The Aeronaut's Windlass, Page 45Jim Butcher
Michaels, a gunner’s mate on the number five gun, raised a gauntlet and discharged it twice, aiming at Sark. The first blast missed.
The second whipped out and around Sark in a tight orbit, then flew back into Michael’s head, slamming home with explosive violence, hurling a nearly faceless corpse to the spirestone floor.
Grimm’s eyes darted to one side, where Madam Cavendish stood, one hand pressed against her ribs over a fresh, wet bloodstain on her dress. The other was extended toward Sark, and her eyes were gleaming.
The crew was being driven back down the breach they’d made with the blasting charges—and the silkweavers that had been finishing the last of the disabled verminocitors began to gather, darting toward Grimm and his little band in swift, agitated motions.
They were cut off.
“Fall back!” Grimm shouted. “Back down the tunnel! Keep them off with gauntlet fire until we get a defensive position!”
They retreated step by step. The copper cages of their gauntlets were smoking and smoldering with heat. Creedy’s teeth were clenched over a rising, screaming sound, but the tall young XO kept blasting away with his gauntlet in steady rhythm.
They made it to the tunnel, and Bridget slid off of Grimm’s shoulder and half fell down beside Miss Folly, who lay on the floor, curled up into a fetal position, quivering as though her muscles were trying to curl up even tighter. Grimm looked around. The tunnel had been blocked with more masonry, just as had the one they’d entered through. There was no way out of it, and no time to build even a meager defense out of the mound of stone.
A voice suddenly called from the tunnel beyond—Madame Cavendish. “This is the third time you’ve interfered with my business, Captain,” she said, her words hard-edged, cold. “And as you have spilled my blood, it shall be the last.”
“Madame, call off your pets!” Grimm called at once. “Guarantee the safe conduct of those with me, and I’ll surrender. You can kill me however you like.”
“I can do that without your cooperation, thank you,” Madame Cavendish replied, her tone amused. “Good-bye, Captain.”
And with that, a horde of silkweavers poured through the mouth of the tunnel—too many of the things. They were running along the walls and ceilings, spread out, moving too fast, in numbers too many to be countered.
Grimm and his people were about to be overwhelmed—and there was not a thing he could do to stop it.
Folly had time to see Madame Puppet point a finger at her, and to feel a geyser of etheric energy smash into her body. Then an entire Spire full of pain crashed down upon her.
Folly thought she must surely have screamed. She knew nothing except agony, and every sensation only seemed to magnify it more. She felt herself fall, curling up into a ball, felt her eyes squeezing shut as every muscle in her body convulsed at once. She couldn’t hear anything through the discordant howling sound in her head, and her throat didn’t hurt—not with this new definition of pain—but it tickled a little: It seemed reasonable to assume that she must have been screaming.
That thought triggered another—how odd it was that she should have the wherewithal to process such a thought when her nervous system was so utterly overwhelmed. And that thought led to still another: How odd that she should be aware enough to notice her thought process at all.
She was still aware of the pain, pain so great that she would have welcomed the dubious relief of emptying her stomach onto the floor, if only for a change of pace. Simultaneously she could feel her thoughts drifting free of her body’s limits, like a length of ethersilk snapped from a ship’s web floating away upon the etheric currents.
Her body, her senses, all remained upon the floor of the blockaded tunnel, but her thoughts weren’t there with them. Her mind was somewhere else entirely.
She was Elsewhere.
For a moment she floated in an empty void. And then she became conscious of solid ground beneath her feet. She looked down at it curiously and found it strange. She knelt to examine it more closely. The ground was not spirestone. It was loose earth, pale and granular. She pinched a bit up in her fingers and examined it. The earth was heavily mixed with sand.
Was she standing upon the surface?
The thrill of sudden terror that went through her was entirely unnecessary, unfair, and impolite, Folly felt. She knew, after all, that her body was being torn apart with pain back in Spire Albion. But nonetheless, she had spent her entire lifetime in curiosity and utter dread about the true nature of the surface world outside the Spires, the land of nightmares made flesh. In all of written history, the surface world had been a hell braved only by the mad, the desperate, and the madly, desperately greedy. Though her mind contradicted her fear, it seemed her body had an opinion of its own, and her heart raced.
She rose and turned in a slow circle. The mists were thin here, and she could see at least a hundred feet, but her cursory survey revealed nothing but more flat, dry earth and a few scattered stones.
Then the ground shook. It rumbled and quivered, and she could feel an impact through the soles of her feet. The sound came again, and then again, louder each time.
Footsteps. Enormous footsteps.
The mists stirred and something vast and slow and seething with hate stopped just out of sight, so that all Folly could see was a great, dark blur. She froze in place and covered her mouth with her hands to hide the sound of her breathing.
Then a great Voice filled the air, resonant and mellifluous, like that of a particularly eloquent, poised, mature man, a professional speaker. “REPORT.”
Folly hesitated. Whatever was happening to her, it seemed likely that it had not placed her in a position of leverage and power. But at the same time, her body was dying in any case. She could feel her straining heart racing so fast that she could not count individual beats. There seemed little enough point in prudence.
And besides, she was curious. She had questions. And answering questions was very nearly always more important than caution. Even the act of asking the question would tell her more than she now knew, if she could indeed ask it. There was no way to know but to try.
So she lowered her hands and said, “I beg your pardon. Whatever do you mean?”
She felt a sudden, awful attention from the thing in the mists, and the Voice said again, “REPORT.”
“I hardly knew what you meant the first time. I’ve not gained an epiphany of insight in the past five seconds, I assure you.”
There was a flash of red light somewhere in the fog, high above Folly’s head, burning from three separate sources.
“YOU,” the Voice said. “YOU ARE NOT CAVENDISH.”
“Madame Puppet?” Folly asked. “Indeed not, and I thank you for the compliment.”
Folly bobbed a quick curtsy toward the monstrous figure and said, “Folly. Who are you?”
The Voice did not answer. Instead there was an enormous boom of sound, like some utterly monstrous airship’s steam-powered horn blaring out into the night. A moment of silence went by, and then the call was answered from far away, with more horn-blast sounds.
“YOU ARE A POTENTIAL ASSET.”
“For you?” Folly asked. “I do not think so. I am not a puppet. You said so yourself.”
The three red lights flared brighter, and Folly was suddenly subsumed in a horrible, ugly pressure she felt inadequate to describe. It was an enormous amount of power, one that quite took her breath away. She could feel it scraping at her thoughts, raking them with claws, seeking something it could seize and use to hang on.
It sought to control her, just as she might control a . . .
“I see,” Folly murmured. “You’re the one holding the puppet’s strings, aren’t you? You’re the one holding all the puppets’ strings.”
“YIELD,” the voice thundered.
The pressure increased, but Folly could feel it sliding off of her, left and right, and it did little but make her breath come short for a few seconds. She straightened her back and frowned thoughtfully up at the lights.
“Are you going to be at this long?” Folly asked. “If so, I am afraid I must decline to continue. I have an event I should attend.” It did seem fitting, after all, that one be present for one’s own death, not out wandering about like a willful child shirking her chores.
There was a moment of silence and then the Voice said, “YOU ARE OF ONE PIECE.”
“I hardly think you could have said anything more obvious,” Folly replied. She squinted, trying to peer through the mist. “Yet . . . you sought to control me, just as Madame Puppet is being directed, just as the silkweavers are being directed.”
“HOW CAN YOU KNOW THIS?” the Voice demanded.
“I look at things and think about them,” Folly replied. “And use my intuition, of course, and deduction and induction, as well as any historical or theoretical models that seem to apply. Also, I was having the most horrible dreams that were evidently supposed to go to Madame Puppet, what I can only assume were instructions of some sort, so I caught one in a web and the master told me that it was an Enemy sending, and that we had an Enemy, and what he learned in the dream I caught led us to Habble Landing. . . .” Folly felt her face split into a wide smile. “Ah. Now I understand. You are the Enemy.”
“IF YOU CANNOT BE MADE TO SERVE,” said the Enemy, “YOU WILL BE UNMADE.”
And the sandy soil suddenly began collapsing beneath Folly’s feet.
Folly’s belly did little flips and she began to scramble back. But it was fruitless. No matter how rapidly she retreated, the sand kept collapsing inward in a vast circle. She tried to run and felt her steps slowing, bogged down in the granules, sloughing away beneath her feet. No matter how quickly she tried to move forward, she could feel herself being drawn back—and down.
Sand, Folly thought, was a terrifying substance. She could feel it rising up, covering her ankles, and her imagination treated her to an image of it filling up her nose, her mouth, her eyes. That would be a grim sort of death, smothering on tiny, tiny pieces of glass. No wonder the Builders had surrounded humanity with spirestone. Spirestone was quite wonderful—solid, reliable, durable. One always knew where one stood with spirestone.
No sooner had Folly completed the thought than her foot came down on something hard and flat. She blinked and looked down to see a block of dark rock supporting her foot and ankle, beneath a steadily increasing torrent of sand.
“Ah, obviously,” Folly said aloud. “My body is elsewhere. This is a place of the mind. In the mind, thoughts are the only reality.”
She concentrated on the idea of spirestone, and took another step. To her considerable satisfaction, her foot came down upon another immovable block of black stone.
The Enemy let out a bellowing sound, like a hundred deep, dissonant horns clamoring all at once, and Folly’s heart leapt with terror. She began to run in earnest, and the spirestone blocks became a regular staircase, rising up out of the collapsing sand. She bounded up the stairs as lightly as a cat, running against a current of sand that continued trying to push her back down.
She reached the original ground level of the desert floor and continued running, her thoughts building more stairs ahead of her as she went. Behind her, there was another spine-wrenching, bellowing sound of rage, and the stairs beneath her feet shook as something utterly enormous took a great stride, and another, each coming closer and closer.
Folly did not dare look back, for fear that the sight of something terrible would shatter her concentration. She needed to escape. She fled up the staircase, trying to puzzle out how to leave this place. It seemed unfair that she should have reached it without any effort on her own part at all, only to be unable to leave.
She returned to her previous reasoning. Thoughts were reality here. If one needed to leave a place, one went out through the door.
She focused on the idea of a door, and suddenly it was there above her at the top of the stairs, set against a wall of nothing but empty air. Folly rushed up the last few stairs as glaring red light fell over her shoulders and changed the pale skin of her arms to scarlet. She hoped her theory was correct. Otherwise she was about to hurl herself through an empty doorway and down several dozen yards into a vast, collapsing pit of sand.
Folly opened the door to see what looked like a cloud of fiery red sparks hovering in the air in front of her.
The Enemy bellowed again, and a terrible shadow fell over her, a darkness and a coldness like nothing she had ever experienced. “DEVOUR HER!” bellowed the Enemy. “DESTROY HER!”
Folly shrieked in involuntary fear and jumped through the open doorway, into the empty air, slamming the door shut behind her.
Folly sat up abruptly, clutching a batch of little lumin crystals in one hand, and blinked several times. Someone had her arms wrapped around her shoulders, and it turned out to be Bridget. There were also perhaps half a dozen of Predator’s crew around her, including Benedict Sorellin and the grim captain. They seemed exhausted and afraid, and they all brandished weapons in both hands. That seemed ominous.
On the other hand, Folly’s general sense of herself did not seem to be anything like what she imagined death would be, as an experience, which all things considered seemed a pleasant surprise. It was important to consider the good things along with the bad.
“Oh,” she said to her little crystals. “We did it! We escaped!” Bridget jerked and stared at her. “Folly! Are you all right?” DEVOUR HER, echoed the Enemy’s words in her mind. DESTROY HER.
The Enemy had been speaking to the campfire sparks, glimpsed through the doorway that had led from Elsewhere. Sparks the same ruby color as the light of the Enemy.
Folly looked up to see dozens of silkweavers pouring into the tunnel, racing along the floor and walls and ceiling, their clustered eyes glinting with little scarlet pinpoints of light.
And every single eye was focused upon Folly.
The silkweavers let out a shriek in eerie unison and then began to rush forward even faster.
Spire Albion, Habble Landing, Ventilation Tunnels
Bridget blinked as Folly opened her eyes, sat up, and said gleefully, “Oh, we did it! We escaped!”
Bridget looked blearily from the chaos in the remains of the Auroran camp to the wall of masonry that effectively trapped them in the side tunnel where she and Folly had been held prisoner. There was a small army of surface creatures preparing to devour them, the few men Captain Grimm had rallied to his side were wounded and tired, and they had no possible means of fleeing their foe.
In what universe, she wondered dazedly, did their current predicament count as escape?
Bridget shook herself from her thoughts and saw that the etherealist’s apprentice was staring blankly into space. “Folly?” Bridget asked. “Folly! Are you all right?”
“Miss Folly,” Benedict said, nodding down to the two girls. He crouched down and peered at Folly, briefly putting a hand on her throat. “She’s breathing and her heartbeat is strong. She doesn’t seem to be injured. Perhaps she’s taken a knock on the head.”
“All things considered, I’m beginning to think that it would explain a great deal if we’d all taken a knock on the head,” Bridget said. “What are we going to do?”
“Fight,” Benedict said with a grim smile for her joke. He drew a heavy knife from his belt, flipped it so that he held it by the blade, and offered its handle to Bridget. “Here.”
Bridget swallowed and took the knife. There was a reassuring heft to the blade in her hand, but she knew that if she needed to use the weapon, the silkweavers would be so close to her that it was unlikely to do her much good. More ominously, she saw that Benedict’s hand and fingers were covered in his own blood, and that more of it had stained the knife’s blade when
he handed it to her. He was wounded, perhaps seriously. There were stains of an ugly color around the slices and gashes in his left forearm. Venom, doubtless.
Silkweaver venom could be deadly—even to a warriorborn. Bridget’s heart sank a little, and she felt sick with sudden worry.
But she swallowed, rose to stand beside Benedict, and said, “Thank you, sir.”
“I also saw this while we were coming here,” Benedict said, and lifted his hand. He held Bridget’s gauntlet. “I thought that so long as we were walking right past it, I might as well fetch it for you.”
Bridget let out a huff of breath that was not quite a laugh. “Most kind, sir,” she said, and began strapping the gauntlet to her arm. Her fingers did not fly with the speed and precision of a true expert, but they moved steadily and without hesitation. “Sir Sorellin?”
“Miss Tagwynn?” Benedict said.
“I suppose we are going to die here?” Bridget asked. “For goodness’ sake, I would ask that you be honest with me.”
Benedict regarded her steadily for a moment. He said nothing. He didn’t need to. She could see the answer in his eyes.
Bridget continued strapping on her gauntlet, surprised at how calm she felt. It wasn’t that the prospect of a violent death didn’t frighten her—indeed, she felt terrified. But simultaneously . . .
She had chosen to be here. She stood in harm’s way because she had elected to do so, to risk danger so that others could be protected. Whatever else happened this day, she knew that she had already drawn a great deal of the attention of horrible creatures and the monsters that served them away from innocents and onto herself. She had served as a shield and sword to her fellow Albions.
She didn’t want to end her life that day—far from it. But all lives ended. If today was to be her last, she would have it be an ending with meaning. Surely dying in battle against such hideous foes spoke with absolute eloquence regarding her choices and her life.