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Princeps' Fury, Page 22

Jim Butcher

  At first, Amara dared to hope that their haste indicated desperation--but after the incident had repeated itself several times with precisely regular intervals, it became clear that the Vord as a whole were moving at the direction of an unseen choreographer on a scale more massive than she could have imagined. Though they rarely made sounds, and though they never spoke, the Vord knew where to move, when to strike, where to go to find food, to reinforce weak points. They made the communications and discipline of the Legions look crude and childish by comparison.

  It was madness, all of it, sheer insanity, there in Ceres, within the Amaranth Vale itself, the longest-settled, gentlest, most-tamed heart of the Realm. Yet it was her duty to see it, to take it all in--and so she did. She looked, and she took notes, writing down everything that she saw, and comparing her notes with Bernard's, to make sure that she had not missed anything her husband had observed, and vice versa.

  Sleep was difficult. They had to rest in turns, for only a few hours at a time, when they thought they could afford to stop for a bit and catch what rest they could. What Amara had seen tended to replay itself before her eyes if she lay still too long, and a single outcry during a dream could have had dire consequences. She didn't dare allow herself to sleep too deeply--and yet the constant tension, the wearing strain of unrelenting caution and stress and worry had taken a toll.

  She knew it had, because even if she felt that she had somehow gone numb, herself, she could see the pressure wearing on Bernard, on his face and on the set of his shoulders. His own eyes, which had grown steadily more care-worn over the past few years, were positively haunted, even if they maintained their constant, cool green vigil around them--when she saw him at all, at any rate. Most of the time, he was as invisible to her as she was to him, and they kept track of one another only by the shared knowledge of where they had intended to move and by the faint sounds of their passage.

  But not speaking to Bernard, especially after watching the Vord catch that last group of refugees, was the worst of it.

  The worst by far.

  She intertwined her fingers with his and clutched his hand tightly. He squeezed back, a little less gently than she would have expected, and she knew that he was every bit as disturbed and furious and outraged as she was.

  But they only had to last a little longer. If the First Lord was right, the battle for Ceres would draw the Vord's furycrafters into the open and allow Bernard and Amara to get a look at them. Once that was done, they could leave this nightmare and report upon what they had learned.

  They leaned against one another in the darkness, while the Vord gathered to assault Ceres.

  It took the foe less than a day to concentrate their forces and launch the assault upon the city.

  Amara and Bernard were less than a mile and a half away from Ceres' walls, looking out over the broad valley from an abandoned steadholt running along the top of a low ridge. They crouched in the ruins of an old brick storage building that had collapsed when a particularly large old tree had toppled onto it. In normal circumstances, the Steadholder probably would have taken the opportunity to replace the old storehouse with a newer building--it had been old enough that time had been taking bites out of it in any case. Instead, the old building had just been left to lie in pieces, with the ancient tree still sprawling in the wreckage, and it provided a perfect hiding place. Bernard was able to use the branches and leaves of the tree, along with the grass still growing around the storehouse, to surround them with a woodcrafted veil, and Amara had layered it with her own subtle windcrafting, to hide the heat of their bodies from the Vord, as well as their scents. Bernard was also able to settle his earth fury into the foundation of the building beneath them, hiding them from any possible observation by means of earthcrafting. With the added security of their color-shifting cloaks, they were as well hidden as it was possible to be.

  Half an hour after night fell, the Vord surged forward in silence and perfect unison.

  For several moments, nothing happened--and then, without warning, Ceres blazed into light.

  Amara found herself holding her breath. Had this been a normal engagement, the Legions would have engaged with arrows and flame, their archers and their Knights striking with their heaviest ranged salvos from the walls as the enemy closed in. The idea would have been to break enemy morale in the opening charge, to force him to pay heavily in the first moments of the attack on the city, to stamp heavily into the minds of the opposing soldiers and commanders that if they wanted Ceres, they would have to buy it dearly.

  But against the Vord, such warfare of the mind was pointless, as were many of the rote techniques and tactics of the Legion--as too many of Ceres' legionares had already learned.

  No arrows flew from Ceres' walls. No fire leapt out from the battlements. The city, still pitted and battle-scarred from the siege against the Legions of High Lord Kalarus, stood brilliantly lit, silent, and apparently vulnerable as the black tide washed forward.

  Amara found her fingers searching for Bernard's. She grasped her husband's hand and squeezed tight as the wave of Vord crashed against the walls of Ceres.

  Not a sound or motion came from the brilliantly lit city. Not a sword was lifted in resistance, not a legionare stood against the enemy.

  The Vord swarmed against the walls, their claws sinking into the stone, climbing up it like enormous black insects. They disdained the tactics of armies, attacking gates and towers, simply scaling the walls wherever they reached them instead. The Vord blackened the land to the south, covering the fields of the broad valley around Ceres like one enormous shadow. For a moment, it looked as though the city would fall without any resistance whatsoever.

  Amara knew better. Gaius Sextus commanded her defenses, and the First Lord had planned to make a fight of it.

  The first Vord to climb began to crest the walls and mount the battlements.

  From deeper and higher within the city, trumpets sounded, sudden and sharp and clear. Amara felt the instantaneous, massive stirring of windcrafting in the air, felt the hairs on her neck and at the base of her scalp begin to stir and rise of their own accord. The air itself seemed to dance and glitter with a hundred thousand flickering pinpoints of silver-white light, a host of miniature stars erupting into brilliant, brief life in the air and upon the trees across the whole of the Ceresian valley.

  And then, with a roar that shook the city to the stones of its foundation, lightning leapt up from the city's walls to the Aleran skies, great, savage spears of scarlet and azure flame, twisting into the shapes of eagles leaping into flight, the colors and symbols of the House of Gaius. That sheet of thunder and power shattered the leading wave of Vord, tearing them from the walls by the hundreds, charring them to black powder in the air, and scattering them back over the stunned forms of their fellows following in their wake.

  Once the echoes of that titanic stroke of thunder had rolled once over the land, they were followed by a chorus of smaller flashes that rained down from the skies above--by the hundreds. Strokes of lightning crashed down among the Vord, shattering and smashing dozens at a time. There, fiery gold hornet shapes of Rhodes fell to earth, and there, blazing green lightning shaped like the twin bulls of Placida sent Vord sailing fifty feet into the air. Crimson falcons of Aquitaine fell like fiery rain, each stroke tiny by comparison to the others, but striking with deadly precision and in terrible waves.

  Amara stared in raw terror at the power being unleashed before her, and wished that she and her husband had found a rather safer distance from which to observe the battle. This was not the admittedly deadly power of a century of Knights attached to a Legion, or even that of multiple Legions' Knights working in concert--it was the concentrated furycraft of the lords of Alera, and it literally tore the earth asunder beneath the feet of the Vord as they advanced. The light was blinding, and she had to lift her hand to shield her eyes against it. Debris--and not all of it earth and stone, either--began to rain down all around them, cast out to the abandoned s
teadholt by the power of the furycraft unleashed upon the Vord. The sound was deafening, even where they crouched, and Amara desperately shifted some of Cirrus's effort into shielding their ears from the terrible din. Amara had never seen or imagined such sheer, awe-inspiring power unleashed--save once--and she suddenly wanted nothing in the world so much as to be in a very deep hole, hiding quietly until the entire business was concluded.

  She did not know for how long that horrible storm of power and death raged. She knew it could not have been as long as it felt. It seemed that she crouched there for hours while lightning fell from a crystal-clear sky, raking the valley in a curtain of raw destruction.

  When the silence came, Amara thought at first that her ears had simply burst under the sound. It took her a moment to realize that the flashes of light had died away, that the ground had ceased its shaking. Her eyes, dazzled by the flashes of light, could see nothing but the furylamps upon the walls of Ceres as night reclaimed the land. For a long minute, there was no sound at all--and then, once more, trumpets cried out from within the city, sharp and clear, and the gates of Ceres swung open wide--as did a dozen more openings in the wall, portals furycrafted open, the stone itself simply flowing aside like water, creating neat, new arches.

  Cavalry thundered forth from the city--thousands of horses in columns, their hooves a vast pounding upon the lightning-scoured earth. The united alae of every Legion the First Lord had been able to gather took the field together, flying the colors of every city south of the Shieldwall. Fully half of their number, Amara saw, bore colors of Placidan green. The rumors they had heard about Lord Placida mounting an entire Legion had not, it seemed, been exaggerated.

  As the cavalry took the field, flights of Knights Aeris winged up from the city behind them--Knights flying in formations around groups of Citizens who had taken the field against the Vord threat. As the cavalry surged forward, the aerial troops raced ahead of them, striking and disrupting the already-stunned Vord in the field. Amara saw more bolts of lightning and spheres of flame begin to blossom, illuminating the black armor segments of the Vord in stark, violent flashes. Then the cavalry reached them. Amara could only distantly hear the sound of their unit trumpets and drums, and could see little of them in the darkness, but she could not imagine that the battle could be going well for the heavily stricken Vord, caught in the open farmlands of the valley around Ceres, where they would find no refuge against the rage of the Aleran cavalry, nowhere to hide from the Knights Aeris and the furycraft of the Citizens they escorted.

  After days of seeing the terror the Vord had visited upon the holders of Ceres, Amara felt only a surge of vicious satisfaction at the sight. Even if the Vord's furycrafters went into action--assuming they had survived that titanic assault at all--it might well be too late to turn the tide of this battle. The First Lord, it seemed, had broken the back of the enemy's advance.

  And then, Amara watched the stars on the southern horizon began to go black, one by one.

  It took her husband a moment longer to notice it, but she felt him suddenly go tense as he, too, saw it.

  The darkness, whatever it was, kept swallowing the stars, more and more quickly--and a low, heavy thrumming sound filled the air.

  Oh great furies, Amara thought. Aerial troops. There must be thousands of them. Tens of thousands. Bloody crows, they blot out the stars.

  The creatures that had assaulted the city, their ground troops--the Vord had sacrificed them willingly, thrown them into the jaws of the Aleran's trap in order to draw out their Citizens and furycrafters, to goad the Alerans into revealing the positions of their most potent weapons.

  The counterstroke fell with inhuman ferocity.

  Amara could see very little from where she sat. But flashes of light erupted in the night sky, each revealing dark figures. All of them looked human, though she could hardly bring herself to believe that was possible. Surely the Vord could not have taken so many Knights Aeris. And certainly, it was not solely the Vord who were using firecrafting in the night skies.

  The dull thud and pop of firecraftings echoed across the valley, and the calls of the cavalry's horns became more harried, disorganized, and desperate. Once, the roar of multiple windstreams deafened them and kicked up clouds of dust as several Knights Aeris went streaking over their position in a long, arching curve, perhaps seeking to flank some enemy element back in the main area of the fray.

  And then from the walls of the city, a small group of heavily armored Knights Aeris leapt skyward, and, as they did, the sword of a single man at the center of the group kindled into brilliant golden light. That sword blazed brighter and brighter as the group of Knights streaked toward the battle, trailing streaks of fire behind it, like a living comet.

  Not a single eye in the entire Ceresian valley could help but see that light, soaring toward the combat, and no one who saw it mistook it for anything other than precisely what it was--a naked challenge, a statement of raw defiance. She drew in a sharp breath, identifying the flickering golden flame as the banner colors of the High Lord of Rhodes.

  The old man was a schemer, a man of dangerous ambition, and only the fact that his city neighbored that of the Aquitaines had prevented him from being a more serious threat to the Realm than Kalarus had been. As it was, Aquitaine had made it his first order of business to gain and maintain a solid margin of advantage and control over his predatory neighbor--but even so, Rhodes was widely known as a crafter of particular skill among the Citizenry.

  Amara wondered if the man's arrogance had blinded him to the fact that Gaius was sacrificing him like a piece in a ludus game, hoping to draw out one of the Vord's major weapons in turn.

  From somewhere to the south, on the ground or in the skies, Amara could not tell, came a piercing sound--a shriek that blended the sound of tearing metal and agonized lions, a sound that tore at her ears and ripped at her frayed nerves, that filled her with an insane desire to leap to her feet, screaming in mindless, instinctive response.

  Amara had heard that sound before, and the memory filled her with icy terror.

  It was the war cry of a Vord queen.

  High Lord Rhodes and his personal bodyguards--Counts and Lords themselves, they had to be--streaked into the air to the south, a golden globe of light, that was suddenly surrounded by flickering, swift-moving black forms, like mosquitoes and moths gathering by the thousands around the flame of a candle in a forest at night.

  A globe of sickly green-white light suddenly surged up from the earth to meet him.

  Light flashed, sparks exploding in a cloud so thick that for a moment it obscured every single form in the southern sky, so bright that every broken stone, every dead branch and fallen leaf of the ruin around them cast a crisp-edged black shadow. A detonation rolled across the valley, so loud that it slapped against Amara's chest like a physical blow.

  For a second, she could see nothing.

  She blinked her dazzled eyes several times--and when she could see again, her stomach wrenched sharply, turning a slow circle within her belly.

  A dying golden star was falling in slow, fading majesty toward the ground far below.

  Amara watched, unable to move, unable to look away.

  A High Lord had fallen.

  Rhodes, a High Lord of Alera, surrounded by Citizens, prepared, on his guard, determined, and doing battle with all the might of the Realm around him, had fallen to the Vord queen, fallen in the instant of their meeting.

  The golden light died away before the body reached the earth.

  The Vord queen shrieked again, and that time Amara did let out a cry, the sound torn from her chest by a surge of involuntary terror. Green lightning suddenly filled the southern sky, spreading in a webwork that was miles across, centered upon the sphere of green-white light, upon the Vord queen, at last revealing the frantic battle being fought to the south.

  The sky was filled with winged, humanoid Vord, the green lightning gleaming off the shining black plates of their chitin.

  Not thousands of them.

  Not tens of thousands.

  Hundreds of thousands.

  The Aleran forces who faced them were outnumbered, so laughably outnumbered that the very thought of giving battle was as ridiculous as that of a man with a shovel attempting to stem the ocean's tide.

  The lightning faded to darkness.

  The roar of approaching windstreams began to rise. Cavalry trumpets sounded the retreat, and panicked horn calls within the city began to echo them.

  Amara watched numbly as the rout began--then she shook herself, focusing her mind to the task at hand. Gaius had sent one of his strongest assets out to die for that precise reason, to reveal the source of the Vord's power and give her a chance to find it.