THE PRICE OF TERROR


PART FOUR: WORLD'S END


CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE


     The flash of pain ripped through Wil's dazed consciousness like a psychic lance. Suddenly, the peaceful numbness that had enveloped him shattered into a million particles, threatening to rip apart his mind. A void of nothingness pulled at him, seeking to drag him into its maw. Instinctively, he fought against it, realizing if he succumbed to that pull, the next time he would see the light would be in his next life.
     Slowly and methodically, Wil gathered the shards of his mind, pulling himself back from the brink of oblivion. At first, he didn't understand what had happened but, as his memories re-established themselves, he knew there was only one possibility. The clarity with which he now viewed his surroundings confirmed it. Eya was dead, and the force of her death, projected through the link he shared with her, had enabled him to break through the drug-induced stupor that had clotted his magical abilities. He was free, but at the price of another's life.
     And that brought up the most painful question of all: If Eya was dead, what about Lea? What about Vorti? Wil didn't know how long Urv had held him in close confinement. The drug he had been plied with made time insubstantial, but the battle of Vorti had to be underway already, if not finished. It was already too late for Wil to offer assistance. The best he could do now was assess the damage and decide how to proceed.
     Then he recalled Grundig. The name hung meaningless in his mind until he dredged through the misty and incoherent memories of the past few days. Grundig was the Apath leader of the quatics. An Apath. No one at Vorti would have known that - not Lea or Eya. They would have prepared their defense expecting magic to be a decisive edge. But Grundig had been there. It didn't require much of a leap of intuition to guess what had transpired. Even the most cautious and powerful Apath could be felled by an unexpected magical attack.
     Rage built within Wil - a towering anger at the petty actions of this society of Apaths who were willing to kill and imprison their own for a few secrets. They were prepared to sacrifice their race for their own safety. In their own way, they were worse than the quatics. But not more dangerous. And, as dearly as Wil wanted to strike out against them now, to burn this place down with them in it, he had to conserve his strength for the larger battle. Grundig had to be stopped. Urv and his cronies could wait until the quatic threat was ended. Then Wil would visit upon them the terrors of the damned. He would make each of them beg for death. By nature, he was not a cruel man but, at this moment, he could understand the passion that had led to Sor's destruction of the nobility. What the late King of Vorti had done to a class of his subjects, Wil would do to this guild of wizards.
     Wil had no intention of sneaking out of his place of imprisonment. There was some value to a spectacular exit, although it would leave him vulnerable to attack if they could regroup quickly enough, which he doubted. By blasting his way out, he would create more than a sliver of doubt in the wizards' minds regarding the extent of his abilities. He had already survived their firestorm, rumor had it that he could siphon emotion from others, and now he had overcome a drug that supposedly suppressed all magic. At the very least, his escape should generate uncertainty; at the best, it might sow the seeds of fear. He wanted Urv to be frightened. Let the man cower in terror until the moment of his reckoning arrived. For these actions, there would be no mercy or mitigating circumstances.
     Wil didn't intend to cripple himself emotionally in the escape attempt, so, using Eya's talent, as he had come to regard it, he stretched out his mind to intercept the surface emotions of others within the complex. He wasn't careful in what he chose or who he chose it from - one emotion was as potent as another, and Wil was just concerned about accumulating enough to facilitate his escape. He didn't have ethical qualms about the quality of the pilfered energy.
     When he was saturated, Wil transformed emotion to raw energy and blasted a tunnel from his position to the compound exit, smashing through walls, doors, and anything else that got in the way. There was one casualty - a man who happened to be sitting in a chair directly in the path of destruction.
     Chaos reigned. Alarm bells sounded. But by the time anyone had any idea what was transpiring, Wil was long gone, having taken to the air like a bird, soaring high into the night sky and heading southwest. Below and behind him, not only the wizards' school, but the entire city, mobilized in anticipation of a quatic attack. It would take even Urv some time to determine that the source of the threat was not Grundig's troops, but his prize prisoner.
     Another aspect of the situation Wil was forced to consider was how widespread the treason was within the human race. Clearly, Urv - and perhaps some of his cohorts - were involved in a conspiracy to promote quatic rule of Devforth. Wil didn't know what the Apath had been promised - he doubted any sum of money would be enough - but Urv was reporting to Grundig. The fact he was betraying the quatic as well was of little matter. If someone of Urv's standing and power could be bought, how many others might be working for the quatics? With magic and treachery thrown into the mix, the equation had become complex. The battle lines were no longer clean-cut, and the enemy could be among them.
     Although Wil could fly rapidly for short spans of time, he couldn't continue at high speeds for an extended period. So, after the initial burst carried him away from Fels, he slowed, pacing himself. Whatever had transpired at Vorti was long over, and his presence now would make little difference one way or the other. But he had to make some assessment of the battle before continuing on. The plan was for the survivors to regroup at the Twin Cities, so Wil assumed that would be his ultimate destination.
     Wil flew on through the night, mulling over the consequences of what he had learned while in Fels. Lost in thought, he soared south and east, letting the terrain blur beneath him. It wasn't until he saw the smoke that he became aware of how far he had traveled. By now, the muddy gray of a cloudy dawn was touching the eastern sky. Ahead, the smouldering rubble of Vorti glowed red in the early morning gloom.
     Even his awareness of the devastation visited by the quatics upon Tsab did not prepare Wil for this picture of total destruction. The city was a ruin - it appeared every building had been torn down and fires burned out of control. There were quatics everywhere, milling about, searching for one more foundation to topple or more combustible debris to ignite. There was no sign of anything remotely human, alive or dead. If there were bodies, they had been burned, eaten, or buried beneath the rubble.
     Even knowing the city as well as Wil did, he had trouble getting his bearings. Nothing was as he remembered it. Eventually, he identified the remains of the palace, but that offered no clues as to whether Lea had escaped in time. The more he surveyed the wreckage, the more certain Wil became of one simple truth: when the quatics were driven from this land, there was no way this damage could be repaired. Vorti, like Tsab to the far west, would have to be rebuilt from the ground up. The quatics, presumably out of maliciousness, had made certain no vestige of the city was salvagable. A city hundreds of years in the making had been torn down in one night.
     Wil searched for Grundig. With no buildings left standing, the quatic Apath had to be in the open. From this height, it was difficult to tell one of the creatures from another, but Wil was certain he would recognize the leader, if only by the pattern of others around him. At the same time, Wil did his best to estimate numbers. One of the most crucial pieces of intelligence he could bring to the Twin Cities was the enemy's strength and, while it appeared considerable, it was clear that some damage had been done. Roughly three-thousand quatics remained. Guc had estimated the attack force at Tsab to number five-thousand. How much of Vorti's militia had been lost inflicting those wounds?
     He could not find Grundig, and he couldn't waste the entire day searching. It was imperative to move on. Besides, the longer he remained here, the more precarious his situation was. Eventually, someone would look up, and the sight of a man flying around would excite considerable reaction. Wil did not intend to become involved in a one-on-one combat with Grundig now; he was far from peak strength. Killing the quatic leader stealthily, with an unexpected magical attack was one thing; dueling him was another. The latter eventuality might come, but Wil intended to pick the time and place. He intended to use every advantage he could gain.
     There was, however, one thing Wil had to attend to before catching up with Vorti's refugees. Stretching out his senses, he probed the broken link to Eya, which would lead him to where she had fallen. It was unlikely the quatics would offer her a decent burning, if there was anything left of her to burn. Since there was nothing more that he could do for her, Wil felt he owed her at least that much, even though it would place him in danger. During her life, she had been many things to him: daughter, pupil, friend, teacher, and lover. In the end, he owed his life to her. It stung that he had been unable to do anything to repay her in kind. Had he been by her side, things might have been different. Together, they might have beaten Grundig.
     Blackened earth greeted Wil's probing eyes as he continued his flight eastward. Huge swaths of ground had been scorched black. Even from this height, he could recognize the deep charring only magical fire could create. So this had been the battleground. From the looks of things, it had been a fierce struggle. Wil wondered how many had perished. The only remains left from that sort of conflagration would be ashes, which made it difficult to count casualties. Perhaps this explained the sharp reduction in the quatics' numbers. If Eya had struck first, without Grundig realizing she was there, her attack could have been devastating.
     Of course, it was possible Eya had killed the quatic leader before succumbing herself. After all, Wil hadn't seen him. But it was foolish to accept that as a likely scenario. Until presented with evidence to the contrary, Wil had to accept that Grundig was still alive. When it came time for the next battle, which would likely be the last one, it was necessary to expect magic from the quatics. If it didn't come, so much the better.
     There were fewer quatics below than in the ruins of the city proper, but there were enough to make a landing dangerous. While Wil was certain he could outmaneuver any normal quatic, if Grundig was around, his next actions would be tantamount to suicide. He had identified where Eya had fallen - a small patch of torn-up ground several hundred paces away from the wasted earth. Although Wil couldn't be sure, it was likely there were bodies present - the flock of vultures argued for that. He would spare Eya the indignity of becoming a scavenger's meal.
     Before landing, however, Wil took one last opportunity to survey the scene below him, commiting it to memory for future reference. Three thousand quatics, picking over the bones of a broken and burning city. A swath of once-fertile ground, charred in such a way that nothing would ever grow there again. Fields trampled. Whatever devastation the quatics could cause, they succeeded in doing. Wil doubted many of Vorti's citizens would recognize this place if they were brought back.
     Having drunk in his fill of the site, he descended to alight at the spot where his dead mind-link led him. The cluster of vultures took to the air with sqawks of protest. The nearest quatic, several hundred paces away, let out a grunt of surprise. But it was too far away to hinder Wil.
     The sight that greeted the Apath was a grizzly one. Naked, half-eaten bodies with bones stripped bare of flesh littered the ground. As best Wil could tell, they were all men, possibly Eya's guards although, if so, their armor and weapons had been removed from the site. There was one other body, although Wil didn't recognize it at first. The vultures had shunned this, perhaps sensing its unnaturalness. Instinctively, Wil knew this bloody, puply mass of gelatinous material was all that remained of Eya. He could guess the cause as well - something had forced her magical shields to collapse. They had compressed and liquified until, with the last beat of her heart, they had dissipated. It was a horrible way to die, and Wil found himself swallowing several times hard.
     Without hesitation, he lit a pyre for Eya and the others, using a cool-burning magical fire that would consume the bodies, then burn until his own death. It would not spread, but neither would it be extinguished - not by rain, wind, or the act of another Apath. This would be his tribute to Eya, and his warning to Grundig. Letting the flames flicker, he took to the air. Several dozen quatics had been approaching him, but all had frozen when he lit the fire. Now, as he sprung skyward, they turned and fled. Without another glance backward, Wil headed south, hoping to catch sight of the remnants of Vorti's army.
     

* * *

     Urv looked down at the man cringing on the floor in front of him. A magical blow had driven the servant to his knees, but he had remained there, daring neither to rise nor to look his master in the face. As the bearer of bad tidings, he had known he would suffer rough treatment. In one sense, he felt lucky to be alive. Urv was not known for displays of restraint, and the news he had brought was of a kind that could cause an outburst of unprecedented violence.
     Truthfully, Urv felt like smashing something, but a small kernel of rationality kept him from making it the servant's head. In a time of crisis like this, the Apaths' school needed all the helpers and allies it could get, be they wizards or merely human, like this worm. At present, twenty-one men and six women lived within the compound's walls. Of those, only five were gifted. Urv couldn't afford to start killing the non-magical because of Apath mistakes.
     "Bring me Fit!" he roared at the fawning man. Fit had been in charge of guarding Wil this night. Fit would feel the brunt of Urv's wrath. An Apath of marginal talent and limited intelligence, Fit should have easily overmatched a drugged Wil, but something had gone wrong. Urv intended to discover what, if he had to beat the truth out of the junior wizard. As a way of relieving anger, that notion had some appeal.
     The man rose to his feet, bowed once, displaying the purple weal on his forehead Urv's magical blow had caused, then shuffled quickly from the room. Behind him, amidst all the books and tomes that characterized Urv's personal library, the acting head of the Apaths' school stewed in silent rage.
     But anger wasn't the only emotion burning within him. There was fear, as well. At this point, he didn't know who to fear more: Wil or Grundig. He had told the quatic Wil was dead, and Grundig would not react well when he learned he had been lied to. On the other hand, Wil might be a more immediate threat, especially if he came back for revenge. Urv had no idea how he had overcome the mrin, but the implications were frightening. If Wil had found a way to neutralize the drug... better not to consider that until he had more evidence. Perhaps Lit had been lax, forgetting to administer the proper dosage every other hour. Or maybe something else had gone wrong.
     "Ah, Urv, here you are," said a voice as brittle as old parchment. Urv, who had turned away from the door to gaze out the window, whirled to face the speaker. Old Muj, the oldest living Apath in Devforth, as well as the founder and official leader of the wizards' school, stood just inside the entrance, leaning on his cane. With his long, thinning white hair, rheumy eyes, and bent back, he was the picture of frailty, but Urv knew better than to estimate his titular superior. Muj cultivated the image of a doddering old fool to keep everyone off-balance. He was stronger and more capable than anyone except Urv suspected.
     Urv bowed slightly, as was befitting one addressing his superior. The brief flash of irritation that had crossed his features upon Muj's unwanted intrusion was quickly replaced by a blank facade.
     "What can I do for you, Sir?" Urv asked neutrally.
     "It seems there has been some unpleasantness within the compound tonight," Muj said, using his cane to point in the general direction of the damage caused by Wil during his escape. "Perhaps you can enlighten me as to the particulars. I saw Fit on my way here, and he was singularly unhelpful. I believe the poor boy may be having a nervous breakdown."
     When Urv got through with him, that would be the least of his problems.
     "I'm still trying to understand what happened myself, Sir. If you wish to wait in your chambers, I'll give you a full report when the facts are in."
     "Do you intend to conduct the inquiry tonight?" asked Muj.
     "Immediately."
     "In that case, I'll remain here, if you don't mind. I have nothing better to do, and it will be interesting to observe you at work. It's been too long, I think, since I have taken an active interest in the day-to-day running of this school. This seems an opportune time to start again."
     Urv didn't agree with that. He didn't want the old fool meddling, especially not now, with circumstances so precarious. Muj undoubtedly would not agree with how Urv had handled the situation with Wil, nor would he understand the political necessity of an alliance with Grundig. The easiest solution would be to eliminate Muj, but Urv was in no position to attempt such a thing. The other Apaths, who had combined their power with his to stop Don and Wil, would not turn against their rightful leader. Urv would be on his own and, while he felt it likely he could match Muj in a contest, he had no desire to drain himself now, when Wil might be waiting for an opportunity to strike.
     Gritting his teeth, Urv said, "As you wish. It may be a long night, however."
     "I'm used to long nights."
     "Very well. I'll fetch the first witness. If you'll wait here, I'll bring him back and you can observe my interrogation."
     "One moment, Urv. Before we begin with the others, perhaps you should answer some questions. For example, who was the Apath you had caged in the dungeon, and why was he there? Moreover, why is this school taking no action in defending our race from the greatest threat it has faced since Garvad's time?"
     For a moment, Urv was taken aback. He had not expected such forthrightness from Muj. In fact, he had not been aware the old man was up-to-date on the current situation. To the best of his knowledge, Muj spent all day in his rooms, poring over moldy tomes in between naps. But Urv recovered from the shock quickly. He had not risen to his current position by being slow-witted.
     "There are many things you don't understand about what's going on in the world, Sir. I have been working as best I can to preserve this institution, and hopefully the city in which it resides. I believe those goals to be more important that traveling to distant cities and engaging in a hopeless battle."
     "Are you saying you have entered into some sort of agreement with these invaders?"
     "I have acted as I see fit. Above all else, this school and its invaluable information must continue to exist."
     "At the expense of our race? I think you have misjudged the nature of the institution. We are here to help humanity, not to betray it."
     "I'm sorry you see it that way, Sir." With every passsing moment, Urv was becoming more certain that Muj would have to be eliminated. But perhaps there were other ways beside straight magic. Stepping to one side, he rang a pull bell. When a servant appeared seconds later, Urv requested, "Bring two goblets of wine. One chilled and one not." He placed special emphasis on the word chilled. The servant nodded slightly, indicating understanding.
     "Thank you," said Muj. "I'm feeling parched and it is a little stuffy in here. Now, who was the Apath?"
     "Wil of Vorti." Urv saw no reason to lie. The old man would be past caring soon.
     "Wil?? You dared capture Wil? What for?"
     "There is much you don't know about our accommodation with the quatics. Nothing is straightforward."
     "Perhaps you will enlighten me," said Muj. It was not a request.
     At that moment, the servant arrived with two cups of wine. The chilled one had beads of water running down the outside. When presented with the tray, Urv took the dry one. Without hesitation, Muj accepted the other. Following Muj's lead, Urv took a sip from the goblet. The wine was sweet - sweet enough to hide the poison in the old man's.
     "The leader of the quatics is named Grundig. He is the most powerful Apath I have encountered. When I learned what was happening at Tsab, I made a reconnaissance of my own, determined to learn all I could about this threat. My intent was to gather intelligence and use it to form an attack plan. That was until I realized they were not just a ragtag army of inhuman beasts, but a well-organized destructive force led by a creature of great power and intelligence. I may be the strongest and most clever human Apath, but I knew I could not match this Grundig. And I feared even the combined might of all our kind might not be enough. So…" Suddenly, Urv felt a wave of dizziness wash over him. After a moment's hesitation, he continued, "So I approached Grundig and proposed an alliance to spare the school and the city of Fels. By bypassing us to attack Vorti, he has shown his good faith…" Once again, Urv felt the world spinning. Before he knew what was happening, he was lying on the ground, gasping for air. But his windpipe was constricted.
     "I think you overestimate yourself, Urv. The strongest of our kind? Perhaps, although I doubt it. The most clever? Definitely not." The felled Apath didn't hear the last of Muj's statement; he was already dead. The older man had expected poisoned wine, so he had used magic to transfer the poison from his cup to Urv's. A simple trick, but one the supremely overconfident wizard had never expected. Strange how sometimes the smallest of actions could take down the strongest of men. It was doubtful, however, that this Grundig would accept a goblet of wine, chilled or otherwise.
     Muj shook his head sadly. Such a waste. Putting Urv in charge had been a mistake, but not as catastrophic a one as allowing himself to withdraw into a world of his own, complacent in his self-imposed isolation. He had known Urv was ambitious, but had never believed his fellow Apath to be capable of such treachery. Guilt assailed him, and the recognition that the responsibility for this debacle was his. It had been decades since he had so badly miscalculated in regards to another Apath. This time, his trust might have contributed to the end of his race. Had Wil not blasted his way free with such a show of force, Muj would still be oblivious to Urv's actions. Yet perhaps it was still not too late. It was time for this small group of teachers to become a weapon.
     
* * *

     Sor felt lost and alone. With every step, the reality of his mother's death sunk in deeper. He had spent the better part of an hour looking for his sister, but she had not been amongst the dozens of dazed stragglers he had come upon. The ruins of Vorti were like a ghost city. The survivors had fled south, headed for the Twin Cities. And the quatics had moved on as well, either pursuing the men and women of Vorti or headed for Llam. Sor knew he should follow - if his father and aunt lived, they would be with the army - but he couldn't bring himself to leave his birthplace. And what of Lor? He kept clinging to the thought of finding his sister like a drowning man grasping at a piece of flotsam, ignoring the obvious conclusion that if she was alive, she was long gone.
     He knew he wasn't thinking rationally, but he couldn't keep his thoughts from spinning. And his shoulder and thighs ached. He may have participated in the killing of three quatics, but his body had suffered in the process. But the most damage had been done to his psyche. How was it possible to cope with such a sudden, monumental change. A few days ago, he had been playing soldier. Now, all that was familiar lay in smoking ruins. By all rights, he should be dead. Only a cruel quirk of fate had saved him. He looked down at the sword in his right hand - not even his own, something he had picked up from one of his fallen comerades - and marveled that it had bitten so deep when wielded by him.
     He looked up again and noticed his vision was blurred. He was crying and wasn't even aware of it. But were the tears for his mother, his city, or himself?
     "Sor?" The voice was faint, uncertain, and grief-stricken. He turned and saw her, coming toward him at a run. At first, he didn't recognize Mika. It was only when she got close that he knew the features under the makeup of blood and grime.
     She hugged him like they were the last humans alive. With a weapon in one hand and the other one nearly immobile because of an injury, there was little he could do to return the gesture. After only a few moments, they separated.
     "Are you all right?" she asked, noting his stiffness.
     "It's not serious," he replied. It surprised him that the hoarse, raspy voice was his. "I'll survive."
     At that word, she started to cry. Not small, quiet tears, but great, racking sobs. Sor sheathed his sword and gathered her to him using his good arm. "I'm sorry," he murmured in her ear.
     It took Mika a while to compose herself. Once she had, she took a step back and regarded him solemnly with deep, sad eyes. "They're all dead. My father. My mother. My brothers. I'm the only one left. And it happened so fast. Just one of those things. He tore us apart. If it hadn't been for a soldier, I would have died, too."
     "My mother - she's dead. I don't know about my father, my aunt, or my sister. I have been looking, but haven't found them. Or their bodies."
     "What do we do now?"
     "We have to go south. After everyone else." Then a thought occurred to him. If Eya had survived, she might be at the palace. And what better way to survive in this situation that in the company of an Apath?
     "I have to go to palace first," he said.
     Mika shook her head, "There is no palace."
     "My aunt could be there. Or the chancellor. I'm sure not the queen - they would have gotten her away at the first sign the city was going to fall - but someone may have been left behind. Maybe even my father."
     "Sor," she said gently. "There is no palace. I saw it fall. The quatics tore it down. There's nothing left but a pile of stones."
     He looked at Mika as if he hadn't heard or, if he had heard, didn't understand. "Come with me," he offered. "I have to go to the palace. The we'll go south. To Merk and Xert."
     She tried again to impress upon him that there was no point going to the palace, but he ignored her, determined not to believe what his eyes had not yet seen. He would learn soon enough, she realized. And then what?
     
* * *

     Grundig was in a black mood. Normally, he instilled fear in his troops but, following the encounter with Eya in which he lost his arm, even his most belligerent battle commanders had been so cowed that they had not approached him. Following the sacking of Vorti the army had regrouped and followed their leader. No one dared ask him where they were going.
     Had Grundig not suffered such a deep personal blow, he might have acknowledged that the attack on Vorti had been a success. Despite the efforts of two Apaths - one of which had been unexpectedly strong and resourceful - his army had soundly defeated the humans, and there were more than enough quatics left to finish off the feeble defenses the other cities would mount. In principle if not fact, the battle for Devforth was over. At least, as long as the elves didn't get involved.
     Queen Lea was dead, but King Guc still lived, and that rankled. Grundig's victory would not be complete until he had squeezed the life out of the arrogant man who had killed his heir. Yet he feared Guc would not be easy to find. Lea had been stupid enough to make herself a target. The king of Tsab would not make the same mistake. But Grundig was not foolish enough to lose sight of his priorities. First, he would win Devforth. Then he would hunt down Guc and any other human survivors. The quatics' supremacy would not be ensured until every human and elf was dead. The other races could not be allowed to breed in secret. Humans especially could multiply quickly, and Grundig did not want there to be a reversal of positions in another few centuries.
     Next was Llam. His intention was to lead his remaining force of three-thousand south along the Vordi river to the coast. There, they would turn west and come upon Llam from the northeast. It was not the most direct route, but Grundig did not want his army crashing through the elf domain of the Forest of Llam. Nothing would be more likely to bring the quiescent elves into the fray than an invasion of their self-appointed sovereign lands. Urv's manipulation of the minds of a few key elves would only hold the forest-dwellers back for so long.
     Vas, the persistent voice in his head, was fast becoming as much of a liability as an advantage. With every passing moment, his earlier personality was becoming more independent, and it was almost as if there were two individuals vying for control of Grundig's mind. It was unsettling to hear an inner voice criticizing his every poor move.
     You understand nothing. That was Vas, and he could do nothing to shut out the voice. What you refuse to acknowledge is that we are one. It's not "you" and "I." Until you embrace your other self, you will continue to have a divided mind.
     Grundig didn't understand what Vas wanted. Surrender? That was not in his nature. He would master this rebellious aspect of himself, no matter how long it took. But it was inconvenient that Vas had chosen this particular time to assert himself.
     You're in danger of becoming overconfident again. You have defeated a handful of Apaths, but there are more. And they will undoubtedly be awaiting you at the Twin Cities. Thousands of humans fled Vorti. This time, Grundig responded silently, I will be ready. Apaths were dangerous, and their powers had to be taken into account, but with Wil and Eya eliminated and the members of the school in Fels neutralized, Grundig expected little more than token resistence. That's when Vas uttered his too-common refrain: Do not underestimate the humans. At that moment, Vas wanted to tear off his head and stomp in into the muddy ground beneath his feet.
     
* * *

     "They're not following, General," stated the scout. "We could call a halt. The men are fine, but many of the citizens are dead tired."
     Dead being the word that worried Gav. Based on all the reports, it seemed the quatics had abandoned their pursuit of Vorti's refugees and turned their attention toward Llam. But it could be a feint. That would not be the first time the quatics had done something like that. And if he called a halt and the quatics doubled back…
     "Slow the pace, but keep moving. We need to be at the Twin Cities before dusk." Depending on how long the quatics were delayed at Llam, the push on Merk and Xert could come as soon as in two or three days' time. Not nearly enough to put together a reasonable defense plan. But they would have no choice.
     Intelligence had been hard to come by during the hard journey south, but there were some things of which Gav was aware. There were estimated to be fewer than five thousand survivors of Vorti, of which about one-third were soldiers. Though the losses seemed staggering, they were actually better than Gav had expected. It remained to see whether they would be enough. The unexpected presence of an Apath within the quatic ranks had shifted the balance of power, and Eya had not been able to do as much damage as they had hoped. He had received no official word of her fate, but Gav had no choice but to assume she was dead.
     The same was true of the queen and her entire entourage, which included his fellow battle commanders. The collapse of the palace, as reported to Gav, had killed everyone in the area. There had been no time to search for Lea's body, but eyewitnesses had assured him that even if she had miraculously survived the fall, she would have been crushed under a mountain of debris. With Wil's fate and location unknown, that put Gav in a position he had never wanted to be in: King of Vorti. The sense of irony was bitter. After everything, Sor's first-born was on the throne. Only there was no throne left to sit on. Like Guc, he was a king without a city. Unlike Guc, at least he still had subjects left to rule.
     The king of Tsab's location was a mystery, but Gav didn't care where the man was or whether he had survived, although he was concerned about Meg. The seeress might still be useful, if she could be found.
     "General, an emissary from Xert to see you."
     A tall man dressed in impeccably polished plate mail approached Gav and dismounted to meet Vorti's general on equal footing. Gav had lost his steed during the battle and had refused to take another one. Most of his men walked; so too would he.
     "General Obv at your service, Sir," said the newcomer, executing a perfunctory bow. "I have come to discuss battle plans so we might be ready to make preparations. My queen has deputized me with full authority to make decisions. We rely on your wisdom in this matter. We have done as you requested in your missives before the battle, but we recognize things may have changed."
     Reflecting upon what his army had endured and what they had learned, Gav let out a deep sigh. "They have indeed, General. They have indeed."


© 2006 James Berardinelli

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