For Queen Mia of Xert, it was the saddest of times. She gazed around her throne room, the most lavish in all of Devforth, for what would be one of the last times. Aside from her small retinue of guards, she was alone in this vast chamber. Soon, the quatics would attack and all this - the place where so much of her life had transpired - would be reduced to rubble. Her messengers had informed her of what remained of Tsab and Vorti. She had no illusions about what would befall her city. Even if humanity stopped the quatics at Xert, or its sister-city across the river, Merk, the damage in lives and buildings would be catastrophic. It was almost more than she could bear thinking about.
     The throne room, with its vast ivory columns and vaulted ceiling inset with colored glass skylights, had witnessed many of the key events of Mia's life. It was here, at the age of nine, she had been presented before all of Xert as the officially heir to her long-lived mother. Six years after that, she had lost her virginity in the throne room, when she and her paramour had snuck in during the small hours of the morning because it would make their coupling "special." Mia assumed it had probably been "special" for him, since they had been caught in the act and he had been executed. For her, the memory was one of pain and humiMiation.
     Ten years ago, she had watched over the corpse of her mother in this very chamber. The old queen, also named Mia, had lived to a ripe old age. Two decades before her mother's death, Mia, as ambitious in youth as she had become complacent in middle-age, had longed for the queen's passing so she could assume the throne. However, by time her mother had passed into her next life, Mia was no longer as anxious to assume power. She enjoyed her role as wife to Prince Yar and mother to twin girls, but duty had called. One month after presiding over the burning, Mia was crowned as the rightful ruler of Xert. Her rule had been peaceful - until now.
     She had been trained and groomed as a queen for peace, not war. She understood diplomacy, law, justice, and philosophy, but not battle. Thus, she had all but ceded her authority to her generals, who at least seemed to understand how to proceed in these circumstances. She darly wished Guc of Tsab or Lea of Vorti could join her, but the former was missing and the latter was dead. Mia's only ruling ally was Nom, and the effete ruler of Merk was even more ill-equipped for these circumstances than she.
     Today, the queen looked haggard, showing every year of her five and one-half decades in this life. Her silver-gray hair was unkempt, her relatively simple clothing was wrinkled, and the dark circles under her eyes betrayed her lack of sleep. Had she seen herself in a looking glass, she – who had always been vain about her appearance – would have been appalled. Perhaps her time was at an end. Perhaps the reign of humanity as the dominating force in Devforth was coming to a close, as well. Maybe a century from now, this would be a land of quatics, with small ragged groups of human survivors eking out an existence. It was almost too much to endure.
     Mia refocused her eyesight on the here and now when she heard the echo of booted feet approaching. Her faithful chamberlain, Klo, who had served her from the day she had taken the throne, approached solemnly and bowed before her.
     "Your Majesty, the children have been taken to the harbor as you have commanded. The ship will sail at your word."
     Mia sighed, wondering for the dozenth time if this was the correct decision. Her advisors had been split. Some advised sending the twins to Merk then, if the battle was lost, fleeing by land to wherever the refugee camp was established. Others – those Mia had heeded – indicated the heirs to Xert's throne should be placed out of harm's way. Aboard a ship anchored just within sight of land, they would be safe from the quatics, although not from any of the violent storms that occasionally buffeted Devforth's southern coast. As yet, the ship had not sailed, but it was manned and ready for travel.
     "Thank you, Klo. Is there any word from Llam?"
     "None, Your Majesty. Our runners have not yet returned, which may mean battle has not yet been joined or they have been… intercepted."
     "And the party from Vorti."
     "They are on approach. General Obv, General Gav, and Chancellor… I mean King… Wil should be here within an hour. The non-combatant survivors of Vorti will cross the river and encamp west of Merk. The soldiers will join our forces to fend off the quatics when they come."
     "Is the evacuation complete?" asked Mia. At the advice of her generals, she had sent everyone across the river to Merk. It had been acknowledged that even in the best case scenario, Xert would fall. If the combined armies of Xert, Merk, and what remained of Vorti were defeated defending Xert, at least the river between Xert and Merk would delay the quatics' advance. There were only two permanent crossings, and those would be fired as soon as the retreating soldiers had made use of them.
     "All non-essential people have been moved across the river. Members of the militia and government are remaining. Most of Merk's army has crossed the river into Xert and is taking up positions per the plan devised by General Obv."
     Mia nodded. Before going to meet the survivors from Vorti, Obv, who was the overall commander of the joint armed forces of the Twin Cities, had devised a detailed plan that outlined the three likely phases of the upcoming battle. The great unknown, the General admitted, was how magic would come into play. It had been widely reported that during the attack on Vorti, the leader of the quatics had used a magical attack to counter the powers of Vorti's apaths. Eya had not survived and, for a while, it had been thought Wil also perished. Thankfully, that was not the case.
     Two hours later, that same Wil entered Xert's throne room in the company of his son, Gav; Genera Obv; and a contingent of other military leaders. Under different circumstances, Mia might have been shocked by his worn appearance and the condition of his clothing, which was ragged, bloodstained, and burned. Considering all that was happening, however, it barely registered with the queen. She was just happy to see someone who could provide answers to some of her more vexing questions.
     "Your Majesty," said Wil, his voice raspy. His bow was flawless.
     Mia rose from her chair and executed the customary curtsy. "Your Majesty," she responded, wondering if she was the first person to have thus addressed Wil.
     "Perhaps, perhaps not," said Wil. "We can quibble over titles later, though. For the time being, Queen Lea is presumed dead and Vorti's survivors must have a leader. Is there any word from Llam?"
     "None. I have a small army of scouts stationed along the southern coast all the way from here to Llam, but the only response thus far is silence."
     Wil considered for a moment. It was possible Grundig had not yet struck at the eastern city, or that he had eliminated Mia's scouts, but there was another disconcerting option. "Do you have scouts deployed to the north?"
     "To the north? No. Everything we know indicates…"
     "Everything we knew was that the quatics' first target would be Fels. It was Tsab. Everything we knew was that Merk and Xert would be attacked after Tsab. It was Vorti. The quatic leader, Grundig, is doing everything possible to take us unawares. The logical path for the quatics would be to Llam then Xert. But what if they bypassed Llam and looped around to attack not Xert, but Merk?"
     "Where all our citizens and your refugees will be…"
     Mia's blood turned to ice. "General Obv, see to it that all possible approaches to the west are watched by scouts. At the first sign of any unusual activity, we are to be informed."
     "Aye, Your Majesty."
     "What of Fels, King Wil? Can we expect aid from them?"
     "Unlikely. Fels is in a state of chaos and panic. Their goal appears to be self-preservation. But I no longer believe they are in league with the quatics."
     "And the wizards' school? Will they be sending Apaths to our aid."
     Wil grimaced. "What you see here," he indicated his raiment. "Is the result of the reception I received at the school. I think it unlikely we can hope for aid from them. What of Apaths in Merk and Xert? Have any come forward?"
     "In that case, we'll have to engage in a purely conventional battle with the quatics. My powers will be held back to counter Grundig's. When he attacks, I have to be at my strongest to have a chance of defeating him." Eya had been stronger and more offensively minded than Wil, but she had been beaten. Then again, having seen her remains, Wil was forewarned of how Grundig had eliminated her. No Apath would suspect their own magical defenses could be used against them. Had Eya been aware of the quatic's tactics, perhaps she would have triumphed. In terms of raw power, Wil could not match Eya, but he was more experienced and more knowledgeable, and he hoped that would give him an edge.
     "Without magic, it's going to be a close thing. We don’t know how effective the archers are going to be, and our strategy at the river is fraught with uncertainty. Nothing like that has ever before been attempted. If it works, we might have a chance."
     Wil understood. The third phase of Obv's battle plan was daring and innovative, but there was no guarantee it would work. If it didn't, the troops massed on Merk's side of the river would find themselves in close combat with a foe whose strength and ferocity they could not match. Wil, however, could not help. His battle was with Grundig. He was the only one who could stand against the quatic. If he lost, it might not matter how unique Obv's strategies were. If Grundig pushed himself to Burgeoning Apathy, he might be able to singlehandedly devastate the entire human army.

* * *

     Long past midnight, Sor, Lea, and Mika were lying together under a partial blanket of leaves, camouflaged from intruders and partially protected from the elements. It was a chilly night, but there was no rain. They had not caught up with Vorti's refugees, but it was plain they were following the right trail. With the onset of dusk, they had veered to the east to take shelter on the fringes of the Forest of Llam. Sleeping out in the open on the plains did not seem like a sound idea.
     Mika, exhausted by the physical and emotional exertions of the day, had fallen into a deep but troubled slumber. Sleep eluded both Lea and Sor. Eventually, they moved a short distance away so they could talk without disturbing their companion.
     "We should catch up to the main force during they day. The knowledge that their queen is alive should bolster their spirits," said Sor.
     Lea nodded, although Sor couldn't see the gesture in the darkness. She didn't feel alive. Since emerging whole from beneath rubble that should have crushed her, she felt fundamentally altered, as if something had was not the same. "I failed them. My people."
     "You did all you could. We knew going into the battle the odds were impossible, and that was before we found out about the quatic Apath." If not for him, they might have won. That thought stung Sor. The people of Vorti, from Eya to the lowliest solider, had acquitted themselves better than anyone expected, and it hadn't been enough. He feared a repeat at Llam and Xert.
     "The world will never be the same again. I may have survived today, but what about tomorrow? The day after? A week from now, I'll probably have joined my father."
     And I, mine, thought Sor. They hadn't kept grief at bay, but they didn't have the time or energy to confront the enormity of their losses. And they had each other. The fact Sor could feel Lea's warm breath on his neck as they huddled together for warmth was something.
     "You can summon your dead father?" asked Sor. Of all the strange things that had happened, that one shocked him the most.
     "Apparently. I don't understand it any more than you do," said Lea. "The first time I saw him – we all saw him – was at the coronation. After that, he would occasionally appear to me, usually when I was thinking about him and wondering what he would do. Then, when I was buried, I called out to him and he came. If I wanted to, I could call him to me now… maybe at the end, when all is lost, although I'm not sure what he can do. He's incorporeal and speaks like a seer. I have to puzzle out his riddle."
     "Do you think there's something anchoring him here? Some reason why he hasn't been allowed to proceed to his next life?"
     "I don't know," sighed Lea. "That's a question for Meg and Wil. I daydreamed through my metaphysics lessons. Right now, I'm so tired of thinking."
     Sor felt her shift against him in the darkness. Then suddenly, unexpectedly, warm lips brushed his. Almost involuntarily, he wrapped his arms around her and returned the kiss.
     "I want this," she murmured. "I don't want to die a virgin." The kiss resumed.
     In the back of his mind, he recalled her words after the rescue: "Whatever you ask shall be yours." Then there was only here and now, and the heat that had flared up in the darkness between them. For a brief time, Sor had his heart's desire and Lea found solace.
* * *

     Shortly after dawn, the trio resumed their journey south. There was little conversation. All were in reflective moods, and there was nothing in the interaction between Sor and Lea to indicate an increased intimacy. For his part, he knew what had passed between them did not constitute a promise the way it would have back in the palace, and their joining had been more desperate than pleasurable.
     Lea glanced at Mika, feeling guilty. It wasn't that she regretted the sexual encounter with Sor, but she knew how the other girl felt about him, and it seemed like a betrayal. She owed her life to both of them, not just him.
     "Mika. That's an odd name. Like me, is there an elf in your family?" asked Lea to break the silence when it had become oppressive to her. Mika didn't show signs of a part-elf lineage, but it could have happened many generations ago, with the name passed down from mother to daughter.
     "No, Your Majesty. I come from across the sea, where longer names are commonplace."
     "Across the… Beyond World's End?"
     "Mika and I already discussed this," interjected Sor, remember his previous conversation with Mika – the one that had ended with them almost doing what he and Lea had done. "Her parents' parents claim to have made the crossing."
     Mika frowned at his use of the word "claim."
     "But World's End can't be crossed. It's impossible." Lea was thinking back to childhood lessons about the great maelstrom called World's End that surrounded Devorth at sea on all sides. Any ship that tried to pass through it was torn apart. Scholars agreed there might be other lands beyond World's End, but attempts to pass through would end in death.
     "How is it that everyone on this continent is so close-minded about this? Our presence here is proof it's not impossible, but whenever we tell anyone, all we receive in return is ridicule."
     Suddenly, Lea was no longer listening. Her father's words were ringing in her ears: And do not doubt the most incredible story of all. Had he been counseling her about Mika?
     "I believe you," said Lea. Her mind was racing ahead. If World's End could be crossed in one direction, perhaps it could be crossed in the other. Maybe that was the way out – the way to escape the quatics. She had to discuss this with Wil. He had to be alive.
     "Thank you," said Mika. "You're the first person to have said that." She shot Sor a withering glance.
     The conversation was interrupted by a shouted command from the right that startled all three of them. Sor's sword was in his hand before he was aware he had drawn it. "Hold!" demanded the voice, one both Sor and Mika recognized.
     There, not twenty feet away, stood Tui, having emerged from his hiding position in the brush to challenge the interlopers. The moment he saw who it was, he sheathed his weapon and ran forward to embrace Sor in a bear hug. Mika's face showed signs of a smile while Lea's betrayed confusion.
     "Sor!" he whooped. "Mika! You're alive! You made it!"
     "Barely," said Sor after Tui had released him. "Obviously, you did as well. Are you with the main band?"
     "One of the rear guard. Not a deserter, if that's what you're wondering. Most of them are an hour or two ahead, approaching Xert. I was ordered back here to look for quatics and direct stragglers in the right direction. Imagine finding you two!"
     "Who's in command?" Lea asked the strange man who, based on his uniform, was a member of her militia.
     "Chancellor Wil, pretty lady," said Tui. Then, to Sor: "Won't you introduce your friend?"
     "I'm Lea of Vorti, your queen."
     At the words, Tui's smile melted away. Shocked, he glanced at Sor, who nodded silently in affirmation. Mika seconded the nod. Tui looked back at the woman who had addressed him. He had never seen the queen up close, but there was no doubting the resemblance. Although not entirely sure, Tui decided to play it safe, especially considering Sor's earlier claims. He dropped to one knee and intoned, "My apologies, Your Majesty. We were told you were dead."
     "This is Tui," said Sor. "We were friends in arms. He's a loyal soldier."
     "And a disreputable rogue," added Mika.
     "Rise, Tui," said Lea. "Take me to your commander."
* * *

     All through the day, the refugees from Vorti streamed through the eastern gate of Xert, passed along the main thoroughfare, and existed across the main western bridge to Merk. Wil watched this all from a position he had assumed upon the place ramparts. It was the highest point in the Twin Cities and it gave him the best view of the nearby terrain. It also provided him with solitude. Everyone of note was in the throne room, hammering out the final details of the battle plan that would soon be put into effect – if and when the quatics could be found. For his part, Wil needed some time alone to gather his thoughts and prepare himself for what was to come.
     There were tears in his eyes. For the first time in years, it hurt to lose someone or, in this case, three people: Reg, the boy he had helped raise to a man; Lea, the little girl he had been a father to; and Eya, his fellow Apath, friend, and lover. He loved all three; all three were gone. He had not been there to help them. Eya would put it differently, he knew. She would say his continued existence gave humanity one last chance. Wil didn't enjoy the burden such expectations brought, but it was not something he could escape.
     He had outlived his usefulness, he was sure. By rights, he should have died with Sor fifteen years ago battling the dwarves and the forces of Tsab. The wound caused by his wife's death had been fresh then; he would have gladly passed to the next life in hope of being reunited. That was not to be. By now, her spirit was in some other body. So, in a sense, he was fighting for her survival, even though he didn't know who she was. That realization gave him some comfort.
     Questions of life and death turned his mind to the puzzle of Sor, whose spirit, trapped in some limbo, occasionally made visits to the living. Wil had never heard of such a thing. He wished the wizards' school had remained pure. It was a question they would have loved debating and pondering. Old Muj would have found the riddle especially appealing, although Wil did not know if he retained enough wits for such puzzles. He had, after all, allowed Urv to go unchecked, leading the school and perhaps the entire city of Fels to ruin.
     The tears flowed freely now, blurring Wil's view of the landscape. He did not wipe them away. For whom was he crying? Himself, who had lost yet more of those dear to him? Lea, a promising young queen whose life had been snuffed out too early? Eya, who, despite his protestations, he had loved more than he realized? Lis, gone these many years but never forgotten? Or all of humanity, perhaps about to pass into history unless Grundig could be stopped.
     Therein lay the key to the future. It wasn't the quatics the humans had to fear; it was Grundig. By nature, quatics were violent, carnivorous scavengers. Grundig, set on genocide, had turned them into a lethal force. Remove the head and the snake would revert to form. Some quatics would return to the swamps. Others would live in the new lands they had conquered. But none would continue the war-to-the-death with humans. They would not sack Fels. They would not invade the forests and destroy the elves. At all costs, Grundig must be eliminated.
     "Are those for Eya or Lea or both?" asked a familiar voice at Wil's side. The wizard started, having been so lost in thought he hadn't heard anyone approach.
     "Both, I think. And perhaps for a few others," he told his son.
     "How bitter the irony that after all these years, you finally have the throne you sought in your youth," said Gav.
     "A burden I would gladly pass to another. I doubt it's a crown I'll wear for long, however. My battle with Grundig may end the same way Eya's did."
     "Or it may not. Don't think it lost before it has begun, or you will have no chance."
     "That sounds like something I would have said."
     "I'm my father's son."
     "Both your fathers' son."
     "I hate to ask the question, but have you given much thought to a successor?"
     Wil chuckled mirthlessly. "Who's left?"
     "If I trusted him, he might not be a bad choice. But, for all his fine qualities, he's a user and an opportunist. His goal is to rebuild Tsab. Vorti is of no consequence. He's the last one I would anoint as the successor to the legacy of Sor. And don't worry - you're the second-last. I made a promise to Sor to keep you from the throne, and I intend to keep that promise. I have another in mind."
     "Sor, the son of Reg and Bre. He learned at court, loved Lea with all his heart, unrequited though his feelings might have been, and believed in the ideals we espoused. And he's family of a sort. I can't think of a better choice."
     "Nor can I - if he's alive. I haven't seen him since the fall of Vorti."
     "There is that to consider, and no guarantee if he is alive, he'll still be in that enviable condition a day from now. Maybe I should name Mia's daughter the heir to Vorti. She'll be out on a boat during the last battle of this war and will likely have a better chance than any of us of surviving."
     "Unless a freak storm blows in off the ocean."
     "That won't happen," said Wil. "The eye of the storm will be here, on land."
     They were silent for a while, each lost in his own thoughts as they gazed over the only land they had known – a land that, after tomorrow, would never be the same. Perhaps it would be the scene where the quatics' revenge reached its climax. Or the calm, lovely pastures might be transformed into the blasted, bloody fields where humanity stood its ground and defied the odds. Either way, Xert and its environs would be laid waste.
     "Are the battle plans complete?" asked Wil after a while.
     "They're still arguing over details, but everything is worked out. I feel sorry for Mia. She understands nothing of this yet she has to sit there and pretend awareness. She knows her city is being sacrificed, though. It must be a terrible feeling."
     "Two decades ago, she was a spoiled bitch. Amazing what a few years of seasoning can do. I guess we're all like that, however. I can't believe I'm the same man who used to plot revolution in the fields of a little farm. How I hated Sor in those days. Now I think if I saw him in the flesh, I would embrace him as I would a brother. Two sides of the same coin, he and I. It's taken me all these years to realize it. I think he knew before he died, but not much before. Pig-headedness and stubbornness, those were two traits we shared. Imagine what a team we would have made!"
     "There's one question I never asked you, because it always seemed inappropriate. But now, with everything on the verge of ending…"
     "Did Sor love mother?"
     It was, Wil supposed, a natural question any son might ask: did my father love my mother? Nevertheless, it took the wizard by surprise.
     "No," he answered finally. "Sor and Lis never loved one another. They were doing their duty – in the bedroom and out of it. Sor only had one love, or two if you consider Mora separate from Joi. But he cared about Lis. That's why, in the end, he let her go with me."
     Wil chose not to add one detail: at the time, Sor didn't have a choice. His powers depleted by his attack on the nobility, he had no option but to let Wil take Lis. Had there been a confrontation, the king would have lost. But, all these years later, it hardly mattered. That past was dead. Wil, the only survivor of that era, would soon join the others living only through passages in history tomes – if anyone was around to write them.
     "Is that a man?" asked Gav, pointing skyward.
     At first, Wil though it was a bird but, as the shape grew more distinct as it began to descend, he recognized it was indeed a human. Because magic was required to fly, that meant the approaching figure was an Apath.
     When the newcomer was close enough for Wil to identify his features, the chancellor reached for his power, but did not unleash it – at least not immediately. There was danger here, but the need to have questions answered outweighed the risk of letting this person arrive safely. Muj, leader of the wizards' school in Fels, had come to Xert.

© 2006 James Berardinelli

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