Tributaries Cover In Sight, In Mind Cover Blackwood Cover

Intermission I



The Wind and the Web

by Tobias Aretuli

“He came by a leap to the goal of purpose, not by the toilsome steps of reason. On the instant his headlong spirit declared his purpose: this was the one being for him in all the world: at this altar he would light a lamp of devotion, and keep it burning forever.” – Gilbert Parker


The sky, blanket to the soil I tread, had lead me away from the comforts of dandelion hair and lilac scented dresses.  But as an agent of heaven, I knew my peace was not to last.  I had tried my level best to prepare the fledgeling for my departure, but let no one say that the tears of one so high cannot crumble the ground below.  Weary was I of this capricious life, but it had been my choice, and with the earth rumbling beneath my disgruntled feet, I sought the one I had fought alongside–my brother of sweat and blood–Mighty Wind.

It was perhaps by the grace of Atargatis that Njord did not send me to an early grave.  That god of endless breath cursed my travels, and made every attempt to impede my efforts.  But with the protection of the sea goddess and the memory of a slave girl in my mind, I reached the red soil of the Indabe triumphant. Through an arid desert and along unforgiving cliffs traveled I.  Pleasantries could not be spared, yet I thought of dear Flame, with her scorching tongue and eyes brighter than the suns that blazed upon my back.  This was her homeland, and her kingdom was nearby–it winked on the horizon like a promise of food and drink.  Time had become a slow insect for this man.  In the span of a year, I already feared the stranger that would face me.  I lumbered on.

I moved southward, as a rolling wave of riled earth, to the emerald jungles of lost sons.  There, the deeper I traveled, the stronger Night became, till the suns were extinguished from my eyes.  Vines draped in languid trails along the thick branches of trees I could not name–with trunks so thick I was certain a hollowed one could serve as my home.  There were leaves as broad as my chest and twice as long that hung like shadows over my person.  Were I not attuned with the earth, this man would have been lost in the grips of foreign heat.

But my way broke to an open space where rested the ancient ruins of an unnamed people.  The masonry was conquered by fauna that snaked and twined too intuitively for what could be construed as normal.  These vines weaved in such a way as to form pictures–living hieroglyphs against a dead civilization.  I smiled humorlessly. Always the whimsical one, my sweet, sweet girl.  The Spider of the West was here, there was no doubt.

The wind whipped at me in a strong gust that swept up from my legs.  Unstartled, but now at the ready, I held my staff before me and gazed upward. Wind touched onto the arch of a stone hawk, and with his eyes bright beneath his bangs, the man held me fast in his gaze.  

”Friend Earth, what bringest thou here?” he asked, his voice weightless yet surging with power.

“Thou seeketh the Spider,” I said, twisting my staff with my dry hands.  “Brother Wind, you know I cannot allow this.”

The man’s brow snarled together. “Thou wouldst turn blade on one you call ‘brother’?”

“And thou wouldst turn blade on one I call ‘daughter’?”

“She was lost to you, Friend Earth.  Leave it be.  She is none of your concern.”

“I say thee nay!  Her actions weigh heavily on me, Brother, but I cannot turn away!”

“Friend, the Spider has earned the ire of my patron.  I am obliged to correct her.”

“You speak falsely, Brother!  Her patron lays silent–and she is but unguided!  She was my ward in the Battles of Hazmes, let me lead her back to the way of harmony!”

“Her power is unnatural.  She disrupts life.”  Wind exhaled and gazed upon me with sadness in his eyes.  ”Please, Friend Earth, it is not my wish to do this.”

“Nay,” growled I, “But it is your cowardice that allows it.”  The ground began to quake.  ”The Spider has a champion in me, Brother Wind.  I cannot allow this.”

“Thou art mad!” Cried Wind.  ”That abomination has ensnared you, Earth!  But I cannot fail my patron!  Njord’s word is all I answer to!”  He drew his blade, and were it not for my anchor to the soil, his furious gusts of power would have turned me away.

“Thou cannot fail your patron, but what of your flesh and blood, of which I have been left to care for!?  Who can the fledgeling look to–with your misguided heroics, and I, forever cleaning up after you!  What the Wind turns over, the Earth is left to bear, and I have grown weary of this!  I can hold no more, Brother!”

Wind let out a roar that collapsed weak walls and shook the dust and dirt from the mossy pillars.  He came at me in a swift arc, and we collided.  His sword was to my staff–but I would not yield, and he would not relent. “Everyday I think of my fledgeling!  Everyday!” He thundered.  ”How dare you say otherwise!?”

“I say otherwise–and more!” I rumbled back.  ”A poor trade, a father for a blade.  She is traveling a dark path and you know nothing of it!” We parted with a shove, and he came at me again.  Again, I blocked his blow and he pressed on me, the strength of his anger whipping the air around us into a great frenzy.

He shouted over the din, “And what is your intention then? To make a new home for yourself with the Spider and my fledgeling?  You delude yourself!  Why are you really here!?” I shifted my weight and let him pass me.  The end of my staff came up fast to strike at his legs.  He fell to the ground with a thud.

I pointed my staff at his face and snarled, “Perhaps you are right.  But I cannot abandon those I love simply because my life makes it difficult! I refuse to choose one child over the other.  My heart is as broad as this earth, and it can harbor whom I choose…which is more than I can say for you, fickle Wind!” I was swept back with an invisible punch to the gut.  The wind robbed me of my breath, and I crashed into an unsuspecting wall.  The stones fell about me, but I stood, a hardy man.  Wind had risen to his feet.  Without a twitch or utterance, I bid the earth to swallow him, but just as the ground beneath him cracked and split, just as the slabs of rock rose to snap about his form like a lion’s mouth, Wind took to the sky.

“Thou wouldst risk the welfare of my child for your repugnant idea of happiness!?” Wind spat from his lofty throne of gust.  ”I would spend the breath of this world a thousand times before any such horror would come to pass!”

Our battle raged until the high suns flirted with the tips of the trees.  What was a place of quiet disrepair was becoming one of heated destruction–basalt and mortar turned to dust in the air.  Crags were as claw marks from my livid struggles, and the air swirled with debris and vegetation.  It seemed an age since I had fought so ardently, and even Wind seemed to show signs of fatigue, but still we fought on.

It was at a critical point, when a misstep led me into one of the many streams of fast moving air Wind created, that the battle turned.  As anchored as this man was to the soil, there was no parallel to the force that barreled into my body.  By the grace of my heavenly blessings, I was left whole, and thus the whole of me was sent deep into the cold jagged embrace of a rotunda.  Its arms encircled me, yet through the mess I was afforded a small view of the rosy sky.  Outside, I heard a cry.  It was not Wind, yet a voice I knew well.

Grunting, I called upon the earth to free me, and the ground shifted, parting the heavy basalt blocks with the added suggestion of my arms and legs.  Covered in dust and shaking from my effort, I forced my tired body to rise from the rubble.

Spider, the willowy crack of youthful rebellion, met Wind in combat.  She flew through the sky, tugging at threads I could not see, but that nevertheless kept her aloft.  Wind, tired from our fight and unaccustomed to her startling evades was becoming sloppy in his advances.  Spider, mischievous Spider, with her plum-dark hair bobbing at every sharp turn, her bare feet kicking, her fists pulling at the way of the world…
I gripped my fists and cried out as loud as my voice could boom, “Spider, you foolish child!  You must flee!”

But I was soon distracted.

I noted flower petals that were not native to the region.  They drifted in capricious fashion along the strong breeze.  I cursed, and followed the trail of broken purity to the source.  On the edge of a cracked fountain, near the jungle forest, sat Arlés the Sweet Blossom, champion of Kupala and sorceress supreme.  Vines snaked to reach her, and flowers blossomed near her, despite the descent of night. She smiled at me alluringly, and I made all efforts to avoid her ensorcelling eyes.

She laughed.  ”Place not your fears on this sordid creature, Strong Earth.”  With a lazy hand that unfurled as an opening bud inviting a kiss, she gestured to her side, and I saw to my horror that more agents of heaven had come–and all were rushing forth, weapons eager to taste the blood of my Spider.

My chest tightened.  I could feel the slabs of rock beneath my feet quiver at my fury.  With a yell that threatened to tear out all that I was, I raised my arms.  A deafening noise cracked through the air.  The earth shook with such ferocity, that those on the ground were felled.  Those in the sky, unabated by my wordly displeasure, soon found that Earth was not easy to escape.  A chasm tore open across the ruins, and from its bowels erupted such a thick wall of dirt and rock that the pursuers were effectively stopped before they could reach their quarry.

Just as the curtain rose, Spider gazed upon me sullenly, her bold eyebrows furrowed deep over her pickled eyes.  She disliked being rescued.  I had a brief fear she would resume her fight without care.  When the curtain fell, I breathed a sigh of relief.

She had gone.

The wind quieted and the earth stilled, but there was still a roaring within my mind.  As I turned my head to gauge how many had come for this nefarious purpose, Wind came at my side and breathed quietly, “Friend Earth…you see now, I am not alone in my quest.”

Before me, amid weak foundations and destroyed walls, crumbled buildings and downed pillars, came men and women of the most illustrious cloth.  Just as I, they were servants of the gods.  They gazed upon me with virulence, and it was as if the entire universe had come to press on my heart.  Toshihiro, champion of Tenjin was present.  Once, we had fought side by side.  Now his dark eyes narrowed at me, colored with unsympathy.

And like a torch amid darkness, there stood my Flame.

My heart grew heavy.  Said I to Flame, “This is too cruel.  Not even your brilliance will survive to dance another day should this come to pass.”

The woman, with her twin blades, gazed at me levelly.  ”Noble Earth, you know it must be done.  Whether the intention was there, the Spider must account for the death she has caused. The gods demand it.”

“Brothers and Sisters,” cried I, “How can ye speak of harmony when you seek to unravel it?  The Spider has a patron!  His fury will undo our world should we seek to kill her!”

Wind sighed.  ”Friend Earth, your wisdom runs as deep as the soil.  Do not assume the basest of us.  What you speak of, we have anticipated.  We seek another solution.”

I gazed at him with tight jaw. “…What dost thou speak of?”

“The Spider, whether through folly or intention, has weaved herself into the jungle.  To destroy her would leave a void of hunger that would consume all.  Instead, we seek only to lay her to rest.”

“Thou speaks of entrapment.”  I looked at Arlés, who had hardly shifted from her spot.  My lip curled. “I was mystified as to the reason of your presence, but no more.”

Her rubious lips pouted. “Oh Earth, thou art a cullion…you always held me in such disdain.  Tisn’t fair.”

“My Spider holds greater sway in these jungles, Sweet Blossom.  All that lives here, answers to her.”

“Which is why she is dangerous,” Toshihiro, quiet son of the Far East, murmured.  ”She oversteps her station.  Twists existence and makes a mockery of it.”

“Is this an issue of pride, Toshihiro?”

“Noble Earth, you are wise, but stubborn, and bear far too much!” Flame cried passionately.  She stepped toward me, and her arms flickered away the harrowing sight of her sabers. “Shed your burden.  Let us deal with the child.  Thou knows that even should she come under your charge, she would not be exempt from destruction.”  Her hands held my face, and I felt myself weaken at the feel of her warmth.  Said Flame to me,  “She needs her patron above all else to understand her power and the discretion that should come with it.” She added in a low voice that burned me.  ”Perhaps she has been abandoned?  …And with reason?”

I looked around, hundreds of eyes on my person.  My eyes burned and I bit back my grief.  ”…Tis my fault, the tragedy this has become.  I can take no more.  I curse this life…I curse it!”  I fell to the earth.  I gripped my hand around my staff and bowed my head.  ”She cannot be harmed…Should she suffer, the perpetrator will never again walk this realm without the earth seeking to swallow him!”

“You have our word, Friend Earth.” Wind whispered over me, reduced to a shadow in the dusk.


Back to Chapter 8.4 | Forward to Inter. II

Intermission II: The Wind and the Web (cont.)

Unto the audience of champions, Wind spoke, his voice carried by the world’s breath to each ear.  ”Brothers and Sisters,” said he, “Admiration is due for your swift answer to thine patron’s call–but there need be only one party to this hunt.  It is in no way a reflection on yourselves, but simply a practical matter.  The Spider has strewn her web along all paths.  Disaster lies waiting for the overzealous tramp of an army’s feet.  Let us, in guile, slip along her web, with steps unburdened.”

“You would ask us to turn away from our duty?” One boisterous brave shouted, a suit of gleaming armor on his person, and a mace as large as his head.

Toshihiro, calculating son, said unto him, “I know not your patron, but champion, perpend on the purpose of our meeting.  All present seek the same goal.  Should the preliminary party fail, another will rise in vengeance.  Your coming here need not be in vain.  A perimeter may be set about the jungle.  The Spider may be tempted to flee, and your watch will be of most value.”

“And who shall be of the first party?” Called another brave.

Wind gestured at himself.  ”I, Champion of Njord, have right to this hunt, being the first to arrive.  Next, I call on Flame, for her light and ferocity in these dwindling hours. Also, the Sweet Blossom, whose skill is specially required, as well as Toshihiro, the wise and intelligent.”

“And I shall go,” I rumbled.  Taking my strength from the earth at my feet, I rose, and bore my eyes into Wind.  ”I claim the right to witness this act.”

“Thou cannot interfere,” Wind said to me.  His gaze was chilled.

I faced him, unrattled. “And I’ve sworn to correct any who would harm the Spider.  I mean to keep this vow.”

Wind sighed and turned his back to me. “Very well.”

There was a clatter as all turned to fulfill their role.  Left alone in the rubble, we five convened near the fountain–the only thing left untouched in all the mayhem.  ”We remain together,” Flame said as she held up her hand.  It ignited, dancing licks of fire rolling from her fingertips.  ”My light is somehow weaker here.  Danger lies for any who fade from its glow.  The dark of this jungle may very well swallow thee.”

“The Spider has weaved enchantments throughout,” said the Sweet Blossom. She eyed the dark jungle with disdain. “Tis sloppy work, but still effective.  Other traps likely rest for us.  Our pace must be gradual if I am to give ample warning of any malicious threads of magic.”

“How can we seek to find her quickly if we must travel as sloths?” Flame asked, her brows knitted.

Toshihiro answered.  ”Flame, of the tales I’ve gathered of the Spider, she is the prideful sort.  I confess that our brethren wait in vain for the rogue to dash into their midst.  She would much rather sit at the center of her web and meet all threats.”

“Nay, brother, that was good of you,” Spoke Wind.  ”To have so many agents thrashing about the jungle would never do.  The Spider would take hold of that confusion, and use it to her advantage.”

“It will not be a satisfying hunt, for you all, I fear,” Said I, in my bitterness.  ”The Spider would take initiative, should she feel it to her advantage.”

“There will be no complaints from this man, if that would be her wish,” Said Wind.

We moved as a line–Flame at the helm, with the Sweet Blossom behind.  After her came Toshihiro, than I, than Wind.  Night fell, and the jungle turned to utter darkness.  Only Flame’s torched fist, held high over head, undid the mysteries about us.  But as she had said prior, the power of her light seemed weaker here, and did not penetrate far into the dark.  Now and again, Arlés would whisper to Flame of some danger we could not see, and in turn, Toshihiro gave further advisement as to the Spider’s likely whereabouts given the traps laid and the terrain of the land.  Wind was a chilly breeze behind me, and my shoulders were as rocks against his resenting stare.  I did not look back upon his face, for fear of seeing the wraith that had taken my Brother.

Our discordian cinq passed roots that were as high as our waists, and cut through ferns taller than Flame’s reaching light.  Closed buds quivered at our passing.  It were as if they sensed the alienness of our persons.  From the red soil at my feet, I drew up an understanding.  I was the chosen son of the earth, and from the land intuitions came quietly.  With darkened eyes, I kept my knowledge to myself.

As we passed the broad trunk of an unnameable tree, the fallen vines at our feet gave a stir.  The Sweet Blossom gave a start, and leapt to the side, crying out that we should follow–but Toshihiro, man of keen mind, saw from the dying reaches of light, the unnatural weave of the hanging vines behind her.

Too late came his warning.  With a shriek, the emerald tendrils snatched at the Blossom’s limbs, and pulled her into the void.  Wind howled, some remnants of his love for the sorceress ripped out of his throat.  Flame ignited, all of her form turning bright and brilliant–an instinctual reaction, but one with dire effects.

Toshihiro, too close to her fiery body, stumbled away with arms held up to shield his face.  The vines at their feet lay forgotten.  Startled to life, they tripped the Son of the East in his lack of care, and away he went, dragged by the jungle to the unknown.

Wind shouted, “Arlés!  Toshihiro!  Speak to me, brothers!” but no answer came.

Flame’s sabers were drawn.  Her brilliant body burned bright, but still her light failed to illuminate our comrades whereabouts.  ”She is here!” Cried the daughter of the sands.  ”The Spider leers at us from the dark!  Arlés saw nothing of the danger that lay at our feet!”

“But where!?” Cried Wind, his teeth grit.

“All around Brother,” Said I in quiet.

Both my companions eyed me beadily.  ”What dost thou speak of?” Flame spat.  ”You speak as a man who knows!”

I eyed her, face as smooth as a river’s rock.  ”Flame, douse thy anger.   If I believed there to be danger, my voice would have been yours.”

“I call on it now, damn you!  What dost thou speak of, when you say the Spider is all around us!?  Why does she not strike?”

I smiled at her.  ”Because she knows I love you both, as life does the suns.”  I gestured at the dark trees.  ”The forest is alive, Flame.”

Flame scoffed, the fires over her body reaching higher into the dark.  ”Of course it is!”

I shook my head, and my smile faded.  ”Nay.  I mean, the forest is alive, my friend.  Aware.  These leaves stir with the whispers of beings sentient.”

Wind took a step toward me, his face dark.  ”Dost thou meanst to say that the Spider has given ‘agnitio’ against the will of the gods?”

“Her patron may have charged her with the task.”

“Task of what, Earth!?” Wind bellowed.  The trees and fauna rustled.  He paid no mind, and even in the thick of the jungle, a gust swept through.  ”To forsake the threads of creation for whimsical fantasies bred in a bastard mind!?”

“Speak not of bastards, lest your fledgeling suffer from your curses!” I growled.

Wind took me by the front, his face tight with murder.  Flame shouted at us something unintelligible to our fury-driven minds.  She made for us, one saber gone and a hand outreached in its place.

Then a light brighter than even her brilliance broke through, and all attention was drawn to the canopy, where glowing threads, the shade of mint, weaved in a confusing cross that sometimes condensed to form patches against a black backdrop.  Small beads traveled along the threads, where they vanished into the pale trunks of the tall trees.

And there hung Spider, upside down, held in the cradle of a design still a mystery to me and my fellows.  Her eyes were small beacons that challenged the mettle of all they laid gaze to.  Her long blunt bangs swayed, as she rocked from side to side, emerald threads about her shoulders and legs.  With each swing, the corners of her mouth spread wider into a grin.  At either side of her, tangled in her web, were the Sweet Blossom and Toshihiro.  They hung like rag dolls.  From their chests erupted similar threads as the ones that spanned the canopy–but these lines pulsed periwinkle, and tangled with the weave of emerald.  Beads flowed from their chests.

My heart chilled.  ”Nay, Spider!” I cried, “Thou mustn’t harm them!  Let the braves free, so that I may speak with thee.”

“Speak–Father Stone.” She said in an accent clipped and lisping.  ”The Spider listens.”

Flame brandished her saber.  ”Demon!  Thou art a plague on life!”

Spider only blinked at her coolly.  Then her grin turned to a lion’s smile.

The probing threads that made nest in the bosoms of our brothers were severed, along with the other lines that kept them aloft.  They fell, and it was Wind’s quick gust that slowed their descent.  The world stirred by his powerful suggestion–the trees rocked, Flame’s light flickered, and the dead leaves and dust fluttered upward in a startled dance.  Even the emerald threads, alien to us, were made to shift and sway.

It was Flame’s voice, as gunpowder ignited, that alerted me to what came next.

Spider seemed to fall, a marionette doll tangled in her own strings.  To these eyes of burnt umber, I could call her descent nothing else.  But the humor that fell from her lips–a chitter more than a bubbling giggle–proved my error.  As she came near to the ground with limbs a disarray and her body twisted and toiled to disquieting dimensions, she seemed to spring to salvation.  It was at the last possible moment, when in my soles I felt her hair brush the soil, that the Spider came up again.  She went rolling, left knee the weight that lead the swing of her body, right arm extended, with her other leg tucked in.  I saw the flash of pale threads, caught in the light of Flame’s anger, caught in the glow of Spider’s mystery, pull from the girl’s clenched left fist.  The sight was lost to me in the coming moments.

In her spin, the Spider touched the earth once with her right foot, before she kicked away, up and over me, to my companions behind.  From above, she jerked to a stop mid-air, by the grace of her curious webbings, and it was this startling halt in motion that caused Flame a costly pause.  Her saber came rising too late, like a sleepy king against a dark assassin, before it was struck away to the shadows.  The next blow was swift to the head, and sent Flame spinning to the ground.

“Monster!  I would have your head!” Wind bellowed as he started forward.

I blocked him, my brows furrowed deep. “You will stay your anger, Brother Wind.  She will not be harmed.”

“You would have her slay us in our passivity!?”

“Nay, I would have you keep your word, Son of Njord.  Flame is not beyond being burned by her own passion, thou knows this to be true.  I beg thee, stay your anger.”

“You ask much of me, Earth.” Wind hissed.  But for his heated stare, he stepped down.

I turned, and struck my staff on the ground. “Spider!” I bellowed, urging all of my frustration into the name.  The care of my companions was not swallowed by my differing goals.  She stood, as a predator guarding her dinner, with Flame’s fire extinguished as she lay still on the ground.  “Restrain yourself, foolish girl!  They have given their word you shall not be harmed.”

“Must speak lightly, then.” Spider murmured, her lion’s smile now back to its original grin.  ”Words sting.  Poison to life.  My life…”  Her grin twitched.  ”…Hers.  They harm.  Verily.”

I shook my head and stepped near her, slowly.  My Spider, my child, was different.  Perhaps corrupted by whatever source of power she reveled in.  I extended my hand.  Fear was a demon in me…and it cackled that perhaps my companions had spoken the truth.  “Child.  Your life is in shambles.”

She flinched from my hand and glared at me through her overgrown bangs.  Her lip pouted.  ”You wound me.  Liar. You bring harm.”

“Nay, sweet Spider.  Thou knows my love for thee is everlasting…”

“Even with death?  My soiled hands,” And she held them to her face, tensed and curled like claws.  ”Will not clean.  I pull.  Pull many threads…But my own eludes.  Eternally, He says.  Rules, He says.  All folly.”  Her eyes, emerald stones, pierced me from their shadow.  ”Father Stone. Spider can undo…the knot in you.”

I clutched the stitch in my chest, and felt my legs tense with the desire to step back.  I fought for stalwartness.  ”Nay, sweet Spider.  I would keep this knot in me.  Not all in the world must be undone and rewoven.”

“But Spider must.”

“Child, you know not of the things you ask for!  You have taken and given things that are not yours to give!  Do these new lives–these quivering flowers and these hissing ferns–do they speak happiness unto thine ear?  And of the souls parted and sprinkled elsewhere from your punitive hands, does their evil demise vanish from thine heart?  Nay, sweet Spider, you seek to mend the world of perceived wrongs, but in doing so, you create wrong within you.  This most important aspect of your life–this most important weave of existence–is the one thing you cannot change.  Stop this!“

Tears, luminescent with her potent grief, trailed into the hollows of her cheeks.  Spider turned from me, and hung her head.  Behind me, I felt the stirrings of our other companions.  The Sweet Blossom sucked in breath as a desperate fish, and Toshihiro coughed roughly.  I did not turn my head, but instead tried to keep my focus.

“It is with pain that I ask this of thee…But Spider, perhaps thou should accept our solution to these troubles.  Rest your heart, rest these souls who scream of entrapment.  You need not fight anymore.”

“Aye…” Murmured the Spider, face still hidden.  ”Would accept. Will accept.  …But Father Stone…dost thou know?  Spider’s web trembles.  Events, Father Stone.  Long and far.  I must follow.  Toward tangled prey.”  She turned back to me, and her eyes were aglow.  Over head, the canopy dimmed to darkness once again.  All the jungle shivered and creaked.  ”I shall succumb…”  There was a crack, and Wind grunted as he pulled me back from the path of a fallen tree.  The behemoth swung from the shadows and laid itself between us and the Spider.

The girl smiled.  ”…But only to my conqueror!”


Back to Inter. I | Forward to Inter. III

Intermission III: The Wind and the Web (concl.)

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.”

“…A hole?”

“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.”

“Until when?”

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.”

No!

“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.


The End


Back to Inter. II | Forward to Chapter 9.1