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Princeps' Fury, Page 21

Jim Butcher

  The cloak over the dome's doorway moved aside, and Kitai appeared in the door. She padded silently to Tavi's side, knelt, and kissed him. Then she gave him a sleepy-eyed smile and stretched out on the floor. "Your turn."

  Tavi gathered up his cloak, dry after several hours in the warmth inside the shelter, and threw it on over his shoulders before heading out into the cold and the mild sleet atop the tower. He drew the hood over his head and looked around the top of the blocky building, identifying Varg's silent form, crouched at the westernmost edge of the building. Tavi padded quietly across the wet, cold stone to stop several feet away from Varg, where he could still see the enormous Cane in his peripheral vision, and stared out over the sight below them.

  Lararl's command building overlooked the fortifications below, where the battle against the Vord was raging. As far as Tavi could tell, it was going at precisely the same furious pitch as it had hours before. Still the Shuarans, in their blue-and-black armor, fought to hold the battlements, and still the Vord came on in a gleaming black tide.

  From above, though, it was possible to make out far more detail.

  The Vord had changed from those Tavi had seen and heard described before. Previously, he had encountered only the many-legged Keepers, bizarre, spiderlike creatures who haunted the green-glowing croach, the strange growth that covered the land wherever the Vord went. They were about as big as medium-sized dogs, weighing perhaps thirty or forty pounds each, had a venomous bite, and were frighteningly swift and nimble.

  But he had also read his uncle's reports concerning the Vord warrior-creatures, enormous things each the size of a bull, hunched and crablike in their thick shells, with huge pincer-claws and buzzing wings that could launch them skyward.

  These were different.

  All of the Vord attacking the fortifications were covered in the same slippery-looking black chitin, with the same eerie angularity to it, the same oddly shaped limbs--but the similarities went no further than that.

  Some of the Vord went upon two legs, monstrosities more than ten feet tall, and impossibly wide. They moved with slow, ponderous steps, lifting stones that must have weighed well over a hundred pounds, and hurled them at the fortifications like an idle boy flinging rocks into a pond. Some of them went mostly on all fours, their lower limbs freakishly oversized and overdeveloped. They were able to make tremendous leaps of forty and fifty and sixty feet at a time, like huge, hideous frogs, or fiendishly oversized crickets, attacking by slamming their spine-covered bodies violently into their foes.

  The majority of the Vord in the assault had powerful shoulders and heavy arms, ending not in grasping hands but in vicious, scythelike hooks. The head was elongated, apparently eyeless, though it sported a nightmarishly oversized mouthful of curving black fangs--a bizarre fusion of wolf and mantis.

  Tavi realized with a start that the Vord had somehow taken inspiration from the foe that they faced.

  They had made themselves more like the Canim.

  Tavi's gaze went to the fortress's defenders. The Shuaran warriors favored axes over the curving swords commonly carried by Varg's Narashans, and they used the weapons against the armored chitin of the Vord with crushing effect. The Shuarans worked methodically, in teams of two and three warriors, as the Vord tried to breach the walls. One or two warriors would pin a single Vord with spears fitted with heavy crosspieces, while a third, wielding an axe, would close in for a killing stroke.

  Here and there among the defenders, Tavi spotted the figure of a black-robed ritualist, wearing the usual hooded mantle. These ritualists, however, did not sport the usual garment of pale leather Tavi had become accustomed to. Instead, theirs were made of gleaming black scales of chitin. The ritualists, Tavi realized, wore mantles made from the flesh of their foes.

  Which meant that the pale leather of the mantles Sarl and the Narashan ritualists had been wearing was made of . . .

  Tavi shuddered.

  As he watched, one of the ritualists thrust a clawed paw-hand into a leather basket-pouch at his side, and withdrew it soaked in dark crimson blood. He flung the blood out over the edge of the battlements he defended just as a number of Vord scaled the top simultaneously, threatening to create a breach in the defenses. Tavi couldn't hear the Cane from his position, but he saw the ritualist lift his muzzle to the night sky, jaws parted in a primal howl.

  There was a flicker in the air as the droplets of blood flew, green-gold sparkles, and suddenly a cloud of sickly green gas billowed forth from the empty air. The gas rolled out in an instant, engulfing the threatening Vord--who simply dissolved, convulsing in agony, their bodies liquefying with terrifying abruptness as the green cloud touched them. The ritualist lifted the bloodstained paw-hand and slammed it down, as if smashing a book down upon an insect, and the green cloud descended over the edge of the battlements just as abruptly.

  Tavi had seen some of his own men slain by an identical ritual-working during his two-year battle with the Narashans. He had no qualms with watching the Vord be slain, but he was just as glad that he did not see the carnage that the ritualist had just visited upon whatever creatures were unfortunate enough to be below that section of the wall.

  The Shuarans were professionals. Their tactics were calculating, brutal, and efficient. They were not battling the Vord, so much as simply butchering them as they attained the walls. From what Tavi could see, forty, perhaps even fifty Vord fell for every single casualty suffered by the Shuaran warriors.

  Even so, he thought, the Vord stretched to the horizon.

  They could afford to pay that price.

  Tavi did not think that the Shuarans could.

  "Tell me what you see, Aleran," Varg rumbled quietly.

  Tavi glanced over at the grizzled Warmaster. Varg had unrolled the heavy cloak carried by all Narashan warriors. He crouched on his haunches, the cloak completely covering him, the sleet and rain sheeting down it to the surface of the tower. His hood covered all but the last inch or two of his muzzle.

  "The Vord aren't using any taken," Tavi said quietly.

  Varg grunted and nodded to Tavi's left. "Down there."

  Tavi looked that way, to the first street above the active battlements. He spotted a number of young Canim there, adolescents and children mostly, spread out every ten or twenty feet. All of them bore short clubs and crouched beneath their cloaks against the rain, just as Varg was doing.

  "Sentries," Tavi surmised. "To keep the takers from getting into the city."

  "Takers smell bad," Varg said. "Make odd noise when they move. Young ones have the sharpest senses. And the takers are only a threat if one is not aware of them. Lararl has the young ones positioned all over the city." The Cane turned to look at Tavi, eyes gleaming within the depths of his hood. "But you know that is not what I mean."

  "No." Tavi returned his eyes to the battle. "The Vord aren't using aerial troops. They could have created half a dozen breaches by now if they were, and forced Lararl to fall back to his next line. Instead, they're just throwing away tens of thousands of their soldiers. They're up to something."

  Varg turned his gaze back to the fight. "When we were both young, I tried to teach Lararl to play ludus. He refused. He said that to learn war, one studies war. That games and books are a waste of time."

  Tavi shook his head. "Will he truly attack your people?"

  Varg nodded.

  "With a foe like this out to destroy us all, he would truly put others of his own kind to death. It seems foolish to me," Tavi said.

  Varg shrugged. "Shuar could barely produce enough food to sustain itself in the best of years. They imported food from other ranges. From Lararl's perspective, my people are doomed to death by slow starvation in any case. It is a dishonorable way to die. Far preferable for their lives to be spent in a useful purpose."

  "Were I Lararl, I would reach for every possible weapon I could find against a threat like that."

  "Were you Lararl, the one whose decisions defended your people's children, you
would use the weapons you knew you could trust to destroy the enemy. You would be forced to choose who would live and who would die, Aleran. And given a choice between sacrificing the lives of your own people and the lives of neighboring enemies who were also in danger, you would protect your people, just as I would protect mine--and Lararl protects his." Varg shook his head. "He fears that he will fail his people's trust in him. It makes him almost blind. He cannot see even that much."

  Tavi sighed. "Even though he's just told you he intends to murder all of your people, including your own son, and even though he's broken the spirit of his word of peace to us by putting us up here in this weather, you defend him."

  Varg's chest rumbled in a warning growl. "No," the Cane said. "I understand him. There is a difference."

  Tavi nodded, and was silent for a time, watching the battle below. Then he said, "What will he do next?"

  Varg's ears twitched slightly, this way and that, as he pondered. "Lararl knows that when Sarl fled, he took ten thousand warriors with him. He will think Nasaug has no more than ten thousand under his command at Molvar. And so he will send thirty thousand to assault them in order to force a surrender."

  "Will they?" Tavi asked.

  "Ten thousand warriors against thirty thousand, in hostile territory? Only a fool would throw away his warriors' lives in such a hopeless battle." Varg showed his teeth. "But Lararl does not know that Nasaug has trained our makers into something very like warriors themselves. His thirty thousand will meet something more like sixty thousand. And Nasaug will hand them their tails."

  "And then what?" Tavi asked.

  Varg tilted his head slightly, staring at Tavi.

  "After that, what will your people do?" Tavi asked. "Fortify Molvar? Hold it? Wait for the Vord to break through Lararl's defenses and besiege them? Then fight until they are pushed into the sea?"

  Varg turned back to the fight. "What would you have me do?"

  "Return to Alera with me," Tavi said.

  Varg snorted, eyes glittering. "You just spent years convincing us to leave."

  Tavi gestured at the land below and said, quietly, "That was before I saw this."

  "And the sight made you wish to help us, Aleran?"

  "If it helps, let's just say that I consider you and your people to be dead already. And you know as well as I do that it will only be a matter of time before the Vord arrive in Alera. I simply wish to spend your deaths more profitably for my own people."

  Varg's ears twitched in amusement, and his mouth dropped open for a bare second.

  "My people at Molvar are in danger as well," Tavi said. "It makes sense for us to assist one another until we are out of the current crisis."

  "You propose an alliance," Varg mused.

  "I do."

  The Cane was silent for long moments more. Then he nodded once, and said, "Done."


  Amara and Bernard watched from a position of perfect concealment as the Vord annihilated the remnants of the Ceresian rear guard. The doomed legionares took their stand in the ruins of a nameless village beside the causeway. They locked shields, faced the foe, and fought with desperate determination to slow the oncoming enemy, to give the holders still trying to flee for the safety of the city's walls a chance to escape.

  Four-legged creatures that looked something like the deadly predator-lizards of the southwestern swamps near Kalare dominated the enemy numbers. Long, low to the ground, swift, and powerful, their bodies were covered with the same dark chitin as the other Vord Amara had seen--with the addition of raised, serrated ridges down the lengths of their spines and flanks. As Amara watched, one of them snapped its jaws closed on the thigh of a legionare. In a flash, it had wrapped its body around the man, the motion bonelessly swift--and then it simply writhed, its body gliding in constant motion like a serpent circling its way up a tree branch.

  The ridges ripped through steel and flesh alike, and the legionare screamed as he died.

  The Ceresian cohort, more than three hundred men, were overrun by the Vord. Their lines held for ten seconds, then fifteen, then twenty. Then they seemed to sag and collapse inward, and the black tide of Vord swarmed over the men, rending and ripping, barely slowing down before they continued in pursuit of the band of refugees the legionares had given their lives to protect.

  They had died for nothing.

  The Vord caught the holders within two minutes.

  Amara couldn't watch the holders, most of them very old or very young, die. She closed her eyes.

  But she could still hear them screaming.

  With so much chaos, so much confusion, so much destruction in the lands of Ceres, it had been inevitable, she told herself, desperate to distract herself with a flow of simple fact and calm deduction. Some of the steadholts had received word in time to avoid the oncoming terror. Many had not. Of those that hadn't, the majority had reacted by taking to the causeways to flee for the shelter of their High Lord's Legions--and rushed directly into the waiting talons and mandibles of the Vord.

  Lord Cereus had spent his legionares' lives in an effort to shield the refugees for as long as possible, sending out his small cavalry forces in an effort to guide fleeing holders off the causeways and around the worst areas of danger, but there simply had not been enough time or enough men. The slow, the foolish, or the merely unlucky perished by the hundreds upon the roads of Ceres over those few desperate days.

  There was nothing she and Bernard could have done. The Vord were simply too many. Any action on their part would have accomplished nothing but to reveal their presence and seal their own fates along with those of the slain refugees. Their mission was more important than that. It could save hundreds of thousands of lives. She could not afford to let compassion for those who were directly in front of her blind her to the fact that she had a greater responsibility to the whole of the Realm. Doing her job was the proper thing to do, the logical thing to do.

  Still, she wept for the brave legionares and the poor holders, and logic was no comfort whatsoever.

  She wept, but she did so in silence. In the hours that followed, the Vord overran their position in greater and greater numbers, some of them passing within yards of where she and her husband lay hidden by veil and stealth and furycrafted cloth. The enemy was gathering for the attack that would certainly fall soon upon the single Aleran strongpoint that remained to challenge them.

  Ceres itself.

  She had not spoken to her husband for four days.

  That was, Amara thought, the worst part of the entire arrangement. Speech was a luxury that could not be afforded, not when the enemy could literally lurk beneath virtually any fallen leaf. They could move in nearly perfect silence, and complete invisibility--but the sound of voices, even in whispers, would betray the presence of Alerans more surely than nearly anything else they could do.

  Legion scouts had long since developed a fairly complex series of hand gestures, capable of signaling critical information in the field, but it was by no means a substitute for speech. There was no signal language gesture for "I can't bear to look at this anymore," or, "someone is going to pay."

  In the four days since they had entered occupied territory, they had discovered the scenes of multiple massacres of holders and legionares alike--and instances where the Vord had met less success, as well. Twice, wide swaths of woodland had been burned black, down to the very soil, and the charred remains of Vord armor and bits of tree trunk were all that remained, evidence of the fury of the Knights and lords of Ceres. In other instances, the destruction had been more limited and prosaic, but no less brutal--groups of desperate holders, some of them gifted strongly enough to make a fight of it, had unleashed all the crafting at their command, and left Vord crushed and broken on the earth, among the bodies of Aleran dead. In still other places, a lone Vord would be found dead, destroyed by what was doubtless a rogue fury, running wild and uncontrolled after the death of the Aleran who had previously guided it. And in still other places, the
slaughter would be, not of Alerans, but of deer, or wild boar, or other animals of the forest, destroyed as remorselessly and ruthlessly as if they had been thinking foes of the Vord, not harmless beasts of the wild. In some places, even some of the plants had been systematically destroyed.

  They had also found several pockets of the glowing green croach, growing and spreading, tended by no more than a handful of the spiderlike Keepers. Whatever the substance was, it seemed to feed upon the very stuff of Alera itself. The Keepers seemed to pack the living and the dead, plant and animal alike, beneath the surface of the croach with equal amounts of indifference. Standing several yards from the edge of one such growth, Amara fancied she could actually hear the stuff spreading, rustling leaves, here and there, as it oozed slowly outward.

  They did not dare linger long near the croach. It quickly became clear that the area served as some kind of deposit of food or supplies for the enemy. Individiual Vord, or fast-moving groups would stream rapidly into a pocket of croach and thrust their heads and jaws into the stuff, wallowing like pigs at a trough, gulping down the foul-smelling sludge beneath the waxy surface in seconds before turning to race off about their business again.