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!”