PART FOUR: WORLD'S END
For Queen Mia of Xert, it was the saddest of times. She gazed around her throne room, the most lavish in all of Devforth, for what would be one of the last times. Aside from her small retinue of guards, she was alone in this vast chamber. Soon, the quatics would attack and all this - the place where so much of her life had transpired - would be reduced to rubble. Her messengers had informed her of what remained of Tsab and Vorti. She had no illusions about what would befall her city. Even if humanity stopped the quatics at Xert, or its sister-city across the river, Merk, the damage in lives and buildings would be catastrophic. It was almost more than she could bear thinking about.
The throne room, with its vast ivory columns and vaulted ceiling inset with colored glass skylights, had witnessed many of the key events of Mia's life. It was here, at the age of nine, she had been presented before all of Xert as the officially heir to her long-lived mother. Six years after that, she had lost her virginity in the throne room, when she and her paramour had snuck in during the small hours of the morning because it would make their coupling "special." Mia assumed it had probably been "special" for him, since they had been caught in the act and he had been executed. For her, the memory was one of pain and humiMiation.
Ten years ago, she had watched over the corpse of her mother in this very chamber. The old queen, also named Mia, had lived to a ripe old age. Two decades before her mother's death, Mia, as ambitious in youth as she had become complacent in middle-age, had longed for the queen's passing so she could assume the throne. However, by time her mother had passed into her next life, Mia was no longer as anxious to assume power. She enjoyed her role as wife to Prince Yar and mother to twin girls, but duty had called. One month after presiding over the burning, Mia was crowned as the rightful ruler of Xert. Her rule had been peaceful - until now.
She had been trained and groomed as a queen for peace, not war. She understood diplomacy, law, justice, and philosophy, but not battle. Thus, she had all but ceded her authority to her generals, who at least seemed to understand how to proceed in these circumstances. She darly wished Guc of Tsab or Lea of Vorti could join her, but the former was missing and the latter was dead. Mia's only ruling ally was Nom, and the effete ruler of Merk was even more ill-equipped for these circumstances than she.
Today, the queen looked haggard, showing every year of her five and one-half decades in this life. Her silver-gray hair was unkempt, her relatively simple clothing was wrinkled, and the dark circles under her eyes betrayed her lack of sleep. Had she seen herself in a looking glass, she – who had always been vain about her appearance – would have been appalled. Perhaps her time was at an end. Perhaps the reign of humanity as the dominating force in Devforth was coming to a close, as well. Maybe a century from now, this would be a land of quatics, with small ragged groups of human survivors eking out an existence. It was almost too much to endure.
Mia refocused her eyesight on the here and now when she heard the echo of booted feet approaching. Her faithful chamberlain, Klo, who had served her from the day she had taken the throne, approached solemnly and bowed before her.
"Your Majesty, the children have been taken to the harbor as you have commanded. The ship will sail at your word."
Mia sighed, wondering for the dozenth time if this was the correct decision. Her advisors had been split. Some advised sending the twins to Merk then, if the battle was lost, fleeing by land to wherever the refugee camp was established. Others – those Mia had heeded – indicated the heirs to Xert's throne should be placed out of harm's way. Aboard a ship anchored just within sight of land, they would be safe from the quatics, although not from any of the violent storms that occasionally buffeted Devforth's southern coast. As yet, the ship had not sailed, but it was manned and ready for travel.
"Thank you, Klo. Is there any word from Llam?"
"None, Your Majesty. Our runners have not yet returned, which may mean battle has not yet been joined or they have been… intercepted."
"And the party from Vorti."
"They are on approach. General Obv, General Gav, and Chancellor… I mean King… Wil should be here within an hour. The non-combatant survivors of Vorti will cross the river and encamp west of Merk. The soldiers will join our forces to fend off the quatics when they come."
"Is the evacuation complete?" asked Mia. At the advice of her generals, she had sent everyone across the river to Merk. It had been acknowledged that even in the best case scenario, Xert would fall. If the combined armies of Xert, Merk, and what remained of Vorti were defeated defending Xert, at least the river between Xert and Merk would delay the quatics' advance. There were only two permanent crossings, and those would be fired as soon as the retreating soldiers had made use of them.
"All non-essential people have been moved across the river. Members of the militia and government are remaining. Most of Merk's army has crossed the river into Xert and is taking up positions per the plan devised by General Obv."
Mia nodded. Before going to meet the survivors from Vorti, Obv, who was the overall commander of the joint armed forces of the Twin Cities, had devised a detailed plan that outlined the three likely phases of the upcoming battle. The great unknown, the General admitted, was how magic would come into play. It had been widely reported that during the attack on Vorti, the leader of the quatics had used a magical attack to counter the powers of Vorti's apaths. Eya had not survived and, for a while, it had been thought Wil also perished. Thankfully, that was not the case.
Two hours later, that same Wil entered Xert's throne room in the company of his son, Gav; Genera Obv; and a contingent of other military leaders. Under different circumstances, Mia might have been shocked by his worn appearance and the condition of his clothing, which was ragged, bloodstained, and burned. Considering all that was happening, however, it barely registered with the queen. She was just happy to see someone who could provide answers to some of her more vexing questions.
"Your Majesty," said Wil, his voice raspy. His bow was flawless.
Mia rose from her chair and executed the customary curtsy. "Your Majesty," she responded, wondering if she was the first person to have thus addressed Wil.
"Perhaps, perhaps not," said Wil. "We can quibble over titles later, though. For the time being, Queen Lea is presumed dead and Vorti's survivors must have a leader. Is there any word from Llam?"
"None. I have a small army of scouts stationed along the southern coast all the way from here to Llam, but the only response thus far is silence."
Wil considered for a moment. It was possible Grundig had not yet struck at the eastern city, or that he had eliminated Mia's scouts, but there was another disconcerting option. "Do you have scouts deployed to the north?"
"To the north? No. Everything we know indicates…"
"Everything we knew was that the quatics' first target would be Fels. It was Tsab. Everything we knew was that Merk and Xert would be attacked after Tsab. It was Vorti. The quatic leader, Grundig, is doing everything possible to take us unawares. The logical path for the quatics would be to Llam then Xert. But what if they bypassed Llam and looped around to attack not Xert, but Merk?"
"Where all our citizens and your refugees will be…"
Mia's blood turned to ice. "General Obv, see to it that all possible approaches to the west are watched by scouts. At the first sign of any unusual activity, we are to be informed."
"Aye, Your Majesty."
"What of Fels, King Wil? Can we expect aid from them?"
"Unlikely. Fels is in a state of chaos and panic. Their goal appears to be self-preservation. But I no longer believe they are in league with the quatics."
"And the wizards' school? Will they be sending Apaths to our aid."
Wil grimaced. "What you see here," he indicated his raiment. "Is the result of the reception I received at the school. I think it unlikely we can hope for aid from them. What of Apaths in Merk and Xert? Have any come forward?"
"In that case, we'll have to engage in a purely conventional battle with the quatics. My powers will be held back to counter Grundig's. When he attacks, I have to be at my strongest to have a chance of defeating him." Eya had been stronger and more offensively minded than Wil, but she had been beaten. Then again, having seen her remains, Wil was forewarned of how Grundig had eliminated her. No Apath would suspect their own magical defenses could be used against them. Had Eya been aware of the quatic's tactics, perhaps she would have triumphed. In terms of raw power, Wil could not match Eya, but he was more experienced and more knowledgeable, and he hoped that would give him an edge.
"Without magic, it's going to be a close thing. We don’t know how effective the archers are going to be, and our strategy at the river is fraught with uncertainty. Nothing like that has ever before been attempted. If it works, we might have a chance."
Wil understood. The third phase of Obv's battle plan was daring and innovative, but there was no guarantee it would work. If it didn't, the troops massed on Merk's side of the river would find themselves in close combat with a foe whose strength and ferocity they could not match. Wil, however, could not help. His battle was with Grundig. He was the only one who could stand against the quatic. If he lost, it might not matter how unique Obv's strategies were. If Grundig pushed himself to Burgeoning Apathy, he might be able to singlehandedly devastate the entire human army.
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