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Empire: Book 2, The Chronicles of the Invaders (The Chronicles of the Invaders Trilogy)

John Connolly

  For the other sisterhood, Jacquie and Lucy

  Extract from the Chronicles,

  Book 4, Section 8:

  Of the Second Civil War,

  and the Coming of

  Syl Hellais, the Earthborn.

  IT is strange that the discovery of an advanced species—humanity—and the successful occupation of their planet should also have marked the beginning of the end of the Illyri Conquest, leaving the Illyri teetering on the edge of a second civil war.

  The seeds of conflict had been sown long before, of course: the Military and the Diplomatic Corps had been engaged in low-level hostilities for centuries, with neither side able to gain the upper hand. Then, in the early years of the Conquest, the Diplomats formed an alliance with the secretive order known as the Nairene Sisterhood, a union secured by the marriage of the Archmage Syrene—the public face of the Sisterhood—to Grand Consul Gradus, the most senior Diplomat in the Illyri Empire. From that moment on, the fate of the Military appeared sealed.

  Syrene and Gradus traveled to Earth to confront the most influential Military leader on the planet, Lord Andrus, who served as something of a lightning rod for those who opposed the Diplomats and their Nairene allies. What happened next is well documented: the capture of Gradus by the human Resistance, and his death at the Scottish castle called Dundearg. However, this bloodletting was overshadowed by the human Resistance’s discovery that the Illyri were not the only otherworldly invaders, for there were those among our own race who carried an advanced alien organism within themselves. Indeed, they had welcomed the creatures into their bodies, for these were ancient beings, as old as time, and their knowledge was almost as immeasurable as their hunger.

  Yet everything that occurred on Earth during the Conquest is overshadowed by the emergence of one of the pivotal figures in Illyri history: the daughter of Lord Andrus, the child known as Syl Hellais, the Earthborn.

  Syl the Destroyer.

  She was the first Illyri to be born on Earth, and formed a bond of deep affection with the human Resistance fighter Paul Kerr. The Sisterhood succeeded in separating them, banishing Syl to the Marque, its sealed convent orbiting the homeworld of Illyr, and sending Kerr to fight—and, it was hoped, to die—in the Brigades. Finally, Lord Andrus was forcibly infected by the alien parasite, thereby depriving the Military of its most accomplished leader. It seemed to the Sisterhood and the Diplomats that the Empire was theirs for the taking.

  But they were wrong.




  The predators circled, each taking a turn to snarl at her, some more vicious than others, but every one determined to take their piece of flesh.

  “Stupid, shabby thing.”

  “She never learns.”

  “She’s too stupid to learn.”

  “Why are you here?”

  “You don’t belong in this place.”

  “Why do you even exist?”

  “Elda. Even your name is ugly.”

  “Look at yourself!”

  “She can’t. She shuns mirrors. She’s afraid they’ll crack at the sight of her.”

  And then the leader, the alpha, came to bite, the pack parting, their faces turned admiringly upon her, her radiance reflected in their eyes.

  Tanit, beautiful young Tanit: cruel, and worse than cruel.

  “No, that’s not the case,” said Tanit. “She stays away from mirrors because there’s nothing to see. She’s so insignificant that she’s barely there at all.”

  It was the way that she spoke, the words tossed carelessly as though the object of her disdain were unworthy even of the effort involved in crushing her. She looked down on Elda—Tanit was tall, even for an Illyri; it was part of her power—reached out a hand, and let it slip through this lesser Novice’s mop of dark hair, the strands tangling in her fingers.

  “Nothing,” said Tanit. “I feel . . . nothing.”

  Her victim kept her head down, her eyes on the floor. It was better that way, easier. Perhaps Tanit and the others might grow bored if they couldn’t provoke a reaction, and seek other prey to torment.

  But no, not this time. Elda felt a prickling on her skin. It began at her cheeks, then slowly spread to her nose, her forehead, her ears, her neck. Warmth became heat; heat became burning pain. What Tanit was doing to her was against all the rules, but the rules did not apply to Tanit and her acolytes as they did to others. After all, this was merely practice for them. They were like disturbed children encouraged to torture insects and rodents so that they would not falter when told to inflict pain on their own.

  And they had no fear of being caught. This was the Marque, the ancient lair of the Nairene Sisterhood, and held no shortage of places in which the weak could be victimized by the strong.

  The burning grew more intense. Elda could feel blisters forming, her skin bubbling and lifting. She put her hand to her face in a vain effort to shield herself, but her palm immediately started blistering too, and she snatched it back in fright. She tried not to scream, determined not to give them that satisfaction, but the agony was becoming too much to bear. She opened her mouth, but it was the voice of another that spoke.

  “Leave her be!”

  Tanit’s concentration was broken. Immediately, Elda’s pain began to lessen. There would be marks, but no scars. That, at least, was something.

  The Novice looked up. Syl Hellais was pushing her way through the pack—a well-placed elbow here, a knee there. Some resisted, but only passively. There was grumbling and confusion, but Tanit merely looked on and laughed, folding her arms across her chest as if settling in to see what Syl planned to do.

  Now Syl stood by Elda’s side.

  “Elda, are you all right?”

  Syl helped her to her feet, looking anxiously at the girl’s face, then turning her hand over and inspecting the injury on her palm. Elda appeared badly sunburned, and her hand was red and sore, but the blisters were small and unbroken.

  “Is it awful?” whispered Elda.

  “It will fade,” said Syl, which wasn’t quite answering the question. Anyway, there was no time for that now. They had more pressing concerns. The pack was brave when in numbers, but still only ever as strong as its leader. Tackle the leader, and the pack would slink away. In theory.

  But this was Tanit, and Tanit did not back down easily. She was watching Syl closely, her face set in a mask of amusement.

  “What did you do to her?” said Syl.

  “I simply told her she was pretty,” said Tanit. “I made her blush.”

  “What is it to you anyway, Smelly?” said one of the braver females, bristling on Tanit’s left. Her name was Sarea, and she and another Novice, Nemein, were competitors for Tanit’s favor, and the floating post of her best friend. Tanit enjoyed playing them off against each other. Each would deny Tanit nothing for fear that she might turn instead to the other.

  Now Syl and Tanit exchanged a look, a brief flash of ice-cold understanding between deadly rivals. Sarea was trying to score points by baiting Syl. Tanit gave Sarea a barely perceptible nod, granting permission for the entertainment to begin.

  Sarea stepped forward. She was graceful and almost delicately pretty, all fine bones and sparkling eyes. However, Sarea’s prettiness hid a near-psychotic lust for violence. Her particular skill was the application of pressure with the power o
f her mind, from the merest sensation of tightness on the skin to the breaking of bones and the crushing of skulls. She had tried it on Syl once, shortly after her arrival at the Marque; a little welcoming bruise, that was how Sarea had described it.

  Syl had broken Sarea’s nose in reprisal, and it hadn’t required much mental effort at all on her part. It was mostly physical.


  Now Syl smiled, though her stomach felt weak and empty, her hands shaky. She balled them into fists.

  “You’re brave when picking on those weaker than you, surrounded by your friends,” said Syl. “Would you be quite so mouthy if it were just you and me?”

  She could feel Sarea itching to hurt her: a little pressure and she could burst some of the blood vessels in Syl’s nose, or in her eyes. Slightly more, and a finger might snap, a toe break. And then there were all those lovely internal organs: lungs, bowels, heart.

  Oh, the heart! Sarea yearned to crush a heart. And already what she was envisaging was becoming real. Syl felt the faintest squeezing behind her ribs, a pressure on the beating organ, and knew that it was Sarea’s work, even though Sarea was banned from using her skills out of class. However, Sarea was just a Novice too, and not completely in control of her dubious talents, not yet. Or perhaps, she merely chose not to be.

  Now Sarea opened her mouth as if to reply, but then her eyes glazed over and she shook her head, seeming to have no words. She stared hard at Syl before looking to the rest of her group, bewildered. Syl watched her, her heart released again, freely pounding in her chest. She waited for the pack to attack, but then Tanit spoke once more.

  “I’m sorry. We meant no harm.”

  “Excuse me?” said Syl.

  “It was nothing, Sister. Nothing. We’re sorry. No harm.”

  Tanit stepped away, turning to leave, and the others moved after her while Syl and Elda watched, slack-jawed with surprise. But one of the pack remained, staring at Syl, unmoving as the rest of Tanit’s creatures melted away. She was half obscured in the shadows, a reedy, dark-haired figure in rich blue robes. Her name was Uludess, but her friends called her Dessa. As Syl looked into that intense, furrowed face, a bead of blood slid from the older girl’s nose, and she shrugged and gave a rueful little grin. Syl opened her mouth to speak, but Dessa shook her head ever so slightly then spun away, wiping the blood on her sleeve as she hurried after her friends.

  A tutor in the red garments of a full Sister approached.

  “What was all that about?”

  It was Cale, who was responsible for the junior Novices like Syl. She was young for a senior Nairene. Her family had died in a shuttle crash shortly after her birth, and only Cale had survived. The Sisterhood had taken her in and raised her, so Cale’s progress through the ranks had started earlier than most.

  Syl and Elda stared at the floor.

  “Do either of you want to explain to me what was going on there?” said Cale, but it was only for show. She knew what Tanit and her pack were like, just as she understood that Syl and Elda would tell her nothing of what had happened. Even if they did, Cale could only go to the Grandmage Oriel to complain on their behalf, and Oriel, who supervised the training of all Novices, would only ignore her. Oriel had a fondness for Tanit and her kind.

  “I tripped,” said Elda. “Syl was pulling me to my feet.”

  “And the others?” said Cale.

  “They were queuing up to help too,” said Syl.

  Cale gave Syl a peculiar look. She seemed about to smile, but thought better of it.

  “Get back to your duties, both of you,” she said.

  They did as they were told. Cale watched them go, but so too did another, unseen. The Grandmage Oriel remained in the doorway for a moment, and then was gone.


  Far from the Marque, and from most civilized systems, a Military shuttle came in low across a desert, following the mounds and crevasses of the sands below, dipping, rising, shifting gently to left or right under the expert control of the pilot. Sometimes he came so close to the ground that the shuttle’s thrusters kicked up clouds behind the craft, causing the proximity sensors to activate and send alarm signals pinging through the craft.

  “He’s going to kill us. I swear he’s going to kill us.”

  The voice was Private Cutler’s. He was the unit’s communications specialist, and resident pessimist. As far as Cutler was concerned, the only reason he wasn’t already dead was because God hadn’t yet come up with the worst possible way of killing him. Cutler was from Omaha, Nebraska. The first time he saw the ocean was from the window of the Illyri transport shuttle that was taking him to join the Brigades. On that day, he was convinced that he was going to drown. Since then, he’d variously believed himself to be on the verge of burning, falling, suffocating, being poisoned, or being crushed to death. Today, crashing seemed the likeliest fate, especially with Steven Kerr at the controls of the shuttle.

  Beside him, Steven’s older brother, Paul, rested his head against the back of his seat and closed his eyes. He had no concerns about Steven’s abilities as a pilot. Steven was gifted: there was no other word for it. Paul believed it had something to do with all of those PlayStation games that had cluttered their shared bedroom back in Edinburgh. Paul had dabbled in games—he liked POV shoot-’em-ups, although he quickly grew out of them after his involvement in the human Resistance movement against the Illyri invaders introduced him to the sordid reality of killing—but Steven’s devotion to them was total. He could immerse himself for hours and hours, forgetting even to eat, his fingers and thumbs dancing over the controls as though he had been born to the buttons. His particular fondness was for cars, planes, helicopters—anything that could be driven or flown. When the time came for their aptitudes to be tested by the Illyri, Steven had aced all of the flight simulations. He had immediately been fast-tracked into the pilot program, spending most of his time sitting in a comfortable chair playing a glorified computer game, while his older sibling was left to muddle along with the grunts—running, jumping, falling, and shooting.

  Oh, Paul knew that it wasn’t really like that for his brother, however much it amused him to tease Steven about it. Pilots had to be at the peak of mental alertness and physical endurance, and Paul had watched Steven stumble back bleary-eyed to their shared barrack room, his head thumping and his limbs aching from hours of increasingly difficult simulations. Less than one percent of those who aspired to be Brigade pilots made it to the level that Steven had reached—command pilot—and none had ever attained it so soon. The shuttle they were now in was Steven’s, the first craft over which he had sole control, and he was relishing every minute of it, even if Cutler was not.

  “He’s crazy, you know,” said Cutler. “If he flies any lower, we’ll be traveling underground.”

  “He’s not crazy,” said Paul. “He’s just happy.”

  “At least one of us is.”

  Paul opened his eyes. He’d been hoping to nap on the flight, but even he had to admit that Steven’s maneuvers were not going to allow anyone to rest peacefully. Not that Military shuttles were designed with comfortable sleep in mind: they were heavily weaponized and armored transports, with individual flight seats facing one another along the length of the craft. Twin cannon hung beneath the pilots’ cabin, with a second pair of cannon contained in a bubble at the rear of the craft. When required, four sets of rocket launchers could unfold from the body of the craft in an X-formation: it was a fast, ferocious weapon of war.

  On this day, though, they were not at war, for theirs was an exploratory mission. In fact, of their unit only Cutler and De Souza, their lieutenant, had ever fired their weapons in anger. Even they had done so only as part of a protective mission on a moon that didn’t even have a name, only a number, and their pulse weapons had been used on creatures that were just an evolutionary step above jellyfish. The truth was that the universe wa
s mostly empty of intelligent life—in fact, empty of much life at all. So far, the human race was the most advanced species that the Illyri had encountered, and look what had happened to the people of Earth: invasion and conquest, followed by occupation. The Resistance still fought the invaders—Paul and Steven had been captured in just such a battle against their conquerors, before being forcibly conscripted into the Brigades—but their campaign was mostly just an annoyance to the Illyri.

  Through the window Paul watched the arid white landscape of the planet pass below. This was Torma, and it had taken them a month to reach it. Somewhere above Torma lay the Illyri destroyer Envion, now undergoing repairs after a difficult trip, or “boost,” through the final wormhole. Paul was still not used to the sensation of wormhole travel—the distortion of space and time, the sickening sense that he was leaving his brain and internal organs trailing behind him. The best that could be said was that at least it was over quickly, and he was always relieved when the trip was completed, and he found himself alive and intact.

  Peris, their Illyri training supervisor, now sat at the head of the craft, just behind Paul. The Illyri soldier had once been the commander of the guard at Edinburgh Castle, but had given up his comfortable existence in order to watch over Paul and Steven in the Brigades. Paul did not truly understand Peris’s motives, but he had accompanied the Kerr brothers from Earth, and had been with them throughout their basic training at the Brigade base on Coramal, a tiny planet in a small system a long way from anywhere interesting.

  The training had mostly involved learning how to function as a unit, along with honing the weapons skills of the recruits, teaching them the basics of Illyri technology, and improving their command of the Illyri language, mainly through immersive techniques, including feeding them a steady stream of words and grammar while they slept. The alien tongue proved less complex than Paul had first thought, and soon he could speak it better than most, which was undoubtedly one of the reasons why he had been promoted to sergeant. The recruits had also undergone a range of medical procedures designed to prevent their bones from becoming brittle over long periods in space, and to address the increased risk of cancer due to radiation exposure.