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The Aeronaut's Windlass, Page 43

Jim Butcher

  “What?” Felix asked.

  “I need a piece of chalk,” Grimm said, and raised his voice. “Who has some?”

  “Skip,” called Stern. The little man hefted his long gun onto his shoulder, dug in his pocket, and came out with a lump of chalk, which he tossed to Grimm underhand.

  Grimm caught it and turned to the cat. “Miss Cat,” he said. “If you’re willing, perhaps we can work out exactly where we’re going so that we can take the most appropriate steps to deal with the situation.

  The cat regarded him intently and then nodded once.

  “Thank you,” Grimm said. “I propose to have you pace out the length of the tunnels in question, relative to one another. Not at full length, of course. Perhaps one pace to every thirty you would take were you actually walking through them. I will follow you with the chalk and sketch the tunnels you show me on the floor.”

  Felix grunted. “Then we compare the sketch to the map.”

  “Precisely,” Grimm said.

  The cat seemed to consider the idea for a moment, then rose and turned away from Grimm with an impatient little mrowl.

  She began walking, her head tilted at a bit of an angle, and Grimm followed her, marking the spirestone floor with chalk. The little cat walked for several moments, and Grimm followed her, hoping that he didn’t look quite as preposterous as he felt, following the creature around on his hands and knees, until she turned to face him and sat down once more.

  He rose, his wounded arm aching, and regarded the chalk lines. “Well, Felix?”

  The verminocitor lifted his map and peered at it, and then at the drawings on the floor. “I don’t think that . . . No, wait a moment. This section here. By God in Heaven, look, it lines up well enough! She must have walked all around their perimeter. They’re here in the middle.”

  Grimm regarded the portion of the map soberly. “Four ways in. Four ways out.”

  “Mrowr,” said the black cat. and shook her head.

  Grimm arched an eyebrow and eyed her. “Less?”

  She nodded.

  “They’ve blockaded tunnels?”

  She nodded again.

  “Which, please,” Grimm asked.

  The cat paced over to an intersection of chalk lines and pawed at the floor. Then at another.

  “This one and this one,” Grimm said, thumping a finger on the map. “They cut down the approach to two tunnels, and left themselves two ways out.”

  “Your men take one?” Felix suggested. “We’ll take the other?”

  Grimm looked up and arched an eyebrow. “Down tunnels they’ve prepared to defend? We’d pay a heavy price, and never get to the prisoners before they were killed.”

  “What, then?” Felix demanded.

  “Their only chance is for us to get in fast and hard, find the prisoners, and get out again before the enemy can react properly. We need to go in from a direction they do not expect.” He pursed his lips. “A coin toss may be the best we can hope for. Mister Stern?”

  “Aye, Skip?” The lean young officer came forward.

  “I trust that you brought the blasting charges we acquired from the Aurorans in Habble Morning.”

  Stern gave Grimm a wide, hungry grin.

  Chapter Fifty-two

  Spire Albion, Habble Landing, Ventilation Tunnels

  Odd clicking sounds made Bridget lift her head and open her eyes.

  She and Folly had decided to resume their original positions, in the event that their captors peeked in at them. The leather cords were looped loosely around their wrists, though Bridget had been unable to devise a way to wrap their ankles in a similar fashion, one that could be shed immediately, and they’d had to simply settle for hiding their feet within their skirts.

  Time passed, and not quickly. With every breath and heartbeat Bridget imagined their captors, out of sight, deciding that this was the moment in which to murder them.

  The sounds came again. Rapid, irregular clicks, somehow familiar, from the enemy camp.

  “I wonder what that is,” Folly whispered.

  “Something’s happening,” Bridget murmured back. She rose and paced as silently as she could to the tarp blocking their view of the tunnel outside. She eased up to a slight gap in its edge, and peeked through it as quickly as she could.

  A single glance froze her with sheer terror.


  Dozens and dozens of adult silkweavers, with leathery, armored bodies and torsos the size of Bridget’s own. The beasts must have weighed at least what she did—and yet they moved with that same horrible, alien grace as their broodlings had. They were flowing into the Auroran camp along the floor, the walls, and the ceiling of the ventilation tunnels, visible in the light of half a dozen small lumin crystals that had evidently been left behind by the departing troops.

  Bridget blinked, and took a longer look. Everywhere she saw empty bedrolls, discarded backpacks, litter and trash—and no Aurorans anywhere. They had abandoned their camp.

  And now the silkweavers were taking their place.

  Bridget wanted to turn and run. But she forced herself to stay still. To look. To see. She couldn’t see much of the area, not enough to get an estimate of how many Aurorans had been there. The silkweavers prowled restlessly, and she couldn’t be sure how many there were. Forty or fifty, perhaps?

  And there, next to a bedroll that had been neatly folded, rolled, and tied, she saw her gauntlet, her knife—and Folly’s expended lumin crystals, still in their two little bags and glass jar.

  Bridget took slow steps back, being as quiet as she possibly could.

  She turned to find Folly staring at her, her face pale, her mismatched eyes very wide.

  Bridget crouched down next to Folly and whispered into her ear, “Adult silkweavers. Dozens of them.”

  Folly started trembling, but nodded her head once. “Don’t worry,” she whispered to her little crystal. “I’ll protect you.”

  “I found your crystals,” Bridget whispered.

  Folly’s head snapped up, her eyes wide. She pressed her single little crystal to her lips. “Oh,” she whispered. “I do hope they’re all right.”

  “They’re only about ten feet away,” Bridget said. “My gauntlet is there, too. I think I can get to them. If I can get you the crystals—”

  “Yes,” Folly interrupted, nodding, her eyes closed. “Yes, that.”

  “If I can,” Bridget said, “can you do anything to get us out of here?”

  Folly licked her lips. Then she took a slow, deep breath and let it out. Then another. And another. When she opened her eyes they were glazed, their pupils dilated enormously. She turned her gaze slowly, left to right, then shivered and bowed her head.

  “There are no currents in here,” she whispered to her crystal. “But there’s another blocked hall, to the left. There’s a conduit there. I could use that.”

  “How far?”

  Folly shook her head. “Fifty feet, I think, though it’s a silly way to measure. Steps would be more practical. Or strides. Yes, strides.”

  Bridget chewed on her lip. Forty or fifty silkweavers. Ten feet to the equipment. Fifty feet to the other hallway.

  They’d never make that without being seen.

  She felt certain that in a drama, a heroine would have immediately devised a plan to sacrifice herself boldly for her companion. She’d rush out into the hall and fling the crystals back to Folly, and then run in the opposite direction, screaming, and drawing all the silkweavers after her. She would put up a bold fight, but ultimately die gallantly while Folly brought terrible retribution upon the surface creatures—and then finished the mission, mourning her fallen friend in the aftermath.

  Heroines in dramas, Bridget felt, really ought to have more sense.

  The silkweavers hadn’t seen them yet, or, if they had sensed their presence, hadn’t attacked. If they hadn’t done so yet, they might not, at least for a while. The Aurorans, certainly, were nowhere to be seen. Perhaps the smartest thing to d
o would be to simply wait quietly. Their best hope, it seemed, was that Rowl would bring aid. They should stand ready to assist in their own rescue, when it came.

  After all, if the silkweavers did decide to eat them, Bridget always had the option of throwing away her own life in a desperate gamble to save Folly’s. But until such time as she had no other option, she would avoid that course of action, thank you very much.

  Bridget felt she would make a terrible dramatic heroine.

  And then, over the clicking sounds of silkweaver legs and brushing chitin, Bridget heard voices speaking.

  That sent another thrill of terror down her spine.

  Humans? Near silkweavers?

  There was only one real possibility that leaped to mind: These must be the people who were in control of the horrible things—and that was something that the Spirearch would want to know all about. Her duty as a Guardsman was perfectly clear: She must do everything she could to learn about these individuals.

  Oh, dear.

  Bridget swallowed and once more stalked quietly up to the gap in the partition. She peeked out, moving as slowly as possible.

  A man and a woman were walking toward her through the silkweavers, as if the creatures were nothing more out of place or threatening than a crowd of schoolchildren busily playing during a recess. She was dressed impeccably, in a dress and jacket of grey-and-lavender cloth, her hair done up with pristine neatness at the nape of her neck, and sporting a matching hat and white gloves. She was a mature woman with empty grey eyes and a kind of severe, hard-edged beauty. A scarlet stone glittered at her throat, worn next to her skin on a black velvet choker.

  The man walking beside her was warriorborn, like Benedict. He was taller, though, and carried more muscle on his long frame. Short hairs, dull brown sprinkled with silver, adorned his head in a sparse fuzz, matched along his arms and neck and face, giving him an especially feral appearance. One of his feline eyes was off center, and there was something about the way he moved that was just . . . wrong. Benedict did not walk so much as glide with flowing grace evident in every gesture and motion. This man . . .

  It took Bridget a moment to register it.

  This man moved with the grace of a silkweaver.

  “Still don’t see what all the fuss is about,” the man said. “A fire would do. One person, in and out.”

  “You underestimate the Wayists,” the woman said. “There are warriorborn among their number, too.” Her dark eyes glittered. “Besides. A fire is not enough. A message must be sent.”

  The man grunted. “Seems foolish.”

  “We’ll never destroy them while they remain in Heaven. We must therefore draw them out.”

  Bridget blinked at that.

  “Baiting the mistshark,” the man said. “Sometimes that doesn’t go the way you think.”

  “Risks must be taken in war,” the woman said calmly. “In fact . . .”

  Her voice trailed off suddenly, and her eyes became unfocused, abstracted, in a manner eerily akin to Folly’s a few moments before. The gem at her throat flickered with deep scarlet light.

  “Ah,” the woman said, her tone pleased. “My sentries. They are here. I thought as much.”

  The man inhaled and rolled his shoulders. He drew a short, wide sword into his hand, and the gauntlet on the other kindled to life. “Where?”

  “Groups are moving toward both tunnels in,” the woman said. “No more than twenty each.” She moved her hand in an imperious gesture, and once more the gem at her throat flickered with sullen fire. The reaction of the silkweavers was immediate. They began to rush into two distinct groups, forming in tight ranks. The first group piled up at the mouth of a tunnel. The other rushed out of sight of where Bridget could see, but she presumed they had formed up at another tunnel mouth. “You want any of them alive?” the man asked.

  “Unnecessary,” she replied. “Sark, kill the prisoners. I’d hate for the captain to think I wasn’t true to my word.”

  The man, Sark, turned on his heel at once and strode purposefully toward the partition.

  Bridget never really thought about what she did next. If she had, she would have found the idea ludicrously terrifying—she burst through the concealing partition and into a silent run in the open, in full view of a warriorborn with a primed gauntlet.

  Everything seemed to slow down, and Bridget had time to note, idly, that Rowl had probably saved her life again. When other children had been playing hide-and-seek with one another, Bridget had been playing it with Rowl. She did not move with the utter silence of a cat—but she couldn’t really think of any other humans who could do better than she could.

  Had she made the faintest sound before she moved, the softest scrape of a boot on stone, the least careless rustle of fabric, Sark’s warriorborn senses would have pinpointed her exact location. The man may well have been able to target her even concealed by the partition. But she hadn’t made any mistakes. She had, Rowl would have said, behaved with acceptable competence. Sark had been taken entirely off guard.

  She gained no more than a heartbeat or two of shock—time enough to reach the little pile of equipment. Then the man’s reflexes took over, and he raised his gauntlet, sighting on her between the V made of his parted fingers.

  It was time enough for Bridget to seize the glass jar of crystals and throw it back toward Folly.

  She whirled to one side and flung herself flat on the ground—only to see Sark calmly track her motion, rather than shooting hastily. He lined up his shot, neither rushed nor slow, and the crystal against his palm brightened.

  Bridget did not face her death bravely. She screamed with pure fear, lifting a hand.

  The gauntlet flashed.

  A tiny star tumbled into the path of the etheric bolt, intercepted it, and sent the shot curving out in a wide arc that circled around Bridget entirely.

  Bridget stared in bewilderment, stunned at how slowly it all seemed to happen. The bolt wrapped around her and splashed onto the floor beyond the partition—directly into the scatter of broken glass and loose lumin crystals that marked where Bridget’s throw had fallen well short of Folly.

  The force of the blast did not scatter the crystals, as Bridget’s common sense told her it absolutely should have. Instead it just seemed to disperse, spreading out like a wave. Where the wave spread, the little crystals burst into hot, angry light.

  And abruptly and all at once, they rose into the air in a cloud of glowing motes.

  Folly appeared among them, striding forward, flickers of light dancing along her candy-stripe hair, her mismatched eyes blazing.

  Sark loosed several more blasts, all of which dispersed into the crystals, making them glow with even brighter light.

  Folly’s voice rang out, cold and hard. “We don’t like it when people try to hurt our friends.”

  And the entire cloud of crystals flew at Sark like bullets loosed from a gun.

  Sark dropped to one knee, flinging both arms up over his head. The cloud of glowing crystals tore into his flesh with a sickening, rippling sound. A fine spray of blood erupted from countless wounds. Crystals lodged in him like hundreds of tiny darts, glowing where they erupted from his skin.

  A shuddering breath escaped the warriorborn.

  And then he heaved himself to his feet, lowering his arms. They burned with scarlet light as droplets of blood covered the crystals. They protruded from his arms, his belly, one shin, one thigh. He bled, and glowed with the power the etherealist’s apprentice had loosed upon him.

  His ugly features showed not a trace of pain or fear. He flexed his hand, and the light from the gauntlet’s crystal died away.

  “Really?” asked the woman, something like a laugh bubbling in the word. Bridget looked up to see that she was watching with what appeared to be high amusement as she spoke to Folly. “How many years have you been his apprentice? And he’s only taught you transference and kinetics?” She regarded Sark for a moment, then looked back to Folly. “Tell me that’s not the
entire extent of your ability.”

  Folly stared back at the woman. Her mouth opened, then closed again. The blood drained from her face.

  The woman bent and plucked up the little bags of lumin crystals, which Bridget had not had time to throw. She tossed them to Folly. The bags landed at her feet and burst, the crystals scattering.

  “It isn’t polite for peers to murder one another without introduction,” the woman said. “And while you are not my equal, you do have the talent.” She inclined her head. “My name is Sycorax Cavendish. Like you, I was once apprenticed to master etherealist Efferus Effrenus Ferus. And then he betrayed me.” She smiled and flexed her fingers. “And you are?”

  Folly swallowed. She looked down at the little crystals, fingers twitching, as though she had to restrain herself from stooping to pick them up. Then she bobbed a quick curtsy, her eyes on her crystals, and said, “My name is Folly, ma’am.”

  Cavendish burst into a merry laugh. “Folly, is it? Did he give you this name?”

  “And much more than that,” Folly said. Then her eyes widened and she looked up. “Oh. It’s you. You’re the gnat I caught.”

  Cavendish seemed somewhat taken aback by the comment, and arched an eyebrow. “Excuse me?”

  “You were buzzing and buzzing, so I built a web to catch you. It wasn’t a very pretty web, but I did.” Folly tilted her head. “You . . . you were receiving orders.” She chewed on her lip for a moment. “You have a new master now. Is that it?”

  Cavendish’s eyes narrowed. “There’s nothing wrong with your mind, I suppose, Miss Folly.” Her teeth showed. “Yet. Shall I show you what real power feels like?”

  “I don’t talk to puppets,” Folly said. “They can’t talk back. Not really. They just dance on their strings.”

  Cavendish’s eyes flashed. “Sark,” she said. “Kill the other one.”

  Sark pivoted toward Bridget and started walking forward, sword in hand.

  Cavendish flicked a finger at Folly.

  Folly’s eyes flew open wide, and pure agony flowed from her mouth in a scream that seemed to have been ripped loose from her guts and tore up her gullet.