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Princeps' Fury, Page 44

Jim Butcher

Ehren hurried over to liquor cabinet and found its door unlatched.

  That meant nothing, in itself--but Ehren knew Gaius. He was not the sort of man to leave doors unlatched behind him. He opened the cabinet and found the various bottles inside standing in neat rows--except for one. The full bottle of the First Lord's tonic was askew, and the cork that sealed it was improperly seated.

  But who would have tampered with the First Lord's . . .

  Ehren turned and was across the room in several long strides, seizing Lady Caria's wrist, and spinning her toward him. He dug his fingers into her wrist, twisting, and a small glass vial fell from her fingers and to the floor. Ehren released her and snatched it up.

  "How dare you!" Caria snarled, and fetched him a backhanded blow that fell on his chest and flung him back across the room.

  Ehren managed to fall correctly, or he might have broken something on the marble floor. Even so, the fury-assisted blow had driven the breath from his lungs.

  "How dare you lay a hand upon me, you arrogant little slive," Caria snarled. She turned one palm upright, and fire kindled between her fingers. "I should burn you alive."

  Ehren knew that his life was in very real danger, but he could barely move his arms and legs. "The First Lord," he wheezed, "is expecting me with his medicine."

  Caria's eyes flicked down to his chest and back up to his face. Her expression twisted in something like frustration, and she clenched her fist, snuffing the fire that had sprung there.

  Ehren glanced down as well. The silver coin on his necklace, the unofficial sign of a Cursor working personally for the First Lord, had fallen free of his tunic.

  "I suppose it hardly matters now," Caria said, her tone positively vicious. She turned with haughty deliberation and began walking away again.

  Ehren looked down at the vial in his hand. It was stoppered tightly, with perhaps half a fingertip's width of grey-white powder at the bottom. Poison, almost certainly.

  "Why?" he croaked. "Why do this now, of all times?"

  Caria paused at the doorway and looked back over her shoulder, a small smile on her lips. "Habit," she murmured in a velvet voice.

  Then she left.

  "Helatin," Sireos said in a firm tone of voice. The physician sat at a table in an antechamber next to Gaius's command center, a dozen glass vials of colored liquid in wire racks in front of him, along with the now-empty vial Ehren had taken from Caria. "More specifically, refined helatin."

  Ehren shook his head. "I don't understand. I thought that was a medication."

  "Medicine and poison are separated by quantity and timing," Sireos responded. "Helatin is a stimulant, in small quantities. It's part of his tonic, in fact. The body can process a small amount without harm. Larger amounts, though . . ." He shook his head.

  "This would have killed him?" Ehren asked.

  "Not at all," Sireos said. "At least, not alone. Helatin taken in larger amounts is deposited in the brain, the spine, and the bones. And it stays there."

  Ehren breathed out slowly over a sick sensation in his stomach. "It accumulates over time."

  "And degrades the body's ability to restore itself," Sireos said, nodding. "Eventually to the point where--"

  "Where organs begin dying," Ehren said bitterly.

  Sireos spread his hands and said nothing.

  "What can be done?"

  "I believe the penalty for poisoning is death by hanging," Sireos responded. "Of course, that's always been after a trial before a committee appointed by the Senate."

  Ehren blinked at the physician. "What happened to 'first, do no harm'?"

  "I love life," Sireos said, his eyes hard. "I do not revere it. Caria was once my student at the academy. She used that knowledge to hurt another human being, and has earned the retribution of the law. I'd tie the rope."

  "But that won't help Gaius," Ehren said.

  Sireos shook his head. "The damage helatin does takes years to build up, and it is subtle. I'd have to have been looking for it specifically, and unfortunately the poison's effects look a great deal like the effects of simple age."

  "Wouldn't Gaius have noticed it?" Ehren asked.

  "Because he's grown old before, and should know what it feels like?" The physician shook his head. "Part of what the helatin did would have reduced Gaius's ability to detect it for himself. Even if he was a young man, the best we could hope for would be to manage it. As things are . . ."

  "Habit," Ehren said bitterly. "How long has it been going on?"

  "Six years, at the least," Sireos said. "Given the idiocy of that business in Kalare, I'm frankly surprised that he's alive right now, much less on his feet."

  "For some reason," Gaius said quietly, "I find it comforting to know that growing old isn't this painful for everyone."

  Ehren looked up to see the First Lord standing in the doorway. He coughed, a wheezing sound, and pressed his hand to his chest with a grimace. "In my tonic, you say?"

  Sireos nodded. "I'm sorry, Sextus."

  Gaius took this news without expression. "How much time did she take from me, do you think?"

  "There's no way to be sure."

  "There seldom is," Gaius said, his voice slightly harder. "How long, Sireos?"

  "Five years. Maybe ten." The physician shrugged.

  A small smile quirked the corners of the First Lord's mouth. "Well. I suppose that makes the two of us even, then."

  Ehren turned to him. "Sire . . ."

  Gaius waved a hand. "I've taken as much from her, and better years, at that. She was a child, caught up in games she had no way to understand or avoid. I'm not willing to waste what time remains to me on the matter."

  "Sire. This is murder."

  "No, Sir Ehren. This is a footnote. There is no time for arrests, investigations, and trials." Gaius reached out to a weapons stand that was set up beside the door and buckled on his sword belt. "I'm afraid the Vord have arrived."

  Gaius stood on the broad balcony, looking down as the Vord came for Alera Imperia. At his murmured word, the edges of the balcony had become one enormous windcrafting, focusing the view into a greatly magnified image whenever one stood at the rail and looked down. All Ehren needed to do was stand at the railing and stare at a particular portion of the lower city, and his view of it would suddenly rush forward, showing him the outer walls, more than a mile away, in crystalline clarity.

  It was a little disconcerting, and gave him an odd, spinning sense of vertigo. This must be how the Princeps felt aboard a ship. Ehren reminded himself to be somewhat less cavalier about Tavi's discomfort in the future.

  If there was a future.

  "Ah, I thought so," Gaius said. "Look."

  Ehren came to the First Lord's side and stared in the direction he indicated--south, over the plains surrounding the capital. The Vord had crested the most distant ridge that could be seen from the Citadel in a solid black line, like a living shadow that rolled steadily forward. Most of the ground troops were the four-legged creatures that they had seen before, but for every dozen or so of them, there walked a single creature shaped something like an enormous ape. The behemoths had bandy legs and enormous apelike arms, and they rolled forward using their forelimbs as well as their feet for locomotion. They were huge, better than twelve feet tall, and covered in plates of Vord armor that looked inches thick.

  "Siege units," Gaius murmured. "They'll use them for breaching gates and walls, and probably to spearhead assaults."

  Ehren stared at the behemoths and shivered. "Look behind them."

  Gaius fell silent for a moment as he studied what Ehren had noticed.

  Behind the first wave of Vord came an enormous line of Alerans.

  They weren't alive, of course. Thanks to the windcrafting, Ehren could see that much. Their skin was mottled with postmortem bruising, and in some cases their bodies bore disfigurements or injuries that would have rendered any human immobile. The taken holders--and the vast majority of them were obviously holders, dressed in common clothing--walked
without any expression whatever on their faces, their eyes focused on nothing.

  "Where are the vordknights?" Ehren murmured.

  "Staying out of sight, massing for an attack, most likely," Gaius said. "They can't have much fight left in them."

  "They've been harassing us all the way here," Ehren said.

  "Exactly," Gaius said. "It takes an enormous amount of power for them to keep themselves aloft. They must eat like gargants to be able to sustain the muscle they'd need for that sort of activity--and even with the patches of croach that they planted in secret, ahead of their advance, we've yet to discover one more than an acre in size." The First Lord shook his head. "Badly supplied infantry can fight on to some degree. But I think the vordknights are more like cavalry. Short cavalry of supplies, and they become ineffective far more rapidly. She'll save them for a critical stroke."

  "The queen, you mean?" asked Ehren.

  Gaius nodded. "She is the key to the entire battle." He fell silent again as they watched the Vord swarm over the plains toward the capital.

  "So many of them," Ehren breathed.

  For an instant, the First Lord's eyes glittered with a wild, fey light. "Aren't there, though." He nodded and turned to one of the Legion trumpeters at hand. "Signal the first attack."

  The courier nodded and raised his trumpet. Its call sounded clear over the quiet city, and in its wake the Legions roared.

  Thousands of Citizens stood among their ranks, called forth to fight for their land, to demonstrate the obligation that went with the privileges of their title. Among the Citizenry, earthcrafting was by far the most common talent, and now those Citizens unleashed their furies upon the Vord.

  Just ahead of the Vord ranks, the ground erupted, swelling into hillocks and blisters of stone that burst to disgorge furies of the earth. Gargants, wolves, serpents, great dogs, and nameless things--both beautiful and hideous--came bounding and slithering and charging out of the very soil of the land, to fall upon the first wave of the alien horde.

  The battle that ensued had a ghastly sort of beauty to it. The Aleran furies, like statuary come to frenzied life, slammed into the Vord. Furies of the earth, though not swift, were viciously strong and difficult to actually harm--and the Vord were packed in close to one another as they came for Alera Imperia. Ehren watched as a bear made of black-and-grey marble slammed its paws down with methodical precision, crushing a Vord at every blow. A gargant of flint and clay thundered into the Vord ranks without being noticeably slowed, leaving destruction in its wake. A great sandstone serpent wound swiftly around one Vord after another, crushing the howling creatures in its coils and slithering on. The earth furies broke Vord quadrupeds like toys, and shrugged off blow after blow in response.

  The behemoths, though, proved tougher than the Vord-lizards. Ehren saw one of them accept a pair of hammerblows from the great bear without flinching, and in response it simply bent and heaved the fury's form up off the ground. The granite was riven and shattered, and a few seconds later, the "crack" of protesting stone reached the citadel. The behemoth smashed the bear-form down to the ground, where it crumbled into motionless rubble.

  Gaius winced.

  "Are you all right, sire?" Ehren asked at once.

  "Just feeling sympathy for whoever called out that bear fury," the First Lord replied. "That sort of thing . . . leaves a mark."

  Ehren turned his eyes back to the battle and watched for several moments more as the Vord reached the earth furies and simply enfolded them, pouring around them, all but ignoring their presence as dozens of their fellows were crushed. Earth furies could only focus on a task for as long as the one who compelled them, and as the earthcrafters who called them forth began to grow more weary, their furies began to move more slowly and with less purpose. Here and there, a behemoth would meet a fury--those battles ended only one way. The enormous Vord had to be possessed of absolutely awesome strength, to so deal with beings of living stone.

  "Enough," Gaius said. "Sound the recover."

  Again, the trumpet blast rang over the city, and at once the earth furies began to recede into the stone. Down on the walls, Ehren saw exhausted earthcrafters dropping down to sit with their backs against the battlements, while Legion runners brought them water--and while medics hauled away no few Citizens who had collapsed, presumably of exhaustion or because their furies had been ravaged by the behemoths.

  Thousands of the enemy had been slain--but they poured forward, unaffected and unslowed, on the last several hundred yards of their approach to the city walls, through the rough wooden buildings and shanties that surrounded them.

  "Fire it," Gaius said calmly.

  At another signal, flame bloomed up in a hundred places at once, and a wind sighed down from above and began to blow more and more strongly. Within a minute, fire had leapt up to raging proportions within the wooden outlying buildings, and completely engulfed the leading elements of the Vord advance. Smoke and heat and flame made it impossible to see what was happening within, but Ehren could vividly imagine the damage that the inferno was wreaking among the Vord.

  The horde suddenly stopped in its tracks--by the tens of thousands, they simply ceased moving forward at the precise same instant. A moment later, the closer elements of the enemy force withdrew slightly from the flames.

  And waited.

  "Mmm," Gaius said, nodding. "The queen is nearby, to so control them. Let's see if she'll send her captured crafters to deal with the problem."

  Meanwhile, the rest of the horde continued to advance behind the front ranks, spreading out to the sides, slowly filling in along the outer edges of the ring of flame. It took only moments for their easternmost elements to reach the banks of the Gaul, the river that flowed past the capital. Then the Vord focused on expanding their lines to the west. The enormous black force was slowly engulfing the city.

  After a quarter of an hour had passed, Gaius murmured, "Apparently not." He turned to a nearby Knight, and murmured, "Inform Lord Aquitaine of the disposition of the enemy."

  The man saluted and took to the air at once, flying toward the north side of the city, on the far side of the horde.

  Ehren swallowed. "What are we going to do, sire?"

  "The same thing they are, Cursor," Gaius said calmly. "We wait."

  It took the rest of the day and the first three hours of night for the outbuildings to burn down. Smoke hung in a haze over the city below them, and if that wasn't enough, fog had begun to roll up off the river. The citadel almost seemed to float among clouds--clouds lit hellishly from below by the burning buildings of the capital. The crows wheeled overhead all the while, chuckling and croaking to one another in the darkness.

  Gaius had retired to the antechamber, where Sireos did what he could to fortify the dying First Lord. At Ehren's insistence, he'd eaten another meal and was dozing on a couch when horn calls blared up from the unseen city below, ghostly in the mist.

  The First Lord snapped awake at once--and from his seat nearby, Ehren saw Gaius's face contort with pain. Then the old man closed his eyes, took in a determined breath, and pushed himself up off the couch to stride toward the balcony. Ehren rose at once to follow him.

  Gaius listened to the horn calls for a moment and nodded to himself. "They're coming through. Here is where we force their hand, Cursor." He pointed at the trumpeter without looking back at the man, and said, "Sound the attack."

  The clarion call of the charge, universal among the Legions, rang in Ehren's ears, and was answered by hundreds of horns in the city below.

  Gaius raised his hand and cried out, and the chilly northern wind rose to an abrupt gale that threatened to throw Ehren from his feet. The wind roared down over the city, and carried away the pall of smoke and fog--while fanning what was left of the fires to vicious life.

  Ehren paced the balcony at Gaius's side, and saw that the Vord had surrounded nearly half the circumference of the city--and were surging forward in a unified attack.

  Once more, earth furi
es rose to battle, among the fires and ruined buildings, disdaining the heat. In addition to that, spheres of white-hot fire began to erupt among them, some of them large enough to engulf a behemoth and the Vord-lizards all around it. Knights Aeris erupted into the skies all around the city, and teams of the men streaked along over the outlying buildings, using their windstreams to fan fires and to topple ruined buildings upon the foe.

  The Vord advance was slowed--not because they had begun to waver, but simply because the Alerans were killing them faster than they could run forward. Ehren stared at the naked destruction in awe and terror. The ground itself was being rent by the fires unleashed by the Citizens of Alera, gouging out chunks of earth as easily as one might scoop butter from its container. The Vord shrieked and writhed and died, and Ehren could hear their cries even from atop the balcony.