As dawn broke on the morning following Gav’s arrival in Vorti, Guc and his entourage were mounted and ready to ride westward, hoping to make it to Tsab before nightfall, even considering the southern detour necessary to avoid the quatics. Only one of their number remained behind: Caa. Ostensibly, he was staying in Vorti to finalize the wedding plans with Wil. In reality, his task was twofold: watch over Lea and kill her former regent.
     Before mounting his black warhorse Vengeance, Guc had a few final words for his Apath advisor. “Remember why you’re here, but don’t take any unnecessary chances. If the opportunity doesn’t arise, don’t force it. And stay close to Lea. With war breaking out across the continent, I want someone I trust near her if she ventures into danger.”
     “Understood, Your Majesty. You can rely on me.”
     “I know I can. That’s why I entrusted you with this mission.”
     Guc’s farewell to his future bride was more restrained than might be expected from an engaged pair being separated by the threat of battle. A chaste kiss and a few words were all that passed between them before Lea retired inside the palace, and the column of mounted Tsabians moved beyond the palace grounds.
     As Gav and Wil watched the Westerners’ departure, the chancellor remarked, “Even with relations between Lea and him at such a frosty stage, I can’t say I’m saddened to see him leave. The reasons for his unexpected farewell are another matter, however. I expect you’ll be riding out soon, as well.”
     “After I get a good meal in me. When I left Falnora, the quatics weren’t posing a danger, but I dare not be away for long, in case circumstances change.”
     “Send a message if you come under attack. A full legion of Vorti’s militia can be at Falnora in less than a day.”
     “If it comes down to it, we won’t fight. We can acquit ourselves well against bandits and raiders, but not these creatures. If an attack comes, depending on where it comes from, we’ll flee to either Vorti or Llam. But I think we’re beneath the quatics’ notice, and we’re far enough south of their path of travel that it’s unlikely we’ll face an immediate threat. I’m concerned about Knex, though.”
     “The queen sent a messenger last night, but it’s probably too late. Unless by some miracle the quatics spared it, the town is probably in ruins by now, the survivors scattered and fleeing across the Northern Plains.” Wil didn’t believe in mincing words. He and his son both recognized there was almost no chance the small, unfortified community had survived being in the direct path of hundreds upon hundreds of migrating quatics.
     “What do you figure their goal is?”
     Wil shrugged. “It’s been four centuries since Garvad drove them into the swamps, but I imagine they’ve come out to claim Devforth by force. What the specifics of their plans are, I can only speculate, but Fels seems a likely first target.”
     “And Llam after that?”
     “Or the Twin Cities. Unless they intend to take Yax’s city and dig in. From the little I’ve seen of their tactics, however, I would wager in favor of a fast, brutal campaign through the south. They seem to relish battle. Depending on their numbers, and the preparedness of the cities, they could take Llam, Merk, and Xert very quickly.”
     “That would leave Vorti and Tsab, separated by a continent, and Tsab with only the skeleton of an active militia.”
     “Not an encouraging picture, I agree. But we have at least one advantage they can’t match: Apaths.”

* * *

     When he had first conceived this campaign against humanity and their elf allies, Grundig had considered only the glory victory would bring to him and his race. He imagined a day when he could claim success where his distant ancestors had failed. His dreams of human cities in ruins seemed like misty foreshadowings of tangible certainties. He had never anticipated the pain and confusion that would haunt this endeavor.
     The first event had been the unexpected revelation of his past self. While the tactical advantages of recalling his life as the human Apath chancellor of Vorti were boundless, the personal cost was high. Since the moment when Vas' life and experiences had exploded within his mind, his sense of identity had fragmented. To others, he was still Grundig, the Prophet of the Quag, but to himself, he sometimes didn't know who he was. There were times when he thought the Vas part of him - a part that should have died decades ago - was trying to reassert itself through his body.
     Then there had been the need to kill poor, lost Evi, followed by the unexpected death of Castabal, his heir and the only one of his many children he had respected. It was expected of a quatic in his position to name a successor, but he had not done so. None of his other offspring pleased him. With Castabal's death, the lure of a future quatic empire had lost its luster.
     Now, the Prophet of the Quag faced his war alone, but vengeance sustained him - vengeance against those who had killed Castabal. His human spies, paid by huge sums of gemstones they would never get a chance to spend, had laid the groundwork for the first assault. Already, moves were being made. By now, humans across Devforth would be taking notice of the exodus of the Vorti Marsh quatics. They would recognize Fels as the first target, and would prepare accordingly. But they would be wrong, and by that mistake, they would fall into Grundig's trap.
     While the cities of Devforth were preparing to come to the aid of Fels, Grundig would lead the combined quatic forces of Flaz' Quag and the Vorti Marsh directly west, where they would fall upon and destroy the human village of Hons. In addition to Knex, which had been the first target of the campaign, that would make two ruined human settlements. Hundreds dead, but that was nothing compared to what would come.
     From Hons, the quatics would sweep south and attack Tsab. There, the first part of Grundig's revenge would be fulfilled, for the group responsible for Castabal's death had been jointly led by the King of Tsab and the Queen of Vorti. Both cities were therefore accountable, and Grundig intended to execute each of the rulers. He had given strict orders they were to be captured alive. If found dead, their killers would answer to him.
     Of course, Lea of Vorti would have to wait to face her fate. After taking Tsab, Grundig intended for his people to remain there for a while, before making the cross-continent trek to the Eastern city. That move would take everyone by surprise. The humans would be anticipating an attack on Fels or the Twin Cities first, but the quatic army would not fulfill those expectations.
     Of immediate interest was the conquest of Hons, but that phase of the campaign caused Grundig little concern. Although better fortified and more heavily populated than the settlement already devastated by his people, Hons would offer little challenge. In two days' time, it would be like Knex - a blackened patch of earth populated by burned corpses. It was no source of pride to Grundig that the quatic price for the death of every man, woman, and child of Knex had been two warriors, because none of his people should have died. Carelessness had caused those losses; such unfortunate lapses would not occur in the future.
     The greatest early obstacle in the early campaign would be the walls of Tsab but, with the connivance of spies and human turncoats, Grundig had found a way to circumvent them. It was odd what humans would do for perceived riches - the kind of betrayals they would commit. Their lives would not be spared, however, and what Grundig had paid would be returned to him, retrieved from their dead bodies.
     Taking prisoners was not one of the Prophet's aims. Humans - and elves if they could be found - were to die. No mercy would be shown, no quarter given. Age and sex were irrelevant.
     Grundig turned from contemplating the mists around him to note that one of his battle commanders was awaiting his attention, just beyond the hummock of land that was the Prophet's lair.
     "Speak," rumbled Grundig.
     "The advance assault group is ready, Lord Prophet. We are prepared to move on your order."
     Grundig glanced skyward. It would be dusk in two hours. He wanted the attack on Hons to occur in full darkness, when the greater advantage would be the quatics'. The advance assault group, which consisted of seventy of his army's fiercest fighters, had been entrusted with taking the village. If they departed now, they might reach their quarry before the last vestiges of daylight had vanished. Better to wait a short while longer.
     "The signal will come soon, Fendag. Very soon. Have your warriors stand ready. I expect this operation to be swift and effective. If more than a handful of quatics fall in the attack, I will hold you personally responsible when I arrive with the entire force tomorrow."
     Fendag nodded briskly, having expected nothing less, and willing to accept the risk that came with the honor of leading the attack. Though his forces would be outnumbered by more than ten-to-one, he did not expect to lose many men. Humans were soft; surprised in their beds, they would prove little challenge. Fendag could envision a scenario in which all eight-hundred inhabitants of Hons died without one quatic loss. He told his leader as much.
     Grundig growled his displeasure at such overconfidence. "Commander Lisfug thought that at Knex, and two of his best warriors died there, when there should have been no casualties. Knex was a settlement of farmers, unused to fighting. Hons lies on the southern border of the Scarred Peaks, which is troll territory. These humans are born and bred to battle. They are weaned on the sword, not the hoe. If you underestimate them, the toll will be heavy. Be sure that such a thing does not happen. Useless, unnecessary deaths will displease me."
     “It shall be as you command.”
* * *

     It was not yet dawn when the main quatic army started their progression, swarming north of west like a plague, on the way to meet the advance contingent which had been sent out earlier to subjugate Hons. For such a large force - numbering nearly five-thousand - they made surprisingly little noise. In the absence of clanking mail and weapons, the only sounds were footfalls and heavy breathing.
     Grundig marched at the front of the army, the only quatic wearing armor. Immediately behind him were the clan chieftains and various other battle leaders, including several of his sons. In the highly unlikely event that the Prophet should fall, each of them was aware of Grundig’s plans, and a clear chain of command had been established.
     No messenger had arrived to report on the battle at Hons, which Grundig took to be a bad sign. By now, a runner should have traversed the distance between Hons and Flaz’ Quag to inform the main force the settlement was in quatic hands, its human population annihilated. As yet, no such communication had been received. If something had gone amiss, Grundig was determined to flay Fendag alive. Underestimating the humans could lead only to disaster, just as it had centuries ago.
     Grundig had calculated it would take his army half the daylight hours to traverse the distance to Hons, despite the unfavorable weather conditions. Driving rainstorms and gales were no obstacles for creatures who lived their entire lives surrounded by water and mud.
     The march was long and tedious, but it was accomplished in virtual silence with no breakdowns in discipline. Even if he accomplished nothing else, Grundig had managed what no other quatic had done for countless years - bind the entire race to a single purpose, and forge them into a cohesive whole capable of attaining that goal. Clan barriers had been eliminated and personal feuds set aside - at least temporarily - that the greater good of the quatic nation would come first.
     As the army approached the western coast of Devforth, Grundig could sense the growing anticipation. His force was ready for battle; the song of violence was in their blood. He could hear the answering chorus in his own. But there was still no word from Hons, and the Prophet was beginning to contemplate the worst, even as he berated himself for giving a fool like Fendag such an important assignment. If any of his battle commanders could botch the attack on Hons, it was the one who had been sent.
     As the quatics approached the rise to the hill beyond which lay their first target, the Prophet called a halt before demanding a conference with his battle commanders. Once the group of twelve had assembled in a circle, the discussion began in earnest.
     “There has been no word from the advance force,” stated Muril, chieftain of the Vorti Marsh quatics.
     Grundig gave the aging creature a contemptuous glare. He hated those who stated the obvious. “Perhaps you have some other, equally stupid observations to make? Since there have been no reports from Hons, it’s natural to assume whatever happened there was a disaster.”
     “Perhaps Fendag was not the best choice to lead the attack force,” ventured Krungon, Grundig’s eldest surviving son. It was the closest any would dare come to suggesting their leader had made a mistake.
     Grundig normally did not react well to having a decision called into question, but since he had been berating himself over this one, there was no rebuke. He wanted to be certain, however, that no one else followed Fendag’s example.
     “Had Fendag followed the plan presented to him, and approached the struggle at Hons as more of a battle than a recreation, we would now be discussing matters inside the ruined walls, rather than out here. We quatics are the superior breed, but the humans outnumber us. Fall they will, but not easily. We must be as harsh on ourselves as on them, and we must heed the demands of discipline.
     “As yet, I do not know what has happened at Hons, but if it is the bitter failure I expect, and if Fendag still lives, he will wish he had perished in battle.”
     “By your leave, I shall scout ahead,” offered Yablik, Muril’s son.
     “No,” said Grundig. “I will go, and this army must be ready to march when I return, for if something has gone wrong, I intend for us to sweep forward and crush those humans underfoot.”
     Leaving the circle to let the others bicker over the preparations necessary to ready the quatics for battle, Grundig moved swiftly in the direction of Hons, ignoring the bows and murmurs of praise offered by the surprised warriors who crossed his path. Such homage was pointless during the circumstances; the tribute Grundig wanted would be given in battle. Quatics - many of them, in fact - would die, but it was his intention that not one death would be wasted. For every one member of his army who perished senselessly, the same would have to happen to twenty humans for the scales of fate to balance out.
     As he crested the hill to gaze upon the walled settlement of Hons, it became clear to Grundig why no report had been forthcoming from the battle. Quatic bodies littered the burned and bloodstained fields before him, the limbs of the dead often badly charred or twisted at impossible angles. It didn’t require an exact count to determine that most, if not all, of the advance force had been expunged. The cause was not immediately obvious, and there were no signs of dead humans.
     Watchfires were lit all around the perimeter of Hons, and the stubby, ten-foot high wooden walls were manned by guards. Grundig crouched to avoid being seen as his eyes registered the massacre before him. Rage and loathing seethed within him: at the humans, for having done this; at the advance force, his finest warriors, for having fallen prey to such a catastrophe; and at himself, for not having envisioned this possibility - that Hons might contain an Apath willing to join the battle.
     There was no other reasonable explanation for what had happened, and possessing both power and knowledge, Grundig knew a strong Apath would be capable of such wholesale slaughter. It was scant comfort that the man responsible had likely reached the brink of his abilities. Hons would be taken, and probably with few additional casualties, but the price had already been excessive. Seventy dead at a site where Grundig had expected casualties to number fewer than ten. It was unacceptable, yet it had happened, and now it was the Prophet’s duty to salvage what he could.
     Using magic didn't frighten him, even recognizing what its overuse had done to his previous self, Vas. This time, he would have the wisdom to avoid the eventuality of Burgeoning Apathy. Besides, his was the body and mind of a quatic, not a human, with greater emotional capacity than his former identity was accustomed to. His race was not only physically bigger, but possessed the passion to match their size. When it came to arcane workings, that would always give him the edge. Even King Sor, perhaps the mightiest Apath of recent times, would have been unable to stand against him.
     Yet Grundig had to be careful not to touch the core of his emotion - the rage he felt against the two who had struck down Castabal. All of his grievances against humanity had found representation in the persons of King Guc of Tsab and Queen Lea of Vorti. That pair would suffer, and death would take long in coming. The human body was resilient enough to bend without breaking, and Grundig intended to test how forcefully he could push.
     At the moment, as he gazed at the settlement of Hons, there was no sign of the Apath who had butchered the advance force - probably because he was abed. A great deal of energy had been required to slay so many quatics in such an uncompromising manner. Had he not hated this man, whoever he was, Grundig might have admitted to a grudging admiration. But the expenditure of emotion had been wasteful. More could have been accomplished with less effort. The Prophet could destroy seventy of his own kind with barely a moment's thought or effort. And because they recognized that, they followed him. It was fear, not love or admiration, that supplied him with his army. And it was vengeance that stoked the fires of his own ambition.
     The walls of Hons had been treated to be immune to fire, but the flames conjured by Grundig's powers were not of natural origin. Dozens of conflagrations sprung up across the ramparts, each blaze feasting with demonic greed on the supposedly impervious wood. Shouts of alarm and terror arose, audible even at this distance. Grundig allowed himself a moment's satisfaction before striking the next, more telling blow.
     The gates to the settlement blew open, showering shards of wood in all directions. Klaxons sounded as soon as the citizens of Hons recognized their outer defenses had been breached, and panic took command. Men and women scurried like ants, and Grundig picked them off one-by-one, stopping their hearts with a mere flicker of thought, causing them to drop where they stood. A dozen... fifty... a hundred... before anyone dared attempt to make him stop.
     The land around him suddenly erupted in fire - the same kind Grundig had called against the city, and which still devoured the crumbling walls. This was what the Prophet had been waiting for - the arrival of his Apath foe into the fray. Now it had happened, he was ready to end this struggle, raze Hons, and move on to the more tempting treasures secreted behind the walls of Tsab.
     Creating an invisible shield around himself as protection against the flames, Grundig probed with his mind, seeking the spark of magic which had ignited the fire. While it was possible the attack had come from anywhere within the settlement, the Prophet thought it likely his assailant would be near the walls, watching. Those unfamiliar with using power generally preferred to observe the results, and the work of this Apath was that of an amateur, not someone comfortable with his magical abilities.
     It didn’t take long to locate him - a lone mind, bloated with contained power, but with energy reserves running low. The man was ready to lash out again, even though he had plunged deeply - almost dangerously deeply - into his emotional reserves. In some ways, Grundig was about to do him a favor. Living with only the barest hint of surface emotions was a pathetic sort of existence.
     Grundig’s attack was swift, brutal, and decisive. He sent a short, powerful burst of killing magic at the location where he had pinpointed his adversary’s mind. Instantaneously, there was a concussion that sent smoke and debris hurtling skywards. There were screams of agony and cries of horror, and the other Apath’s consciousness was snuffed out like a candleflame crushed between two wetted fingers.
     His battle commanders were waiting when he returned from Hons, their posture and attitude signifying they were ready to attack. Grundig grunted his satisfaction when he saw this. He required that his forces, to a quatic, possess the same single-minded dedication that he did.
     Rather than speaking just to his inner circle, he addressed them all, using magic to amplify his strident voice so every quatic could hear him.
     “The advance force was slain by magic, but their own incaution led them to this. As you pass their bodies to storm the human habitation, look upon those charred corpses and see the fate of those who think humans are weak and without resources.
     “The Apath has been dealt with and the walls brought down. Go now, and bring the second victory of this war.”
* * *

     The battle for Hons was short and bloody, the human will to resist having perished along with their Apath. Many of them fought as if the cause was hopeless, and few gave a spirited or determined opposition. Quatic injuries were light, and there were no further casualties, although that was small consolation after the initial loss of seventy warriors.
     After all the humans had been killed, the town was demolished, with stone buildings torn apart and wooden ones burned. Fields were trodden underfoot and salted, never to be useful to anyone again. What at dawn had been a thriving settlement was by dusk an extinct ruin. The quatics camped for the night in and around the remains of Hons, ready to march on Tsab with the coming of the next dawn.

© 2006 James Berardinelli

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