By morning, it was still raining, although not as heavily as during the night. As Tui had predicted, the army's course was reversed, and the men began the muddy trek back to Vorti. No official word was passed to the soldiers about the reason for the change of plans, but rumors of Tsab's destruction had reached every ear.
     Sor was in a grim mood, his attitude not helped by the weather or the fact that every inch of his body was cold and wet. With each sodden step, he wished more and more fervently that he had never agreed to join the army. Even images of Lea at her prettiest were beginning to pale before the fantasy of sitting by a blazing fire in his parents' house - warm, safe, and dry.
     If there was one thing to be thankful for, it was that Fir was nowhere to be seen. Sor's current companion, Tui, was more amiable than the older man had been.
     "So, have you got a girl back home?" asked Tui. Despite the weather, he was in a good mood. Most of the men in the militia relished the idea of going into battle; Sor didn't think Tui was one of them. Regardless of how he felt about fighting, though, Tui loved to talk. He would often ask a question, not really expecting an answer, just so he could launch into another of a seemingly endless supply of stories. Sor wondered how many of the other's exploits were fabricated.
     "Sort of," replied Sor.
     "I do," said Tui. "A real fine woman. Name of Eli. She's two years younger than me and works as a serving wench in the Drunk Doxy. My parents don't want me marrying her since she's from common stock, but she's fun to spend time with and she's great for a roll in the hay."
     "'Common stock'?"
     "You know, peasant born. Given my family's history - I told you my father's father was a Marquis - my parents want me marrying someone of similar distinction."
     "The nobility's outlawed in Vorti," said Sor, aware he was stating the obvious.
     "It is now, but how long can that last? Every year, we get closer to re-instating titles, and when the ban against classes is removed, those with pure bloodlines and traceable claims will be the first reinstated. That's why the woman I marry has to be descended from a respected family."
     For some reason, this reasoning disturbed Sor. He had been brought up to believe the nobility had been banished forever, that Vorti would always remain classless. It came as a shock to meet someone who took it for granted that not only would the class barriers be re-instated, but it would happen sooner rather than later.
     "Eli will have a big welcome home celebration for me tonight, if you know what I mean. Just the kind of thing a man needs after spending all this time in the cold and the wet. Almost makes the whole trip worthwhile."
     "I'm not so sure," muttered Sor.
     "So, what about you? Who do you have waiting for you?"
     "No one in particular."
     "A few minutes ago, you said you 'sort of' had someone. Do you or don't you?"
     "Well, there is a girl I'm interested in - she's real pretty and all that - but she just thinks of me as a friend." He didn't know why he was telling Tui this. It was something he'd never confided to anyone. Whatever he said, though, he wouldn't reveal who the object of his affection was.
     "So show her what she's missing."
     "What do you mean by that?"
     In rather graphic terms, Tui proceeded to tell Sor exactly what he meant. By the time he was finished, the younger boy's cheeks were red. Fortunately, his companion wasn't observant enough to notice.
     "I don't think I could do that. I don't think I want to do that."
     Tui shrugged. "Then find someone else. It's not as if there's a shortage of women in Vorti. Hell, most of them will probably do it for free. You can't get all hung up on love and that crap. It's not real. You can waste your whole life looking for the 'right woman.' What you've got to do is find someone who likes having fun, doesn't mind getting drunk, and will let know. That's about the closest thing you're going to find to a perfect match."
     "So, you don't believe in love?"
     Tui laughed. "Depends on what you call love, I suppose. If you mean the physical act, then yes, I believe in it. If you mean the emotion that produces all those vacant stares and silly smiles, then no. The whole thing's overrated, anyhow. Why would any man in his right mind want to be in love?"
     Sor didn't have an answer for that. "I don't know."
     "You're in love with this woman, right?"
     "I suppose so."
     "And what good has it brought you? Happiness? Companionship? Even a little sex?" Without waiting for his companion to respond, Tui went on, "None of those, I'll wager. Misery, that's what love has meant for you. And that's my point. Having fun with a woman is one thing, but letting it get more serious than that... you've got to be out of your mind."
     "So how do you fall out of love?" asked Sor.
     Tui chuckled. "Damned if I know. You got yourself into this situation. It's up to you to get yourself out of it."

* * *

     Eya's expression was as cold as the winter snows. In fifteen years of ruling Vorti, she had never encountered a man as intractable and stupid as the one standing before her now. With the fate of his entire race on the brink, Guildmaster Ada, leader of the stonemasons, wanted to discuss terms for service.
     Ada was a big - no, huge - man, quite possibly the single most impressive physical specimen in the entire city. From head to toe, he was nearly seven feet tall, and his weight was probably nearly three times Eya's own. At the moment, his weathered, chiseled features wore a similar expression to the Regent's.
     In a simple contest of wills, this would end a stalemate, but Eya had neither the time nor the desire to wait Ada out. He wanted to haggle over prices with her; she would show him how Apaths bargained.
     Ada's impassive mask dissolved into one of startlement before collapsing into panic as his body rose into the air. Undeterred by the oddly bird-like flapping of his arms and his fearful gasps and whimpers, he was propelled upward at an increasing speed, until he had nearly reached the domed ceiling of the throne room, where painted heroes and monsters engaged in perpetual battle.
     Glaring up at him, Eya said, "I did not call you here to engage in a war of words over how much the Crown will pay your stonemasons for building the wall around Vorti. You are a servant of the Crown, and to refuse to serve is to commit treason, which is a capital offense. Should you persist in this foolishness, I will have you publicly hanged, then command your successor, who no doubt will be more accommodating.
     "It is not my intention that this work be done without reparation, but the time is too short at the moment to discuss such things. This city must be walled immediately. Every stonemason in Vorti shall be put to work on this project without delay. In as few as three days' time, the strength of your creation may be tested by an invading army far superior to our own. This is a matter of survival. Have I made myself clear? Do you understand?"
     Ada babbled something unintelligible.
     Raising her voice, Eya repeated, "Do you understand??"
     "Yes, Your Grace," moaned the guildmaster.
     With a curt nod, Eya released the magic holding him in the air and brought him back to the ground, although none-too-gently. "You are dismissed," she said, the ice still in her eyes and her tone. "Prepare your men. If work has not commenced within the hour according to the plans my chamberlain will provide, I'll hold you personally accountable."
     Abandoning the few shreds of dignity remaining to him, Ada fled the throne room, stopping only briefly to grab several rolls of parchment from the half-elf standing near the open double doors at the far end of the hall from the dais upon which Eya sat.
     Well, that was one problem solved. But only one of many. It would still be several hours before Lea retook the throne, and by then Vorti's preparations for war had to be underway. Since the battle was not to take place in the West, a siege to this city - the second in two decades - seemed unavoidable. Eya intended the results, if not the methods, would be no different this time.
     The next man awaiting an audience was another of the seemingly endless army of messengers who had been streaming into Vorti all day. They had come from Llam, Merk, Xert, the survivors at Pipit's Cove, several of Devforth's smaller human settlements, and Vorti's now-returning army. This latest one was from Fels, the city suspected of collaborating with the enemy.
     The courier, dressed in the brown-and-yellow livery of King Yax, approached the throne with a leisurely, unhurried gait that, to Eya, was a sign of arrogance. The man was a little older and more urbane than one might normally expect from an envoy during such troubled times - apparently the ruler of Fels had decided to send a member of his nobility.
     With a perfunctory bow, he acknowledged Eya. "Your Grace, I am Duke Obb, and I bring greetings from King Yax of Fels."
     "Greetings, Duke Obb," replied Eya, her voice as cold as it had been for Guildmaster Ada. "Vorti welcomes you during these troubled times. Her Majesty regrets not being present to receive you."
     "As am I most grievously stricken at her not being..."
     Eya cut off the man's prattle with a curt gesture. "If we may dispense with the pleasantries, Your Lordship, I believe more pressing issues have brought you here."
     Obb's drooping mustaches quivered with disapproval at Eya's interruption, but he decided to regain as much dignity as he could with his response. "Of course, matters are pressing, Your Grace. It is for that reason that I rode without respite directly from my city to Vorti, nearly running my poor steed to death. It is my hope the manner of my journey will express to you the urgency of the situation, and my position on His Majesty's most august council of advisors will make you aware of the importance with which King Yax regards this meeting."
     "Have you finished?" demanded Eya. "Because whether you have or haven't, let me make something clear to you, Your Lordship. This city is preparing for war. This court is not one for sophistry and civilized banter. I don't have time for pretty speeches and fancy words. Deliver your message and get out!"
     For a moment, a dumbfounded Obb stared at Eya with disbelief, unable to conceive that anyone, even an active ruler, would speak to him in such a terse and undiplomatic manner. He was still trying to formulate a response when an out-of-breath page raced into the throne room and, without even stopping to confer with the chancellor, ran to the dais and whispered something in Eya's ear.
     "What??" she exclaimed, getting to her feet. An unnatural hush fell over the throne room, hundreds of voices quieted in expectation of whatever new development was about to unfold. Rarely had any court been this chaotic since the early days of Sor's reign.
     The boy whispered something further to Eya. "Then show them in immediately," she said. And send for a detachment of guards. I want them here for their protection, if no other reason."
     Bowing once, the page ran from the hall as fast as he came.
     "If Your Grace will pardon me..." began Obb, clearly annoyed at the interruption.
     "Your Lordship, more immediate matters demand my attention. Since you couldn't deliver your message fast enough, you'll have to wait until I deal with this latest crisis."
     The buzz of speculative conversation which began with Eya's dismissal of the page ended momentarily with the arrival of a score of armed men. Marching up the aisle two-by-two, they peeled off, one to each side, to flank the last thirty feet of the path to the throne. When they were in place, the new arrivals were introduced.
     "Seeress Meg of Vorti and His Majesty, King Guc of Tsab."
     Mud-spattered and travel-weary, the announced pair entered the audience hall, Guc half-supporting his companion.
     Eya waited silently, her expression frozen midway between contempt and surprise. Her disdain for the king of Tsab was well-known, but she had no idea what it meant that he was here in the company of Vorti's resident seeress, with both of them looking like they had waded neck-deep through mud flows to reach the palace.
     Upon reaching the foot of the dais, Guc executed a perfunctory bow. Meg, apparently oblivious to her surroundings, did nothing. Eya's only surrender to the conventions of protocol was to incline her head slightly in recognition of the Tsabian king. When she spoke, however, she addressed her words to the seeress.
     "Meg, what has happened?"
     The only response was a low moan, so soft that even in the dead silence of the throne room, Eya was not certain she heard it.
     "She's blind," said Guc simply, one arm drawn protectively around the frail woman's waist. To Eya, she appeared to be clinging to him.
     "I know she's blind," snapped the regent. "Why are you..."
     "You don't understand, Your Grace," broke in Guc impatiently, emphasizing the title to affirm his own higher rank. Eya might be on the throne, but he was still a crowned king while she was merely a surrogate. "She's blind. Not just with her normal sight, but with the gift as well. She can't see anything - not the present, the past, or the future."
     Meg moaned again, the cry of a lost soul.
     "How is that possible? And what are you doing here?"
     "The seeress came to me in Pipit's Cove and told me of one of her visions. If I didn't reach Vorti by a certain time, she claimed, it might be impossible to avert disaster. We came as fast as we could, nearly riding our horses to death. We were nearly within sight of the city when Meg was struck blind. There wasn't any reason for it - it just happened." Guc would never forget her wail of loss when that had happened. She had tumbled from the horse and hadn't spoken since. Without his aid, he doubted she would have risen.
     "Meg," said Eya, rising from the throne to place a hand gently on the seeress' shoulder. "What happened? Do you know?"
     There was no response.
     "Your Majesty, is there anything else you can tell me?"
     Guc shook his head. "She wouldn't reveal anything to me, except that we had to get to Vorti as quickly as possible. She was in earnest, though. Not only did she make the trip to Pipit's Cove on her own, but she threatened to use her authority to have me tied to a horse if I didn't go voluntarily. What she had planned when we reached here, I don't know."
     "Meg, is there something Guc has to do?" asked Eya, carefully modulating her tone. When there was again no response, she turned to the chamberlain and demanded he summon the palace healer.
     "What was the last bulletin you received?" asked Guc, still supporting Meg. To Eya, there seemed to be something protective in the way he was holding her.
     "From your army - or what's left of it, or from Lea's?"
     "A second battle took place at Tsab, spearheaded primarily by a contingent from the Twin Cities that was unwilling to wait for reinforcements. Predictably, they were butchered, and the few survivors are joining the remnants of your army at Pipit's Cove. Upon hearing this news, Lea decided to turn back, wagering that Vorti's army would do better making a final stand here, fighting for their homes in familiar territory. A courier from Llam indicated they had reached the same decision."
     "When they realize that no more armies are going to come against them at Tsab, the quatics will start marching. They aren't there to sit and wait. They intend to conquer all of Devforth, and that means crushing humanity and elfdom."
     "We're going to have to fight this battle without our allies from Garvad's time. An emissary from the south informed me that the elves believe it to be in their best interests to hold back until they are attacked."
     "That's insane!" exclaimed Guc. "Don't they realize the quatics aren't going to be satisfied with crushing our race? Our best chance is to combine forces as soon as possible and go on the offensive. With a large enough army, and a few Apaths, we should be able to overcome them."
     "Whatever actions we take, it will have to be without hope of elf support. Their emissary was quite pointed in his comments, even going so far as to discount Lea's lineage. It's up to our race to preserve itself."
     "Considering how easily the quatics have torn apart two armies, I find it difficult to be optimistic."
     "You Tsabians have been defeatists since you failed to take this city seventeen years ago," said Eya in an offhand manner. It was the kind of cutting remark that could never be made to a sitting ruler, but Guc's position as monarch of a ruin allowed her latitude with her insults. "The quatics took down two small, unprepared armies not bolstered by Apaths."
     "It's that kind of overconfidence that led to the debacle of the second battle."
     Eya's smile was thin and disdainful. "Believe me, Your Majesty, I am anything but overconfident. In fact, based on the reports I've been receiving about our enemies' ferocity and ability in battle, quite the opposite is true. However, with a larger defending army, a better-prepared city, and magical support, whatever transpires here will not be the rout that took place to the west. It will cost the quatics to take Vorti - perhaps more than they are willing or capable of sacrificing."
     "And what exactly do you intend to use against them?"
     "Anything and everything. If the quatics sweep across Devforth the way they're expected to - taking out the Twin Cities, then Llam, then swinging up the coast - Vorti will be the last bastion of human habitation. And to preserve that, there's nothing and no one I won't use."
     "You've always been a cold bitch, Your Grace," said Guc, perhaps with a trace of admiration.
     Eya laughed ruefully, a humorless chuckle. "No, not always. But more than fifteen years on this throne has taken its toll. Had you managed to keep yours for that long, you would have learned the cost."
     Gritting his teeth, Guc did his best to ignore the remark. From the start, he had known an audience with Eya would be difficult. Not that one with Lea would have been easier, given her current disposition toward him. "And what about Fels?" he asked, having caught sight of Obb, standing obsequiously to one side.
     "Ah!" exclaimed Eya, fixing a predatorial eye on the Fels ambassador. "That brings us to our emissary from King Yax. I believe you had a message you wished to deliver. Now you can give it to two rulers at one time."
     Obb cleared his throat noisily. At that moment, one of the palace healers, an aged and officious man named Hyb, bustled through the throne room doors and headed up the aisle without waiting to be announced. "Your Grace summoned me?" he barked after a perfunctory bow that someone other than Eya, who was fond of the old man, might have taken for an insult.
     "See to the seeress, Hyb. She's apparently gone blind - totally blind - and has withdrawn into her mind."
     "Don't know nothing about seeresses," harrumphed the healer. "My business is humans, not other sorts. Don't know nothing about your kind either," he added, jabbing a finger in Eya's direction.
     "Despite her powers, Meg is a human. Do what you can for her. She's very important to this city."
     "All right, I'll see if I can fix her. Someone bring her along." With that, he turned and strode back down the aisle. Guc, still holding Meg, turned to follow. Eya's voice stopped him.
     "Your Majesty, don't you wish to remain to... discuss matters with Duke Obb?"
     Guc shook his head. "I'm sure you can fill me in later, Your Grace. For now, I think my presence will be better served with the seeress. After all, we'll need to know her message as soon as she's able to deliver it, and it might require that I act immediately."
     "As you wish," muttered Eya, dismissing the king with a flick of her wrist. "Now, you," she practically growled at Obb. "Deliver your message and get out. I have important matters to deal with."
     "Your Grace, I bear greetings and felicitations from King Yax, and an offer of an alliance during these trying times..."
     The cackle that escaped from Eya's lips was so unpleasant Obb stopped in mid-sentence, stunned.
     "Your king wishes an alliance with us? What, are his newfound friends proving unreliable? Has he belatedly realized they aren't going to permit a small pocket of humans to continue leading normal lives?"
     Obb appeared baffled. "I... I don't understand, Your Grace. His Majesty King Yax has made no other alliances I am aware of."
     "You expect me to believe that?"
     "Yes, Your Grace. I believe I am enough in the king's confidence that I would be aware of any agreements, whether in principle or fact, and this is the only one he is contemplating."
     "Then perhaps you can explain why Fels, on the edge of the quatics' domain, stands unharmed while Tsab, a city leagues to the west, lies in ruins?"
     "The quatics chose not to attack us, Your Grace. We were prepared, but no attack came. I am at somewhat of a loss to give a reason..." His voice trailed off as the light of realization shone in his eyes. "Surely Your Grace cannot think King Yax would consider an arrangement with the scourge of humanity!"
     "An interesting way to put it - 'the scourge of humanity'," said Eya. "But that's exactly what I'm suggesting, unless you have proof to refute it. The quatics' ignoring Fels is damning evidence."
     "Your Grace, I can assure you..."
     "Assurances are not enough, Duke Obb, especially not from you. Consider yourself fortunate I don't have you executed, but I have neither the time nor the patience to start a formal war with Fels at the moment, unless they wish to precipitate one on their own. Tell your king if he truly wishes to press a claim of innocence, he can travel here himself or send his army against the quatics. Otherwise, I will hear no more from Fels or any of her ambassadors. You are dismissed!"
     Shock, outrage, and dismay showed on Obb's face, but he recognized the bleakness of Eya's mood and knew further protestations would likely get him thrown into a cell - or worse. So, with a stiff half-bow, half-genuflection, he hurried from the throne room, dreading the message he would have to deliver to his king.
     With scarcely veiled contempt, Eya watched Obb go, then turned to one of the many men dressed in the queen's livery. "Find out when Queen Lea is expected in Vorti, and send out an appropriate party to meet her. And inform her that King Guc is already here."
* * *

     As the bonfires grew brighter, defying the misty rain that continued to fall, the seemingly-endless sea of corpses dotting the Plains of Tsab dwindled. The air was thick with the acrid reek of burning flesh, but it was better than the charnel odor that would result if the bodies were left to rot in the open. The quatics' goal in this war was not to make Devforth unlivable, but to claim it for their race.
     Despite the ease with which his army had slaughtered its human opposition, Grundig was not entirely pleased. While quatic casualties had been light seven-hundred dead in two major engagements - they were worse than he had anticipated. In general, the human race was weak, but there were individuals who were fierce adversaries. Innovative, unconventional styles of battle had proven effective against his forces, as quatics appeared unable to react well during the heat of bloodlust.
     Grundig reminded himself that his trump card had not yet been played, but it didn't make much difference. With or without magic, the losses would be greater than what he desired. Fortunately, with the aid of other duplicitous humans, the elf problem had been dealt with. The quatics would not have to worry about waging a two-front war. They could eliminate the humans, then turn their attention to their other enemy after they were rested. Compulsion, as a weapon of war, had been as important in "recruiting" humans as promises of payment in gold and future power.
     There was little remaining of the city of Tsab. Shrouded in the early morning gloom of a gray fall day, the ruins were like the broken skeleton of a behemoth. The fires lit within had by now all burned out, and the streets and buildings had been swept clean of human remains. Grundig did not intend for his people to settle here - quatics shunned cities, anyway - but he wanted this to remain as a monument to what had been achieved here: the first victory over the age-old foe.
     "The army awaits your command," said Krungron.
     Grundig considered. There were advantages and disadvantages to remaining here, depending on how organized the humans were. Initially, his avoidance of Fels had been intended to imply collusion, and his most important "allies" were there, but by now any mistrust had been resolved. If Vorti, Llam, Fels, and the Twin Cities were in communication, further uncoordinated attacks were unlikely. In fact, in those circumstances, the cities would fortify and prepare a defense, rather than seeking to move against a superior force. In that case, the quatics would lose more of the advantage for every day they waited.
     On the other hand, if communication was fragmented, it was possible the other armies were still on the move, and meeting them here, where they could be crushed individually, was an attractive prospect.
     Not for the first time, Grundig wished he possessed the magical talent of "far seeing," but that was something no Apath had accomplished for centuries. Not even Vas, with his vast wellspring of obscure knowledge, had known how to work that spell, and days of exploration had produced little more than a headache. On this occasion, the Prophet would have to rely on intuition rather than knowledge - not something he preferred. Those who guessed, eventually guessed wrong, and when one was attempting to shape a world, such a mistake would be costly.
     Krungron, having experienced his father's wrath earlier during this campaign, waited silently. Regardless of one's parentage, it was not a good idea to anger the Prophet of the Quag. Grundig had already killed two-dozen quatics since departing the swamps, many of whom had been of substantial stature.
     "The army will split," said Grundig at last. "Half the force, commanded by me, will move eastward along a northern path, traveling north of Flaz' Quag into the Northern Plains, and skirting the southern edge of the Vorti Marsh. The other half will move south of Lake Merk, north of the Twin Cities, across the Southern Plains, and north to the splitting of the Vordi and North Vordi Rivers. There both forces will recombine for a united attack on the human stronghold of Vorti."
     It was a convoluted plan designed to confuse the humans, who would undoubtedly have scouts scouring Devforth. Dividing the army was tactically unwise, but Grundig believed such an "irrational" move, combined with what would be an unexpected target, would maximize his advantage. He intended to wage this war as if every expediency would be necessary to defeat the enemy - as, indeed, it might be if Vorti had a significant defense force of Apaths.
     "Assemble the army," continued Grundig. "I will address them. We depart this afternoon."
     Thus began the most critical phase of the quatic invasion of Devforth.
* * *

     Lying on a bed in a small, dimly-lit chamber of Vorti's palace, Meg was as unresponsive as she had been since first losing her vision. Her chest rose and fell regularly, but her body was occasionally wracked by trembling, and she gave no indication of hearing anything spoken in her presence.
     Despite an insatiable desire to return to the throne room and participate in the political struggles taking place, Guc elected to remain with the seeress. Although his rank as King of Tsab might not accord him any specific privileges in this city, his engagement to Lea gave him the right to participate in high-level meetings. Eya might dispute an attempt on his part to seize even a modicum of power, but she could not gainsay him a seat on her council.
     At the moment, however, Guc was more concerned with Meg's condition. There was a reason he had been brought to Vorti, and until she could speak, he felt paralyzed and ineffectual. How could he act - or not act, as the case might be - until he knew how his presence might avert or speed the city's destruction? And what force had the power to render a seeress blind?
     "Physically, she's fine," pronounced one of the legion of healers who had been swarming around Meg's sickbed for the past hour. Guc couldn't remember his name but, with his sparse white hair and kindly features, he seemed trustworthy. "It's some sort of psychic shock, I think." He shrugged apologetically.
     "How long until she speaks again?"
     "Hard to say. I suspect when her mind recovers enough to uncocoon itself, she'll become aware of her surroundings. In most cases I've seen like this, the recovery is slow but certain."
     "Very well," said Guc, as if deciding something. "Would you find Master Caa and tell him to meet me here?"
     "Caa, Your Majesty?"
     Guc fought down a wave of impatience, recognizing there was no reason this man should know about a Tsab functionary left behind to observe Vorti's court.
     "An ambassador from Tsab. One of my few remaining subjects."
     The healer cleared his throat. "Uhhh... yes, Your Majesty. I'll see if I can locate him."
     Ignoring the other three healers bustling about the room, Guc sat down in a bedside chair and regarded the seeress. It was amazing that such potent abilities could be confined within this fragile body. Meg's existence was defined by her vision. No wonder her blindness had driven her into this state.
     Guc didn't understand what this meant for his plans. At this point, he wasn't sure he had any remaining. His priorities would not be the only ones rearranged by what had happened at Tsab. It was possible his betrothal to Lea might be broken, if not by her then by one of her advisors. Eya would look upon this as an opportunity to provide a more "suitable" husband for the young queen and, given Lea's frosty reception of him at their last meeting, she might be more than willing to heed her former regent's advice.
     He reached out and held Meg's hand, willing her to say something - not that his mind, confined as it was, could touch hers. The warmth of her flesh surprised him, as did the softness of her skin. Guc was used to thinking of the seeress as a remote, cold entity - less a human than an embodiment of celestial powers.
     "Your Majesty," came a respectful voice from behind Guc. Silently, the Apath Caa had entered the room, and was now genuflecting.
     "Get up, Caa. I have too few subjects left for such a display to be meaningful." Turning to the healers, he said, "Would you gentlemen leave us for a moment?" Phrased as a command, not a request, the king's wishes were complied with without question.
     "So, has anything been happening here they wouldn't want me to know about?" asked Guc.
     "Not that I'm aware of, Sire, although I haven't been privy to many private discussions. There has been so much preparation for battle there hasn't been time for much else."
     "Is Wil with Lea?"
     "Yes. It was decided Eya would stay behind and rule because of her previous experience. She can be a cruel one, Your Majesty. I admire her."
     "She's a little too dangerous - and extreme - to admire. But I haven't called you here to discuss the Regent's attractive qualities. At the moment, she's the least of our problems."
     "I guessed as much. Could you... what happened at Tsab? Would it have made any difference if I was there?" For a moment, Caa's impassive face displayed pain. Guc knew the man's wife had been there, and to his knowledge, she was not among the few survivors.
     "Probably, but not enough to save the city. They were too powerful, and we weren't ready. Don't torture yourself, Caa. None of us forecasted this, and you were here under my express orders, preparing for other eventualities. Had you been at Tsab, you'd be dead now, and there'd be one fewer Apath to defend us when it comes to the final battle I'm sorry about your wife."
     "What would you have me do now, Your Majesty?"
     Guc glanced at Meg's prone form before speaking. "I'm not sure if it's possible, but can you somehow... reach out with your mind and wake her up?"
     "The seeress?"
     Guc nodded. "The healers say it's some sort of psychic trauma, but she possesses invaluable information about the invasion. I need her awake, and I can't wait for her system to recover naturally."
     Caa looked dubious. "It could be dangerous. I'm not an expert at mind manipulation. You might ask Eya. Rumor has it..."
     "I don't want to ask Eya, damn it! I don't trust Eya! Especially not with this information. Now, I asked you a simple question: can you or can you not do this thing?"
     "I believe so, Your Majesty, but the risks..."
     "Then do it. Try to be gentle, but wake her up!"
     With a resigned sigh, Caa stepped up to the bed beside his king, and placed one hand on the catatonic woman's brow. As Guc watched, the Apath slipped into a trance, his eyes half closing and his facial muscles relaxing. Gradually, his breathing slowed until the rising and falling of his chest matched that of the seeress. Time elongated, with seconds seeming like minutes. Droplets of sweat began to form on Caa's forehead.
     Suddenly, the Apath snatched his hand away as if burned. Meg let out an explosive gasp that ended in a moan.
     "What is it? What happened?" demanded Guc of either of them.
     "I wasn't sure what I was doing," muttered Caa, wiping his brow with the back of one hand. "I knew we should have gotten Eya."
     "What do you mean? Is she...?"
     Caa shook his head. "I don't think any damage has been done, but it's difficult to be certain. I wasn't gentle in removing some of the barriers."
     "Blind," said Meg as she lifted herself into a sitting position. Her voice was hollow; the single word, a clinical observation.
     "Meg? How do you feel?"
     The laugh with which she greeted the question was devoid of mirth. "How do you expect me to feel? How would you feel if someone hacked off your arms and legs? Would you want to live crippled like that?"
     They both knew the answer.
     "Couldn't you have left me as I was??" she demanded bitterly. "At least there, I couldn't feel."
     "No. You brought me here for a reason, and I need to know what it is. Was there something I had to do, or something I wasn't supposed to do?"
     "It doesn't matter now. Do as you please. It won't make a difference."
     "But you traveled all the way out to Pipit's Cove to bring me back!"
     "And I admitted I wasn't sure of the timing, that we might already be too late."
     "What was I supposed to do? Maybe it can still be done."
     "The future is never immutable like the past, Your Majesty, but it's difficult to change what you don't understand. My visions give clues to events that have not yet occurred, but there is a sequence that must be followed. In my condition, I can no longer predict - or even guess at - what should be done."
     "What blinded you? Did it have to do with the quatics?"
     Another derisive laugh greeted that question. "You credit them with too much influence! Fate, or whatever force gave me the powers, took them away. I have known for some time now it was inevitable. It has represented the barrier in all I have worked for, but it came too soon."
     "You knew this was going to happen?"
     "The 'what', not the 'when.' Sometimes I think fate has a cruel sense of humor. One more day, and everything necessary to set the future on a different path might have been achieved. Only twenty-four more hours of sight..."
     "Then this - your blindness - is the event you had to get me to Vorti ahead of?"
     Meg nodded. "All my visions predicted disaster if certain actions were not accomplished. All were in preparation, but none complete."
     "How certain are your visions?"
     "As I said, the future is always changeable, but it would be foolish to hold out hope that some random action will avert a future all signs point to. My visions have always shown a route to salvation. They may not be the only path - this is something I've never put to the test - but it represents the most viable hope. In this case, the images were more explicit about what would happen if specific conditions were not met."
     "And what did you see?"
     "Blood and fire. Cities in ruins. The continent sinking in a mire of death and destruction. Quatics in ascendancy like the Morning Star on Midsummer's Day. Apaths torn apart from within. Fear and terror, as potent as living things. The jewel of Vorti's crown smashed. No hope. Only despair. Vivid images all, and there is no mistaking their meaning, regardless of how many are actual and how many symbolic. Little interpretation is required to understand the bleakness of that future."
     "This is what we face?"
     Meg nodded. "I have failed, Your Majesty, but it is not a burden I will bear lightly, if I survive long enough to bear it at all. If any of us live long enough."

© 2006 James Berardinelli

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