Princeps' Fury, Page 34Jim Butcher
Anag snarled in pure, quiet hate.
Varg glanced aside at Tavi. "How fast does it grow?"
"From what I read in Lararl's study, it depends on several things--temperature, weather, how much plant cover is on the ground, as well as how large it already is." Tavi shook his head. "Maybe other things we don't know about. And the bloody wax spiders spread it when they want to cover a new area, too."
"Not far," Anag growled quietly. "It was not growing until the Vord emerged."
"He's right," Tavi said. "A mile, two at the most. We're near their hole. Though I'll wager that we probably passed dozens of smaller patches today in the daylight, without seeing them. They set them up like outposts."
"More like spreading seeds," Varg rumbled.
Tavi gave the big Cane a sharp glance and nodded.
"Then it is possible that we have been observed," Anag said.
"Probable," Varg corrected him.
"If so, then why have they not attacked us?"
"Because they don't care," Tavi said, smiling slightly. "We're fewer than a dozen, after all. What threat could we be? We're not in a position to hurt them from here--and if we approach closely enough to do something that might inconvenience them, we'll have to cross the croach to do it. That will warn them in plenty of time to act."
Anag's tail thrashed left and right. "Then how shall we find and kill this queen creature? We can't even be sure where she is."
Varg tapped his skull.
The older Cane growled, the sound amused. "Explain it to him, please, Tavar."
"Unlike Lararl," Tavi said, "the Vord queen doesn't have a trusted subordinate she can leave to secure vital rear areas--like the mouth of that tunnel. Without her to control them, the Vord aren't nearly as effective--but as long as the tunnel back to the area they already control stays open, she can throw away as many unguided troops as your warriors can kill. She'll always have more to draw upon. If the tunnel is shut, the Vord are cut off from reinforcements and supplies."
"She must protect it at all costs," Varg rumbled, ears flicking in agreement. "We will find her there."
"She will be strongly guarded," Anag said. "And she will seek to avoid us."
"Without question," Varg said.
"And more Vord will be pouring in through the hole in a constant stream."
Anag nodded. "Then we must fight through her guard, and all those nearby Vord, and any others she can call to her once we reach the edge of the croach and alert them of our presence. We are few. Can it be done?"
"If it's all the same to you," Tavi said, "let's not find out."
They waited for three hours, until night was fully on the land. While the Hunters kept watch, the others took what rest they could, until the evening was mature, and the half-frozen rain that had fallen every other evening had begun to speckle the night. Then the group set out on foot through the sleet and darkness toward the glowing beacon of the croach.
"I'm going to catch a cold," Max muttered. "These cloaks soak up water like towels."
"That's because they are towels, Max," Tavi answered in a low voice. "The Vord sense the heat of our bodies at night. These cloaks are going to hold cold water, help hide us from them."
Max gave Tavi a sour look. "I'm going to have rusty armor. Are you sure this works?"
"I've done it," Tavi said with perfect confidence.
"But does it work?"
One of the Hunters turned to them and bared his teeth in pure threat.
Max muttered something under his breath, about someone smelling like wet dog, but subsided into silence.
They reached the edge of the croach, and Tavi shivered. The tall, dark forms of the Canim were just as threatening as the eerie landscape. The croach looked just as it had before, a coating like the drippings from an unimaginable number of candles, covering ground and stones and trees with a faintly luminous green sheathing. It spread out before them, nightmarishly beautiful, unsettling, and alien.
Nothing moved within--but that meant little. The Vord could hide dozens of their number virtually in plain sight upon the croach, and have them go as undetected as anything hidden by a windcrafter's veil.
Tavi signaled Kitai with a motion of his hand, and the two of them moved up to the edge of the croach. Tavi crouched close to the ground to examine it, frowning. He beckoned Kitai, who ghosted over to his side, her green eyes shadowed inside her damp cloak, watching the spectral-lit forest steadily.
"Look," Tavi whispered. "The croach. It's thicker here than it was in the Wax Forest."
She bent down and examined it quickly before returning to watching the forest before them. "You're right. But why?"
Tavi pursed his lips, and frowned. "The Vord here have modeled themselves after the Canim. Each one is larger, and much heavier, but not quite as big as a Cane. The croach is growing thicker, maybe so that it won't break under the weight of the Vord--just under that of a Cane." He looked up at Kitai. "That's one of the things the croach is designed for. It's a kind of watchman. The Vord can alter their forms. They must alter the croach to be able to better serve their needs."
Kitai regarded him steadily. Then she nodded, and said, "Then let us test it."
Before Tavi could protest, she had prowled out onto the surface of the croach.
Tavi held his breath.
Kitai's feet did not break the surface, though it sank slightly beneath her weight, and slowly restored itself to its original shape after she had passed. She took a dozen steps, body crouched, her bright eyes watching the forest, and returned to Tavi's side.
"Your turn," she whispered.
Tavi eyed her. But then he rose and tested the surface of the croach beneath his shoes, glad that he had opted for the lighter pair rather than his heavy, hob-nailed infantry boots. The surface of the croach had a bit of give to it, and almost seemed to push up against his feet as he stepped away from it, something like a furycrafted causeway did, if far more weakly. Tavi signaled Max and Durias to come forward, and the two men did. Max, like Tavi, had worn lighter riding boots, but Durias had nothing but his infantry footwear. He grimaced and began taking them off, and stepped out onto the croach in his bare feet a moment later.
"Well," Durias murmured, looking around warily. "At least it's warm."
"So far so good," Tavi murmured. "Time to test the Canim's new shoes."
Varg was the first to approach. As the largest of the Canim, he would be the most likely to break the surface of the croach and attract the presence of the wax spiders who maintained and repaired it. The big Cane approached with exaggerated steps, a peculiar tilt to his ears that Tavi had never quite seen before on one of the wolf-warriors. Broad discs, almost like dishes, really, of green-black Vord chitin were secured to each of his feet.
"These . . ." he switched to Aleran for the word, "shoes." He shook his head. "I cannot move well in them."
"They'll distribute your weight," Tavi told him. "I hope enough that you can walk the croach without breaking it."
"Who taught you the use of these things, Tavar?"
"Some of my people use something like them to move more easily over deep snow," Tavi replied. "Though the original design was made of wood and leather. I thought the chitin was more logical."
"Perhaps if it does break the croach, it will not sense the presence of Vord hide as an outside attacker," Varg growled.
"Worth a try," Tavi said. He waited a beat, then added. "Anytime now."
Varg eyed him without amusement. Then he swept his red-eyed gaze around the nearby forest and took a slow, cautious step onto the croach.
The shoes worked. They held him up.
Varg growled, a satisfied sound, and gestured once at the other Canim. Anag and the three Hunters prowled forward onto the glowing croach, almost comically cautious about where they placed their chitin-shod feet.
Tavi nodded at them once. Then he turned to Kitai, who flashed him a feral grin and started
through the forest in deliberate silence, as scout and pathfinder.
The rest of them followed her, into the glowing green night, and toward the architect and epicenter of that eerie new world.
"The less you say, the better," Rook said. "The less I know about why you're here, the less harm I can do you should the information be taken from me."
Which is precisely why I did not inform you of Bernard's presence, Amara thought.
They had stepped from the slavers' tunnel into one of its adjoining chambers. There was a heady odor coming from a number of tightly fitted barrels against the far wall. Amara recognized the smell of preprocessed hollybells, the flowers from which the drug aphrodin was made. The slavers, it seemed, had used the tunnels as an entry point for smugglers as well as for moving their own merchandise in and out of the city. Doubtless, they had demanded their own extortionate piece of the lucrative enterprise.
"That's a risk I need to take," Amara told her calmly in reply. "You can tell almost as much about my intentions from the questions I ask as from anything I say. If I can't ask you questions, whatever you tell me is going to be of limited use."
Rook smiled grimly. "Believe me, Countess. I think I can make a fair guess at all of your questions."
"Then you must already know what I'm doing here."
"I suspect," Rook said, raising a finger to the collar and shuddering. "I do not know. There is a difference."
Amara studied the other woman for a long moment before she shook her head. "How do I know that you aren't feeding me misinformation?"
Rook considered the question seriously for a moment before answering. "Countess, the First Lord himself came to me on the steadholt where my daughter and I were living. It was seventy-four miles south of here."
Amara had to suppress a shiver. The past tense was certainly appropriate if the steadholt they had seen earlier that very day was any indication. The region that far south of Ceres had certainly been overrun by the Vord.
"He told me what was happening. He told me that if I served him on this mission, he would see to it that my daughter was taken to safety--to anywhere in Alera that I chose. And that if I returned from it, I could join her."
Amara could not suppress the curse that slipped from between her lips. Gaius had given Rook no choice at all: Do what he wished, or perish with her daughter before the oncoming menace. "Rook, I don't know why you--"
Rook held up her hand for silence. Then said, simply, "I sent her to Calderon."
For a moment, Amara couldn't find a response. "Why Calderon?" she finally asked.
Rook shrugged a shoulder and gave her a weary smile. "I wanted her as far from the Vord as possible. With the most capable, forewarned, and best-prepared people I knew. I know that Count Bernard has been trying to warn folk of the Vord for years. I assumed that he would begin preparing his own home to resist them. If I betray you, Countess, my daughter has no one to protect her. I would rather die screaming with blood running from my nose and ears than that."
Amara bowed her head. It was an accurate description of the kind of death that awaited anyone who defied a discipline collar too severely or for too long, or should anyone try to remove the collar save whoever had put it there. The locking mechanism on the collars was fiendishly complex, but Amara had no doubt that Rook could bypass it whenever she chose, given the proper tools.
It would, of course, kill her to remove it.
Rook had defied High Lords and Ladies--and the First Lord himself, in her effort to secure her child when she had been held prisoner against Rook's loyalty by the late High Lord Kalarus. Amara had no doubt whatsoever that the woman would sacrifice her life without hesitation if she thought that by doing so she could protect Masha.
"Very well," Amara said. "What can you tell me?"
"Little," Rook said. She made a frustrated gesture at the collar. "Orders. But I can show you."
Amara nodded once.
Rook turned back to the tunnel and beckoned her. "Follow me."
Veiled to the utmost of her ability, Amara crouched on a blackened rooftop beside Rook, overlooking the city's former Slave Market, the Vord's "recruitment" area.
She'd seen merrier slaughterhouses.
There were several dozen Vord, the low-slung garimlike versions, assembled in the courtyard, waiting in patient coils of gleaming black exoskeleton next to every entrance to and from the place, and Amara suspected that she would see similar sentries at every crossroads and gateway within the city.
Besides the Vord, several hundred Alerans filled the Slave Market. The majority of them were imprisoned in the various different cages required to hold strongly gifted furycrafters. Firecrafters were those imprisoned beneath the steady rain-shower trickle of water that poured down from pipes overhead. Earthcrafters were being held in cages suspended several feet from the ground. The windcrafters, as Amara well knew, would be inside the low brick cubes of solid stone, with no access to air but for what could come in through a few holes no larger across than Amara's thumb. A metal cage sufficed for woodcrafters, though they were placed far opposite the courtyard from the heavy wooden beams that restrained the metalcrafters inside.
Most interesting were the cages that had to take multiple layers of precautions to contain their prisoners--doubtless the captured Citizenry. One metal cage that swung high off the ground and was simultaneously drizzled with water and fine black dirt caught Amara's eye, particularly. The cage held a number of damp, mud-spattered figures, only two of them armored men captured during the battle. The other four were women, probably taken when the Vord overran their homes to the south. All of them--and most of the prisoners Amara could see, for that matter--lay in the loose-limbed stupor of the aphrodin addict.
Amara watched as a pair of silver-collared guards dragged a drug-disoriented prisoner from one of the stone windcrafter pens, a young man in shattered armor. They dragged him across the courtyard to the stage where the auctions were held, and up onto it. They slammed him down hard onto the surface of the stage, though the young man--a boy, really--hardly seemed to be in any condition to stand upright, let alone offer resistance.
A pair of extremely attractive young women on the stage, wearing little more than scraps of cloth and gleaming silver collars, approached him. One of them silently began unknotting the thong of a necklace or amulet the young man wore on his neck and took it away, drawing the first feeble stir of protest from him that Amara had seen.
The second girl knelt and caressed his hair and face for a moment, before sliding a slender-necked bottle to his lips. Amara saw the girl's lips urging him to drink. The young man did, his eyes still dazed, and a moment later slumped even more wearily to the floor of the stage--more drugs.
And then Kalarus Brencis Minoris mounted the steps and walked over to him, his movements brisk.
Amara shivered, staring at the son of High Lord Kalarus, the young man whom she had last seen weeping and running for his life on the slopes of some fury-forsaken mountain near his former home, stumbling over the corpses of hundreds of recently deceased elite soldiers. Brencis was dressed in fine silks of pure white, unsoiled by any mud or blood. His long dark hair curled gorgeously, as if freshly touched by hot curlers and a brush. His fingers were crusted with rings, and chains lay in looping ranks upon his chest.
They didn't conceal the silver collar around his throat.
Fascinated and repelled, Amara gestured, willing Cirrus to carry the words on the stage, dozens of yards distant, to her ears.
"My lord," said one of the scantily clad girls. Her words were slurred with wine or aphrodin or both. "He is ready, my lord."
"I can see that," Brencis said testily. He reached into an open chest that lay on the stage and drew out a handful of slavers' collars, shaking them in careless irritation until only one remained in his grasp. He settled in front of the dazed soldier, slipped the collar around his neck, drew a knife, and cut his thumb with it. He shoved his bloodied thumb viciously ag
ainst the catch of the collar, drawing a choking gasp from the young man.
She watched as the collar went to work on him. She was familiar with the basic theory behind the device. It used multiple furycrafted disciplines to flood the targets' senses with ecstatic euphoria at first, pacifying them completely. Not that the collar needed much help in the case of the young soldier, dazed and drugged as he was. Even so, there was a visible arching of his body, and his eyes rolled, then fluttered closed.
That would go on for a while, Amara knew. Long enough that when the sensation ceased, it would almost seem like pain, all on its own. When the brutal agony the collars were capable of inflicting at their owner's will set in, it would seem that much worse by comparison.