Chapter 18: Retrieval.
But not for long. A clawed hand grasped one of his wrists and yanked him upwards, and he found himself thrown back down to the floor on the edge of the steps.
“I do not know where you have acquired these fine sensibilities of ill-placed mercy, Slayd,” Guile snarled down at him, hot with rage, “but best you get rid of them, and quickly. I will not allow even you to take this small joy away from me.”
Slayd scrambled to his feet and tried to peer past Guile into the darkness beyond, wondering how much time he had before it would be too late. “I – I can’t just - ”
“Oh, you will.”
Guile reached for him. Slayd swore he was smoldering with anger, ready to tear his limbs from his body and wet the floor with his blood and –
And a dizzying odor shot straight up Slayd’s nose as Wretch practically flew down the steps and jumped between the two.
With such an evil glare!
I took him by the left leg
And threw him down the stairs - ”
He squealed with something Slayd thought was delight, and lunged at Guile. His contorted limbs fastened around his waist and arms with such a hard grip, Slayd could see Guile’s skin turning white underneath. Guile struggled and twisted in Wretch’s grasp, snarling, “Get off of me, Wretch! You have no interest in what happens to Jyrr, what are you - ”
Wretch ignored his words. He wriggled his tight grasp around Guile until he had him from behind, pinning his wings between their bodies. Guile threw himself back against the floor, slamming Wretch’s spine against the edge of the steps. “Get off!”
Wretch’s peg-tooth grin opened wide and he panted at Slayd, either unaware or indifferent to the pain he should be in.
“Baby’s path’s a silver thread
Sailing through the sky,
Sailing o’er the sea of sleep
While the stars float by - ”
Slayd stared at him, hesitating. What is he trying to tell me? He glanced back into the darkness, wondering if he had missed something important. Wretch’s struggles with Guile were growing more heated; Guile’s words had degenerated into guttural roars of fury as he thrashed against the vice-like grip. Slayd could see blood splattered on the walls. Wretch’s slurred voice grew agitated and insistent.
“Sail, baby, sail!
Far across the sea
And don’t forget to come
Back again to me!”
Slayd got the hint. He jumped up and fled back to the edge of the stairs, hastily scanning near the drop-off for any way he could get across.
There it was! A faint sliver of reflected light glistened below his feet, just within reach. He squinted hard, trying to adjust his eyes as much as he could to the dark. He could just barely make out the hazy outline of gossamer steps, spiraling away and across the chasm. Guided by this tenuous foothold and against his better judgment, he pushed himself out into the abyss.
His footing held. The near-transparent threads making up these new steps seemed to become a little clearer once he was treading upon them, and he tried his very best to swallow his fear. A roar of murderous outrage from the edge of the stair echoed through the hollow, fueling his determination. He began to run.
"I hope I’m not already too late… Guile will never forgive me for this…"
The whispering voices were clearer down here, and were growing harder and harder to ignore. He still couldn’t make out any words (which comforted him a little. He imagined that he really did not want to know what they were trying to say).
Slayd concentrated very hard on not looking down. The thread-bare steps slowly descended far to the left of where the stone stair ended. He found himself slowing down a little, unsure if he could trust his own dim vision to the darkness of this hole. He couldn’t really see much of anything aside from the wavering reflected light on the silk that supported his weight.
Frustrated, he went against his better judgment. He called, “Please! Wait! Where did you go? I must speak with you!”
A low, quiet hiss emanated from the blackness all around him and traveled up his bones, but he didn’t get another response. He sighed to himself and pressed further on.
But he didn’t have to go far. His feet hit stone, and he stumbled onto the top of what he guessed was a tall pillar of quartz, jutting up from the endless chasm below. He inched to the edge and risked peering over it. “Well, I suppose even hollows like this one must have a bottom somewhere down there…” He gulped and looked up instead.
The silk stairs had led Slayd to the edge of a dense and intricate web. He could dimly see two figures deep within, one lithely moving among the threads, the other limp and unmoving.
Slayd swallowed hard. This was probably the private parlor of the Spider Queen, where living guests would be even more unwelcome than in the rest of her castle. But… If he did not do something, Jyrr was going to die. Probably for sure this time. Slayd began climbing without hesitation.
“Please stop!” He called, trying to get the Spider Queen’s attention. His only response was a flurry of whispers coming from far below. His footing slipped, and he fell a short way before getting caught in the strands of web.
He struggled madly, but only succeeded in tangling his whole legs in the sticky stuff. “Oh no… I cannot very well pull myself out of this! It’s too - ” He froze in his squirming and frowned. “Oh Slayd, you dummy! You still have a knife, don’t you?”
He pulled the gift Jyrr had given him out of his shirt and jabbed unceremoniously at the web. It gave quickly, and he tumbled down a few more meters before getting snagged again. “Oh dear… I’m certainly in a predicament now…”
Guile snarled in futile rage as he saw Slayd disappear into the dark. Wretch’s putrid breath wheezed against his neck, and he could feel the creature’s mouth grin against his skin.
And doesn’t know where to find him!
Leave him alone and he will come home
Dragging his burden behind him…”
Guile slammed his back against the steps once again. “You persist with mocking me! I have never done anything to you to merit this betrayal. Release me, Wretch!” He twisted his frame to heave both of them against the opposite wall. “Or I swear by the dead gods and dying demons I will swallow you whole.”
In debt to none I be...”
His hold slackened, and he fell limp to the floor. Guile staggered with the sudden lifting of his weight. He stumbled backwards and landed next to Wretch, who leered at him and coiled a twisted hand loosely around his throat.
If nobody cares for me.”
Guile stared open-mouthed at him, pursuit forgotten for a brief moment. “Never once did I say I no longer cared for you, Wretch.”
The leer vanished, and he bared his pegged teeth. “Hush! Hush a bye, baby!” He shrank away from Guile and thrust a crooked finger in the direction Slayd had vanished.
Is down a winding stair;
She has many curious things
To show him when he is there.
But no, no, no, to go unsought
Is entirely all in vain,
For who goes down her winding stair
Would ne’er come out again.”
Guile’s rage returned anew and he bellowed, hurling a seething blue fireball from his hands into the dark. But it was without aim. If Wretch was right, Slayd was already within the Spider Queen’s lair. He dare not follow.
Slayd was beginning to wonder if this would be his last Very Bad Idea. If he tried to struggle, the web only ensnared him further. If he used his dagger to cut the web, he would just fall further down into the yawning chasm below him, and he assumed that at some point there would no longer be any web left to catch him.
He was just about to the point of panic when he felt the sticky threads vibrate. He looked up to see over a dozen pale-bodied spiders shuffling along the web, edging slowly towards him.
His eyes grew wide. “Things just keep getting worse, don’t they?” He made one last-ditch effort to stab at the threads, severing his last tenuous hold. Maybe he would lose consciousness from the fall before he hit the bottom that must be so very far, far down there.
But he didn’t fall. The spiders were already upon him, and had spun their silk around his arms, hauling him up the web. They made no move to wrap him up like they had Jyrr; instead, he found himself tumbled on top of the largest one (who was about the size of a large dog), and hoisted back up to the pillar. He was dumped there unceremoniously and the spiders vanished.
He groaned and rubbed his backside. “That hurt…”
Ethereal laughter echoed around him, making him jump and glance around.
The Spider Queen loomed in the web over his head, white eyes staring into the abyss beyond them. Slayd had to clap a hand over his mouth to keep from shrieking in shock.
The lower half of her dress had fallen away, revealing a long, narrow spider’s body and eight hairy legs. Four of them clutched the web; the others held Jyrr close to her belly, still wrapped in silk. There was blood soaking through one end of the wrap, and it wasn’t moving.
“You are welcome to join me, Heir of Moroloth, if you desire.” She smiled, revealing long mandibles hooked with black fangs.
Slayd’s stomach lurched, but he miraculously remained stoic. “Is he dead?”
She didn’t answer for a moment, as if she were feeling Jyrr’s presence to see if he was alive or not. She spoke, “He still lives, but only just. What matters it to you?”
“I don’t want him to die.” It took everything inside of Slayd to keep his voice steady.
The Spider Queen didn’t speak, nor did Slayd hear a whisper. It was almost as if she didn’t understand what he had said to her.
“Please,” Slayd pleaded, “I don’t want him to die. Guile does, but I don’t. I do not know if that means anything to you or not, but please, don’t kill him.”
The Spider Queen still did not move, except for the slow chewing motion her mandibles were making. A long moment of silence passed, and Slayd was beginning to think that she intended on feeding upon him next, if he didn’t go away. But he remained where he was (even if he thought it to be another Very Bad Idea) and waited for her to answer.
She finally drew herself upright and dropped the wrap that Jyrr was in. Slayd’s eyes grew wide, knowing that Jyrr would never survive the endless fall into the inky blackness below them. But he shouldn’t have worried. The wrapping snagged itself on a few strands of the sticky silk below, just like Slayd himself had done moments before.
The Spider Queen’s voice echoed around him in a whisper that reminded him more of a sigh than anything, and she climbed the web down past Slayd and deeper into the hollow below. “I cannot oppose you, Heir of Moroloth. Take your plaything - and your guardian - and leave this place.”
Slayd found he could breathe again, although he hadn’t been aware that he had been holding his breath. “Thank you,” he said as the Spider Queen descended below and out of sight.
A few of the large white spiders crawled up over the pillar’s edge and freed Jyrr from the web, dragging his body behind them. They paused in front of Slayd, who knelt beside the body and pulled at the wrapping. But it was stuck together very snugly and he found nothing he tried to do would make it tear away. He dared not use his dagger, for fear of cutting Jyrr. He finally just gave up and grabbed the heavy wrap, tugging it along with him as he carefully set foot on the near-transparent steps that had led him here, and slowly navigated his way back to the stone stair.
Guile was waiting for him at the bottom of the stairway, dark with rage. Wretch was nowhere to be seen.
Slayd froze. Perhaps it would be better if he went back and risked the dark hiding places of the Spider Queen’s lair instead. But Guile stood silently aside and motioned for him to come back into the castle.
Slayd breathed a sigh of relief and rested his burden on the floor, and scanned the sticky fibers for any point where he might be able to tear it open. His guardian said nothing, only watched him search. Slayd tried his very best to ignore him. But he couldn’t find a way to open it, and he didn’t even know if Jyrr was dying (or already dead) inside. He looked up at Guile, not knowing what else to do.
“Why do you wish to save him?” Guile muttered, but he knelt beside Slayd and unsheathed his claws. He slashed haphazardly at the encasing, splitting it down the middle and scratching long, deep cuts into Jyrr’s body. Little blood flowed though, and Slayd realized just how much of it the Spider Queen had already drawn from him. “Is… is he dead?”
Guile ignored his question and pulled Jyrr into another deep kiss, breathing life back into his still body. Jyrr gasped and coughed violently, and Guile pulled away from him as if touching him was nauseating. Jyrr groaned and clutched his new wounds on his chest, staring blankly up at Guile and Slayd. His skin had turned ashy white, and it wasn’t but a moment before his eyes rolled back in his head and he passed out again.
Slayd pulled Jyrr’s body close to his, and made sure he still had a pulse. He looked up at Guile, who was watching him, silently seething.
“I… I know you’re awfully mad at me Guile, but I can’t just let someone die…”
“Yes. Yes you can.” Guile hissed, “It’s easy. You just walk away.”
Slayd shook his head, trying to ignore Guile’s anger. “I can’t. You’ve already killed him once, can’t that be enough?”
“I will not leave him here.” Slayd’s courage was building, although he wasn’t sure if that was a Good Thing or a Bad Thing. “He’s coming with us.”
Guile said nothing for a long moment, and stood frozen and staring at Slayd, sockets narrowed to slits. The only motion he made was the flexing of his bony fingers. Slayd’s newfound courage already began to flag, and he chewed his lip. Maybe he had just made a Big Mistake.
But Guile suddenly looked away and forced himself to swallow his wrath. It would do no good to lash out at him here. “So be it, Slayd. He comes with us. I won’t quickly forget this.”
Slayd nodded and breathed a sigh of relief, not comprehending the danger that lay in Guile’s words. He got to his feet and attempted to carry Jyrr, but he was a little too heavy for someone as small as Slayd.
Guile held out his hands and sighed bitterly. “Give him to me, Slayd. I will carry him.”
Slayd looked at him warily, but allowed him to take the unconscious man. He followed Guile back up the winding stairs and through the wooden door, back into the throne room.
Lord Tarantula was there to greet them. His eyes were narrowed to slits, trained on Jyrr’s unconscious form. He bowed stiffly. “I do not know what you think you are doing, but be warned. Even the Heir of Moroloth cannot stay the Spider Queen’s wrath for long. You must go. I will escort you out.” He turned and stalked away. Guile and Slayd followed close on his heels.
Lord Tarantula’s long stride was difficult for Slayd to keep up with, but he dared not ask him to slow down. As they retraced their previous steps through the wide hall he swore he saw hands moving behind the tapestries, and spiders were collecting in every corner and patch of shadow they passed. The whispers in the walls were growing louder.
They turned the corner that led past the huge square hole in the floor, and Slayd jumped nearly out of his skin. Swarming up out of the hole were thousands upon thousands of spiders: tiny ones and huge ones, all pale and writhing. Teetering on the very edge of the hole was Wretch.
Kissed the boys and made them cry
But when the King came out to play,
Georgie Porgie ran away.”
His sing-songy voice was directed at Guile, who paused and turned to stare at Wretch, his face a strange mixture of expressions Slayd had a hard time interpreting.
Lord Tarantula stopped and grabbed Slayd’s hand. “We must go.”
At the other man’s words, Guile shook his head as if to clear it. “Forgive me, Lord Tarantula. I must speak with Wretch for a moment.”
“You have precious little time.”
Guile nodded. “I understand. The Spider Queen’s anger cannot be stayed long, but I will be brief. Please escort Slayd across the bridge.”
Lord Tarantula inclined his head. “And what of your prize? Do you intend to keep him?”
Guile’s gaze flicked to Slayd. “…That is up to the Heir of Moroloth.”
“Then I suggest you give him to me.”
Guile conceded, and handed Jyrr over to the other man. “I will not be long.”
Lord Tarantula nodded. “No, you won’t.” He tugged Slayd along behind him, leaving Guile and Wretch among the swarming mass of spiders.
Slayd was practically jogging, trying to make sure that Lord Tarantula wouldn’t end up just dragging him along behind. “Will Guile be okay?”
The strange man didn’t say anything in return. When they reached the entrance, he shoved the massive creaking doors open with a shoulder and pulled Slayd down the steps as they exited the castle. It was eerily quiet outside.
Lord Tarantula carried Jyrr and Slayd one by one across the precarious bridge without a word. He bowed to Slayd once both were safely across and turned to go, but Slayd tugged at his sleeve. “Lord Tarantula?”
“What is it, my Lord?”
Slayd peered beyond him back to the castle. “Will Guile be all right?”
“He will either come shortly, or never be seen again.” He didn’t look too concerned about either possibility. “Do you desire for me to stay with you until he arrives?”
“Yes please.” Slayd didn’t like being with Lord Tarantula, but he was more worried about being alone (and Jyrr didn’t count at all, being as he was unconscious right now).
They waited only a few moments, but it seemed like an eternity to Slayd. The absence of the whispering voices unnerved him almost as much as their presence had been when they had first entered the castle. He wondered what was going on inside that had caused them to fall silent.
But Guile strode through the doors before Slayd could do too much more worrying, and flew himself across the bridge. He inclined his head to Lord Tarantula, who returned the formality. To Slayd’s eyes, he looked almost disappointed to see Guile.
“Here is where I leave you, Heir of Moroloth,” Lord Tarantula said, bowing to Slayd. “Unless accompanied by your master, do not return.” And there he left them.
Slayd turned to Guile. “What did you need to talk to Wretch about?”
Guile’s face was unreadable. “Never you mind, Slayd.” He picked up Jyrr’s unconscious body, shifting his weight to one shoulder and grabbing Slayd’s wrist with his free hand.
“We are pressed for time. We must leave this wood, and quickly.”