I ran my fingers just above the silken strands covering the outer fencing of the centaur camp, careful not to disturb them. Death and decay had settled into the camp, filling our nostrils with the foul scent as we inspected the area. The recognizable chill of death snaked its way up my spine and made its home at the base of my neck, causing the little hairs on the back of my neck to stand on end. While the rest of us investigated the web infested camp, Artis kept a safe distance behind us with Yunkle at his side. At least he chose to stay. I was grateful for that. I did not want to have to go back on our deal. Doing so could put Artis’ mother in danger if any of Jannaj’s bandits had escaped or been away during the fight and got word of their leader’s untimely death. Ultimately, I did not want that to happen but I would have had no choice but to dissolve the deal if he backed out. A deal is a deal and I had an image to uphold: an image I found myself getting tired of maintaining.
There had been no movement in nor anywhere near the camp and all was silent aside from the gentle whistle of the wind. As I walked along the front perimeter of the camp, I continued running my fingers just above the woven strands, mentally noting their paths. They were thicker than any ordinary spider silks and more coarse. I mentally plotted our location in relation to the hills and lake south west of us and that was when I remembered talk of an enormous spider who had been seen wandering the area. She was a great beast: a queen of spiders and had been said to be a champion of the Toxic Alliance.
“Looks like not all of ’em got away,” De Koninck noted as she poked at an emaciated centaur corpse with her boot. It had been wrapped in the same silken strands that covered the camp. “Maybe Rhys’ killer is tangled in here somewhere,” she added with a rough chuckle.
“Be careful not to disturb the silk,” I warned. “It may draw unwanted attention.” Leaning over, I inspected the corpse and wrinkled my nose, hoping to find the man in the fancy coat that Jannaj had mentioned and the Asura the man was said to be traveling with. If they had fallen victim to this creature’s trap, our work would be done and we could resume our life. I had little doubt we would all be bitter about it, but then I would not have to risk uncovering truths I was not ready to divulge. “Just the one?” I asked, closing my eyes and reaching out with my senses. “I feel more.”
“Got one here,” Seren pointed out as she nodded her head toward another corpse. Her usual shade of porcelain skin had grown even paler. “Been dead awhile.”
“Keep your eyes open for any movement,” I warned. “Could be one, maybe more and they may not have moved on-” I let my words trail off as I continued looking over the camp. I hoped that amid the tangle of web, we would find signs of the people we were tracking. A body. Tracks. I would take anything at this point. I was already tired of clues and guessing. I wanted evidence and facts. I wanted to know our enemy.
“We should go,” Quint advised as he approached us with Michi lurking close by his side. He had drawn his bow and held it tightly in his hand. Despite wearing his dark glasses, I could tell by the wrinkles forming on his brow that he was concerned.
I nodded and motioned to everyone else to leave. As I slowly followed them, I looked upon the mass collection of silken strands engulfing the centaur camp. I contemplated again on the their creator. A creature of that size and skill could provide the needed distraction I sought. Because I was not completely certain, I knew it would be a gamble. I had no way of telling for sure what would come our way when I called.
It was a risk I needed to take.
As we made our cautious departure from the web ridden camp, I lingered and brought up the rear of the group as I traced the strands with my eyes. Every creation had a starting point. I just had to find this tangled mess’ start. As I came near the edge of the camp’s makeshift fence, a glimmer caught my eye. Sunlight illuminated a single strand climbing back up the hill that the camp nestled into. I made sure everyone else was ahead of me before I sidestepped over to the strand and nonchalantly gave it a few gentle tugs. I hoped to the gods my plan would work.
I did not have to wait long.
We heard clacking followed by a sickening crunch of wood in the camp behind us. My heart jumped into my throat as I watched a dark shadow spread out before me and I did not need to turn around to know I had caught the attention of the spider queen. Long, dark legs fluidly maneuvered over the top of the hill and down onto the roof of the centaur camp’s main shelter. The hard wood bowed and gave way under the weight of her large, black body. I turned, facing the giant beast and drew my axe.
“Gods!” Seren exclaimed as she clumsily drew the heavy hammer from her back.
“Bear’s back! That is a large creature!” De Koninck bellowed as she joined me at my side, her greatsword drawn and in hand.
“We need to get out of here!” Artis shouted, nervously motioning for them all to make a hasty retreat.
Quint readied his bow, pulling the string back as he yelled over his shoulder at Artis. “And go where? She’ll hunt us down before we can pass through the hill!”
“We stay and fight!” I ordered. “We can take her!”
As the spider queen advanced, I stepped back, keeping distance between me and the creature. There was a faint greenish glow that enveloped her intimidating body. This was indeed the Toxic Alliance’s champion spider queen who I had hoped to catch the attention of. I struggled to keep myself calm and collected in the face of this hulking danger as well as the rising anxiety and excitement. The five of us could handle the great beast, of that I was almost completely sure. Stepping away, however, would bring our numbers down to four. I did not have to go far but I also did not know how long I would need to be gone.
The spider queen reared slightly, the sunlight glinting off of her dark, deadly fangs. A slim arrow of light sailed past me and buried itself in the spider’s front leg. A furious airy scream erupted from the creature’s jowls and she lunged forward toward the Adviser who readied another arrow as he called for Michi to attack.
“Go for her legs!” De Koninck yelled as she swung her large Norn greatsword at the spider’s spindly legs. There was a loud, dull thud as her weapon connected with one of the appendages and was followed by another loud airy scream from the spider queen. Molson pushed himself up onto his back legs, letting out a great roar before using the weight of his broad body to come down hard with claws outstretched on the spider queen’s thorax. Thoroughly annoyed by the great bear’s attack, the queen let out a hiss and attempted to bite him.
I joined in the fight, unleashing grasping claws of energy with each swing of my axe. The sounds of battle rang out as we all fought to bring down the beast. Taking the large, ornate hammer firmly in her hands, Seren rushed to De Koninck’s side and brought the heavy weapon down hard on one of the spider’s legs. A bright flash of golden light emanated from the hammer’s head, illuminating the decorative wings. The young guardian flinched at the unexpected reaction from the weapon which the spider queen took to her advantage and knocked Seren back. Before the young guardian could get to her feet, thick strands of silk sailed from the spider and wrapped her in a sturdy cocoon.
“Get me outta this!” Seren’s muffled cry filled my ears and I rushed towards the bundle of silk, tearing at the strands as fast as I could. I heard a yell and within half a moment, Artis’ large warthog rushed to my side, tearing at the silks with his strong tusks. The spider queen crawled her way towards the cocoon, ready to consume its contents. I struck at the bundle of silk again with my axe but the creature was drawing closer and neither I nor Yunkle had made enough progress.
“De Koninck!” I yelled. I did not have to say anything more. The Norn gracefully dodged the spider queen and called for Molson as the creature tried to impale De Koninck with one of her sharp legs.
“Stand back!” De Koninck ordered Seren before thrusting her great blade into the tangled silk.
Together, we tore at the Cocoon while Quint and Artis’ arrows sailed past us, holding the creature at bay. Our two weapons working together tore a large enough hole that Seren could fit through. I grabbed Seren’s outstretched hand by the wrist and pulled as hard as I could. No sooner had we gotten her out than the spider queen descended upon the cocoon. As the creature found it empty, she let out an angry hiss and turned her attention towards De Koninck who let out a fierce battle cry as she and Molson tangled with the beast.
As we all traded blows with the spider queen, I used the confusion of the battle to start my slow withdrawal back. Options on how to withdraw from the group without drawing too much attention passed through my mind and I immediately dismissed the useless ones. Nothing too elaborate. Something simple and relevant.
And when I returned, would I find them all dead?
I tried to shut out the thought from my mind. We had chosen these individuals because they were all capable fighters and I had to believe that they were. I had seen them survive skirmishes with great champions and I had all survived the destruction of our beloved city. I had to believe. I made myself believe. Anything less would keep me from doing what I needed to do. Rhys was right. There were choices I had to make. Choices they would not understand but I hoped to the gods they would forgive me in the end.
“I see someone,” I lied as I looked over my shoulder. “It might be one of them or maybe they know something!”
“Let’s go then!” De Koninck exclaimed, blocking a strike from the spider.
“No!” I replied, putting up a hand. “We need to take her down! Quint was right, she will follow if we do not deal with her. You four can do this without me. She’s weakening.”
I caught Seren flashing me an uncertain look, laced with distrust. A sharp pang of guilt cut into me but I bit back the pain and turned to run away from the battle. As I passed Quint, I caught a glance of uncertainty on his face. Whether it from the battle itself or my departure, I could not say. I ran past him wordlessly, focusing on my destination.
“Hey!” Artis cried. “Where ya going? Battles the other way!”
“Stay here and watch their backs!” I barked, not slowing for a reply. I did not want to look back for fear of the gamble with their lives turning into a tragedy. I forced myself on, despite how much I wanted to turn back, and followed the slope of the hill down towards the lake. Making sure I was unseen, I turned left sharply until I came to a rocky ledge that bordered the lake. Again, making sure no eyes were on me, I sidestepped along the edge against a rocky hill and carefully maneuvered over large rough boulders that jutted out from the hillside. I pulled myself around a tall outcropping, holding on to the rock with a white knuckled grip so as not to fall. A small, dark opening in the rocky hill greeted me on the other side.
After striking a flame against a spare torch left in the cave, I tucked my flint stones back in their pouch hanging on my hip. The torch’s flickering flames illuminated the rough path and earthen floor as I followed it deeper into the hill. It was cool inside and felt refreshing on my warm skin heated from battle. Despite my want to lean against the wall for a moment and enjoy this reprieve, I did not have much time so I needed to quickly rectify whatever situation wait for me in the main chamber.
With one hand holding the torch, I ran my other hand along the rough wall until I felt a specific distinct shape hidden nestled in the rock. I gripped the rough shape of an inverted sword and turned it counter clockwise until I heard a series of clicks, followed by an unrecognizable grinding sound that echoed throughout the cave. Unsure if the gears were functioning properly, I counted the clicks silently anyway and waited until I heard nine of them before pushing the rough shape back into the wall. There was a final loud click as the contraption Rhys had installed shut down.
I cautiously continued down the dark corridor until it widened into a larger cavern. The grinding had me concerned that perhaps the traps were not functioning appropriately so I watched my footing, stepping only where I knew it was safe. Luckily the shadows cast by my torchlight against the rough wall hid any evidence of the traps. I did not want visual reminders of how many ways I could be skewered or sliced while walking down this corridor.
My flickering torchlight seemed to get lost in the swallowing blackness as I entered the large cavern. I searched around me with my torch, looking for the metal pyre stands to light and cut through the dark. I found one, about where I remembered it was, and lit it with my torch. The firelight grew and illuminated more of the dark cavern. I let my eyes adjust as the light danced off the rough rock walls as well as the dirt and rock floor. It glinted off of twisted metal, laying heaped upon the middle of the cavern. Bowing my head, my heart sunk into the deepest pits of my being.