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."

* * *

     After spending several hours in battle sessions with the generals, Wil decided he could best serve the war effort by getting a few hours' sleep. Battling Grundig would be an enormous task, and the better rested her was, the more focused he would be. Besides, he was not a tactical genius. There was little he could add to the discussions that would not have been considered by Urv, Gav, or someone else. His primary contribution thus far had been to indicate how magic might be used, but there were so many variables in that equation that his inability to be more definitive had frustrated the generals. Now, Muj was on hand to be equally unhelpful and unenlightening.
     At the time he retired to one of the palace's guest bedrooms, at least one missing piece had been put into the puzzle. One of Xert's sentries had reported in, confirming Muj's intelligence: Llam had fallen. The quatics were in the process of pillaging, but it looked as if they were being assembled to move out. Expectations were that they would arrive at the Twin Cities on the morrow, provided they followed the expected route. Wil did not think that was a safe assumption, but Mia now had all possible cross-continent paths being monitored as far north as Fels.
     Wil drifted into a restless slumber; he did not think he had been asleep long when there was a knock at his door. He was immediately awake and alert. "Come in."
     He was surprised to see Queen Mia, although he shouldn't have been. While it was true that awakening a visitor was not a "queenly" duty, there were no servants left in the palace to fulfill that function. Besides, it had likely given Mia a reason to be excused from the war council, if only for a brief time.
     "Wil, come with me. It's urgent." There was something in her voice that, because he did not know her well, he could not place. Stress? Excitement? Anxiety? He was on his feet instantly. Since he had gone to bed dressed, not even removing his boots, there was nothing to take off or put on.
     The route through the palace corridors took several moments, but Mia was not willing to reveal more except that Wil's immediate presence was necessary. Someone, he assumed, had arrived. When they entered through the rear door to the throne room, he found out who that "someone" was.
     Lea had been waiting for him and, the moment she saw her chancellor, she threw herself into his arms. His heart soaring as it had not in more days than he could remember, he enfolded her into an embrace, tears stinging his cheeks. Suddenly, the complexion of the war had changed. His queen was alive.
     Shortly thereafter, once a round of basic questions had been addressed, Lea and Wil were seated alone in one of Mia's sitting rooms. Vorti's queen had requested privacy - there were things she wanted to discuss that could not be made public - and Mia provided this space.
     As they sat side-by-side, Lea allowed Wil to probe her body with her mind, confirming that no hidden injuries lingered from her ordeal under the palace rubble. She felt whole, but both she and Wil believed it was best to be certain. What he discovered astounded him. What had transpired during the short period he had been gone?
     "What is it?" she asked upon seeing his expression. "Is something amiss?"
     "Not exactly 'amiss,' Your Majesty." He hesitated. She did not know, so he continued with as much gentleness as he could muster. "You're pregnant. The child is very tiny - barely even conceived - but I can feel its lifeforce." Having watched Gav grow within Lis on a continual basis, Wil was familiar with the unique signature of a child, and there was no mistaking its presence within Lea. New and fragile, it was at the point when it could be snuffed out without the mother noticing.
     Lea blushed. "Oh my," she said. "I hadn't intended for that to happen."
     Wil raised an eyebrow. It was not the response he had expected. "It appears we won't have the same problem we had with your father. His unwillingness to produce an heir was legendary. May I ask who the father is?"
     The name Wil was dreading was not spoken. "It's Sor," Lea said. "It seems so childish now, by the light of day, but last night, when I thought we might not see another sunset, I gave him my virginity. It wasn't memorable. He didn't know what he was doing, so it didn't last long, and the thought of becoming pregnant wasn't something I considered. I guess that settles the issue of who will be the next king of Vorti. If there's going to be a Vorti to be king of."
     Lea and Sor - the match he and Eya had worked so hard to arrange over all these years. Fate had a sense of irony. Wil would spit in its face if it would make any difference.
     "As momentous as this is, Your Majesty, it is something to be addressed at a later time. First, we have to secure the continuation of our race. For now, to keep him close to you without revealing the real reason, we'll appoint him as your personal bodyguard. Knowing how he feels about you, I doubt there will be an objection."
     "There's a complication," said Lea. "I'm not the only woman in Sor's life. Mika - the girl who arrived with us - has feelings for him. I don't know if they're reciprocated, but I owe her my life as much as I owe it to him. I want the three of us to stay together."
     "Done," said Wil. "How you manage this is up to you, but I'll make sure Mika remains with you. The important thing now is to get you to Merk so you can join the refugees in case a full evacuation is needed." In case Xert falls, which it surely will. The thought crept unbidden into Wil's mind. Only then did he realize how foolish it was to believe the humans could win the battle. Even with their ingenuity and spirit, the odds were too great. A westward flight from Merk into a nomadic existence was almost a certainty.
     "The plan has changed, at least for me. Queen Mia has granted me the use of ten of her ships – the bulk of her seaworthy fleet. Each can transport 50 people."
     "You intend to join her daughters in waiting out the battle at sea." Wil considered the wisdom of the plan. It made some sense. The danger of sea storms was minimal, but there was the question of where the ships would land once the harbors of Xert and Merk were destroyed. Most of Devorth's coast was rocky. Aside from the port cities, three of which had been leveled, there was no place where a small fleet could dock.
     "Princesses Ion and Eon are welcome to accompany us, be we intend to go further than their mother plans for them to go. We will attempt to cross World's End and find a new place for our people to settle."
     Wil was incredulous. "Cross World's End? Have you taken leave of your senses?"
     Inwardly, Lea almost smiled. She had inadvertently cracked Wil's unflaggingly respectful demeanor toward her. He sounded more like Eya. "Careful, Chancellor. I'm no longer the little girl you used to take across your knee when she misbehaved. In fact, I have carefully considered this decision. I have thought of little else since it occurred to me."
     "I beg your forgiveness for my outburst, Your Majesty," said Wil, not sounding apologetic or chastened. "But what has made you believe such a desperate action is warranted? Battle against the quatics, even if we lose here, is not as sure an act of suicide as navigating a ship across World's End. There's a reason why it has that name."
     "Chancellor, I defer to your wisdom in most matters, but this is one in which neither you nor I have firsthand knowledge. We believe World's End cannot be crossed because we have been told it cannot be crossed. Yet there is someone who disputes that."
     "Presumably, you have met this person and are convinced of the legitimacy of their claim?"
     "It's Mika. According to her, her parents' parents were among a group of survivors who crossed World's End from a distant land and ended up in Devforth. There's no doubt she believes the story, and I can't think why her family might make up something like that."
     "You're thinking about risking the lives of 500 people on this basis? A story that may have been told to a girl to make her feel special or to put her to sleep at night?"
     "There's something more - the thing that convinced me this is a risk worth taking. My father appeared to me twice in Vorti, and reminded me of an early admonition. His words: 'Do not doubt the most impossible story of all.' When I heard Mika's tale, an… intuition… told me that was what my father was referring to."
     Wil shook his head. He still didn't know what to make of messages from King Sor beyond the grave. Could they be trusted? Or was he just inventing roadblocks to put in Lea's way because he didn't trust the possibility that another fundamental cornerstone of his world-view was under assault. First, the concept that the barrier between life and death might be eroding. Now, this…
     "I would take only volunteers," continued Lea. "Everyone would be free to choose their own way. There would be no conscripts. Either way is a chance. Even if we get past World's End, we don't know what will be waiting on the other side. Maybe thriving cities. Maybe a wilderness to tame. Maybe a hostile army that would subjugate or destroy us."
     "You know I cannot go with you. I am the last barrier to dominance of this land by Grundig."
     "I know. Sor and Mika have agreed to accompany me. Other than that, it will be a choice each person has to make – at last up to the first 500 of them. But I will not go if you say I should not."
     Lea was his queen, but she was also still a girl, barely into adulthood. She wanted affirmation from the man who had been, for all intents and purposes, her father.
     "It is your decision to make, Lea. I won't deny I'll fear for your life and well-being if you embark upon this journey, but I can't guarantee it would be safer to stay. If I perish before Grundig can be stopped, it may be that every human being in Devforth will be hunted to extinction. So perhaps your plan offers hope. And how can I doubt the word of a king who has found a way to cheat death?"
     She hugged him tightly then rose. "I have preparations to make."
     Moments later, Wil was sitting alone. Vorti was once again about to lose her queen. This time, at least in this land, it would be forever. For Wil's part, he had no doubts that, once Lea set sail, it would be the last time in this life he would see her. Her road ahead was murky, but his was all-too-clear.
* * *

      The "battle" for Llam had been a direct contrast to the conflict at Vorti. Despite the futile and foolish intervention of a bunch of badly motivated and uncoordinated wizards, Grundig had triumphed in his latest conquest. Taking Llam had required less than 100 quatic casualties – less than envisioned in Grundig's most optimistic prediction. As for the Apaths – they had proven to be no challenge at all. One had escaped, but the rest had been easily dispatched. Following some standard procedure for engagement, they had raised their shields at once, and it had taken little effort to cause them to implode. It was proof that no matter how powerful an individual was, if they did not understand war, they should stay out of battle.
     Grundig doubted there were many more significant obstacles standing between his army and a final victory. The humans would make their climactic stand at Merk. There, Grundig's force would clash with the remnants of Vorti's militia integrated into the armies of Xert and Merk. However, with little in the way of magical support, the battle should be straightforward. After that, it would be a matter of hunting down the refugees and eliminating Fels. The elves would also have to be dealt with, but that could wait until his army had regrouped and healed. Defeating the tree-dwelling creatures would not be a challenge: he would use magic to burn down the forests and slaughter the elves as they fled their flaming homes.
     So why did Vas' voice continue to warn him of the perils of overconfidence?
     "My Lord Prophet," said Krungron, approaching cautiously. "The army is ready to move at your command."
     Dusk was coming fast; if the army departed now, they would arrive at Xert before midnight, but after nightfall. There were too many uncertainties about a night battle for Grundig to seek one out. Humans could not see as well as quatics in near darkness, but the superior army should never seek adverse conditions for a fight unless it provided a clear tactical advantage. The better alterative was to begin the march shortly before sunup and arrive at the Twin Cities in the early morning. With a force as massive as the one he traveled with, surprise was not an option. Let the humans know he was coming. Let them tremble at the approach of death. Fear could be as potent as surprise if it was used properly. It had been that way at Tsab.
     "Let them encamp for a while and take their leisure. Flesh, drink, and rest. They may enjoy the spoils of Llam in a way they were disallowed from enjoying Vorti." Some day, they would return to that city, but that day was not today. In particular, Grundig wanted to dig out Queen Lea's body so he could gaze upon her lifeless form. Nothing less would satisfy his bloodlust where she was concerned. "Have them assembled to begin the march at two hours before dawn. We will engage the enemy before the sun reaches its zenith. By the end of the next day, I want both Xert and Merk to be blackened husks, filled with the burning bodies of our dead enemies. No quarter will be given, as none was given to us in the days of Garvad. We will not repeat his mistake. It will be my mission for all of my days to ensure that this continent is purged of all humans and elves. As long as even a tiny band of those creatures remains, our future is not secure. Dwarves, trolls, and other creatures may continue to exist as they currently do, but every elf and human must be eliminated, even those who believe themselves to be our allies."
     Grundig could tell his words made little impact upon his son. Krungron, like most quatics, was concerned only with basic appetites. He was a follower. They were all followers. That was why the quatics had remained inactive in the marshes for so many centuries, awaiting the arrival of a leader.
     "You may go and join the others," said Grundig. "But be sure they are ready on time, or I will hold you personally responsible." The accented word was enough to make Krungron pale. Grundig was his father, but that would not save his life if he failed to obey a command.
     The one variable still to concern Grundig was whether there were yet any Apaths alive, beyond the craven one who had fled from the confrontation at Llam. His spy in Fels had assured him that the most dangerous one, Wil of Vorti, was dead, but there might be others. The humans knew this would be their last stand – they would use every weapon at their disposal. It wasn't wizards like the fools at Llam that concerned Grundig; it was cunning ones like the female who had nearly undone his army at Vorti. Not all Apaths were stupid. His missing arm was proof of that. At Xert, he would hold back until he had identified the magical component of his opponents' defense, or ascertained there was none. It would not make a difference for the upcoming battle, but Grundig had no wish to throw away needless lives.
     Twilight was fast approaching. For the humans, this would be the last sunset that would see them as the dominant species of Devforth.
* * *

     "Chancellor, have you made peace with my decision?" asked Lea, approaching Wil, who was watching the sun descend toward the horizon from his solitary perch atop the palace ramparts. Had it been anyone but her, he would not have welcomed the interruption, but there was no one dearer to his heart than this girl-woman.
     "It is your decision, Your Majesty. The future is too cloudy for me to say whether or not it is the correct one. I must admit relief that Muj has agreed to accompany you. He is not a strong Apath, but any magic is better than none when navigating the maelstrom."
     "I have named Gav as my successor, although he will probably not be king. It was going to be Sor, but he is coming with me. There are so few worthy candidates left alive who are staying in Devforth… Even if we triumph, it would make more sense for the humans to congregate in the least damaged cities – Fels and perhaps Merk. Still, the people of Vorti should have a leader, if in name only, until they have assimilated into whatever new society arises. There is no one better than Gav. I wish you had agreed to accept the position, though."
     "I am too old, Lea. Even if I survive the battle, it will take its toll upon me. I will not be a fit leader." He did not add that he had no expectations of living. Every fiber of his being told him this was the last time he would see the sun set in this body. But Lea did not need to hear that. She had enough troubles of her own. Let her sail away from Devforth with the hope that her chancellor could defeat Grundig and live out the rest of a long life as a valued advisor in a new human order.
     "I miss Eya," said Lea, tears pooling in her eyes. "And I miss you, even though we're not yet parted. I feel as if I'm being slowly broken into pieces, bit by bit."
     "One age ends, another begins. I have been through this before. It was thus when your father destroyed the nobles, and again when he died. Life does not accommodate stability. You will find another life across the seas, and you do not go alone. Many of your faithful servants will be with you, as well as your future husband and your new best friend, Mika."
     "What of Guc?" asked Lea. Since her return, this was the first time she had mentioned her former fiancé.
     Wil shrugged. "No one knows where he is. Probably still with Meg, gone to ground somewhere. He's a survivor and an opportunist. I can't rule out the possibility that he's dead, but I think it unlikely."
     "Will Meg be safe with him?"
     "I don't know. Eya placed a minor compulsion upon him when he arrived with her at the palace. It bound him to her. But I suspect the compulsion died with her."
     "I never knew that," said Lea. Suddenly, Guc's desire to remain close to Meg and his unexpected protectiveness were explained. It had been magic, not a change in personality. And to think, she had almost believed Guc was falling in love with the seeress.
     "Only she and I knew. She felt it was the best way to safeguard Meg and keep Guc from becoming too meddlesome. Now, we have to hope he sees an advantage in keeping a blind seeress with him. I can think of many reasons, but I don't know if any would occur to him."
     "Whatever else he may be, Guc is no fool."
     "On that, we agree. It's a few of his other characteristics that divided us."
     After a few moments of companionable silence, Lea said, "I'm afraid I'm needed below. We sail at dawn. I trust you'll be at the harbor to see us off."
     "Of course."
     "Then I'll leave you to your thoughts. Good night, Chancellor."
     Wil remained on his high perch until after the last vestiges of sunlight had vanished from the western sky, lost deep in thoughts of the past, present, and future. With the stars twinkling brightly above, he turned with a sigh and made his way down the stairs. He nearly collided with Gav.
     "Father, you'll never believe who just showed up at the gates, demanding entrance."
     "Guc," responded Wil. Somehow, after his conversation with Lea, it made sense.
     "How did you know? You couldn't have seen him. It's dark outside."
     "A lucky guess. Is he alone or is Meg with him?"
     "She's with him, and she is requesting an audience with you."
     Wil felt a chill. Sight or no sight, Wil believed Meg held the answers to some of his most pressing questions, but he wasn't sure he wanted to know the truth. "I'm on my way."

© 2006 James Berardinelli

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