Book by Butcher Jim
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The steadholt was located several miles south of the ruined wasteland that had once been Alera Imperia, and it was an old one. Windmanes had not been sighted there in more than six centuries. Furystorms had been absent for even longer than that. The land, for miles about, had been a patchwork of farmlands, steadholts, villages, and roads for hundreds of years. Wild furies had been so few and so feeble that they were all but extinct.
As a result, the little steadholt had not been built with stone walls surrounding it, or with a heavy stone central hall for shelter from fury-inspired weather. It was instead a collection of cottages and small houses, where each family had lived in its own home, separate from the others.
But all that had been before the vord came.
Invidia Aquitaine stood at the outskirts of the little steadholt, hidden in the shadows.
Shadows were abundant these days, she reflected.
The newborn volcano that stood as a gravestone for Gaius Sextus, the final First Lord of Alera, had continued to spew forth clouds of dark smoke and ash in the days and weeks after its creation. Even now, the sky was covered with low clouds that would release spring rain in fitful sputters or maniacal bursts. Sometimes the rain was yellow, or red, and sometimes green. The clouds themselves were dimly lit, even at night, by an angry scarlet light from the fire-mountain to the north—and in every other direction by the steady, haunting green glow of the croach, the waxy growth that covered the ground, the trees, the buildings, and every other feature of the land the vord had claimed for their own.
Here the vord had driven their presence the deepest. Here, at the heart of what had once been Alera, they had taken the most. The croach, the living presence of the vord, covered everything for a hundred miles in every direction, choking all other life from the land.
The little steadholt was green. Its kitchen gardens were well under way despite the fact that summer had not quite arrived. Its modest-sized field already promised a fine crop of grain. Wind sighed in the leaves of its enormous old trees. Its animals grazed upon the grass of a rich pasture. In the darkness, if one ignored the eerily lit sky, the green glow of croach stretching to the horizon in every direction, and the occasional alien shriek of one of the vord, it looked like a normal, prosperous Aleran steadholt.
The parasite on her torso reacted to the motion with an uncomfortable ripple of its own. Since its dozen awl-tipped legs were wrapped around her, their sharp tips sunk inches into her flesh, it caused pain. It was nothing compared to the agony she suffered as its head twisted, its eyeless face and branching mandibles sunken into the flesh between two of her ribs, burrowed invasively into her innards.
Invidia loathed the creature—but it was all that kept her alive. The poison upon the balest bolt that had nearly taken her life had spread all through her body. It had festered there, growing, devouring her from within, so swiftly and perniciously that even her own ability to restore her body via furycraft had been overwhelmed. She had fought it for days as she stumbled away from civilization, certain that she was being pursued, barely conscious as the struggle in her body raged. And when she had realized that the struggle could end in only one way, she found herself lying upon a wooded hillside and knew that she was going to die.
But the vord Queen had come to her. The image of that creature, staring down at her without an ounce of pity or empathy, had been burned into her nightmares.
Invidia had been desperate. Terrified. Delirious with poison and fever. Her body had been so knotted with shivering against the fever-cold that she literally had not been able to feel her arms and legs. But she could feel the vord Queen, the creature's alien presence inside her thoughts, sifting through them one by one as they tumbled and spun in the delirium.
The Queen had offered to save Invidia's life, to sustain her, in exchange for her service. There had been no other option but death.
Though they sent a wave of agony washing through her body, she ignored the parasite's torturous movements. Like shadows, there was, of late, also an abundance of pain.
And a small voice that whispered to her from some dark, quiet corner of her heart told her that she deserved it.
"You keep coming back here," said a young woman at her elbow.
Invidia felt herself twitch in surprise, felt her heart suddenly race, and the parasite rippled, inflicting further torment. She closed her eyes and focused on the pain, let it fill her senses, until there was no semblance of fear remaining in her mind.
One never showed fear to the vord Queen.
Invidia turned to face the young woman and inclined her head politely. The young Queen looked almost like an Aleran. She was quite exotically lovely, with an aquiline nose and a wide mouth. She wore a simple, tattered gown of green silk that left her shoulders bare, displaying smooth muscle and smoother skin. Her hair was long, fine, and white, falling in a gently waving sheet to the backs of her thighs.
Only small details betrayed her true origins. Her long fingernails were green-black talons, made of the same steel-hard vord chitin that armored her warriors. Her skin had an odd, rigid appearance, and almost seemed to reflect the distant ambient light of the croach, showing the faint green tracings of veins beneath its surface.
Her eyes were what frightened Invidia, even after months in her presence. Her eyes were canted up slightly at the corners, like those of the Marat barbarians to the northeast, and they were completely black. They shone with thousands of faceted lenses, insectlike, and watched the world with calm, unblinking indifference.
"Yes, I suppose I do," Invidia replied to her. "I told you that this place represents a risk. You seem unwilling to listen to my advice. So I have taken it upon myself to monitor it and ensure that it is not being used as a base or hiding place for infiltrators."
The Queen shrugged a shoulder, unconcerned. The movement was smooth but somehow awkward—it was a mannerism she had copied but clearly did not understand. "This place is guarded ceaselessly. They could not enter it undetected."
"Others have said as much and been mistaken," Invidia warned her. "Consider what Countess Amara and Count Bernard did to us last winter."
"That area had not been consolidated," the Queen replied calmly. "This one has." She turned her eyes to the little houses and tilted her head. "They gather together for food at the same time every night."
"Yes," Invidia said. The Aleran holders who dwelt in the little steadholt in cobbled-together households had been working the fields and going about the business of a steadholt as if they were not the only ones of their kind living within a month's hard march.
They had no choice but to work the fields. The vord Queen had told them that if they did not, they would die.
Invidia sighed. "Yes, at the same time. It's called dinner or supper."
"Which?" the Queen asked.
"In practice, the words are generally interchangeable."
The vord Queen frowned. "Why?"
She shook her head. "I do not know. Partly because our ancestors spoke a number of different tongues and—"
The vord Queen turned her eyes to Invidia. "No," she said. "Why do they eat together?" She turned her eyes back to the little houses. "There exists the possibility that the larger and stronger would take the food of the weaker creatures. Logic dictates that they should eat alone. And yet they do not."
"There is more to it than simple sustenance."
The Queen considered the cottage. "Alerans waste time altering their food through various processes. I suppose eating together reduces the inefficiency of that practice."
"It does make cooking simpler, and it is partly why it is a practice," Invidia said. "But only in part."
The Queen frowned more deeply. "Why else eat in such a fashion?"
"To be with one another," Invidia said. "To spend time together. It's part of what builds a family."
Great furies knew that was true. She could count on her fingers the number of meals she had taken with her father and brothers.
"Emotional bonding," the vord Queen said.
"Yes," Invidia said. "And…; it is pleasant."
Empty black eyes looked at her. "Why?"
She shrugged. "It gives one a sense of stability," she said. "A daily ritual. It is reassuring to have that part of the day, to know that it will happen every day."
"But it will not," the Queen said. "Even in their natural habitat, it is not a stable circumstance. Children grow and leave homes. Routines are disrupted by events beyond their control. The elderly die. The sick die. They all die."
"They know that," Invidia said. She closed her eyes and for an instant thought of her mother, and the too-brief time she had been allowed to share her table, her company, and her love with her only daughter. Then she opened her eyes again and forced herself to look at the nightmare world around her. "But it does not seem that way, when the food is warm and your loved ones are gathered with you."
The vord Queen looked at her sharply. "Love. Again."
"I told you. It is the primary emotion that motivates us. Love for others or for oneself."
"Did you take meals like this?"
"When I was very young," Invidia said, "and only with my mother. She died of disease."
"And it was pleasant to have dinner?"
"Did you love her?"
"As only children can," Invidia said.
"Did she love you?"
The vord Queen turned to face Invidia fully. She was silent for two full minutes, and when she finally spoke, the words were spread apart carefully for emphasis—it gave the question a surprisingly hesitant, almost childlike, quality. "What did it feel like?"
Invidia didn't look at the young woman, the young monster that had already destroyed most of the world. She stared through the nearest set of windows at the dinner being set down at the table.
About half of the people inside were Placidans, taken when the vord had completed their occupation of Ceres and moved forward over the rolling plains of that city's lands. They included an old man and woman who were actually a couple. There was a young mother there, with two children of her own and three more that the vord had deposited in her care. There was a man of early middle age who sat beside her, an Imperian farmer who had not been wise enough or swift enough to avoid capture when the vord came for Alera Imperia and the lands around her. Adults and children alike were tired from a day at work on the steadholt. They were hungry, thirsty, and glad of the simple meal prepared for them. They would spend some time together in the hearth room after the meal, take a few hours of time to themselves with full stomachs and pleasantly weary bodies, then they would sleep.
Invidia stared at the little family, thrown together like a mass of driftwood by the fortunes of invasion and war and clinging to one another all the more strongly because of it. Even now, here, at the end of all things, they reached out to one another, offering what comfort and warmth they could, especially to the children. She nodded toward the candlelit table, where the adults actually shared a few gentle smiles with one another, and the children sometimes smiled and even laughed.
"Like that," she said quietly. "It felt like that."
The young Queen stared at the cottage. Then she said, "Come." She strode forward, graceful and pitiless as a hungry spider.
Invidia ground her teeth and remained where she stood. She did not want to see more death.
The parasite writhed in agonizing reproof.
She followed the vord Queen.
The Queen slammed the door open, disdaining the doorknob to shatter its entire frame. Though she had displayed it on rare occasions before, her raw physical might was unbelievable from such a slender figure—even to Invidia, who was well used to seeing earthcrafters perform feats of superhuman strength. The Queen strode over the splinters and into the kitchen, where the little family took their dinner at a table.
They all froze. The youngest of the children, a beautiful male child perhaps a year old, let out a short wail, which the young mother silenced by seizing the child and placing her hand over his mouth.
The Queen focused on the mother and child. "You," she said, pointing a deadly, clawed fingertip at the young woman. "The child is your blood?"
The young holder stared at the vord Queen with wide, panicked eyes. She nodded once.
The vord Queen stepped forward, and said, "Give him to me."
The woman's eyes filled with tears. Her eyes flicked around the room, haunted, seeking the gaze of someone else—anyone else—who might do something. None of the other holders could meet her gaze. The young mother looked up at Invidia pleadingly, and she began to sob. "Lady," she whispered. "My lady, please."
Her stomach twisted and rebelled, but Invidia had learned long ago that retching sent the parasite into convulsions that could all but kill her. She ate seldom, of late. "You have another child," she told the young mother in a calm, hard voice. "Save her."
The man sitting beside the young mother moved. He gently took the boy from her arms, leaned forward to kiss his hair, and held him out to the vord Queen. The child wailed in protest and tried to go back to his mother.
The vord Queen took the child and held him in front of her. She let him kick and wail for a moment, watching him with her alien eyes. Then, quite calmly, she held the boy close to her body with one arm and twisted his head sharply to one side. His wails ceased.
Invidia found herself about to lose control of her stomach, but then she saw that the child still lived. His neck was twisted to the breaking point, his breaths coming in small, labored gasps—but he lived.
The vord Queen stared at the sobbing mother for a moment. Then she said, "She feels pain. I have not harmed her, yet she feels pain."
"The child is hers," Invidia said. "She loves him."
The Queen tilted her head. "And he loves her in return?"
"Because it is the nature of love to be answered in kind. Especially by children."
The Queen tilted her head to the other sid...Présentation de l'éditeur :
Unabridged CDs • 19 CDs, 24 hours
The next book in the thrilling New York Times bestselling series.
For years he has endured the endless trials and triumphs of a man whose skill and power could not be restrained. Battling ancient enemies, forging new alliances, and confronting the corruption within his own land, Gaius Octavian became a legendary man of war—and the rightful First Lord of Alera.
But now, the savage Vord are on the march, and Gaius must lead his legions to the Calderon Valley to stand against them—using all of his intelligence, ingenuity, and furycraft to save their world from eternal darkness.
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