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First Lords Fury, Page 6

Jim Butcher
shrugged. "The reports indicate widespread incidents with wild furies in the aftermath, but that was to be expected given the number of deaths. "

  "Yes," Aquitaine said. He folded his arms and studied the map in silence.

  Ehren let his eyes drift over it as well.

  Alera was a land of vast stretches of sparsely settled or uninhabited wilderness between the enormous cities of the High Lords. Furycrafted roads between the great cities, and a great many waterways, provided lifelines of trade and created a natural support structure for smaller cities, towns, and villages that spread out into the countryside around them. Steadholts, farming hamlets, were scattered into the areas between the towns and cities, each supporting between thirty and three hundred or so people.

  All that had changed.

  The green sand covered the core of Alera, sweeping most thickly up from the uninhabited wasteland that had once been the city of Kalare, through the rich, productive lands of the Amaranth Vale, over the gutted corpse of the city of Ceres, and up to the smoldering slopes of the volcano that now loomed over what had once been Alera Imperia. Strands, like the branches of some alien tree, spread out from that vast central trunk, swelling into larger areas that surrounded several of the other great cities - cities that had settled in to fight until the bitter end and were stubbornly withstanding months of siege. Forcia, Attica, Rhodes, and Aquitaine had all been besieged and currently fought the invaders at their gates. The rolling plains around Placida had fared better, and the croach had not managed to close within twenty miles or so of the city's walls - but even so, the stubborn Placidans had lost ground slowly and inexorably, and would be in the same position as the others in a matter of weeks.

  Antillus and Phrygia, in the far north, had been spared attack thus far - but columns of the croach had swollen and sprouted, growing steadily and mindlessly toward them, just as it did toward the northeastern city of Riva - and, by extension, toward Ehren ex Cursori. Though he admitted it was possible that he was taking it a little personally.

  "The refugees from Parcia are going to put more strain upon Rhodes's food supply," Aquitaine murmured, finally. "Raucus, send out a call for volunteers. We'll send Rhodes every earthcrafter willing to go in and help produce more food. "

  "We can't keep that up, Attis," Raucus said. "Oh, the earthcrafters can bring in a season's crop once a month, if they need to, maybe faster. But there just isn't enough soil inside the city's walls. They're depleting it of what the crops need to grow far more quickly than it can restore itself. "

  "Yes," Aquitaine said. "They can only maintain that kind of production for a year. Eighteen months at the outside. But even with every rooftop and avenue in Rhodes converted to grow crops, it will be a strain to fill another eighty thousand bellies. Once starvation sets in, disease will follow, and with the city so crowded, they will never recover. " He shrugged elegantly. "This will all be decided in well under eighteen months, after which we will break the sieges. We will keep as many as possible alive until then. Send the earthcrafters. "

  Raucus put his fist to his heart in a Legion salute and sighed. "I just don't get it. These fields where they're growing new vord. The Legion Aeris is burning them to ash before they can get more than a crop or two of their own out. How can there be so crowbegotten many of the bastards?"

  "Actually," Ehren said, "I think I know the answer to that, my lords. "

  Aquitaine looked up and arched an eyebrow at Ehren.

  "I've gotten a report from an old business acquaintance of mine outside of Forcia. He's an aphrodin smuggler who used to use furycraft to grow crops of hollybells in caverns beneath the ground. " Hollybells, the lovely blue flower from which the drug aphrodin was made, could thrive without sunlight in certain conditions. The smugglers who manufactured the drug for recreational use, despite laws against such activity, had taken advantage of the fact. "He says that the areas where the vord seem to be most populous coincide almost exactly with parts of the land that have a large number of such suitable caverns. "

  Aquitaine smiled thinly. "The fields on the surface were a ruse," he murmured. "Something to keep our attention, to make us feel as if we were succeeding - and to prevent us from searching for the true source of the enemy's numbers until it was too late to do any good. " He shook his head. "That's Invidia's influence. It's the way she thinks. "

  Ehren coughed into an awkward silence.

  "Attis," Raucus said, evidently choosing his words carefully, "she's helping the vord Queen. Maybe of her own will. I know that she is your wife, but. . . "

  "She is a traitor to the Realm," Aquitaine said, his voice calm and hard. "Whether or not she has turned against Alera of her own will is irrelevant. She is an enemy asset that must be removed. " He slashed a hand gently at the air. "We're wasting time, gentlemen. Sir Ehren, what else have you to report?"

  Ehren focused his thoughts and kept his report concise. Other than Parcia's loss, little had changed. "The other cities are holding. None report a sighting of a vord queen. "

  "Are there any signs that the croach has invaded the Feverthorn Jungle?" the First Lord asked.

  "None as yet, sire. "

  Aquitaine sighed and shook his head. "I suppose whatever the Children of the Sun left behind has kept us out for five hundred years. Why should the vord be any different?" He glanced over at Raucus. "If we had more time, we could use that against them, somehow. I'm sure of it. "

  "If wishes were horses," Raucus rumbled back.

  "Being a trite clich?? makes it no less true," Aquitaine said. "Please continue, Sir Ehren. "

  Ehren took a deep breath. This was the moment he'd dreaded all morning. "Sire," he said, "I think I know how to slow their advance toward Riva. "

  Raucus let out a startled huff of a laugh. "Really, boy? And you just now thought of mentioning it?"

  Aquitaine frowned and folded his arms. "Speak your mind, Cursor. "

  Ehren nodded. "I've been running calculations of the rate of the vord advance in various stages of their campaign, and I've isolated where they moved slowest and most rapidly. " He cleared his throat. "I can show you the figures if - "

  "If I didn't trust your competence, you wouldn't be here," Aquitaine responded. "Continue. "

  Ehren nodded. "The vord moved most quickly during their advance through the Amaranth Vale, sire. And their slowest advance came when they crossed the Waste of Kalare - and again when they advanced through the region around Alera Imperia. " He took a deep breath. "Sire, as you know, the vord use the croach as a sort of food. It's mostly a gelatinous liquid, underneath a very tough, leathery shell. "

  Aquitaine nodded. "And they can somehow control the flow of nutrients through it. It's something like an aqueduct; only instead of water, it conveys their food supply. "

  "Yes, sire. It is my belief that, in order to grow, the croach needs to consume other forms of life - animals, insects, grass, trees, other plants, and so on. Think of them as the casing around a seed. Without that initial source of nutrients, the seed can't grow, can't extend roots, and can't begin its life. "

  "I follow you," Aquitaine said quietly.

  "The Waste of Kalare was virtually lifeless. When the croach reached it, its rate of advance dropped precipitously. It did so again when it was crossing the region that had been blasted by the forces Gaius Sextus unleashed - another area that had been virtually emptied of life. "

  "Whereas in the Vale, the richness of the soil and land fed the croach very well, enabling it to spread more quickly," Aquitaine murmured. "Interesting. "

  "Frankly, sire," Ehren said, "the croach is an enemy just as dangerous as any of the creatures the vord queen creates. It chokes off life, feeds the enemy, serves as a sentinel to them - and who knows, it may do even more that we aren't yet aware of - and we know that the main body of their troops does not advance without the croach to supply them. The only time they've done so - "

  "Was in the presence of the vord queen," Aquitaine s
aid, his eyes glinting.

  Ehren nodded and exhaled slowly. The First Lord understood.

  "How much time might this give us?"

  "Assuming my calculations are correct and that the rate of progress is slowed to a comparable degree, four to five weeks. "

  "Giving us time enough to equip at least four more Legions, and a high probability of forcing the vord Queen to appear to lead the horde over the open ground. " Aquitaine nodded, his expression pleased. "Excellent. "

  Raucus looked between the pair of them, frowning. "So. . . if we can keep the croach from coming up, the vord Queen has to attend to fighting