Princeps fury, p.37
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       Princeps' Fury, p.37

         Part #5 of Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher
 

  Before Tavi could fully register that the attack was happening, the creature ripped the spider's head from its body, and the rest of it collapsed to the surface of the croach, its legs twitching and flailing.

  Tavi blinked. The animal that had dispatched the wax spider crouched atop its corpse. Its fur was dark, and it had a long, sinuous body. Its limbs were powerful, solid, spreading into clawed paws like those of a mountain lion. Its head, though, was more like that of a wolf, or a bear, with a broad muzzle full of sharp and--obviously--wickedly effective teeth upon what looked like incredibly powerful jaws.

  Tavi recognized a deadly predator when he saw it--and even if that one weighed no more than the wax spider, it had dispatched the Vord as easily as it might have a rabbit.

  The beast turned its glittering yellow eyes toward Tavi and Varg, and silently bared its impressive, green-spattered fangs.

  "Do not make eye contact," Varg rumbled quietly. "Back away slowly. Do not lift your hands."

  Tavi glanced at the Cane, then they both began backing away. Tavi glanced back, and saw the other Canim looking on, weapons actually drawn and in their hands. The Hunters hadn't drawn when the Vord had come close to them--but this creature, it seemed, merited more of their respect.

  Once Tavi and Varg had reached the Hunters, they all continued backing away, until the site of the kill was a good fifty or sixty yards off, before the Hunters seemed to relax, putting their weapons away.

  "Close," Anag said.

  "What was that thing?" Max muttered to Tavi. "I couldn't see."

  Tavi described it briefly to Max, and turned to Varg. "Is that animal native to this land?"

  "To all of Canea," Varg said. "One of the finest hunters in it. Strong, swift, intelligent."

  "Smart enough to set a trap for the Vord," Tavi mused. "It had clawed open the croach specifically to attract a wax spider."

  Varg flicked his ears in assent. "It does not surprise me. They are wise enough to use such ruses."

  "They are mad," Anag said. The golden-furred Cane crouched, watching in the direction of the small hunter, his body language tense, wary.

  "Mad?" Tavi asked.

  "Brave to the point of insanity," said the eldest of the Hunters. Tavi turned to blink at the Cane, who had been silent since he had spoken to Varg on the roof of Lararl's headquarters. "It will fight anything to protect its territory, or its kill. It fights without hesitation, without fear, without reservation."

  Tavi lifted his eyebrows. "But it is so small."

  The Canim looked at each other, amusement in their body language. "Aleran," Varg said, "do not be deceived by its size. I've seen one kill a full-grown, armed warrior. It gutted the fool while it tore his throat out, and was gone before the body hit the ground. Even if you fought and killed one, it would do everything in its power to take you with it. I've never heard of one being slain without leaving scars."

  "Look," Kitai said quietly.

  Tavi looked up, and saw three more wax spiders approaching the area. The hunting beast was nowhere to be seen, nor was the body of the dead spider. Instead of raising an outcry, though, the worker Vord simply went about repairing the damaged croach, then beat a hasty retreat.

  "Not even the Vord want more trouble from him tonight," Varg rumbled.

  The Hunter nodded, and said, in the tone of someone quoting a proverb, "Only a fool seeks a quarrel with a tavar."

  Tavi blinked again, first at the Hunter, then at Varg.

  "Come, Tavar," Varg growled. "Let us go around, and leave your little brother to his meal."

  Twice more, Kitai signaled them to halt, and twice more, enemy Vord passed by. Once, they were more of the frog-things they had already seen. The second group was farther away, larger, and more indistinct. Neither encounter resulted in an outcry.

  Tavi was sure they were getting close when they encountered the first active wax spiders, gliding silently through the glowing green pines in a row that stretched out into the distance to the north, like a line of ants trundling back and forth from their nest to a fallen fruit tree, each bearing a swollen bellyful of glowing green croach with it, partially visible through their translucent bodies.

  It wasn't hard to imagine where they were going--to spread the gelatinous substance over the bodies of the dead. It wouldn't matter to the spiders whether the corpses were of their own kind or of the Shuaran warriors who had already engaged them. To the Vord, any dead flesh was simply food to be covered and consumed by the croach.

  At a nod from Tavi, Kitai adjusted their course, and they began following the wax spiders' back trail, searching for their point of origin. As they did, they saw other Vord, traveling in a solid file on the far side of the spiders, also heading to the north. These creatures, though, were far larger. Many were the tall, lean, Cane-shaped forms they had seen at the fortifications. Most were the thin-limbed frog-things. Others were larger than either of the first--much larger, nearly the size of a gargant, but scuttling along like crabs or lobsters. They must be the warrior forms his uncle had described from the Vord incursion into the Calderon Valley, but they were too far away to be seen any more distinctly. He proceeded with caution.

  A shape rose through the trees in front of them, something that looked like an enormous tumor on the smooth surface of the croach. It was the size of a small building, and Tavi recognized it at once. Whirls and loops of the eerie wax substance had been piled up to form the building. He had seen two others like it--once in the Wax Forest, back near Calderon, and once in the labyrinth of caverns beneath Alera Imperia.

  In the croach all around it were hundreds of smaller shapes, almost identical to the structure in form, but on a much-reduced scale, perhaps the size of a large pitcher of beer. The nearest of the lumpy shapes was no more than thirty feet away, and Tavi stared intently at it.

  Something inside the lump of croach stirred fitfully, a movement of shadows against the green luminescence, and went still again. A small portion of green-black chitin pressed wetly against a surface as translucent as murky green glass.

  Tavi inhaled slowly, understanding.

  It was a nursery.

  That would be the time to enact the plan, then.

  He signaled the others to hold their position and, to his considerable surprise, they complied--even Kitai. That had been the part he was most concerned about, the most unpredictable part of the plan. He'd had a number of different contingencies thought out, if they'd been necessary, but it looked like the basic shape of the past couple of days had carried some momentum. They'd listened to him without question.

  One worry down, he supposed.

  He moved slowly forward, studying the nearest alien blister, or egg, or whatever it was, fascinated, comparing it to the far larger hive structure in the near distance. Each of the smaller shapes contained a Vord of some kind, perhaps taking sustenance from the croach that surrounded the blister. He thought he could see the vague shape of one of the frog-form Vord, in miniature, in the nearest hive. A few feet away, a second blister of croach contained a half-sized version of a wax spider. The queen, it seemed, was already working on creating more of her kind.

  Tavi continued slowly forward. Each hive occupied a circle of croach perhaps five feet across, and he could see the glowing substance inside the waxy covering flowing up into the hive--nourishment for the infant Vord within. Tavi counted the hives nearby, and did some math in his head. Presuming this queen had only been busy creating more of her kind here since the Vord had broken out a few days ago, it meant that she could create hundreds of Vord every day--perhaps more. What's more, they could come forth with a great deal less fuss and bother than their Aleran counterparts--and fully armed and ready for battle, to boot.

  Bloody crows. No wonder the Vord had wiped out the Canim. His imagination painted him landscapes of conquered territories, glowing with croach and covered in hives that spawned fresh nightmares by the thousands. Once these . . . hatcheries were planted and maturing, fresh Vord would emerge by the
company, ready to replace those that had been slain by the Canim. Once they were given a chance to establish themselves, it would be all but impossible to be rid of them.

  He suddenly found the silence of the croach-covered pine forest oppressive and heavy--far too much so.

  What mother, Tavi thought, ever left her children unguarded if there was any choice in the matter?

  No sooner had the thought crossed his mind than the croach itself stirred, and half a dozen of the Cane-form Vord rose silently around him, huge and menacing. Eight feet tall, and lean like the Canim, the Vord's arms were tipped with long, vicious talons, and their beaklike muzzles were serrated and terrifying.

  "You are right, of course," said a quiet, alien voice from somewhere nearby--the Vord queen, Tavi was certain. "I would not leave my children unprotected." A dark shape, eyes glowing with a green-white light of their own, appeared behind the hulking shapes of the Cane-form Vord. Tavi thought he saw a faint glitter of light on sharp white teeth. "Kill him."

  CHAPTER 34

  At one time, Tavi would have been terrified by his situation. He was completely surrounded, outnumbered by implacable foes, and cut off from any of his support. Oh, certainly, Max and Kitai and the Canim were only a hundred yards away--but that was far enough to prevent them from intervening over the next several seconds, which were quite possibly all he had. He would have been helpless to prevent his fate from being decided by someone else.

  Tavi still found the situation terrifying; but he wasn't nearly so helpless anymore.

  He called upon the furies of the wind, borrowing of their speed, and time slowed as the nearest Cane-form Vord lunged for him. He drew his sword from his side and turned to meet it, focusing on the steel as he went, upon the furies in the blade, and its edge cut through the Vord's armored forearm as smoothly as if passing through water.

  He ducked the Vord's second set of talons, took that arm as well, then drew up power from the earth to deliver a hard kick in one of the creature's heavy thighs. The blow flung it back from Tavi to land several feet away, thrashing at the croach and ripping through its surface to the glowing green "blood" that ran through it.

  By then, a second Vord had closed in on him, and its talons slammed into the armor over his spine. The Aleran steel resisted the creature's claws, though the blow drove Tavi several steps forward, into a third Vord. His sword cut through the creature's thighs, and he drove his shoulder into its belly, knocking it to the ground as well. Then Tavi dropped straight down to his heels, spinning as he went, and his blade lashed out in an arc less than six inches from the ground, literally cutting the Vord behind him off at the ankles. It fell, shrieking and gushing green-brown blood like the others.

  He'd killed three Vord in the time it would have taken to count them out loud, something he'd never have been able to do even a couple of years before--but that wasn't what made him dangerous in that situation.

  "Wait!" Tavi shouted toward the Vord queen, still lurking behind the rank of Cane-form Vord. "You have a more profitable and efficient alternative!"

  Another of the warrior Vord came at him, and Tavi struck away its hand with his sword in a shower of blue-and-scarlet sparks. The clawed hand whirled through the air and landed on the ground near the Vord queen's feet.

  "How many more warriors do you want to lose?" Tavi called, slipping aside from the next blow. "It costs you nothing to hear me out!"

  The attacking Cane-form Vord suddenly slowed, then halted in place.

  The Vord queen spoke again. Her voice was eerie, multilayered, as if coming from several throats simultaneously. The creature herself was--rather obviously--feminine in shape, though Tavi could see nothing of her but an outline against the glowing green of the large hive behind her--and glowing green eyes that matched it. "It is unlikely that you are here to assist us. It is more likely that you are engaged in deception."

  "Against a being who can read minds?" Tavi asked. He kept his eyes on the Vord that had suddenly ceased its attack. It was well within range to strike again. "That would seem to be an irrational act."

  A figure covered in a dark, hooded cloak appeared from behind one of the nearby warriors. She walked a few steps toward Tavi, the cloak swaying, revealing rigid-looking, green-white flesh each time she took a step forward. The queen was considerably shorter than Tavi. Within the darkness of the hood, twin candles of green light burned with faintly luminescent fire. "Indeed," the queen murmured. "Though desperation can sometimes drive non-Vord intelligences to acts beyond reason."

  Tavi felt himself baring his teeth in a smile. "It would be simple for you to determine if such desperation drove me. You just have to come closer."

  The Vord queen was silent for a moment, her eyes narrowed to slits of green fire, but she did not move. "How did you approach so closely without being detected, creature?"

  Tavi smiled at her and said nothing.

  The Vord queen looked past him and made sniffing sounds. "More of the local apex predators are nearby. Though I was told the Narashan strain had been eliminated."

  Tavi, stretching his watercrafting senses to the utmost, felt it then--a quiver of . . . not fear, precisely, but something akin to it, if infinitely more ordered--apprehension, perhaps. "Told? By whom? Who would withhold that kind of information from you? And why would such information be withheld?"

  The queen stared at him, eerily motionless.

  "It is possible that an opportunity for mutual gain through cooperation exists," Tavi said. "If you are willing to listen to me, perhaps we can work together to accomplish a shared goal."

  The queen's voice dropped to a buzzing whisper, her voice like locust wings. "What goal?"

  "The removal of a mutual enemy."

  The queen stared at him for a moment more. Then she turned and began walking toward the hive. The warriors on either side of her took a step back, making way for Tavi.

  The queen looked over her shoulder, and said, "Come this way."

  The Vord queen entered the hive through a wide, unsettlingly organic-looking doorway. It reminded Tavi, somehow, of the nostril of some great beast. Vord in various forms crouched upon the hive, silent shadows against the glowing green wax. Wax spiders sat everywhere, blending into the background, and Tavi was certain that there were more in evidence than he could see.

  Tavi found his feet dragging as he approached the entrance to the hive.

  Well, of course they dragged. The interior of the hive was certain to be a death trap. He still remembered the Cane in the caverns beneath the Citadel, and how the Vord, possessing the bodies of the warrior's former comrades, had forced him into the hive--and how he had emerged, taken, moments later, without expression or mind or will. Only a fool would go in there after the Vord queen unless the situation absolutely necessitated it.

  His did. Besides, he told himself, going into the hive wasn't an entirely hideous decision, tactically speaking. On open ground, the Vord could come at him from every direction. Inside the building, he could at least put his back to a wall.

  Granted, he would probably find himself sinking into it to be slowly devoured by the croach if he did, but there would be a wall there nonetheless.

  Tavi entered the hive, sword still in hand, dripping the watery, foul blood of the Vord. The interior was a simple dome, and though the glowing croach around them was translucent, the light flowing from it rendered the night beyond in complete blackness. Inside, though, Tavi could see as clearly as by any furylamp.

  The Vord queen turned to face him, and Tavi sucked in his breath.

  The creature looked like Kitai.

  There were differences in this Vord queen and the last one he had seen. Her skin was nearly human instead of dark chitin, though it had an odd greenish sheen to it. She had hair, as pale as Kitai's, but worn full and long, hanging down to her hips. Her green eyes, burning with light from within, were multifaceted like an insect's, and her hands and feet sported dark, gleaming, deadly-looking nails as long as a predator bird's talon
s.

  Beneath her cloak, she was also naked. Intensely so.

  "Aleran," the queen said, and Tavi shuddered at the familiar phrase from a familiar face delivered in such an utterly alien voice. "You are far from your home."

  "A coincidence," Tavi said. "I had business in the area."

  "Speak of what you can do to help the Vord."

  Tavi paused for a fraction of a second before he spoke, to order his thoughts. His next words could get him killed if he didn't choose them carefully.

  "I know," he said, "that the Vord do not usually operate in the pattern you have been following on this continent. I know that your queens normally produce other queens, frequently, the better to perpetuate your kind."

  The Vord stared.

  "Yet that has not been the case, here," Tavi continued. "The queen that created you has, evidently, taken away your ability to create subordinate queens of your own."