THE PRICE OF TERROR


PART FOUR: WORLD'S END


CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE


     "Chancellor, it is good to see you have survived," lied Guc smoothly.
     Fixing the king of Tsab with an icy stare, Wil responded. "Thank you, Your Majesty. For my part, I never doubted you would emerge alive from our latest engagement."
     Guc frowned at the implied insult, but said nothing further.
     The small group of five dignitaries was meeting in the same sitting room where Wil had been reunited with Lea only hours earlier. In addition to Vorti's chancellor and the king, present were Queens Lea and Mia and the seeress Meg. Lea, having bathed and changed clothing, appeared more regal than when Wil had spoken with her less than two hours ago atop the ramparts. Guc and Meg were weary and spattered with mud, as expected, but neither appeared to have suffered any serious injury.
     "Meg, how are you?" asked Wil.
     "I am alive, Chancellor, and perhaps that is all that matters at this point. My sight has not returned, but I am again in possession of my wits, which may be a greater boon. In my blindness, I have been able to sort through the jumble of images that have assailed me over the years, and I have recognized many truths I would otherwise have missed. There are benefits, it seems, from experiencing a respite from the relentless intrusion of my sight.
     "But we have no time for pleasantries. I am assured the quatics will be here soon, and there are many things we must talk of before they arrive. The world is about to change, Chancellor, and you will be at the epicenter of those changes."
     "We'll be in the throne room," said Mia. "Queen Lea and I will update King Guc on the situation." Gazing after them as they withdrew, Wil noted the marked coldness between Lea and Guc. There would be no marriage there; whatever feelings his queen had once harbored for her fellow ruler had curdled. How Guc felt was unclear; he was harder to read. However, since Lea no longer had a city to offer him, it was likely that he too had lost interest in the match. Considering how things had turned out, it seemed foolish that he and Eya had devoted so many hours to concerns about that potential relationship.
     When he and Meg were alone, Wil began, "I worry about Lea. She and Sor are going to attempt a crossing of World's End."
     "I know," said Meg. "I am going with them."
     For some reason, that surprised Wil. "Do you think your site will return on the other side of the great maelstrom?"
     "My loss of sight and its return have nothing to do with location on this world. They are impacted by the weakening of the barrier between life and death, and the entropy that is seeping through the wound. Once it is healed, I believe my sight will return. The restoration of my abilities is not germane to our discussion, but the closing of the barrier is. You, Chancellor, are the one who must close it. The only one who can, in fact."
     "There's nothing like putting pressure on a person," muttered Wil.
     Meg ignored him, as was her wont. "We know that King Sor is not fully dead, but neither is he alive. He has been trapped in a limbo since that night seventeen years ago when he succumbed to burgeoning apathy. He remained there until your magic weakened the barrier holding him enough for him to come through. Inadvertant though it may have been on your part, that action created the rupture through which Sor emerged. Unfortunately, it had the unwanted side effect of weakening the shields that compartmentalize one life from another, and some became aware of a previous identity or identities."
     "So it's possible that Grundig knows he was Vas."
     "To what extent the knowledge goes, I cannot say. Perhaps it is a subconscious experience. Perhaps memories of a previous life are as memories of his current one. Or perhaps there are multiple voices in his head. He may even remember back further than Vas. I never looked deeply enough into the situation to be able to understand it.
     "One question that has puzzled me since this happened – why was Sor not reborn? I do not pretend to understand the workings of fate, but much of my life has been comprised of looking into people's souls and understanding who they were in their previous life. The gap between death and rebirth can be as little as a few minutes or as long as a few years. Yet, more than a decade after dying, Sor had not been reborn. What's more, when he was alive, I was never able to see into his past. The same, Chancellor, is true of you.
     "Others have confounded my sight. The second Queen Joi, for instance, was a blank. I have come to believe this was the result of her being a 'new soul' – one whom the universe created to populate a body. Things like that happen all the time – souls being created, spltting, or recombining, depending on the needs of the universe. There are other souls I have looked for, but not found: King Kan, Prince Bem, Princess Jen, Queen Sye, the first Queen Joi, and so on. That doesn't mean they were not reincarnated; it simply means I have not discovered their new bodies. I thought that was the case with Sor until you released him."
     Wil interrupted. "I remember you saying that Eya was the re-incarnation of Prince Kir, who was Kan's heir before Queen Sye assassinated him."
     "That is true. Now, with her death, that illustrious soul will be born anew. Fate is not as capricious as some think. There is a designed purpose behind it which hints at structure or intelligence. Kir was robbed of a chance to govern in his life; he was given another opportunity as Eya. Many souls are tied together. Often, you will be close to people in one life that you were close to in the past, although the relationships may change. It is not unheard for a king of one era to be reborn as a king in another era."
     "Before you lost your sight, did you look into Lea's soul?" asked Wil. Something in the way Meg was talking had aroused his curiosity.
     "I did. Her past was not obscured."
     "Who was she?"
     "The understanding of who a person was in a previous existence can be dangerous knowledge. It can impact how you think about that person. It can make you think of them not as themselves, but as another."
     "But if the barriers are weak, it's possible she remembers who she was."
     "For most humans, Lea included, I do not believe that to be the case, beyond moments of déjà vu and subconscious ticklings. It takes a being of power, such as Grundig, to have his past opened to him."
     "Who was Lea in her previous life?"
     "I will warn you one final time. Are you certain you wish to be the recipient of this knowledge?"
     Wil considered, but there was really no decision. Lea was leaving; even if learning her past identity changed the way he thought of her, it would have no lasting impact. His curiosity burned, so he said, "I understand your warning, Meg. All the same, I would like to know who she was."
     Meg did not hesitate. "She was Queen Lis of Vorti, your wife and the mother of your son."
     Wil felt a rush of emotion unlike anything he had experienced since his early years on the Halcyon Meadows. Lis – alive and so close to him after all these years. It made sense, as well. Lis' opportunity to rule Vorti at Sor's side had been cut short by palace intrigue. She had died shortly before Lea's birth. And he had always sensed a deeper, more trusting bond between himself and the queen than would be normal between a ruler and her chancellor.
     "She is not Lis," said Meg sternly. "She is Lea. She was Lis, but that part of her is buried. You must know let this realization impact how you interact with her."
     Wil was tempted to ask how he could not, but he knew. "After tomorrow, I'll never see her again. It won't matter." He suspected that if Meg was not well aware of this fact, she wouldn't have informed him.
     "Have you sufficiently recovered from your shock for me to continue?"
     Wil shook his head then, belatedly realizing Meg could not see him, muttered his assent. This revelation, however, was not something he would recover from, even if he survived the morrow.
     "I have given much thought to the mystery of Sor, re-interpreting many visions I had of him over the years, and I believe I have arrived at an inescapable conclusion. He cannot die because he is not whole.
     "Over the years, I am certain it has occurred to you that there are more similarities between you and Sor than can be explained by coincidence. You were born not only on the same day, but at the same hour. You are both Apaths. You contested for the same throne and the same woman. In the end, you raised both his children. I believe you and Sor are not merely similar; you are the same – two factions of one soul. Under normal circumstances, this would not be an issue. As I said earlier, souls are often split as well as created to support an increasing population. But this time, a 'cornerstone' soul was inadvertently divided, and the universe can not move forward until its restoration is accomplished. A soul such as that of Garvad."
     Wil's head was spinning as he tried to absorb everything Meg was surmising. As impossible as her words sounded, they struck a resonant chord within Wil. It was as if he had secretly known this truth all along, but was waiting for someone with the knowledge to turn the key and unlock the door.
     When he responded, his words were surprisingly calm. Inside, however, his emotions were churning. To think, only hours before he had felt threatened by Lea's belief that World's End might be crossed. Now, every remaining certainty in his life had been shattered. "Garvad's soul was divided into Sor and I and for the breach between life and death to be healed, I must join him in death."
     "Yes. Only your death can heal this wound. When it happens, things will return to how they were. And when you are born next, your half of the soul will be reunited with Sor's. As an individual, you will never again exist.
     "One other thing. Though you may live many more years without damaging the universe, you may not survive the upcoming battle. You are as aware of this as I am. It would be best if Sor were to be by your side at the end. He can be summoned once or twice more without doing irreparable damage to the barrier. When you are sure of the end, call to him and he will come. You will face the end of this life and the beginning of the next one together.
     "I will leave you now, Chancellor. You have much to consider and I have a journey to prepare for. If you need to speak with me this night, you will find me at the harbor."
     Wil hardly heard her leave. His mind was reeling. Lea was Lis. He and Sor were the same, fragments of Garvad. Was he back here to face the quatics again, as he had done all those years ago? Or should he have died with Sor after the dwarf attack, preserving the symmetry of their lives? In his youth, he had hated Sor. In his middle-age, he had pitied him. In later years, he had come to respect the man, his ideals, and what he had stood for. He had loved the king's son and daughter as his own. His feelings about Sor had always been conflicted. To learn this, now… It did not invalidate who he was as a person, but it made him feel less than adequate to the task at hand. As far as the universe was concerned, all he had to do was die. Such a simple act, even though his ego rebelled against it. For the sake of humanity, however, his death had to have meaning. That was the hard part. That was the part that might be decided tomorrow.
     He had originally planned to spend the small hours of the morning in slumber, husbanding his resources for the battle. Now, after Meg's revelations, he knew sleep would never come. The Wil who had entered Xert was not the one who would depart it.
     

* * *

     After what seemed to many like the longest night in history, it was dawn, and the first phase of Orv's battle plan was kicking into action. In Xert, the soldiers were taking their positions. The majority of them were stationed in front of the eastern wall, blocking entrance to the city. To take Xert, the quatics would pay a toll in blood. Within the cities, the rooftops were crowded with archers and others who had surprises to drop upon the invaders from above. Still others were clustered on either side of the two major crossings between the cities. The plan was not perfect, but it had been honed by the best living military minds. Given the limitations of time and manpower, there was nothing better that could be accomplished.
     In Merk, the civilians were gathered to the west, ready to flee when the word was given. They were the old, the young, the women, and the infirm. There would be no military escort. Once the command to evacuate had been given, they – a ragtag group of thousands with no weapons beyond knives and clubs – would face survival in the wilderness on their own, likely pursued by a bloodthirsty hoard. Fear emanated from every pore of every man, woman, and child in that group.
     At the harbor, ten of eleven ships had pulled away from shore, including the one providing safe harbor to Queen Mia's twins, which would not be accompanying the rest of the small fleet on its journey to World's End. Although Mia supported Lea's plan, she was not willing to send her children on such an uncertain journey. After giving the options careful consideration, she decided her daughters stood a better chance of survival by remaining, even if it ultimately meant being hunted through the wilderness of Devforth by bands of quatics. Despite Lea's claims to the contrary, Mia believed World's End equated to certain death.
     With all the cargo loaded aboard Lea's ship and the crew in place, the only thing remaining was for the passengers to board. Including the queen and her small entourage of four, there would be thirty-three people aboard, all refugees from Vorti except three. As soon as the ship was boarded, it would set sail. According to the Captain, World's End would not be difficult to find, since it ringed Devforth. All they had to do was point the ship away from land and set sail. In less than a week, they would encounter the maelstrom.
     Questions of what exactly was meant by a maelstrom brought unspecific answers. Some thought it was a precipitous drop of thousands of feet, but Lea believed that explanation to be unlikely. After all, a drop in one direction would mean a climb in the other direction, so how could the ship carrying Mika's family have climbed a prodigious water-cliff? Others believed the maelstrom to be a wall of water that crushed anything trying to pass through it. Still others believed it to be a series of giant whirlpools that sucked in anything passing close to them. Lea thought that to be the most reasonable explanation, since it meant that, while most ships would be destroyed, it was possible for a few lucky ones to escape doom. She was hoping Muj's presence would eliminate the need for luck.
     With Meg, Mika, and Sor by her side, she was waiting for Wil. The captain was anxious for them to get underway – he wanted to be well out to sea before the quatics arrived, and scouts had reported them on the move before sunup. Lea, however, would not leave until she had said farewell to the man who had raised her. Gav had gone in search of his father.
     "What's taking him so long?" fretted Lea. "He knows we're leaving at dawn."
     Surprisingly, it was Meg who responded. "Wil has a great many things to consider before the day's events unfold. I placed a significant burden upon him last night. He knows what must be done, and it weighs heavily. But he will not miss your departure. You mean more to him than you will ever know."
     Lea gave the seeress a strange look. By now, however, she was used to pronouncements couched in riddles or that were otherwise indecipherable. Her father's specter spoke the same way. Lea wished she could issue an edict that everyone in her presence must either speak plainly or not at all.
     The queen let out a sigh of relief when she saw Will approaching, his strides long and sure. His expression was one of grim sadness. Lea was crying before he reached her. The silent tears quickly turned into heaving sobs.
     "There, there," said Wil, enfolding her in his arms. Whatever initial words he had planned for this, their final meeting, were put aside. His own tears began falling. Sor lead Mika and Meg a short distance away to give Wil and Lea as much privacy as could be afforded in a place bustling with activity.
     "Is this the last time we'll meet?" asked Lea.
     "Meg would caution me against using absolutes, but I believe so, at least in this lifetime."
     "If you survive today's events, you could come in search of me," she said hopefully. "Surely, an Apath of your ability would be able to navigate the maelstrom."
     Wil did not speak aloud the words that came unbidden to mind: if it can be navigated.
     "You don't expect to survive," said Lea. It was an accusation, as if she had just realized something he had kept hidden.
     "Death is a possibility. It's one I have lived with for decades. If I survive, however, I will be needed here. Who knows how long it would take before the situation stabilized enough for me to mount a search? And if I passed safely across World's End, how would I find you? Lea, I fear this is our final farewell. I won't tell you not to cry. I'm crying myself. But we have our duties, and this is where they part us. You will have Sor, Meg, Mika, and your unborn child. And I will have Gav."
     "And Guc," added Lea with a sad chuckle.
     "And Guc," affirmed Wil. "Although maybe he'll spare us by falling in battle. Regardless, neither you nor I will be alone, but there will always be a space in our hearts for each other, and I believe we will meet again in another life. Maybe we'll even be lovers." As we were before...
     "I'd like that," said Lea. "You're a little too old for me now, but in a younger body, it might work." Her tone turned serious. "Take care of yourself. Devforth needs you now more than ever. You may be the last Apath here, and that is a resource that cannot be wasted."
     "Devorth can ill afford for Grundig to be the last Apath. It is to that end all of my efforts must be focused. Be well, Lea. May you pass through World's End and find a wonderful new place in which to live out the rest of your days. I love you like a daughter."
     "And I love you like the father I never knew." Her lips brushed his once, softly and quickly, then she was gone.
     Fifteen minutes later, her ship had cast off and was on its way away from the pier. Lea was not on deck to wave farewell, although Sor and Mika were. Wil watched silently, feeling as if his sole reason for living was departing on that ship. He wished Meg had never told him. Losing Lea was bad enough, but losing Lis as well…
     "Come, Father, we have preparations to make. The quatics will be here within hours."
     Wil nodded. There was nothing like an impending cataclysm to take one's mind off personal sorrows.
     
* * *

     The sun was midway on its trek to its zeneith when, from his position on the palace ramparts, Wil caught sight of the distant vanguard of the quatic army. He watched their approach for several minutes to time their progress, then descended the stairs to the temporary command center that had been established in the throne room. The only ones there were the generals and battle commanders. The queen and her retinue had been evacuated to Merk, where she was awaiting the signal to flee west.
     Obv, Gav, and several of the others looked up from the map they were studying when they heard Wil's footsteps echoing on the marble floor.
     "They're on final approach," said Wil. "Judging from their speed, they should be within bow range in three-quarters of an hour."
     "Alert the archers on the eastern wall," said Obv to one of his runners. "Make sure they have all the pitch they need and each one has a lighted torch in a nearby sconce. We need to give our ground troops as much help as possible."
     The aim was to pepper the approach army with lighted arrows sent from above as they moved to engage the human forces. Based on what happened at the Battle of Vorti, the quatics would view such attacks more as nuisances than real dangers, although they would be cautious about the possibility of brush fires. Unfortunately, the lands around Xert were mostly scrub free, so what had occurred on the Vorti Flat would not be repeated. There would not be enough damage, nor would there be sufficient confusion, to slow the attack. The chancellor's best hope was that the arrow attacks would cause Grundig to reveal himself. Once he had identified the quatic leader, Wil could act, and the sooner it occurred during the battle, the better. The generals knew if Wil lost the battle between the two Apaths, an immediate retreat and evacuation was to be called. Unopposed, Grundig could devastate the army in minutes.
     "Chancellor, will you continue at your post atop the palace, or do you intend to retreat to Merk and observe from there?" asked Obv.
     "I must remain close to the fighting, General."
     "That may not be the wisest idea. We can't afford to lose our only Apath in an accident. Look what happened in Vorti when the palace came tumbling down. You may have limitless powers, but a fall from that height will kill you as easily as it will any of us."
     Wil mused wordlessly that Obv had an inflated opinion of his abilities. Then again, that was universally true. Few knew Apaths were constrained by the strength of their emotions. Although, in Wil's case, because he was the last living wizard to know Eya's secret, that was not entirely true. When it came to the final battle with Grundig, he intended to use the secret to its fullest. He would need every advantage he could get.
     "I'm sorry, General, but I cannot retreat to a place you believe to be safe. I must remain flexible, so I can act the moment there is an opening. Striking Grundig at the optimum time is mandatory, and that time can slip away in a second's breadth."
     "You will be using your magic only against Grundig?" This time, it was Gav's question.
     "Initially. If I defeat him and still have power at my disposal, I'll turn it against the quatic army, but you should not assume that will happen. It will likely take everything I have to beat Grundig. If I survive the encounter, I may be too weak to participate further. The quatics must be defeated in a conventional fashion. However, if Grundig goes down, not only will it be a blow to their morale, it will deprive them of the force that provided them with cohesion and drive. With Grundig, they are a terrifying army. Without him, they will be a confused rabble. They will be beatable, although perhaps not all at once."
     "And if you die without killing Grundig, what then?" asked a general whose name Wil did not know. It was a question they had skirted around but never attacked directly.
     "The plan calls for us to withdraw immediately upon Wil's death," said Gav. "We pick up the refugees and retreat toward what's left of Tsab." That was the extent of the plan. There was no long-range objective or hope.
     "If I die and Grundig lives, you must find another Apath. I do not believe I am the last one in Devforth. There are others, although they may be hermits in hiding, or perhaps sequestered behind the walls of Fels. Only another Apath can bring down Grundig. You can run and hide for many years, but Grundig's forces will systematically hunt you down and exterminate you. It's a bleak prospect. If I fail in my bid to defeat Grundig, those who departed on this morning's tide in a quest for World's End will have a better chance of survival that those who remained behind."
     
* * *

     It was nearly noon before Lea emerged from her cabin. By then, the distant coast of Devforth was a bluish-brown blur on the horizon. It was hard to believe a battle to end all battles was raging there. By now, her friends might all be dead. Wil might be dead. He had done his best to hide it from her, but she knew he expected to die today. She wished she could be sure he was at peace with his fate. She wished she was with hers, but the truth was she was terrified of what lay ahead. Terrified for herself, her friends, and her baby. But she could not let the others see the fear. Now, more than ever, it was her duty to be their queen.
     Her appearance was not regal. Her face was unnaturally pale and her eyes were red-rimmed from crying. Her sadness at parting from Wil had given life to her grief over Eya. Within a short span of days, she had lost a city, thousands of subjects, and both parents. Maybe if she could summon her real father one more time…
     "Do not think it," said Meg, suddenly at her side. Lea started. Had the woman read her mind?
     "I can sense your mood, little one. Eya is dead. Wil is gone. You crave something. But that something cannot be Sor's specter. He must come again, but not for you, and if you bring him here, it may be the last time he can cross over."
     "He is going to stand with Wil," said Lea, intuiting Meg's meaning.
     "You are perceptive. Sor and Wil are tied more closely than any two men have ever been. I did not see this until I was blind. Now, all those visions that confused me in the past make sense. They must stand together or all could be lost. Dead though he may be, Sor still has a part to play before he passes to his next life."
     "And what of us?"
     "Our fate is not yet written or, if it is, I do not know it. It may be, however, that events will restore my sight to us before we reach World's End. If that happens, I cannot say whether it will be a help or a hindrance."
     "Meg, do you believe World's End can be crossed?"
     "I believe that you hope so, and I believe that Mika believes so. It can probably be done. Few things in this world are impossible. But because it can be done does not mean we will do it."
     "I'm pregnant," said Lea. It felt odd to unburden herself to such a remote and unfriendly woman, but she knew Meg would not betray the confidence, and it was not one she could keep to herself.
     The seeress appeared startled. "I was not aware you had lain with a man. Is it Guc's?"
     "No. Sor's. Conceived out of his love and my weakness."
     "You may believe that, but never let the child know. Nor Sor. Your line must continue, and it is better that the father be one who bears you genuine affection than one whose only goal was to use you as a stepping-stone to greater power."
     Never before had Lea heard Guc's motives described so harshly. The queen had not even been aware that Meg sat in judgment. She was right, however, and now Guc was as much beyond her reach as Wil.
     The conversation ended there, although Lea was certain it was not the last time they would talk during the course of what would hopefully be a long journey. For now, however, it was a time to wait… wait, wonder, and hope.


© 2006 James Berardinelli

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