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The Aeronaut's Windlass, Page 31

Jim Butcher

  “In my opinion, humans are sufficiently foolish to attempt it again,” Rowl noted.

  “Oh!” Folly said suddenly, and staggered back several steps, flinching away from some unseen threat. “Watch out!”

  Rowl stared at the odd human, and for a baffled second nothing happened.

  And then there was a chorus of high-pitched, eerie sounds, and dozens of silkweavers plunged through the hole and plummeted toward them.

  Rowl had never seen one of the creatures before, but he had learned his people’s lore about the silkweavers, along with a nightmarish menagerie of creatures like them. He knew them, knew how they hunted— and he knew how to kill them.

  The first movements proved to be half a dozen creatures about half of Rowl’s own size, he estimated. They had a dozen legs, spread out along either side of a lean, hard-scaled body that made them look something like overly enthused silverfish. Their heads, however, were bulbous, sporting a short muzzle that opened in three parts that were all serrated along the inside. Streamers of silk issued from their rear parts, providing a kind of drop line that they would use to control their fall.

  The fresh-exuded silk, Rowl remembered, was quite adhesive and presented additional danger. It would not do to be hasty. So he contemplated his actions carefully, until the silkweavers had fallen almost halfway to the tunnel floor.

  And then he moved.

  He bounded up not at the lowermost of the falling silkweavers, but at the highest. He slammed both front paws into the thing, stiff-legged, and shoved it back. Rowl used the momentum to twist in the air and land on his feet, his head already tracking to see the results of his attack.

  His victim swung in a wide arc, its silk line tangling with those of its companions. The silkweavers let out whistles of distress, as the sticky silk at their rear ends clung to other lines and weavers alike. One of them became hopelessly tangled, and two more had legs wound up in twists of silken line. The other three managed to escape the tangle and drop to the floor.

  Rowl pounced on the first and batted it as hard as he could with his paws, knocking it away, onto its side. The second got the same treatment— and then the third leapt upon Rowl.

  The warrior cat had been waiting for the stupid things to get around to that. He flung himself in the direction of the silkweaver’s leap, flipping himself onto his back in a sinuous motion as he did. The silkweaver came down, poisoned jaws questing for his flesh, and he held it away with his front paws—while raking savagely with the claws on his rear legs at its vulnerable underside.

  The silkweaver’s legs convulsed as Rowl hit something vital, and the cat flung it off of him contemptuously. Neither of the other two had risen to their many legs yet, and were still thrashing on the stone floor. He pounced on the nearest, got a good grip on its underbelly with his jaws, and before it could curl and bite him, he shook it savagely, ripping the frail underbody open. It let out a shriek like the first, legs thrashing, and tumbled free, leaving a mouthful of its vitals behind.

  Rowl spat the foul-tasting things out of his mouth and turned toward the third silkweaver—only to see Littlemouse’s large, sturdy shoe come crushing down on the thing like a column of living stone. The silkweaver was quite simply no match for that kind of mass and strength, and it didn’t so much die as explode in every direction. Rowl whirled toward the tangled silkweavers, leapt upon one of them, and killed it with his jaws, taking care to avoid the silk himself—and while he did, Littlemouse stomped the remaining two silkweavers into splatter marks on the floor.

  Handy, humans, Rowl thought. Clumsy, slow, and not always terribly bright, but they were very, very strong, through sheer, inarguable mass. He now saw his father’s wisdom in desiring to keep a few of them around the home tunnels. They could manage annoying problems that might prove awkward and time-consuming for cats.

  Rowl looked around calmly for more foes to defeat, but he’d run out of enemies with which to amuse himself. Just as well, he supposed. They tasted horrible, and it would take him a week to get all of their goo and stench out of his fur.

  “Well, I have saved you both,” Rowl said to the humans. “Though I will concede, Littlemouse, that you were not entirely useless to me in this matter.”

  “Thank you,” Littlemouse said gravely. She examined the bottom of her stomping shoe and shuddered. “Ugh. How revolting.”

  “How useless,” Rowl said, disgusted. “It was barely a fight at all, and we can’t even eat them.”

  “Just as well,” Littlemouse said. “They have a poisonous bite, do they not?”

  “Were any of us bitten?” Rowl asked.


  “Then no,” Rowl said simply. “They obviously did not.” He gave her gauntlet a pointed glance. “An unused weapon is not a weapon at all.”

  “I didn’t have time to aim it before they were bouncing all over the floor,” Littlemouse said. “And after that, they were all around you. You did ask me not to step on your tail with my boots. I assumed you would not want me to step on it with my gauntlet, either.”

  Rowl considered that and nodded. “That does not seem unreasonable, I suppose. Presumptuous, but not stupid.”

  “Thank you,” Littlemouse said, in that tone of voice that sometimes made Rowl wonder whether she was in some way mocking him. He couldn’t be sure. Littlemouse was woefully lacking in ears, and had no tail whatsoever. How on earth was one supposed to know what was going on behind those enormous, myopic eyeballs without some kind of cue?

  “So that’s what that is like,” the odd human was saying. She shivered. “Weavers, weavers, run.”

  “Folly,” Littlemouse said. “It’s all right. They’re dead. We’ve killed them.”

  Folly shook her head in a jerky motion and jabbed a finger upward. “Bridget doesn’t know,” she whimpered. “Bridget doesn’t. There, there, there!”

  And with that a flood of silkweavers poured from the hole in the ceiling. They were all more or less the same size as the first group of the creatures—but there were more of them. Not dozens. Not scores. Hundreds. Hundreds and hundreds of them, pouring out like water in a chorus of shrieks, a rattling thunder of clashing serrated jaws, swarming down the already hanging silk lines like inverted aeronauts. Like fleets of them.

  It was just possible that there were too many for Rowl to exterminate alone.

  “Run!” Littlemouse bellowed. She grabbed Folly, and Rowl flung himself into a run beside them. The etherealist’s apprentice and the two Guardsmen, neither of whom were guarding anything or, in point of fact, men, took off down the hallway at a frantic sprint.

  A chittering tide of silkweavers boiled along behind them.

  Chapter Thirty-five

  Spire Albion, Habble Landing, Ventilation Tunnels

  Just before the original six silkweavers hurled themselves at them, Folly had watched it happen.

  It had been quite unnerving, really. She had stared at the hole in the ceiling and suddenly felt the utter, irrational certainty that six silkweavers were hurtling out of it. She could see nothing, and yet she felt that she could have counted the spiky hairs on their many legs if she’d cared to do so. While her eyes told her the space was empty, every primitive nerve in her body had fired off howls of panicked warning, and she had been able to do nothing but flinch and scream.

  It was a second later before the silkweavers actually appeared, and Folly, confused, had simply stared as Rowl and Bridget dispatched them. She hadn’t been stunned for very long, really—that cat had moved with an utter disregard for the superior numbers of the foe and, for that matter, of gravity. Within a handful of seconds, the six silkweavers had died.

  Folly saw the conclusion of the fight in her thoughts a few seconds before it actually ended.

  Which could only mean . . .

  She had successfully tracked a possible future.

  “Oh,” she heard herself say. “So that’s what that is like.”

  And then a stirring in the ether, like the first that had w
arned her of a malicious presence beyond the hole in the ceiling, slithered through the air—only this one was far, far larger. Folly immediately tilted her head to one side, struggling to track the sensation. Her eyes slipped out of focus because they were of no use, no use at all, and she shuddered as she realized what she was feeling—another possible future coalescing before her mind’s eye.

  And this future included more silkweavers. Hundreds more.

  “Weavers,” she breathed. “Weavers. Run.”

  “Folly,” Bridget said. “It’s all right. They’re dead. We’ve killed them.”

  Folly shook her head as the malicious presence in the ether suddenly looked back at her, a shock of immaterial sensation as unsettling as a sudden scream in one’s ear. That presence seemed to focus on her, and then it began to rush closer.

  That was when Folly understood, for the first time, the nature of the Enemy her master had warned her about.

  Those hadn’t been silkweavers that Rowl and Bridget had dispatched.

  They’d been puppets.

  “Bridget doesn’t know,” Folly said to the empty air, struggling desperately to latch onto the same sense of distilled instinct that had let her track the future of the initial attack. The invisible sense of a thousand images blurred through her mind, like a hundred people singing different songs all at once. It was painful, and she felt that she had glimpsed only the barest trace of possibility. She could possibly escape, and Rowl might have a chance but . . . “Bridget doesn’t,” she said aloud.

  She looked around wildly, trying to find more futures, a path to survival for all of them, but it was like trying to catch a specific gnat out of a cloud of them. Bright chances flitted by nimbly, and Folly struggled to understand them before they vanished. There was one. And there. And there. She was barely aware that her mouth was moving. “There, there, there.”

  Even as she spoke, the future coalesced into certainty, and she had less than a second’s premonition before the silkweavers physically poured down from the lair above them. She needed a future with life in it, and sought desperately—while a hideous horde of painful, increasingly probable futures assaulted her thoughts like pieces of stinging hail striking her skull. It was new and odd and utterly terrifying, for some part of her actually lived through each future she saw.

  She fought to hang onto it, but she could not retain the vision, and it vanished.

  “Run!” Bridget bellowed, and Folly felt herself being propelled. She stumbled into a run beside the taller girl, and the horde of little silkweavers came after them.

  She struggled for a few seconds more to attain enough clarity and calm to see the future, to find some path to survival, and then abandoned the effort. That was the mark of a true master etherealist—the ability to look into the future in any circumstance, no matter how dire—and it required a level of self-mastery and concentration that she had clearly not yet attained.

  Bridget twisted to unleash the fury of her gauntlet into the swarm behind her, but she might as well have been tossing stones at a grease fire for all the good it did. Of course, looking on the bright side, there were so many silkweavers that Bridget could hardly miss, could she? So at least they had that going for them.

  But the silkweavers were gaining.

  Folly forced herself to order her thoughts, as the master had so often practiced with her. It would have helped if she could have sat down in a nice lotus position and breathed quietly for a while, but the silkweavers seemed unlikely to extend that courtesy to her, so she made do with synchronizing the beat of her thoughts to that of her pounding heart and running feet, and the etheric world opened itself to her.

  Everything changed.

  The world faded into an utterly black void, ablaze with traceries of etheric light. The tiny crystals in her jar twinkled brightly, and the weapon crystal of Bridget’s gauntlet glowed like a miniature sun. Rowl and Bridget appeared to her as phantoms, partially illuminated by the glow of etheric energy passing through them, but mostly to be seen as shadows where that energy was absent.

  Pulsing streamers of energy flooded through the walls and floor of the Spire, the spirestone drawing it from the sky and conducting it down through its matter to the earth—a lightning rod being continuously struck. She cast a glance over her shoulder and saw the horde of silkweavers shining like an out-of-control fire, every single creature ablaze with clouds of light. Using this portion of her mind to see, Folly could peer through the seemingly solid stone as if it had not been there at all, though it was a rather dizzying, disorienting activity within a Spire. There were myriad flows of energy, going generally downward, but also lancing back and forth through channels in the spirestone, placed there by the Builders so that the Spire’s systems could support the lives of its residents. If a truly complex clock had been manufactured out of translucent glass, Folly imagined, her current quandary might be an experience similar to trying to find a single part located somewhere within it.

  They needed a smaller tunnel, something that would let them pass through easily but bottleneck their pursuers, slowing them, and Folly found one at hand. Now, if she could only find an etheric nexus, there might be more possibilities open to her.

  “That way!” she shouted to her jar, and abruptly turned down a much narrower passage with a much lower ceiling.

  “Folly!” Bridget shouted in protest—but it wasn’t as though the larger girl had any choice in the matter of which way to go: Folly had the only light. Bridget slipped on her silkweaver-slimed shoes, righted herself, ducked, and plunged into the smaller tunnel after Folly. Rowl entered behind Bridget, letting out a snarling, hissing cat scream of warning at the foremost silkweavers as he did, and the three of them fled down the much more constricted hallway.

  Their footsteps were loud in here, their breathing deafening. Bridget had to run in a crouch—but the tide of silkweavers pursuing them had to slow at the entrance, like water pouring from a small hole in a large vessel; their pursuers were no fewer in number, but fewer could approach them at once, and that was very nearly the same thing, for Folly’s purposes.

  Though, now that she considered it, Folly had never regarded herself as the sort of young woman who had purposes, precisely. That was potentially a troubling development—not nearly so troubling as being torn to pieces by thousands of silkweavers, of course, but it was a matter upon which to be deliberated—assuming, of course, that she survived the next few moments.

  Folly led them down the choked hallway, slowing her steps slightly so that she could sweep her ether-focused gaze around them for further options. And then, suddenly, she was able to see one of the things that might change the situation—a nexus.

  Flows of etheric energy coursed down from half a dozen directions, pouring into a single downward-flowing conduit—and at the point where they merged together, excess energy overflowed the conduit, spreading out into the air of the tunnel in a gossamer backwash. That cloud of etheric force all but sang to Folly, and she rushed forward in a desperate sprint, panting, fumbling for her pistolier’s holsters as she went.

  “Folly!” shouted Bridget from behind her. “Wait!”

  There wasn’t time—not if the tide of silkweavers was to be stemmed quickly enough to save Bridget’s life. Folly ripped out the two mesh sacks of quiescent lumin crystals from the holsters and gave them a quick snap, one at a time, dumping their contents onto the floor of the tunnel. Then, without hesitating, she smashed her jar of crystals down to the stones as well.

  And for an instant the tunnel went completely dark. Folly could see, of course, by the fey illumination of her ethersight, but she supposed it must have been a terrifying moment for Bridget, who unleashed a despairing shriek.

  But that, Folly supposed, was only because Bridget had never seen what an etherealist, even an imperfectly trained one like Folly, could do with a supply of ready energy and vessels to contain it.

  “All of us together now,” Folly admonished the crystals, and felt their sleepy, rather m
uzzily confused sense of aggregate agreement—and then she seized upon the freely flowing etheric energy with her thoughts and sent it coursing down into the crystals.

  Infused with energy far beyond that which had originally been stored within them, the little lumin crystals’ radiance swelled from faint, ghostly glows to a thousand merry pinpoints of radiance, a sudden well of white light.

  Shrieks of surprise and distress arose from the silkweavers, a surge of raw sound compressed by the narrow confines of the tunnel into a sledgehammer. Folly did her best to ignore its impact, and staggered only a little. Then she threw her hand out toward the tunnel down which they had just fled, giving the flows of energy a quick mental nudge, and sent a spray of little crystals flying down the silkweaver-filled hallway in a glittering cloud that scattered among the silkweavers in an entirely random distribution.

  The next part was tricky, and Folly hoped that the crystals remembered her endless practice sessions. Lumin crystals were designed to accept a charge of etheric energy and output a steady trickle of light. But light was really just one of any number of possible expressions of energy. Weapons crystals did the same thing, only with heat and force. Lift crystals expressed that energy in a form of inverted gravity. And the most complex crystals of all, power-core crystals, expressed their energy in another form—electricity.

  There was no difference between a lumin crystal and a power-core, really, except that the power-core crystal was grown with the complex pathways needed to route etheric energy into a rising surplus, converting it into bottled lightning. There was no reason a little lumin crystal could not do the same thing, assuming that someone was willing to provide them with a blueprint of the necessary structured paths.

  So Folly, as quickly and ably as she could, imagined the precise sort of pathways her little crystals would need to employ. That was a fairly elemental exercise, but doing it a thousand times, all at once, was something of an ambitious effort, more so than any she had successfully used in her practice sessions. Of course, the practice sessions had been embarked upon with the precise goal of providing her with the skill she’d need for a moment just such as this.