The aeronauts windlass, p.44
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       The Aeronaut's Windlass, p.44
 

           Jim Butcher

  Bridget rolled to her feet, for all the good it would do her against an armed warriorborn.

  And then there was a horrible slap against her body, and with a roar of sound and smoke, the entire world flew sideways.

  Chapter Fifty-three

  Spire Albion, Habble Landing, Ventilation Tunnels

  The blasting charges blew a wide hole in the mound of broken masonry that had been used to plug the tunnel. The sound of the explosion was an invisible wall that swept through the corridor, sucking the wind from Grimm’s lungs despite his protected position around the nearest corner.

  Grimm forced himself to stagger out into the tunnel before he’d managed to draw a breath. He was running toward the breach in the masonry barricade before the flying bits of stone had stopped rattling to the floor, sword in hand and gauntlet primed, and he heard the clatter of boots behind him as Kettle sent the men running in his wake.

  The air was thick with dust and stinking, sulfurous smoke. Bits of stone of various sizes twisted beneath his boots, threatening his balance, and his imagination treated him to an image of him sprinting straight into a wall in the bad visibility and stabbing himself with his own sword.

  God in Heaven knew, if he’d chosen the wrong tunnel, the one where the Cavendish woman had been keeping her prisoners, he’d deserve it.

  The direction of his thoughts distracted him and he nearly stumbled over a block of masonry the size of a slab of fresh meat. A hand with a grip like copper-clad steel locked onto his upper arm, and Sir Benedict helped him keep his balance and continue moving forward. The young warriorborn was tense, his feline eyes bright, and Grimm knew that they were lucky to have such a resource entering the battle with them.

  Grimm plunged out of the dark and smoke into an area lit with scattered lumin crystals. The dust and grit in the air gave everything an odd, flat quality, as if his depth perception had suddenly been blurred. The occupants of the chamber were still reeling, stunned by the explosion and flying debris, and Grimm had what seemed an eternity to take it all in.

  Miss Tagwynn was down, lying sprawled on the floor as if she had been struck a stunning blow, her wide eyes unfocused. Not five feet away from her lay Sark, the warriorborn who had accompanied Madamr Cavendish. The large man was already rolling to regain his feet, and copper-clad steel gleamed in his hand. Several yards beyond Stark, Madame Cavendish had fallen to one knee, her expensive dress and bolero covered in dust. Her teeth were clenched, and she shook her head even as Grimm dismissed the priming charge from his gauntlet and drew his pistol into his left hand instead.

  His mind was still cataloging details as he strode forward, bringing the pistol to bear. Very few men could afford the expense it took to operate a pistol until they were experts in the weapon’s use—and of those, a measurable percentage lost their fingers, eyes, or lives when the weapons burst from the inside, rather than propelling their loads toward the target. Any given pistol could fire only fifty or sixty rounds before the corrosive firepowder began to eat through the copper plating within the barrel, at which point iron rot would set into the steel, weakening the gun until an inevitable misfire occurred.

  Grimm had dutifully gone through half a dozen barrels while learning to fire the weapon with a modicum of proficiency, but he was by no means an expert—so he strode toward Cavendish as rapidly as he could, to fire from a distance that would preclude a miss due to his dubious competence. Once she was dispatched, he could discard the pistol and bring his gauntlet to bear on the silkweavers rushing up behind her— Silkweavers? God in Heaven, there were dozens of the deadly, fully grown adult surface creatures pouring out of one of the tunnels, rushing toward his men.

  With the arrival of sudden terror, the timeless moment of detached observation ended.

  “Bridget!” Benedict shouted.

  Sark came to his feet, his blade darting toward the downed girl, but Benedict let out a lion’s roar of pure fury, a sound that shocked Grimm’s senses, and hit Sark in a flying tackle. Both warriorborn went down, struggling against each other.

  The roar seemed to galvanize Madame Cavendish. She looked up, blinking her eyes, and they widened when they locked onto Grimm. She began to rise to her feet.

  He wished he were closer to the etherealist, but this distance, seven or eight yards, would have to be close enough. Her hand was already rising toward him, and he had only a single instant to act. Grimm corrected his aim slightly and squeezed the trigger.

  The pistol sparked and then spoke, a flash of bright light in the dim chamber.

  Madame Cavendish let out a sudden, breathless cry and spun violently in place, hurled back to the ground again as though struck with a club.

  The first of the silkweavers flung itself through the air toward Grimm, letting out a shrieking cry that sent another bolt of terror through him, for he had heard it before—only days ago, in the dark ventilation tunnels of Habble Morning, when he had fought back-to-back with Alex Bayard.

  There was no time to prime the gauntlet. Instead he flipped the pistol, gripped it by the barrel, and brought the handle of the heavy, primitive weapon down upon the head of the silkweaver with every ounce of strength he could muster.

  His arm screamed with pain, muscles and tendons protesting the abuse, but they functioned. The blow clubbed the silkweaver to the floor, and Grimm wasted no time in driving his short shipboard blade down into the silkweaver’s body, where its head met its neck. He barely managed to jerk the blade clear before the beast went into wild spasms, all its legs flailing with no semblance of cohesion, its three-jawed muzzle snapping wildly, bubbling with venomous foam.

  The aeronauts of Predator let loose a battle cry of their own, screaming, “Albion!”

  And then the battle was joined. There was no time to think, to issue orders, or to do anything but survive. Gauntlets discharged. Silkweavers shrieked. Grimm dodged the pounce of another silkweaver by the barest margin, and he caught a glimpse of Madame Cavendish on the floor, her face deathly pale, pointing a finger at Grimm and wailing in primal outrage.

  And half a dozen of the monsters darted toward him, following her command.

  Grimm would have died where he stood if Kettle, Creedy, Stern, and half a dozen other aeronauts hadn’t reached his side, their gauntlets howling. They blew two of the silkweavers into bloody, stinking meat, but a third darted beneath the blasts, seized the wiry Stern by one leg, and hauled him from his feet with abrupt violence, fangs sinking, tearing, and bubbling with poison.

  Stern screamed.

  Grimm struggled to get to the downed man, but it was all he could do to fend off another monster and prevent himself from joining Stern on the ground. He slashed and scored a pair of solid strokes—but the silkweaver’s leathery hide was tough, and the blows drew little blood.

  Stern’s leg broke with an audible crack, and blood began streaming from the wound.

  The scent of the blood washed over the silkweavers like a sudden wind born of primal, insane violence. Their shrieks rose up again, deafening, and Grimm felt his legs go watery. Their movements became quicker, more erratic, and the venom practically frothed from their jaws, pattering onto the spirestone floor.

  With the silkweavers maddened by blood, there were now only two outcomes possible in the current situation: Either Grimm and the men of Predator would destroy every single silkweaver present—or else they would fall to the jaws and venom of the surface creatures.

  Stern screamed again, drawing a belt knife and stabbing down at the silkweaver holding on to his leg, but the creature shook him like a cat shaking a tunnel mouse, too strong for its size, slamming the young man left and right and sending the knife tumbling.

  On Grimm’s other side, Creedy drove the heel of his boot into a silkweaver’s mouth, only to have the thing lock its jaws onto Creedy’s foot and wrench at the XO’s leg. Its teeth sliced through the leather of Creedy’s boot, and he shouted in rage and pain. Kettle’s boarding ax came sweeping down on the silkweaver and split the thing i
n half in the middle of its body—but the dying front half kept wrenching and rending Creedy’s foot nonetheless.

  More of the damned creatures were coming, scuttling over the walls and the ceiling, using their superior mobility to surround Grimm and his men. Grimm’s ground combat experience was limited—but it was not difficult to deduce that they had only moments to live.

  And then Felix and the verminocitors entered the fray.

  They uttered no battle cry and made no sound as they came rushing in from each of the open tunnels leading to the Auroran encampment. But as they closed the distance to the nearest silkweavers, their scalelashes began to whirl, building momentum and emitting soft, hissing whistles as they spun.

  The scalelash was a deadly instrument, made of small rings of metal knitted into a tapered tube, each ring hung with a pointed, edged metal scale. The bloody things weighed as much as an ax and hit with nearly as much force—and then the scales ripped away chunks of flesh as they tore free. A strike with a scalelash could saw its way through the toughest hide, inflicting deep, horribly painful, bleeding wounds. What they did to soft human flesh was indescribable.

  A dozen of the weapons whipped toward the rearmost rank of silkweavers in a unified chorus of violence.

  Verminocitors prowled the darkness of the tunnels of every habble in the Spire. On a daily basis they faced the possibility that they might find themselves face-to-face with a nightmare from the surface world. It was a necessary duty. Without verminocitors, horrors from the surface could and would emerge from the ventilation and service tunnels and begin preying upon citizens of the habble—and their first victims were very nearly always children.

  Men and women who took up that responsibility were by definition confident, skilled, fearless, and mildly insane. And, Grimm thought, this particular pack of madmen had a score to settle.

  Scalelashes hammered and tore. Silkweavers screamed. Some of Felix’s people had exchanged short, heavy spears for their lashes, and when one of their compatriots wounded or stunned a silkweaver, a spear carrier would rush in and deliver the death stroke from the relative safety of the longer weapon’s reach.

  Felix himself whirled a scalelash in either hand, striking left and right, smashing armor, ripping flesh, and severing the beasts’ legs with a kind of dreadfully workaday practicality. With a quick motion, he struck the silkweaver attacking Grimm a savage blow that drove it flat to the ground, stunned. Then he dropped one lash, flicked the other around the neck of the silkweaver wrenching at Stern’s leg, and twisted the metal weapon with professional expertise, tightening it around the creature’s head.

  The silkweaver began to thrash wildly, but Felix simply settled his weight onto it more firmly and held on, leaning into the strength of the pull until the creature’s triple jaws snapped open and it let out a shriek of pain.

  Grimm dispatched the silkweaver Felix had stunned, then stepped around behind the verminocitor. He murmured, “Excuse me,” set his weapon carefully, and drove his sword into the same spot at the base of the silkweaver’s skull. The thing went mad for a few seconds, thrashing wildly—and then simply sagged, like a bladder being drained of its liquid.

  Felix unwound his lash from the dead silkweaver. “You boys aren’t bad. For a bunch of rubbernecks, I mean.”

  “Thank you?” Grimm said hesitantly. “Mister Creedy?”

  “Sir.”

  “Get Stern and yourself to Doctor Bagen.” Grimm turned back to Felix. “What, sir, is a rubberneck?”

  Felix flashed Grimm a quick grin. “We’ll get this work done and I’ll tell—”

  The verminocitor turned abruptly, his eyes widening, and Grimm followed the man’s gaze to one of the other tunnels leading into the intersection the Aurorans had claimed. There was a chorus of shrieks and a second group of silkweavers, as large as the first, poured into the intersection.

  Grimm watched helplessly, shouting a warning that went unheard as half a dozen of the verminocitors were buried under a wave of ripping jaws and poisoned fangs, overwhelmed by the sudden onslaught. Their screams of terror swiftly became gargling sounds of despair—and then fell silent.

  Next in the path of the second group of horrors were the two warriorborn. Benedict had gained the upper hand on Sark as the two wrestled, and was more or less on top, his arms and hands moving so quickly that Grimm could hardly see them, while Sark matched him motion for motion, countering every move the younger man attempted. As the fresh tide of silkweavers rushed toward them, the two warriorborn snapped their gazes up toward the oncoming wave.

  Benedict’s eyes widened and he began to hurl himself away from Sark. But the evil-looking warriorborn locked a leg around Benedict’s legs and fastened his hands on Benedict’s jacket. With an ugly smile, he twisted, rolling Benedict toward the silkweavers.

  Benedict reversed his direction almost instantly, and instead of trying to escape Sark, he went with his opponent, twisting his own body in the same direction. He hit the ground on his back and rolled Sark over him, hurling the larger warriorborn a couple of feet clear of him and into the first rank of silkweavers. The creatures flowed over Sark like some kind of horrible, living blanket, and he vanished from sight.

  Benedict barely regained his feet before the first half dozen silkweavers reached him. Had Grimm been standing in the young man’s shoes, he felt sure he would not have survived—but then, he was not warriorborn.

  Benedict let out a leonine roar, dodged the first silkweaver, and swept his sword from its sheath to cut another one cleanly in half as it flew toward him. One hit his arm and clamped its tripartite jaws down on his biceps. Benedict staggered, converted the momentum of the creature’s leap into a spin, and slammed it into two of its fellows as if the silkweaver had been a shield strapped to his arm, knocking them aside.

  The sixth silkweaver hit Benedict at the knees and sank its teeth into his thigh, knocking him down violently.

  “Back-to-back!” Grimm bellowed to his men. “Group up! Kettle, on me!” He strode toward Benedict, priming his gauntlet as he went, unleashing blast after blast into the oncoming mass of silkweavers, smashing two of them to flaming pulp, and buying Benedict a few precious seconds.

  The warriorborn managed to kick free of the silkweaver latched onto his leg and, with a scream of fury and pain, lifted his arm and smashed the silkweaver holding on to it into the spirestone floor repeatedly, until purplish ichor splattered and the thing fell off, body curling, legs twitching spasmodically.

  Grimm and Kettle reached Benedict’s side. Kettle laid about with his ax, keeping the silkweavers at bay. Grimm hauled Benedict to his feet by main force, fending off another silkweaver with his sword as he did.

  “Bridget and Folly!” Benedict cried. He was bleeding freely from both his arm and his leg, but there was no time to dress the wounds— the enemy was already struggling to overwhelm them. “We have to get them out!”

  “Stay together!” Grimm replied. “Follow me!”

  He raised his gauntlet and began blasting the spirestone floor in the general direction of where he’d last seen Bridget lying on the ground. He hit nothing, but a handful of silkweavers that had begun approaching from that direction skittered back several feet. Grimm walked into the cleared space and blasted the floor again, sweeping more silkweavers from his path, and continued walking. He heard Kettle doing the same behind him, blasting away with his gauntlet to keep the main body of silkweavers back. He had a severe fright when a silkweaver dropped from the ceiling overhead toward his skull, but Benedict jerked Grimm aside with one hand, and with the other neatly skewered the silkweaver on his sword, holding the creature aloft for a moment as it thrashed, his arm steady, before he flung it off of his blade, twisting it as it came free of the silkweaver’s body. The creature gushed foul-smelling blood as it tumbled away.

  Grimm continued, and only barely stopped himself from unleashing a blast from his rapidly heating gauntlet that would have struck the prone form of Bridget Tagwynn.

 
“Form a circle around her!” he barked. He sheathed his sword as the men closed around them, and bent down to pick her up. She was a tall young woman, and heavier than she looked. Grimm got one of his shoulders beneath one of her arms and leveraged her to her feet. She blinked several times, her eyes not quite focused, but though her legs wobbled she was able to support most of her own weight.

  “Miss Tagwynn!” Grimm shouted over the howl of discharging gauntlets. “Where is Miss Folly?”

  Bridget stared at him, blinking several times. Then she said, “Tunnel. In the tunnel. Lying on the floor.”

  Grimm’s stomach twisted in sickened horror. “Which one?”

  Bridget stared around her for a moment and then nodded down the tunnel Grimm hadn’t ordered blown halfway to hell.

  “Captain!” Kettle screamed, his voice a warning.

  Grimm’s head snapped around, and his belly tightened and writhed still more as he realized the depth of their predicament.

  The surprise assault of the verminocitors had been itself taken by surprise by the second wave of silkweavers. Men and women lay dying or dead, and more were being killed in front of Grimm’s eyes. The stench of blood and entrails had already filled the air, mixing with the foulness of silkweaver blood. Several members of his crew were down, and others were fighting a desperate retreat back the way they had come—and he could see what had made the sudden reversal possible.

  Sark was among them.

  The large warriorborn moved with terrible speed, darting here and there, never predictable, moving among the silkweavers as if he were one of their number. As Grimm watched, Sark crushed a woman’s throat with a casual squeeze of his hand, and hamstrung another verminocitor, dropping him to the ground, where the silkweavers could finish him. His hand moved, and a knife flickered through the air and plunged into the leg of Henderson, Kettle’s apprentice pilot. The young man screamed and clutched at his leg as he fell.

  Grimm tried to shout, to order Henderson not to remove the knife— but the young man jerked it clear in a small spray of blood—and every silkweaver within thirty feet flung itself upon him until he was buried under a mound of ripping, worrying bodies, and more blood scattered through the air.