THE PRICE OF TERROR


PART FOUR: WORLD'S END


CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX


     The black unconsciousness faded to bleak gray. Choking dust had settled all around, making it almost impossible to breathe the stale air. For a long time, as her eyes tried to penetrate the gloom, Lea could not decide if she was alive or dead. From the chest down, she had no sensation. From the chest up, the only thing she could feel was pain. Her breasts, her neck, her face – all felt as if they had been pummeled and abraded beyond human endurance. Underneath the thick coating of dust in her mouth, she could taste blood. Whether it was welling up from inside or merely the product of torn lips, she could not tell.
     Eventually, Lea acknowledged she was not dead – or at least not completely so, not yet. She was buried alive under a mound of rubble. How deeply, she could not tell. The miniscule amount of light reaching her watering eyes illuminated nothing. It was plain she was badly injured. One of her healers had once told her that a loss of feeling in the extremities could be caused by a broken back. If that was the diagnosis for the symptoms, Lea's back was broken, likely along with other bones. Her throat was parched, but there was no way to get water.
     Looking back on things, she regretted her stubbornness. Her advisors had argued that she should leave the city before the invaders arrived, rather than waiting behind to view the early phases of the battle. She had countered that the palace was strong enough to keep her safe, but no one had considered the possibility of an Apath among the quatics. The last thing she remembered was the ground giving way beneath her as she tumbled into darkness. By all rights, she should be dead. Everyone who had been with her, including her much-loved former tutor Jav, likely was.
     In the distance, she thought she could hear noise, but she was unable to identify what it was, or whether it was a figment of her imagination. She considered shouting for help, but the cry died in her throat when she realized the quatics could be on the prowl. It wouldn't do for her to be rescued if her rescuers were determined to kill her. But did she have a choice? Was there a way out of her predicament?
     "Father," she whispered. "I need you."
     Nothing. Closing her eyes to the grayness around her, she blocked out the pain of her flesh and focused on the nebulous image of her sandy-haired father, the phantom who had visited her on previous occasions.
     "I'm here, Lea," came the hollow voice. She could not see him, but she did not doubt his presence. "Summoning me is becoming easier for you."
     "I'm so scared," she said. "I'm trapped. I can't move. I'm dying."
     There was silence.
     "Father?"
     "Your assessment is correct. You are dying. But dying does not mean dead. You must use the powers you have inherited from your mother. They can save you, make you whole again. Remember your arm."
     "Powers? What powers?"
     "Be brave, my child. The most desperate hour is yet to come. And do not doubt the most incredible story of all." The voice was fading. Panic began to well up in Lea's chest.
     "What powers?" she screamed. "FATHER??"
     Then he was gone, and she quickly followed him into blackness. Her final thought as unconsciousness rolled in was that she would never again awaken.
     

* * *

     The cry shocked Sor out of the stunned state that viewing the collapsed palace had placed him in. "Where did that come from?" he yelled to Mika. She was already on her way to the source of the sound.
     "Here," she said, pointing at the rubble when Sor joined her. There was nothing to indicate someone might be buried there, but Sor began shifting rocks anyway. Fortunately, this part of the castle had taken the brunt of the magic attack and most of the debris was in small pieces and easily shifted. With Mika helping him, it didn't take long to uncover the body.
     Even though she was covered by dirt, Sor knew her the moment her face was revealed. His heart skipped a beat. Then, when he saw that her chest was rising and falling, he let out a deep breath. His queen was alive. But how badly was she hurt?
     Mika had bent next to her. "Your Majesty?" she whispered.
     Lea's eyelids fluttered open. She could see. There was light. More miraculously, she could feel her whole body. And there was no pain. "My mother's powers," she murmured, echoing the last words her father had spoken to her. Then she noticed the two who were standing over her: the other Sor, her faithful guardian, and a girl she had never before seen.
     "Lea? Can you hear me?" asked Sor.
     The queen nodded. She struggled to sit, and, with the help of the girl, she managed it.
     "Are you hurt?" It seemed like a stupid question, considering her circumstances, but Lea looked fine - dirty, but otherwise unharmed.
     "I'm alive," she said. Sor couldn't tell whether she was stating a fact or trying to believe the impossible. "And my injuries are gone."
     "Gone?" echoed Sor.
     "I was dying, and I saw my father. He told me to trust in the powers I inherited from my mother, then I lost consciousness. Now I'm healed. Sor, who was my mother?"
     He looked at her helplessly. "I'm sure I don't know more about her than you do. Eya never spoke of her."
     "Where is Eya?" There was a note of urgency in Lea's voice as she became aware of the circumstances.
     Sor shook his head. "I don't know. I was looking for her. Or my father. Or my sister. I can't find any of them. The only one I found was my mother, dead in our house."
     Wordlessly, Lea gripped his arm. "The quatics… what happened?"
     "They overran the city, Your Majesty," said Mika. "Then headed south after the survivors."
     "What time is it?"
     "Well past noon, Your Majesty," said Mika. "Twilight will be upon us soon."
     "Lea, can you stand? We can't remain here. As dangerous as it is to travel by night, we cannot remain here. The quatics, or a faction of their army, may return." Finding Lea had returned a sense of equilibrium to Sor. Now he had a purpose. If he couldn't find his family, at least he could protect the woman he had loved since he had been a child."
     Leaning on Mika, Lea rose. She was almost surprised to discover that her legs supported her – legs she had been unable to feel as recently as a few moments ago. What had her mother been?
     "Just a moment," Lea said. Closing her eyes, she concentrated on her father's face. Each time she did this, as he had predicted, it became easier.
     Sor gasped in shock as the dead king's image shimmered into view. Mika was surprised but, because she didn't know who the shade was, the full impact was lost on her.
     "From one Sor to another," said the ghost. "My thanks. You have saved my daughter."
     Sor's eyes were so wide they looked ready to explode.
     "Father, who was my mother?"
     "Ask your chancellor," said the king. "He knows the tale. I have little time, and there are more important things to speak of. You must not summon me again except in great need. Each time you do so, you further weaken the boundaries between life and death, and those must remain sealed lest all manner of horrors be visited upon Devforth.
     "Eya and her brother are dead, slain by the quatic who calls himself Grundig. Within him resides the embittered essence of my first chancellor, Vas. You must make haste to the south. Rejoin your people and await Wil. He will aid you if he survives. Remember my earlier council: do not doubt…" Then, without warning, he was gone. This time, unlike during past encounters, he did not fade away, but winked out in an instant.
     "This is damn frustrating," muttered Lea. "He talks like Meg." Then she realized the blow her father's words had delivered to Sor.
     He was standing stock-still, all the blood having rushed from his face. He couldn't decide which was more shocking – the news of his father and aunt's deaths, or the means by which he had found out. Mika went to Sor's side and put an arm around him. Lea did not miss the significance of the gesture, even if Sor did. The queen reached up to brush a tear from the young man's cheek. In all the time they had spent together, this was the first instance when she had seen him weep.
     "My father," she said simply by way of explanation. "He has been trapped between life and death since he fell in the last war. Carnage makes him easier to summon."
     "How reliable are his words? Can what he says be trusted?"
     Lea knew what he was asking. She replied as gently as she could: "He speaks only of that which he knows, and it often isn't much. But he would not say something if he did not know it to be a fact. I'm sorry, Sor. I feel your loss. Eya was like a mother to me." She didn't add, And perhaps our greatest chance for victory. Yet Wil might still be alive. At least there was that hope. She was a queen, and it was time for her to make a decision.
     "We must go south. We're all grieving, but there isn't time for tears. We have to find the army, find Wil. Then maybe we can start making sense of what happened." She looked Mika in the eyes, but the girl averted her gaze. "What is your name?" asked Lea.
     "Mika, Your Majesty."
     "To you, as much as to Sor, I owe my life. When this is over, if I survive, whatever you ask shall be yours."
     
* * *

     For the past two hours, as they moved closer to the Twin Cities, Gav and his counterpart, Obv, had been discussing strategy, and how the refugees from Vorti, as well as the citizens of Merk and Xert, might be saved. It was a bleak picture. At best, an armed force of four thousand men could be mustered, and that included many people who had no business wielding weapons. Past experience indicated that would not be enough – not against a force of three-quarters as many quatics. And now there was their opponents' apath to take into consideration.
     Despite having been sired by one wizard and raised by another, Gav didn't understand their limitations. And, without that knowledge, it made planning difficult. If ever he needed his father's aid and advice, it was now. But Wil, like Eya, was missing. The reality was that both might be dead.
     Vorti's survivors were moving at a crawl and, with the sun closing in on the horizon, it appeared unlikely they would reach Xert before dusk. Part of Gav wanted to keep the long, straggling line moving after dark, but common sense indicated that was a bad move. His scouts had confirmed that the quatics were not in pursuit. They had apparently decided to remove the irritant of Llam before marching west. Gav hoped King Siv had the good sense to call an evacuation before it was too late. If the Vorti/Merk/Xert armed forces could be supplemented by a thousand men from Llam, their chances of survival would increase.
     "Are there any known apaths in either Merk or Xert?" asked Gav.
     "None our rulers are aware of. Of course, many of their kind prefer to remain anonymous. Recognizing that, Queen Mia has pleaded for any hidden apaths to come forth. Thus far, no one has."
     Gav grunted. The prospect of battling a quatic wizard with out any means of mounting a magical defense was not a pleasant prospect. Most of the damage done to the quatic army had been caused by Eya. Without a weapon like her…
     Another problem with defending the Twin Cities was the evacuation. Once Merk, the westernmost of the two, fell, there was nowhere else for humanity to flee. The question then became whether the best approach was to decide on a rallying place where the survivors could attempt another stand or whether to scatter across the continent in the hope that small pockets of humans might stand a better chance of survival. Gav could envision a scenario in which the fortunes of the humans and quatics were reversed. The quatics would become Devforth's dominant life form while the humans were forced into hiding.
     And what would the elves do? Would they emerge to fight or hide in their forests and only confront that quatics on their own terms? Thus far, the aggressors had been careful not to invade any elf territories, thus reducing the likelihood of having to engage in a two-pronged war. But that wouldn't last forever.
     "Gav, isn't that…?" began Obv, pointing skyward.
     Gav's eyes followed the other man's finger until he saw a flying human being coming in for a landing. He let out a heartfelt sigh. It was Wil.
     The chancellor's haggard, bloody appearance shocked Gav. He had never seen his father appear so weak or old. But, despite the guant frame, pale complexion, and shredded clothing, Wil was alive. It was the first good thing that had happened since Eya had begun to systematically wipe out divisions of the quatic army.
     Hunrdreds of eyes were fixed on Wil as he alighted next to his son and the general from Xert. Although nearly everyone present knew of the chancellor's reputation, few had seen him practicing the art of magic. To see a man flying like a bird was the kind of thing that, in less serious times, would have set tongues to wagging. Now, it merely resulted in gaping mouths.
     No pleasantries were exchanged. "Eya is dead," said Wil without preamble, his voice hoarse and ragged. "I didn't know if you were aware of that."
     "We suspected, but didn't know for sure. The quatics have an Apath. When she attacked their army with magic, there was a counterattack. She couldn't have been prepared for it. None of us were."
     "I felt her death. And I know about him. He calls himself Grundig, and he's no ordinary apath. He has the body of a quatic, but somewhere, buried deep within him, is the spirit of Chancellor Vas, the man who betrayed Kan and Sor.
     "What of Lea?"
     "We don't know," said Gav. "We think she fell, but we don't know for sure. There's so much confusion, but she's not among the refugees. Several men say they saw her fall to her death when the quatic blasted the castle walls with magic, but no one has seen a body, and we couldn't stay in Vorti to search for one." He paused. "By Lea's terms of succession, that makes you the king."
     It was a sobering thought and Wil blinked in surprise, but Gav was right. Eya was Lea's heir, and she was dead. He came second. That meant that he was Vorti's ruler. Or at least the ruler of Vorti's surviving populace. The irony of the situation was not lost to him. Decades after challenging Sor for the crown, it was his.
     "Tell me the situation," demanded Wil.
     As succinctly as possible, Gav filled him in on the key events that had occurred since the quatics marched on Vorti. He concluded with, "So we're relying on the Twin Cities' walls and a slight advantage in numbers to fend off the quatics. But the walls aren't that strong, and only the best of our people can match the quatics one-for-one – and there aren't many of those."
     "So we need a miracle," said Wil. "Maybe I can provide one. If I can take out as many as Eya did, we'll have a chance. And if I can push this quatic apath to the brink of his powers, we'll have more than just a chance."
     Of course, the difficulty lay in accomplishing either feat. Even using Eya's emotion-sifting trick, such mass expenditures of magic demanded the kind of stamina Wil's aging body no longer possessed. He recalled how drained he had been 15 years ago after the defeat of the dwarves and Tsabians and, on that occasion, he had merely been assisting Sor.
     Yet the king had persevered. He had not survived the night, but he had accomplished magical feats Wil would have believed impossible had he not witnessed them. Was he Sor's equal? The chancellor did not doubt that he could – and probably would – give his life, but would that be enough?
     "Can we expect any help from Fels?" asked Gav.
     "None. I don't know whether there's an alliance between the city and the quatics, but no one is going to venture outside the walls. As for the wizards' school – we have been betrayed. Their leader has made a pact with the quatics. I don't know the details, but they tried to imprison me. We can only hope they won't actively help the quatics. If they do…" he left the thought unsaid.
     "The only other variable is the elves. Have we heard anything?" asked Wil.
     "Eya held an audience with an ambassador before Vorti fell. She was tight-lipped about what happened, but said we shouldn't expect help from them. They may be biding their time, planning to engage whatever part of the quatic nation we fail to eliminate."
     "Or it may be that the quatic leader has made pacts with or exerted magical influence over key elf decision makers. There have been numerous betrayals." The opening of the gates of Tsab sprang to mind, and that reminded Wil of something.
     "Where is Guc?" he asked.
     Gav shrugged. "I haven't seen him since we quitted Vorti. I assume he's among the refugees. I can't see him risking his life as a meaningless gesture. He's a survivor. No doubt he's plotting how to crown himself king of whatever human nation emerges from this massacre."
     "Is Meg with him?
     "She was."
     "I'd like to speak with her. With or without her powers, she may be able to answer a few questions. See if you can locate the King of Tsab and his charge."
     
* * *

     Guc fingered the blade of his dirk absently as he considered whether or not to use it to slit Meg's throat. In the flight from Vorti, it had become increasingly evident she was a hindrance. The question was whether she had enough value to balance out the disadvantages of bringing her along. A seeress without her sight was useless, but if that sight returned, it could be a boon beyond all others.
     They were camped outside of the Forest of Llam, resting in a small grove of trees without fire. Guc did not want to upset the elves, who regarded flames as a tool to burn wood, especially since he planned to request sanctuary among them. Under these circumstances, it was unlikely he would be refused, but it was best to act respectfully.
     "Have we stopped for the night?" asked Meg.
     "Aye," said Guc wearily. "We'll move again at dawn. The elves should give us sanctuary from this madness."
     Meg grunted in an unladylike manner. "It's difficult to guess what the elves will do. One of my last visions indicated some of their kind would be more likely to aid the quatics than the humans. I'm still trying to puzzle out the meaning of that revelation."
     "What's the likelihood that your sight will return?" asked Guc.
     "Much depends on why I have lost it," said Meg. "I have been pondering that in great detail since I returned to awareness. I believe I may now understand a possible cause."
     "And what does it auger for the future? Are you a seeress or just a blind woman who needs to be led around by the hand?"
     Meg shrugged. "Perhaps neither. There are advantages to blindness. It allows me to reflect on old visions without being hampered by new ones. The way I was, the flood of information was often too intense for me to be able to weed out details, and small things are often the keys to great visions. They can be the missing pieces to a puzzle, and I am beginning to see the full picture. There are things about Wil and Sor that have never been clearer to me than they are today."
     "Sor? The dead king? How can he be relevant to what's happening today. He died fifteen years ago."
     "Yes. But the dead are no longer bound, and I believe Sor's death is the reason for this. I cannot say more to you. Make up your mind about whether or not you're going to kill me, then we can decide what to do next." There was impatience in her tone. "You think I cannot hear you toying with your knife?"
     Surprised, Guc stopped running his finger across the blade. "Would you rather I left you alone to fend for yourself against the quatics?"
     "I can see how you believe ending my life would be a kindness, if that is the other choice."
     "Can you offer me an alternative? The faster and further I need to flee, the more of an encumbrance you become. That's the reality of the situation. A quick, clean death must have more appeal to you than being left alone to be torn apart by those monsters."
     "Flight is not the only option. We can follow the path hinted at in my visions: a path that may yet bring you to glory."
     Guc's lips curled into a mirthless smile, although he knew Meg couldn’t see it. "So you play on my ego and hopes for the future to save your life?"
     The seeress shook her head. "What 'life' do I have to look forward to? I do not fear death. I am denied the pleasures others take for granted. If my sight returns, I will be in the future as I was in the past - a servant to it. If it does not return, I will be bereft and dependant upon others. Many in my circumstances would embrace the cut of your knife."
     "If I follow your 'path,' where will it take us?"
     "Immediately, to the Twin Cities. That is where the survivors will be gathered, awaiting the final clash. There are things I must tell Wil - things that will alter how he approaches what is to come."
     "What if you're wrong? What if the picture you're seeing is a fabrication of your imagination?"
     Meg regarded him coldly with her scarred sockets. Guc felt his nape hairs stand on end. She seemed to be looking into him.
     "Are you seeking guarantees, Guc of Tsab? I have none. The future is not immutable, and many of the variables I am considering may no longer be as they were when the visions were revealed to me. Yet consider this: the future of humankind on Devforth may rest on your decision."
     "We need to sleep. Or at least I do. We can't travel at night, anyway. I'll give you my decision at first light."
     Without another word, Meg lay on her side and curled into a fetal position - her normal way of sleeping. Guc sheathed his dirk, not yet convinced he wouldn't use it, and reclined on his back, with a folded cloak pillowing his head. In the blackness of the nighttime forest, with the stars hidden from view by the canopy of trees, the king of Tsab was as blind has his charge. The sound of a multitude of insects filled the night, but it was not their noise that kept sleep at bay. Rather, it was the enormity of the responsibility Meg's last words had placed upon him.
     Guc was no hero. He didn't believe in heroes, at least not in the conventional sense. People acted in their best interests, and if that happened to coincide with the completion of some great deed, then a hero was born. But heroes often died completing their tasks, and Guc was not ready for death. Meg's hints of glory were tantalizing, but her statement that the fate of his race might depend on his actions weighed heavily upon him. His best chance of survival probably lay in becoming Guc the hermit, but the part of him that was royalty rebelled at the notion. He was meant to rule, not skulk in a forest.
     During the deepest, darkest time of the night, Guc drifted into a fitful, dream plagued sleep. When the first rays of sunlight filtering through the leaves awoke him, he felt tired and unrested.
     Next to him, Meg was sitting quietly, cross-legged. When she heard him stir, she bent back her head, exposing her naked neck to him. Guc couldn't decide whether it was an act of defiance or an invitation. Perhaps she wanted to die. Maybe the easy path for both of them would be for him to slit her throat, then disappear into the forest, seeking shelter with the elves in the hope that some day he might be able re-emerge and reclaim a kingdom.
     "Let's go," said Guc. "If the Chancellor is still alive, we'll find him."
     The die had been cast, the decision made. If the fate of humanity rested upon Guc of Tsab making the decision he had just chosen, perhaps there was still hope for Devforth. Yet the king wondered if he had signed his death warrant. Was it truly better to die as a hero than live as a coward?


© 2006 James Berardinelli

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