PART FOUR: WORLD'S END
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.
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