Cursors fury, p.48
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       Cursor's Fury, p.48

         Part #3 of Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher

  A woman’s voice rang out in an imperious tone, then a second swarm of streaking firedrops flashed through the doomed Immortal. This time, the attack left half a dozen red-hot holes in his helmet, and the man fell.

  “Hurry!” called Lady Aquitaine’s voice. Aldrick emerged from the stairway first, hard-eyed gaze sweeping the tower’s roof. His eyes widened a bit at the sight of Amara, and the Cursor found herself unconsciously tugging down the hem of her tunic.

  “Move!” insisted Lady Aquitaine. “Kalarus is about to—”

  Then Amara heard a man speak in an impossibly loud, roaring voice that literally shook the stones of the tower beneath her feet.

  “No man makes a fool of me in my own house!” boomed the fury-enhanced voice.

  Then a woman’s voice answered, every bit as loud, nowhere near so melodramatic, and drily amused. “While the rest of us hardly need try. Tell me, Brencis,” Lady Placida taunted. “Do you still have that little problem bedding women, the way you did in the Academy?”

  Kalarus’s answer was a roar of pure rage that shook the tower, raising dust in a choking cloud.

  “Move, move!” Lady Aquitaine shouted from below, then Odiana appeared, shoving frantically at Aldrick’s back. The big swordsman stumbled onto the roof, while Odiana and Lady Aquitaine hurried frantically up the stairs, diving to either side of the opening.

  Less than a second later, a titanic roar shook the tower again, and a column of white-hot fire exploded from the tower below, roaring up from the stones and rising for hundreds of feet into the sky above Kalare. The air turned hot and dry in an instant, and Amara had to throw her arms across her face to shield her eyes from the blinding light of the flame Kalarus had crafted into being.

  The fire passed swiftly, though the bloom of heat from so much flame had parched the air and left several of the bars in the domed cage glowing with sullen fire. Amara looked up at Odiana, Aldrick, and Lady Aquitaine. “Bernard?” she cried, hearing her own voice shaking with panic. “Where is he? Bernard?”

  “No time!” Odiana spat.

  Lady Aquitaine pointed at the cage. “Aldrick.”

  The big swordsman crossed to the cage, set his feet, and swung his blade in three swift strokes. Sparks rose from the steel bars, and Aldrick stepped back. A beat later, a dozen sections of iron bar fell to the stones with a metallic clatter, their ends glowing with the heat of parting, leaving an entire triangular section of the dome-shaped cage missing.

  Aldrick extended his hand politely to Atticus Elania, and said, “This way, lady, if you please.”

  Lady Aquitaine gave the girl a narrow look, then turned to Odiana, and said, voice sharp, “Fire crystals.”

  Odiana’s hand dipped into the low neckline of her slave’s tunic and she tore at the lining, one hand cupped. She caught something as it tumbled from the neckline and passed it to Lady Aquitaine—three small crystals, two scarlet and one black, glittered in the palm of her hand. “Here, Your Grace,” Odiana said. “They are ready.”

  Lady Aquitaine snatched them from Odiana’s hand, muttered something under her breath, and cast them down onto the far side of the tower’s roof, where they promptly began to billow with smoke—two plumes of brilliant scarlet and one of deepest black, the colors of Aquitaine.

  “Wh-what’s happening?” Elania asked, her voice shaking.

  “The smoke is a signal,” Aldrick told the girl, his tone briskly polite. “Our coach should be here in a moment.”

  “Lady Aquitaine!” Amara snapped. After pausing a deliberate beat, the High Lady turned to Amara, one eyebrow raised. “Yes, Countess?”

  “Where is Bernard?”

  Lady Aquitaine gave an elegant shrug. “I’ve no idea, dear. Aldrick?”

  “He was holding the stairs below us,” Aldrick said, his tone short. “I didn’t see what happened to him.”

  “He couldn’t possibly have survived that firestorm,” Lady Aquitaine said, her voice practical and dismissive.

  The words drew a spike of anger such as Amara had never felt before, and she found herself standing with her hands clenched into fists, her jaws clenched while tiny spangles of light danced in her vision. Her first instinct was to hurl herself bodily at Lady Aquitaine, but at the last instant, she remembered the child still clinging to her back, and she forced herself to stand in place. Amara took a second to control her voice, so that it would not come out as an incoherent snarl. “You don’t know that.”

  “You saw it,” Lady Aquitaine said. “You were there, just as I was.”

  “My lady,” Odiana said, her voice hesitant, even cringing.

  “Here they come,” Aldrick called, and Amara looked up to see their Knights Aeris arrowing swiftly for the top of the tower, bearing the coach between them.

  Lady Aquitaine glared back at Amara. Then she closed her eyes for a moment, lips pressed together, shook her head tightly, and said, “It doesn’t matter at this point, Countess. With the alarm raised, we must leave immediately if we are to leave at all.” She glanced at Amara, and added, in a quieter tone, “I’m sorry, Countess. Anyone left behind is on his own.”

  “It’s so nice to feel cared for,” called Lady Placida. She padded up the stairs, still holding her chain and stone in one hand. Her white muslin undergown showed half a dozen rips and any number of scorch marks. Her right hand was raised, bent at the elbow and wrist, and a small falcon of pure fire rested upon her wrist like a tiny, winged sun.

  “Given how fashionably late you generally are, Invidia,” she said, “I would expect you to have more tolerance for others.”

  She hurried onto the roof, turning immediately to offer a hand down to Rook. The young spy looked disoriented, her balance unsteady, and if Lady Placida hadn’t been helping her when her balance wavered, Rook would have fallen.

  Amara felt her heart stop for a single, terrible, seemingly eternal moment, then Bernard came up behind Rook, his bow in hand, his face pale and nauseated. He had one hand on the small of the spy’s back and was pushing her up more or less by main strength. Relief flooded through her, and she clasped her hands tightly together and bowed her head until she could blink sudden tears from her eyes. “What happened?”

  “Kalarus tried to burn us out,” Bernard said, his voice hoarse. “Lady Placida countered him. Sheltered us from the flame, then sealed the stairway in stone.”

  “He meant to say, ‘Lady Placida and I’ sealed the stairway in stone,” Lady Placida said firmly. “Though your friend there was struck on the head by some debris. I’ve exhausted myself, and it won’t take Kalarus long to open a passage through the stone we put in his way. Best we hurry.”

  No sooner had she spoken than the wind rose to the familiar roar of a shared windstream, and Lady Aquitaines mercenary Knights Aeris swept down and landed heavily, clumsily on the roof, the coach slamming down onto the stone.

  Amara reached out to Cirrus, preparing to raise a windstream of her own, and found that her connection to the fury had grown fainter, more tenuous. She swore and shouted, “Hurry! I think Kalarus has his wind furies interfering with ours to prevent our escape!”

  “Just be thankful that doing it is keeping him downstairs,” Lady Aquitaine said. “I’ll try to counter him until we can get farther away. Into the coach!” She flung herself inside, followed by Odiana, Aldrick, and Atticus Elania.

  While Bernard covered the doorway with his bow, Amara shrugged the bewildered child from her shoulders and into Lady Placida’s arms. She helped the dazed Rook into the coach, which was rapidly growing quite crowded. Then another tremble in the stone beneath her feet made her look up and around in time to see two gargoyles, much like those Lady Placida had dispatched, as they clawed their way up the outside of the tower, talons sinking into stone as if it was mud, and over its battlements.

  “Bernard!” Amara screamed, pointing.

  Her husband spun, drawing the bowstring to his cheek as he did, and let an arrow fly at the nearest gargoyle out of sheer reflex.

Amara thought the shot would be utterly ineffective, given that the gargoyles were made of stone and that the wind the Knights Aeris were summoning would have made such things impossible for all but the best of archers.

  But Bernard was one of the best, and Amara had reckoned without the deadly combination of an earthcrafter’s superhuman strength working together with the sheer, deadly expertise of a woodcrafting archer. Bernard was fully powerful and skilled enough to have qualified as a Knight Terra or Flora in any Legion in the Realm, and his war bow was one of the weapons borne by the hunters and holders of Alera’s northernmost reaches—a weapon designed to put down predators that outweighed the holders by hundreds of pounds and powerful enough to punch through breastplates of Aleran steel. Too, Bernard was using a heavy, stiletto-headed arrow, one designed for piercing armor, and the experienced earthcrafter knew stone as few other Alerans could ever understand it.

  All of which combined to mean that, as a rule, when the Count of Calderon released an arrow at the target, he expected it to go down. The fact that his target was living stone rather than soft flesh was only a minor detail—and certainly did not qualify as an exception to the rule.

  Bernard’s first arrow struck the nearest gargoyle just to the left of the center of its chest. There was an enormous cracking sound, a shower of white sparks, and a network of fine cracks spread over the gargoyle’s stone chest. It leapt from the battlements to the towers roof—and fell into half a dozen still-thrashing pieces upon impact.

  Before the first gargoyle fell, Bernard had drawn again, and his second arrow shattered the left forelimb of the second gargoyle, sending it into a sprawl on its side. Another arrow cracked into the gargoyle’s head as it tried to rise a beat later, and the impact sheared off a quarter of the gargoyle’s misshapen head, knocking it down again and evidently disorienting it as it tried to scramble upright again with futile energy.

  Bernard leapt for the coach just as the windcrafters began to lift off. He caught the running board along its side with one hand, slung his bow over his neck, and used both hands to struggle to pull himself up as the coach rose away from Kalare, steadily gathering speed.

  Amara called to Cirrus and found the fury more responsive, if still more sluggish than normal, presumably thanks to Lady Aquitaine countercrafting against Kalarus’s wind furies. She soared up to the coach, landed with her feet on the running board, twined her left arm through the coach window, and reached down to Bernard with her right.

  Her husband looked up, glanced at all the leg she was showing in her scarlet slave tunic, and leered cheerfully at her as he grasped her hand. She found herself both laughing and blushing—again—as she helped him up to the running board, then into the coach.

  “Are you all right?” he shouted to her.

  “No!” she called back. “You scared me to death!”

  He burst out into a rolling laugh, and Amara stepped off the coach’s running board and into Cirrus’s embrace, stabilizing herself before darting ahead of the coach and slightly above. She looked back over her shoulder, cursing that she hadn’t been able to braid her hair for the disguise, and hadn’t thought to bring along something to tie it back with. Now it whipped around her face wildly, in her eyes whenever it wasn’t in her mouth, and it took her a moment to get enough of it out of the way to see behind them.

  She almost wished she hadn’t done it.

  The gleaming figures of Knights Aeris were rising from Kalare. Rook had warned them of the twenty or so who had remained in the city’s garrison. Amara looked at the four mercenary Knights Aeris struggling to keep the overloaded coach in the air. They did not have the speed to evade a pursuit, and the terrain below them offered them few opportunities to play hide-and-seek with Kalarus’s forces. Without being able to rise to the higher winds, they could not use the clouds as cover, the other favored tactic for evading airborne pursuit, and the only one their slower group might have successfully employed.

  Which meant, Amara thought, that they would have to fight.

  It was not a ridiculous prospect for them to fend off a score of enemy Knights or so—not with Amara and no less than two High Ladies of Alera there.

  But as Amara watched, more Knights Aeris rose from the city. Twenty more. Forty. Sixty. And still more.

  With a sinking heart, Amara realized that when Kalarus returned to his citadel, he must have come by air—and that he must have brought his personal escorts, the most capable and experienced of his Knights Aeris.

  Against twenty Knights, they would have had a chance. But against five times that number—and, she felt certain, Kalarus himself . . .


  Her throat went dry as she signaled the coach’s bearers that they were being pursued.

  Chapter 49

  Amara thought furiously, struggling to find alternative courses of action. She forced herself to look at the situation in dispassionate, emotionless terms. No foe was invincible, no situation utterly insoluble. There had to be something they could do to at least improve their chances, and that meant that she needed to make some kind of assessment of their foe’s capabilities and resources.

  And at once, she saw that things might not be entirely hopeless.

  True, there were scores of Knights Aeris on the way, but only twenty had been in Kalare on their regular post. The rest had returned to Kalare with their master—and that meant that they’d already been traveling, probably since before first light, which meant that they might not have the endurance for a protracted chase—particularly if they were forced to pursue through the energy-sapping lower winds.

  And then another thought came to her. There had been no slowly approaching roar of such a large group of fliers coming in at low altitude. They’d clearly heard Lady Aquitaines Knights approaching minutes before they’d reached the tower. They should have heard a group with twenty times as many windcrafters coming for three or four times as long as that, before they’d actually entered the citadel. Which meant . . .

  In fact, now that she thought about it, it could hardly have been anything else. Kalarus had most certainly not spent the previous ten or eleven days flying along the nape of the earth as Amara’s party had. His presence would have been absolutely necessary with one or more of his Legions—he could not simply throw away days and days in travel. While he might be sadistic, ruthless, and inhumanly ambitious, he was not stupid.

  Which meant that Kalarus and his Knights had come through the upper air in a far-more-conventional approach, after either half a day or a day and a half of travel. The former would give him time to fly from Ceres back to Kalare—the latter would be about right for him to be returning from the forces put in place to stymie Lord Parcia’s Legions.

  And if Kalarus could carry groups through the upper air when the rest of the Realm was grounded by the Canim’s unnatural cloud cover, it would give him an enormous advantage in the campaign.

  It also meant, she realized with a cold ripple of nausea, that it likely meant that if he had overcome the Canim’s interdiction of the upper air when even Gaius could not, it was because Kalarus was meant to be able to do so. It meant coordination with the most bitter foe of the whole Realm.

  Kalarus had made a bargain with the Canim.

  The fool. Could he possibly have found a better way to declare to Alera’s enemies that she was vulnerable to attack? Or a way more certain to alienate him from any of Alera’s Citizenry who might otherwise remain neutral?

  Not that their lack of neutrality would be of any use to Amara. She and the rest of her company would be long dead by then if Kalarus truly could use the upper air while their party was reduced to low-level flight.

  But flight at the upper levels would be both totally concealed and totally blind. Kalarus could no more easily see through the clouds than anyone else. Though he might be able to travel farther, faster, leaping ahead of them if they pulled away, all they would have to do to confound such a leapfrog pursuit would be to alter their course.

sprint, then, was their best option—a straight bid to outpace the pursuing Knights Aeris, who were bound to be weary after their travel. That should at the very least thin out the numbers of their pursuers. And it was not impossible that the High Ladies might, between them, make it more difficult for their pursuers to continue the chase. Ladies Placida and Aquitaine were already weary from their efforts, true—but then, so was Kalarus.

  Amara nodded once, decided. She idly noted that bare seconds had passed since she’d first spotted the pursuit, but she felt sure her reasoning was sound. They might even have a real chance of escape.

  She sideslipped into view of the coach’s bearers and signaled for them to flee at their best speed. The flight leader signaled in the affirmative, and the winds rose as he passed signals to his men, and they gathered their furies and ran for it. Amara nodded once at them, and darted down to fly beside the coach’s window.

  “We’re under pursuit!” she called. “Kalarus and four- to five-score Knights Aeris. But his escort has to be tired if they flew in today. We’re going to try to outpace them.”

  “The coach is overloaded!” Aldrick shouted back. “The men can’t hold a hard pace for long!”

  “Your Graces,” Amara called to Ladies Placida and Aquitaine. “I hope you might be able to help our fliers or discourage our pursuers somewhat? If we’re able to outrun them, we might not have to fight.”

  Lady Aquitaine gave Amara a cool little smile. Then she glanced at Lady Placida, and said, “I think I’m more of a mind to discourage Kalarus and company.”

  “As you wish,” Lady Placida said, with a bleak nod, supporting the wilting form of Rook. Then she leaned across the coach and offered Amara the hilt of the longer blade she’d carried with her from Kalarus’s tower chamber. “In case you’re of a similar mind to Lady Aquitaine, Countess.”