PART FOUR: WORLD'S END
The moment Muj looked into Wil's eyes, he thought he was a dead man. To have struggled so mightily to survive, to have flown all that distance only to be killed by one of his own… Not that he would have blamed Wil for striking first, then asking questions. After what Urv had done to him, he would have been justified. However, Wil did not attack. He waited silently to see what Muj would do, but there was condemnation in his eyes.
With as much economy of words as he could manage, Muj explained the situation – how he had retaken control of the school after killing Urv then how the Apaths had headed south to challenge Grundig. It had not gone well.
"We knew he would be strong," said Muj, his voice barely louder than a whisper. He was an old man and his body had been taxed to the breaking point by the events of the day. It was a wonder his heart had not failed. "We expected it, but we thought we had the advantage of numbers. When we approached him, just outside the ruins of Llam, he held his army back and came to confront us, almost as if he didn't think we posed a threat. I was sure we could beat him and, by doing so, redress some of the wrongs we had done by staying out of the fight for so long.
"We did what we're taught to do when entering battle: erect magic shields. That was our undoing. How were we to know he would use them against us, collapsing them until they crushed the life out of us? I saw it a fraction earlier than my companions, early enough to drop the shields. Everyone else died, without doing any damage to Grundig. In no condition to duel him on my own, I fled. It was more important that I deliver the message of what happened than maintain the shreds of my dignity and die a meaningless death.
"Llam has fallen, and the damage absorbed by the quatics in taking it was minimal. Grundig split his forces while outside of the city. One portion approached from the west to cut off retreat while the main force launched the attack from up the coast, slightly inland. There couldn't have been more than a few dozen survivors, if that many. The battle - if it could be called that - was over by the time we arrived. They will be here tomorrow, more than 2500 strong."
Wil didn't know how to respond to this man. Once, Muj had been among the most revered Apaths, a living legend almost, second only in reputation to Sor. Now, he was a craven, foolish old man. His inattention had allowed Urv to seize control of the school. Then, a precipitious and poorly planned attack had robbed Devforth of its best chance of defeating the quatics. Finally, rather than facing Grundig and doing whatever damage he could before dying with honor, he had fled. As for the "intelligence" he brought, it was worse than useless. Llam's destruction had been certain; it was still unknown whether Grundig would launch his attack directly at Xert or sweep around at strike at Merk from the west. Muj had been so concerned with running away that he had not hung back long enough to provide that critical information.
"Do you ask for forgiveness?" asked Wil, his voice cold. Gav started, unaccustomed to hearing his father's voice so devoid of warmth.
"Your Majesty," Gav began. "This man…"
"Do not plead on my behalf, General," said Muj, his weak voice a fraction stronger. "I do not deserve it. You do not know how I have betrayed your father."
At least he took responsibility for that much, thought Wil. He looked closely at Muj. The man's face was covered in grime and blood. His wild mane of white hair was matted with it. His robes were in tatters, shredded even worse than Wil's had been when he regained Vorti's survivors. Wil's contenance softened. The man might be a coward and a fool, but at least he had made an attempt to redress his wrongs. Ill conceived though it had been, he had sought a confrontation with Grundig.
"Urv was your mistake," said Wil. "You knew what he was when you appointed him to that position and turned your back on the day-to-day running of the school. Had you not done that, all this might have turned out differently."
"I knew he was ambitious, but I never dreamed he would go to those lengths: forging an agreement with Grundig, having you imprisoned. He has paid for his sins."
"You have not paid for yours," said Wil.
"Not yet, but I will, and some day soon. I will fight alongside you when Grundig comes."
It was a gesture, Wil knew. Muj might be able to provide a distraction, but little more. Perhaps there was another way to use him…"You will not fight with me. Grundig would swat you aside like a flea. I must go against him alone. You will accompany the survivors as they flee from here, and offer your services to whomever emerges as the human ruler. An Apath, even one such as you, will provide an invaluable ally."
Muj nodded his acquiescence, saying nothing.
"Come with me. You can report directly to Queen Mia's war council. They will have questions for you."
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