Cursors fury, p.49
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       Cursor's Fury, p.49

         Part #3 of Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher
 

  Amara took the sword with a nod of thanks and traded a look with Bernard. Then she flicked over to the other side of the coach, long enough to lean her face in the window and press her mouth to his.

  “My turn, “ she breathed.

  “Careful,” he said, voice rough.

  She kissed him again, hard, then called to Cirrus and rose above the coach, sword in hand.

  What followed was little different than any other day of flying—except for the small details. The wind sang and shrieked all around them. The landscape rolled by, hundreds of feet below, so slowly that one would be led to believe that they hardly moved at all.

  Little things gave the lie to the routine appearance. The coach swayed and shimmied as the bearers took advantage of the flowing winds, cutting to one side or another, jockeying up or down by several feet, eking every extra bit of speed they could from their efforts. Amara felt the winds shifting around her, sometimes easing Cirrus’s labor, sometimes making it fractionally more difficult, as wills and talents greater than her own contended for the sky. Lady Placida’s skill certainly gave them more speed with less effort than they would have otherwise had, but Amara felt sure that Kalarus’s furies struggled against them—and so close to the heart of his domain, he would have an enormous advantage against strangers to it.

  Lady Aquitaine’s power was a sullen whisper that fled swiftly past Amara and the other Knights Aeris, interfering with the windstreams of the pursuing Knights, degrading their efforts, forcing them to work harder to maintain the pace. Within moments, Amara saw the first overwearied Knight suddenly descend, exhausted past the ability to continue pursuit. Others fell by the wayside as the miles rolled by, but not swiftly, and not in the numbers Amara had hoped for.

  Worst of all was one last small, simple detail.

  Kalarus and his Knights were slowly, surely closing the distance.

  The coach’s bearers saw it as well, but there was little they could do about it, regardless of how unnerving it was to watch happen. Amara drove them relentlessly, repeatedly answering their frantic signals with orders to continue on their course with all possible speed, and over the course of the next hour she was rewarded for it with the sight of another twenty-six enemy Knights dropping out of the pursuit.

  Some instinct warned her to keep an eye on the skies above them, and as the enemy Knights closed to within perhaps fifty yards, she saw a stirring in the heavy grey clouds above them, strands of mist drawn down into swirling spirals, pulled out of place as if by the passage of more Knights Aeris, though none were visible.

  She realized what she was seeing at the last second, and screamed a frantic signal to the bearers. Only those on the left side of the coach saw her, but they realized what her panicked gestures meant, and they twisted in their harnesses, throwing the whole power of their furies in against the coach. Their efforts pushed the coach sharply to one side, and the loss of lift sent them into a steep and sudden descent, as the men on the far side of the coach struggled to prevent the coach from sliding into a deadly spin.

  Amara rolled to the other side only a second before she saw through the wavering form of a rapidly approaching veil, and saw five figures flying in a classic V-shaped attack formation dive down between her and the evading coach. She saw the gleaming collars on the throats of the Knights Aeris—more of those crowbegotten Immortal madmen, she thought—then she met gazes with High Lord Kalarus himself. His already-thin features were stretched to vulpine proportions by strain, desperate ambition, and rage, and his eyes burned with pure hatred as he swept past, his diving attack foiled by Amara’s warning.

  But though Kalarus’s attack had been hidden by the veil he’d crafted over it until almost too late, it had succeeded in one sense. The coach had been slowed, and the swiftest Knights Aeris behind the coach swept down on it, swords gleaming.

  Amara sliced through the air down to the Knights Aeris, and shouted, “Lower! As close to the ground as you can!” The frantically weary men responded at once, the dive giving them enough speed to stay ahead of their attackers for a few more moments, while Amara maneuvered, rolling out widely to one side—then abruptly reversing the motion with every ounce of speed Cirrus could bring her, slicing into the wake of those Knights nearest the coach, who in their excited rush had drawn just a bit too far ahead of their comrades.

  Amara didn’t even attempt to use her sword. Instead, she ground her teeth and angled her arms, wrists turned in such a way to set her spinning in a tight, corkscrewing circle. Then she cried out to Cirrus and poured on the speed, rushing up on the wearied Knight’s backs.

  Amara’s windstream, by the time she blew past them, was a swirling vortex set on its side to their plane of movement, and scattered the half dozen Knights Aeris like dry leaves before an autumn gale. The tactic was hardly an original one, and every Knight Aeris had gone through a great deal of training that would enable him to recover from a windstream suddenly disrupted in such a fashion. However, that training had never been intended to counter the tactic while flying only ten or fifteen feet above the treetops, while High Lords and Ladies battled for influence of the broader winds, at the ends of exhausting chases that had already whittled their numbers down to less than half of their original company.

  The near-exhausted Knights Aeris would have recovered and flown on within a handful of seconds.

  But Amara had not left them that much time.

  Men tumbled wildly out of her wake. She heard a sickly-sharp crunching sound as one of them slammed bodily into the solid trunk of a particularly tall oak. Of the other five, four of them dropped down into the branches, and even the fragile uppermost parts of the trees spun and tumbled them, given how swiftly they were flying when they struck. If they avoided solid impacts with the central trunks of the trees, they might survive the fall, so long as they were very, very lucky.

  The last of the Knights Aeris, like Amara, found himself thrown a bit higher by the collision of wildly contradicting windstreams—but he was still slower to recover his equilibrium than the Cursor. By the time he had, Amara streaked across his flight path again, blade striking down at his back. The blade was a fine one, and links of shattered mail flew up from the blow. The wound she inflicted wasn’t deep—but the shock and pain were enough to distract the Knight, and he joined his companions in vanishing through the branches of the waiting forest and disappearing from sight.

  Her eyes lingered on the spot in the trees where the men had gone down, just for a moment. She couldn’t feel it now, remorse and nausea and a hypocritical empathy for the men she’d maimed and killed. She refused to. But she’d just murdered six men. Granted, it was in service to the Realm and in self-defense—but it hadn’t even been a fight. As tired as they’d been, they could not possibly have survived the vortex a fury as powerful as Cirrus had thrown into them, except by accident, as the last man had. Even he had never seen her sword coming. It was one thing to kill an enemy in battle, but it hadn’t been one. Not really. It was an execution.

  It was frightening. Frightening that she could make herself do such a thing, and even more frightening because she knew that if she made a similar mistake, she could be killed just as easily. There was at least one windcrafter among their enemies who could swat her from the skies just as ably as she had the wearied Knights. She was every bit as vulnerable, as mortal, as they were—more so, in fact, given that all she wore was the ridiculously brief red silk tunic. Should she tumble into the trees, at her rate of speed, totally unarmored, she would be crushed and slashed to ribbons all at the same time.

  Crows, as it was, thanks to her costume, she was going to be windburned and chapped in places human beings rarely suffered such things. Assuming she managed to survive at all.

  Amara jerked her eyes from the trees and pulled her thoughts back into focus, back to her duty. She looked up to find that the coach had managed to draw a bit away from her, and checking around her revealed that a dozen vengeful brothers of the Knights she had downed were closi
ng on her, using the speed gained from their own dive to bring her within reach of their charge.

  Amara waited until they were nearly on top of her, banked to one side, then shot upward with all the speed she could muster, hoping to draw them all into a climb—in their condition, the effort might prove too taxing for them to sustain and take them from the chase entirely.

  It didn’t work out the way Amara had hoped it would. These knights were flying in tight, triangular wings of three men each—a formation that was difficult to maintain without long practice in cooperative flying effort. While the lead man would find it no easier to fly, those on his flanks had a much steadier and more easily maintained windstream. The net result was a formation that let two men effectively rest while the third did the lion’s share of the work, cycling through with each of the three taking turns in the lead. It was excellent for longdistance flight, and a sign that these men knew their trade.

  The faster Knights she’d cast from the sky must have been younger, less experienced, probably some of the Knights who had been left behind in Kalare when Lord Kalarus began his campaign. These men, though, were clearly veterans. One wing followed her with patient caution, close enough to make her work to stay ahead of them, but clearly not attempting to overrun her. Another wing began a slow, shallow climb, while the others swept out to her flanks and shot ahead.

  She was in trouble, and she knew it. The enemy Knights Aeris were employing the patient, ruthless tactics of a wolf pack. The slowly climbing wing would eventually rise to whatever altitude she did, though without spending nearly so much effort. The nearest group would stay on her heels and force her to keep maneuvering, taxing her own endurance while the enemy switched out with relatively rested Knights always ready to step into the lead. The two wings on the flanks would keep her boxed in, until either she faltered and was taken down by the immediate pursuers, or until the higher-flying wing could be in a position to dive and overtake her, probably in order to fling salt at Cirrus and send her tumbling to her death far below.

  She had drawn off a considerable portion of the remaining Knights Aeris, at least. But while they were running her down, Kalarus and his Immortals would assault the coach.

  And Bernard.

  Amara ground her teeth, struggling to think of what else she could do. Scarlet lightning rolled through the clouds overhead, and the thunder that followed shook against her stomach and chest and pressed painfully on her ears. Amara suddenly stared up at the clouds.

  “Oh,” she told herself out loud. “That is an awful idea.” She took a deep breath. “Though I suppose I’m not wildly spoiled for choice.”

  She decided, nodding firmly.

  Then she called to Cirrus again and shot up into the rumbling thunder and blood-colored lightning of the Canim storm clouds.

  Chapter 50

  Amara plunged into the fine mist and found it shockingly cold. She had flown through cloud cover before, of course, but never while wearing so little. The lands below were as uncomfortably sultry as anywhere in the Realm, this time of the year, but the sun seemed to have denied the unnatural clouds its warmth, somehow bypassing them to reach the land below. She could see no more than a few dozen yards in the mist, and at the speed she was flying she might as well have been blind.

  Which did not bode well considering what dwelt in the sorcerous clouds.

  Amara began to tremble, and she did not bother trying to tell herself it was because of the change in temperature.

  It was eerily quiet for a time, with only the constant rush of wind to drown out her swift, panting breaths. And then she heard high-pitched, thready sounds, something like the howl of one of the small desert wolves of the dry mountains east of Parcia. The cries were immediately echoed from every direction, and though Amara could not see the creatures that voiced them, they grew swiftly louder and nearer.

  She saw a flicker of motion in the corner of her eye and instantly changed course, banking into a slewing turn that sent the mist to swirling. Something tangible brushed against her hip, and she felt a sudden, sharp burn like the sting of red ants. Then she began to emerge from the mist, to find all four wings of Knights Aeris who pursued her cruising along the underside of the clouds, strung out in a search line—and coming straight at her.

  Once more, Amara poured on the speed, even as the mist behind her suddenly exploded with howls and motion. The tentacle-waving horrors the Canim had placed in the mist rushed after her. The Knights Aeris saw them coming and struggled to evade the nightmarish mass—but again, Amara had timed things too well, and there was nothing they could do as they plunged into a forest of burning, writhing vines.

  Men screamed, and died, and suddenly there was no one pursuing her.

  Her heart pounded with terror and exaltation that she had survived—and at the same time, she fought down a nauseating shame and loathing of the death and pain she’d been responsible for. Some of the Knights might fight through the creatures, but none who did would be in any condition to pursue the coach. They were, if not dead, certainly out of the chase.

  Amara dived and swept back toward the still-fleeing coach with all the speed she could muster, and found it under attack.

  More Knights Aeris must have dropped out of the race, and perhaps a dozen of them had closed the distance and reached the coach. Flying above and ahead of the coach was a five-man wing—Lord Kalarus and his Immortals. Amara could not see why they hadn’t attacked and downed the coach already. They appeared to be waiting for an opening of some kind.

  Half a dozen Knights swept in on either side of the coach, below the level of its occupants, to strike at the bearers. Someone must have shouted a warning, because the coach abruptly dropped perhaps six feet and veered to one side, almost directly into the attackers on that flank.

  The Knights Aeris dived in to thrust spears through the coach windows, but the coach’s door suddenly flew open, and Aldrick ex Gladius appeared in the door, legs bent, one hand hanging on to something inside the coach, his long blade in the other. A pair of swift cuts shattered two spears, inflicted a wound on one Knights thigh that erupted in a deadly fountain of blood, and opened a long slash on a second Knights scalp, so that blood flew into his face and eyes and fanned out into a mist behind him.

  Lady Aquitaine slipped up beneath Aldrick’s arm and raised a hand in an imperious gesture. Wisps of white cloud gathered at her fingertips roiling like a miniature thunderstorm, then she hurled it out and away from her, where it expanded into an enormous bank of nearly opaque mist. From her position above and behind them, Amara saw the coach juke to one side and the other again, and the attacking Knights Aeris had to break off, blinded and unable to support one another—not to mention the fact that if they made a mistake or simply got unlucky, they might be slammed by the full weight of the dodging coach, an event likely to prove gruesomely fatal so close to the treetops below.

  Then that explained it. Kalarus knew Lady Aquitaine was there, and employing only minor uses of watercrafting, saving her strength for when he, personally, assaulted the coach. Kalarus was hardly a courageous soul, spending his Knights’ lives in an effort to tire—or if they were lucky, perhaps even wound or kill—Lady Aquitaine. But the tactic would give him the maximum advantage he could possibly attain in this situation, and he was playing it ruthlessly. Amara could tell just by watching the bearers at work that they were beginning to falter. Dodging and maneuvering with that much weight was exhausting them.

  The enemy Knights were waiting when the coach soared out of Lady Aquitaine’s cloud bank, and they immediately pressed the attack again. This time, they were ready when they closed to one side and the coach door slammed open, and as Aldrick struck at one Knight, a second’s arm blurred in a furycrafted speed, hurling his spear at the big swordsman.

  Aldrick’s arm swept into a perfect parry—perhaps a tenth of a second too late, and the downward-cast spear drove into his right thigh and out the back of his leg.

  The swordsman faltered and nearly fell,
and though Amara knew that Aldrick could, at need, simply ignore pain great enough to drive a strong man unconscious, that talent would not serve to make his leg function and support weight if it had been damaged. Lady Aquitaine seized him by the collar and hauled him back into the coach, and the Knights Aeris swarmed in closer, spears and swords ready to strike.

  One reeled back and fell, spinning wildly out of control as he vanished into the trees, perhaps struck by a blow or weapon. Another got too close, was hauled head-and-shoulders deep into the coach, then dropped like a stone, head lolling loosely on a broken neck. Another explosion of white mist hid everything from Amara, but she could hear cries and shouts as the enemy Knights stayed close, pressing the attack instead of withdrawing.

  Kalarus led his wing a bit closer to the action and drew his sword with an anticipatory-seeming motion akin to a wolf licking its chops. He gestured with the sword, focused entirely on the coach, shouting to his escorts and . . .

  . . . and, Amara realized, utterly failing to notice her presence.

  Amara’s mouth went completely dry, and for a second she thought her hands would lose their grip on her sword. Kalarus Brencis, High Lord of Kalare. One of the titans of furycraft, a man who had worn Ladies Placida and Aquitaine near to exhaustion, who had assaulted them and maintained a battle for control of the skies while holding up a veil, keeping himself aloft, and coordinating his men’s attack. Reputed to be a swordsman of the highest caliber, his talent for firecrafting had once snuffed out an entire forest fire when a range of his expensive, exported hardwoods had nearly been consumed. Further stories claimed that he had once slain a leviathan that had haunted his coastline outright, and he wielded power and authority with consummate, calculated skill, so much so that he was threatening to topple Gaius from his throne.

  Worse, Amara had seen some of what he had created in his city, for the people beholden to him, and she knew what he truly was: a monster, in every sense of the word that mattered, an odious murderer who had enslaved children with discipline collars, reared them into the mad Immortals who served him, whose agents had slain Cursors all over the face of Alera; Amara’s compatriots. Some, her friends. The man had no regard for anyone’s life but his own. If he turned upon Amara, he could swat her as easily as a man could an ant, and with the same amount of concern.