PART FOUR: WORLD'S END
Two years after the end of the human/quatic war, there was a state of uneasy co-existence in Devforth. The quatic expansion, quelled by the death of their leader, had stalled at the Goldenwater River. They had never crossed over into Merk, although they had occupied Xert. Most of eastern Devforth, from Flaz' Quag to the Vorti Marshes, was controlled by quatic forces, with the exception of the immediate environs of Fels, which had been left unmolested. Western Devforth was in human hands, and the quatics showed no ambitions of attempting an invasion.
Although no quatic had set foot in Merk, it had been largely abandoned. Some citizens had returned, but many felt uncomfortable being so close to the quatic-controlled ruins of Xert. From the walls of Merk, it was possible to see the creatures roaming the crumbling ruins of the sister city. The majority of the human inhabitants of Devforth, except those living in the unmolested but isolated Fels, had congregated in a settlement that had arisen near the ruins of Tsab. The new city being raised there bore the name of its antecedent, and the ruler was the same.
Guc lounged indolently on his "throne," which was actually an overstuffed chair. Like almost all of Tsab, this was temporary. When the new palace was completed, he would move there and have a proper throne. Rebuilding was a long and tedious process, especially since Guc had demanded the new city be larger and stronger than the earlier one. Tsab had fallen once; he was determined it would not happen again during his lifetime or after.
It had taken Guc nearly all of the past two years to consolidate his position as ruler of the human survivors. In the beginning, he had been one of many candidates, and not necessarily the most popular. Ruthless tactician and opportunist that he was, Guc had gradually removed the obstacles separating himself from the crown, until he had eventually been proclaimed ruler by popular acclaim. Since his coronation, he had been careful not to alienate any large group of his subjects. He was aware that, in these volatile times, those who had made him king could easily de-throne him.
Arguably Guc's greatest rival for rulership had removed herself from contention by taking a ship and running away. Almost no one knew Lea's true fate; most assumed she had died in Vorti, even though some claimed to have seen her alive in Xert days after the eastern city had fallen. Officially, Guc had been betrothed to Lea at the time of her "death," so he had used this to his advantage. Many of his early supporters had been the Vorti refugees, believing that, as Lea's future husband, he was their rightful king.
Queen Mia's death during the battle had left her twin daughters officially in charge of Xert's citizenry. Out of political expediency and because he needed as many heirs as possible as quickly as could be arranged, he married both of them. In Devforth's past, it had not been unusual for a king to have multiple wives, but such a thing had not happened in centuries. Considering the circumstances, no one objected, including the co-queens, who were flattered to receive the attentions of such a cultured, handsome man. Their father was less pleased, but Guc's threats of imprisonment for the rest of his life had quieted his objections.
King Hur of Merk had proven to be a potentially dangerous foe. His real personality, less meek than previously assumed, emerged after the war, but he had fallen ill with a mysterious wasting sickness and died shortly thereafter. Those healers who suspected poison were careful not to speak openly about their suppositions. Rulers of Tsab were said to be skilled in the identification and administration of toxic substances, but no one was going to be foolish enough to point a finger at Guc, who was rapidly becoming the most powerful human.
Despite Guc's maneuvering, there was one man who could have defeated his plans had he possessed any ambition. Following the war, no individual was more acclaimed than Gav. Wil's actions in the battle had made him the hero of Devforth and, as Wil's son, Gav was included in the outpouring of adulation. Unlike Hur, Gav was suspicious of Guc, so eliminating him would have been difficult, if not impossible. Fortunately for the king, Gav had no interest in ruling the survivors. When the news arrived that his settlement of Falnora had apparently survived the quatic war, Gav elected to return there, even though it was deep within quatic territory. Guc provided him with horses and 20 heavily armored men as an escort, and let Gav ride away.
Exaggerated stories about Guc's courage on the battlefield were widely circulated. According to one popular, oft-repeated tale, he had singlehandedly killed five quatics while holding off an entire force of them to allow Wil to engage Grundig in single combat. As ridiculous as even Guc thought the tale was, it gained traction and he did nothing to dispel it. When asked about it, he typically smiled and made no comment. Most people took that to mean it was true but he was too modest to boast about it and did not want to in any way detract from Wil's glory.
Several weeks after the battle, Guc took a raiding party to Xert. Their goal was specific: Grundig's head. The quatic leader's body lay were it had fallen, but Guc wanted a trophy, both to bolster the spirits of his people and to remind the surviving quatics of what had happened to their revered leader. The humans encountered surprisingly little resistance on their trip, although a minor skirmish resulted in ten dead soliders and three mortally wounded quatics.
Grundig's skull, long since stripped of skin and tissue, now hung from the re-constructed gates of Tsab. The rest of the quatic's body lay where it had fallen and, as a result of the passage of time and the appetites of carrion eaters, it was no more than a pile of sun-bleached bones. Of his opponent, there was no trace. Wil had apparently been annihilated completely, although tales persisted that he had used his magic to save himself. A popular story said he had returned alone to the ruins of Vorti to search for the body of his queen.
Guc knew the truth. Neither Wil nor Lea would return to plague him. That gave him license to use their names as he saw fit. If pretending a closer, more amicable relationship with the late Apath increased his popularity, it was worth the slight to his ego. In life, Wil had been one of his greatest adversaries. In death, he was his best ally.
The sound of someone clearing his throat brought Guc out of his reverie. Standing before him was his chamberlain. "All is in readiness, Your Majesty."
Ah yes, the proclamation
Guc rose, straightened his robes and made sure that his crown was not crooked, then followed his chamberlain out of the makeshift throne room. Outside, the crowds were gathered a mass of humanity stretching as far as the eye could see.
Guc stepped onto the raised platform that had been erected for this occasion. Armed guards ringed his location - not that it was likely anyone would try to harm him, but it was always best to be prepared for assassins. Criers were sprinkled throughout the crowd to relay Guc's words to those not close enough to hear them from his mouth. It was not as efficient as having an Apath magnify his voice but, despite intensive searches, none had been found since the war.
"Welcome, citizens of Tsab, on this most glorious of days. I, Guc, your rightfully chosen leader, have come in front of you to issue a proclamation that shall stand until the end of human history. The Apath Wil, the instrument of our victory over the quatics, is hereby decreed to be the Savior of the Human Race. This title has only once before been accorded to another, Garvad the Great, who preserved our kind during the previous quatic uprising. Henceforth, let this day the anniversary of Wil's greatest victory be a day of public celebration."
It was a simple speech, but the roar of approval with which it was received told Guc what he had known when he decided to make it: in times of peace, it was little gestures like this that placated the general populace and made a ruler beloved. Some day, perhaps a future king would name a day of celebration in honor of him. For now, however, Guc's ambition was not to forge a reputation for the ages, but to rebuild his city and establish it as the greatest settlement of human habitation ever known. For once, a black cloud did not hang above the dawn.
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