When Wil regained consciousness, he felt like he had been out for years and he had a massive headache. Surprisingly, however, his skull was the only source of pain. Considering the tongues of invisible fire that had licked his body, that was perplexing. No portion of his skin was suffering the aftereffects of burns.
     For some reason, he didn't have the strength to open his eyes. Normally, such an action required little effort but, at the moment, it seemed a herculean task. As he contemplated why this might be so, Wil became aware that his thought processes weren't working properly, either. His quick mind was moving sluggishly, evidence it had been inhibited, most likely by drugs.
     "He's awake - or at least as awake as he's likely to be," stated a voice Wil thought he should recognize. It seemed to be coming from far away.
     "Wha..." was all he managed to groan. Controlling his vocal chords seemed as difficult as opening his eyes.
     "Are you sure he's safe?" said another voice. "Why don't you just kill him and get it over with?"
     "I don't know how you, as a scholar and student of magic, can make such a shortsighted suggestion. Assuming he wasn't lying, this man has uncovered one of the most important 'tricks' in the history of apaths. Understand what he claims: it may be possible for us to use our powers without giving up any emotion. If that isn't worth the risk of keeping him alive, I don't know what is."
     "Won't Grundig be annoyed?"
     "Grundig will believe what I tell him - that Wil is dead. That creature is so assured of his supremacy he won't consider the possibility I might lie to him. He believes me to be in his thrall as a result of some novice mind-trick, and I'll use that to my advantage. He may be an apath with tremendous power, but he's not as invincible as he thinks he is."
     "Who is Grundig?" asked Wil, surprising himself that he was able to enunciate the words. The fog around his thoughts seemed to be clearing.
     "Coherent, are you? That's surprising. You must have a stronger mind than I suspected. Or the dosage wasn't high enough. Do you know where you are or who I am?"
     Ignoring the question, Wil focused on what he had asked. "Who is Grundig?" he repeated.
     "The organizer of the current quatic uprising. You'll be pleased to know he has considerably more intelligence than the norm for his species. Our race can take solace that we're not being beaten by an idiot. Now, perhaps you can explain how you managed to escape my firestorm unscathed. Don was burnt to a crisp, and I hadn't been aiming at him."
     The name came to Wil in a flash: Urv. The voice he was hearing belonged to the leader of the Wizards' School. So, he hadn't escaped after all. But how had he managed to avoid Urv's magic?
     "I don't know," he croaked. "Perhaps I was lucky."
     "Somehow, I doubt that. Then again, given your history, I wouldn't rule it out. Anyway, since you're still alive, we might as well let your continued existence benefit both of us. I'll keep you confined until this situation with the quatics is resolved, then we'll begin exploring this talent you've uncovered. Until you decide to be cooperative, you'll be kept on a dosage of mrin strong enough to inhibit magic use but not so strong as to totally incapacitate you. In the event of a quatic attack, we may need your aid. Don's death was unfortunate and leaves us short-handed. I hadn't anticipated the fool would want to join you."
     "I will not help you."
     "Obviously, you feel that way now. I think, over time, you'll have a change of heart. I've studied your career, Wil and, if nothing else, you're practical. You side with the winners - that's how you've managed to stay alive this long. And, if you decide to remain intransigent, there's always force or coercion. I'd prefer to avoid either - I'm not a monster - but I'm determined to capture your knowledge - one way or another."
     "Charming," muttered Wil. "Our race is on the brink of extermination, and all you're concerned about is learning a few tricks."
     "You oversimplify the situation, but you're not that far wrong. We'll talk later, when a change in circumstances might make you more communicative. Until then, I suggest you lie here and get some rest. You won't be able to do much else. If you need anything - not that I expect you to - someone will be right outside." So saying, Urv and his companion departed.
     Alone, Wil lay unmoving on what appeared to be a bed. He was husbanding his strength, trying to gather enough to open his eyes. He didn't know much about mrin, but it was a potent narcotic. Certain legends stated it was the only sure way to tame an Apath - the only drug powerful enough to mute the ability to transform emotion to magic. Under its influence, Wil believed those stories. He couldn't imagine summoning the mental strength to attempt a magical act, let alone successfully carry one out.
     With little else to do, he considered his situation - how he had gotten here and why he was uninjured. The last thing he remembered was stumbling blindly in the streets outside the Wizards' School, his mind and body on fire. Then he had collapsed. After that, he awakened here, moments ago. In between, there was nothing but partially remembered half-dreams.
     Eya was involved somehow, he was sure. The more he considered it, and tried to remember her part in what had transpired, the more sense it made. She had been there, not in person but mentally, using her powers over distance to heal him - a tremendous strain, to be sure, but the only rational suggestion for what had happened. And, if that was the case, she had undoubtedly left behind an open link between his mind and hers. Unfortunately, his thoughts were too uncertain for him to probe for it. If contact was to be made, she would have to initiate it, but her healing efforts had likely exhausted her. That sort of magic was difficult if the physical proximity was negligible, but nearly impossible over such a great distance. Had he been more coherent, Wil knew he would have been in awe - if that was in fact what had happened.
     There was something else to ponder, as well. Who was Grundig? Urv had called him the leader of the uprising. But a quatic and an apath? As horrible as it was to consider, it answered a lot of questions. And it posed a shocking danger to those who would defend Vorti and were relying on magic as a decisive edge. Suddenly, it became crucial for Wil to communicate with Eya. But the mrin would not allow him even to make the attempt. Frustration building, all Wil could do was wait.

* * *

     "Lea, we have a problem." With those words, Eya stumbled into the little throne room, interrupting an interview between the queen and one of her battle commanders. All eyes in the room turned to the former regent.
     Eya's face was drawn and her eyes were ringed with dark circles. She swayed uncertainly on her feet and her hands trembled. When a guard came to her side to offer a supporting arm, she took it without hesitation.
     "What is it?" gasped Lea, leaping to her feet and motioning for a chair to be brought.
     "We're going to have to plan our defense without Wil. I found him, and it's not good news."
     "Clear the room," commanded Lea. This was not information she wanted to become public. Too many ears had heard Eya's initial declaration; further damage had to be curtailed.
     When the chamber was empty of everyone except a pair of guards, Lea came to kneel beside Eya's chair. "What happened? Tell me everything."
     Eya nodded, taking a sip from a goblet of wine someone had placed on the table beside her. "I went searching for Wil using the mental method I detailed to you. And, much to my surprise, I found him, but only because his agony was echoing throughout the psychic plane. He was in terrible pain - I don't know how it happened, but more than half his body was charred. His mind was so confused, there was no hope he could have healed himself, and without healing, he would have died. The injuries were too severe.
     "So I tried something I've never attempted before, and which no sane Apath should ever dare. I merged my mind with his tortured one, and combined our magical powers to heal the wounds. When it was over, I barely had the strength to withdraw from his mind and return to my body."
     "Where is he?" demanded Lea. "We'll send out a troop..."
     "He's in Fels, at the Wizards' School. There's nothing you or your army can do. The best we can hope for is that he gets underground before whoever tried to kill him finds him. But we won't see him again, at least not until this battle is over."
     "You're sure he's not dead?"
     Eya nodded. "Positive. I forged a mind-link with him. Believe me, I'll know if he dies. In fact, if I'm this weak, he might take me with him. I need to regain strength - and fast. There's a magical procedure I can perform to enhance what I've lost, but I'm too weak to try yet."
     "Then go to your chambers and sleep. I won't summon you until you're needed." Addressing the guard by Eya's side, Lea commanded, "Go with her, and don't leave until she's safe in bed."
     Eya, too drained to put up even a token argument, gave the queen a perfunctory bow, then shuffled from the room, her attendant behind her.
* * *

     "So, what happened?" demanded Tui as Sor entered the barracks.
     Sor shrugged. "The queen wanted to see me. She wasn't pleased I entered the army but decided to let me stay even though my mother wants me home. I saw my father and asked him to deliver a message."
     "Mothers," snorted Tui. "They always stick their noses where they don't belong. They don't understand what being a man means."
     "Since they're not men, I wouldn't expect them to. So, how did your night go?"
     Tui made a face. "Those guards had awkward timing. I had just about convinced Eli to go upstairs. Their taking you spooked her - she thought they'd be coming for me next - so that was it. Plus, your Mika wanted to talk with her about something."
     "She's not 'my' Mika. How much do you know about her?"
     "You mean, like what happened on Midsummer's Day?"
     "No, I mean like where she's from."
     "Don't have any idea. You could try Eli. She might know."
     "Mika told me her parents' parents came from across the ocean."
     "I see," said Tui. "Then either she's gullible or a liar. Everyone knows there's no way to get past World's End."
     "Which makes it odd she'd make the claim."
     "I wouldn't worry about it. Women are strange; they say strange things. I'm sure if you two spend any significant time together, you'll find out what her motive is. Otherwise, it won't make any difference."
     At that moment, a grizzled veteran stomped into the crowded room. Soldiers - most new recruits of Sor's age - scrambled off their bunks to stand at attention. The lieutenant, none too affectionately known as Killer Jop, stared at each of them in turn, a sour expression on his face as he scratched the stubble dotting his chin.
     "All right, you lazy pigs," he began. "You ain't ready yet, but I got my orders. We march this afternoon. I ain't sure whose harebrained scheme this is, but we ain't waitin' around for them bastards to skewer us. We're goin' after them. So get yerselves kitted up, grab something to eat, then muster on the Western Road when the sun tops out. You dogs reflect on me, and I've got buddies all ready to scoff, so you better not let me down.
     "You got the rest of the morning to do what you have to do, like say good-bye to your mammies and daddies. After that, it's no more talking. An' if any of you screw up, you better worry more about me than any of them damn quatics!"
     So saying, Killer Jop turned on his heels and left as perfunctorily as he had entered. Conversation resumed, but at a subdued level.
     "Well, I guess this is it," said Tui.
     "I guess so," agreed Sor. Then, somber expressions dissolving in a surge of excitement, both boys looked at each other and grinned.
* * *

     When Lea awakened from an unexpected nap on her chair in the little throne room, Gav was standing in front of her, waiting patiently. There was no indication of how long he had been there.
     "Gav," she murmured, trying to shift through sleep-clogged memories and recall where she was. "What is it?" she asked, sitting up straight and rubbing the back of her neck.
     "I'm afraid my plans for the upcoming attack haven't met with universal approval," he said. "I hope it won't require another speech to reinforce my authority in this matter."
     "If it does, I'll make one," said Lea.
     "I know you will, but it's the time frame I'm concerned about. Based on the latest scouting reports, we have less than five hours to finish preparations. They won't attack today, but they'll come at dawn tomorrow morning, if not during the night."
     "They can't see in the dark, can they?"
     "I don't know, but even if they can't, that doesn't preclude a nighttime attack. Since it's one thing our forces won't react well to, we have to assume it could happen. So far, all indications are they're aware of our weaknesses. As a result, if we're going to take the initiative, we have to move this afternoon. That may forestall the worst until tomorrow."
     "I'm not well-trained in military matters, Gav, but I have to admit being baffled by your plan. It doesn't make much sense. Are you sure of what you're doing?"
     "Not entirely," he admitted with a rare smile. "But it's the best plan I could put together. You were right, Your Majesty. This battle cannot be fought conventionally. We'll lose. I guarantee it. Our best chance of winning is to split things up, confuse them, and stage a series of quick strikes. With Eya's magic backing us, we may have a chance. At worst, it will give the general populace an opportunity to get away. Ultimately, the Twin Cities are better suited to the kind of final battle our race may have to face."
     "I don't want it to get that far," said Lea. "Just about everyone admits if it comes down to a last stand at Merk or Xert, we're finished. They have walls, but their army is woefully underprepared and they've already lost a portion of their force trying to defend Tsab. If Vorti's army doesn't stop the quatics, they won't be stopped."
     Gav shook his head. "It depends how many they lose. An army can win a battle but lose a war because of what the victory costs them. We have to remember this isn't necessarily the last stand. There's a place to run to."
     "What are our chances?"
     "Never ask a battle commander for odds. We're either too optimistic or too pessimistic. All I can tell you is we'll do the best we can. Each life will cost the quatics in blood and sweat."
     "I never doubted it," said Lea. "Is there anything I can do to support you?"
     "No. Just be prepared to carry out your facet of the plan, and make sure Eya is ready to go when we need her. I don't like to rely so heavily on magic, and the loss of Wil comes as a blow. I hope she can handle the load herself."
     "She'll do what she has to. We all will. I just hope it's enough."
     "If fortune favors us, it will be."
     "And if not, then our father's ghost may not be the only one haunting the battlefield."
* * *

     Grundig hated waiting and he had always been considered patient by quatic standards. But now that victory was so close, he yearned to get the battle underway. If he pushed his army through the day, they could be outside Vorti before nightfall. The carnage could begin as the sun turned blood red in the western sky. Crimson would stain both heaven and earth.
     That would not, however, serve his best aims. Victory would still be his, but there would be more casualties than he was willing to allow. After this, there were still the Twin Cities. And Fels. And then, eventually, the elves. Mind meddling had given him some time with that race, but the grace period would not last forever. Fortunately, this time, there was no Garvad. And the only real potential danger, the Apath Wil, had been dealt with.
     "Krungron!" barked Grundig. His son appeared almost immediately at his side, like a lap dog heeling for its master. Grundig appreciated obedience, but Krungron's subservience went too far, reminding the Prophet what he had lost with Castabal's death - and one reason why revenge against two particular ruling humans would bring satisfaction. Grundig intended to make the deaths of King Guc and Queen Lea his personal pleasure.
     "Stop the army here. Gather the commanders and tell the runners not to let any of the human scouts escape." It was time to put out Vorti's eyes. Thus far, Grundig had permitted some of Lea's scouts to report, but now it was obvious what the quatics' destination was, the time had come to disable one of her tools.
     Vas' voice warned him he was underestimating human ingenuity, but Grundig chose to ignore the advice. There was no reason to assume the men and women of Vorti were more capable than those of Tsab, and that battle had gone as expected. Nevertheless, Vas seemed certain there would be at least one surprise waiting at Vorti.
     The voice that was him-yet-was-not whispered deep within the recesses of Grundig's mind. I was chancellor there, remember. Tsab has always been populated by incompetents. Not so for Vorti. And Lea is the grand-daughter of Kan and the child of Sor. If that bloodline runs true, this will not be the easy victory you expect. And if this army loses too many, it will not be able to take the Twin Cities or Fels. The Apaths' school will not stay neutralized forever.
     "We'll see how they react when I start blasting their city apart with my magic," muttered Grundig.
     As the army came to a halt all around him, the Prophet continued forward. It was time for him to assume a position at the front. Human rulers typically stayed back, but that was not the quatic way. When the struggle was over, he intended to be covered head to foot with the blood of his enemies.
     Patience, Grundig counseled himself. Patience. The time was almost ripe. The dawn of genocide was at hand.
* * *

     "How is she?" asked Caa, indicating Meg's prone form. He, Guc, and the seeress were the only ones in the small, spartanly-furnished room. Other than the pristine bed upon which Meg lay in peaceful repose, there was only the oversized leather-padded chair in which the Tsabian king was sprawled.
     "Asleep. Finally. What an ordeal she's had," murmured Guc.
     "Why do you stay with her?"
     "The 'whys' are always the most difficult to answer."
     "What's that supposed to mean?"
     Guc gave the apath a sharp look. There were limits to the insubordination he would allow, even from the most powerful of his subjects. Caa, recognizing he had gone too far, amended his statement. "I mean, it's not like you to be philosophical, Your Majesty. Usually, you're the most practical of men."
     "In this case, I am as well. Staying close to Meg will keep me off the battlefield. I have no interest in dying for Vorti. It's not my city. Nor, given the queen's current disposition, is it ever likely to be. Regardless of what happens in this battle, I think a marriage is unlikely, especially now I don't have a city to offer. No matter how Lea may protest, I think she found the idea of uniting with Tsab as tantalizing a consideration as uniting with me."
     "You don't intend to participate in the battle?"
     "I'll let circumstances dictate my actions, but I want to make use of whatever happens. When this is over, my goal is to be on top - king of the survivors. A man doesn't rule all his life just to give up because most of his people have been killed."
     "For you to rule, Lea will have to die," observed Caa.
     "Not necessarily. Don't forget she's just a seventeen-year old girl. In the 'new order', her parentage won't mean anything. No, the one who has to die is Eya. She's the real danger. And that's one necessity I don't want left to fate. No matter what else happens, she cannot survive this battle. I need a free field in which to maneuver when the dust has settled."
     "You want me to eliminate her," said Caa. It wasn't a question. In times like this, he knew what was expected of him.
     "Only if the quatics don't get her first. She's impulsive and may manage to save us the trouble of taking her out. But if it looks like she's going to survive, strike her down. She doesn't know about you, so any attack should take her by surprise and everyone else will think the quatics did it."
     Caa nodded. "It shouldn't be that difficult, as long as she isn't suspicious. Not even someone with her talents can stand against an unexpected magical assault."
     "One other thing: stick close to Lea. If at all possible, I want her to survive this. There are still advantages to a union."
     "I understand, Your Majesty. Is there anything else?"
     Guc shook his head. "These may not be the ideal circumstances, Caa, but by the time things are over, we'll turn them to our advantage."
* * *

     Eya awoke past noon, as the army was making final preparations for departure. She was not alone in her bedchamber, however. Sitting on a divan across the room was Reg, impressively attired in full armor, with shield and sword on the floor by his feet.
     "Welcome back to the land of wakefulness."
     "What's the situation?" Eya muttered.
     Reg gave his sister a concise summary of how Gav's plan was being implemented, concluding with, "So, you're supposed to remain in the city to implement the magical phase."
     "At night. I don't like fighting at night." She remembered all too clearly the terror of those childhood nights spent in Heltala, where lighting a torch or lantern was a crime. Ever since then, she had harbored a secret fear of the darkness.
     Reg, who had the same recollections, nodded his agreement. "But it's the only way. Battle in the darkness should hurt them more than us. And it's inevitable now."
     "I'm no tactician, so I'll put my faith in Gav's plan. Now, where's my guard captain?"
     "Right here," said Reg.
     "You?" Eya was surprised. "What happened to Mav?"
     "Temporary reduction in rank. He accepted that rather than a transfer. For a woman with such an acerbic personality, Eya, you've managed to instill an amazing sense of loyalty in your troops."
     She smiled. "It's the art of leadership. I may be harsh, but I'm always fair. So, you're going to be defending me against the hoards of quatics."
     "It seems like the right place to be."
     "Not with your wife?"
     "She's not on the front lines but you are. Besides, my rapport with her is strained at the moment. You and I have a bond that can never be broken."
     "I'm not complaining," said Eya. "I like the idea. Aside from Wil, there's no one I'd trust more with my life. I'm just a little surprised, that's all."
     "So it's us against the world again?" said Reg. "Just like old times."
     Eya's expression was pensive. "Not quite, but close enough." Then, with a forced air of levity, she added, "Well, let's gird our loins, or whatever we're supposed to do. I'm sure Lea is waiting for us."
     "Lea - and a whole army of quatics."

© 2006 James Berardinelli

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