The first arrow was fired ninety minutes before the sun had reached its zenith, and thus was joined the last great battle of the second human/quatic war. The combined legions of Vorti, Xert, and Merk stood twelve rows deep in front of the gates of the eastern city, not wavering even when they saw the fearsome appearance of their foes – a throng of monsters advancing upon them with menace. The rain of flaming arrows did not slow or delay the quatics. A few went down, the fiery missiles embedded in the soft tissue of their necks, but most of the would-be targets brushed away the arrows as if they were gnats. The few brush fires that started were feeble and quickly extinguished. In all, perhaps two dozen quatics died before hand-to-hand combat was joined.
     For Gav, it was a hard thing not to be on the front line with the men. His every instinct rebelled against remaining out of harm's way with the other architects of the battle plan. His ethic, instilled in him by his father, was that one never delegated to others what one was unwilling to do oneself. Wil would probably die today – Gav was pragmatic enough to recognize that – but, barring a freak occurrence, tonight's sunset would not be the general's last.
     Once the battle began, the throne room was a frenzy, with runners streaming in and out constantly. None of the generals had a direct view of the proceedings; they had to rely on the reports of others. Gav thought that was a mistake. In Vorti, the command post had been in the open air, with a full view of the battlefield. That had turned out to be a disaster, with the heretofore unknown magic of the quatic leader reducing it to rubble but, despite the spaciousness of the throne room, it felt claustrophobic.
     Phase one of the battle was simple enough. It was primarily a diversion technique, designed to lull the quatics into a belief that the battle would be brief. The cost in human lives would be extreme. Men could not stand up well in close combat with quatics. That was not the way to fight them. It was a lesson learned hard at the battles of Tsab and Vorti, but it couldn't be avoided. From the beginning, Gav knew the flaming arrows would not be effective here. In the first place, there was not as must combustible material to catch fire. In the second place, the quatics would be ready for it.
     Phase two called for the humans to retreat through the city, drawing the quatics into Xert's maze of narrow, winding streets. The better part of the last week had been spent seeding the city with material that would burn – everything from straw and dry wood to parchment. Flaming arrows and burning pitch dropped from rooftops would ignite the debris, transforming Xert into an inhospitable inferno. Obv had opined that half the quatic force might be eliminated in this manner. Gav was not as hopeful. He expected the death toll to be less. Grundig's magic would ensure it. The quatic Apath would not stand by and let twelve hundred of his men be burned alive.
     Phase three called for the complete abandonment of Xert and the burning of the bridges that connected the eastern city from the western one. The Goldenwater River was too deep and swift at this point to be crossed, even by the quatics. So they would have to find an alternative, which probably would mean taking rubble from Xert and constructing a fording point. That would take time, and all the while, archers could attack with flaming arrows, while other soldiers could hurl flasks of flaming pitch and acid. Casualties would not be massive, but they would mount over time. The longer it took the quatics to cross, the more damage would be done to their forces. Meanwhile, the non-military population could be in full retreat, heading toward the abandoned ruins of Tsab, which had been designated as the rendezvous point.
     Phase four replicated phase two, but with Merk. The effectiveness of this part of the battle was questionable, and relied on tricking the quatics into believing the human refugees were hiding in the city rather than fleeing. If the enemy army figured out there were only token survivors in Merk, they could bypass the city entirely.
     The wild card was magic, and at what point Wil's confrontation with Grundig would occur. The earlier it happened, the better the chance for success. If Grundig led the quatics, phase four had little chance of success, but it might work if they were leaderless. In fact, without Grundig, they might have no idea how to cross the Goldenwater.
     The assessment of the battle commanders, based on the reports coming in from the front, was that the humans were making an unexpectedly good showing in the hand-to-hand combat. The ratio of human-to-quatic fatalities was about three-to-one, which was better than at Vorti and substantially improved over Tsab. FamiMiarity with how the quatics fought was part of the reason; the enemy was strong but not cunning. Anticipating a move could create an opening. Humans had not recognized that during earlier battles. It had been drilled into them during the last few days. Preparation in a war like this could not be undervalued.
     "We can win this!" exclaimed Obv after reviewing another casualty report. "If we can kill enough of them in the city, we can make the price of victory too high for them. They'll have to back off."
     It was, in Gav's opinion, the enthusiasm of a man who had not seen what the quatics had done to Vorti. There had been moments of optimism there, too, until Grundig lashed out. He had been the difference then, and he would likely be the difference now.
     When indications estimated the human casualty rate at about 50%, Obv said, "I think it's time we moved to phase two. We need to have enough men left to fight the rest of the battle, and I'm not sure anything else can be gained by continuing this. Does anyone disagree?"
     There was silence.
     "Sound the retreat." Thus began phase two of the conflict.

* * *

     Wil watched from his vantage point as if he was seeing a play whose script he had already read. He wished there had been time enough to cart in combustible material to ring the city, but there hadn't even been enough time to dump as much of it as was desired throughout the streets. It was unclear how quickly the flames would devour Xert once they were lit. Many of the buildings were stone, but there was enough straw to allow the battle commanders hope that many quatics, lost in the unfamiMiar maze of streets, would burn alive when flaming pitch was used to ignite all that was flammable within Xert. Perhaps in its death throes, the city would turn into a pyre for the quatics' army. If that happened, Grundig would have to act to save his forces, and Wil would have him. But that phase of the plan was a short time away.
     The clash in front of the gates was brutal and bloody, with many of the human fighters, unprepared for the ferocity of their enemies, being torn limb from limb. For each quatic that fell, three times as many humans died. The arrows continued to rain down upon the rear portion of the quatic forces, but they were all but ignored. Once the bowmen ran out of ammunition, they retreated to the fallback position on the other side of the river where more arrows and pitch awaited them.
     Wil searched the chaos for a sign of Grundig, but he could not discern the quatic leader with any certainty. There were seven or eight quatics in positions of authority, but it was impossible to determine which one was the overall leader. Wil could not guess. He had to be correct. If he attacked the wrong quatic, he would lose his greatest advantage.
     The total fighting force meeting the quatics outside of Xert numbered nearly four-thousand, giving the humans a numerical advantage. By noon, after ninety minutes of fighting, that was no longer the case. Half the human host had been eliminated, but quatic losses were less than 500, including those that had died from arrows and fire. One of the lead quatics had been slain, brought down by four soldiers in a coordinated attack, but he was not Grundig, and they did not survive long after their triumph. Wil continued to wait, impatience and the need to act gnawing at him.
     When the retreat was sounded with less than half of the fighting force intact, Wil abandoned his observation post and headed for a perch atop the western, river-facing wall. It was too dangerous to remain in the city. Once the quatics entered, it would be set ablaze. Flight was not an option at this time, since the expenditure of magical energy would give him away. He had to retreat to a safe observation point from which to continue his vigil. His concern was that Grundig would do something to give himself away while Wil was in transit. But there was no alternative unless he wanted to risk dying by flames or smoke.
     At first, as the quatics entered the city, nothing happened. They fanned out through the streets, pursuing small groups of humans who had been left behind as bait while the rest of the army escaped to Merk. Once a sizable portion of the enemy army was inside Xert, the assault began. Archers hidden atop buildings let loose with volleys of flaming arrows, while other soldiers dumped barrels of pitch into the straw-strewn streets below. Fire erupted everywhere, consuming the fuel that had been brought in sometimes spreading to the timbers of the less sturdily constructed buildings. Simultaneously, fires sprung up all over Xert.
     Wil had just reached his new perch when the second phase of the battle started. It was apparent the quatics were not prepared for this tactic, and they were hit hard. Initial casualties were severe. Scanning the burning city in front of him, Wil waited. How much longer before Grundig acted?
* * *

     Guc wasn't at the front of the battle, but he was close enough that he could later claim to be in the thick of the fighting. His sword was bloody – the result of stabbing a wounded quatic limping away from the conflict – but he made sure he didn't put himself in mortal danger. Guc was no coward, as he had proven at Tsab, but this was not his battle. For him to recognize his ultimate ambition of rebuilding his city, he had to survive. And survival meant at any cost. The lives of the men around him were the currency to be paid to thin out the hoard of quatics. Every dead monster was one less he would have to contend with later. He expected both Xert and Merk to fall. The question was: how formidable would the quatic fighting force be once the humans had spent their dearest blood trying to stop them?
     At the moment, Guc was surrounded by death. Not ten feet away, a soldier hardly more than half the king's age was having an arm ripped off as a quatic's teeth tore into his neck. Men to the boy's left and right took the opportunity to stab the quatic through the chest, but their strokes were not sure, and it turned on one of them to rend him to pieces. It was like that all over, with the superior strength and stamina of the quatics making them seemingly unstoppable. It often took two or three killing strokes to bring down a quatic, and many men were dead before they could deliver the second or third blow.
     From his present vantage point, Guc could not estimate casualties, but it seemed as if the humans were being slaughtered. There were dead quatics, to be sure, but most of the fallen bodies and death cries belonged to members of his species.
     When the bell in the palace belltower tolled to signal the retreat, Guc felt as if he had been in the field for days, not hours. He fell back with the rest of the men. Those around him who recognized him flashed him quick grins, which he returned. His presence bolstered the spirits of those around him. Here was a leader who threw himself into the fray with the people, rather than holing up far from the front. This is how Guc would build his new reputation. This is how he would be remembered by all the citizens after the war – as a great hero. Or so he hoped.
* * *

     From her vantage point in Merk, Queen Mia could not see when the enemy engaged her soldiers, but she could hear the commotion. It was like distant thunder. By her side atop an eastward-facing balcony on the palace's upper floor were her husband, Yar, and Merk's leader, Hur. Idly, she noted they were as different as two men could be. Hur was short and slim, with almost feminine features that may have been the result of a part-elf lineage. Yar was big and burly, with a gray leonine mane of hair and a beard nearly as full and rich. Mia had married him for love against her mother's wishes and, all these years later, she had lost none of her affection for him. She wished the same was true of him. He stayed with her out of loyalty because she was the queen, but he had two long-term mistresses to share his bed at night. Mia had not slept beside her husband in years. In fact, she rarely saw him, but he was here now.
     Occasionally, a runner would arrive with a progress report. As best Mia could tell, things were going as expected. Men were dying in large numbers; quatics more slowly. The battle had started with the humans having a slight advantage in numbers, but that had been erased. Wil had not yet acted. She wasn't certain what he was waiting for, but she had heard he would not use his magic until the quatic leader had made the first move. She didn't understand, though, why he couldn't blow apart a portion of the attacking army then go after the leader. That shouldn't be beyond him. Everyone knew Wil was the most powerful Apath in Devforth. That had been an established fact for more than 15 years.
     "Castellan," said Hur, turning to his chief policeman. "Has the city been properly evacuated?"
     "It has, Your Majesty. All non-essential personnel are beyond the western wall, awaiting the command to move out."
     "Send the aged and the infirm now." This was not part of the plan, but Hur thought the battle commanders hadn't paid enough attention to details like that. Carts bearing those less able to travel would slow down the entire procession. They must be sent ahead. "Pull a half squadron from patrol duty to escort them."
     "Is that wise, Your Majesty?" asked Mia.
     "It's necessary. We're going to lose both cities. You and I know that. It's time we started acting like leaders and trying to save as many lives as possible."
     "Why not send everyone, then?"
     "Because the quatics might figure out what's happening and turn away from the cities. Their goal isn't to raze buildings, it's to kill the people living in them. They have to believe most of us are still here. They doubtless have scouts patrolling. If they see that a mass exodus is underway, they'll pull out of Xert and change tactics. That's why the generals didn't want us sending anyone until they had broken through to the river."
     Mia was surprised at Hur's grasp of tactics. She had thought of her fellow leader as a bookish man.
     The palace bell of Xert began chiming. It was the sign for the troops to pull back. Mia still could not see any men, but it wasn't long before plumes of smoke were in evidence. Shortly thereafter, a gray haze settled over the city. Tears welled in Mia's eyes as she watched the place where she had been born and lived her life turn into a tomb for quatics. That's when she felt the pain in her chest.
     Initially, no one noticed anything was wrong. By the time they did, there was nothing anyone could do. Her face ashen and her eyes wide with surprise, Mia was dead before she hit the floor. Fittingly, the queen had died alongside her city.
* * *

     Grundig did not like the way the battle was progressing. His men should not be tired; he had allowed them ample time for rest after sacking Llam, but their movements were sluggish and they were making too many mistakes. It was also obvious the humans had learned better tactics over the course of the war – something that could not be said about the quatics. His forces still had the advantage when it came to size, strength, and endurance, but the enemy was adaptable. At Tsab, one quatic had died for every five humans. Here, the ratio was less advantageous. All the more reason to finish the humans off as soon as possible, before they came up with a way to make the odds even closer.
     Grundig stayed near the front of the fray, but not so close that he became involved in actual combat. His role was twofold: to urge his forces forward by his presence and to search for any hints the humans might have an Apath. After what had happened at Vorti, Grundig did not intend to be taken by surprise again. His quick action and preparedness had been instrumental to the defeat of the wizards at Llam. Had they come upon the quatic army unawares, the result might have been different. As yet, there had been no evidence of magical activity, which encouraged Grundig. The longer the battle remained conventional, the less likely it was that the humans had any hidden resources.
     Meanwhile, Grundig's forces were gradually pushing the humans back as they shredded the front line. The quatic leader urged his soldiers forward, eager to press the advantage. Then a bell began tolling, and the humans began a quick but orderly retreat into the city.
     "Cut them down from behind! Destroy them!" bellowed Grundig. Nevertheless, he did not rush into the city with his men. Instead, he waited behind, and that's where he was when he saw the smoke and heard the cries.
     You have underestimated them once again. Your success at Llam made you careless and foolhardy, sneered Vas' voice. Xert was a trap, and Grundig was furious with himself and his men for having fallen into it so easily, and so soon after the humans had employed something similar at Vorti. He strode forward and it quickly became clear his army was in real danger. More than half his forces were within a city that was turning into an inferno. Combustible materials had been brought in to enhance the flammability of structures that were primarily stone. Now, quatics were dying by the scores, burned alive as they sought to escape from a labyrinth of narrow, unfamiliar streets.
     If Grundig didn't act, he might not have much of an army with which to pursue the surviving humans. His goal of quatic domination hinged upon him taking action. Yet he hesitated. Using magic meant opening himself to enemy counterattack. It was unlikely the humans had Apaths waiting, but if they did…
     He entered the city on foot to get a firsthand perspective of the gravity of the situation. Chaos reigned, with quatics fleeing in all directions. Order, always difficult to maintain, had broken down completely amidst the flames and smoke. Quatics, some badly burned, streamed past Grundig in their haste to get out of the city. Fury began to bubble and seethe within Grundig, and he drew upon that emotion.
     On the other side of Xert, the Goldenwater River surged, overflowing its banks and flooding into both Xert and Merk. Grundig pulled the excess water toward him, creating six-foot high waves in the streets, extinguishing flames and bringing relief to his forces. Within moments, it was done, and there was no counterattack. Grundig smiled grimly. There were no Apaths. He began rallying his troops to lead them through the wreckage of the city and across to Merk.
* * *

     The fires in Xert were more effective than Wil had anticipated, with the confused and lost quatics dying in significant numbers. The order of their military formations had collapsed and they were now fleeing helter-skelter, as many running deeper into the city as there were escaping. It had been mentioned to Wil that the quatics had not reacted well when faced with fire at Vorti, and that seemed to be the case here, as well. Since the creatures came from the wet marshes where humidity likely retarded attempts to light a flame, that wasn't surprising. For the enemy, perhaps the only fear greater than that of their commander was that of the angry red and orange demons springing up around them, threatening to char their skins and fill their lungs with suffocating smoke.
     In its own strange way, the sight of Xert being consumed by flames was a triumphant thing - not because it represented the fall of another human city, but because it was the first time the army of quatics, which had pushed from one side of Devforth to the other with only pockets of resistance, was being dealt a setback. Even if Grundig's army survived the inferno, it would be battered and reduced. For the first time, he felt a glimmer of hope. Then Grundig acted.
     Wil felt the magic energy the moment was unleashed, and he had no difficulty tracking its source. Grundig was on the eastern edge of Xert, hidden from the chancellor's eyes, but not from his magical senses. Now that he knew which quatic was Grundig, he would be able to track him. Rather than taking to the air to launch an attack – one that would give him away and void his advantage of surprise – Wil decided to let the quatic leader come to him. The Apath crouched and hid, watching with all his senses. Grundig was coming this way and to pass out of Xert to the west, he would have to pass close to the spot where Wil was hiding.
     When it happened, everything would occur quickly. There would be no time for thinking or planning. Wil had determined how he would attack, but there were other considerations that had to be weighed. He had already decided to fight the battle in the air – that way, Grundig couldn't end things by collapsing his footing out from under him. The precise timing of the first strike was crucial, as was deciding how and when to summon Sor. Wil admitted he wasn't sure how to do that. Did it require magic, or could he simply concentrate, the way Lea had done?
     Unexpectedly, Wil had his answer. Shimmering in front of him, winking almost unbidden into non-corporeal existence, was Sor.
     "So we have come to this," breathed the spirit. Wil could hear the soft, hollow words despite the clamor around him.
     "Do you know what there is between us?" asked Wil.
     "Know? No, I don't know. But I can surmise. We are each part of a greater whole, and I am not allowed to pass on until you join me."
     Wil nodded. "We – you and I together – are Garvad."
     "A nice legacy. So you are preparing for us to be rejoined?"
     "My plan of attack, once set in motion, doesn't leave room for many alternatives."
     "Where will you draw the energy from?"
     "Myself. Grundig. The quatics. It will be indiscriminate. Eya and I used to debate the ethics of doing this sort of thing. I argued against it; now, I'll be using it."
     "The technique will die with you unless you have passed it on."
     "Who would I pass it on to? I'm sure it will be re-discovered, just as I'm sure Eya was not the first one to unearth it."
     "Is Lea safe? I had expected her to summon me one last time."
     "She's on a ship headed for World's End. She believes you sent her there."
     "I did. I cannot see the future, but I know the boundary is not as dangerous to cross as we have always believed. And there are many lands beyond where Lea will be able to find refuge."
     "What exactly are you now? Ghost? Seer? Watcher?"
     "Perhaps a little of all. Not quite living, not quite dead. Able to see, but not with eyes. Able to hear, but not with ears. Not able to feel or touch or smell or taste. For a while, I was in asleep in this oblivion until you awoke me. Every day since then, my ties to life have been strengthening. But that bodes ill for the world, because the closer I come to returning, the weaker the boundaries between life and death become. It must end here and now. If I slip away and am summoned again, I will regain life, and all the barriers will collapse. There will be no difference between life and death, and no refuge for the living or the dead. The cycle of rebirth will end, and an eternity of nothingness will beckon us all. That, not just the fate of Devorth, is what is at stake here."
     "Can you stay?"
     "For as long as I must. The void will try to pull me back but I can resist for a time, as long as I don't resist so hard it snaps the barriers. But this thing must be done soon."
     Wil watched as the last of the humans crossed the bridge from Xert to Merk, overturning and smashing open barrels of pitch behind them. This crossing point, like the one to the south, was covered by the inky black substance. Torches were held at the ready, and it was not long before they were put to use. The first of the quatics emerged from the city and raced forward, heedless of the danger. The bridge exploded in flames, killing the quatics who were in the process of crossing and reducing the main passage across the Goldenwater unusable. To the south, the bellows of pain and the smoke testified that the scene was being repeated near the harbor. Then Grundig appeared, roaring orders.
     "Now," said Sor.
     With the fury of an unleashed god, Wil struck.
     The Apath gathered as much energy from within himself as he could siphon in an instant and transformed it into a bolt of pure energy to hurl at Grundig. The quatic, alerted to the presence of another wizard as the attack came, was able to deflect part of the devastation. He was left singed and reeking of burnt flesh and hair, but not seriously injured. Across the span from the wall to the street, his eyes locked with Wil's. Then, as if by unspoken agreement, they both took to the air, there to fight their battle.
     Wil raised his shields, and he knew Grundig had done the same. They regarded each other warily across the twenty feet separating them. Sor, ethereal but visible, hovered beside Wil. Meanwhile, on the ground, all activity had stopped as everyone – human and quatic – turned their eyes skyward.
     Instead of attacking immediately, the quatic spoke. "Chancellor Wil of Vorti. I was informed you had died. Apparently, my messenger did not speak the truth." His eyes widened with surprise when he saw Sor. "I recognize your spectral companion from old. King Sor," he inclined his head in a sign of respect. "It has been many years. Another lifetime, in fact."
     "Vas," replied Sor, seeing not the quatic but his old nemesis. "One way or another, we play out the last act now. Hopefully, in your next life, you will not be so twisted."
     "Twisted, Your Majesty," said Grundig. "You know nothing. To my people, I am the hero and you are the oppressor. For centuries, we have been abased. But we are the stronger race, and deserve to rule. All the quatics needed was someone with the power and intelligence to band them together. I am that entity, the Prophet of the Quag.
     "As for my prior history with you – you did not understand then and you do not understand now that all I did as Vas was done for the good of the city. Ironic that I should return as its destroyer. I was without emotion when I died as Vas, but I am not without emotion now. I will destroy Wil, banish you back to the shadowy realm from whence you came, and mop up this human rabble. Do you think that burning bridges and fleeing west will stop me? We will hunt you down until not one of you is left alive."
     Wil felt the pressure on his shields increase. Grundig was using the tactic that had served him well when facing Eya and the Llam contingent. Prepared for this, Wil had erected a different sort of shield – one that disintegrated rather than collapsed when it was prodded from the outside. The moment his shields were gone, Grundig attacked, pelting him with fire and ice. The pain was excruciating, but Wil blocked it from his mind and concentrated.
     He began drawing in energy. He took first from himself: his sadness at Lea's departure, his grief over Eya's death, his rage at what the quatics had done to his race and this world. Then he went deeper, plumbing the depths of emotions, reaching to his core: his anger at Sor and his determination to topple him from the throne, his love of Lis and his agony at losing her, his sadness at what had become of his father. Emotions and feelings long thought lost or buried were sacrificed to the cause. Wil hardly noticed and didn't care when he passed the point of no return. Burgeoning Apathy embraced him and still he continued.
     He began to draw from Grundig. The quatic was a wellspring of rage – anger at himself, his fellows, his enemies, and especially Guc and Lea, who had inadvertently killed his favorite son. Wil sucked emotion from Grundig like he was a bottomless well. At the same time, he siphoned it from the ground forces.
     Power crackled around him and within him. He could no longer see – his eyes had burned away. His brain and skin were on fire. All he knew was the sensation of power. He was becoming raw energy. His heart had stopped. He was no longer breathing. The last of who he had been was dissolving in white heat.
     Grundig, watching this spectacle from close by, did not sense his danger until it was too late. He was watching Wil's death and, although he did not understand the exact means by which his foe was perishing, he failed to sense the inherent trap. A fraction of a second before Wil released all control, he recognized the danger but, by that time, there were no shields strong enough to shield him from the blast.
     "Now," said Sor. They were the last words Wil heard in this lifetime, and they were spoken directly into the blazing remnants of his brain. He let go and all of the blinding light and fierce heat turned into the refreshing cool of an endless night.
     Wil's body exploded like a star. So much power was contained in that incandescent nova that those on the ground were forced to avert their eyes. The expulsion of power was so fast that it took only a split second for its results to be seen. A lone body, that of Grundig, dropped like a deadweight to the ground. All that remained of the quatics' leader was a blackened husk. Impossibly, his chest still rose and fell, but his mind, like his eyes, had been utterly destroyed.
     Of Wil the Apath, Chancellor of Vorti and its once would-be king, there was no sign. Like the spectral figure that had floated beside him at the last, he had ceased to be. An era had closed, and a wound to creation had been repaired.

© 2006 James Berardinelli

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