The aeronauts windlass, p.33
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       The Aeronaut's Windlass, p.33
 

           Jim Butcher

  Pine blinked several times. “What?”

  “Gwen,” Benedict snapped, rising and drawing his sword, his eyes everywhere.

  Gwen swallowed and instinctively put her back to Benedict’s and, as Master Ferus had instructed, primed her gauntlet, the weapon crystal on her palm swelling to glowing life.

  And then the doors of the Black Horse exploded open, and highpitched, alien shrieks filled the air.

  Chapter Thirty-seven

  Spire Albion, Habble Landing, the Black Horse Inn

  The doors to the Black Horse slammed into the walls framing them, and what could only be a creature of the surface world squeezed inside.

  The thing was leathery and enormous, double or triple the mass of the largest man Gwen had ever seen, but it somehow managed to compress itself and come through the door without slowing down. Its segmented body was something like a spider’s, but with four sections instead of two, elongated grotesquely, and some kind of dark grey carapace covered its back in flexible, articulated plates. It had too many legs to be a spider, too, all of them thick and massive at the base, covered in thickets of some kind of spine or rigid, sharp-looking hairs.

  Its head was hideous, Gwen thought. It was half-shrouded in protrusions of its armor, wide and flat, with a nest of beady, gleaming eyes on either side—and a set of massive jaws hinged to great, bulging muscles along its skull.

  It slammed the door to the Black Horse closed—and then its rearmost legs spun a coil of some viscous grey substance onto the door behind it.

  “Silkweaver!” someone cried.

  The room erupted into panic. Patrons lunged up out of their seats, screaming. Some of them ran toward the stairway to the private rooms. Most fled toward the opposite door or the kitchen. A handful drew swords and raised gauntlets.

  The silkweaver gave them no time to attack. It flung itself to the far side of the room, hurling its massive body into a luckless patron in aeronaut’s leathers, smashing the man into the spirestone wall of the inn with an audible cracking of bones. The silkweaver then slammed the other door closed and once more webbed it shut, while its eyes scanned the room—looking, she realized, for a target. As it did, it distractedly seized a reeling patron with its long front set of limbs and slammed the man to the floor with casual, lethal power.

  “Dear God in Heaven,” Gwen breathed, a chill settling in her belly. “It’s intelligent.”

  “Impossible,” Commodore Pine snarled, gripping the chair in both meaty hands and stepping back to stand even with Benedict and Gwen. “Silkweavers are beasts.”

  “That’s not a silkweaver,” Master Ferus said in a matter-of-fact tone. The etherealist leaned forward and plucked a pitcher of beer from the table. “It’s a marionette. Some sort of puppet, at any rate.”

  Pine scowled at Master Ferus as the man began to take a long and determined pull from the pitcher and then turned his glare to Gwen. “How drunk is that man?”

  “He’s an etherealist,” Gwen said, “and quite.”

  “Ah?” Pine blinked, eyed Master Ferus with decided apprehension, and said, “Ah.”

  “We have to get Ferus out of here,” Benedict said in a low, tense voice. “It’s here for him.”

  “Quite!” burbled Master Ferus from the midst of another drink. He coughed and wiped at his mouth. “Quite, yes. It’s been sent to stop me from interfering.”

  “With what?” Pine demanded.

  “I really have no idea,” Ferus said happily. “I’ve been changing my mind all night. Which is why it can’t find me, I presume.”

  Gwen watched in horror as the silkweaver waited until several folk had pressed toward the doors to the kitchen together, and then it simply flung itself at them in another fantastically powerful bound. It struck them like a runaway freight cart, making wreckage of bodies in a chorus of screams. Its many legs struck like deadly clubs at whoever survived the impact. A drunken armed patron discharged a gauntlet into the thing from no more than a foot away, but the silkweaver’s carapace shed much of the force of the blast, and the attack did little more than melt a small crater into its hide.

  The weapon did get the creature’s attention, though, and it turned, lightning-quick for something so large, and its jaws opened into three parts that closed on the armed man’s gauntlet wrist and severed it from his body as neatly as the Lancasters’ gardener clipping a rose stem.

  After that, the silkweaver began spinning again, and barricading the door to the kitchen with grisly corpses and silk webbing. The folk remaining in the room were fleeing toward the stairs, the only exit remaining to them.

  “Stairs,” Benedict said in a harsh voice.

  “No. We can’t run. We have to kill it,” Gwen heard herself say in a hard, vicious voice. “Gauntlets are useless against that armor. If we trap ourselves in narrow hallways and tiny rooms, we play to its strengths, and it will murder us all one at a time. We’re still Guardsmen, Benedict.”

  “With orders to protect Master Ferus.”

  “We protect him by killing that horrible thing before it hurts any more Albions,” Gwen spat. “Right here, where we have room to use our numbers against it, while we still have them to use.”

  “Little girl’s right,” Commodore Pine grunted. “Rats take me, that’s a huge one. But not invincible. If we can get to its belly, we can kill it. Nothing but blubber and arteries down there. A shot to its head might do the trick, if anyone can make it around the armor.”

  Gwen nodded sharply. The silkweaver had its head shrugged down behind its knobby armored shoulders as it worked—a difficult target, and one that would not sit still once someone pointed a weapon at it. She turned to the etherealist. “Can’t you do anything?”

  “I’m afraid my cane is upstairs in the suite,” Ferus said apologetically. “It would have given me away. Without it, I can’t do anything significant.”

  “Go get it,” Gwen said through clenched teeth.

  Ferus opened his mouth and stared at Gwen helplessly, then waved his hands and said, “But . . . there are doorknobs. And I’ve sent Folly off to talk to cats.”

  Gwen gave him a level look, but there probably wasn’t time for the etherealist to get his cane before the Silkweaver came again in any case. She turned to the other survivors still in the room. “You lot!” she shouted at them, a group of older men pressed into a small defensive clump, just as she and her companions were. “When it goes for the stairs, we shall attack it together from all sides!”

  “Semper fortitudo!” bellowed Master Ferus.

  “Semper fortitudo!” a grey-haired, blocky man in a dockworker’s jacket answered. “We’re with you! Everyone together!”

  “Are you insane?” screamed another patron, a younger man in another separate knot of younger men. “That thing will kill us!”

  “Oh, God in Heaven, man, do gather up your scrotum and fight!” Gwen snarled.

  Benedict blinked.

  “Even if we can engage it,” Commodore Pine said, “if we can’t get to its belly we can’t kill it. It’ll just hunker down under its shell.”

  Gwen looked sharply around the room and found a possible solution. “Should that happen, I shall make sure it does not have the luxury to remain still. Benny, can you keep its attention for a few moments?”

  “As you wish, coz,” Benedict said, baring his pointed canines in a savage smile. “Planning to threaten it with treason?”

  “You simply won’t let that go, will you?”

  “It’s about to come again,” Master Ferus said calmly.

  The silkweaver compacted a last pair of grisly corpses into the doorway—one of them, Gwen thought, might still have been moving— sealed them in tight with its silk, and swarmed up onto the bar, its weirdly segmented eyes scanning the room as its legs danced restlessly, as if eager to pounce upon another target.

  Benedict obliged the creature, gliding out into the open floor directly between the enormous silkweaver and the staircase, sword in hand, and turned to face it alone
, isolated from any of the defensive pockets of survivors. The silkweaver was a predator, a creature that sensed vulnerability and attacked it. It leaped at him at once, as swift and deadly as when it had slaughtered the dead strewn about the floor of the tavern.

  But the silkweaver’s previous victims had not been Sir Benedict Sorellin, warriorborn of Albion.

  Gwen darted toward the bar and tried to keep an eye on her cousin, but it was virtually impossible. Not because she couldn’t see him— simply because he, and the silkweaver, were moving too fast for her to properly comprehend what was happening.

  The silkweaver’s massive form moved like lightning, like some engine of destruction, its clublike limbs hammering the ground with cracks of impact like heavy steam pistons slamming the spirestone floor—but no matter how fast the creature moved, or how quickly it struck, its blows never found flesh. Benedict somehow stayed fractions of an inch ahead, or to the side, or beneath the sweeping limbs, dancing back before the onrushing silkweaver, his feet hardly seeming to touch the floor. When the silkweaver’s jaws snapped at his face, they met with nothing but a short, vicious strike of his sword.

  The beast shrieked in pain and charged Benedict furiously, following her cousin out into the center of the room—and Gwen realized that Benedict had led the creature there intentionally, to expose it to attack from all sides.

  “Now!” Gwen shouted as she reached the bar. “Attack!”

  Commodore Pike let out a bellow, hefted his chair, and charged the silkweaver, and the other surviving patrons of the Black Horse joined him. Some of the men had swords, and Gwen saw at least one gauntlet in evidence, but most were armed with chairs and knives. Their faces were pale, their voices cracking in screams that were more of terror than ferocity, but they knew as well as Gwen did that once a large predator of the surface began to spill human blood, it would not stop until it had killed every living person it could reach. Something about the taste of it maddened them, drove them to a savagery that was far beyond that of a mere hungry animal, though no one had ever provided an explanation as to why.

  Two of the younger men fell before they could even reach the silkweaver with their improvised weapons, clubbed down by lightning strikes of its many limbs. The rest closed on the silkweaver’s flank, knives and swords stabbing, and the creature scuttled sideways, lashing out as it went, sending up more screams—until Commodore Pine closed from the opposite side of the silkweaver and brought his heavy chair down through a ponderous, swooping arc with all the strength of his stocky frame.

  The chair had a wooden seat, but the rest of it was made of coppered iron. It had to have weighed forty pounds if it weighed an ounce, and Pine swung it with such force that the impact bent and twisted it. The silkweaver’s armor might have protected its vitals from the shattering power of the blow, but nonetheless the force of the Olympian aeronaut’s strike slammed the beast to the floor, sending its legs out in a wide sprawl and stunning it for a portion of a second.

  In the brief half instant of weakness, Benedict attacked.

  With the same coughing roar Gwen had heard in the tunnels, Benedict closed on the silkweaver, his sword striking once, twice, three times, spinning in swift, heavy, vicious circles. Benedict wielded an exceptionally dense, weighty sword that had been intentionally created for use with his enhanced physique, and Gwen knew it would strike with terrible power. Three of the silkweaver’s limbs went spinning away from its body amidst gouts of violet fluid, and it staggered back, rough limbs slipping on the bloodied spirestone floor.

  Pine shouted, banging the twisted chair down onto the silkweaver with less effect the second time, and then was struck in the chest and sent flying back. The silkweaver’s rear sections swept left and right like a curling tail, battering three more men and sending them reeling, but the old marine and several of his companions began driving their blades toward the creature’s belly at its vulnerable flank.

  The silkweaver shrieked as more violet blood flowed, and whirled on the men with unmistakable fury. They raised their weapons, but were simply no match for the thing, their knives and short swords unable to penetrate the creature’s shell once it had faced them. It rushed them, tearing and smashing, breaking bones and rending flesh. Benedict roared again, but even his blade could not penetrate the silkweaver’s armored shell and thudded futilely against it, slicing scrapes and fissures in the hide, but drawing no blood. Even when he discharged his gauntlet nearly flush against the thing’s hide, it did nothing to distract the silkweaver, and men screamed and fell before it—leaving Benedict standing alone.

  The silkweaver whirled on her cousin, flailing with its severed stumps of limbs, sending a spray of fluids at his face before it rushed forward. Benedict reeled back as the thing’s blood filled one of his eyes, and began to dodge and weave again—but now the floor was slick with scarlet blood and violet, and the silkweaver was not charging with blind violence. Instead it circled, forcing Benedict to retreat from it in a spiral, and it wasn’t until a few seconds later that Gwen realized that as it had advanced, the silkweaver had laid a strand of sticky ethersilk on the floor behind it.

  “Benny, look out!” Gwen screamed.

  Benedict’s boot touched the silk strand on the floor, and adhered to it almost instantly.

  Her cousin fell.

  The silkweaver rushed forward for the kill.

  Benedict’s gauntlet went off with a howl, his blood-shrouded face twisted into a snarl.

  The silkweaver wrenched its body, and the massive humps of armor around its relatively tiny head shielded it from harm.

  And then a lumin crystal tore itself from its sconce, flew across the room like a blazing star, and struck the silkweaver precisely between the eyes.

  “Semper fortitudo!” Master Ferus slurred in a bellow. “Over here, you great gawking thing! Leave that boy alone! I’m the one you’re looking for!”

  Had Gwen doubted the silkweaver’s intelligence before, its reaction would have convinced her of its awareness and purpose. At the sound of Ferus’s voice, the thing whirled with blinding speed and spent an endless second simply focused upon the old etherealist in what could only have been a shock of recognition. And then it let out the most bloodcurdling shriek it had uttered yet.

  A second lumin crystal darted from a sconce and bounced off the silkweaver’s head. The creature’s weirdly segmented eyes seemed to flinch away from the cool blue light. “Come on, then!” Ferus snarled. “What are you waiting for, an engraved invitation?”

  The silkweaver screamed again and rushed at the old man.

  Gwen found herself in motion.

  She seized a glass bottle of the most potent liquor in the tavern in her right hand and flung it toward the empty space between the silkweaver and Master Ferus. Then, as the bottle tumbled, she raised her gauntlet. There was no time for careful sighting. Instead she relied upon the hours and hours of practice she had put in to sense the precise moment to blast the tumbling bottle.

  She triggered her gauntlet, and white light leapt from the crystal on her palm across the room to the bottle. It exploded at once into a rapidly expanding shower of blue flame—a shower that fell directly onto the silkweaver’s back and head. Fire suddenly wreathed the creature, burning skin and blackening armored hide, sending it staggering, thrashing and bucking in pain.

  “Master Ferus!” Gwen shouted, and sprinted toward the old man. It seemed to take an endless amount of time, but could only have been a few seconds. She reached the etherealist’s side just as the silkweaver shuddered and its wild contortions ceased. Still aflame, it spun toward the etherealist again and once more rushed forward, making a horrible, hissing sound as it came.

  Gwen pushed Master Ferus behind her and raised her gauntlet. The burning silkweaver was coming fast, its agonized body still contorting strangely, its small head thrashing. Gwen would have only a single chance to kill the creature, and she dared not waste it.

  She planted her feet firmly, straightened her back, squared he
r shoulders, and took a steadying breath. Then she sighted carefully between her fingers and waited.

  The silkweaver came on, hissing and charging, burning and smoking, its mouth and clublike limbs smeared with blood.

  When it was no more than five feet away, Gwen loosed the bolt from her gauntlet.

  Then there was an impact so vast that she could scarcely credit it as anything but a delusion, a sense of rapid, brutal motion, and a blossom of agony in her skull.

  And then nothing.

  Chapter Thirty-eight

  Spire Albion, Habble Landing, Ventilation Tunnels

  Bridget stared for a moment at the remains of the silkweavers, then turned on her heel and walked decisively down the passageway—back toward their nest.

  “My goodness,” Folly breathed. Bridget had helped her collect her scattered crystals, most of them smeared with fine ash, some with more gruesome remains, and the girl had refilled the mesh bags in her holsters and was fixing the lid back onto her jar. “What is Bridget doing?”

  “Hundreds of little silkweavers didn’t just pop out of the air,” Bridget said back firmly. “They hatch from eggs, do they not? Something must have laid the eggs.”

  “She is of course correct,” Folly whispered to her jar. “But it seems to me that is an excellent reason for us not to go back in that direction. Doesn’t it seem that way to you?”

  “If there was a mother present, would she not have attacked us as well?” Bridget asked. “Rowl?”

  The cat, prowling along at Bridget’s side, paused to flick ashes off of one paw, his expression irritated. “It stands to reason, Littlemouse.”

  “Then the mother is not present,” Bridget said. “We should look at the lair. It could be that we will learn something.”

  “Or be webbed up. Or poisoned. Or eaten,” Folly said in a small voice. “Eaten all up.”