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 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 ey