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The party of vagrants slowly trudged along the beaten path on the cold, rocky mountainside. If you focused just hard enough and you had decent eyesight, you could just possibly see the towering spires of Wratholme, capital of the locale. Surely there, at least, someone could hire these able bodied men who had been hardest hit by the depression and drought? This was, of course, their anchor of hope.
The leader of the party, meaning the one in front, was an older gentleman of, at a cursory glance, about mid-forties. He had a rather gruff expression to him, seeming dour and stolid in his ways. He used his long Bo staff to lead himself along the worn path, skillfully maneuvering over lone rocks and ridges in the way.
This man, whom most knew only as Rider, was merely looking for work to support his family. While he rarely spoke or interacted with any of the other nomads, they were somewhat awed and somewhat frightened of this sulking man. There were stories, of course, most dealing with his actions in the War of the Fallen, where all great mages practically made themselves extinct with their folly, and some dealt with his past riches, squandered on drinks and remedies to harsh speculations.
Rider walked in a way much like a homeless fellow down on his luck, staring at the ground contemplating his next move. Often he would search his large sack that hung over his broad shoulders, to no avail.
Now, Rider was possibly one of the top experts on beasts of all kinds, from dire rats to the hugely feared bulettes. It was rumored that he had even once fought a Nalfeshnee and had lived to tell the tale, although it was never known who had started the story and if it was real.
Knowing that, the other wanderers always took his words, however rare, to great consideration, especially concerning the safety of the party. So, when several minutes after they had passed a small ruin on the mountainside he hesitated to move forward, the whole train halted and awaited his words which were surely forthcoming.
“We need to choose a new path…” murmured Rider, unsure of himself, so out of character.
“What do you mean? We’ve no other paths to take except the one days back, and who knows how long it’ll take to get to the city then!”
“We don’t have enough food! Think of a solution.”
With a gentle sigh, Rider once more searched his bag, pulling out something of huge expense and value to him; a tanglefoot bag. This bag would, once thrown, explode into adhesive ooze that would keep everything right where it should be. His reason for doing this was, of course, what he had seen further up the mountain.
The thing he had seen was hugely rare nowadays, and he had thought they were extinct; his hopes were annihilated now. The figure he had seen had been a mere glimmer on the horizon, but he knew what it would mean. He had seen its kind before, a pale body with the dark blue engravings on the skin, with its searching white eyes, seeing through you and into your soul, knowing what makes you tick. He shivered at the thought of it. Now, consider this: A hero of his time, brought to fear over this being. What could it possibly be, you may ask? That will become apparent later.
At this point, Rider wielded his staff in a defensive position. He knew well that many would starve should they turn back, and he had no doubt that many would die if they went forward. He merely sighed and said thusly:
“Those of you who would scoff at Death, those of you who know all the devils in all the hells by name, and those of you who would march at the enemy knowing the odds are against you, you would come. The others, those of you whom have lived sheltered lives of ease, those of you who still believe the gods give a damn about a couple of human souls, those people should turn around. What lay before us is something unholy, ungodly, and unnatural.” And with that, Rider strode forward.
Out of the mass of men, twelve emerged. In this group Rider noted some worthy fighters and some known cowards, some brave men and some forgotten souls; he would work with what he got.
“Very well. Let us move on. The rest of you, I warn you, not all of you will survive the way back; I bid you goodbye and good luck.”
Ignoring the shouts of the rest of the group, Rider led the others forward, still searching for the quick appearances of the wretched arthropod, catching occasional glimpses before it jumped back into its own dimension. He saw several small ruins, knowing these to be their nests.
“How many of you are able to fight and have the means to do so?” He watched as four of the twelve stepped forward. Between them, they wielded a single longsword, a blackjack, a few daggers and a mallet. Everyone had, of course, staffs much like Rider’s; it could be carved from any such a branch, and it was an invaluable tool to anyone who walked for such long distances.
Rider ordered two fighters in the front and two in the back, not bothering to learn names, knowing full well that he’d be lucky if but a fraction made it out alive.
Then the situation complicated itself; the tunnel.
How had Rider forgotten about the tunnel? It was possibly the most dangerous part of the way now; he very much doubted that if this enemy was wandering around that any of the guards would be alive. When they arrived, he saw that this was true; all that remained of the guard shack was a husk of a building with massive cobwebs billowing in the slight breeze.
The area around the mouth of the tunnel was heavily forested, which, of course, made the Rider nervous. He quickly rushed his fellows into the gaping tunnel and lit several torches. He wouldn’t tell them of the dangers; then they would want to do something else, which was foolish. This was the only way now…
Inside the tunnel, Rider constantly heard scurrying and scratching… and, from time to time, would find a mummified corpse, covered in webs.
The party came to an area where the tunnel bisected another tunnel, and wind was blowing fiercely from some air shafts. A shape popped into existence in front of the group; this shape, being roughly eight feet tall, was enormous, big enough to block much of the tunnel. For the split second that it was seen, its eyes shone like gems in the night, a pallid beacon leading fools to their deaths. With the theatrical display, all of their lights were blown out, and the crawling noises resumed, closer now.
In the darkness, while Time held its breath, Rider muttered a single word.
And then, in a crowded moment, a screech rang through the tunnels, and the winds stopped immediately. You could hear movement, although it sounded somewhat inconsistent, like the being took a step and then skipped one and so on. It was disconcerting, and began weighing down on the minds of the travelers. Most broke rank and ran blindly into the dark; Rider was the only disciplined one of the order.
Quickly, he searched through his bag, seeing with his fingers for another torch and something to set it alight. All the while he heard sickening crunches and the incessant screeching of the beings, crowding round to get a share of the prey. This tunnel would be the death of them, their everlasting sepulcher. Finally he grasped a torch, and lit it, and the world went mute.
Around him was displayed so much carnage that one would not know what had happened; bodies lay bloodied at the scene, with large incisions into the flesh and blood pouring from so many gashes. Quickly Rider searched for survivors before the next onslaught, and found but one, cowering behind another corpse, playing dead.
The man was small, and obviously wounded. He had a weak black beard growing, with short black hair, quickly dispersing as his hairline rallied. He was of a small build, such as a clerk might be.
“Can you still walk?” Rider queried the man, contemplating leaving him for the beasts.
“Y-yes, I th-think so... What w-were those things?” The man had an obvious speech problem, stuttering his words out carefully.
Rider ignored him, simply grunting and muttering “Follow me…” The man, in no position to object, quickly obliged and followed Rider into the perpetual darkness. Still Rider heard the scuttling of those things, hidden beyond the walls, still haunting his every step. He just wanted to be clear of this wretched tunnel…
Rider drew a longsword from an unseen pocket of his person, handing the torch to the lesser man so that he may carry his sword and his tanglefoot bag at once; his staff was long ago forgotten in the dark. He found a small off-tunnel, and sat there with the small man nervously showing the light in any direction he thought he heard noise.
Then, in an instant, one of the monsters appeared in the way of Rider. Quickly Rider tossed the bag at him, binding him to both that spot and this plane; Rider stood, knowing to be cautious of this ethereal hunter.
The little man, not realizing for a moment what had happened, looked simply dumbfounded by the being he saw; before him stood, eight feet in height, the most enormous arachnid he had ever seen, and hoped he ever would see. It was mostly white, with hints of blue along the thorax. Its eyes were a milky white with pitch black irises that would sear your soul. He shivered, and then screamed in fear of the thing, not realizing that it was trapped.
Quickly Rider tackled the gentleman so as to silence his clamor, although he knew well that it was too late; the being’s pack would be along soon. There could be a whole cluster in this type of terrain, a warm hilly area lower on the mountain with this cool tunnel. Rider had to be brief.
Ever so quickly and fluently Rider grabbed the sword and thrust it into its body, neatly stabbing into the soft dirt floor. It died instantly, the glow fading from its eyes. Rider ushered the man onward, cautious of the scuttling noises behind them.
While sprinting, the smaller man tripped on a rock, yelping out in response. Rider had to rush back with the still advancing sounds, and carry the now unconscious man out to safety.
Very soon, Rider realized he wouldn’t survive with this baggage hindering his flight, so he found a niche of the tunnel and, after a moment’s hesitation, deposited the small man there, bait for the beasts. He quickly sprinted on, trying to get out before his mind was broken by the constant sound of long skinny legs of exoskeleton tapping on the stone.
Hours later, the man awoke, and began wandering out. He had no means of light about him, but he was unfazed by this; it was as if he was in a trance, merely observing himself as he walked. In almost no time at all, he found his way to the entrance, and stumbled into daylight. The city was only a few miles away; he could probably make it there by sundown. However, now he snapped back into his life, and realized something. He went back into the tunnel to confirm his suspicions; they were true.
Rider hung in a web, dangling from the ceiling. The truly terrifying part of it was thusly…
He was still alive.
The spiders had left him there for future food. Other bodies hung just as limply, although his was the only struggle. The small man realized what must have happened, and strode up to Rider’s web. Rider, seeing the man, began to shout, although muffled. The man merely walked up, and chuckled.
“You tried to leave me alone, huh? I was just a burden, huh? You think that I try to be like this? NO! I was trying to help. For gods’ sakes, I survived the first attack by those… those… those things! Only to be l-left behind by y-you!? NO! When they f-find your corpse hanging in the w-wind, I’ll be there, t-telling them all about your l-little accident, how you fell while we were r-running and I just c-couldn’t save y-you… Now Ri-Rider… Goodbye.”
And with the Rider still swaying with effort to escape, the small man who might have been a clerk in his past life chuckled again, and strode out of the tunnel into the light, and kept going until he got to Wratholme, his journey complete; he would be the only one from his group to survive, as the other, larger group was boxed in by an avalanche and quickly starved to death.
The small man often wondered if Rider had gotten out, but he doubted it. But every so often, he would see a faint glimmer of the beings he had so often studied afterwards, just on the edge of existence, and he knew that they wanted the one that got away; him.Phase spiders never lose a meal.
Written by AMarbleHornet