Princeps fury, p.3
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       Princeps' Fury, p.3

         Part #5 of Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher
 

  But just before he rode out of the shelter of the belt of heavy evergreens that surrounded the glade, Kestus stopped his horse.

  Something was wrong.

  His heartbeat sped up a little, as a tension with no obvious explanation seized him. He remained still for a moment, trying to trace the source of his unease.

  "Bloody crows," sighed Tonnar. "What is it now--"

  "Quiet," Ivarus whispered, his voice tense.

  Kestus glanced back at the wiry little man. Ivarus was on edge as well.

  The camp was completely silent and still.

  The company of rangers patrolling this area of what had once been the lands of the High Lord Kalarus Brencis numbered a dozen strong, but three-and four-man patrols moved in and out of the camp on a regular basis. It was not inconceivable that all but a pair of the rangers were out on their rounds. It was not unthinkable that whoever was minding the camp might have gone on a quick local sweep, hoping to turn up some game.

  But it didn't seem very likely.

  Ivarus brought his horse up beside Kestus's, and murmured, "The fire's out."

  And that pinpointed it. In an active camp, a fire was kept alight almost as a matter of course. It was too much of a headache to let it go out and continually rebuild it. Even if the fire had burned down to hot coals and ashes, there would still be the scent of woodsmoke. But Kestus couldn't smell the camp's fire.

  The wind shifted slightly, and Kestus's horse tensed and quivered with sudden apprehension, its wide nostrils flaring. Something moved, perhaps thirty yards away. Kestus remained still, fully aware that any motion would draw attention toward him. Footsteps sounded, crunching on fallen autumn leaves.

  Julius appeared. The grizzled ranger wore his usual forest leathers, all deep browns, greys, and greens. He stopped at the fire pit, staring down at it and otherwise not moving. His mouth hung slightly open. He looked pale and weary, and his eyes were dull and flat.

  He just stood there.

  Julius never did that. There was always work to be done, and he detested wasted time. If nothing else, the man would spend any idle time he had fletching more arrows for the company.

  Kestus traded a glance with Ivarus. Though the younger man did not know Julius the way Kestus did, Ivarus's expression said that he had reached the same conclusion Kestus had as to the proper course of action--a cautious, silent withdrawal.

  "Well, there's old Julius," Tonnar muttered. "Happy now?" He growled, kicking his heels into his horse's flanks and nudging the beast into motion. "Can't believe he let the fire die. Now we'll have to rebuild it before we can eat."

  "No, fool!" hissed Kestus.

  Tonnar looked back over his shoulder at them with an exasperated expression. "I'm hungry," he said plaintively. "Come on."

  The thing that ripped its way from the earth beneath the feet of Tonnar's mount was like nothing Kestus had ever seen.

  It was huge, the size of a wagon, and covered in a gleaming, slick-looking green-black shell or armor of some kind. It had legs, a lot of them, almost like a crab's, and great, grasping pincers like the claws of a lobster, and glittering eyes recessed into deep divots in that strange shell.

  And it was strong.

  It ripped a leg from Tonnar's horse before Kestus could so much as cry out a warning.

  The animal went down, screaming, blood flowing everywhere. Kestus heard Tonnar's bones breaking as the horse landed on him. Tonnar began to scream in agony--and kept screaming as, with the other claw, the monster, whatever it was, ripped his belly open, right through his mail, and spilled his entrails into the cool air.

  A half-hysterical thought flashed through Kestus's stunned mind: The man couldn't even die quietly.

  The creature began to methodically rip the horse apart, its motions as swift and sure as a butcher hard at work.

  Kestus felt his eyes drawn to Julius. His commander turned his head slowly to face them and opened his mouth in a slow, wide gape.

  Julius screamed. But the deafening sound that came out was nothing even remotely human. There was something metallic to it, something dissonant, an odd, warbling tone that set Kestus's teeth on edge and set the horses to dancing and tossing their heads, their eyes rolling whitely in sudden fear.

  The sound died away

  And an instant later, the forest came alive with rustling.

  Ivarus lifted his hands and drew back his hood, the better to hear the sound. It came from all around them, cracklings of crushed fallen leaves, rasping of pine needles against something brushing through them, snapping of twigs, pinecones, fallen branches. No one sound was more than a bare murmur. But there were thousands of them.

  The forest sounded as if it had become one enormous bonfire.

  "Oh, great furies," breathed Ivarus. "Oh bloody crows." He shot a wide-eyed glance at Kestus as he whirled his horse, his face pale with terror. "No questions!" he snarled. "Just run! Run!"

  Ivarus suited action to his words, kicking his mount into a run.

  Kestus tore his eyes away from the empty-eyed thing that had been his commander, and sent his horse leaping after Ivarus's.

  As he did, he became aware of . . .

  Things.

  Things, in the forest. Things moving, keeping pace with them, shadows that remained only half-seen in the deepening darkness. None of them looked human. None of them looked like anything Kestus had ever seen. His heart pounded with raw, instinctive terror, and he called to his mount, demanding more speed.

  It was madness to ride like this--through the forest, in the deepening dark. A tree trunk, a low branch, a protruding root, or any of a thousand other common things could kill a man or his horse if they collided with them in the night.

  But the things were drawing closer, behind and on either side of them, and Kestus realized what it meant: They were being hunted, like fleeing deer, with the pack in full pursuit, working together to bring down the game. Terror of those hunters overrode his judgment. He only wished his horse could run faster.

  Ivarus splashed across a creek and abruptly altered his course, sending his mount plowing through a thorny thicket, and Kestus was hot on his heels. As they tore through the thicket, ripping their hides and the hides of their mounts, Ivarus reached into his belt pouch and drew forth a small globe made of what looked like black glass. He said something to it, then spun in his saddle, shouted, "Down!" and threw it at Kestus's face.

  Kestus ducked. The globe zipped over his hunched shoulders, and into the dark behind them.

  There was a sudden flash of light and a roar of flame. Kestus shot a glance over his shoulder, to see fire spreading over the thicket with such manic intensity that it could only have been the result of some kind of furycraft. It washed out like a wave, spreading in all directions, burning the dried material of the thickets in eager conflagration--and it was moving fast. Faster than their horses were running.

  They burst free of the thicket barely a panicked heartbeat ahead of the roaring flame--but not before two creatures the size of large cats came flying out of the blaze, burning like a flock of comets. Kestus got a glimpse of a too-large, spiderlike creature--and then one of them landed on the back of Ivarus's horse, still blazing.

  The horse screamed, and its hoof struck a fallen log or a depression in the forest floor. It went down in a bone-breaking tumble, taking Ivarus with it.

  Kestus was sure that the man was as good as dead, just as Tonnar had been. But Ivarus leapt clear of the falling horse, tucked into a roll, and controlled his fall, coming back to his feet several yards later. Without missing a beat, he drew the short gladius from his belt, impaled the creature still clinging to his mount's haunches, then hacked the second burning spider-thing from the air before it could reach him.

  Before the corpse had hit the ground, Ivarus hurled two more of the black globes into the night behind them, one to the left and the other to the right. Blazing curtains of fire sprang to life in seconds, joining with the inferno of the burning thicket.

 
; Kestus fought his panicked horse to a halt, savagely forced it to turn, and rode back for Ivarus, while the wounded horse continued to scream in agony. He extended his hand. "Come on!"

  Ivarus turned and, with a single, clean stroke, ended the horse's suffering. "We won't get away from them riding double," he said.

  "You don't know that!"

  "Crows, man, there's no time! They'll circle that screen and be on top of us in seconds. Get out of here, Kestus! You've got to report this."

  "Report what?" Kestus all but screamed. "Bloody crows and--"

  The night went white, and red-hot pain became Kestus's entire world. He dimly felt himself fall from his horse. He couldn't breathe. Couldn't scream. All he could do was hurt.

  He managed to look down.

  There was a blackened hole in his chest. It went through the mail, just at his solar plexus, dead center of his body. The links surrounded it had melted together. A firecrafting. He'd been hit with a firecrafting.

  He couldn't breathe.

  He couldn't feel his legs.

  Ivarus crouched over him and examined the wound.

  His sober face became even grimmer. "Kestus," he said quietly. "I'm sorry. There's nothing I can do."

  Kestus had to work for it, but he focused his eyes on Ivarus. "Take the horse," he rasped. "Go."

  Ivarus put a hand on Kestus's shoulder. "I'm sorry," he said again.

  Kestus nodded. The image of the creature dismembering Tonnar and his mount flashed to mind. He shuddered, licked his lips, and said, "I don't want those things to kill me."

  Ivarus closed his eyes for a second. Then he pressed his lips together and nodded, once.

  "Thank you," Kestus said, and closed his eyes.

  Sir Ehren ex Cursori rode Kestus's horse until the beast was all but broken, using every trick he'd ever learned, seen, heard, or read about to shake off pursuit and obscure his trail.

  By the time the sun rose, he felt as weak and shaky as his mount--but there was no further sign of pursuit. He stopped beside a small river and leaned against a tree, closing his eyes for a moment.

  The Cursor wasn't sure if his coin would be able to reach Alera Imperia from such a minor tributary--but he had little choice but to try. The First Lord had to be warned. He drew out the chain from around his neck, and with it the silver coin that hung from it. He tossed the coin into the water, and said, "Hear me, little river, and hasten word to thy master."

  For several moments, nothing happened. Ehren was about to give up and start moving again, when the water stirred, and the surface of the water stirred, rose, and formed itself into the image of Gaius Sextus, the First Lord of Alera.

  Gaius was a tall, handsome man, who appeared to be in his late forties if one discounted the silver hair. In truth, the First Lord was in his eighties, but like all powerful watercrafters', his body did not tend to show the effects of age that a normal Aleran's would. Though his eyes were sunken and weary-looking, they glittered with intelligence and sheer, indomitable will. The water sculpture focused on Ehren, frowned, and spoke.

  "Sir Ehren?" Gaius said. "Is that you?" His voice sounded strange, like someone speaking from inside a tunnel.

  "Yes, sire," Ehren replied, bowing his head. "I have urgent news."

  The First Lord gestured with one hand. "Report."

  Ehren took a deep breath. "Sire. The Vord are here, in the wilds to the southwest of the Waste of Kalare."

  Gaius's expression suddenly stiffened, tension gathering in his shoulders. He leaned forward slightly, eyes intent. "Are you certain of this?"

  "Completely. And there's more."

  Ehren took a deep breath.

  "Sire," he said quietly. "They've learned furycrafting."

  CHAPTER 1

  On his previous voyages, it had taken Tavi several days to recover from his seasickness--but those voyages had never taken him out into the ocean deeps. There was, he learned, a vast difference between staying within a long day's sail of land and daring the deep blue sea. He could not believe how high the waves could roll, out in the empty ocean. It often seemed that the Slive was sailing up the side of a great blue mountain, only to sled down its far side once it had reached the summit. The wind and the expertise of Demos's crew of scoundrels kept the sails constantly taut, and the Slive rapidly took the lead position in the fleet.

  By Tavi's order, Demos kept his ship even with the Trueblood, the flagship of the Canim leader, Varg. Demos's crew chafed under the order, Tavi knew. Though the Trueblood was almost unbelievably graceful for a vessel her size, compared to the nimble Slive she moved like a river barge. Demos's men longed to show the Canim what their ship could do, and give the vast, black ship a view of their stern.

  Tavi was tempted to allow it. Anything to end the voyage a little sooner.

  The greatly increased activity of the waves had increased his motion sickness proportionately, and though it had, mercifully, abated somewhat since those first few horrible days, it hadn't ever gone away completely, and eating food remained a dubious proposition, at best. He could keep down a little bread, and weak broth, but not much more. He had a constant headache, now, which grew more irritating by the day.

  "Little brother," growled the grizzled old Cane. "You Alerans are a short-lived race. Have you grown old and feeble enough to need naps in midlesson?"

  From her position in the hammock slung from the rafters of the little cabin, Kitai let out a little silver peal of laughter.

  Tavi shook himself out of his reverie and glanced at Gradash. The Cane was something almost unheard of amongst the warrior caste--elderly. Tavi knew that Gradash was over nine centuries old, as Alerans counted them, and age had shrunken the Cane to the paltry size of barely seven and a half feet. His strength was a frail shadow of what it had been when he was a warrior in his prime. Tavi judged that he probably was no more than three or four times as strong as a human being. His fur was almost completely silver, with only bits of the solid, night-dark fur that marked him as a member of Varg's extended bloodline as surely as the distinctive pattern of notches cut into his ears or the decorations upon the hilt of his sword.

  "Your pardon, elder brother," Tavi replied, speaking as Gradash had, in Canish. "My mind wandered. I have no excuse."

  "He is so sick he can barely get out of his bunk," Kitai said, her Canish accent better than Tavi's, "but he has no excuse."

  "Survival makes no allowances for illness," Gradash growled, his voice stern. Then he added, in thickly accented Aleran, "I admit, however, that he should no longer embarrass himself while attempting to speak our tongue. The idea of a language exchange was a sound one."

  For Gradash, the comment was high praise. "It made sense," Tavi replied. "At least for my people. Legionares with nothing to do for two months can become distressingly bored. And should your people and mine find ourselves at odds again, I would have it be for the proper reasons and not because we did not speak one another's tongues."

  Gradash showed his teeth for a moment. Several were chipped, but they were still white and sharp. "All knowledge of a foe is useful."

  Tavi responded to the gesture in kind. "That, too. Have the lessons gone well on the other ships?"

  "Aye," Gradash said. "And without serious incident."

  Tavi frowned faintly. Aleran standards on that subject differed rather sharply from Canim ones. To the Canim, without serious incident merely meant that no one had been killed. It was not, however, a point worth pursuing. "Good."

  The Cane nodded and rose. "Then with your consent, I will return to my pack leader's ship."

  Tavi arched an eyebrow. That was unusual. "Will you not take dinner with us before you go?"

  Gradash flicked his ears in the negative--then a second later remembered to follow the gesture with the Aleran equivalent, a negative shake of the head. "I would return before the storm arrives, little brother."

  Tavi glanced at Kitai. "What storm?"

  Kitai shook her head. "Demos has said nothing."

&n
bsp; Gradash let out a rumbling snarl, the Canim equivalent of a chuckle. "Know when one's coming. Feel it in my tail."

  "Until our next lesson, then," Tavi said. He tilted his head slightly to one side, in the Canim fashion, and Gradash returned the gesture. Then the old Cane padded out, ducking to squeeze out of the relatively tiny cabin.

  Tavi glanced at Kitai, but the Marat woman was already swinging down from the hammock. She trailed her fingertips through his hair as she passed his bunk, gave him a quick smile, and left the cabin as well. She returned a moment later, trailing the Legion's senior valet, Magnus.