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Princeps' Fury, Page 38

Jim Butcher

  "What makes you think that I am not the senior queen?" the creature asked him, her voice flat and expressionless.

  "Logic," Tavi replied. "The operational patterns of your attack on Maraul suggested that the senior queen regarded the subordinate queens as expendable assets. Why would she place herself in such an exposed position here when she could send one of her juniors in her place? If any of you can produce more queens, why are there only three of you instead of the dozens there should be by now?"

  The Vord queen was silent for several aching seconds. Then she nodded once.

  "And further," Tavi said quietly, "I presume that she is not here. That she has left you and another junior queen to finish off the Canim."

  "This is information I already possess," the queen hissed quietly. "It is worth nothing to me."

  The walls of the hive stirred, and a dozen wax spiders appeared from where Tavi would have sworn no creature could have been hidden.

  "Why?" Tavi asked. "Why has your queen changed you in this way? Does it not hamper the growth of the Vord?"

  The queen's eyes narrowed. "Of course. But . . . she acts improperly. Irrationally. She has sampled too much of the blood of your breed."

  The Vord's words were uninflected, calm, but the surge of emotion that screamed across Tavi's senses as the queen spoke was painfully intense. The young queen was filled with raw, unadulterated rage, with jealousy, and with intense, ambition-driven hate, the emotions as pure and intense as those produced by infants, unrestrained by any sense of self-control.

  Tavi had to fight to keep his jaw from dropping. The Vord queens had, somehow, become more human. Distrust, the need to rule, the emotions themselves could all be used against them.

  "I think she's returned to Alera by now--or at least she's on the way. What if I told you I would be willing to remove her?"

  The Vord tilted its head to one side. "Why would you do such a thing?"

  "Survival," Tavi replied. "If we are to survive, we must eliminate her--and you must let us escape unharmed in order for us neutralize her."

  "Let you escape . . ." The queen leaned forward slightly. "Who?"

  "All of my people and the Canim of this land," Tavi replied promptly. "All of them. They will return to Alera with me. They are necessary to deal with the threat."

  She looked slowly around the interior of the hive. Then her green eyes focused on Tavi.

  "It costs you nothing," Tavi urged her gently. "Slow the offensive long enough for the Canim to escape the continent. They will no longer be a threat to anything you've built here. You won't have to fight them anymore."

  The queen's eyes flared with a brighter light, and she took a step closer. Tavi felt a sudden rush of thoughts flicker through his head--irrational fear sputtered through his body for no apparent reason. (He considered entirely rational the fear that he was surrounded by nightmarish creatures which might kill him, or worse, at any moment.) A rush of memories went by, bringing with them a dozen scents so distinct that he was half-certain that they were real, and not mere memories.

  "There are others nearby," the queen said, slowly. "They came with you. But you have not told them your true purpose here."

  A chill went down Tavi's spine as he realized that the creature was actually examining his thoughts. "No," he answered. "They never would have accepted what I planned to do." He smiled faintly. "They aren't the negotiating sort."

  "You are sincere," the queen murmured.

  "What is the point of attempting to deceive a being who can read your mind?" Tavi asked. "I've accomplished a lot of things by finding common interests between myself and my enemies."

  "An enemy who becomes an asset is defeated as surely as one who is killed," the Vord queen said.

  "More so," said Tavi.

  The Vord queen gave him an odd little smile.

  The dark-armored shapes of Vord warriors began to fill the entrance to the hive behind him. The Cane-form Vord came forward slowly and silently, moving awkwardly in the confined space.

  Tavi's stomach seemed to drop into his boots.

  "Your logic was sound but for a single, flawed assumption," the Vord queen said. "You assumed that because the junior queens had been created without the ability to create their own subordinate queens, that they would still have the desire to rule. It is a shortcoming of individuality."

  Wax spiders emerged from the walls and flowed over the floor between Tavi and the queen in a miniature flood, crawling over one another until they were chest high, walling her away from him as surely any pile of stone.

  "Your breed seek authority, leadership, as an extension of your personal identity. You know nothing of devoting yourself to something larger. You know nothing of truly subordinating the self for the greater good of all."

  Tavi glanced around the interior of the hive again, but there was no escape. Warrior Vord filled the doorway. Spiders continued to crawl from the walls--and ceiling, it seemed. He would never be able to get out. He'd known it was a risk, that his proposal to the Vord could be rejected--but he truly hadn't believed that it would happen. The cold intellect of the Vord, from everything he knew about them, should have compelled them to protect their nearest hive and kin.

  But what drove this queen was . . . entirely too human. It was a devotion to her senior queen--to her mother, Tavi realized, his senses flushed with an intensity of emotion coming from the junior queen. That was mixed with a horrible and abiding need that was closer to physical hunger than anything else--a need to expand, to overcome, to grow. And mixed with all of that was contempt--contempt for humanity, for the creatures that fell before the united might of the Vord.

  Tavi realized that he was never going to leave the hive, and suddenly felt very, very tired.


  Well, then.

  He had been held in contempt before. If there was one thing Tavi knew, it was how to take advantage of being underestimated.

  Tavi took a deep breath and tightened his hand on his sword. Then he reached to the short blade on his right hip, and drew it slowly into his left hand. Enough earthcrafting should give him the strength to bull through the wall of wax spiders. He'd be bitten as he did it, many times. The poison would kill him, but not for a minute or two at least.

  He had another advantage: The cramped quarters inside the hive, combined with the reinforcements blocking the only exit, would prevent the queen from escaping every bit as much as it trapped Tavi. She wouldn't be able to simply cut and run.

  He'd have to kill the queen quickly, with all the windcrafting he could muster. He remembered well the blinding speed a Vord queen possessed--but he would have another advantage she probably did not expect. He could accept a lethal stroke if it allowed him to deliver one in return. Metalcrafting would let him ignore the pain of a death blow long enough to deliver a killing strike of his own.

  Provided he was fast enough, this hive would become her tomb. With the queen dead and the Vord undirected, Kitai, Max, and the others should have a real chance to escape. And as long as Crassus and the First Aleran had done their jobs, Varg and the Canim should escape as well, to assist Alera against the common foe.

  Really, he thought, planning became a great deal simpler and easier when one didn't have the additional bother of working out how to survive said plan.

  "It looks like I'm not the only one to make a flawed assumption," Tavi told the queen quietly.

  Her eyes narrowed, and he felt the quivering pressure of her mind on his thoughts again.

  Her eyes widened.

  Princeps Gaius Octavian called upon rock and wind and steel and shifted his body forward into the rush that would--if he was lucky--kill them both.


  The windcrafting infused Tavi's senses with the slowed-time alertness of fury-born speed, or he might not have seen what was about to happen.

  The Vord turned on one another.

  The nearest Cane-form Vord, the one Tavi had wounded, suddenly jerked and was flung viciously f
orward as the Vord behind it tore into its back with its talons. Its blood splattered the walls of the entry tunnel as it fell into the open space at the center of the hive, and stained Tavi's boots as the newly dead Vord slid to a halt at his heels. In an instant, three more of the Cane-form Vord bounded into the room, and Tavi realized what had happened.

  Varg's Hunters had arrived.

  The meaning of the odd, lumpy packs each of the Hunters had carried finally became clear to Tavi. The silent Canim had clad themselves in Vord chitin, somehow fastening enough of the green-black material to themselves to pass for true Vord, at least momentarily--and now they were inside the queen's hive beside him.

  "Tavar," growled the eldest of the three Hunters.

  "Take her!" Tavi cried.

  He surged forward with the Hunters at his side, and the Vord queen let out a piercing shriek.

  The wall of wax spiders shivered and collapsed toward them, breaking in a wave of flailing legs and dripping fangs. The spiders bounded through the air, raced across the ground, and skittered across the walls and ceiling to attack. Tavi had an instant to be terrified by the sheer number of spiders, then they were upon him.

  He struck one spider out of the air as it leapt at his face, his sword moving with the speed and power and deadly sharpness of all the furycraft at his command. He felled the second and third and fourth in less than a second--there were so many of the creatures that even in the dreamlike slow motion of windcrafted alacrity, there was no time to think, ponder, or plan. He could only react, and strive to make his every movement work against the enemy.

  The air was full of slashed corpses of the wax spiders, with spraying blood and severed insect limbs, but despite the web of steel Tavi wove with his swords as he strode forward, the Vord began to break through. He felt one slam into his side, and a sharp, loud pinging sound told him that his armor had held against the spider's fangs. Another seized onto his boot, simply clinging, and threw him off his balance.

  Then three more dropped onto his helmet and shoulders, and he twisted wildly as venom-dripping fangs flashed by not an inch from his eyes.

  Something slammed against his shoulder, a heavy blow that rang with steel on steel, and one of the Hunter's battle chains crushed the spider beneath it. Tavi managed to turn so that his unwanted passengers were more exposed to the Cane, and several more whiplashing flicks of the heavy chain cleaned the spiders from him.

  The other two Hunters took up positions on his left and right, oddly curved swords in hand, flinging the heavy spikes that had wreaked such havoc in Aleran encounters with them during the war in the Vale. Tavi regained his momentum, his own blades whirling, killing--and suddenly found himself face-to-face with the Vord queen.

  She moved with a horrible, arachnid grace, and at such speed that even from within his windcrafting, Tavi felt his body responding sluggishly by comparison. Her cloak flew one way as she darted to one side, but the move proved to be a feint, and the hem of the garment cracked like a whip as she reversed her move and raked her talons at Tavi's thigh.

  Tavi couldn't respond in time to avoid the blow, so he simply drove his blade hard at the queen's throat.

  Her speed astounded him, even as white-hot fire enveloped his leg. She managed to get a hand into the way of the blow, pushing the sword's tip down, but not entirely away from herself--the Aleran steel bit into the pale, rigid-looking flesh in a shower of scarlet-and-cerulean sparks. Her skin, then, was still Vord chitin--it merely looked like human flesh. His sword did not plunge deeply through the armor, despite the earthcraft and metalcraft behind it. An inch or two of blade sank into her abdomen and drew a howl of surprise and rage from the queen.

  She bounded directly up to the ceiling, the movement so abrupt that it ripped the blade from Tavi's left hand, and began scuttling like a spider toward the entry tunnel.

  Before she could get there, a pair of bloodred steel chains, their ends weighted, whipped up from the ground like lariats. One settled around her wrist, the other around a thigh, and with a snarl, the two Hunters hauled the queen from her ceiling and back to the floor of the hive.

  Tavi slashed another pair of spiders from the air as he charged the downed queen. The two Hunters had kept the chains tight, taking the queen's balance from her each time she tried to regain her feet. Spiders were swarming over them, but the two Hunters, in their Vord-hide armor, ignored them and hauled with all their enormous strength on the chains.

  Tavi slammed a leaping spider from the air with his left fist, killing it, whirled his longer blade over his head, reaching up to take it in a two-handed grip, and began the downward stroke that would kill the Vord queen.

  She shrieked again and twisted in desperation, and her hood fell back revealing--

  Kitai's terrified face.

  Tavi held back his strike for a startled instant, and in that hesitation, the Vord queen twisted her shoulders and ripped her own trapped arm from its socket.

  The Hunter who had been holding the other end of the chain stumbled backward at the sudden lack of resistance and fell.

  The spiders swarmed over him, burying him completely.

  The queen rolled, scuttling sideways like a crab, and seized the other chain in her remaining hand. With a twist of her hips and shoulders, she ripped the chain from the grip of the other Hunter, lashing it at Tavi as she did.

  Tavi had to fling himself back to avoid the chain, and the queen turned to fling herself at the hive's exit.

  There was a flash of light and a roar of superheated air, somewhere beyond the hive, lighting the walls to near transparency for an instant as a sphere of white-hot light appeared at ground level outside. Bits and pieces of heat-shriveled Vord armor and anatomy flew in through the hallway, and close behind them came another enormous form--Varg, his sword in hand, his black-and-crimson armor liberally smeared with the ichor. The Canim Warmaster slammed one foot down on the ground, then the other, settling his weight with the immovable mass of a mountain, and raised his sword to a high guard over his head.

  "Come, creature," he snarled. "Come through me if you can."

  The Vord queen let out a shriek and blurred toward Varg.

  Tavi cried out and charged--realizing, as he did, that his wounded leg was no longer responding to the commands of his mind.

  The Vord whirled the chain at Varg, who caught it with the blade of his sword. The queen screamed her frustration and tried to rip the sword from the Cane's grasp, but Varg set his body against the pull and, with a sudden surge of motion, dragged the queen across ten feet of floor and into range of his blade. He struck with a brutally swift economy of motion, and Tavi knew that it would have cut through a tree as thick as his own thigh in a single stroke.

  The Vord queen dropped the chain and swept her arm into the path of the blow. Varg's sword pierced her armored skin, hacking almost to the bone, just as another firecrafted explosion illuminated and shook the walls of the hive. She reeled back from Varg, just in time for the Hunter whose chain she had taken to send a throwing spike into the back of one of her knees. The armored hide must have been less strong there, because the spike sank into it, while the raw power behind the heavy bar of steel sent one of her legs flying upward, taking her hips with it, so that her shoulder blades crashed to the floor.

  She used the rebound of the impact to roll backward and to her feet, and as she did she drew the spike from her leg and sent it flying back to the Hunter who had thrown it. He dodged, but she'd either anticipated him or gotten lucky. The spike hit him in the throat, and a fountain of dark Canim blood clouded the air as he fell and was buried under more spiders.

  Varg bellowed in rage and threw his weapon at the queen. It spun and tumbled through the air, and she leapt back and away from it--

  --and into Tavi's two-handed swing. His sword struck her across the nape of the neck, and a fountain of blue-and-red sparks exploded from her flesh. The blade cut swift and true, never slowing, and the queen's head--Tavi's mind screamed silent horror at him,
horror he couldn't allow himself to feel, as he saw Kitai's face, her mouth open in silent shock--tumbled away and went rolling across the floor.

  The Vord's behavior changed in an instant. Wax spiders let out chirping squeals of alarm and raced aimlessly around the hive. Outside, Tavi could hear an entire chorus of alien shrieks that went up at the same time, the sound deafening.

  The third Hunter appeared from behind Tavi, recovered Varg's sword, and tossed it to him.

  Varg turned to the downed queen, and with four swift, heavy blows, dismembered the body. He glanced at Tavi and found the Aleran staring at him.

  "Best to be sure," Varg rumbled.

  Tavi whipped his sword through another spider that had leapt at him, dispatching it. Though they no longer came at them in an enormous wave with a single purpose, the spiders were naturally aggressive, and it was probably a bad idea to stay in the hive any longer than was absolutely necessary.