"Do you understand this? When the time comes, when the moment of action is at hand, there is no room for interpretation, and if you fail me, recognize what that means for you. I will make you wish this incarnation of your life spark had come as a maggot."
     "I know what you expect of me. And I never fail."
     What might have been a smile, but looked more like a hideous grimace, passed across Grundig's features. Another piece of the puzzle was in place. He was one step closer to victory - a win he had painstakingly planned, with each new twist mapped out by either his present self or the ever-present voice in his mind of his previous identity. Much of what he had discovered about magic, and was still learning, came directly from Vas, whose experiments had been both dangerous and extensive.
     The human standing before Grundig appeared uneasy, but he did not break eye contact. The man had a weak mind but a disproportionate amount of courage. It was a common trait in his species, and it would lead to their undoing. In cases like this, simple mental manipulation could be accomplished without the subject realizing what was happening. Vas had learned the trick long ago; Grundig was putting it to use - and his victim was no ordinary person, but the head of Fels' Apaths' school. Grundig had some faith in the man – at least insofar as he could be said to have faith in any of his kind. This man's visit as "an ambassador pleading the human cause" to the lands of the elves, where he had proceeded to dole out compulsions while in the guise of a "friend", were paying dividends.
     "Go then," said Grundig, barking the words like a command. Silently, the Apath turned, drew his dark robes closely about him, and disappeared into the foggy evening. Soon, he would be back in the city, and the next phase of the quatics' plan would be underway.
     Having tasted battle and blood, Grundig craved more, and he knew his followers felt the same. Many had been uncertain about leaving their marshy dens, but the first taste of victory had given them confidence and courage. Now, he knew few longed for "home" as much as they craved the sight of Devforth awash in human blood. Age-old wrongs were about to be redressed. Bitter vengeance had a sweet flavor.
     Be wary of Vorti's Chancellor, admonished Vas' voice, echoing deep within Grundig's mind. It was an often repeated warning. Vas had been alive when Wil had first made himself known at Vorti's court. And, while Vas didn't exactly fear the other Apath, he respected him, and Grundig knew not to take such reluctant admiration lightly. He would treat Wil as the most dangerous of enemies. Nothing would be left to chance, nothing taken for granted.
     The quatic forces were moving eastward, but slowly, deliberately changing course every few miles to confuse those few of Vorti's scouts that Grundig let escape. This was all part of the plan. It didn't really matter whether Queen Lea had determined that his destination was Vorti or whether she thought he had foolishly divided his forces for a two-pronged attack on several westward cities. Grundig had reasons for moving slowly. Timing was everything. All things considered, this would not be an easy battle, and he wanted every advantage possible. After all, when this phase of the conquest was over, the campaign wasn't done. He couldn't afford to limp away from Vorti victorious but decimated.
     Of course, a slow advance was excellent psychological warfare. Let the men and women of Vorti wait and worry. The longer until the attack came, the more on edge they would be. Sleep would not come easily over the next days and nights, and many would be at the point of exhaustion when Grundig made his move. Every advantage possible. No matter how small.
     "Make camp," shouted Grundig at one of the many chieftains who always seemed to be around him, awaiting orders. "And send a runner to the other force commanding them to do the same. We wait until morning to move further."
     Tomorrow would bring more slow, deliberate movement. Another camp at dusk within sight of Vorti, followed by a swift, unexpected midnight attack. The moment of truth was scarcely more than a day away, and Grundig could already taste the thrill in his mouth, as warm and salty as the blood that would be spilled.

* * *

     Dark had long since fallen by the time Wil detached himself from the alley shadows and entered one of Fels' main thoroughfares. Overhead, it was overcast, with thunder rumbling in the distance. The night air was humid but chilly. Once, in what seemed another lifetime, his father had told him evenings such as this heralded a nasty winter. At this point, Vorti's chancellor wondered if anyone other than the quatics would be left to endure it.
     With Devforth embroiled in war and Fels' status uncertain, Wil had not dared come here openly. Even one as committed to diplomacy as he was, would not be so foolish. So he had arrived incognito, used his magic to pass over the walled city's locked gates, and hidden in back alleys and pubs until dusk had fallen. Now, with much of Fels shrouded in unnatural silence, it was time to make his move.
     The people of Fels were nervous; that much was certain. During the day, there were as many passerby on the streets as normal, but the level of idle banter was down, and the salesmen in the bazaar hawked their wares in subdued voices. As twilight approached, the crowds rapidly thinned and now, after dark, the only people on the streets were members of the night watch. Officially, no curfew had been declared, but the Felsians had unanimously decided to stay at home. Half the inns were closed for lack of trade.
     Larger than usual guard patrols walked the streets, naked blades in mens' hands rather than in sheaths. Clustered in groups of three and four, they traversed Fels' main roadways, their steel-shod boots clicking on the cobblestones. More thunder rumbled in the distance. The whole nervous world seemed on the verge of a storm; nature was just doing her part to stay in synch.
     Although Wil had every legal right to be walking Fels' benighted streets, he wasn't sure how the patrols would react to his presence, and jumpy armed men could be dangerous. So, to avoid a possible misunderstanding, he employed a simple magical trick to keep himself hidden. While he wasn't strictly invisible, the only way anyone would notice him was to look directly at him when he was moving and, with only the light of the widely-spaced street lanterns to see by, they might miss him even then.
     Although the so-called Wizards' School had no sign to mark its location, Wil, like every Apath in Devforth, knew where it was. Since his return to the "civilized world" from Falnora some fifteen years ago, he had visited this place on at least a half-dozen occasions. While those who worked and studied here were not always cordial or helpful, the school boasted the most complete collection of magic-related books in Devforth, far surpassing the meager collection available in Vorti's palace library.
     The school's headmaster, or "coordinator" as he preferred to be called, was a man called Muj, an elderly Apath of limited skills but great knowledge. While it was difficult to determine his age, Wil surmised he might easily be the oldest living person. Over the years, his involvement in the day-to-day running of the school had lapsed. Now, his title was ceremonial, as he spent most of his time in his chambers, sleeping, drinking, and reading. As with many very old wizards, it was unclear how much emotion he had left.
     The real ruler of the school was Urv, a young, ambitious Apath whose arrogance had irked Wil when they first met eight years ago. Since then, there had been friction between them, perhaps because they were fundamentally alike. Wil could see in Urv the sort of person he had once been - filled with righteous indignation at the wrongs of the world, and determined to change things.
     There were three other trained Apaths in the school functioning as part-time teachers for the lone student whose talents had been confirmed. The school rarely had more than one or two pupils at a time. Apaths were rare, and those willing to enter formal studies even less common. During the institution's century-old lifetime, the most novices studying at any one time had been three; often, there was no one.
     As he stealthily approached the palace-like edifice that was the school's main building, Wil wondered what kind of reception he would get. Likely, it depended on who received him first. He was on speaking terms with everyone except Urv. Unfortunately, Wil's unheralded arrival at this late hour would bring the acting coordinator out of his rooms. The chancellor hoped everyone could put aside personal differences for the sake of humanity's welfare. The more Apaths to stand against the quatics, the better things were likely to go.
     The entrance to the school's front courtyard was protected by a stone wall nearly the height of the building. The iron portcullis in the gateway arch was down, and there was no sign of a bell or other apparatus to alert those inside to the arrival of a visitor. For Apaths, however, admittance would never be a problem, since magic generally nullified the effectiveness of barriers. Wil briefly considered flying over the wall, then abandoned the idea. Despite the urgency of the situation, these wizards would prefer a modicum of courtesy and respect - something not exemplified by barging in unannounced. So, using a minuscule quantity of emotion, Wil jingled a chime located inside the main entrance.
     It didn't take long before a figure dressed in dark, oversized robes emerged from within, crossing the courtyard slowly and silently. When he was facing Wil through the iron bars of the portcullis, he asked, "Who seeks entrance?" The whispered query was made in a voice so nondescript that it gave no clue to the identity of the questioner.
     Pulling back the hood of his garments to reveal his face, Wil said, "I am Wil, an Apath and the Chancellor of Vorti. I request entrance to speak with the Apaths on a matter of great urgency."
     The figure nodded once, almost imperceptibly, then gestured negligently at the iron grillwork. Silently and fluidly, the portcullis lifted enough for Wil to duck under. Once the Apath had entered the courtyard, it snapped soundlessly into place.
     Moments later, Wil and the man who had admitted him, a middle-aged Apath named Don, were seated across a table from each other in one of the school's numerous conference rooms. Scrolls and tomes were scattered all around in such a display of disorganization that it appeared almost as if a whirlwind had come through the room.
     "Obviously, you wish to see the coordinator," began Don without preamble. "But knowing your relationship with him, I thought it might be better if I was informed of your reasons for coming before I brought your request to him. He is currently...engaged and will not like being disturbed."
     "I know his proclivities, but this is too important to wait." Wil briefly described the situation in Vorti, what he believed the implications to be for all Devforth, and what he was seeking from the Apaths' school.
     "And you say you don't know what King Yax's position is in all of this?" asked Don when Wil had finished speaking.
     "He is suspected of having allied himself with the quatics, but there's no proof beyond the fact that this city - a natural first target - is still standing while Tsab is in ruins. It's unclear who the city gates are closed to: the quatics or people from the other cities."
     "The city gates are closed? That's odd," said Don, absently stroking his gray-shot black mustache with one finger. "I guess we should pay more attention to what's going on in the outside world. In here, it's easy to get isolated."
     "Easy and dangerous."
     "Anyway, if Yax isn't acting, why should we? If what you say is true, Fels doesn't appear to be in danger."
     "I thought the original charter of this school stated something about being non-political and dedicated to 'the magical advancement of all Devforth.' Fels may not need you now, but the rest of Devforth does and, be assured that if Vorti falls, the quatics will quickly disregard any pact made with your leader. Their single-minded purpose is to exterminate our race."
     "Wil, the school may not be aligned specifically with Fels, but this is where it exists and as long as the city isn't in danger, the school isn't in danger. And our charter, as you pointed out, is to promote magical advancement, not become involved in race wars. If the school is threatened, we'll fight, of course, but otherwise..."
     "The point I'm trying to make is that the school is in danger. The way the battlefield looks, Vorti will be the last line of defense for humanity. If it falls, Fels will become an unbearable irritant to the quatics - the last bastion of humanity in a land they have ravaged and taken possession of. They will attack this city and destroy it. Your participation in the battle will equalize things somewhat, but think how much more valuable you'll be if added to a mobilized army and two additional trained Apaths now."
     Don nodded. "Strength in numbers. You know what Urv's argument will be, don't you? That you and Eya should seek refuge here and supplement our numbers if and when Fels is attacked."
     "While thousands are senselessly slaughtered at Vorti. Lives that might be saved if we present a united front there." A trace of outrage had entered Wil's voice.
     Don opened his arms in a gesture of pacification. "I agree with you and, for what it's worth, unless Urv orders me to stay here, I'll accompany you. But I'm only one of five. Six, if you count young Tyf. There's a limit to the amount of energy we can produce."
     For a moment, Wil hesitated. To this point, the discovery of how to leech emotional energy from others had remained a closely-guarded secret. In fact, to his knowledge, he and Eya were the only ones who could perform the necessary procedures, and there were ethical issues to be considered. Once he revealed what he knew, the wizards' school would never leave him in peace until he had divulged the process. What decided him to take the risk was the realization that if he didn't share the secret, the wizards' school might not exist after all this was over.
     "Energy isn't a problem - or at least not a major one. Fifteen years ago, Eya and I, with the help of King Sor, discovered a means by which we could transform the emotions of others into magical energy, or whereby we could use the emotions of others to replenish our own reserves. Since then, we've explored the process enough to refine it. Five Apaths, or even three or four, might be enough to give us the needed edge to defeat the quatics. When Vorti was sacked by dwarves, four of us held off an entire army - and Sor was near burgeoning apathy."
     Don stared at Wil, mouth agape and eyes as wide as saucers. It took him a moment to find his voice. "You... made this discovery, yet kept it from us?" His tone was a mixture of outrage and disbelief. "All these years... the most critical discovery in the history of magic, and you never revealed it??"
     Wil sighed. The last thing he wanted to get involved with now was a debate on magical ethics. It had been inevitable, however. The best he could hope for was to broker a simple agreement: in exchange for teaching the members of the school how to use this ability, they would come to Vorti's defense. Fate, however, intervened, in the person of Urv.
     "Surely, Don, you can understand why he kept this secret? Had you made the discovery, would you have revealed it?" So saying, Urv stepped across the threshold and entered the room, managing to look elegant and graceful despite his unkempt appearance.
     Urv was a tall, thin man with an athletic build and handsome, well-proportioned features. His jet-black hair, which hung to below his shoulders, was tousled, as if he'd just risen from bed, but the clear, intelligent light in his eyes indicated he was wide awake. He was dressed in a simple white robe, a garment apparently donned in some haste. Obviously, someone other than Don had noticed Wil's arrival.
     Continuing, the virtual head of the school added, "There is no collective agreement among Apaths to share uncovered knowledge. Those of us at the school do it as a matter of course, but others are not bound by the fraternity of our institution. It makes reasonable sense that the Vorti Apaths would wish to retain a prize piece of knowledge for themselves. Perhaps as a bargaining chip to use in a situation like this."
     Wil scowled. He didn't like the direction this conversation was taking. Although, considering Urv's untimely intervention, perhaps it was inevitable. "The reason we kept the knowledge to ourselves," he said, "had nothing to do with secrets, but because of a question of ethics. I'm sure I don't have to elucidate how an unscrupulous Apath could use these powers to do great damage."
     "Are you insinuating one of us in this school would misuse this new talent of yours?" demanded Urv.
     Wil shook his head. "No. But once you began teaching it, there's no way to monitor how quickly it would spread, and there are some of our kind who would abuse it. So we elected to study the matter until we reached a decision about how to disseminate it."
     "Fifteen years is a long time to study something."
     "Not for Apaths," replied Wil. "I would venture to say there are skills here you've been studying for a lot longer."
     "Touché," said Urv with a wry smile. "But I assume you're not here to discuss the distribution of magical insight. Let me make a guess at the real reason for your unusual visit: the quatics. I assume you're here to request our help at Vorti."
     Wil nodded. "The situation is grim. For whatever reason, Fels doesn't appear to be an immediate target. Vorti is, and considering the relative strengths of the various cities' armies, it seems the natural location for a last stand. Any additional magical help would be a great boon, and perhaps could prove the decisive edge."
     "Public perception across Devforth is that Fels is being spared because Yax has made a pact with the quatics. Perhaps it's true; perhaps not. Regardless, you are accurate in noting this city doesn't appear to be a target. Because of that, doesn't it make sense that this should be the last bastion of humanity? Besides, Vorti is a terrible place for a last stand. It's the only unfortified city. Regardless of what army you put out on the field, the quatics will overrun it in hours."
     "Tsab had more imposing walls than Fels does, and look how quickly it fell. Barriers won't stop them; force will. When they turn against Fels, which they will eventually, this city will fall."
     "Unless we have a cadre of Apaths against them. With you and Eya, that would give us seven - surely enough to stop an army of savages, especially using this trick of yours."
     "We could be as effective, if not more so, at Vorti, and the potential cost in human life will be less. By the time the quatics get to Fels, virtually our entire race will have been eliminated."
     "By that token, there will also be fewer quatics. The wizards' school is supposed to be above politics. If we support Vorti, that's a partisan decision. By staying here and acting only when necessary to protect this building and the knowledge contained herein, we remain within our charter."
     Wil couldn't believe Urv was using such a specious defense. Was the man as blind as Yax in not seeing how grievous a danger the quatics represented?
     "We're not talking about politics any more, Urv. We're talking about survival. Tsab has been Vorti's greatest enemy for centuries, yet now we're sheltering her king and surviving citizens. The quatics don't care what city any of us comes from. They want blood, and that's what they intend to get. They've harbored a grievance against us since Garvad drove them into the swamps, and this is their opportunity to redress it. This isn't war, it's genocide."
     "You're an alarmist, Wil, and you've let the failure of a few poorly prepared and undermanned armies color your judgment. Oh, I agree the situation is dangerous and unpleasant, but I hardly think it likely that humanity is on the verge of being eliminated from existence. Who knows, maybe you'll be able to stop them at Vorti without our assistance."
     "Surely your charter doesn't forbid you to act in situations like this, where every man, woman, and child across Devforth is in danger."
     "You say the situation is non-political, but nothing you've said has convinced me of that. Are the armies of Llam and the Twin Cities joining this stand at Vorti, or it is just Lea's forces? Have the other rulers sent battle commanders and generals to participate in the planning, or has the campaign been formulated solely by Vorti's military council? And are you here as a mere Apath or as an emissary of your queen?"
     "I'm here as an Apath, making a request of a respected group of scholars."
     "I see. Then this is your idea alone. Lea didn't request you to make this trip. In fact, she knows nothing about it."
     It would have been easy for Wil to lie and, if he suspected it would have made a difference, he would have. But it was clear Urv had made up his mind and no matter what was said, his decision was final. In the end, it would be up to each individual Apath whether to go or not. The school would not support a mission to Vorti.
     "Lea is aware that I'm here."
     Urv nodded solemnly, as if a great plot had been uncovered. "In that case, you're here in the capacity of Vorti's chancellor. That makes this a political mission and your request a partisan request. Therefore, based on the charter of this school, we cannot accompany you back to Vorti."
     "I have already told Wil I'll go with him," said Don, speaking for the first time since the arrival of the acting headmaster.
     Urv nodded, suddenly all sympathy. "I understand your desire to go. In fact, if I weren't in this position, I might feel the same. But I cannot tolerate a member of this school breaking the charter. Of course, I can't stop you, but if you go with the chancellor of Vorti, I will accept that action as your resignation."
     "You can't be serious!" Don gasped.
     "I am," replied Urv, his voice as hard as his flint-like eyes. "Do what you must, but it will not be allowed to reflect negatively upon this school."
     "Perhaps there's a way around this," said Wil, attempting a diplomatic approach. "We could make a bargain along the lines of what was already suggested. If the school offers its help to Vorti, in return I'll teach everyone here the secret of filtering emotions from others."
     Urv shook his head. "I make no bargains with our integrity, no matter how attractive they seem. Besides, if this is something you and Eya have discovered, one of us might easily uncover the same thing, now that we know what to look for."
     "But King Sor was involved in the discovery!" protested Don.
     "So what?" retorted Urv. "Sor's legend has grown beyond reason in the past fifteen years, but he was just another Apath like you and me. My answer to Chancellor Wil's request remains the same: no."
     Wil was annoyed, to be sure, but there was little he could do about the situation. Eya would have felt differently, but her ranting and threats would have accomplished little. Urv was in charge here and determined to get his way, no matter how shortsighted and petty it might be. Wil had been sure even someone with this degree of stubbornness and intransigence would have given in after hearing how desperate the situation was. In that, he had misjudged Urv.
     Surprisingly, however, he appeared to have won over Don. Despite the man's earlier avowal that he would accompany Wil only if Urv did not forbid it, Don now appeared willing to go farther. "Then, as much as it pains me to do this, I have to resign my post. I can't let thousands of people die needlessly so we can wait for the quatics to attack Fels before we act. You may be that callous, but I'm not. I'm going to Vorti with Wil."
     "Think carefully. Once this decision is made, you can't go back on it, no matter how things turn out. When the war is over, don't expect to be offered your old position, at least not as long as I'm still here."
     "You've made that quite plain. Maybe when this is all over, I'll be offered a post at Lea's court. Regardless, I trust you understand my decision."
     Urv nodded, but made no further attempt to dissuade Don, which surprised Wil. Never before had he seen the acting headmaster give in so easily. Perhaps that should have alerted him that something ominous was afoot.
     It was nearly an hour later when Wil and Don were ready to depart. Attempts to convince the other resident Apaths to leave ended in failure - Urv's influence was too pervasive. But, from Wil's perspective, at least the journey had not been a complete waste of time. The addition of one Apath to Vorti's defense force would be valuable.
     Well past midnight, the two Apaths slipped through the front door to the school and into the courtyard separating the secluded world of the wizards' school from its resident city. The sky was still clogged with clouds, keeping the moon and stars hidden, and only a pair of lanterns lit the path to the gate. So, it was in nearly total darkness when the attack came.
     A flash of light, seemingly as bright as the mid-day sun, lit up the darkness, momentarily blinding Wil. He heard his companion scream, a cry of anguish, then felt his body enveloped in an overwhelming heat. His reaction - to initiate a magical shield against whatever was assaulting him - was instantaneous, but some unknown force was inhibiting his abilities. The shield came into place, but half-formed and only fitfully effective. He could already smell his flesh beginning to smoke and sizzle. He no longer knew whether the screams reaching his ears were Don's or his own. His eyes were useless. For the first time in more than a decade, he felt a flash of fear.
     However, this was not the first time Wil had faced death, nor was this kind of intense agony unique. Living meant escape, and, despite the pain, his survival instincts remained intact. Shutting his eyes and gritting his teeth, he began to stumble in the direction of the closed portcullis, hoping his stamina would keep him on his feet long enough to do what had to be done.
     Somewhere behind him, someone was shouting. Not screaming, but shouting. Wil couldn't expend the concentration to understand the words. Taking each excruciating step was consuming all he had. The trip from the door to the gate seemed like the longest walk he had ever taken.
     At first, his intention had been to fly over the wall, but whatever was damping his ability to transform emotion to magic didn't allow him to get off the ground, so he tried a less elegant, but equally effective, means of escape, and let loose a blast of pure energy and shattered the iron bars of the portcullis - and possibly more. All Wil knew was that after his use of magic, there was a gaping hole in the wall he could stagger through.
     Once he was outside the school's compound, the assault didn't stop, but he hadn't expected it to. He continued moving forward without a clear sense of where he was going, knowing that eventually relief must come, if only in the surcease of death. The agony seemed interminable, however, and the stink of burning flesh in his nostrils was sickening.
     As he stumbled along, Wil's sight gradually began to return, even as the magical shield firmed up. Images of buildings and walls floated into view, blurred and badly distorted. By then, though, the damage was done. Exhaustion and pain had taken their toll. Finding the mouth to an open alleyway, Wil staggered off the main thoroughfare and into a place where he was less likely to be found. Then, before the heat from the attack had entirely abated, he slipped into a cool darkness of an entirely different kind.

© 2006 James Berardinelli

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