THE PRICE OF TERROR Chapter Thirty-One
THE PRICE OF TERROR


PART FOUR: WORLD'S END


CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE


     "Wil is dead," said Meg softly. They were about nine hours out to sea when she made the pronouncement. The sun was midway between its zenith and the horizon. Day was retreating in the face of night.
     "How can you be sure?" asked Lea.
     "Because I can see again. The wound has been repaired. Sor and Wil are joined in death."
     "It can't be," said Lea, suddenly panicked. Frantically, she thought of her father, tried to summon him. She concentrated on his face as she had done when buried under the rubble of Vorti's palace, but it was to no avail. He did not come. Meg spoke the truth.
     Lea was crying again. To her, it felt like she had shed more tears today than in the entirety of the rest of her life. "What about the quatics?" she asked.
     "I cannot say," said Meg. "Neither vision nor intuition informs me of their fate. It was Wil's intention to sacrifice himself in an effort to destroy Grundig, but I am unable to divine whether he succeeded."
     Lea was faced with a dilemma. If Wil had destroyed the quatic leader, this journey, fraught as it was with peril, might be unnecessary. Without Grundig, the enemy army would be dangerous, but no longer the unstoppable killing force it had been. At a minimum, co-existence would be possible. If that was the situation, the ships could return to Devforth. On the other hand, if Grundig had survived Wil's attack and she ships returned, they would sail to their doom. The Apath could strike at them from shore, killing them all. She had a vision of a firestorm from the sky engulfing the fleet.
     "We go on," she said, as much to herself as to Meg. She retreated to her cabin to mourn one last time. Even with Sor and Mika aboard, Lea felt alone.
     

* * *

     After two days of calm, uneventful travel, the seas had become choppy and the sky was darkening. Lea, who had been one of the few on board not to be afflicted with sea-sickness, was at the ship's prow, gazing placidly into the future as the salt spray showered her, when Sor found her. Although slightly pale, he had managed to keep the contents of this morning's breakfast down, which he considered to be an achievement.
     "The captain says this isn't a storm. We are approaching World's End."
     "How long?" asked Lea.
     "He doesn't know, but he thinks another hour or two."
     "Inform everyone on board. Raise the red flag so the other ships know. And get Muj and Meg up here."
     Sor nodded. "Yes, Your Majesty." The first order of business was to hoist the flag. Although only three of the other ships were in sight in the worsening weather, the line of communication had already been established. Once the lead ship's red flag went up, the others would follow suit. The formation would then close, with the ships moving as near to one another as safety permitted. One-by-one, they would attempt World's End, although the exact means by which they would run the gauntlet would not be determined until they understood what they were facing.
     Lea gazed out into the deepening, darkening fog. The wind continued to increase, causing rising swells to toss the ship around. She had to clutch the railing to avoid being thrown to the deck.
     "Your Majesty," said Muj, appearing at her shoulder as if by magic. "You should not be so near the edge of the ship. In fact, you should be below decks. You could be thrown overboard and in these rough seas I don't know if my powers could save you."
     Lea squinted through the rain and spray at the old man, who was standing serenely next to her. He was completely dry, with none of the water touching him, and his stance was firm, as if his feet were attached to the deck. Neither Wil nor Eya would have wasted magic on such frivolous things. It annoyed Lea, probably because she was chilled, soaked, and in constant danger of falling to her knees.
     "I will remain out here," she said, "to see what it is we face."
     Escorted by Sor, Meg was approaching slowly. She did not appear concerned by the rain, wind, and waves that broke over the railing, even though it caused her flimsy white dress to cling to her in a way that made Lea aware of her curves. She, like everyone else, tended to think of the seeress as a sexless entity. This was one of those rare instances when she was reminded that Meg, irrespective of her powers, was – or at least had been – a woman.
     "Your Majesty," she said when she was close enough for Lea to hear her voice over the gale. "How may I assist you?"
     "Meg, is there anything you can see out there? Anything that could help us?"
     An expression of concentration crossed Meg's features. After a moment, she said, "Nothing, Your Majesty. Whatever may be there, it does not exist in the realm where my sight functions."
     "Muj?" she asked, turning to the Apath.
     "It is too far away yet to be sure, but I sense great whirling vortices sucking in everything that comes to them, and a curtain of blackness all around. But I believe there are channels safe for passage between the whirlpools. The difficulty is finding them when there is no way to see."
     "That will be your duty," said Lea. "Guide us to safety."
     A smile cracked Muj's weatherbeaten face. "I am aware of that, Your Majesty. It remains to be seen how difficult my task will be."
     "Go to the Captain. I want you by his side every moment from now until we are safely across World's End."
     "Will you join me, Your Majesty?"
     "Perhaps later. I prefer the view from here."
     Within moments, Muj and Meg were gone, but Sor remained by her side.
     She gazed at him, his face open and earnest, and wondered what kind of life they could have together. That presupposed surviving World's End, and she wasn't confident that was going to happen. Try as she might, she didn't trust Muj. Part of the reason was because of the way Wil had reacted to him. She didn't know the specifics, and probably would never learn them, but there had been enmity between them, at least on Wil's side, and its cause was recent. Something had happened in Fels at the Wizard's School.
     "We're going to make it," said Sor. His voice wasn't reassuring or convincing.
     "Perhaps. In case we don't, there's something you need to know." She had debated telling him every moment since they departed Xert. "Before we left, Wil told me I'm pregnant."
     Sor looked stunned. She watched his expression change from confusion to wonder to guilt. Lea said nothing, allowing him to absorb the news. "I'm sorry…" he finally managed to say.
     She smiled at him. "I'm not. Now the issue of an heir has been resolved, and you're a better choice as his or her father than anyone else, especially Guc. Don't blame yourself for that night, Sor. It was more me than you. I needed something and I used you to get it. You did nothing wrong."
     "If my father was still alive, I doubt he would agree with you."
     Your father isn't alive. Nor is your mother, Eya, or Wil. They were all dead, and with them died the old order. "We're going to a new continent, Sor. Things are going to be different. Now, go be with Mika. I'll be fine on my own here."
     Sor hesitated, torn between his desire to stay and protect her and her unborn child and his duty to follow her command. "Go," she repeated. She was fond of Sor, but she did not love him. Mika, on the other hand, was head-over-heels. She would do what she could to promote that relationship, even though she carried Sor's child.
     The next half-hour went by slowly, the weather conditions worsening. By the end of that period, it had become obvious World's End was approaching. A blackish fog had begun to descend upon the ship, carrying with it the stench of spoiled fish. The wind was blowing fiercely and there was a distant roar of crashing water. Lea, no longer able to keep her footing, was forced to retreat under cover. She was not alone. Only those critical to the running of the ship remained on deck, and all of them – including Muj – were tied to masts and other difficult to move objects.
     Lea gazed out an open portal that was little larger than her head. It gave her an inadequate view of their surroundings, but it was better than not seeing at all. She did her best to block out the stench of vomit. Nearly everyone crowded into this cabin was violently ill, although Lea appeared to be immune to sea-sickness. The only ones to share her good fortune were Meg, Mika, and the majority of the sailors, although even a few of them had lost their most recent meals.
     "We're approaching the edge." It was Muj's voice, calm and reassuring. Even though he was a dozen feet away and should have been impossible to hear with the wind, waves, and roar of the vortex, Lea had no trouble discerning his voice, and he didn't appear to be shouting. Seeing him became impossible as the ship was plunged into a stygian blackness darker than a moonless night. The black fog descended like a curtain, quenching all light.
     Somewhere in the darkness, Muj was barking urgent directions to the captain. The ship shook violently, and there was the crack of splitting wood followed by a crash and shouts of alarm. Timbers strained; the queen could sense the wood beneath her feet crying out in protest. The raging sound of nature became so extreme that Lea had to cup her hands over her ears to mute it. She lost her balance and was thrown to the left, then the to the right, as the ship listed first to port then to starboard. People were screaming, but Lea could hardly hear them. It was as if the world had suddenly gone mad. Now she knew why it was called World's End.
     "We're in the eye," said Muj, his voice improbably, unnaturally clear to everyone on board the ship. "Hold her straight captain. I'm using my powers to stabilize things. Once we're through, I'll guide the other ships."
     Moments more passed, a seeming eternity of oblivion and chaos. Then, almost imperceptibly at first, things began to calm down. The noise receded. The black cloud lifted more gradually than it had arrived. The seas calmed and the winds lessened. World's End was behind them.
     Unfortunately, the waves were still unpredictable. Just as Lea regained her feet, one slammed into the port side of the ship. The queen lost her balance and knocked her head against a wooden post as she fell. She was unconscious before her limp body hit the deck.
     
* * *

     The first thing that became apparent to Lea when consciousness returned was that she had a headache. The second thing was that light had retuned to the world. As her eyelids fluttered open and she took stock of her situation, she recognized she was lying on her bed in her cabin and the ship was not rocking violently.
     With wonder, she recognized they had done it. They had passed through World's End.
     Mika and Sor, who were sitting by her bedside, leaned over as soon as they realized she was awake.
     "How long?" whispered Lea, surprised to find her throat so dry.
     "Nearly a day, Your Majesty," said Mika. "The healer said you would recover, but we were worried. Almost as worried as we were about Muj."
     "What about Muj?"
     "He collapsed," explained Sor. "He had gotten six of the ten ships through when his stamina gave out. He's resting comfortably but appears…detached."
     Lea's chest tightened as she remembered one of Wil's lessons. Burgeoning Apathy. It was the thing that killed her father. Wizards who used too much power and pushed themselves to their emotional brink… This would have to be looked into.
     "What of those four ships?"
     "We lost three of them. They never made it through the crossing. The fourth was badly damaged, but we managed to rescue some of the survivors before it went down. Working in near pitch blackness hampered our efforts or we might have saved more."
     "How many lives were lost?"
     "We don't have a final count, but around 140."
     It was a step price to pay yet, all things considered, it was better than they could have hoped. To survive World's End with six intact ships and more than 250 people was a near miraculous occurrence.
     "Are any of the ships damaged?" asked Lea, her mind fixing on practical concerns.
     "All of them," said Sor. "They're seaworthy, but some are in better condition than others. This one and another lost a mast, which will make it slow going. We should be able to last until our supplies run out, unless a storm comes along."
     Now that they had crossed World's End came the part of the journey they had prepared the least for – finding land. According to Mika's parents' parents' stories, their ship had been on the ocean for two weeks before crossing World's End. Lea's fleet had sufficient provisions for a journey of twice that length, but what if they hadn't found land by then? How big was this ocean they had come to?
     Lea wished Wil was here, not just for his calming presence, but for his words of advice. Until times like this, she never realized how much she relied upon his wisdom. Now, everyone was looking to her, and she didn't feel equal to the task. For better or worse, she needed to see Muj – not only to determine whether he had reached the point of no return, but to hear his counsel. After all, whatever his faults, he was still an Apath and the oldest member of this group of survivors.
     With Mika and Sor assisting her, she rose from her bed, donned a dressing gown, and made her way down the short corridor that led from her chamber to Muj's equally spartan, cramped quarters. He was not abed, as she had expected him to be. Instead, he was sitting at a plain wooden desk, writing notes on an unfurled parchment scroll.
     "Your Majesty," he rose and bowed, then retook his seat. "I am pleased to see you awake. I am told you suffered a serious blow to the head."
     Lea's lingering headache and the tenderness above her right ear confirmed his words. "I am told you collapsed."
     "Indeed. I overextended myself. Sometimes I forget I'm an old man and my body can't endure what it once could. I deeply regret being unable to guide the final ships through."
     "Was it overexertion or…?"
     "Burgeoning Apathy?" said Muj, completing the thought. "No, I'm not that far gone yet, although I need to be careful in the future about such large expenditures of emotion. I feel duller and less alive than I was before the crossing. Emotions are still there, though. It's difficult to imagine how much power has to be used to dry up a wizard. Your father's feats are legendary, Your Majesty. Compared to what he did, my efforts were puny."
     "To those of us who survived World's End, myself included, 'puny' does not describe what you accomplished. World's End may be passable but without a wizard I do not think any of these ships would be afloat today."
     "I am gratified that my presence aboard this ship has provided benefits. Perhaps I have in part repaid a debt owed to another," said Muj. Lea knew he was referring to Wil, but she did not press him for an explanation.
     "Our position is far from secure," said Lea. "We are lost at sea, with no clear way to go. The compass will keep us from falling back toward World's End, but beyond that… Do you have any advice?"
     "Your Majesty, this morning I extended my senses many leagues from this ship and all I discovered in any direction is water. You are correct in saying we are lost at sea, and there is no land close. But I am confident we have not braved World's End to die of starvation or dehydration in the middle of the ocean. I will continue to use my senses to scout ahead every morning. I sense that while our salvation may be far off, it is assured."
     The words, intended to be soothing, stoked Lea's ire. Had Wil spoken them, she would have believed them, but she was not yet at a position where she trusted her new wizard advisor. That would take time. Muj would have to prove to her that he was not another Vas. Her father had paid a terrible price; she would not repeat his mistake.
     When the queen spoke to her later that day, Meg expressed similar sentiments to Muj. Although she admitted her vision had not given her insight, she was unconcerned about how their journey would end. The difficult part was crossing World's End. Fate, she opined, would not have allowed them to go this far only to maroon them at sea. The captain was unhelpful. He knew ships and how to pilot them, but he did not know this ocean. The best he could do was to keep them from traveling in circles and hope for the best. If a storm didn't capsize them, they had enough water for about four weeks. After that, it would only be a matter of time before they became a fleet of ghost ships.
     "We're going to have to start rationing," said Lea, speaking to an informal council that included Sor, Muj, Meg, and the captain. Mika was also present, but in her capacity as Lea's lady in waiting, not as a participant. "I'm more concerned about water than food. Effective immediately, everyone's water portion will be monitored and limited to three mugfulls per day. If we haven't sighted land within three weeks, we'll revisit rations for food and water. Use the birds to carry messages to the other ships."
     "Your Majesty, the people are thirsty as it is," said the captain.
     "I understand that, but I would rather they suffer in the short-term than die. We are without intelligence or information about where land might be, and Muj assures me it's not within his range to see. We have to prepare for the worst. Perhaps we should have considered this question when preparing to leave Xert, but everyone had bigger concerns at the time and I believe none of us gave much thought to what would happen if we survived the trip through World's End because, if we're honest, I don't think any of us expected to be in the position we're in today."
     As it turned out, Lea need not have been concerned. Ten days after crossing World's End, Muj approached her as she prepared to leave her cabin for breakfast. He was unaccompanied, so the two of them were alone.
     "I don't wish to make this generally known, Your Majesty, but I believe I am getting an indication of land at the farthest periphery of my vision. It's too early to be certain, but I will be able to provide more definitive information tomorrow."
     The next morning, Muj confirmed they were headed toward a large land mass. She informed the captain to hold the current course and, five days later, land was spotted. Three weeks after departing Xert's harbor, the fleet came to rest in a small bay surrounded by a lush forest. For the refugees from Devforth, this was home.


© 2006 James Berardinelli

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