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Princeps' Fury, Page 45

Jim Butcher

  The First Lord was staring hard around the city, though, his eyes searching. "Bloody crows," he muttered beneath his breath. "Bloody crows take that arrogant slive. Where is he?"

  "Who, sire?"

  "Aquitaine," Gaius growled. "This is the moment to strike them, when they are all focused forward on the walls. He had plenty of time to move into position. Where is he?"

  No sooner had Gaius said the words than the mighty Gaul suddenly convulsed. The great river, shining silver beneath an almost-full moon, rose from its banks and flowed abruptly toward the rear of the Vord positions, the water cutting smoothly across the plain outside the city, spreading in the midst of the Vord ranks, driving some forward and others back.

  Then, impossibly, trumpets sounded from the suddenly empty riverbed, and with a sea-crash roar of furious voices, the full strength of five Legions came charging out of the trench where the river had flowed. They smashed into the flanks and rear of the enemy horde, their flank secured by the new course of the river, and began driving hard into the Vord lines.

  "Bloody crows!" Ehren all but screamed.

  Even the First Lord arched his eyebrows at the sight. "He must have used his watercrafters to convince the river to flow over and around his troops. Windcrafting to keep the air in the bubble fresh. Earthcrafting to solidify the silt so they could march on it." Gaius shook his head. "Impressive."

  The city's defenders roared in defiance. As the endurance of the Citizenry below began to flag, the Vord began to reach the outer wall and legionares went to work with sword and shield upon the battlements. The enemy immediately began changing its formation, its westernmost elements turning to come in and support the threatened eastern half against Aquitaine's Legions--but Alera Imperia was a large city, and they would have to travel miles to be of any assistance to their fellows.

  The whole while, Aquitainus Attis and the Legions under his command would be cutting the Vord to bloody ribbons.

  Ehren focused on the battle, hope surging in his heart, as the scarlet star of fire that marked the blade of the High Lord of Aquitaine flickered and flashed. Through the magnification of Gaius's windcrafting, Ehren could see Aquitaine himself in the front ranks of his Legion, surrounded by heavily armored bodyguards. As Ehren watched, the High Lord braced a pair of behemoths.

  With a flick of his hand, a tiny sphere of fire erupted upon the face of one of the huge beasts, and, while it roared in pain, Aquitaine dodged the thundering downswing of the second. In several dancelike steps, he struck an arm and a leg from the second behemoth, sending it crashing down, and in the course of returning to the ranks he slew the burned, screaming beast before it could recover from the pain. His men howled in a frenzy of rage and encouragement, and the entire force continued on inexorably, like a single, vast scythe cutting down wheat.

  Then the Vord queen struck back.

  The taken Alerans turned as one to charge Aquitaine's lines. Even as they approached, fire and earth and wind erupted toward them, slaughtering the first several dozen to draw near.

  But the hundred who came after them let out eerie screams, raised their hands, and turned fire and earth and wind back upon the Legion lines. Men died screaming in blasts of fire, or were hauled into the earth by hideous shapes, never to be seen again. Wind cast dust and ashes into their faces in thick clouds, and their formations began to falter. More and more taken Alerans arrived, and the furycrafted pressure against Aquitaine's force doubled and doubled again, as each new taken seemed to feed upon the energies being unleashed, adding its own to the struggle.

  "Knights Aeris to their aid," Gaius said calmly. "Focus on the enemy crafters and take them with blades alone."

  Another courier screamed skyward, and within a moment several cohorts of Knights Aeris rose from the city and streaked toward the battle. It took them only seconds to land among the taken and attack, wielding steel alone. Aquitaine's Legions realized what was happening as the pressure on them began to ease, and they surged forward in a desperate effort to reach the Knights Aeris before they were engulfed by the oncoming horde.

  It was then that the vordknights pounced.

  They suddenly burst up from the ground on the far side of the redirected river, where they must have slipped into position once the sun was down. They were barely a half mile from the battle, and they swept down upon the Knights Aeris of Alera like a swarm of bees. The Knights found themselves suddenly beset on all sides, and did what any of them with any sense would do--they called their furies and prepared to take to the air.

  Until the taken began throwing salt at them.

  Windcrafters screamed in agony as the salt crystals ripped holes through their furies, dispersing and weakening them. Several made it off the ground and managed to escape--but most didn't. Though the Legions tried to push forward to shelter the exposed Knights Aeris, they had lost too much of their momentum to reach them in time. In seconds, the masters of Alera's skies were all but drowned in armored bodies and hacking limbs.

  And then the true death blow fell.

  Crows by the tens of thousands suddenly plummeted into the capital's streets, buildings, and rooftops. Several of the creatures even fell to the stones of the balcony upon which Ehren stood. The crows, upon landing, fluttered in bizarre spasms, then went still.

  Ehren and the others stared around the balcony and out at the city, perplexed.

  "Great furies," Ehren breathed. "What was that about?"

  Gaius's pensive frown suddenly froze in place. His eyes widened slightly, and he said, "No. Cursor, ware!"

  The bodies of the crows erupted with Vord takers.

  They weren't impressive things to look at. Each was about the size of a scorpion, and vaguely resembled one, except for dozens of flailing tendrils sprouting from all parts of its body. They were swift, though, as quick as startled mice, and half a dozen of the things scuttled toward those upon the balcony in a blur of green-black chitin.

  Ehren spun and stomped a foot down upon one of the takers, and slapped a second from the back of his thigh. One of the couriers stomped at another one, missed, and lost his balance. Three takers swarmed up his body, and, as he cried out in surprise and revulsion, one of them plunged into his mouth.

  The man screamed once, and then fell backward in convulsions, his eyes rolling back into his head. Another cry died as it was born--and then his eyes went flat, and swiveled toward the First Lord. He came to his feet and lurched at Gaius.

  Ehren flung himself in between the First Lord and the taken courier. He seized the man's tunic, and with a panicked effort of his entire body the young Cursor threw the doomed courier over the balcony railing.

  There was a bright flash of light, a crackling snap, and the sharp smell of ozone. By the time Ehren was finished blinking the spots from his eyes, he realized that several takers lay curled up and dead on the balcony floor. The First Lord stood over them, his right hand out, flickers of lightning dancing between his spread fingers.

  "Crows," Gaius said simply, glancing up at the nearly empty sky. "I didn't spare them a second glance."

  Screams began to echo up through the city. Not a minute later, a house or a garden one tier below the citadel level caught fire.

  Outside the city, the Vord's collared crafters came onto the field. They drove forward toward Aquitaine's forces, and the redirected river began to waver and writhe like a vast, living serpent.

  A scream of agony echoed through the halls of the Citadel, behind them.

  "Never a second glance," Gaius said, sighing quietly. Then he raised his voice to a tone of firm command. "Clear the balcony."

  Everyone there withdrew, except for Ehren. Gaius went to the balcony's edge and stared down at Aquitaine's desperate Legions. The High Lord had already realized his predicament, and his men were executing a fighting retreat, struggling to get away from the Vord before they were cut off, drowned, or overwhelmed.

  Gaius bowed his head for a moment, then looked up again, and calmly took a pair of folded,
sealed envelopes from his jacket. He passed them to Ehren.

  Ehren blinked and looked down at it. "Sire?"

  "The first is for my grandson," Gaius said simply. "The second, for Aquitaine. There's a tunnel concealed behind my desk in my mediation chamber in the deeps. It exits two miles north of the city, on the road to the Redhill Heights. I want you to take the messages and Sireos and go."

  "Sire," Ehren said, "no, I couldn't . . . We should all go. We can retreat toward Aquitaine or Riva and prepare a better--"

  "No, Ehren," Gaius said quietly.

  Another scream echoed through the citadel.

  "I'll be dead before we can establish another stronghold--and the seat of my power is here," Gaius said. "This is where I can hurt them the most."

  Ehren's eyes stung and he looked down. "We're to sound the retreat then?"

  "If we do," Gaius said quietly, "there's no chance of the queen's exposing herself. Their forces will disperse to pursue us, and the roads will become abattoirs." Gaius turned haunted eyes toward the city's defenders below. "I need them. If there's to be any chance at all . . . I need them."

  "Sire," Ehren breathed. Though it didn't feel as if he was crying, he felt his tears falling on his hands.

  Gaius put a hand on Ehren's shoulder. "It was an honor, young man. If you should see my grandson again, please tell him . . ." The old man frowned slightly for a moment before his lips turned up in a sad, weary smile. "Tell him that he has my blessing."

  "I will, sire," Ehren said quietly.

  Gaius nodded. Then he untied the thong that bound the scabbard of his signet dagger, the symbol and seal of the First Lord, to his side. He passed the dagger to Ehren, and said, "Good luck, Sir Ehren."

  "And you, sire," Ehren said.

  Gaius smiled at him. Then he put his hand on the hilt of his sword and closed his eyes.

  Gaius's skin changed. At first, it became very pale. Then it began to gleam in the moonlight. Then it gained a silvery sheen, and within seconds it actually shone like freshly polished steel. Gaius drew his sword, and his fingers clinked against it, steel upon steel.

  Ehren simply stared. He had never even heard of such a feat of crafting before, much less seen it.

  Gaius took one look at Ehren's face and smiled again. The motion made his shining steel visage moan like metal under stress, though his teeth looked normal, and his tongue seemed almost unnaturally bright pink. "It doesn't matter," he told Ehren. His voice was rough, oddly monotone. "I hadn't planned on lasting much longer in any case." The smile faded. "Now go."

  Ehren bowed to the First Lord. Then he turned, clutching the letters, and ran.

  Ehren and Sireos exited the tunnel an hour later and began making their way to the causeway so that they could attempt to catch up with the fleeing civilian refugees. Most of another hour of running with the effortless ease of fury-assisted travel brought them into the hills north of Alera Imperia, the beginning of the Redhill Heights, and they paused there to look back.

  The capital was burning.

  Vord swarmed all over it, like some kind of gleaming mold. Aquitaine's Legions had apparently made good their escape--though he had only three of them remaining, not the five he'd begun the operation with. They had managed to cross the Gaul, then bring it back into its normal course, and were withdrawing to the north.

  White and violet fire like nothing Ehren had ever seen suddenly flashed from the top of the First Lord's tower. Vordknights swarmed through the air toward it. Knights Aeris, presumably the enemy's, rushed toward it upon gales that sounded hollow in the distance. A star of scarlet-and-azure light suddenly blazed upon the tower top--the First Lord's sword, kindled to life.

  Ehren held up his hands and brought the air between them into focus. His gifts at windcrafting were, at best, modest. He would not be able to see nearly so well through his visioncrafting as he had through Gaius's. But it would have to do.

  He couldn't see much more than a gleam of silver and the blazing sword upon the top of the Citadel, but he knew that it had to be Gaius. Vordknights buzzed around the tower like moths around a lantern, so thickly that they sometimes obscured the light almost completely.

  Lightning crackled down from the sky to strike the tower, but immediately flashed back upward again, bouncing off like light against a mirror. Vord began to scale the tower, hundreds of them, clawing their way directly up its sides.

  Then the figure atop the tower raised both arms above his head, and the earth itself bucked and shook like a stallion at the bite of a horsefly. Ehren was thrown from his feet to the ground, and he lost his visioncrafting--but he could not look away.

  The ground rippled like the surface of the sea, shattering buildings like so many toothpicks. The earth split open, great, yawning cracks spreading out for a mile in every direction from the citadel--and then those cracks began to glow with inner, scarlet light. The tremors stopped, and for an instant everything was perfectly silent, motionless.

  And then fire like nothing Ehren had ever seen, rock so hot that it had begun to flow like liquid, erupted upward from the ground in a column that was literally miles across. The magma clawed for the sky like a fountain in a city square, and hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands of winged forms erupted from the fiery spray, eagles which spread their great wings and streaked through the air, leaving blazing columns of fire in their wakes. The wind rose violently, the superheated air reacting to the eruption, and the fire-eagles swept and spun in great circles, crying out in shrieks made tiny by distance.

  Fire filled the skies over Alera Imperia. Cyclones of flame spun away from the city, deadly funnels that seemed to lift everything they touched from the ground, only to incinerate them to ashes.

  The ground beneath the city and for miles around began to buckle. Falling walls and buildings added their own gravelly screams to the night's cacophony. The Vord died by the thousands, the hundreds of thousands, devoured by insatiable flame and ravenous earth.

  With a final scream, Alera Imperia collapsed into the earth, lowered like a corpse into its grave and consumed by the fires that raged there.

  So died Gaius Sextus, First Lord of Alera, his pyre lighting the Realm for fifty miles in every direction.

  Ehren sat numbly, staring at the end of the Realm. The three Legions who had escaped with Aquitaine had nearly reached them. Their outriders came pounding up the causeway on horseback, and one of the weary-looking men drew to a halt as he reached them.

  "Gentlemen," the outrider said, "I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to get moving or else clear the road. The Legions are coming through."

  "Why?" Ehren asked quietly. "Why run now? Nothing could have lived through that."

  "Aye," the outrider said in a subdued voice. "But there were some of those things that weren't close enough to get burned up. They're coming."

  Ehren felt sick to his stomach again. "So what Gaius did . . . it was for nothing?"

  "Crows no, young man," the outrider said. "What's left ain't half a tithe of their numbers--but we've only three exhausted Legions left to us and no strong defensive position. It's more than enough for them to do for us." He nodded to them, then kicked his horse up into a canter, riding on down the road.

  "Sir Ehren?" asked Sireos wearily. "What do we do?"

  Ehren sighed and bowed his head. Then he pushed himself to his feet. "We retreat. Come on."


  Placidus Aria looked down from the Redhill Heights at the embattled Legions below.

  Smoke blackened the skies, so thickly that not even the omnipresent crows were at hand. Where the smoke would part for seconds at a time, the sky to the south burned a sullen scarlet. What disaster could have done that to the skies? Only the release of one of the Great Furies, surely. But the only place south of here where one of the Great old Furies might rise was . . .

  "Merciful furies," she breathed.

  Far below, a mass of humanity fled through a nightmare.

  The vast majority w
ere freemen, men and women and older children trundling along the road at the steady lope of those propelled by furycraft--dodging the occasional cart or mounted rider. Many of them, though, either did not have the ability to utilize the causeway or else were too young or too old to keep the pace of the panicked flood of refugees. They made their way as best they could at the side of the road, mostly through fields barren for winter. Recent rains had made the ground into little more than mud pits stretching for miles. The unfortunate refugees struggled through them at a snail's pace.

  Behind them, spread out in a broad bar of muscle and steel came three Legions, marching side by side, straddling the road in tight formation. Their march was slow but steady, their engineers moving ahead of them, earthcrafting the mud into more tractable footing as they approached and restoring it to mud as they passed.