In a speared blast of air, Wind dashed forward, sword tip eager to taste the mischievous weaver. The Spider sprung upwards, and the canopy seemed to part, opening onto the sky with trees splintering in their haste to abide. There were flashes of luminescent threads, long thin lines that waved and winked in the great dark space overhead. All around us, the air whipped and howled, spitting splinters into our faces. As the conflict escalated higher into the heavens, tired breaths circulated to us far below.
My eyes were caught, like a feather to a grate, to the sky. Wind was an unfriendly shadow, whose face in the brief flashes of illuminated truths, revealed a bloodthirsty demon. No more was the comrade I had known and loved present. That man had come undone under the wily hands of my precious Spider. From the ground I felt the displeasure of my god and patron, Tellus. I had failed to uphold her highest principle of steadfastness. I closed my eyes to the violence and whispered a prayer, begging forgiveness.
Then the familiar hiss and sputter of my dearest Flame brought my attention back to the matter at hand, and I hurried to her side. She sat up from the moss covered ground and rubbed her head, her countenance rumpled in blurry pain and bewildered anger. Her eyes flickered to me, and her person came to glow with the promise of a true fire. I felt the heat hit me like a wall, and I moved back with hands held before me.
In my deepest voice, I tried to placate my companion. ”Flame, please. Let not your anger rule you!”
She hissed and I leapt to my feet and took a step away as her arms became swathed in flames. The moss and grass blades screeched as they curled on themselves from the fire, black and pitiful. On the cool dirt, the fire stopped. ”Fool!” She spat. ”Mongrel! Look where thy bleeding heart has taken us!”
I refrained from offering my hand. The daughter of the sands was too prideful for such a gesture. Instead, I gestured behind me, where the rest of our hunting party began to rise yet again. ”Hope is not lost! The Spider shall yield if we can best her in combat. Look skyward, and thou will see that Wind already endeavors toward this end.”
“Yes, Strong Earth,” Arlés the Sweet Blossom said with lilted tongue. “But the Spider has shown herself to be of unsound mind. In her eyes, what constitutes victory?” She, in the light of Flame’s anger, gazed with sullen eyes at me, her face pallid and glistening. “I fear the witch has taken something vital from me. I care not how it is returned, but it SHALL be returned!”
“And me,” said Toshihiro, from his place near the Blossom. His dark eyes were narrowed, and his breath heaved over dry lips. “This battle must be quick.”
All eyes turned to the sky, where the raucous of combat faded. I frowned, my grip on my staff tightening. “Where are they?”
Toshihiro shook his head. “Their battle is beyond us, lest they return to the earth. But we cannot sit idly by.” He looked at me, with back straightened. “If thou art truly on our side, you will clear these plant creatures with thy power. They are abominations and must be destroyed.” The jungle rustled and shifted, dark phantoms beyond the warmth of Flame’s glow.
My eyes were as jagged rocks. “You would seek me to kill these innocents!?”
“It would be a merciful fate, considering the alternative. And it is not without reason. The Sweet Blossom can replace the lost life with that of proper origin–a necessary preparation when the Spider is to be sealed.”
From the soil, Tellus spoke, in her quiet language of intuition. My lips thinned. Trapped beneath the order of my patron, I could do nothing. I raised my hands, and the earth took to quaking.
The soil cracked and parted in a circle around us. The jungle seemed to screech in terror, the leaves and the branches and the bushes alive with panic. The earth ruptured, and around us, gaping maws of rock and sand split wide open to swallow all. Trees were felled, stupefied at the sudden removal of their foundation. They were great groaning giants of cracked bark and upped roots that fell top first into the splits of the land, where the compacted soil and rock shifted to the swallowing sands beneath. The noise was deafening. When all had been up-ended, I pulled my hands down close to my person, and with palms outward, pushed away from myself. The ground exploded in a high rolling wave that blasted all away. There were great cracks as trees collided with trees at high speed. The dust was so high, it seemed to hang over us. The air rang as all around us, things settled.
I turned to Arlés. ”It is done, Blossom. Proceed before the battle returns to us.”
She gave a curt nod. With a flourished hand, she called forth creeping vines from the churned soil, and the new plants grew rapidly. They curled about the fallen tree that lay between us, the one thing I had not removed, and with a flick of her wrist the strong plants tossed the trunk away. The Sweet Blossom then, with both arms extended caused all around us to sprout and flower in green. The ground beneath my feet hummed from this magic, and though it was natural and void of the consciousness that once permeated through the soil, something of it felt different and offensive to my senses.
Toshihiro murmured to the Sweet Blossom, advising her in the arrangement of the new plant life. Their plans were beyond me. Moss and ferns covered the clearing. At the center, a tree sprouted, its growth accelerated by Arlés’ suggestion.
Then Flame gripped my arm, and her hand stung me from the heat. ”Earth, the air shifts!” She whispered, one saber drawn. The daughter of the sands had always been sensitive to Wind’s approach. With staff before me, I eyed the trees in wariness.
Sure enough, a strong whip of wind beat us from the south. Toshihiro appeared at our side, his fists clenched. ”They return! We must keep the Spider busy as the Sweet Blossom works!”
“Dost the Champion of Tenjin know of a plan?”
Toshihiro, quiet son of the Far East, said unto me, “At the first available opportunity, thou must create a deep hole. So deep as to beg for light.”
“Yes. The reason for this shall be revealed.”
“And what would you have me do?” Said Flame.
Toshihiro glanced at her coolly. ”What you normally do, Fiery Flame.”
Never one to let a quiet insult lie, Flame made as if to argue, but the sudden strengthening of the winds robbed all words from her lips. The jungle to the south rustled, then erupted in a dance of leaves. The shadows, as curtains, parted in surprise to reveal the fast approaching Spider. She came at us, arms extended before her with fists clenched around things unseen. Then with a vicious pull that set her hands behind her, she rocketed forward through the air, feet first. The others were forced to part, but I, steady son of the earth, stayed my ground.
With my staff quickly raised and my right foot slid back to offer support, I blocked the Spider’s incoming knee. I did not give an inch, but my supporting foot sank into the soil, and my upper body was forced to lean back from the impact.
The Spider seemed to hang there, suspended in the air, her shin resting against my staff as though that were all she needed to remain aloft. Her lion’s smile, no longer obscured in the pitch black of the jungle, seemed to glisten through the dim of night. ”All must dance,” Said she. Her arms extended at either side of her, and her eyes widened from behind her long bangs. ”The Spider wills it!”
Her hands clenched to fists and she pulled them quickly to her chest, just as she pushed away from me. These eyes, perhaps slow in their growing age, took note of the glimpses of glowing thread that slipped between her fingers, but did not register their purpose. When the bodies of Toshihiro and Flame collided into either side of me, the purpose became all too clear.
The breath rushed from my lungs, and I fell to a knee with Toshihiro and Flame at either side of me. Through the Spider’s legs, I saw Wind charge from behind, his approach quiet as his feet did not touch the ground. I leaned forward and braced myself, willing my body to be as a rock. With my head covered under one arm, I heard rather than saw the collision. Spider and Wind were sent toppling over my person.
Bewildered, I raised my head to look, and saw that Wind had once again engaged the Spider. Toshihiro and Flame, though dazed, were already rising to their feet. I followed suit, a weary sigh slipping past my lips.
I recalled Toshihiro’s task for me, and without a word I stepped aside to accomplish it. The ground rumbled once again, and the newly created plant life fell into a deepening hole. I pressed, with the force of my mind, the soil downward, and bid the earth to widen at my command. Soon the hole requested of me was created. I turned in time to see Arlés the Sweet Blossom finish in her task as well. The tree was done. It was thick–perhaps thicker than the mammoths I had seen prior. The bark was white and smooth, and it curved like a dollop of cream on the soil. It’s surface was blanketed by curious vines, thicker and darker than those of the jungle. My eyes flickered next to see that Toshihiro and Flame had joined the battle against the Spider. Marvelous as they were, the girl’s power and unfathomable style were more than enough to keep them at bay. I moved toward them, grim faced but intent on ending this quickly, but as I came near, the battle turned.
The Spider had simultaneously parried the attacks of Wind and Toshihiro, and as she rebounded past Flame, I saw her hand make an ominous gesture at the chest of my companion. The daughter of the sands went still, her saber raised for an offensive. As Wind came forward, unaware, the woman lashed out at him with her saber, her face void of emotion. Wind, fast and fluid, avoided her slash, and gazed at her with eyes wide.
Toshihiro did not pause, when he moved to engage her. As his fists, strong and tempered by the mastery of pugilism, struck out at Flame, he said onto Wind, “You must not falter, Son of Njord! Nevermind that she is faster than you. Of us all, thou art the only one that the Spider cannot control!” Wind, with a resolute nod, went on to resume his fight. As he ducked beneath the swinging blade of the ensorcelled Flame, Toshihiro managed to glance at me, and all at once I understood.
“Brother!” I shouted, staff pointed at my dark trap. ”Let the heaven and earth meet!”
Wind’s attention flickered my way briefly. Tense, I watched him and the Spider battle. It was blow for blow, attacks countered and blocked, a dizzying dance of skill and combined magic that to any mortal man, would have been too much. I feared that Wind did not understand my suggestion, that perhaps his anger toward me blinded him. But then, faith was restored when his intentions became clear. His attacks, though convoluted, were to a positive end, and after tireless effort, Wind had managed to press the Spider backwards–toward the trap.
In truth, I cannot say for certain whether Spider was unaware of our intentions. The girl was just the sort that would play along with a scheme, so as to draw greater satisfaction when she managed to best her competitor. Regardless, the Spider was beat back, bit by bit, toward the waiting hole. When only a few yards away, Wind leapt into the air, and with a great shout, called on all his strength to push at the girl with the breath of the world. She was blown back, her body sent flying as if she were a fly at the mercy of a storm. The Spider first crashed at the lip of the hole before the wind married her to the dark space. I saw her ricochet off the far wall before hitting the bottom hard. There was a crunch, and from the walls, unnaturally thick vines burst forth and anchored themselves into the soil opposite. I looked to see the Sweet Blossom, who had been watching all this time, with her hand extended, working her magic. Within a second, hundreds of vines crossed the hole, effectively trapping the Spider below.
The girl, given room only to crawl, circled the bottom like a shark in water. Her eyes glowed from the dark, where little windows gave us view of her displeased face. She shouted with a deep and sullen voice, “Fools! This is no prison!”
The Sweet Blossom looked at us, her beautiful face marred by tension. ”She speaks the truth. I have made the spells of these vines complex, but she can undo my work, given time.”
Wind spoke. ”Nay, Arlés. For you have given me the first opportunity to do this,” and the Son of Njord raised his hand. There was a rush of air from the hole, some dust rising with it. Then quiet. I looked at Wind, then down at the Spider below. The girl made a choking sound and clutched at her throat. Her eyes were bulged in fear. Behind us, the sounds of Flame and Toshihiro in combat ended. I looked to see Flame staring at her hands, dazed, and Toshihiro staring with solemn expression toward us.
“Before,” said Wind, “The Spider moved far too much and had the primal materials of the world to keep her free. Trapped beneath the makings of your magic, she must first undo what is yours before she can use it. But she moves no more, and the air she took advantage of now flees from her. She can hardly say a word than escape our prison.” He leaned forward, eyes dark. ”Dost thou understand, Spider? Wouldst thou yield?”
The girl choked, and tears streamed from her eyes. She grabbed at the vines and scraped at the walls.
Tense, I turned to Wind, “Thou cannot kill her, Wind!”
“She must yield,” he snapped back. He shouted down into the hole. ”Yield, damn you!”
Finally, the girl, face contorted, gave a desperate nod just as she collapsed onto the ground. Wind dropped his hand and the air hurried to refill the space denied it. Arlés with a wave of her hand, chased away the imprisoning vines.
Toshihiro and Flame joined us at the edge of the hole. ”Good work,” he said. ”It was sloppy, but there was no other way. You have done your patrons proud.” He looked down at the Spider with lip curled. ”The Spider manipulates some unseen fabric of this reality. As we are, she could easily anticipate our movements. Wind, as a master of a free flowing element, was her true match. The breath of the world is too whimsical and vast to control and counter against, unless you have that attributed power. When the Spider had the gall to take control of Flame, she put herself in a disadvantage. To keep control of Flame, she had to relinquish a level of power and concentration. That was our opportunity.”
“You knew she would do that to me.” Growled Flame, her spine curled and blood streaming from a cut near her ear.
Toshihiro bowed. ”My apologies, but of us all, your passion made you the most susceptible. Please, do not take offense. You are an exemplary warrior who serves her patron well. If I would have given prior warning, thou wouldst have fought the Spider’s control, and we would not have the chance we did to overwhelm her into our trap.”
“Thou truly art the champion of Tenjin,” The Sweet Blossom said with a nod.
“And thou truly are a harlot!” Flame spat. To this the Sweet Blossom only smiled.
“I would have you meet my eyes and say that, Fiery Flame.”
“Do not push me, Arlés.”
“Enough.” Toshihiro looked to the Spider. ”Now she must rise up, as she has sworn to do.”
The Spider sneered at him as she wiped the dirt from her face. ”Would obey! But only my conqueror!”
“And your conqueror commands that you rise up, petulant welp!” Wind rumbled.
The Spider leapt up, one hand pulling at an unseen rope. She landed near us, and all but I tensed in preparation for a surprise attack.
Said I softly, “Stand down, you braves. The Spider seeks no battle.”
To correlate this, the Spider crossed her arms and glared, but made no other movement. The others eased once again.
Wind looked to the Sweet Blossom. “Art thou prepared? Where must the demon go?”
The woman pointed at the tree she had created. ”There, where the bark carries a slit. Let her climb up the roots and rest her back against it.”
Wind looked at the Spider. ”I would have you do just that. And quickly!”
Together, we walked to the tree, all eyes on the girl with tussled hair. She did just as commanded, climbing up the massive roots to that high place at the trees trunk. Then with narrowed eyes, she turned and rested her back against the mentioned slit.
“I am fain to see this finished, but first I would have what was taken returned to me,” The Sweet Blossom snipped. Wind pointed at her and Toshihiro. ”Spider, thou have stolen from these braves. Return what is theirs!”
The girl sighed and flicked her hand. Both Toshihiro and the Blossom gasped, hands flying to the stitch in their chests. I held the champion of Tenjin upright, as Wind held Arlés by the shoulders. Then they each straightened, and something I hadn’t realized had been missing before seemed restored. The Sweet Blossom somehow appeared more radiant, and Toshihiro stronger.
With a laugh, the Blossom made a grand flourish with her hands, and the vines of the tree stirred to life. They snaked toward the Spider, and the girl eyed them warily. Wind shouted, “Do not move! You will allow the Sweet Blossom to do her work!”
“My conqueror, Spider wishes to speak.” The Spider said loudly. ”The web. It trembles.”
“Quiet! For the mass murder of countless innocents, you shall remain sealed beneath the Sweet Blossom’s magic.”
Wind turned his back. ”Until heaven may judge thee.” He began to walk away. He spared no glance or word my way.
The vines, golems under the command of Arlés, snatched at the Spider’s limbs. The girl did not gasp or squeak, but bared her teeth as the plants wrapped around both her legs, pinning them together. The vines pulled at her arms, raising them up and pinned them to the trunk of the tree.
As the plants crept across her shoulders onto her chest, the Spider cried out. “A feather!”
I tensed. Wind stopped. The Spider smiled. ”A feather. Caught. On my web.” She grunted as the vines seemed to tighten around her. ”It trembles…from thy distant breath.”
Wind turned and stepped forward. He held a hand out to the Sweet Blossom, who frowned and made a halting gesture that stopped the progress of the vines. “What dost thou speak of, demon?” he asked in a voice that threatened to be a growl.
The Spider smiled her lion’s smile. ”Your fledgeling. Her nest falls.”
“Spider, child, what nonsense slips your teeth?” Cried I.
“Father Stone. The Spider knows. Events, long and far. Enemies descend on your fledgeling.”
“What trickery is this!?” Barked Wind. He grabbed me and pointed at the girl. ”She lies! Tell me she lies!”
I looked at him, my face drained of blood. ”Brother Wind…thou knows that it was this exact power of intuition that led Spider to find those she murdered. Perhaps…perhaps the event has already occurred. Her knowledge comes from echoes. It must have…already occurred.”
“Brother, I swear, if I had known, I would never have–”
Wind let out a deep hoarse scream that tore the heart from my sturdy chest. The air around us swirled and stung us as it circled around the Son of Njord. Toshihiro shouted at him through the din. ”Enough!”
“Spider moves…toward tangled prey. My conqueror. I have it. I have your grief!” The girl laughed. It was a terrible sound, like a monster birthed upon my ear. Never had I known the girl, in all her passion and mischief, to ever make such a sound.
Wind advanced toward her, sword drawn, murder in his light eyes. “Thou knew the whole time! Thou knew!”
Toshihiro stopped him. He crossed his arms and gazed down his nose. ”We cannot judge her. Her fate is for the heavens to decide.” Wind, finding an immovable object in Toshihiro’s logic, let out a yell. He turned and took three thunderous steps before he kicked away from the earth, riding on the wind that had saved him time and again from the problems of the material world. But he could not flee this. I called after him, my heart torn.
“Brother Wind, wait!” But he was gone.
With eyes burning, I returned my attention to the Spider. The process had already resumed, and in my gut anger weakened my sympathy. My brow was furrowed dark as the girl locked gazes with me. ”Why?” I wished to scream. My Spider was young and susceptible to her own emotions, but never had I seen this cruelty in her before.
What happened next haunts me to this day, and left me stunned at its occurrence. Angry as I was, my heart still harbored the bloodstained child, and I could accept no justification for what she suffered.
The smaller tendrils of vines dug beneath the Spider’s skin, and the girl’s face contorted in pain. Perhaps it was too much, for the girl did not scream, even as the vines canvased her body.
“Stop it!” I thundered at Arlés. ”You said she would not be harmed!” Flame and Toshihiro came before me, faces grim and pinched in the dim night.
Toshihiro said unto me, “The process will not kill her, Noble Earth. This is the only way.”
His words were a horror to my ears. I looked to Flame, who could not meet my eyes, her form like cold black coal.
Tears, of which I could no longer contain, streamed silent down my dusty face. With pained expression, I looked up at the Spider.
When this horror finished, I heard the tree groan, and I knew that the slit in the trunk had a purpose. There was a wet crunch, and the Spider arched her back, her pale face stretched by emotions too strong for her to grasp. Tears overflowed from her wide eyes. Through her chest, ripping through her shirt, came out a thick and bloody flower bud. It was as large as my head, and its stem as thick as my arm.
Though it was night, the flower blossomed, a great white star-shaped flower with six petals that curved and pointed outward. The Spider let out some strangled cry, one that died out to a cough as blood sprayed from her lips. Her eyes rolled shut, and she hung there limp.
From her mouth came a small drop of crimson. It landed on the white flower, a terrible stain.
Silence gripped all there. I shook my head. My body trembled. ”Sleep, my dear. I will return.”
With heavy feet, I turned and began to walk away. I heard someone approach and within the next moment, Flame fell in step with me. “Noble Earth…where will you go?”
“I must return to the fledgeling’s nest to begin my search…Wind will arrive there in a matter of hours, but if I wish to get there in a matter of days, I must leave now.”
“But…forgive me, did the Spider not state that the fledgeling was no more?”
“Nay, my friend. The Spider stated she was lost…and what is lost, can be found. Even if would take me all my life to find her, I shall.”
“Let me aid you.”
I gazed upon her, startled. Flame’s countenance was aglow with determination. ”And your people?”
“Fear not, they are cared for.” She grabbed my hand and pulled me along. ”Come, Noble Earth, there are still agents of heaven that await our word! Many of this number have contract with the skies, and of them all, there must be one that can aid us in reaching your fledgeling faster!”
As I was lead away by Flame, my head turned to look back at the Spider’s new resting place. Toshihiro and the Sweet Blossom spoke quietly to one another. The earth whispered that their conversation would be of interest to me, but the nature of it was concealed–perhaps by the magic of Arlés. My eyes slipped onto the Spider, my wiry girl of bobbed plum hair and sharp emerald eyes. This man’s heart gave a lurch in knowing that the spirited young slave girl I had rescued years ago had been reduced to such a state. Self-loathing was a weed in my chest, as tragedy was a flower in hers.
And what thief had crept in, and snatched the joy from Earth’s life? What scoundrel toppled nests and pulled at webs? Was it Fate or Chaos that had made these horrors of death and abandonment true in the eyes of youths? I had come, determined, to save all that I treasured. Instead, I had lost all. The Spider was tangled in the knot of her own life. The fledgeling, the little girl with light eyes that was truly her father’s daughter, was lost in the storm of things beyond her. Only time would tell me of her fate. Only time would tell me of mine.
I prayed, fervently, to a goddess that lay quiet, that the fledgeling be spared a violent existence. I prayed that the sword her father had given to her as a gift would be lost in a happier life. I prayed, that on the rumbling earth and in the whistling wind, evil never visit upon her pure soul as it had the petals of my sleeping Spider.
With a fire to keep my heart from cold death, I traversed into the unknown.