THE PRICE OF TERROR


PART FOUR: WORLD'S END


CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR


     Vorti, or what was left of it, was in chaos. Despite the best efforts of the militia to hold back the tide of advancing quatics, the evacuation was not complete by the time the invaders began ransacking the city. Fires flared up everywhere as the quatics began their systematic destruction, and those inhabitants who had, for one reason or another, delayed their departure, now found themselves trapped between death by fire or death by dismemberment. Grundig's forces weren't taking prisoners, and those who tried to surrender met grisly ends.
     All order within the militia had broken down once the quatics entered the city. There were minor skirmishes in the streets but, mostly, the soldiers were in full, disorderly retreat. Nothing was calm or organized; there was no time for regrouping. It was every man for himself, with the breakdown of discipline a possible later topic of discussion by those lucky enough to reach the rendezvous point south and eest of Vorti, by the coast.
     Sor's initial intention had been to allow himself to be swept along with the prevailing tide of bodies. His fellow soldiers, few of whom he recognized, were all headed in the same general direction but, when the route through the city took the young man within blocks of his family's house, he couldn't resist the urge to make sure everyone had gotten safely away.
     The damage done to buildings in this part of the city was evidence that a portion of the quatic force had already been through here. The bulk of the enemy army was still behind Sor, either outside of the city or in its western quadrants, but pockets of the invaders had moved ahead of the main group, getting a headstart on the destruction, arson, and murder.
     The street on which Sor's family's house was located was surprisingly quiet. There were no fires burning, and all the noise came from other, more distant parts of the city. It was as if he had discovered an oasis in the middle of a desert of chaos. Everywhere else in Vorti, panic ruled. Here, it was as still as the grave.
     Quatics had already been here. Smashed doors and windows testified to their presence, but it must have been a small group, because there was no evidence of more serious damage. Sor didn't linger in the street, however. He had no desire to be caught when the next group of invaders arrived. Despite his two kills, he was not certain he could survive another encounter with the enemy. Luck had been his ally thus far, but a poor soldier relied on such uncertain aid. Besides, he was tired, and every part of his body ached. When the quatic had fallen on him, it had bruised his entire torso.
     The door to his family's house had been ripped off its hinges, and the entranceway foyer had been ransacked. The other downstairs rooms were no different. The quatics had done a thorough job of destroying everything. Windows were smashed, the glass shards carpeting the wooden floors. Upholstery was ripped apart, furniture broken in pieces suitable for fire wood, and tapestries shredded. The fire in the sitting room fireplace still burned calmly; it was a miracle that one of the invaders hadn't used those flames to burn down the building. The inner walls were wood; they would make excellent fuel.
     With less caution than was probably wise, Sor ascended the main staircase to the upper level. The banister had been smashed with as much brutality as everything else. The floorboards had been scraped and scratched by claws. The quatics seemed determine to spread destruction in their wake. When they were done, there would be nothing left of Vorti. Even if humanity won this war, whole cities would have to be rebuilt. Until now, when he saw the destruction of the house where he had lived his life, the enormity of what it meant to sacrifice Vorti hadn't been clear to him.
     When Sor first saw the body, he thought it was another piece of debris in the ruin of his parents' bedroom. Closer inspection revealed the truth - a woman lying face down in a pool of still warm blood that was soaking into the floorboards. As he bent over the corpse, a chill hand gripped Sor's heart. He knew who it was even before he turned over the body. The woman who had been so desperately concerned about his safety had fallen victim instead. The quatics had killed his mother.
     It had not been an easy death. Sor had to blink back tears as he gazed into the unseeing, terrified eyes. With her features frozen into a mask of horror, Bre's appearance was ghastly. The cause of death was a massive throat wound that seeped congealing blood, but she had been afraid when the end had come. Whenever that had been, it hadn't been long ago.
     Fortunately for his sanity, Sor didn't consider the "what ifs". He didn't wonder whether his mother might still be alive if he had reached the house earlier. That was a fruitless path to explore. He had to be concerned about the living, not the dead. His father would not be here; Reg would be in the battle somewhere. He might also be dead, but his end wouldn't have come in the house. His sister's situation, however, was a different matter. It was logical to assume Lor had been here when Bre had been attacked.
     The only tribute Sor could offer his mother was to close her staring eyes and put a blanket over her body. He tried hard not to think about the implications of what he was doing - his actions were too important to be slowed by grief. Wil had once said what separated winners in a war from losers was that the latter mourned their losses immediately while the former waited until the final blow was struck. He clung to those words like a mantra. Nothing could bring his mother back; his concern had to be for those who still lived: Lea and possibly his father and sister.
     Outside, the sounds of destruction were getting closer, indicating the main force of quatics was headed in this direction. Acting decisively, refusing to be paralyzed by the horror of his discovery, Sor executed a quick search of the rest of the house. While the quatics' damage touched every room, there was no sign of his sister. Perhaps she had escaped. Or perhaps she had never been here at all. He might never know the answer. For now, he had to get away before the quatics cut off his escape route. He needed to find his father, if his father was still alive, to give him the news. But finding one man in the vast, confused sea of retreating soldiers would be a near-impossible task. Sor would have to flee south with everyone else and hope that, when the regiments regrouped, someone would know Reg's location.
     Sor did not intend to give the quatics the satisfaction of molesting his mother's body or burning this house to the ground. Using the lantern he had been carrying, he set fire to the blanket he had draped over Bre's corpse. Sor watched for a moment as his mother's makeshift shroud went up in flames, the blaze consuming her body as it spread through the room. Then, without a backward glance, he fled down the stairs and out the door into the cool night air. Dousing the lantern and keeping to the shadows, he set off in pursuit of the fleeing survivors of the lost battle of Vorti.
     

* * *

     "I think things are moving this way," said Reg, watching the stream of fleeing peasants through the partially open door. The sounds of battle could be heard in the distance, approaching ever-so-slowly.
     "Brilliant observation," replied Eya irritably. Then, moderating her tone, she asked, "Are the guards ready?"
     Reg nodded. His sister had confided to him the real reason those men were here - not for her physical protection, but to provide an additional wellspring of emotion to draw upon so she didn't have to risk draining her own reserves. Reg had voiced his concerns about the ethics of her intention, but her reply had been succinct: "This is a war. They are sworn to defend this city in any way possible, even to the point of giving their lives. This is how they will serve and, if all works out well, the price will be less than death."
     Reg wondered, however, whether Eya believed she could save those men, or herself, for that matter. He knew how imposing, not to mention lethal, her magical displays could be, but this time she was against an army that had ground half of Devforth under foot. And she was alone. From the beginning, she had expected to have the more experienced Wil by her side.
     For his part, Reg didn't expect to survive. He was here to protect his sister, and he accepted that, before it was over, he would have to offer his life. Strangely, the thought didn't frighten him. He had long since lost his fear of death, possibly as far back as when he and Eya had lived in the nightmarish village of Heltala. And, now that his children were grown, or nearly so, and his marriage was crumbling, there didn't seem to be much left to live for. Better to die doing something meaningful. Most men passed from this world in obscurity; at least that would not be his fate.
     "What's the plan? Exactly, I mean. I know the general strategy, but what kinds of magic do you intend to use?" asked Reg.
     Eya shrugged. "Nothing special. There's no reason to try finesse here. I'll start blasting and keep blasting until they run away or I get worn out. For this sort of application, one kind of destructive magic is as good as any other. It will be up to you and the soldiers to dispatch anything that gets through, although I don't expect there to be many in that category. I intend to be thorough."
     "And when it's over?"
     "Then, my dear brother, we run. Actually, you carry me, since I'll be too exhausted to stand up. If we do enough damage to the quatics, we'll beat them down south. Meanwhile, I have to locate Wil. We'll need him at the next battle."
     After that, their conversation lapsed, and the pair spent the better part of the night in silence. It wasn't long before the bell stopped tolling and the sounds of peasants fleeing past the farm house dwindled. Reg and Eya waited, he with more patience than she. Eventually, roughly halfway between midnight and dawn, one of the soldiers posted on the main thoroughfare between the waiting place and the city reported the approach of a large band of quatics.
     "I guess this is it," said Reg.
     "At last," acknowledged his sister. "And it's about time. I hate waiting. Whatever's going to happen, let it happen."
     Nodding his agreement, Reg slid his sword from the scabbard and led the way outside. Eya, drawing her woolen cloak more closely about her, followed. The waiting soldiers came to attention.
     "At ease," murmured Reg, his voice sounding loud in the unnatural stillness. All the sounds were distant - the quatics were still far off and the human survivors had long since abandoned the city.
     Eya momentarily closed her eyes and let her consciousness dissociate from her body. She had learned it was best to attempt magic in this mental condition, especially when intending to rely upon someone else's emotions. Many Apaths thought of magic as an art; Eya viewed it as a science. For her, dispassion was a key. King Sor had wrecked Vorti's noble class and his whole life in a night of enflamed passion. Had he not been intimately entangled in circumstances, the results would not have been the same. Devforth might be a different place today.
     While in this faraway state of mind, she probed the link that connected her to Wil. It was still strong, even if the presence on the other end remained weak and disoriented. Eya wished Wil was with her now. Wil, or Sor, or just about anyone. She had spent most of her life studying magic yet, when it came to a situation like this, she wondered how well her courage would stand up.
     Opening her eyes, Eya looked upon the world as if from a great distance. She was still inhabiting her own body, but her connection to her senses had become distant and muted. She could sense the emotion swirling around her: anticipation, fear, loathing, anger, and a thirst for revenge. There was much to draw from. First, she would siphon off her own fear - that had to go - then should would draw the same from everyone around her, with Reg first. Let them face this battle without a quailing heart.
     Eya hoped for a simpler life in her next existence. No power or magic. Maybe she could be a farmer or a farmer's wife. Just sitting by a fire, gathering her family around her, and enjoying the simple pleasure of their company. Those were things refused to her in this life. She had never married, and her powers denied her the ability to have children. Others saw her as cold and unfeeling, and much of her strength derived from hiding her emotions. Some time, it would have been nice to let go and do something unexpected. But that was not her nature. Maybe in her next life... She could almost hear it calling to her.
     The quatics were approaching. Although Eya couldn't yet see them, the earth trembled with their footfalls. Tensely, she waited, intending to strike the moment they came into view. There was no sense delaying longer. This was her battle; there was no one to coordinate with.
     "When I start, I don't want you or the others doing anything foolish. You will stay here and hold your position until I say otherwise. The intent isn't to get involved in hand-to-hand combat. That's their strength. Ours is magic, and now we're finally getting the chance to put it into practice."
     At that moment, the first quatics came into view, topping a slight rise to the west. Vorti was in flames, and the ruddy firelight made an eerie backdrop to the slowly moving monsters. They ambled forward, unaware of the trap set for them. If they believed the city had been abandoned, they were about to learn the folly of their ways.
     Eya drew upon her own fear, siphoning every sliver of it. Holding the raw energy in, she skimmed from those around her, pooling emotion until she thought she would burst. She intended for the first strike to be powerful, brutal, and demoralizing. She wanted the quatics to fear what they were against. However, to release the most devastating blast of magic she was capable of, Eya had to imperil her existence. The trick was to build enough power without incinerating herself. It was a fine line, but she understood her limits well enough to avoid self-immolation.
     Energy infused her every pore. She was glutted with it, like a fat man who had gorged himself at a feast. She could ingest no more. The time had come to expel it. A moment's focus was all that was necessary. Using her distanced mind to direct the strike, she focused on the enemy, then let loose. Like a great exhalation of air, it swept from her, exploding with deadly accuracy in the front ranks of the advancing quatic army.
     Those who saw what happened to the quatics would never forget the sight. Fire of all colors - red, green, blue, orange, yellow, and white - burst from the ground, reaching skyward. Any living creature touched by the flames was incinerated. Hundreds of quatics perished without knowing they were in danger. The survivors staggered to a halt, then broke in terror, fleeing from the conflagration that had slain their fellows, frightened the earth beneath them had become an enemy.
     Eya's fire died quickly, but she felt a rush of satisfaction. It was possible her attack had done more damage to the quatic army than every conflict that had preceded it. Now, disorder and chaos reigned. It was a beautiful sight, and she felt giddy at the sudden realization that victory might not be impossible. Around her, the guards' expressions were mixed awe and triumph. She caught a few wild grins, and had to conceal one of her own. But there was no time to rest. Drawing upon more emotion, she readied another salvo.
     This time, the fire rained from the sky. White hot hail pelted the quatics and, although those struck by the magical pellets died, their deaths were not as quick or painless as those caught in Eya's initial attack. Hundreds more fell - perhaps as many as a thousand. Suddenly, Eya wished she had Vorti's army with her. At this moment, she felt that, with thousands of armed men alongside her, she could eradicate the entire quatic race.
     Lethargy was creeping over her, however. This must have been how Sor felt when he had spearheaded the attack against the invading dwarves. Only then, he had been supported by others. Eya was alone. There was no one here to magically enhance her strength and keep her on her feet. No one but herself.
     Eya sensed the counterattack before it annihilated her. Five of her guards weren't so lucky. The blast of fire swept over them at the instant when Eya raised a shield. She felt the intense heat, and knew her flesh would be red to the touch, but the flames never reached her, or those to her sides and behind her. Of the five in front, however, only ashes remained. This retaliation had used the same kind of fire Eya had first attacked the quatics with. And that could mean only one thing.
     They had an Apath. Suddenly, the entire equation changed. Eya was no longer up against an army of savages, but another of her own kind and, judging by the viciousness of this attack, a strong one. A quatic Apath? Such a thing had never been heard of. But it would explain a great many things, including why this army had been so successful, and why she had sensed magic being used earlier in this battle.
     "That came from out there," said Reg. "They have an Apath." It was a statement of fact; nothing more. Eya had taken away his capacity to be frightened by the observation.
     Eya nodded her agreement. She refrained from striking back, not knowing where her opponent was. Any attack would be blind. Undoubtedly, however, he knew where she was, and that made her vulnerable.
     "Move! Now!" she commanded, taking off to the south as fast as her legs could carry her. A second attack, some kind of magical wave, devastated the area where she had been standing moments before. It felled more than half of her surviving guards - those who had not instantly obeyed Eya's hasty order.
     Eya's flight was fast and erratic, and it ended when she caught her foot on something and sprawled face-forward in the hip-high grass. Rather than rising, she motioned for the others to get down as well. Hopefully, she had placed enough distance between herself and the quatics. Now, it would be a waiting game. But at least one of her people had to get away. Lea had to be informed that the quatics had an Apath of their own. And it was up to Eya to eliminate that threat, even if it cost her life.
     "We wait here," said Eya. "Not for the dawn, but for a little while. I need to decide what to do next." Sometime during the heat of battle and flight, her consciousness had returned to its normal state. She could feel the adrenaline pumping through her veins. Her heart was racing.
     There was no response. "Reg?" she asked tentatively. The grass obscured her view, but she was sure he had dropped to the ground close by. Turning around to find him, she came face-to-face with a nightmare. An involuntary magical shield snapped into place.
     Disemboweled and leaking blood, her remaining guards were suspended in the air. The nearest to her was her brother, his eyes gouged out, his tongue severed, and a hole in a chest where his heart had once been. Like the others, Reg dangled lifelessly in mid-air. Standing slightly to his left was a grotesque quatic who held Eya's brother's feebly beating heart in his open palm. With an expression of undisguised contempt, the creature closed its fingers around the organ, crushing it.
     "He's not likely to hear you," rumbled a low, dangerous voice. "Permit me to introduce myself. I am Grundig, the quatic who will kill you, Apath-woman. And that shield will not save you. Quite the contrary, in fact."
     Had Eya not been in a state of complete shock, the import of the quatic's words might have registered. But the sight of her brother's ruined corpse had stunned her almost senseless. She felt sick, but the vomit wouldn't come. She clung to the shield desperately, the only thing separating her from the raw anger that fueled and defined Grundig's magic. The whole world seemed to be spinning.
     She couldn't bear to look at Reg, but she couldn't turn away. In her mind's eye, she saw him not as he was now, but as he had been in times past - alive and healthy. Playing with her as a child, supporting her as an adolescent, and remaining by her side into adulthood. Now he was no more. He had no eyes with which to gaze sightlessly at her. Blood and gore coated his face so thickly that his features weren't recognizable.
     What a fool she had been, to think running away would hide her from an Apath! This Grundig had tracked her easily, and this was the result. Suddenly, as if their strings had been cut, the bodies dropped to the ground.
     "Your turn," announced the quatic, his voice harder than stone. Eya could feel his fury - a towering rage. She began to siphon it off, preparing a final attack while strengthening her shield. He didn't seem to be aware of what she was doing, of how she was using his own emotion against him. Grundig was powerful, but he was also overconfident. He believed her to be beaten, but he had underestimated the spirit that burned within her.
     Eya had never been one to use the obvious, so her first strike, a straightforward blast of magic, was a feint. He had to be off-guard for her real attack to succeed. Grundig brushed the magic aside easily, almost contemptuously, continuing to stand there impassively, as if awaiting something. Suddenly, letting out a monstrous howl, he began to scratch furiously at his lower left arm, as if a rash had blossomed. However, what was gnawing at his flesh was more potent than any rash.
     It took only moments for the entire forearm to wither and die, the blood dried up, the bones turned brittle like twigs, and the muscles reduced to the consistency of dried leaves. Grundig's hand became gnarled and useless; feeble digits on the end of a wasted stump. The magical disease, a trick of Eya's own invention, raced up his arm, prepared to devour his entire body. Recognizing his danger a moment before it was too late, Grundig took the only possible action - he ripped his left arm off at the shoulder socket. Blood sprayed everywhere and the quatic let out a bellow of pain, but the action saved his life. Using magic to cauterize the wound, he turned to deal with his enemy.
     Eya was already finished, however. Her magical shield, which Grundig had taken control of, was collapsing in on her, compressing her flesh beyond the normal tolerance of the human body. That which was supposed to protect her was instead killing her, increasing the pressure as it slowly imploded. Eya had been convinced Grundig would try to break the shield; the idea he might seize control of it had never occurred to her. So, all the magic she had funneled into it to strengthen it was now contributing to her death. She might have been able to break free of a weak shield, but this one was too strong, and she was losing the capacity for rational thought as her brain was squeezed. She wasn't dead - at least not yet - but that moment was fast approaching. Grundig was tempted to launch one final attack, but he recognized how pointless such a gesture would be. Instead, he watched, savoring the moment. The death of a foe, especially a worthy one, was a worthwhile moment.
     Her vision distorted by pain, Eya struggled to see Grundig. Part of her mind recognized what was happening to her, but there was nothing she could do to counteract it. Her consciousness was already too badly shattered; she couldn't think clearly enough to undo the damage. And Grundig would survive. She had seen him rip off his arm before the poison had worked its way to his heart. She had failed to stop him. Now it would be up to someone else.
     Blackness swooped down to engulf her. The last image she saw was the quatic's leering face staring at her, savoring his victory. She was not the lone casualty on this killing field; she would join her beloved twin brother and all the soldiers who had protected her. No one was to blame. How could any of them have anticipated this eventuality - a quatic Apath? Never in history had there been such a thing.
     Numbness and oblivion replaced the unbearable pain. Her heart, squeezed until it stopped, leaked blood. The rest of her body had been smashed into an unrecognizable pulp. But it didn't matter. Surcease had enveloped Eya, taking her beyond the world's cares. Her last thoughts had nothing to do with quatics, war, or magic. They were of Reg, whom she was now joining.


© 2006 James Berardinelli

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