PART FOUR: WORLD'S END
The flash of pain ripped through Wil's dazed consciousness like a psychic lance. Suddenly, the peaceful numbness that had enveloped him shattered into a million particles, threatening to rip apart his mind. A void of nothingness pulled at him, seeking to drag him into its maw. Instinctively, he fought against it, realizing if he succumbed to that pull, the next time he would see the light would be in his next life.
Slowly and methodically, Wil gathered the shards of his mind, pulling himself back from the brink of oblivion. At first, he didn't understand what had happened but, as his memories re-established themselves, he knew there was only one possibility. The clarity with which he now viewed his surroundings confirmed it. Eya was dead, and the force of her death, projected through the link he shared with her, had enabled him to break through the drug-induced stupor that had clotted his magical abilities. He was free, but at the price of another's life.
And that brought up the most painful question of all: If Eya was dead, what about Lea? What about Vorti? Wil didn't know how long Urv had held him in close confinement. The drug he had been plied with made time insubstantial, but the battle of Vorti had to be underway already, if not finished. It was already too late for Wil to offer assistance. The best he could do now was assess the damage and decide how to proceed.
Then he recalled Grundig. The name hung meaningless in his mind until he dredged through the misty and incoherent memories of the past few days. Grundig was the Apath leader of the quatics. An Apath. No one at Vorti would have known that - not Lea or Eya. They would have prepared their defense expecting magic to be a decisive edge. But Grundig had been there. It didn't require much of a leap of intuition to guess what had transpired. Even the most cautious and powerful Apath could be felled by an unexpected magical attack.
Rage built within Wil - a towering anger at the petty actions of this society of Apaths who were willing to kill and imprison their own for a few secrets. They were prepared to sacrifice their race for their own safety. In their own way, they were worse than the quatics. But not more dangerous. And, as dearly as Wil wanted to strike out against them now, to burn this place down with them in it, he had to conserve his strength for the larger battle. Grundig had to be stopped. Urv and his cronies could wait until the quatic threat was ended. Then Wil would visit upon them the terrors of the damned. He would make each of them beg for death. By nature, he was not a cruel man but, at this moment, he could understand the passion that had led to Sor's destruction of the nobility. What the late King of Vorti had done to a class of his subjects, Wil would do to this guild of wizards.
Wil had no intention of sneaking out of his place of imprisonment. There was some value to a spectacular exit, although it would leave him vulnerable to attack if they could regroup quickly enough, which he doubted. By blasting his way out, he would create more than a sliver of doubt in the wizards' minds regarding the extent of his abilities. He had already survived their firestorm, rumor had it that he could siphon emotion from others, and now he had overcome a drug that supposedly suppressed all magic. At the very least, his escape should generate uncertainty; at the best, it might sow the seeds of fear. He wanted Urv to be frightened. Let the man cower in terror until the moment of his reckoning arrived. For these actions, there would be no mercy or mitigating circumstances.
Wil didn't intend to cripple himself emotionally in the escape attempt, so, using Eya's talent, as he had come to regard it, he stretched out his mind to intercept the surface emotions of others within the complex. He wasn't careful in what he chose or who he chose it from - one emotion was as potent as another, and Wil was just concerned about accumulating enough to facilitate his escape. He didn't have ethical qualms about the quality of the pilfered energy.
When he was saturated, Wil transformed emotion to raw energy and blasted a tunnel from his position to the compound exit, smashing through walls, doors, and anything else that got in the way. There was one casualty - a man who happened to be sitting in a chair directly in the path of destruction.
Chaos reigned. Alarm bells sounded. But by the time anyone had any idea what was transpiring, Wil was long gone, having taken to the air like a bird, soaring high into the night sky and heading southwest. Below and behind him, not only the wizards' school, but the entire city, mobilized in anticipation of a quatic attack. It would take even Urv some time to determine that the source of the threat was not Grundig's troops, but his prize prisoner.
Another aspect of the situation Wil was forced to consider was how widespread the treason was within the human race. Clearly, Urv - and perhaps some of his cohorts - were involved in a conspiracy to promote quatic rule of Devforth. Wil didn't know what the Apath had been promised - he doubted any sum of money would be enough - but Urv was reporting to Grundig. The fact he was betraying the quatic as well was of little matter. If someone of Urv's standing and power could be bought, how many others might be working for the quatics? With magic and treachery thrown into the mix, the equation had become complex. The battle lines were no longer clean-cut, and the enemy could be among them.
Although Wil could fly rapidly for short spans of time, he couldn't continue at high speeds for an extended period. So, after the initial burst carried him away from Fels, he slowed, pacing himself. Whatever had transpired at Vorti was long over, and his presence now would make little difference one way or the other. But he had to make some assessment of the battle before continuing on. The plan was for the survivors to regroup at the Twin Cities, so Wil assumed that would be his ultimate destination.
Wil flew on through the night, mulling over the consequences of what he had learned while in Fels. Lost in thought, he soared south and east, letting the terrain blur beneath him. It wasn't until he saw the smoke that he became aware of how far he had traveled. By now, the muddy gray of a cloudy dawn was touching the eastern sky. Ahead, the smouldering rubble of Vorti glowed red in the early morning gloom.
Even his awareness of the devastation visited by the quatics upon Tsab did not prepare Wil for this picture of total destruction. The city was a ruin - it appeared every building had been torn down and fires burned out of control. There were quatics everywhere, milling about, searching for one more foundation to topple or more combustible debris to ignite. There was no sign of anything remotely human, alive or dead. If there were bodies, they had been burned, eaten, or buried beneath the rubble.
Even knowing the city as well as Wil did, he had trouble getting his bearings. Nothing was as he remembered it. Eventually, he identified the remains of the palace, but that offered no clues as to whether Lea had escaped in time. The more he surveyed the wreckage, the more certain Wil became of one simple truth: when the quatics were driven from this land, there was no way this damage could be repaired. Vorti, like Tsab to the far west, would have to be rebuilt from the ground up. The quatics, presumably out of maliciousness, had made certain no vestige of the city was salvagable. A city hundreds of years in the making had been torn down in one night.
Wil searched for Grundig. With no buildings left standing, the quatic Apath had to be in the open. From this height, it was difficult to tell one of the creatures from another, but Wil was certain he would recognize the leader, if only by the pattern of others around him. At the same time, Wil did his best to estimate numbers. One of the most crucial pieces of intelligence he could bring to the Twin Cities was the enemy's strength and, while it appeared considerable, it was clear that some damage had been done. Roughly three-thousand quatics remained. Guc had estimated the attack force at Tsab to number five-thousand. How much of Vorti's militia had been lost inflicting those wounds?
He could not find Grundig, and he couldn't waste the entire day searching. It was imperative to move on. Besides, the longer he remained here, the more precarious his situation was. Eventually, someone would look up, and the sight of a man flying around would excite considerable reaction. Wil did not intend to become involved in a one-on-one combat with Grundig now; he was far from peak strength. Killing the quatic leader stealthily, with an unexpected magical attack was one thing; dueling him was another. The latter eventuality might come, but Wil intended to pick the time and place. He intended to use every advantage he could gain.
There was, however, one thing Wil had to attend to before catching up with Vorti's refugees. Stretching out his senses, he probed the broken link to Eya, which would lead him to where she had fallen. It was unlikely the quatics would offer her a decent burning, if there was anything left of her to burn. Since there was nothing more that he could do for her, Wil felt he owed her at least that much, even though it would place him in danger. During her life, she had been many things to him: daughter, pupil, friend, teacher, and lover. In the end, he owed his life to her. It stung that he had been unable to do anything to repay her in kind. Had he been by her side, things might have been different. Together, they might have beaten Grundig.
Blackened earth greeted Wil's probing eyes as he continued his flight eastward. Huge swaths of ground had been scorched black. Even from this height, he could recognize the deep charring only magical fire could create. So this had been the battleground. From the looks of things, it had been a fierce struggle. Wil wondered how many had perished. The only remains left from that sort of conflagration would be ashes, which made it difficult to count casualties. Perhaps this explained the sharp reduction in the quatics' numbers. If Eya had struck first, without Grundig realizing she was there, her attack could have been devastating.
Of course, it was possible Eya had killed the quatic leader before succumbing herself. After all, Wil hadn't seen him. But it was foolish to accept that as a likely scenario. Until presented with evidence to the contrary, Wil had to accept that Grundig was still alive. When it came time for the next battle, which would likely be the last one, it was necessary to expect magic from the quatics. If it didn't come, so much the better.
There were fewer quatics below than in the ruins of the city proper, but there were enough to make a landing dangerous. While Wil was certain he could outmaneuver any normal quatic, if Grundig was around, his next actions would be tantamount to suicide. He had identified where Eya had fallen - a small patch of torn-up ground several hundred paces away from the wasted earth. Although Wil couldn't be sure, it was likely there were bodies present - the flock of vultures argued for that. He would spare Eya the indignity of becoming a scavenger's meal.
Before landing, however, Wil took one last opportunity to survey the scene below him, commiting it to memory for future reference. Three thousand quatics, picking over the bones of a broken and burning city. A swath of once-fertile ground, charred in such a way that nothing would ever grow there again. Fields trampled. Whatever devastation the quatics could cause, they succeeded in doing. Wil doubted many of Vorti's citizens would recognize this place if they were brought back.
Having drunk in his fill of the site, he descended to alight at the spot where his dead mind-link led him. The cluster of vultures took to the air with sqawks of protest. The nearest quatic, several hundred paces away, let out a grunt of surprise. But it was too far away to hinder Wil.
The sight that greeted the Apath was a grizzly one. Naked, half-eaten bodies with bones stripped bare of flesh littered the ground. As best Wil could tell, they were all men, possibly Eya's guards although, if so, their armor and weapons had been removed from the site. There was one other body, although Wil didn't recognize it at first. The vultures had shunned this, perhaps sensing its unnaturalness. Instinctively, Wil knew this bloody, puply mass of gelatinous material was all that remained of Eya. He could guess the cause as well - something had forced her magical shields to collapse. They had compressed and liquified until, with the last beat of her heart, they had dissipated. It was a horrible way to die, and Wil found himself swallowing several times hard.
Without hesitation, he lit a pyre for Eya and the others, using a cool-burning magical fire that would consume the bodies, then burn until his own death. It would not spread, but neither would it be extinguished - not by rain, wind, or the act of another Apath. This would be his tribute to Eya, and his warning to Grundig. Letting the flames flicker, he took to the air. Several dozen quatics had been approaching him, but all had frozen when he lit the fire. Now, as he sprung skyward, they turned and fled. Without another glance backward, Wil headed south, hoping to catch sight of the remnants of Vorti's army.
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