PART FOUR: WORLD'S END
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.
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