic race continue, with this as the eventual result. Grundig would not make the same mistake. He would hunt the humans and elves to extermination. One by one, they would all die, regardless of their age, sex, or position.
     The elves, of course, posed an unknown problem. Humans were predictable, but elves were not. At some point, they would join the fray, complicating matters. But Grundig believed he was ready for that eventuality; contacts made and actions taken during the long period between his emergence from the swamps and the first attack had allowed him to assure the elves would not be an immediate concern. This time, there was no Garvad to unite the two races and, in fighting as separate forces, they would gurantee their defeat.
     Rising from the blackened block of stone where he had been sitting, the Prophet gazed westward over the newest piece of his empire. Tsab was in ruins - what had not been burned was being torn apart by his men. His "palace," the only portion of the city he would allow to continue standing, was in reality the east watchtower. Fire had seared the structure, but most of it was stone, so it had survived. This vantage point, coupled with an excellent network of scouts, would give Grundig ample warning when an enemy army approached.
     It was hard to believe that one day ago, this city had been alive with the bustle of people. Buildings, now burned to the ground or reduced to heaps of rubble, had housed families, and merchants had hawked their wares in streets now buried beneath debris. The bodies were still being collected - those that had not already been consumed by flames would soon be consigned to them. There were no survivors, but it would not do to leave corpses in the open to rot and stink in the sun.
     "My humblest apologies for disturbing your solitude," rumbled a voice from behind Grundig. He turned to face the staircase to find three of his senior warriors before him, including Krungron, his oldest surviving son. Fighting down a wave of irritation for having his reflections and planning interrupted, he demanded to know what they wanted.
     "We were wondering if you wish us to begin breaking camp," said Krungron.
     "Why would I wish that?"
     A puzzled expression crossed Grundig's son's features. "For the march eastward. To continue the battle."
     "Have I said we are marching eastward?" demanded Grundig, his anger apparent. Arrogant presumption infuriated him, especially if its source was one of his own offspring. He expected his children to be strong-willed but respectful, much as Castabal had always been. Krungron shared few of his late half-brother's characteristics. He was too much like his father.
     "No," replied Krungron, belatedly recognizing his error.
     "Then go below and await my orders. And tell the guards they will be beheaded if anyone else is allowed into my presence except at my request."
     The trio of quatics hastily retreated, but Grundig saw the spark of defiance in his son's eyes before he departed. For the first time, the Prophet recognized a potential future rival for his position. It was fortunate Krungron did not possess an Apath's abilities.
* * *

     It was midmorning on the day following Tsab’s fall when Guc and his small band of followers encountered the first of the armies coming to the ruined city’s aid. On the Plains of Tsab, between Lake Merk and the southern coast of Devforth, the massed forces of Merk and Xert approached through the thinning mists of the unseasonably warm autumn day. From his uphill vantage point, Guc recognized that the rulers of the Twin Cities had not been as generous with their support as he had hoped they would be.
     Combined, the two cities had an active army numbering nearly six-thousand, but the approaching troops were perhaps only two-thousand strong and all but the officers were on foot.
     The Twin Cities’ men stopped when they noticed the approach of Guc and the remnants of the Tsab militia. General Jut, one of Merk’s battle commanders and leader of this joint venture, came forward to meet the exiled ruler.
     “Your Majesty,” said the soldier, dismounting and bowing. It was a clumsy bow, but Jut’s body was built for violence, not grace. He was a big, burly man with thickly corded muscles and a stomach inflated as a result of his love for good food and wine. His complexion was ruddy and his thinning hair, pulled back into a single braided ponytail, was the color of rust. His face was a maze of crisscrossing knife scars, and his nose had been broken too many times to be properly re-set.
     “General Jut,” acknowledged Guc, remembering the man from a state function he had recently attended in Merk.
     “By your presence here, I assume Tsab has fallen.” It was a natural inference; no real king would leave his city while it yet stood.
     “It has. What you see - these sixty-odd men - are all the hale survivors of the six-thousand inhabitants of Tsab. Twice their number rest in an encampment at Pipit’s cove, but their wounds prevent them from traveling. Many will die before the sun sets this evening.”
     Reining alongside Jut came his two subcommanders, whom he introduced as Generals Myr and Uit of Xert. They bowed perfunctorily, but their manner showed no deference, only arrogance. Guc’s impression was they were too young and too brash to hold such a high rank - but perhaps that was an admission by Queen Mia of how little importance she attached to saving Tsab.
     “It’s a good day for a battle,” said Myr, almost licking his lips. Like his commander, he was a burly man, although at least twenty years Jut’s junior. His long, unbound hair, black as a raven’s feathers, hung in waves to below his shoulders.
     “A good day for our enemies to die,” agreed Uit with a nasty laugh. Several years his co-subcommander's senior, he was still young. Lean and muscular, he had the look of an athlete that not even his bulky plate armor could hide. Except for a light stubble, his head was shaven - far more practical for entering battle than Myr’s approach.
     “With a force this size, it is a good day for us to die,” snapped Guc, angered as much by the size of the army as by the attitude of the subcommanders. At least he could hope for better support from Lea. But how far away was she, with her substantial army and Apath advisors?
     “What are we up against?” asked Jut, shooting his underlings withering looks.
     “A force of nearly five-thousand quatics. They took Tsab with little difficulty and only mounted soldiers offered effective resistance. They’re not experienced or well-trained fighters, but their size and innate fierceness more than makes up for tactical deficiencies.”
     “Now they are entrenched behind Tsab’s walls? Awaiting a siege?”
     Guc shook his head. “When we left, the city was ablaze and the walls in ruins. Their intent seemed to be destruction, not creating a sanctuary.”
     “How much of the enemy did your men vanquish before being forced to retreat?”
     “It’s difficult to say, given the conditions. Perhaps two or three hundred. Not many, considering the overwhelming numbers we faced, but in many ways we were fortunate to do that damage.”
     Jut looked incredulous. “What size army did you meet them with?”
     “Three-hundred fifty mounted and seven-hundred infantry. If you had any hope of winning this battle, General, you should have brought more men with you.”
     "You ask for too much, King Guc. It has been centuries since Tsab was considered among the Twin Cities' allies, and your aggression fifteen years ago against Vorti further soured the relationship. Consider yourself fortunate we have brought this many men to your aid. The rulers of Merk and Xert are under no obligation to you."
     "The quatic threat is a danger to all of Devforth, not just Tsab - or what's left of Tsab."
     "That's the only reason we're here," replied Jut. "If this was exclusively a problem for your city, Your Majesty, we would have left you to face it alone."
     "That being said, how do you intend to continue, recognizing that Tsab is finished, and I have no troops to add to your number?"
     "The quatics must be turned back here. They cannot be allowed to move further inland."
     "You cannot face a superior force of quatics with only two-thousand men. They'll tear your army to pieces."
     "Begging Your Majesty's pardon, but just because the militia of Tsab failed does not mean my army will do the same. Tsab troops are not what they once were - not since the ill-fated invasion of Vorti."
     It might have been a calculated insult, but Guc decided not to accept it as so. Given the limited creativity of the military mind, it was more likely a simple statement and the deposed king needed all the aid offered to him - not that he had anything left to win back. And if this idiot wanted to throw away the lives of his army, so be it.
     “So, given that you believe your army to be the quatics’ match, how do you intend to proceed?”
     Jut gave the king a scornful look. “We attack, of course.”
     “Perhaps it might be best to await the army of Vorti. They should be no more than half a day behind you.”
     Jut shook his head. “Half a day means the attack could not commence until tomorrow morning, and any delay reduces the chance we can take the enemy by surprise. Besides, what makes you think Vorti will come to your aid? The city is at the other end of the continent and has ever borne Tsab enmity.”
     “I am betrothed to Queen Lea,” stated Guc. “Vorti will come.”
     Clearly unimpressed, Jut snorted. “Then her army can follow ours and join in whatever is left of the battle. We move now.”
     There was little Guc could do beside shake his head and mount up. This campaign had the appearance of a disaster. The Tsab king’s sole hope was that somehow the reinforcements from Vorti, including the Apaths - especially the Apaths - would arrive before Jut’s one hundred score were routed.
* * *

     Back in Vorti, he had been one of the most able and athletic lads on his block, but no amount of physical training had prepared Sor son of Reg and Bre for the grueling ordeal of enduring a forced march. Had he been a hardened veteran of the army, rather than a new recruit of three weeks’ service, he might have been more used to such physical exertion but, like so many others of his age, the desire to carry a sword had outweighed common sense. The result was sore calves, aching ankles, and blistered feet. And the journey was only half over.
     “Cheer up, lad. We’ll be stoppin’ to sup and sleep in a bit. Her Majesty will call a halt before we reach the Goldenwater. There’ll be no fordin’ ’til dawn.”
     Sor glanced to his left, at the man who had spoken. Fir was at least three times Sor’s fourteen summers, and had spent most of his life in the army. The two had never met before today, but Fir had taken an instant liking to the boy, being reminded of himself when he first enrolled. Sor, on the other hand, couldn’t stand the older man, but was too well-mannered to let his feelings show.
     “Thought this was all going to be a great adventure, eh? Never thought about the blisters on yer feet. Och, and you’ll be sore come tomorrow morning!”
     Sor managed a weak smile, but said nothing. He had no intention of confiding to this odious man his real reason for joining the army. Surely he had wanted to fight for Vorti, but his desire was more personal than that of most of his fellow soldiers. He was here because of the queen - he intended to protect his childhood friend from whatever threats she might face, including the advances of a treacherous suitor. Guc was not to be trusted.
     Lea did not know he was in her army, nor did his own mother. His father had agreed not to tell Bre - at least not until he was far enough away from Vorti that she could not come after him. Reg had not applauded his son’s hasty decision to join the militia three weeks ago, but he had done nothing to stop Sor, either. And this morning his only advice had been to “watch your back.” He might not approve of his son’s actions, but he understood them and knew the time had come for the boy to become a man.
     Sor had not, nor would he ever, confide to anyone how deeply Lea's decision to marry Guc had stung him. Her lack of anything but friendly regard had never disturbed him - it had always been his feeling that given time and opportunity, he could encourage her love - but this infatuation with Guc had frightening implications. Sor saw the only girl he had ever wanted slipping away from him.
     Joining the army had been his last stab at establishing a more lasting relationship with the queen. If Sor remained in Vorti with his parents, Lea would be lost to him, no matter what happened. At least here, on the battlefield, he could be near her, and be ready to take advantage of whatever circumstances arose. Frankly, he would rather die in battle fighting for her than wait in the dull safety of his parents' home. From the beginning, he had counted on bloodshed and battle, and prepared himself to confront them when necessary; what he hadn't anticipated were the rigors of travel.
     "Not so much of a country stroll, I reckon," commented Fir. "Bet that stomach's achin' for some food as well. Not that soldier's rations do much for the system. Likely to stop up the bowels for a few days, though. I remember me first campaign, a little action to get rid of a group of bandits out on the Northern Plains. Me and me regimen, we was out there for the better part of a fortnight. It was winter, so there weren't much game to be caught. Had to eat those damn rations. I never felt the cramps so bad as what came upon me on the fourth night."
     Sor could have cheerfully stuck a dagger in Fir to shut the man up. In addition to his current physical discomfort, he had no particular desire to wage a battle against the constipation and diarrhea predicted by his companion.
     "Got a girl back home?" inquired Fir, who didn't like long periods of silence.
     "Not really. There was someone, but she's promised to another." Sor didn't feel like going into the whole story, and he was certain there'd be no end to the ribbing he'd get if he confided that the object of his unrequited love was the queen herself.
     "Too bad," noted Fir. He then launched into another long-winded tale of his past, about how he'd fallen in love with some girl who had thrown him over for a rich landowner. It didn't sound true, but Sor wasn't about to question the man's honesty.
     "What do you think of our queen, eh?"
     Sor, who had let his attention wander, re-focused on Fir. "Queen Lea? What about her?"
     "Well, she's just about your age, and she ain't married yet. You could find a worse match." He started to guffaw, as if he'd made a funny joke.
     Sor's face remained impassive despite the nervous churning of his stomach "I rather think Lea is above my station. Besides, she's betrothed to the king of Tsab."
     "Betrothals are made to be broke. I were betrothed three times, and never got married. 'Sides, likelihood is that Guc ain't gonna survive this war, anyway."
     The better part of the next two hours went on like that, with Fir droning on about any subject his thoughts touched on, and Sor trying to block both the man's voice and the growing agony in his lower extremities. Finally, around dusk, when a halt for the night was called, the army began to set up camp. They were still several miles east of the Goldenwater river, and the better part of a day's march from Tsab.
     As bedrolls were unfurled and campfires lit, Sor managed to escape from his older companion and seek the company of others of his age. None of them were communicative, each wrapped in his own thoughts about the coming battle. The veterans joked and talked as they ate, but the nervousness of the new recruits kept them quiet and reserved.
     "Don't worry about it," said a voice. Sor, who had been contemplating the dried beef in his rations package, glanced up, as did the others sharing the fire with him. Standing just beyond the circle of light was an erect figure in chain-link armor. His features were hidden in shadow, but Sor thought he recognized the voice.
     "The night before a battle is always like this. But you can't let the tension get to you. Relax. Joke around. I won't lie to you, boys. Some of you aren't going to survive this campaign. If we reach Tsab before dusk tomorrow, this may be the last evening you see. But it's pointless worrying about that now. Enjoy the moment. The relaxed, rested soldier is the effective one. Do you mind if I join you?"
     Sor shifted his position to make room for the newcomer. As the man came close to the fire, his weathered face and graying hair showed him to be about Fir's age. However, this man had the bearing and accouterments of a warrior, and bore the insignia of a lieutenant. Sor couldn't recall his name, but he was certain he had seen this man at the palace. One of the queen's personal guards.
     Sitting between Sor and a lad named Bet, the officer doffed his cloak and unbuckled his swordbelt. Removing his gauntlets, he rubbed his hands vigorously over the flames, then unexpectedly launched into a jaunty tavern song. For the first time, Sor noticed that singing, much of it off-key, was replacing conversation all around the camp.
     By the end of the first bawdy refrain, Sor and one other had joined in. The lyrics were familiar, and there was something infectious about the irreverent manner of the lieutenant's rendition. It didn't take long for the rest of the group to follow suit, and no one wanted to stop with just one song. Not a half-hour after being joined by their visitor, the raw soldiers were singing with the gusto of those who had been facing death - and laughing at it - for decades.
* * *

     On that same night, half a continent away, Guc was neither laughing nor singing. Instead, he was shaking his head sadly as he dismounted near Pipit's Cove. With him was General Yob - the only surviving officer of the Tsab militia - and about two-dozen soldiers, many of whom were newly wounded. The second battle of Tsab, fought mainly by the army of the Twin Cities, was finished, with results as spectacularly disastrous as Guc had feared. The forces of Merk and Xert had been annihilated. The cost to the quatics had been less than five-hundred.
     Guc and his men had fought as valiantly as any of their human counterparts from the other cities, but they had known what to expect, and how hopeless the cause was. In the end, Guc had ordered the retreat in an attempt to save what little remained of his militia. His people had heeded him; the soldiers of Merk and Xert had not, even when their three leaders were butchered before their eyes.
     The fall back location had been established as Pipit's Cove, but the only people here were those too wounded to participate in the battle and those who had accompanied Guc. Tsabians, every last one of them. He wondered if any of General Jut's men had survived. Last he had seen, the quatics had been doing a good job of eliminating all opposition.
     As Guc had supposed, the creatures had been waiting for them. The two forces had met a mile east of the city ruins - before the arrogant and ill-prepared Twin City generals had an opportunity to position their troops for battle. Jut had wanted the advantage of surprise; if anything, the reverse had been true.
     The clash began just before sunset, and was over shortly after dusk. To the humans' credit, the army had managed to rally, and certain pockets of resistance had been fairly stiff, but the outcome had never been in doubt. From start to finish, it had been a bloodbath. More than four humans had perished for every quatic - and that was actually a good ratio, especially considering how catastrophically the battle had begun.
     To this point, the might of three cities had been met and vanquished by invaders who had suffered minor casualties. At this rate, all the humans and elves of Devforth combined would not be enough. Guc wondered about the intelligence leading the enemy. By nature, quatics were creatures of appetite and habit, but whoever - or whatever - had led them out of the swamps possessed a keen intellect. What concerned Guc most was what other weapons those creatures might be hiding - weapons that, to this point, hadn't been put to use.
* * *

     Shortly after dusk, Dor, one of Guc's messengers, arrived at Queen Lea's encampment. Battered, bedraggled, horseless, and out-of-breath, he was shown to Her Majesty's tent as soon as his identity was verified.
     Assembled for a war conference were Lea's chief advisors, including Chancellor Wil, his son Gav, and a number of Vorti's top military men. Seated on a makeshift throne near the center of the tent, the queen, although wearing drab traveling clothes, was the embodiment of regal authority. After his harrowing experiences of the past days, Lea's controlled and confident appearance was a blessed tonic for Dor, who had begun to doubt everything.
     It had been nearly a full day since he and Hod had been sent east bearing the news of Tsab's fall. Their instructions had been to take the most direct route to Vorti, meet the approaching army on the way, deliver the message, then move on to the city and repeat the news there. It was a simple task - or would have been had there not been quatics lurking about.
     The assumption that all the quatics were at Tsab had cost Dor his horse and Hod his life. The pair had been racing north along the western fringes of Flaz' Quag when the attack had come. In retrospect, it had been foolish to believe all the creatures would abandon their homeland but, following the slaughter at Tsab, no one had been thinking clearly, least of all two hastily dispatched messengers.
     Fortunately for Dor, there had been only one quatic lying in ambush. Hod had gotten in a good hit before being unhorsed and ripped limb-from-limb, and Dor had managed to finish off the brute without suffering more than a few scrapes and bruises. Both horses, however, had been killed, so the courier had been forced to continue on foot.
     His trek had taken longer than expected not only because of the loss of his mount, but because a sporadic stream of quatics heading west had forced him into hiding. It had taken almost to dusk to reach the Goldenwater. Once across the river, it hadn't been difficult to locate the army. Large groups of armored men made a great deal of noise.
     "Your Majesty," croaked Dor, bowing before the queen.
     Lea motioned for a chair and wine goblet to be brought. After Dor had nearly collapsed into the seat and taken several large swallows of the dry vintage, he began. "I bear grim tidings from His Majesty, King Guc. Shortly before nightfall yesterday, the city of Tsab fell to a superior force of quatic invaders."
     Silence greeted Dor's pronouncement. Even the Apath chancellor, who was known for an emotionless demeanor, betrayed dismay. The color drained from the queen's face, her complexion turning waxy in the lantern light.
     "Continue," whispered Lea finally.
     As concisely as he could, keeping his frayed emotions in check, Dor gave an account of the loss of the city, the flight to Pipit's Cove, and his harrowing journey. He presented as much tactical information as he could, including estimated survivors and casualties for both sides.
     After Dor had been dismissed to get some food and rest, Lea dispatched a courier to relay the message to Eya at Vorti. The Tsab messenger had wanted to continue eastward to complete his mission, but the queen had persuaded him that his current state of exhaustion made him unfit to ride, and the importance of the information couldn't wait for him to recover.
     "We're in trouble, Your Majesty," said General Dus. "Our three thousand against a superior force of quatics... It doesn't look promising, especially considering the sort of casualties the Tsabians took."
     "Bah, Tsabians..." spat General Bar scornfully.
     "We may not like them, but they have a disciplined military, and they were fighting for their homes," said Dus. "Our men will be half a continent from their wives and beds, fighting for a cause most of them don't understand."
     "Our men know their duty," stated Bar, stung by the battle commander's apparent lack of support.
     "I'm sure they do, gentleman," intervened Lea, trying to prevent another argument. These two had nearly come to blows earlier in the day when deciding the best camp site. "What we need to decide is how this affects our strategy."
     "I think we should turn back," offered Bar. "I've said all along that this campaign is a mistake. We should be laying the groundwork to protect Vorti, not going to the aid of a city that wouldn't do the same for us."
     "We've been all over this, General," said Lea. "And just because Tsab has fallen doesn't mean we shouldn't engage the enemy in the west. There are still the Twin Cities and Llam to consider, all of which likely have armies on the move, if not all ready there."
     "Communication is a problem," said General Yon, the third and least vocal of Lea's commanding officers. "If we knew what the other armies were doing, we'd have a better picture of how we should act. As it is, we're only guessing. If we decide to continue, and find that everyone else has turned back, we'll be in a terrible position. But if we turn back while the others go on, we ensure their destruction."
     "I'd imagine the preemptive strike of the quatics was designed to foster that confusion," noted Gav. "I'm concerned about what they plan next. For us to act properly, we have to figure out what that is."
     "Well said," applauded Dus. "We have to be one step ahead of them, not the other way around."
     "Given how badly we're outmatched, I'd say more than just one step ahead," said Gav.
     "Opinions, please. Do we go on or turn back?" asked Lea.
     "There's a third option," said Gav. "We could stay and wait. All things considered, that might be the safest course of action. We're about halfway between Vorti and Tsab, and are well-placed to act. All we have to do is get confirmation of what the other cities are doing."
     "Sounds like a solid strategy to me," opined Yon.
     Dus shook his head violently. "It's disastrous! Waiting is the worst thing we can do. No matter what we do, we have to act. Decisively. Commit to going ahead and charging into battle, or turn back and put our efforts into defending Vorti. We might be well-placed here to go either way, but we're also too far from either city to be of immediate assistance. And with all the quatic movement between here and Tsab, the lines of communications will be uncertain. To wait is to court disaster."
     "I agree with General Dus," said Wil. "There are times when patience is an army's best ally. This isn't one of them."
     "So what do you suggest, Chancellor?" challenged Bar.
     "I don't know," admitted Wil after a moment's hesitation. He had never been apt at troop position and battle planning. His strengths lay in other areas. "You gentlemen understand the business of war far better than I could hope to."
     "I understand about odds and field maneuvers and the like," said Dus. "But there's one factor I don't know about. How many men is your magic worth, Chancellor? Ten? One hundred? One thousand? Ten thousand? What kind of army am I really commanding? If we have the strength now, it would be foolish not to attack. Otherwise..." He left the statement unfinished.
     For a moment, Wil said nothing. The truth was he didn't have an answer. Except for a few minor skirmishes around Falnora and one instance of driving off a full Tsab force (with Eya's help), his abilities had never been battle-tested. Even during the war against the dwarves, he had been little more than a tool for Sor's manipulation. While the dead Apath king would have known the answer, Wil didn't, and he admitted as much. "My powers are considerable, but there are defined limits to what any Apath can do."
     "That's wonderfully helpful," muttered Dus.
     Lea, who had been schooled in the lore of Apaths, understood Wil's dilemma. But she also remembered something Eya had told her about how her father, supposedly near to burgeoning apathy, had managed to defend Vorti on the day of his death.
     "Chancellor, what about the ability to funnel off emotion from others to replenish what you expend in working magic?"
     Wil was nonplused, although he quickly realized Lea's knowledge of the carefully guarded secret shouldn't have surprised him. Of course Eya would have told her about it.
     "Your Majesty, I believe this is a discussion best held in private." Although no one in this room had grasped the significance of Lea's statement, Wil had no desire to make Eya's discovery public. The potential for abuse was too great; the possible consequences unthinkable.
     Lea nodded, dismissing everyone except Wil, including her own servants. Once the tent was empty, she faced her advisor squarely. "Well?"
     "How much did Eya tell you?"
     Lea shrugged. "Enough for me to know you and she have the ability to take emotion from others, and that you 'skimmed' enough from the general populace fifteen years ago to keep my father's magical web intact, when such a working would normally have drained all three of you past your limits."
     Wil nodded. That was a fairly accurate - if limited - description of what had transpired. What it neglected, aside from the difficulty of performing the procedure, was an understanding of the moral implications of draining others' emotions.
     "Your Majesty, you have to understand that I don't feel comfortable about using Eya's skill, even in a situation as dire as this. Taking emotion from others is a violation. It's as bad as, if not worse than, rape. I don't have enough control to regulate what I'm siphoning, and the emotional husks that could be left behind..." He shuddered at the thought. A non-Apath bereft of emotion.
     "No one would ask you to take from someone who was unwilling. If we asked for volunteers, I'm sure there would be no shortage of willing subjects."
     "Men who have no conception of what they're being asked to sacrifice. Better to fall on their own swords than suffer the damnation of having their emotion ripped away. Can you imagine what it's like to live like that?"
     "What about the enemy? Could you drain them?"
     Wil had to admit there was merit to the possibility. The question was whether quatics, even bent on genocide as they were, deserved that fate? He knew what the other advisors would say, but they wouldn't be asked to perform the procedure.
     "Maybe," acknowledged Wil. "Although I don't know if quatics feel emotion the same as we do, and whether their energy would be usable. Add to that the difficulty of draining a resisting subject, and I'm sure it wouldn't be easy, even if it proved feasible."
     "And if I commanded you to do this thing, regardless of who you had to drain to get the job done?" A hard edge entered Lea's voice. She was thinking like a queen now, not a woman concerned with a friend's moral qualms.
     Wil bowed his head. "I would obey, Your Majesty. But I would prefer not to be placed in that position."
     "And with an unlimited supply of magical energy, how much of their army could you eliminate?"
     Again, Wil didn't know the answer. "Human stamina has its limits. Your father's gave out, albeit after he had finished the task. Even with undiminished reservoirs of emotion, exhaustion would eventually claim me."
     "You're evading the question, Chancellor. I want an answer so I can tell my battle commander which way we're going. You agreed that delaying was the wrong tactic."
     Wil nodded. "Considering the sorts of magical storms I could create... Under the right circumstances, I might be able to eliminate half their army. Perhaps more, depending on how they react. It's a gamble."
     Lea was quiet for a moment, weighing factors both pro and con. Wil watched her intensely, pride and dread warring within him. Here, in action, was the fruit of his and Eya's tutelage - a woman who could act dispassionately when called upon to do so, placing the needs of her people above the good of any single subject. Yet, on this occasion, he recognized that his soul might end up being sacrificed in the name of necessity.
     "We go on," she said at last. Then, very softly, she added, "I'm sorry, Wil."

© 2006 James Berardinelli

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