The aeronauts windlass, p.48
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       The Aeronaut's Windlass, p.48
 

           Jim Butcher

  “What do you think, Sergeant?” he asked. “Did the engineers get it right?”

  “Sun’s about to come up,” Ciriaco replied, nodding. “Warm up the east side of the tower, which’ll draw the air and send the fire spreading toward it, just like a chimney, but sideways. Once it starts hitting those supports, that second level of theirs will collapse right down into this one. The Albions’ll be too busy to pay us any attention at all.” A Marine corporal came running up and spoke briefly to Ciriaco.

  “Major,” the sergeant reported, “charges set, fuses ready at sixty seconds.”

  Espira tried not to think about the men, women, and children he was about to condemn to death by fire and asphyxiation. This area was the heart of Landing’s economy, a viable target of war—and if the Albions had ignored the wisdom of the Great Builders with regard to flammable construction within a habble, that could hardly be blamed upon Spire Aurora.

  Espira looked around at the wooden buildings, the wooden walkways, the wooden supports and beams, representing more wealth than any dozen habbles of his home Spire. Their greed and vanity were their weakness, and would be their undoing. He was simply lighting a match.

  “Order the men to form up and begin moving out by squads,” he told the sergeant. “Advance party to fire freely and clear the way, standard firing rotation.”

  Ciriaco had known what order would come next. He nodded and started bawling them out even as Espira gave them, then moved out to oversee the withdrawal. Explosions began, small and scattered, as the Marines commenced throwing ceramic grenados packed with gunpowder and sulfurous ash to cover their escape with vicious shrapnel and clouds of thick, choking smoke.

  “Madame Cavendish,” Espira said, keeping his tone calm and civil. “Excuse me, please.”

  Her eyes snapped from the page up to his, coldly furious, and one of her eyes twitched in a steady rhythm. She stood stiffly, clearly in pain, and a tear and a modest stain of blood on the bodice of her dress suggested a wound sustained when she and Sark had stayed behind to deal with the group of Albions who had attacked them.

  Espira swallowed and kept his expression neutral and pleasant. “Please pardon my interruption,” he said, “but we are ready to withdraw to the ship, and this area will soon be on fire. For your own safety, I must ask you to accompany us at this time.”

  Cavendish closed her eyes for a brief moment, and when she opened them again, her own expression had been schooled into something blandly pleasant. “Of course, Colonel.”

  “I beg your pardon, ma’am,” Espira said. “But I am a major.”

  She smiled, her teeth showing as she carefully closed the cover of the book and worked the latch that locked it shut. “Not after today, Renaldo Espira,” she purred. “Not after today. Sark.”

  Cavendish turned on a heel and began marching calmly down the street, as though she were running an everyday errand. Sark moved with her, maintaining a precise distance behind her and to one side, his crooked gaze scanning steadily.

  Espira let out a small breath of relief to see them go. He looked forward to the day when he did not have to deal with those creatures— even more than he looked forward to the golden insignia that would come with his new rank when he returned home to Spire Aurora.

  Assuming he returned home. There was plenty of time yet to be killed.

  He put his sword away, mentally cringing at the act, though he knew rationally that the blade was perfectly clean and could be sheathed without issue. Then he pocketed the handkerchief, opened his box of matches, and waited for the last of his troops to retreat toward escape. Ciriaco, as agreed, was the last of the men to fall back, and he covered Espira with an upraised gauntlet as Espira knelt to the fuses.

  Then the Auroran commander struck a match.

  Chapter Fifty-eight

  Spire Albion, Habble Landing Shipyards, AMS Predator

  Gwendolyn grimaced down at her borrowed clothing. The grease on them was simply not going to come out, which hardly seemed polite to their owner, whoever he was. Perhaps she should simply dub the outfit her engine room clothing and reimburse the poor unfortunate. After all, making a mess of one’s clothes was to be expected when adjusting the alignment of a Haslett cage.

  It was a frustrating task at the best of times, made more so by Mister Journeyman’s insistence upon using some harebrained process he had developed himself rather than the doctrine that was clearly published and illustrated in the handbook to any Haslett cage by any manufacturer worth the name. Granted, the man did seem to get results. It was vexing.

  Gwen slid out from beneath the cage’s assembly and said, “There. Try it.”

  Journeyman grunted and adjusted the controls, constricting the cage down to a smooth egg shape, rather than the usual sphere. The power core engaged the cage, a lacework of lightning suddenly branching out to it from the core crystal. A deep-throated, sweetly musical hum filled the room, a chord that made the deck beneath Gwen’s feet vibrate and rattle. The bustle of the bleary-eyed contractors and engineers in the room drew to a halt as they awaited the result of the test.

  Journeyman stayed rock-still and eyed the readings on several meters on the control panel.

  “Well, now,” he said. “Well, well. That doesn’t look completely terrible.”

  Gwen padded over and studied the readings. “They’re perfect. All well within tolerance.”

  “Tolerance,” Journeyman said with a scowl. “Good enough for shop trogs and tramp merchant engine room slugs. Not good enough for my Preddy.”

  Gwen scoffed and began to answer him when she paused. What was that sound?

  She reached over and throttled down the engine, spinning the wheel that dilated the cage out to its widest setting again. Journeyman let out a huffing sound of protest and actually slapped her hand away from the controls, but Gwen lifted a finger to her mouth and snapped, “Quiet! Shhh! Everyone!”

  There was a startled moment of silence, and in that space, everyone in the compartment could clearly hear what Gwen had heard.

  The howl of discharging gauntlets.

  Gwen traded a look with Journeyman and then pelted up the steps from the engine room to Predator’s deck. She hurried to the railing and stared out over the shipyard. The morning mist was thick, but glowing with the warm golden light of sunrise, and she could see out over the wooden shipyards to the entrance to Habble Landing.

  Two of the habble’s Guardsmen lay on the wooden deck, horribly still. Even as Gwen watched, a third, crouched beside the entrance, triggering his gauntlet wildly, was struck by a bolt of radiant energy that snapped his head back like a blow from a red-hot mallet and flung him to the deck atop the bodies of his fellow Guardsmen.

  A second later, several men in grey uniforms came through the door, blades in one hand, gauntlets glowing in the other. They immediately opened fire on several stevedores who were unloading a freighter at the nearest slip, sending the men scattering for cover.

  “Bloody hell,” Journeyman said. “Those are Auroran Marines.”

  More men poured out of the opening at a quick jog, dozens of them. As heads began to peer out from ships and storehouses, gauntlets howled, wounding and killing a few, sending most scattering for cover.

  “And they’re coming this way,” Gwendolyn noted. She heard cries and shouts, and glanced to the next ship over, a motley-looking vessel whose lettering named her the Mistshark. Men rushed about the deck in orderly haste. “What are they doing?”

  Journeyman grunted. “Getting ready to cast off.”

  Gwendolyn frowned as the crew of the Mistshark began casting down two additional boarding planks, and sucked in a sudden breath. “They’re transport for the Aurorans.”

  “Aye,” Journeyman said. “We’d better get our heads down, lass. They’ll be within range shortly.”

  Gwendolyn made an impatient clicking noise with her tongue and climbed up onto the rail to get a slightly better view. “Those men back by the gates. What are they doing?”

&
nbsp; Journeyman peered. “They’re setting charges,” he grunted. The men suddenly sprinted away from a number of small casks. There was a loud whumphing roar, and suddenly the casks were replaced with brilliant balls of light that rained drops of fire out in a wide swath. Fire began to chew brightly at the wooden decks wherever the burning rain touched.

  “Merciful God in Heaven,” Gwendolyn breathed. “How long will the deck hold?”

  “Not long,” Kettle said grimly. “And then . . .”

  Gwendolyn’s stomach plummeted into some unthinkable abyss as she imagined the deck, Predator, the engineering crew, and herself all plunging down the side of the Spire, to be crushed on the surface far below.

  “We’ve got to get the lift crystal back online,” Gwen said.

  “We’ve got to do more than that,” Journeyman said, and pointed toward Mistshark.

  Gwen was no expert in the actual operation of airships, beyond the technical details of their engines—but even she could clearly see what was happening, and it made her fallen guts turn to ice.

  The vessel preparing to transport Spire Albion’s enemies was running out her guns.

  “We don’t get the shroud up,” Journeyman said, “we’re finished.”

  And without a further word the two flung themselves toward the engine room.

  Chapter Fifty-nine

  Spire Albion, Habble Landing, Temple of the Way

  It was not the fire, or the smoke, or the prospect of immolation or asphyxiation that most disturbed Bridget as she plunged into the burning building behind Benedict. Instead, she found herself wishing that she had tied her hair back so that it wasn’t flying behind her like a banner, threatening to collect any random spark that might float by, thus bursting into flame and leaving her bald.

  Right in front of Benedict.

  She felt that a very foolish concern, though she could not deny its reality. The other dangers far outweighed the threat to her vanity, after all. Or perhaps, she thought, such a tiny concern was the only one she was allowing herself to feel. Only weeks before, she had been frightened to leave her father’s vattery. If she dared to allow her mind to grasp the truth of what she was doing, she felt sure she would begin to weep and then run screaming.

  So she embraced her little worry about her hair. It kept her from going mad in the face of much more horrible things.

  The entrance to the temple was no more dangerous than a thick pall of smoke could make it, but the smoke permitted them to see only ten or fifteen feet ahead of them—and as they advanced, the pall began to glow with a sullen, flickering light as the fire spread from the library into the other portions of the building. The lack of visibility was disorienting, and she lost track of where they were within moments. What if, she thought, they simply became lost in the smoke? What if they found themselves rushing from hall to hall, struggling to find the way out, while the whole time the air grew thinner and hotter, until . . . ?

  “Benedict!” she cried, her voice frail and rough with smoke. “Where are we?”

  “Stay on the path!” he croaked back.

  Ah, of course. Bridget looked down. She was following Benedict closely, and had only now noticed that the warriorborn moved with his feet firmly tracing the little meandering indentation in the stone flooring, letting it guide them forward. She covered her mouth and nose with her sleeve, and pressed on.

  The air grew hotter, the light brighter, until they plunged from smoke into a blazing inferno. They stumbled to a sudden stop, and a blazing hot wind, like something from an enormous oven, began to lift and billow Bridget’s hair.

  The Great Library was being consumed by flame.

  Vast sheets of it roared everywhere. The heat was so intense that miniature cyclones of flame swirled and circled around the room, being born and dying in the space of a few seconds.

  At the doorway to the library, one of the heavy shelves had fallen. A man in saffron robes lay pinned beneath it and a mound of books that were slowly taking fire. His fingertips were bloodied, as if he’d tried to claw his way out from beneath the imprisoning weight, and been unable to do so. His skin was reddening, blistering under the fury of the fire.

  The monk lifted his head. One of his eyes was gone, vanished into a vast, purpling bruise that swelled that side of his face to grotesque proportions—the result of a glancing hit or near-miss from a gauntlet blast. He stared at them with his bleary eye. His expression was a contortion of agony.

  “Vincent!” Benedict cried, his voice anguished. He leapt into the blazing heat, lifting his arms to try to shield his face as he did. His sleeves began smoking almost at once.

  “Leave me!” the monk gasped. He began to fumble weakly with his robes. “Take it!”

  “No one’s getting left anywhere,” Benedict said. Then he knelt down, planted a foot, and reached out his hands.

  Bridget stared in fascinated horror. The shelf could not weigh less than a ton in metal alone, never mind the weight of the books still contained on its upward side. And in that room, the metal would be heated to searing temperatures.

  Benedict slipped his hands beneath the edge of the shelf, next to Brother Vincent’s trapped body. Then he clenched his jaw and gripped it.

  There was a sound like sizzling meat.

  Benedict let out a leonine roar that bore only a passing resemblance to a scream of pain.

  And then his lean body bowed into the effort of lifting the enormous shelf. For a second, then two, nothing happened—and then his legs quivered and the enormous mass began to move, if only by inches.

  Bridget leapt forward into the oven. The heat was like a smothering blanket, painful—and getting noticeably hotter after only seconds of exposure. She grasped Brother Vincent’s wrist and forearm and hauled his burned form from beneath the shelf.

  “Got him!” Bridget shouted, dragging Brother Vincent toward the hallway.

  Benedict dropped the shelf and it crashed to the floor, sending up showers of sparks.

  They burst back into the hallway together, and the sudden lack of furious heat made Bridget start to shiver, as though she had walked into an icebox.

  It wasn’t until she turned to let the wounded man down gently that she saw the horribly misshapen contour of Brother Vincent’s back and shoulders. The man was shuddering in pain, arms twitching and shaking.

  But not his legs.

  Below the shoulders he was completely, eerily still.

  She looked up to find Benedict staring at Brother Vincent in horror. “Oh, Maker of Paths,” he breathed. He sagged down to his knees beside the monk, as if the sight had drained the strength of his legs entirely out of him. “Oh, Vincent.”

  “No time, boy,” Vincent said. He choked on a couple of short, hard coughs, and blood suddenly flecked his lips—which quirked into a small smile. “Literally, for me.”

  “Dammit,” Benedict said. “Damn those Auroran sons of bitches. I’ll murder every last one of them.”

  Brother Vincent’s expression became annoyed and he slapped irritably at Benedict’s leg. “Benedict. There is no time for this kind of indulgence.” He fumbled at his robes again and with a grimace managed to produce a book with a very plain brown cover. “Take it.”

  Benedict accepted the book, his expression bewildered. “What?”

  “Take it,” Brother Vincent said. Blood had begun to run from his mouth. “To the Spirearch. It’s the last copy. She burned the rest.”

  “What is it?” Benedict asked.

  Brother Vincent coughed again, and grimaced in pain. The blood trickling from his mouth had turned his teeth bright red. “What they came for,” he said. “The Index.”

  “I’m getting you out of here,” Benedict said. “You can give it to him yourself.”

  A smile touched the unmarred corner of Brother Vincent’s mouth. “Oh, Ben. Death is just one more Path. One you’ll come to in time.” He lifted a hand weakly, and Benedict gripped it tight.

  “Don’t let your pain choose your Way for you,” B
rother Vincent said quietly. “You’re a better man than—”

  And then the monk died. Bridget saw it. In midword, the light and life in his eyes suddenly, simply went out like a snuffed candle. What had been Brother Vincent was now . . . an inanimate object.

  “Vincent?” Benedict asked quietly. “Vincent?” Then his voice broke with a ragged sob. “Vincent.”

  Bridget stepped up beside him and put her hand on his shoulder. “Benedict,” she said, quietly urgent. “We have to go.”

  He nodded. He put the monk’s hand down gently onto his chest, his seared fingers moving stiffly, clumsily, and then he began to rise—and suddenly pitched forward, over the corpse, to land in a limp sprawl atop it.

  “Benedict!” Bridget cried. She grabbed him, rolled him over. His body was twitching in rhythmic shakes, and there was saliva and foam leaking from the corner of his mouth. His eyes were rolled back to the whites.

  God in Heaven. The silkweaver venom.

  Bridget shook him, slapped him, shouted at him—but he never stirred or gave any response. What was she to do?

  With a roar, the doors of the Great Library burst into flame on their hinges.

  Bridget ground her teeth. She wasn’t sure she could find her way back, but if she didn’t take action, they would both die in moments, if not sooner. She rose, seized the warriorborn, and dragged him up. His limp weight was difficult to manage, but the heat and smoke were getting thicker, and she could think of no alternatives under the circumstances. She screamed and thrashed and strained and finally managed to get him over one shoulder.

  Then she started staggering toward the exit—then realized that she had forgotten the book Brother Vincent had given his life to protect. Dropping down to get it was quite difficult, but not nearly so hard as standing up again with Benedict’s weight dragging at her shoulder.

  She headed for the exit following the grooved path in the floor. She couldn’t move very quickly. The burden was too heavy—but she dared not leave him to rush out for help. He might have choked on smoke by then. So Bridget grimly put one foot in front of the other and kept moving ahead.