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 northand 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 creaturebut 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 awkwardit 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 emphasisit 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 figureeven 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 elseanyone elsewho 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 gaspsbut 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 side. Then she stared down at the child. Then at the young mother. Then at the man seated beside her. She leaned down and touched her lips to the child's hair and paused for a moment, as if considering the sensation.
Then, moving slowly and carefully, she released the child from her hold and passed him back to the weeping mother. The young woman broke down into shuddering sobs, holding the child close.
The vord Queen turned and left the cottage. Invidia followed.
The young Queen walked up a nearby hillside and, once they had crested the hill and moved into sight of a vord landscape stretching out before them, stood with her back to the little steadholt for a time. "Love is not always returned among your kind."
"No," Invidia said simply.
"When it is not," she said, "it is a kind of pain to the one who has loved."
"It is irrational," the vord Queen saidand to Invidia's shock, there was a quiet heat to the words. An anger. The vord Queen was angry.
Invidia felt her mouth go dry.
"Irrational," the Queen said. Her fingers flexed, the nails lengthening and contracting. "Wasteful. Inefficient."
Invidia said nothing.
The vord Queen spun abruptly, the motion so swift that Invidia could barely track it. She stared at Invidia with unreadable, alien eyes. Invidia could see a thousand tiny reflections of herself in them, a pale, half-starved woman with dark hair, clad only in a suit of vord-chitin carapace that fit her as closely as her own skin.
"Tomorrow," the vord Queen said, smoldering anger filling the normally empty tones of her voice, "you and I will have dinner. Together."
Then she turned and vanished in a blur of green silk into the endless rolling waves of croach.
Invidia fought the sense of terror spreading through her stomach. She stared back down at the collection of cottages. From her place on the hillside, the steadholt looked lovely, furylamps glowing in its little town square and inside the cottages. A horse nickered in a nearby pasture. A dog barked several times. The trees, the houses, they all looked so perfect. Like dollhouses.
Invidia found herself suppressing a laugh that rose up through the madness of the past several months, for fear that she would never be able to stop.
After all, the vord Queen was not quite nine years old. Perhaps that was exactly what they were.
Varg, Warmaster of the fallen land of Narash, heard the familiar tread of his pup's footsteps upon the deck of the Trueblood, flagship of the Narashan fleet. He peeled his lips back from his teeth in macabre amusement. Could it be the flagship of a Narashan fleet when Narash itself was no more? According to the codes, it was the last piece of sovereign Narashan territory upon the face of Carna.
But could the code of law of Narash be truly considered its law without a territory for it to govern? If not, then the Trueblood was nothing more than wood and rope and sailcloth, belonging to no nation, empty of meaning as anything but a means of conveyance.
Just as Varg himself would be empty of meaninga Warmaster with no range to protect.
Bitter fury burned inside him in a fire-flash instant, and the white clouds and blue sea he could view through the cabin's windows abruptly turned red. The vord. The accursed vord. They had destroyed his home and murdered his people. Of millions of Narashans, fewer than a hundred thousand had survivedand the vord would answer to him for their actions.
He got hold of his temper before it could goad him into a blood-rage, breathing deeply until the normal colors of daylight returned. The vord would pay. There would be a time and a place to exact vengeance, but it was neither here nor now.
He touched a claw tip to the page of the book and carefully turned it to the next. It was a delicate creation, this Aleran tome, a gift from Tavar. Like the young Aleran demon, it was tiny, fragileand contained a great deal more than its exterior suggested. If only the print wasn't of such a diminutive size. It was a constant strain on Varg's eyesight. One had to read the thing by daylight. With a proper, dim red lamp, he couldn't make it out at all.
There was a polite scratch at the door.
"Enter," Varg rumbled, and his pup, Nasaug, entered the cabin. The younger Cane bared his throat in respect, and Varg returned the gesture with slightly less emphasis.
Pup, Varg thought, as he looked fondly upon his get. He's four centuries old, and by every reasonable standard should be a Warmaster in his own right. He fought the accursed Aleran demons on their own ground for two years and made good his escape despite all of their power. But I suppose a sire never forgets how small his pups were once.
"Report," he rumbled.
"Master Khral has come aboard," Nasaug rumbled. "He requests an audience."
Varg bared his teeth. He carefully placed a thin bit of colored cloth into the pages of the book and gently closed it. "Again."
"Shall I throw him back into his boat?" Nasaug asked. There was a somewhat wistful note to his voice.
"I find myself tempted," Varg said. "But no. It is his right under the codes to seek redress for grievances. Bring him."
Nasaug bared his throat again and departed the cabin. A moment later, the door opened again, and Master Khral entered. He was nearly as tall as Varg, closer to nine feet than eight when fully upright, but unlike the warrior Cane, he was as thin as whipcord. His fur was a mottled red-brown, marked with streaks of white hairs born from scars inflicted by ritual and not by honest battle. He wore a demonskin mantle and hood, despite Varg's repeated requests that he not parade about the fleet in a garment made from the skins of the creatures who were presently responsible for keeping them all alive. He wore a pair of pouches on cross-body belts, each containing a bladder of blood, which the ritualists needed to perform their sorcery. He smelled like unclean fur and rotten blood, and reeked of a confidence that he was too foolish to see had no basis in reality.
The senior ritualist stared calmly at Varg for several seconds before finally baring his throat just enough to give Varg no excuse to rip it out. Varg did not return the gesture at all. "Master Khral. What now?"
"As every day, Warmaster," Khral replied. "I am here to beg you, on behalf of the people of Narash and Shuar, to turn aside from this dangerous path of binding our people to the demons."
"I am told," Varg rumbled, "the people of Narash and Shuar like to eat."
Khral sneered. "We are Canim," he spat. "We need no one to help us attain our destiny. Especially not the demons."
Varg grunted. "True. We will take our destiny on our own. But obtaining food is another matter."
"They will turn on us," Khral said. "The moment they have finished using us, they will turn and destroy us. You know this is true."
"It is true," Varg said. "It is also tomorrow. I am in command of today."
Khral's tail lashed in irritation. "Once we have separated from the ice ships, we can pick up the pace and make landfall within a week."
"We can make ourselves into meals for the leviathans, you mean," Varg replied. "There are no range charts of the sea this far north. We would have no way to know when we entered a leviathan's territory."
"We are the masters of the world. We are not afraid."
Varg growled low in his chest. "I find it remarkable how often amateurs confuse courage with idiocy."
The ritualist's eyes narrowed. "We might lose a vessel here and there," Khral acknowledged. "But we would not owe our lives to the charity of the demons. A week, then we can begin to rebuild on our own."
"Leave the ice ships," Varg said. "The same ships that are carrying more than half of our surviving people."
"Sacrifices must be made if we are to remain true to ourselves," Khral declared, "if our spirits, our pride, and our strength are to remain pure."
"I have noticed that those who speak as you do are rarely willing to include themselves among those sacrificed."
A furious snarl burst out of Khral's throat, and one paw-hand flashed toward the hip bag at his side.
Varg did not so much as rise from his crouch. His arms moved, shoulders twisting with sinewy power as he flung the Aleran book at Khral. It sailed through the air in a blur of spinning motion, and its hard spine struck the master ritualist in the throat. The impact knocked Khral's shoulders back against the door to the cabin, and he rebounded from it to fall to the cabin's deck, making gagging sounds.
Varg got up and walked over to the book. Its leaves had opened, and some of the delicate pages had been harshly folded. Varg picked it up carefully, smoothed the pages, and considered the Aleran creation again.
Like Tavar, he mused, it was apparently more dangerous than it appeared.
Varg stood by for a moment, as Khral's gagging gradually transformed to labored breathing. He hadn't quite crushed the ritualist's windpipe, which was disappointing. Now he'd have to suffer the fool again tomorrow. After surviving today's conflict, Khral would be unlikely to allow Varg another such opportunity to remove him.
So be it. Some ambitious underling might turn a dead Khral into a martyr. It was entirely possible the ritualist would be more dangerous dead than alive.
"Nasaug," Varg called.
The pup opened the door and considered the prostrate form on the floor. "Warmaster?"
"Master Khral is ready to return to his boat."
Nasaug bared his throat, not quite hiding his amusement. "Immediately, Warmaster." He leaned down, seized Khral by his ankle, and simply dragged him out of the cabin.
Varg gave Nasaug a few minutes to get Khral back into his boat, then strode out onto the Trueblood's deck.
The ship was painted black, as most Narashan vessels were. It offered a stealth advantage when moving at night, and during the day it collected enough heat to enable the adhesive sealing the hull to remain flexible and watertight. It also lent them an air of menace, particularly to the Aleran demons. They were nearly blind at night and painted their own ships white so that they could see a little more clearly during darkness. The very idea of a black ship was alien to them, and darkness was a primal fear for the species. While their blindness and fear might not stop them from attacking, especially with their sorcery at hand, it did prevent any independent individual or small group from attempting to board a Narashan vessel for whatever mad reason it might concoct.
The Alerans were many things, but not stupid. None of them liked the idea of stumbling around in the darkness while the night-wise Canim came for them.
Varg went to the ship's prow and stared out over the sea. They were in waters hundreds of leagues north of any he had sailed before, and the sea was choppy. The weather had remained clear, either as the result of fortune or Aleran sorcery, and the fleet had made the long, slow trek from Canea without serious incidentsomething Varg would have considered the next best thing to impossible only months before.
The voyage from Canea to Alera was a month's worth of sailing with a moderately favorable wind. It had taken them over three months to get this far, and there were still three weeks' worth of ocean in front of them at their current pace. Varg turned his eyes to the south and studied the reason for their crawl.
Three almost unbelievably enormous ships rode squarely in the center of the fleet, rising like mountains from the sea and dwarfing even the Trueblood into insignificancebut their size was not the most remarkable thing about them.
The ships had been built from ice.