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Princeps' Fury, Page 30

Jim Butcher

  "Well, then," Marcus said, nodding. "The Princeps has made his will known to us. Let's get to work."


  Amara and Bernard took their next major risk about an hour before sundown.

  They had been drawn to what had been a small but obviously prosperous steadholt by the presence of several of the lizard-shaped Vord who loitered outside the place, instead of rushing about on the hunt, as had all the creatures they had seen thus far. Amara and Bernard had slipped past the guards and into the steadholt, to find that the Vord had overrun the place and set it up as some kind of base of operations.

  A vordknight crouched at the peak of the steadholt's main hall, as motionless as any statue. The croach had spread over most of the ground and was growing up the walls of every building. The steadholt's well was completely blocked off by the waxy substance. One of the doors to the barn had been torn from its hinges and lay on the ground, already buried in the wax.

  Pale wax spiders glided busily back and forth, tending the croach as bees might their honeycomb. All of them that Amara could see emerged from the shadowy interior of the barn and returned to it once their tasks were complete.

  Bernard drew close enough to her side to touch her and pressed his fingers lightly against one of her ankles. She tapped his forearm with her fingertips twice, lightly, to acknowledge his signal. Then, one at a time, they slipped on the broadened shoes that they had made specifically for walking on the croach. The waxy substance served the Vord as sustenance and as a kind of sentinel. The weight of an adult human would break the resinous surface, spilling out the faintly luminous liquid within like blood and immediately drawing the attention of the wax spiders who stood watch over it.

  Bernard and Octavian, in one of their regular written planning sessions, had between them come up with an idea for broad-bottomed shoes that would spread out the weight of an adult onto a larger surface, reducing the stress upon the croach. With them, the two should be able to walk, carefully, on the croach without breaking its surface or summoning a swarm of its guardians.

  In theory.

  In practice, the shoes were bloody difficult to use, and Amara suddenly felt very glad that she had insisted that Bernard have a swift-release mechanism built into the pads of leather and still-flexible wood. If they didn't work the way that they had hoped, Amara wanted to be able to get the ungainly things off her feet as rapidly as possible.

  With their stealth-craftings still wrapped securely about them, they walked--waddled, really, Amara thought--along the inner wall of the overrun steadholt toward the cavernous barn, until they finally stepped onto the croach itself. Amara moved as carefully as she ever had in her life, stepping forward with the awkward motion the shoes demanded, an unusually high lift of the knee, then the first foot forward onto the glowing surface, then the whole of her weight brought slowly to bear upon the forward foot, so that the broad pads of the shoes spread her weight. She supposed that were she a character in a dramatic tale, she'd have one hand on her sword and one eye upon the nearest of the spiders--but that was perfect nonsense. She was a great deal more interested in making sure that she kept her balance and that the edges of the shoes didn't come down at too sharp an angle, tearing the croach and revealing their presence to foes who were, in all likelihood, too numerous to fight successfully in any case.

  Amara took one step, then another. No whistling, warbling outcry went up around her. She paused to look back as Bernard stepped onto the croach. Her husband was a great deal larger than she was, and heavier, and his shoes proportionately wider--and therefore more clumsy. Even from barely more than an arm's length away, Amara could hardly see more than his outline, but she saw him move with the same steady patience with which her husband did everything else as he stepped onto the croach behind her.

  No cry went up. The shoes were working. So far.

  Amara turned her focus back to her own movements, leading the way, and tried to tell herself that she was walking like a graceful, long-legged heron, and not like a waddling duck, in the broad shoes. It wasn't far to the door of the barn--twenty feet, or a little more. Even so, it seemed to take at least an hour to walk the distance. That was ridiculous, of course, and Amara told herself so quite firmly. But her throat was so tight and her heart pounding so loudly that she wasn't sure she could have been expected to hear herself very clearly.

  It could only have been a few moments later that she pressed her back against the stone wall of the barn and leaned cautiously forward to peer inside to see what it was that the Vord were standing watch over so diligently.

  It was a larder. Amara could think of no other way to describe it.

  The croach was deeper there, rising in murky swirls to a foot off the stone floor of the barn and more.

  People--bodies--were sealed within it. Amara could make out few details. The croach was translucent, but shapes beneath it remained murky and mercifully indistinct. The bodies were not twisted in the shapes of death. They simply lay peacefully, as though the folk who had met their deaths there had fallen asleep and been sealed into waxy tombs. Some of the more indistinct shapes, deepest in the croach, were too thin to be bodies--but they might, Amara realized, be bones, the flesh eaten from around them by the croach.

  Except for three who had been standing, sealed into the croach where it lined the wall behind them. They had been two men and a woman, their limbs restrained by the waxy resin--and their bodies had been damaged badly before they died.

  They had, Amara realized, been tortured.

  She took swift stock of the three bodies. They were not clad as holders, but in the greens and browns, in the cloaks and leathers of woodsmen, even as she and her husband were. In fact, taking into account that their faces had been distorted by pain as they died . . .

  She felt a chill run through her.

  She recognized them all. She'd been at the Academy with the young woman, Anna, who had been from a steadholt near Forcia. She'd gone through her basic training as a Cursor with Anna, before graduating the Academy and being apprenticed to Fidelias.

  The Vord had captured, tortured, and murdered three of her fellow Cursors, men and women chosen specifically for this mission for their ability to remain unheard and unseen. For all the good it had done them.

  Her belly twisted nauseatingly, and she turned her face away. For a second, she fought to control her stomach. Then she forced herself to look again, to think.

  Two more spiders, she realized, were busy repairing a trail of damage in the croach inside the building--footprints. Human footprints. They led from the doors to the dead scouts.

  The Vord were without pity but also without rancor. None of the other bodies showed signs of torment. They were simply . . . devoured.

  Alerans had done this, she realized.

  Alerans had done this.

  Amara saw in her mind's eye the Alerans surrounding the Vord queen at the battle of Ceres and shivered again--this time with raw rage.

  She felt her husband's presence next to her, the brush of his body against hers as he looked at the inside of the barn as well. She felt it when the same realization reached him, when his body tensed suddenly and one of his knuckles made the softest of creaks beneath his gloves as his hand tightened into a furious fist.

  She touched his wrist, willing her rage into frozen stillness, and the two turned to begin making their torturously slow way across the croach again, and out of the steadholt. They took off the croach shoes and ghosted back into the countryside. Without a word, Amara stepped back and let her husband take the lead.

  Whoever had tortured the scouts had done so within hours of when Amara had found the bodies. Whoever the culprits had been, they were obviously tied in some fashion to the Vord, to the Alerans who had been helping them--the source of the Vord's furycraft. They were therefore a lead to the heart of Bernard and Amara's mission, and in all probability, they had left a trail.

  Bernard took the lead. He would find them.

  It took the be
st part of two days of almost unceasing, agonizingly cautious movement to catch up to the traitors who had tortured the scouts. Their trail led back to Ceres.

  The Vord had taken the city.

  Croach was growing within the walls. As the sun set, it threw up a sullen green light upon the grey-white stones of the city, making them look eerily translucent, like jade illuminated from within. From outside the walls, the city was eerily still and silent. No watchmen called. No bells tolled. No clip-clop of horses' hooves rattled from the stones. There were no voices, no singing from the wine houses, no mothers calling their children in as the sky settled from twilight to night.

  One could hear, very faintly, the murmuring of the city's fountains, still flowing despite the Vord presence. And, every so often, the eerie, warbling call of one of the Vord echoed up from one of the streets or rooftops within.

  Amara shivered.

  She got close enough to Bernard to be seen clearly and signed to him. Quarry. Where?

  Bernard pointed at what had been the High Lord's citadel in the middle of the city and added the sign Maybe.

  Amara grimaced. She'd been thinking the same thing herself. The citadel would be the most secure place in Ceres. If she were an Aleran among a horde of Vord, she would want the thickest walls and strongest defenses around her when she slept. Agreed. Proceed?

  Bernard signaled agreement. Begin where?

  A good point. They could do without walking in through the front gates, relying purely upon their furycrafted veils to protect them from detection. Amara, like most Cursors, knew about a dozen different ways to enter all of the High Lords' cities unobtrusively. It was a far easier matter in a large city than in smaller towns, really.

  She signaled Bernard to follow her and started for the slavers' tunnels that ran under the west wall of the city.

  The tunnels had been sealed prior to the Vord attack, of course, but as she had fully expected, they had been opened by panicked inhabitants of the city as they fled. The tunnel entries all showed the rough, outward-flung ripples of stone moved aside in haste by earthcrafters of mediocre talent, and were wide enough, just barely, for an adult carrying a heavy pack to slip through. Best of all, none of the three entrances within easy reach showed any sign of the Vord, either upon the ground outside or within the tunnels themselves. The only marks were the tracks of booted feet.

  It was a good sign. The bulk of the Vord forces had pursued the First Lord and the Legions as they fled to the north. It meant that the city was probably only lightly occupied, rather than being a seething hive. They might be able to move with more speed once they were within.

  Amara slipped into the dark mouth of the nearest tunnel. Furylamps were still burning inside, though they were of poor quality and spaced widely.

  She drew close to her husband, once within, and crafted a globe of still air about their heads and shoulders that would not allow their words to escape into the close confines of the tunnels. "Lucky," she breathed, her voice a whisper, harsh from disuse. "We still have light enough to move by."

  Her husband drew her a little closer to his chest and made a low rumble in his throat. "I'd think it was too convenient if I hadn't lived the past week."

  "They can't be strong everywhere," Amara replied. "If there were that many of them, they wouldn't have needed to pursue the First Lord so closely."

  Bernard frowned at that and nodded slowly. "He's still a threat to them." He glanced around at the tunnel, his eyes wary but more confident. "What is this place?"

  "The slavers in Ceres had a problem," Amara said. "A ready market, opposed by organizations of fanatic abolitionists, who would attempt to disrupt shipments of slaves and murder slavers as creatively as possible. The slavers created these tunnels as secure means in and out of the city."

  "Somehow," Bernard said, a hint of a smile on his lips, "I think that whatever happens, that problem has been permanently solved."

  Amara found herself tittering on the edge of a half-hysterical giggle. "Yes, I suppose so."

  Bernard nodded down the tunnel. "Smells foul, though. Where does it lead?"

  "The auction house, in the western city square. It's less than five hundred yards from the citadel."

  "Excellent," Bernard said. His eyes went back to hers. "How are you?"

  Amara thought it was the simple humanity of the question, in the face of the horror they had seen, that made her chest pang so sharply. She was tired. She ached in every limb and every joint. She was hungry, shaky, and terrified on such a steadily ongoing basis that it had begun to lose its bite and fade into numb indifference. The reminder of a kinder, gentler world, of the times they had shared speaking quietly, or sleeping beside one another, or making love, flared up in a hideously bright, dangerous fire inside her.

  She looked away from him and spoke with a shaking voice. "I . . . I can't. Not yet. We still have work to do."

  His hands rose to her upper arms and squeezed gently. His voice came out warm, quiet, steady. "It's all right, love. Let's be about it. We need to consider--get down!"

  She froze in surprise for an instant, even as her husband's arms drove her to her knees. She lost her balance and would have toppled to one side had he not caught her.

  At his curt gesture, she dropped the interdicting windcrafting and they were immediately assaulted by the sounds they would have heard had she not been holding it in place.

  Voices echoed in the tunnel. Feet thudded in a careless clatter. Someone--perhaps even their quarry--was in the tunnels with them, and they were crouching in a narrow corridor like perfect fools. No amount of concealing furycraft would do them any good if one of the Vord sympathizers physically blundered into them.

  The volume of the voices rose. The tunnels rendered them completely unintelligible, but their tone was clear: an argument. Then a pair of shadowy forms backlit by a dingy furylamp emerged from a cross tunnel ahead of them and turned to proceed farther into the stinking depths of the tunnel that led toward the auction house, away from Amara and Bernard.

  She traded a look with her husband. Then the pair of them rose to their feet and began stalking after the retreating figures.

  The tunnel widened and became much higher after only a few more yards, its shape far more regular, sloping gently upward as it moved farther into the city. Their footing was good. It was not difficult to move more swiftly than they had in days, their feet, long used to silence, making no more sound on the stones than they had over the soft earth. Amara felt a fierce surge of exaltation spread through her limbs, making weariness vanish, and found her hand upon her sword. She wanted to punish these men, whoever they were, who had turned against their own kind, to butcher them as ruthlessly and efficiently as possible. She wanted to strike back at the horrors who had overrun the Vale and visited so much pain and destruction upon its holders.

  But vengeance wouldn't bring anyone back. Indulging her own need for action would not assist the First Lord in stopping the Vord. No matter that it felt right. She had to be cold, rational, just as Fidelias had always taught her. Or tried to teach her, at any rate. Crows take his treasonous eyes.

  She took her hand slowly from her sword. There was still a job to do.

  ". . . and you know what she's going to say when we get back," snarled the voice of a man in the group in front of them. They had drawn close enough to the sympathizers for their discussion to be understood. "That you should have brought them all back here to be processed."

  "Crows take the highborn bitch," snarled another man's voice. "She said to find out what the Cursors were up to. She never said anything about recruiting them."

  The first man's voice became plaintive, blending frustration and anxiety in equal amounts. "Can't you explain it to him? Before we're all killed for incompetence?"

  A woman's voice--a familiar one, though Amara couldn't place it immediately in the echoing tunnel--answered him. "It doesn't matter to me either way. He'll kill the two of you. I have something else to offer him."

  "Whore," spat the second man.

  "One can retire from whoredom," the woman replied, her tone cool. "Idiocy is for life--which, in your case, is probably about thirty minutes."

  "Maybe I should just enjoy myself in the time left to me, then," the man said in an ugly tone. There was the sharp sound of an open-handed blow on skin, followed by scuffling feet and tearing cloth.

  "Ranius!" barked the first man, his voice high and panicked.

  "She's just a whore," Ranius growled. "One who needs to be put in her place. You can have a turn after I'm d--"

  There was the sharp, sudden sound of snapping bone.

  It was followed instantly by a heavy thud.

  "Oh, crows," the first man screamed, his voice rising to a falsetto shriek.

  "Apparently he's done, Falco," said the woman, her voice perfectly calm and polite. "Do you want your turn?"