Thorgaut pulled a mind blank and pressed up against the wall of the tunnel behind the spiderling. The spiderling was astonishing if she was able to sense a cloaked spider that was invisible to everyone else. That was probably why Happy Feet chose her to be one of the two spiders to go topside with him.
He realized that he didn’t know her name and wanted to ask her. The spiderling wasn’t in front of him at his feet any longer. She must have cloaked herself well because he couldn’t sense her presence.
He looked around and saw her up on the roof. She had crawled over him and scampered forward around the bend in the tunnel. He peeked around the corner to see what was ahead.
The tunnel opened up into another large cavern. Thorgaut didn’t see Svart or Abyss Snarer anywhere. He looked down at the floor to see if this was a part of the trap that Happy Feet had mentioned. Everything appeared to be normal. He could see tunnels off in the distance leading in different directions, so it wasn’t a dead end.
Thorgaut checked his maps and realized this wasn’t Abyss Snarer’s trapping ground. They were still a long distance away from that section of the cave. So, why had they stopped here?
He looked around for the little spiderling that had accompanied him. The young hatchling was still ahead of him up on the roof. Thorgaut probed out for her but still couldn’t sense her even after spotting her. It was like she didn’t even exist.
Thorgaut scanned the cavern once more but still didn’t pick anything up in his senses. His legs were sore, and his knees started to ache. So, he pulled back behind the cave wall and stood up. The little spiderling turned around and scampered back down towards him.
She reached out and touched his foot. Instantly, he could sense a connection with her.
“Can you see them?” she asked.
Thorgaut shook his head silently. She indicated a spot near the far end of the cave. He looked again but still didn’t see anything. She pushed a mental image of Abyss Spider into his head.
He thought he could sense a form in the area she indicated, but it wasn’t defined enough for his senses to tell what it was. He strained with his eyesight as well as his mind perception, but he still couldn’t locate the spider or the boy.
The spiderling tapped on his head as if asking for permission. He focused on her and realized that she was offering him something.
“What is it?” he asked.
“Something momma gave me earlier before she died,” she replied. “It will help you see better.”
He took it and unpackaged it as he had with the cave maps. They seemed to be instructions of some sort. He scanned through them and inserted them carefully. There was an instant enhancement in all his senses.
Thorgaut picked up on subtle scents in the cave that he hadn’t noticed before. Tapping into the collective spider senses hadn’t been this strong. His discernment was more precise and much sharper now. He took a moment to absorb the new clarity of sight, sound, smells, and feelings that surrounded him.
“Are you okay,” the spiderling asked.
“Yeah,” he replied and closed his eyes for a minute. “What did you say your name was?” Thorgaut asked.
The little spiderling giggled. “I don’t know. Momma didn’t give me a name like yours did.”
Thorgaut smiled at the mental image that popped into his head. Happy Feet would have had quite a time trying to name each of the little spiders hatching out of the eggs. He shared it with her, and she giggled again.
“Hmmm,” Thorgaut mused. “I suppose that would be quite a task. Huh?”
The little spiderling thought for a second. “I like the name Ariana,” she finally said.
“That’s a good name,” Thorgaut replied and then added. “Ariana of the Shadows.”
“Oh! Very mysterious,” she said. “I like it.”
Thorgaut continued scanning the cavern. He was trying to fine-tune and make adjustments to the new and updated sensations washing over him. He still couldn’t see Abyss Snarer or Svart though. Ariana attempted to point them out, but nothing he tried seemed to work for him. He felt frustrated.
“What are they doing?” he asked in a hushed whisper.
“The spider seems to be recuperating,” she answered. “She seems pretty woozy and weak. The boy is sitting beside her not doing anything. It looks like he’s drooling.”
“How can we get the boy away from her?” he asked. “Can we break her control over him?”
“I suppose,” she replied. “If we distract her to break her mental hold over Svart, and then get the boy far enough away from her. It should snap off naturally.”
“It’s so frustrating not to be able to see her,” he said with exasperation. “I’ve tried everything you showed me.”
“It’s just because of the distance,” Ariana said. “You should be able to see them once you get close enough. Your range of mental sight isn’t as strong as mine yet. But it should improve with practice.”
“Is she looking in our direction?” He queried.
Ariana shook her head. “No, it looks like she’s sleeping.”
Thorgaut drew a circle to represent the cavern. He scratched out stick figures to depict their location at the entrance of one end and another on the other side to designate Svart.
“This is us, and this is the boy,” Thorgaut said as he pointed to the respective figures. “Where is the spider on here?”
Ariana tapped the ground on this side of Svart.
“So, the boy is on the other side of the spider,” Thorgaut mused. “Can you get around to the other side of them. Sneak around the side or climb up over them.”
“Why?” the spiderling asked. “What do you have in mind?”
“I’ll coming stomping out of the tunnel to distract Abyss Snarer,” he said. “When she comes to stop me, you grab the boy. Drag him down one of the other tunnels as far as you can until he’s free of the spider’s control.”
Ariana looked at him for a long moment. He could tell she had to think that one through. Finally, she spoke up and said, “I can grab the boy. That shouldn’t be a problem for me because I can see both of them. But how are you going to avoid the spider?”
“You let me know when she’s coming at me and I’ll start running,” he said slowly thinking it through. “If she’s weak and slow enough, it shouldn’t be too difficult. Once she gets close enough, I should be able to see her too. Right?”
“In theory,” she replied. “But we don’t know how weak she is and if you will see her when she does get close.”
“It’s a risk I’ll have to take,” he said stoically.
“Why do you want to risk your life to save this boy?” she asked. “He’s nothing to you. You just met him.”
Thorgaut looked at her like she was crazy. “He’s my friend, and I’ve gotta save him. I can’t leave him down here to become that spider’s snack. Besides, you would do the same to save your brothers and sisters. Right?”
“No way,” she said. “Spiders die every day. So do humans. I wouldn’t put my neck out for no good reason. Only if I loved them.”
She kept looking at him, but he didn’t answer. It didn’t register in his head not to save the boy. He was a trained warrior, and he never left anyone behind after a battle.
“This is what you call loyalty?” she questioned him. “It’s stupid. You don’t even have a way to fight this spider. Wait a little bit longer, and she’ll die on her own.”
Thorgaut perked up at that thought. “Is she dying now? Will she be dead soon?”
“No,” Ariana sighed. “She’s getting up and trying to get the boy to move.”
“Go,” Thorgaut commanded her. “Get over on the other side and wait for me to distract the spider. Once you’re in place, let me know.”
The spiderling sighed but obeyed. Ariana cloaked herself and disappeared. Thorgaut couldn’t sense her mentally nor see her physically with his eyesight. That was impressive. He turned around and jogged back up the cave a little ways.
“Okay,” Arian pushed into his mind. “I’m on the other side of them. Hurry, because they’re getting close the tunnel entrance.”
Thorgaut uncloaked his mind and sent out a probe in Abyss Snarer’s direction to make sure she noticed him.
“Good,” Ariana said. “She stopped and pushed the boy to the side. Walk this way slowly to see if she takes the bait.”
Thorgaut started singing in a loud voice as he walked back down the tunnel.
“I ain’t afraid. Not afraid of nothing.
I am a Viking. Fearless and bold.
Headed into battle. Always marching.
Always looking for silver and gold.”
“Good,” Ariana pushed back at him. “She hasn’t uncloaked yet, but she’s stopped in the middle of the cavern waiting for you.”
“Grab the boy and make a run for it,” Thorgaut ordered.
“I won’t be able to let you know where she is if I do,” she said.
“Save the boy,” Thorgaut said again firmly. “Your mother seemed to think that he has an important part to play in the coming wars. We have to keep him safe.”
“What if something happens to you?” Ariana screeched into Thorgaut’s head. “I can’t raise a half-human like him. The dwarves won’t take him.
“Take him down the cave to the river and deliver him there to Liut Gillisson. Tell him what happened to me. He’ll know what to do.” Thorgaut pushed out into her mind along with the location on the map.
“Argh!” she half-growled and half-sighed in resignation. “Fine! I’m going. You’re on your own now.”
With that, she blipped off out of his awareness, and Thorgaut stepped out into the cavern. He scanned the area but still didn’t feel anything. The thought crossed his mind that Ariana was pulling his chain, but he pushed it out of his head. He would find out soon enough.
“I see you Abyss Snarer,” he shouted. “I know you’re here. You can’t fool me.”
The spider flickered into view in the center of the cavern like Ariana had said. Thorgaut breathed a sigh of relief that he could see the spider. He couldn’t see the spiderling or Svart but hoped she had already gotten him out of here.
“Something’s wrong,” Ariana pushed into his thoughts. “It’s a trap.”
“Get out of here,” Thorgaut ordered. “Let me handle it.”
“I’m already on my way out,” she said. “You need to run. Something’s off. I can’t stick around to help you out. Get out!”
Thorgaut started backing up towards the tunnel. “Well, gotta run Abyss Snarer. Nice to see you again.”
The giant spider took a wobbly step in his direction. It didn’t look like it was going to chase him very fast, but he didn’t want to take any chances.
“Wait,” she hissed and started to flicker. “I’m weak and dying. I need to suck some of your undead blood to live.”
She flickered and disappeared altogether.
“Maybe next time,” he shouted out and turned to run.
Thorgaut ran directly into her waiting arms. She was dangling from a thread at the edge of the cavern and let herself down behind him after he had entered the cave. She was holding herself up with her two hind legs and two of her front legs.
He tried to stop himself but was already moving too fast. Thorgaut was close enough for her to grab with the other four legs. He tried to pull back, but it was too late.
“You’re not the only one that can play mind tricks, Thorgaut Kabbisson. That was a projection in your head,” she softly said as she reached over the right side of his neck and sank her fangs deep into his back.
Thorgaut’s eyes widened in surprise and shock. Then he closed them slowly as she injected her venom into his body.
Thorgaut screamed furiously. All the spiders turned toward him in shock. They fired back a warning for him to keep it down.
“Don’t use the collective web to express your emotions,” one little spider warned him. The unexpected feelings are a shock to those of us who aren’t expecting it.
Thorgaut apologized and continued to scan through the spider’s collective mind web. He searched for any information that could help him find Svart. None of the spiders claimed to have seen Svart and Abyss Snarer leave.
“How is that possible?” he asked in frustration.
“Tone down the emotions,” they fired back. “The giant spider most likely used a mental cloaking shield to hide itself and the child. And then they walked out of here without any of us noticing them. We’ve recently hatched. So, we don’t have enough experience or training to detect these things yet.”
“Right, but how did Abyss Snarer get free?” he asked with a groan.
“Well, obviously your boy let it go,” they retorted. “From the look of things, he pulled enough of the threads back to free the enemy.”
Thorgaut sensed an edge to their voices that hadn’t been there before. Somehow, they seemed to blame him. He sensed that most of their irritation was because he didn’t realize his role in the whole situation.
He asked the spiderlings for help in tracking Svart down. None of them were willing to help. As far as they were concerned, the damage had been done. But since they weren’t in danger, none of the spiderlings wanted to go looking for trouble.
“Let it be,” they said. “Go home.”
Thorgaut sat down to weigh his options. He remembered the memory pack that Happy Feet had left him. He tore it open and pawed through it clumsily. He finally located the sections of the cave that he recognized. It was easy to spot the entrance where they had entered the cave back at the house. From there, he trailed down to the map to their current location.
He picked out a couple of key locations that Happy Feet seemed to have tagged for him. One appeared to be the location of Abyss Snarer’s trap for unwary miners and dwarves. There also seemed to be a few other areas that she had marked with a similar tag. He assumed that these were additional traps that could be dangerous. He was grateful to have these guides to get him around in these caves safely.
The other tags seemed to refer to exits. One was a cave exit near the river that was most likely where Thorgaut had last seen his friends. And another that was most likely the town they had raided.
There were also a couple of other tags on the map with question marks. He assumed that these were locations where Halldora’s magically, cloaked glad would be. Happy Feet had left them as questionable was because she wasn’t sure which came out the closest to her meadow. He was still pretty excited though. All he had to do was locate Svart and then follow these maps out of here.
Thorgaut stood up and bid the spiders farewell. They seemed surprised that he was leaving so soon. The two little spiders who were supposed to go with him came scurrying over. But once Thorgaut told them that he was going to search for Svart first, they went back to their original tasks.
“Let us know if you survive,” the spiderlings said as they waved him off. “We’ll go with you to the humans, but not out to face that nasty spider.”
Thorgaut walked to the edge of the cavern where it narrowed back down into three tunnels. He paused to take a deep breath. He would have liked having the company of even one little spiderling. Heading off into the darkness by himself wasn’t a prospect he looked forward too. But what could he do?
He was on his own here. He would have to suck it up and make the most of the situation. At least he had the maps and a couple of fangs to keep him company. That was more than he had started with in the beginning.
The Viking warrior held the fangs in his hands. He called one ‘Terror’ and the other ‘Chelicerae’. He put one in each pocket and studied the cave maps Happy Feet had given him.
The tunnel to the right headed down towards Abyss Snarer’s nest. The middle shaft circled back to the river where he had left his friends. The third tunnel to the left went deeper down into the cave.
He didn’t try tracking it on the map because it wasn’t necessary for now and would take up precious time. Thorgaut didn’t think Svart could have been gone more than fifteen minutes. If he moved quickly, he should be able to catch up with them effortlessly. The spiderlings had injected Abyss Snarer with a lot of poison. That alone should have left her in a weakened and frail state. He didn’t imagine she would be able to move very fast in her current state.
Thorgaut entered the tunnel and walked as fast as he could while still not making much noise. He probed the tunnel ahead for any sign of Svart or the giant spider. After a few bends in the shaft, he picked up a strange presence that seemed to be coming from behind him.
He cloaked his mind and stepped into a large crack in the tunnel wall. He knew the cloak wouldn’t make him invisible like Abyss Snarer. But at least whoever was behind him wouldn’t be able to track his mind from a distance.
Thorgaut could tell that whatever was following him stopped as soon as he cloaked his mind. After a few seconds, it started moving cautiously again his direction.
Soon, he saw it coming around the bend. It was one of the little hatchlings that was supposed to travel with him. He waited for it to notice him. It perked up immediately and came scampering over to him.
“What are you doing?” he demanded to know while trying to give it a disappointed scowl.
“Coming with you,” it replied cheerily. “I didn’t think you were going to chase down your friend by yourself.”
The little spider giggled and hopped around while tapping its feet. It seemed particularly pleased to see Thorgaut. He couldn’t keep the scowl any longer. He snickered and stepped out from the crack.
“Okay. Okay!” Thorgaut said. “I’m happy to see you too, but we need to get moving.”
They continued walking down the tunnel. The little spiderling ran circles around the Viking man. It crossed the path in front of him and up the wall on one side. Then it would come down and traverse back to the other from behind him. Sometimes it would run up across the ceiling and come down on the other side. Thorgaut got dizzy watching the vigorous, little spiderling buzzing around.
“Why did Svart let Abyss Spider go and leave with her?” Thorgaut mused out loud while deep in thought. “I’m going to kill that kid when I find him.”
“The giant spider hijacked his mind and turned him into a puppet,” the little spider replied. “He’s no longer in control of his body.”
“What?” Thorgaut practically yelled. “How does she do that? And how do you know that?”
The spider shrugged. It looked funny since the creature had to use all eight legs to get the same effect.
“Because I can sense the boy’s mind up ahead, and he’s not in control of himself,” the spiderling answered.
“You can tap into his mind and read it too?” Thorgaut asked in surprised. “I didn’t think Svart was a mind reader.”
“He’s not,” the spider said. “But I am and I can.”
The spiderling pushed a replay of Abyss Snarer hypnotizing Svart. The spider had magnetized the boy conversationally by merely asking him various questions. Svart had soon slipped into a trance, and from there it was easy for Abyss Snarer to take control of the boy’s mind.
“That is crazy,” Thorgaut said in awe. “It must be an amazing skill to have.”
“Shh!” the spiderling whispered into his mind. “They are just around the next bend. Cloak your mind.”
Thorgaut stepped back to let the hatchlings come straight on through. Abyss Snarer backed up and started to turn, but by then they had already started crawling up her legs. She tried to shake them off and to run. Several small spiders began leaping over the heads of their siblings to get to her first. They grabbed on to keep her from getting away.
The hatchlings bowled her over and swarmed across her body. Thorgaut watched with satisfaction as the little spiders pulled her down. Justice served as the mean old spider deserved.
Several spiders grabbed each leg and helped pin it down. Others started weaving webs across her body to keep her down. A few of the spiders even attacked the exposed areas of her abdomen and neck. They tore into her with their fangs and injected their poison.
He watched as Abyss Snarer struggled under the growing number of baby spiders grabbing on to her. She was almost completely immobilized.
“Stop! Please,” she wailed. “What have I ever done to you spiders?”
Thorgaut laughed out loud. “You killed their mother and their sister,” he replied. “You don’t think they’re going to let you off that easy, do you?”
“I’m sorry,” Abyss Spider screamed. “Wait. I can explain. Stop.”
But the little hatchlings continued weaving her down into place with their webs. Svart looked on in shock at the terrifying scene. Thorgaut pulled him off to the side towards a rock. He didn’t say anything, but instinctively pushed the idea of sitting into the boy’s head.
Thorgaut caught himself with a chuckle. He kept forgetting that the boy wasn’t a mind reader and wouldn’t understand. He motioned to the rock with an outstretched hand.
“Have a seat,” he said. “No need to watch the spiders avenging their mother’s death.”
“It’s awful,” the boy said. “I know she was bad and probably deserves it for the things she did. But still, she was a spider trying to survive.”
“It’s the law of nature, boy,” Thorgaut replied. “The fittest will survive. And fortunately for us, we’re still a part of the surviving group. She would have killed us if the little ones hadn’t taken her down.
He left Svart sitting on the rock and walked back over to the cluster of spiders. They had surrounded Abyss Snarer. There were more spiders than he remembered. The eggs must still be hatching. He couldn’t even see the giant spider under the teaming mass of bodies crawling over her.
Several more little spiders came spewing out of the opening in the crevice. They scampered over to get their pound of flesh. Thorgaut got glimpses of her between their shifting bodies. He could see that they had covered her with their silvery silk threads. After they finished, the spiderlings jumped off one-by-one and started spreading out.
Eventually, there were only a few of the little spiders left. They tugged at the threads to make sure they were secure. Here and there, they would spin out another string or two just to tighten down a loose end.
The little spiders mostly ignored him. They were careful to step aside or move out of the way when he got to close though.
Thorgaut tapped into their collective mind to see what was going to happen next. They didn’t seem to be giving it much thought. They had each gone back to doing their own thing around the cave. Most were busy spinning webs in dark corners of the cave.
Every once in a while, one of the hatchlings would throw a bit of information into the pot. But that only happened when they got outside the current perimeter of the group.
Thorgaut wasn’t sure what to do now or who to approach. He walked back over to Svart and threw himself down.
“Well, I guess all’s well that ends well. Huh?” Thorgaut asked him with a grin.
The boy shrugged. After a bit, he spoke up. “What are they gonna do now?” he asked.
This time it was Thorgaut’s turn to shrug. “They seem to have gone about their regular life here. I guess we’ll have to move on and try to find our way out of her.”
“Why don’t you ask them?” Svart asked.
“They know their way around the caves yet,” he chuckled. “They’ve only scanned these two caves so far.”
Thorgaut could track a few spiders up in the cavern close to their mother. A few had spread out in the other direction but weren’t that far off. He got the impression that they would spend most of their lives here in this area.
One of the little hatchlings went by. Thorgaut probed out with a question.
“What happens to the big spider?” he asked.
“Food,” it fired back. Thorgaut got the mental image of the little spiderlings all having a feast later on.
“Do you know how to leave the cave?” he asked.
“Only the big spider does,” she answered.
He didn’t say anything else, and she scurried off before he could ask another question. Thorgaut didn’t feel like messing with Abyss Snarer. He could still sense a weak presence emanating out under the web. She must have sensed him probing and called out to him.
“Thorgaut,” she whined. “Help me, please. Let me go, and I’ll leave you alone. I’ll go back to my web. Or I’ll even leave this section of the cave for good and never come back. Please let me go.”
“How do we get out of the caves?” he asked.
“Let me go, and I’ll show you the way,” she offered.
“No way,” he said adamantly. “You would turn on us in a heartbeat.”
“I swear I won’t,” she replied.
Thorgaut probed around trying to sift through her memories for a view of the caves. He wasn’t able to pull them out though. She snickered.
“Sneaky, Thorgaut!” she said. “I closed the connection once I realized you were messing around in my head and playing mind tricks on me.”
He scowled and stood up.
“Where are you going?” Svart asked.
“Pay my final respects to Happy Feet,” he said. “Wanna come?”
Svart shook his head. “Nah, I’ll wait here. Don’t be long though. We need to get out of here soon. We can’t live off spider food.”
Thorgaut walked quickly up the tunnel till he came to the cavern where he had last seen Happy Feet. He found her broken body surrounded by green ooze between some rocks off to the side of the chamber. He knelt down beside her like he would for any of his comrades who had fallen in battle.
“Thank you for helping us, Happy Feet,” he whispered. “You saved our lives even though you didn’t know us and didn’t have any good reason to do so.”
He reached out to touch her. He was surprised at how soft she felt. He thought her exoskeleton would have been much harder and firmer. He felt a tremor run through her body and a flicker of a presence of consciousness.
“Happy Feet,” he probed excitedly. “Are you still alive?”
A few of her eyes blinked open as she tried to focus on his face.
“Thorgaut,” she whispered. “You’re still alive. Good. Where is Abyss Snarer?”
“It’s okay. Your children took him down very efficiently. They’re good little spiders like you.”
He gently pushed some images of Abyss Snarer’s current position into her mind. She smiled and coughed lightly. He pressed her thoughts into the mental network and alerted the cluster of her state. He could sense them coming in her direction.
“Good. That’s good, Thorgaut. Take two of my babies with you. Let them learn the ways of men. Teach them to survive among your kind. But you must return them to these caves when the wars begin. It’s important for the survival of my species and yours.”
“You come with me, Happy Feet,” he said. “Show me the way out, and I will take you to my kingdom.”
“I won’t make it,” she said. “My time has come to say goodbye. But I will show you the way out. Pay close attention.”
She pressed a massive ball of thoughts and memories into his mind and the collective consciousness of the spiders. It was more information than he could grasp at the moment. He pushed her knowledge to the side carefully for later unpacking and analysis.
“Go quickly,” she said. “Time is of the essence.”
The hatchlings came scampering in their direction. Thorgaut could hear the patter of hundreds of little spider feet echoing off the cave walls. He stood up and backed away to make room for them to gather around her.
“You will not be forgotten, Happy Feet,” he whispered. “I will make sure that your name lives on throughout history. I will tell every one of your brave and selfless sacrifices.”
She smiled softly as her children gathered around her and breathed her last. As she drifted off, Happy Feet pushed one final thought into his mind.
“After I die, take my fangs. Use them to defeat the King of Death when his armies sweep over NorthWorld.”
Happy Feet sluggishly pushed an image of her facing a fierce NightWalker in battle. In the struggle, she bit him and subdued the foul creature. That was the last thing he saw as her consciousness blipped out.
The hatchlings didn’t stick around long after that. Most scattered right away. A few stayed behind to wrap their mother in long, silky threads. After they finished, the rest continued scattering out until there were only two left.
“Let’s go,” they said. “Take mother’s fangs.”
“Huh? What?” Thorgaut asked.
He looked down where her face had been covered with webbing. The spiderlings had left the bottom part of her face uncovered. He reached down and pulled lightly at the area around her mouth. He could see her fangs curved back into their protective sheaths.
Thorgaut pulled them out carefully so he wouldn’t poke himself. The points and edges were remarkably sharp. The fangs were a shiny black color that looked like polished marble. They were exquisite. It took him a while to pry them loose with the help of the hatchlings.
When he finished, they walked back down to the other cavern where he had left Svart. He looked around for the boy who was nowhere in sight. He tapped into the spider network to see any of the little spiders could locate him.
The boy was gone. Something was wrong, but Thorgaut couldn’t place his finger on it. He continued scanning for Svart. Suddenly he realized what it was. Abyss Snarer was gone too. There was only a pile of empty webbing where they had left her.
Thorgaut and Svart scrambled backward. He tried to get as far away from this giant spider that had dropped in front of them. Thorgaut looked around for a rock, but there weren’t any close at hand.
“You sneaky little human! You set a trap for me in cahoots with Happy Feet.” she hissed. “I didn’t think you had it in you. And I never would have expected a sneak attack like that from Happy Feet.”
Thorgaut noticed a small pile rocks a short distance from him and kept backing up towards it. He let her keep on talking.
Abyss Snarer tapped two front feet together in mock applause. “Bravo! Bravo! Well-played. Unfortunately for you though, your plan didn’t go as expected.”
“There was no plan,” he fired back. “Happy Feet was afraid for her babies.”
Thorgaut streamed an image of the location he had left Happy Feet to the hatchlings. He wanted them to look for their mother. Maybe they could find her and get her to help. Most of the cluster continued running up the tunnel in the direction he sent them to see what had happened to her. A few of the hatchlings stayed behind. They turned their attention to Thorgaut and Abyss Snarer.
Meantime, Thorgaut had arrived at the pile of rocks and picked one up. He held it awkwardly in front of him. He didn’t know what to do with it now that he had it. He didn’t expect it would do much damage to the spider even if he did throw it. It would most likely bounce off her.
He could throw it at her eye, but she had several. So, even if he did manage to blind one, she would still be able to see him with the others. It wasn’t like one rock would do much to keep her away from him.
Thorgaut noticed several of the little spiders continued scampering over in his direction. They sent out feelers and fed it back into the group. The rest of the cluster had disappeared up the tunnel to find their mother.
Abyss Snarer laughed out loud. “Do you think that rock will protect you? I could pounce on you before you even raise it over your head.”
Thorgaut knew it was true. He had seen how fast the spiders were when they started to fight.
Abyss Snarer twitched at him like she was going to jump. Thorgaut held his ground firmly. He didn’t flinch or back up. He yelled back at her angrily with ferocious Viking war cry that made her recoil.
The little spiders who had come running towards him shouted out, “Mommy! Mommy!”
A few of the others broke off from the cluster and turned back thinking this was Happy Feet.
More of the little hatchlings came racing towards Abyss Snarer who ignored them. She was inching her way closer to Thorgaut. She completely ignored the baby spiders and prepared to jump.
Thorgaut could see that this was the end. He read into her mind to see what she was planning. She intended to string him up in her web and save him for a later snack. She considered Svart to be a younger, tenderer morsel. She planned to eat the boy first. She attacked Thorgaut first because he was taller and stronger. He knew that he was more of a threat than Svart.
Suddenly, a thought flashed through his mind. He remembered Abyss Snarer’s concern about the threat of the NightWalkers. She seemed pretty worked up about it during her conversation with Happy Feet. He grinned wickedly at the idea that had just popped up.
Thorgaut pushed images from his fight with the shufflers into her mind. She hissed and gave a short jump back. Her head and front legs were down low with her back legs and abdomen raised to attack.
He continued to feed her images of shufflers spitting and vomiting. He used his imagination to create visions of shufflers transforming other people into shufflers. Then he imagined those shufflers attacking spiders. Thorgaut shoved those images into her head. He enjoyed showing her how slow and strange a shuffler spider would look.
“That’s so evil,” Abyss Snarer hissed in fear.
“Happy Feet tried to warn you,” he said.
“I’m not referring to the coming war,” she said and then paused for effect.
Thorgaut realized she was referring to his mind-reading skills. He wanted to smile at her surprise but held himself in check.
“How long have you been in my head,” she demanded.
This time he did laugh. A loud, ironic laugh to mock Abyss Snarer.
“You’re the one who opened the connection in my head. You taught me how to read minds, you eight-legged goofball.”
He sensed the rage emanating from her at feeling like she had been played. She twitched uncontrollably and her feet tapped rapidly as she moved around him. He backed away from the pile of rocks, and she climbed up onto them.
Thorgaut tapped into cluster web for a second to see what was going on with the hatchlings. He saw that the first of the baby spiders had already reached their mother. She was lying unmoving and still.
They surrounded her and called it to her. It was heart-wrenching. The sight of what Abyss Snarer had done to their mother infuriated him.
Thorgaut turned his attention back to Abyss Snarer. He popped an image of him spitting on her as she slowly transformed into a shuffler spider. She leaped back off the pile of rocks.
“That’s what will happen to you when the shufflers and NightWalkers start the war. It’s what Happy Feet was referring to earlier,” he said.
Thorgaut had no idea what Happy Feet had actually seen. She hadn’t shown him any images, but Abyss Snarer didn’t know that. He was going to milk this for all it was worth.
He kept walking forward and forcing her to back up. The thought went through his head that he might be revealing too much of his hand. She could use it against him somehow, but it was too late to back down now. He had to see this through to the end.
Abyss Snarer kept backing up and ended up tripping over one of the little hatchlings. It tried to move out of the way but got caught under her legs. Abyss Snarer broke off her connection with Thorgaut in frustration.
She turned and reached down to deal with the baby spider. She grabbed it with her two front feet and raised up towards her face. She bit its little head off and chewed it up. Then she swallowed it.
Thorgaut was shocked and horrified. He sensed the hatchling’s connection to the network of spider minds blink out. None of its other siblings seemed to know why. So, he projected the image of what Abyss Snarer had done back out into the group.
A sense of horror and rage rippled throughout the hatchlings. Thorgaut could sense the entire cluster of little spiders racing back his way. This was it. Time for action. Either they all united against Abyss Snarer and took her out, or she would pick them off one by one.
Abyss Snarer was busy shaking a couple of the little hatchlings off her leg.
“Get off me, you little brats,” she screamed at them. “What did I ever do to you? Leave me alone. Didn’t your mother ever teach you any manners.”
She kept trying to shake them off until one of the hatchlings managed to sink its fangs into her. Abyss Snare screamed and yanked it off of her. She raised it high above her head and smashed it down into the rocks. It didn’t die immediately. The little spider lay there squealing pitifully. It flailed the three remaining legs that Abyss Snarer hadn’t broken off of her body.
Fury flowed through Thorgaut. He wanted to see Abyss Snarer suffer a slow and painful death. He wished he could rip the legs off her body one by one. Then leave her there for other cave creatures to eat up little by little, just like she wanted to do with them.
Thorgaut projected images of the baby spider’s broken body into the collective mind. As he did, the rest of the cluster came racing around the bend. They screamed in fury and picked up speed when they saw the scene for themselves. The spiders clambered over each other trying to get ahead of each other in the crowded tunnel.
Thorgaut sensed that some of the hatchlings were still confused. They didn’t understand why they were attacking this giant spider. They felt it was a suicide mission and wasn’t worth the effort.
“Chickens!” he screamed in their direction.
The angry Viking wanted to show them once and for all who this wretched spider was. So, he reached past Abyss Snarer’s surface thoughts and dug deeper into her memories. He extracted the firsthand view of her fight with Happy Feet from her head.
Thorgaut found the memories of the old spider biting into their mother’s neck. He sifted through and included the one of her injecting Happy Feet with poison. He projected them to the cluster, and the hatchlings went berserk.
The horde of little spiders rushed at Abyss Snarer without holding back. There was no longer any question in their minds. This spider was the enemy, and they wanted to avenge their mother.
Thorgaut didn’t know if these new hatchlings could take on the giant spider. She was wise and had plenty of fighting experience. And on top of all that she was a master of deceitful strategies.
Thorgaut and Svart walked back up the tunnel towards the hole that led back into the main cave. The little spiders surrounded them in front and behind. There were hatchlings on the ground, on the walls, and even running along the roof over their head.
Well, the spiders weren’t exactly little, but just small in comparison to their mother. He would hate to have to fight even one of these little spiders as babies. Imagine trying to fight off one of their mothers. He had no idea what he would do if they did run across Abyss Snarer. He had no weapons to defend himself with.
He could pick up a rock just about anywhere here in this cave to throw at an angry spider. But he doubted that it would do much good. And the speed Happy Feet and Abyss Snarer jumped at meant he wouldn’t even have time to pick a stone up.
The image of being attacked and bitten by a spider was almost too much for his mind to handle in that state. He pushed the thoughts out of his head. He tried to think of something more pleasant, like getting out of this cave and into the rays of the bright, warm sun.
By this time, Thorgaut and his little entourage had reached the small hole back out. He peered into the cavern but didn’t see Abyss Snarer.
“Do you see mommy?” a small spider thought pushed into his mind.
His heart sank as he realized they wouldn’t ever see or get to know their mother. And deep down he felt guilty for their loss. He felt like in some way it was his fault because she had died to defend them. She could have let Abyss Snarer take them away and stayed behind with her babies.
“No,” he replied.
One of the little spiders scampered up the wall and scramble through the hole. The lead hatchling pushed her head out and looked around. Thorgaut picked up on the fact that she was sending back visual signals to the rest of the cluster of spiders. He tuned into the image stream to watch what she was doing.
It was like she was scanning the area and then uploading it for the rest of the group to access from their location. That way the whole group could stay in the loop. And it wasn’t just visual images either. There was a whole gamut of senses that she included as well.
Thorgaut could hear auditory cues as subtle as bat radars pinging. There were smells in the drafts coming down through the cave. He could pick up physical sensations like changes in temperature of the outer cavern.
There were even other senses that Thorgaut didn’t quite recognize. They seemed to be something like intuition. A sixth sense of sorts that spiders could hone in on. It was amazing to be a part of the collective mind and be able to pick up those extra sensations.
The little spider pulled herself out further and continued scanning the cave. The little hatchling kept pinging Thorgaut for clues about Abyss Snarer. He realized she was pulling more than just visual clues from his head. She was pulling out subtle details like her smell and sounds she made. Bits of information that he hadn’t even paid attention to when he was near the giant, evil spider. It was amazing to watch the way these creatures worked.
Eventually, she gave the all clear signal and several other spiders followed her out. They each continued scanning the area which helped create an even more detailed map of the area. Each of the new spiders that went out seemed to focus all their attention on one specific sensation. As they added it back into the feed, it harmonized with the original spider’s scan.
Thorgaut was amazed at the level of detail in the things that they picked up even over vast distances. He could sense subtle tremors in the ground that they picked up through the hairs on their feet. He was able to access all that information as they transferred it into the collective feed.
At first, he had thought he should be the one to go out first to make sure everything was okay for the little spiders. Now, he realized that there wasn’t much he could do for them that they couldn’t do for themselves much better. So, he held back and let the little spiders continue to pour out of the exit until they were all through.
He finally indicated to Svart that the opening was clear so he could crawl through. Just as Svart bent over to squeeze through, three more little spiders came tearing up the tunnel. They scampered right on past Svart almost pushing him out of the way.
Thorgaut scanned their minds as they squeezed past. They were already thoroughly in tune with the rest of the cluster. He could tell that they were accessing the collective knowledge of the group and knew what to do. It was amazing to realize that these spiders had hatched in the last few minutes. They had the advantage of instantly tapping into the knowledge of the other spiders.
Thorgaut snickered at the surprised look on Svart’s face. “They must have hatched after we left,” he said with a shrug.
Svart pushed his way through the hole, and Thorgaut followed close behind. He had to squeeze and twist a little to pull himself free. Svart gave him a hand as well so he could stabilize himself as he came through.
Most of the spiders had scattered their way out across the cave. Thorgaut realized why the web of uploaded sensations was getting stronger. He had thought it was because he was becoming more familiar with spider sensations. But now he realized that there was a very physical reason as well. He wondered how far out the spiders could spread before losing their connection.
Thorgaut heard some noise and looked over his shoulder. Several more spiders come scampering out of the opening in the crevice. He saw that other spiders had already started spinning webs around the cave walls at strategic points. Thorgaut wondered what they expected to catch. He assumed the cave was teaming with life in an ecosystem that he wasn’t even aware existed yet. He was curious to learn what they were.
“Where’s mommy?” the thought came squeezing its way into his mind.
He started to point in the direction they had last seen her. Before he even raised his finger, ten spiders were already racing off in that direction. Thorgaut was amazed at how they could do that. At the same time though, it was a bit scary how they could pull information out of his head so fast.
Thorgaut walked after them with Svart following close behind. He could sense the baby spiders sending out probes for their mother. He couldn’t get a direct lock on Happy Feet. But there did seem to be a familiar presence as he got closer to the tunnel that led up to the cave where they had left her.
By this time, most of the other hatchlings had caught on to where the cluster was going. The rest of the little spiders all came running along behind them trying to catch up with their siblings. Thorgaut had almost reached the entrance to the tunnel when he picked up a horrible vibe.
“Danger!” the collective thought of the cluster screamed into his mind.
He leaped out of the way pulling Svart with him. It was instinctual and automatic. He reacted without even thinking about it. He rolled over and pulled himself up.
Thorgaut realized what it was that he had been sensing down here all this time. That familiar feeling in his probes were other mind-reading spiders like Happy Feet. But why would Happy Feet leave her eggs down here with other spiders who would eat them? That didn’t make any sense.
Had they entered the wrong entrance? It wasn’t likely since there weren’t even any other openings for them to choose.
His curiosity piqued, Thorgaut continued walking forward down the cave. Svart grabbed his arm and pulled him back. But he was no match for Thorgaut who shook him off. The fearless Viking kept pushing on deeper into the tunnel.
Thorgaut probed ahead with his mind, pushing gently against their presence. He realized why he hadn’t recognized the spiders even though the feeling was familiar. There were so many spiders in the group that he had trouble distinguishing them individually.
He felt like every single spider was pushing thoughts out at him the same time. He had to push back to keep them from overpowering his mind. He didn’t know who these spiders were or what they wanted. So he pushed out thoughts of Happy Feet and himself walking together through the cave. Hopefully, they would recognize him as a friend when they saw him.
He came around a bend in the tunnel and saw them. He paused for a second and held his breath. There were dozens of little spiders that looked like Happy Feet. Well, little compared to Happy Feet that is because they were still pretty big. Compared to the spiders he had grown up with, these were giants. Each one was about the size of a small puppy.
They all paused and turned to face him as soon as he came into the chamber. The pressure on his mind increased immensely as they all tried to communicate with him. The pain in his head started up again. It wasn’t anything like the pain he felt under Abyss Snarer, but it still hurt.
He pulled back around the bend and out of sight seeking relief. He closed his eyes and put his hands to his head. He kept pushing out against their thoughts.
“What is it?” Svart asked. “Are you okay?”
Thorgaut nodded and looked up. “Yeah,” he replied. “These little guys are intense.”
He peeked back around the corner of the cave and saw that they were pushing in together towards him.
“Get back,” he ordered them. They all scamped back and ran towards the rear part of the cave. Thorgaut realized it was a dead end. The tunnel stopped here, so they would eventually have to head back out the way they had come. Hopefully, Abyss Snarer would be gone by then.
He focused on the little spiders and tried to count them. It was a little more manageable now that they were all together. He still had trouble keeping track of them though as they crawled around and circled each other. He counted about fifty of them before losing track of which ones he had already counted and which ones he hadn’t. It also looked like two-thirds of the eggs hadn’t even hatched yet.
“Oh, boy,” he muttered out loud.
Thorgaut probed out towards the little spiders with his mind, and they pressed back. He tried to feel them out individually to pick out where one ended and another started. It took him a minute or so until he was able to pick out and identify the most energetic little thinkers of the bunch.
He pushed images of Happy Feet at them and noticed how pleased it made them.
“Mommy?” one of them probed back.
“Yes,” Thorgaut affirmed.
A twitter of excitement rushed through the little pack. The small hatchlings started tapping their two front feet in excitement as Happy Feet had earlier. Thorgaut chuckled at their enthusiasm and looked at Svart. The boy had no clue about what was going on. He stared back at Thorgaut with a blank look on his face.
Thorgaut tried to explain that he was showing them their mother. But he soon realized that Svart didn’t understand what he was doing. So, he gave up trying to explain and turned his attention back to the little spiders.
“Are you mommy?” one of the spiders fired out at him.
Most of the pack came rushing over in his direction and surrounded him before he could even answer. They started tapping on his feet and legs. Thorgaut realized that they were feeling him and trying to figure out who he was. It seemed like most of the cluster of spiders were connected mentally. They all seemed to think together.
The few minds he picked up earlier seemed to be the firstborn batch of spiders. The rest of the little critters passively flowed along mentally with the group thoughts. These appeared to be the most recent to hatch. Thorgaut figured hey would develop their own thinking as they grew up and headed off on their own.
“No,” Thorgaut said and pushed back a strong mental image of Happy Feet at them once again.
“Who are you?” they asked.
“I am Thorgaut. That is Svart. We are friends. Your mother told us to come here to check on you.”
“Where is mommy?” they pushed back insistently.
Thorgaut didn’t know how to answer that. He honestly didn’t know what had happened to her, and he didn’t want to scare them. Something must have happened. If Happy Feet had beaten Abyss Snarer, she would have made it down her by now.
He decided against trying to explain everything that was going on. Besides, he didn’t know how much they would understand anyway. How much could newly-hatched, baby spiders comprehend about the life and death struggle that they had been born into and was taking place around them?
“Is mommy dead?” one of them asked.
The question caught Thorgaut by surprise. These little boogers were sharp. He realized they were probably playing off his mind. They were naturally translating words they pulled out of his head as Happy Feet had done. But still, it was pretty impressive coming from critters that were only a few hours old at most.
“Enemy,” Thorgaut said as he pushed a menacing image of Abyss Snarer at their thoughts. The entire little pack of spiders took a step back and hissed in anger and fear. Svart didn’t know what was going on and jumped back. He lost his footing and tripped over on the floor on the other side of Thorgaut.
The entire pack of little spiders broke into fits of giggles and peals of laughter. Thorgaut chuckled along with them. He laughed more at their musical, little laughs than at Svart tripping. He reached down and helped Svart stand back up. Svart accepted his offer and brushed himself off sheepishly.
“What’s so funny,” he demanded.
“I don’t suppose spiders trip much. You wouldn’t either if you had eight legs.” Thorgaut replied.
Svart didn’t say anything to that. He stomped his feet angrily and slapped his thighs for good measure.
“Find mommy,” the little spiders pushed back at Thorgaut. They scattered the thought among themselves. They started scampering out and around Thorgaut and Svart. Some heading up the walls and across the roof.
“Wait,” Thorgaut yelled out mentally. “What about the others that haven’t hatched yet?”
“They’ll follow us,” they replied. “We’ll show the other spiders the way.”
Thorgaut head the spiders hissing and screaming at each other back in the cavern as he ran down the tunnel. He came out in the other cavern and ran towards the ledge Happy Feet had pointed out to him earlier.
His initial thought was to run past the area and then double back on his trail. That way, if Abyss Snarer ended up following their scent, he wouldn’t realize where it had ended. He didn’t know how good the spider’s senses were or how much of an area Happy Feet had muted out.
But before he and Svart even got to the opening, the sound of the spiders fighting had ceased altogether. Thorgaut stopped running when they arrived at the ledge. He paused to catch his breath and look for the opening where Happy Feet had hidden her eggs.
Total silence had descended throughout the cavern. Sounds Thorgaut hadn’t paid attention to or even noticed earlier had ceased entirely. The sound of spiders fighting struck complete and utter terror throughout the cave. It sounded like every living thing had taken cover to avoid getting caught in the crossfire.
Thorgaut expected the Abyss Snarer to come around the bend and enter the cavern at any moment. Then he remembered the open connection that allowed him to peek into her mind at any time. Thorgaut probed out feeling for her presence but didn’t pick anything up. He couldn’t sense her at all.
He was excited at first thinking she might be dead already. Maybe Happy Feet’s attack had worked, and she had killed him. He probed out for Happy Feet’s mind, but he couldn’t sense anything from her either. Were they both dead? Could they have killed each other?
Thorgaut discarded the idea. That was pretty unlikely. He was probably too far away from them for his newly-discovered, mind-reading skills to work. He kept walking around the ledge looking for the opening.
“What are you doing?” Svart asked in an anguished tone. “Let’s keep moving before Abyss Snarer comes around looking for us.”
Thorgaut hushed him by motioning with a finger to his lips.
“Keep it down. Happy Feet told me there was an opening around here where she hid her eggs. She said we would be safe if we hid here.”
“When did she tell you all that? I was with you the whole time and never heard her say anything like that.” Svart whispered back. He followed close behind Thorgaut almost under his feet which got on his nerves.
Thorgaut tried to think of a simple way to explain everything that had transpired. He started to describe how Abyss Snarer had ripped his mind opened. But it seemed too long and complicated of an explanation for right now, so he gave the boy a straight answer.
“The spiders are telepathic and read minds. Happy Feet talked to me directly through her thoughts.”
He paused to look at the boy. Svart had an incredulous look on his face.
“I am a kid, and Runa says I’m kind of naive,” Svart said. “But you can’t seriously believe that I’m dumb enough to believe that. Do you?”
“It’s the honest truth, kid,” Thorgaut said. “I’m not pulling your leg here.”
Thorgaut found an opening down into a small crevice between a group of stalactites.
“I think this is it,” Thorgaut whispered. “Since you’re smaller than me, see if you can wiggle down in there and check it out.”
“So, some venomous cave creature can bite me first or rip my head off,” Svart complained.
He complied though and bent over to crawl down into it. He grumbled and fussed the entire time though.
Svart seemed to be pretty good at it. Thorgaut figured this was something he did with his sister and mother to get them to feel sorry for him. It probably worked in getting him out of having to do things he didn’t like.
Thorgaut snickered as he remembered his youngest brother. Svart and his brother had the same air about them. Little brats that got away with murder around their parents.
Savart’s body was about halfway in. He twisted around to pull his legs through after him. Thorgaut wondered if he was going to be able to squeeze himself in there. It looked pretty tight.
“How is it in there?” Thorgaut asked into the hole. “What do you see?”
There was no answer from the yawning, black opening. Thorgaut probed into the darkness with his mind for Svart. He didn’t feel the boy there which didn’t surprise him. He did sense something else though. He couldn’t quite place his finger on what it was exactly. It felt familiar somehow, yet still different at the same time.
Thorgaut stood up to shrug off his coat. It wasn’t very thick, but he wanted to make himself as small as possible to be able to squirm his way into this opening. No telling what the tunnel was like further down, and if he did get stuck, no one would be around to pull him back through.
He stuck his head through the opening and immediately felt relief. The small tunnel was roomier than it looked from the outside. He wouldn’t be able to stand up, but at least there wasn’t any worry of him getting stuck in here.
Thorgaut pushed his coat out in front of him, and then pulled himself into the small tunnel. It sloped downward at a gentle angle. He kept pushing his jacket forward and dragging his body along. After a minute or so he reached the bottom. The tunnel opened up enough so that he was able to stand up. He brushed himself off and put his jacket back on.
“Svart,” he called out softly. “You there?”
Thorgaut walked down the tunnel with his left hand trailing along the wall. He remembered hearing stories in his father’s hall as a child. He particularly enjoyed listening to the miners telling their tall tales. They usually involved getting lost in underground caves and finding great treasures.
One particularly horrible story was of a miner who had gotten lost in a labyrinth. One by one, his companions perished or disappeared. This particular miner claimed that he survived because he kept his left hand on the wall and never let go. Even when he hit a dead end and had to double back, he ran one finger along the wall. He claimed to eventually find his way out of the cave after days of stumbling through the darkness.
Thorgaut wondered at the time just how accurate the story was. He suspected that the old geezer had killed his companions and kept the treasure for himself. He sensed that the miner made up the story about being stuck in the mine to get away with his crime. But everyone else hailed the man a hero and drank to his health. So, Thorgaut had kept quiet even though he didn’t toast them man himself.
The idea of trailing his hand along the cave wall though had captured his imagination. It filled him with morbid fascination and intrigued him for days. He had drawn maps of his own labyrinths to see if the idea would hold true. He tried to find a situation in which the man could have gotten stuck in a loop, but none came up.
Thorgaut even went into random buildings around the town. He placed his hand in various locations on different walls to see if they would always lead him to an exit point. Not that the walls of the buildings counted though. They were so straight and logical. He knew they weren’t the same as being in a cave tunnel. But it was what he had to work with, so he made the most of it.
He had even visited the king’s home once in Gnóttknǫttr. His whole family had gone during the annual celebrations in preparation for winter. They didn’t usually go because it was so far away. And there was always the possibility of getting caught in a blizzard along the way at that time of the year.
His father had insisted on going that particular year though. The king had promised to give him one of the seats of honor at the feast tables. It was supposed to be a great honor. But it hadn’t happened though.
His father hadn’t even received a seat with the other Jarls at the tables near the king’s throne. In the end, old Kabbi had been relegated to sitting at the communal tables in the hall among the warriors and mages.
The king had apologized profusely for not having a place for him. It wasn’t actually his fault though. He pointed out the fact that Kabbi hadn’t confirmed his presence that year. And since he had never come to any of the previous feasts no one had expected him to come.
King Mar did promise to save him a seat of honor the following year, but the damage had been done. Old Kabbi nursed his grudge and never returned.
Thorgaut hadn’t realized what was going on at the time. He only heard about it after they got home. That was because he had spent every possible moment playing in the living mazes in the king’s garden.
King Mar had created verticle walls of hanging plants and flowers to maximize space. And he had organized different sections of the labyrinth based on color. Yellow flowers on one side, orange flowers on the other, red on another, and so on.
At least that’s what Thorgaut had been told. He hadn’t actually seen the colors himself. The first frost had already fallen by the time they arrived that year and killed off the flowers. Everything was dead and brown while he was there. But that didn’t keep him from spending his days running up and down the corridors of the labyrinth. He trailed his fingers along every single one of those walls.
He had tested every variation and possible starting point in the maze. No matter where he placed his hand, it always brought him back to the exit. He couldn’t get enough of the labyrinth.
It had started snowing soon after they arrived, so his mother kept making him come in to warm up. But every time she turned around, Thorgaut was back out in the garden. She would look out a window and see Thorgaut running up and down the maze with his fingers trailing the walls.
His time in the maze ended abruptly on the third day. It had stopped snowing, and his father decided they had spent enough time there. He packed everything up, and they returned immediately despite his mother’s protests.
It wasn’t until they got home, that Thorgaut heard the full story. Even then it wasn’t very clear. Something about his father being ornery and picking a fight with a drunk that was sitting in his place.
This particular drunk happened to be Fastulf Ansson. He ended up being one of the king’s best warriors and top guards. And because of old Kabbi’s insults, Fastulf challenged him to a duel. So, to keep peace and prevent a catastrophe, wise King Mar had sent the knight off on an ‘urgent’ mission. He recommended old Kabbi cut his visit short and head on home before the warrior got back.
Kabbi, of course, had protested that he wasn’t afraid of any drunk warrior. But it seemed to be pretty much given amongst everyone there that Kabbi didn’t stand much of a chance. This particular warrior was a maniac killing machine. Fastulf had defended and protected the king’s life in countless battles. He had proved his worth time and time again. There was no way, the king was going to defend old Kabbi against his prized warrior even if he was a Jarl.
Thorgaut was disappointed that he didn’t get to stay longer. He still had a few hypothesis and theories about mazes that he wanted to test. He could have spent another week playing in the garden maze. But even now, after all those years, that experience was still etched in his memory. It was compelling enough for Thorgaut to keep his fingers trailing along the wall of this cave.
He realized now that he had been doing it ever since they had first entered the tunnels. Way back under Svart’s house, he had already started trailing the cave walls. He had been doing it mentally because he was too far from the actual cavern walls to touch them. But he had been keeping track of which wall he was following. And even now, he could have drawn a map of what the caves looked like if needed from memory.
His thoughts were interrupted when he bumped into Svart. The boy had come tearing back up the tunnel in his direction.
“What is it, boy?” he asked. “You looked like you saw a ghost.”
“Spiders,” Svart panted and gasped. “Hundreds of them. Run!”
“How do you know that?” Happy Feet asked directly in his thoughts.
“Because I can feel everything she’s thinking,” Thorgaut pushed back. “She doesn’t seem to know what I’m doing yet.”
“She opened a direct connection when she rammed into your head back there,” Happy Feet said. “She locked it open so she could sift through your thoughts without expending a lot of her own energy. She didn’t assume you would be able to use the connection yourself. She won’t catch on as long as you don’t try to push anything at her.”
Thorgaut made small talk with Svart and Happy Feet as they continued walking. He could sense Abyss Snarer getting ready to attack. So, he kept on streaming the impressions he was getting from her directly to Happy Feet.
He didn’t know if what he was doing was working on her. But he tried his best to keep Happy Feet in the loop. Her spider senses were probably more in tune with Abyss Snarer than his. Thorgaut hoped Happy Feet understood the impressions and could interpret them.
“I’m not going to lead her to my nest,” Happy Feet informed him. “I don’t trust her. If she kills me, she’ll eat my eggs out of pure spite. Do you see that ledge over there?”
Thorgaut started to nod and answer out loud but caught himself quickly. He pretended to be remembering a song his mother had taught him as a child. He started humming and snapping his fingers.
“That’s where I hid and cloaked my eggs,” she continued unphased. You and Svart should run and hide there while she and I are fighting. As long as she doesn’t see you go behind the rocks, you should be safe. There’s a small opening where I hid the eggs. Hide in there till it’s safe. I made sure to mute the scent around that area before I left earlier. So, it should keep Abyss Snarer from sniffing you out.”
Thorgaut added some extra lines to his mother’s song so Happy Feet would know he had understood her.
“I’m gonna listen to my Momma. Run to safety from the Nokken.”
“What’s a Nockken?” Svart asked.
Thorgaut chuckled and shook his head. “It’s the evilest creature in the world. It hides in lakes and rivers waiting to grab little children who don’t come when called. My mother terrified me with stories of it as a child.”
By this time, they had gone up a hill and around a curve. The rocky ledge Happy Feet had mentioned was no longer visible behind them. Thorgaut sensed that it was almost showtime.
He reached out to try and connect with Svart once more so he could warn the boy to prepare for what was about to happen. He projected his thoughts at Svart but didn’t sense the boy was aware of what he was doing.
They came out of a tunnel and into a large cavernous chamber. Happy Feet stopped and jumped into the air spinning around midair to face Abyss Snarer.
“Well, here we are,” she chuckled nervously and pointed to the side with one of her feet. “Why don’t you boys go sit over there while I climb up and check on my eggs.”
Thorgaut was only too happy to oblige. He wanted to get out from between the spiders. Happy Feet’s jump seemed to have thrown off Abyss Snarer’s plan.
Happy Feet ran over to the side of the cave climbed up the wall to the roof. The spider scurried across to the other side and stopped behind some stalactites as if checking on her eggs.
Abyss Spider positioned herself for attack when Happy Feet came back down the cave wall. Thorgaut fired off a warning thought to keep Happy Feet from coming back that way. She turned to the side at the last minute and came down on the other side of the tunnel entrance. She approached warily keeping a careful eye on Abyss Snarer.
“Well, let’s get a move on it. Time’s a wasting. I gotta get you to your friends and then get back to my babies.”
“Why don’t you let me take these two to their friends,” Abyss Snarer said. “You stay here and take care of your babies. Surely, they’re more important than these two humans who would just as soon kill your babies as look at them.”
Happy Feet tapped her feet rapidly while shifting her weight back and forth in place. “Well, thank you Abyss Snarer for your very generous offer. But you and I both know that you won’t let them leave.”
“What do you care?” Abyss Snarer hissed. “There just humans. You know what they do to our kind.”
“Maybe it’s time to change things?” she replied. “One good deed begets another. We can start a chain of events that will change our future relationships.”
“Bah! You don’t believe that malarkey. Do you?” Abyss Snarer spat out. “Are you willing to die for them.”
“Yes, and I do believe it,” Happy Feet replied. “You know about my visions. I’ve seen the path they tread. They both play a key role in coming events that will affect us all. You’ve heard the whispers and rumors of the undead activity.”
Abyss Snarer snickered, “Of course I hear them. I’m not deaf. Although, unlike you, I prefer to use my rationality and sense of better judgment. I choose not to believe everything I hear.”
“It’s best to prepare yourself,” Happy Feet said. “I’ve seen the future, and it’s not going to be pleasant.”
Abyss Snarer rolled all eight of her eyes. “Oh, please. Don’t be so melodramatic. We live in a cave. Let the humans and dwarves and elves fight it out. ”
“For the sake of my offspring, I wish we were safe in the caves.” Happy replied glumly. “But we’ll be the first race affected. The undead use these tunnels to move around. We’ll be the first species that they will transform. They’ll use our skills and abilities to fight their battles.”
“We can build webs to keep them out,” Abyss Snarer said.
Happy Feet shook her head with a look of despair. “Spiders will take the brunt of the blame for the attacks on humans. Men will flood these tunnels seeking revenge and to end the threat. They will come with fire and burn us out. No spider is safe.”
“All the more reason to kill this one. The NightWalkers have already bitten this human on the neck.” Abyss Spider said pointing a hairy leg in Thorgaut’s direction. “Or we can at least wrap him up in a web so he can’t cause us trouble.”
Thorgaut stood off to the side watching their interaction. The showdown between the spiders was tense. Both were nervous and upset. The new Viking telepath didn’t feel he should connect with their minds. Any interference on his part could set them off.
“Things are about to get ugly,” Thorgaut leaned over and muttered to Svart. “Stay alert and get ready to run. Happy Feet already told me where to go. So, just follow my lead when the time comes.”
Svart looked up at him with fear in his eyes. Thorgaut felt sorry for him and laid a hand on his shoulder.
“Okay, you win.” Abyss Snarer said lowering her front legs and abdomen. “I’ll take your word for it. We’ll let these two tasty morsels go and hope for the best in the future. What do you see in my future?”
“Death,” Happy Feet screamed as she leaped into the air straight at the other spider. Abyss Snarer was quick on her feet in spite of her large size. She jumped and twisted her body mid-air. She defended the attack and grappled Happy Feet with her own swift counterattack.
The spiders fell to the ground hissing and fighting. Happy Feet was on top due to the force of her leap. But Abyss Snarer immediately flipped her over.
Thorgaut didn’t stick around to see who would win. He grabbed Svart by the forearm and gave a firm tug. He ran back down the tunnel towards the rocky ledge that Happy Feet had pointed out to him earlier.
“Abyss Snarer,” Happy said. “How wonderful to see you, dear. Come along with us. We’re going up to check on my babies. Then we are off for a little walk.”
The other spider didn’t reply in a way Thorgaut and Svar could understand. Her front two legs started tapping the ground rapidly in front of her. She puffed up her abdomen at an angle. It looked like they were communicating in spider language whatever that was.
Thorgaut was standing between the two spiders, so he moved off to the side. Abyss Snarer was the exact opposite of Happy Feet. Her head was almost as large as her abdomen. And she had a lot more hair on her body and legs.
The markings seemed to move and undulate rapidly. At first, Thorgaut thought it was a trick of his eyes in the darkness. But as he watched he noticed it happen several more times.
He started to say something, but then decided against it. He didn’t know what might trigger this spider into attacking. The spiders he had observed as a child were extremely fast. They could pounce on their prey from long distances of up to fifty times the length of their body. There was no way he could outrun it.
Anyss Snarer finally stopped drumming and lowered her abdomen. Happy Feet chuckled nervously. “Well, come along, boys. I need to make sure my babies are okay.”
Thorgaut and Svart looked at each other. Svart shook his head slightly. Thorgaut understood what he meant. He didn’t need to be a mind reader to surmise that the boy didn’t trust the spiders either. He sure didn’t want to end up becoming spider snack for the day.
“Well, look, ladies,” Thorgaut spoke up. “I hate to be rude and run off on you like this after just having met and all. It’s getting late though, and I need to find my friends before they get worried about me.”
Thorgaut felt the familiar warm pressure of a mind reader in his head. Only this time it came on suddenly and sharply. He grabbed his head and doubled over to the ground in extreme pain. He could feel the spider roughly sifting through this memories and thoughts. He vomited at her feet, and she let up on his mind to pull back her feet in disgust.
“Get up,” she hissed. “You’re not going anywhere. That was a warning. The next time, I’ll remove your memories permanently.”
“But my friends,” he moaned while still lying on the ground with his head between his hands. “They’re looking for me by now.”
“Oh, get over yourself and your puffed-up ego,” she replied. “It’s been a week since you last saw them. They’re long gone by now on that little ship you came in.”
Thorgaut rolled over and sat up. Svart helped him get up. His legs felt wobbly, and he stood unsteadily. He held onto Svar for support as he took a few shaky steps forward.
They followed Happy Feet back up the tunnel with Abyss Snarer following close behind.
Thorgaut sensed Abyss snarer’s mind but wasn’t sure if his impressions were correct. He got the feeling though that he could tell what she was thinking. It was as if the mind-reading force she used on him had unlocked something in his head. There seemed to be an open connection between their minds.
He sensed that she was impressed by something she had seen his memories. If he had to guess, he would have said that it had to do with the NightWalker biting him. Although he didn’t know why that would impress her so much.
Thorgaut hoped he might be starting to learn how to mind read now. He reached out with his senses towards Svart. He could sense the boy walking beside and slightly behind him. It wasn’t anywhere near strong enough to read the boy’s thoughts though.
He turned his senses towards the other spider. Happy Feet tensed up when Thorgaut probed into her mind. The spider relaxed as soon as she realized what was going on though.
“What are you doing, Thorgaut,” she probed back. Thorgaut could sense her thoughts in his mind even though he knew she wasn’t speaking out loud. It wasn’t as if he was reading her mind. It was more like she was pushing her thoughts into his head.
“I’m not sure,” he replied honestly. “After Abyss Snarer ripped my head open, I feel like I can sense her mind. I was testing how it worked with you and Svart.”
“You’re a fast learner,” she giggled. “She may have opened your mind to some interesting possibilities. At any rate, you’ll have an easier time of learning to read minds if you decided to develop these skills.”
“Why would she be interested in the fact that a NightWalker bit me recently?” he queried.
He felt her tense up at that information. It was fast and subtle though. He wouldn’t have even noticed if he hadn’t been concentrating all his attention on her at that very moment.
“I didn’t realize you had been bitten by a NightWalker, but then I didn’t raid your mind like she did. That is an interesting fact though.”
They all walked in silence for a bit. Thorgaut continued to shift his attention between the two spiders. It was easy for him to connect with Abyss Snarer. There seemed to be an open connection between them that had been opened. It allowed him direct access into her head without alerting her to his presence.
He continued having difficulty connecting with Happy Feet’s mind though. It took him several attempts each time and always felt a bit clumsy. He felt like he was poking around in the dark trying to get into Happy Feet’s head. But it was the exact opposite with the other spider. He knew where Abyss Snarer was at all times without even having to turn around to look at her.
Svart continued to prove to be a tougher challenge. He never could actually break through into the boy’s head or read his thoughts. He concluded that it was because Svart wasn’t a mind reader like the spiders were. So, it would naturally prove laborious for him to connect with the boy.
The whole idea of connecting with other minds and learning to read thoughts was exciting. It would prove to be an invaluable ability if Thorgaut could develop it further. Especially if he could push scary thoughts into the mind of enemies that he faced on the battlefield. He could shove horrid visions directly into their head to scare them. He could terrorize them before the fighting even began.
Thorgaut snickered at the thought of them fleeing before the battle even started. The look on his friends’ faces would be priceless. His reputation as Thorgaut the Dreadful would grow.
“Thorgaut’s enemies flee before he ever even draws his sword,” they would shout.
“What’s so funny?” Svart asked when he noticed the grin on Thorgaut’s face. He tried to push the images in his mind into the boy’s head, but it still felt like a clumsy attempt.
“He can’t sense minds connecting with him like you can,” Happy Feet replied in his head. “He never felt me probing through his thoughts like you did. You seem to be somewhat of a natural at the mind games. You already had an open mind.”
“You could be right! I have to admit that my mind is a little more open to strange things now than it was a week ago.” he fired back.
“It could have something to do with the fact that I’ve fought shufflers, undead wolves, and crazy people with black eyes these past few days.” he shot at her with a tone of irony.
“And now I’m carrying on a conversation in my head with a giant underground spider that wants to feed me to her babies.”
Happy Feet giggled and looked back at him. “Oh, c’mon. I wouldn’t do that to poor Svart. On second thought, I could do that to you though, since you pose a mind-reading threat to my kind.”
“And here I thought you had a thing for me,” Thorgaut groaned and rolled his eyes in mock despair at her betrayal of him. “I’m jealous and will have to find a way to throw him to Abyss Snarer when the time comes.”
“Don’t say that,” she hushed him. “It may come to that. She doesn’t seem to have the best of intentions.
“What’s going on? What are you talking about?” Abyss Snarer demanded to know after hearing their giggles and groans.
“Nothing,” Thorgaut said. “I stepped on a rock with my sore foot.”
He felt Abyss Snarer reach out to probe his mind and read his thoughts. Thorgaut immediately pulled back and shoved some random memories of the wolf attack.
The spider recoiled and pulled back in disgust at the images of the wolf leaping and tearing at him.
Thorgaut probed right back into her mind and picked up some images of her thoughts. He reeled with shock at the realization of what Abyss Snarer was planning to do.
He immediately reached out to Happy Feet. It took him a few attempts to get the spider’s attention and connect with her mind. He pushed the images from Abyss Snarer’s head into hers.
“Be careful,” Thorgaut alerted her. “Abyss Snarer is going to jump you as soon we get to your eggs, and then kill Svart and me.”
Thorgaut peered into the darkness of the cave around him, but they couldn’t see who was speaking. He saw the walls on both sides and the cave stretching back into the distance behind them. But there was no one nearby.
“That’s creepy,” Savart said pressing close to Thorgaut for protection. “I must be hearing things.”
“I heard it too,” Thorgaut said.
They turned back in the direction they had been going, but there was nothing there either. Thorgaut did a complete 360-degree turn looking carefully in all directions. But he didn’t see anything out of the ordinary.
“Guess there must be talking rocks around here,” Thorgaut declared loudly.
There was a soft giggle. There it was again. The same voice Thorgaut had heard earlier. The echo bouncing around off the cave walls made it difficult to pinpoint its exact location.
“Where are you? Who are you?” Thorgaut demanded. “Show yourself.”
“I’m right here, silly,” she said.
Something soft and warm brushed against the back of his neck. Thorgaut leaped forward and spun around. Still, there was nothing there.
“What is it?” Svart asked.
“Something touched me,” he shouted angrily. He moved forward waving his arms around wildly. “They must be invisible. Be careful.”
Svart crouched down to make himself smaller. He started waving his arms around as well to feel for anything around them.
The giggling turned into laughter. A hilarious, uncontrolled belly laugh of someone having a jolly, good time at Thorgaut and Svart’s expense. Thorgaut stopped waving his arms around and stood still.
“This isn’t funny,” Thorgaut spat out. “C’mon, Svart. Let’s get out of here.”
He started walking again with Svart following close behind.
“No, please wait.” the voice spoke up again. “I’m sorry. I don’t get many visitors around here. I don’t know how to behave myself appropriately sometimes.”
Thorgaut and Svart stopped and turned back around.
“Look up,” she said. “I’m right above you.”
Thorgaut looked up towards the roof of the cave. It took him a few seconds to spot her because the gray coloring blended right into the cave roof. The first thing he noticed was her eyes. Several, large beady unblinking black orbs staring straight down at him. From there he was able to make out its outline.
He and Svart both saw it at the same time. Thorgaut leaped backward and scrambled away from it. Svart attempted to jump too but lost his footing. He slipped and fell to the ground.
“Relax, boys.” she sighed. “I’m not going to harm you.”
“You’re a spider!” Thorgaut yelled.
“Duh, smartypants,” she replied. “You act as if you’ve never seen a spider before.”
“Not three feet long,” he retorted.
“You have a point there,” she sighed. “Most spiders don’t grow as big as me. And those that do go outside of these caves are usually killed by your kind before they grow to half my size.”
“Most don’t talk either,” Thorgaut said.
She jumped down in front of them and shrugged. “What can I say? I guess I’m special like that.”
Thorgaut scowled at her and shifted his position defensively to get a better look. She had a small head with two large eyes in the front. Several smaller eyes circled them across the sides and top of her head.
She noticed Thorgaut checking her out, so she turned a little for him to get a better look. First to one side and then the other. She had a long oval shaped body with dark brown stripes that circled her abdomen. Four of her long, slim legs pointed forward, and the other two aimed back.
Thorgaut shied away from them as she moved around. She pulled her legs in to keep them close to her body in a non-threatening manner. But he still didn’t get too close to her. She could snap out at a moment’s notice.
“Who are you exactly,” he asked. “And what do you want with us?”
She giggled again for a second and then caught herself. “I’m sorry. Couldn’t help it. I wasn’t going to bother you. I was going to let you go on by, but I felt sorry for the boy after all he’s suffered. I didn’t want the Snarer of the Abyss to get a hold of him.”
“What are you talking about? How do you know what Svart has been through.” Thorgaut demanded.
“Oh, boy!” she replied. “I guess this is gonna be a long conversation.”
She paused to look at Thorgaut and Svart. Each stood on opposite sides of her.
“We’re waiting,” Svart said.
“To make a long story short my name is Draunrysn, but you can call me Happy Feet. That’s what it would mean roughly translated into your language.”
“Roughly translated,” Thorgaut exclaimed. “Where did you learn to speak our language?”
“Human languages are easy. I simply pull the words out of your mind.”
“What? Like you can read our minds?” Thorgaut asked flabbergasted.
“Something like that,” she replied. “Yes, I guess you would call it that. I filter through your thoughts, Thorgaut Kabbisson who is looking for his way home.”
“That’s not very polite,” he complained. “It’s an invasion of my property and illegal in most places.”
“I can’t help it,” she sighed. “It comes naturally to me, and you could stop me if you knew how. It would take some training to build up your mental defenses. I have come across those of your kind who know how to protect their minds.”
Thorgaut didn’t know what to say. He started to stammer something out, but in the end looked at Svart. The boy shrugged as if to say he had never heard of cave-dwelling, mind-reading spiders either.
“In my defense,” the spider continued, “I’m nor prying deep into your memories. I’m only reading your surface thoughts.”
“Thank you,” Thorgaut finally said. It felt like a silly thing to say, but it was all he could think of at the moment.
“Oh, don’t mention it, darling,” she replied. “Well, I must be getting back to my web and check on my eggs. I left them unattended to follow you down here and see where you were going. You can never be too careful around here. Anyway”
“Wait, please.” Thorgaut pleaded. “How can we get out of these tunnels? And what was that about the Abyss Monster?”
“Oh, right! Don’t continue down this tunnel. It doesn’t lead anywhere. There is a deep abyss at the end of it covered with a web. You won’t see it until you fall through because it looks like the cave floor.”
“The Abyss Snarer is a spider, like you?” Svart asked.
“Why yes child,” she replied “And you’ll make a nice snack for her. Unlike me, she’s not known for taking pity on her prey. Pay attention.”
Thorgaut felt a light pressure across the top of his head. He received a brief mental image of a spider almost as large Happy Feet. It was a lighter brown then her, and its stripes ran straight down its sides rather than around its abdomen.
“That’s the Abyss Snarer. You don’t want to bump into her down here. If you see her, run as fast as you can. She has a nasty disposition, and even I do my best to avoid her.
“Papa never talked about spiders living down here,” Svart interjected.
“Most of my kind, the Eshebrot as we call ourselves, live deeper down. It’s warmer, and allows us to avoid contact with those of you who live above.”
“So, why do you live here?” Svart asked.
“I had a little spat with my husband’s family after I killed him. So, I moved off a ways to avoid them. Plus there are a lot more rats and bats up this way. And it’s been a long time since the trolls have stopped coming through here. So, I made myself cozy here. No place like home. Right, boys?”
Happy Feet seemed like she was going to keep on rambling on, so Thorgaut interrupted her. “I don’t mean to be rude and cut the conversation short, but how do we get out her exactly.”
She paused for a moment and then said with one of her usual giggles, “Which way would you like to go exactly?”
“I thought you could read minds,” Thorgaut said. “Don’t you know where we want to go?”
“I told you that I was respecting your privacy by not digging into your mind. Besides, you don’t seem to know where you want to go exactly. You seem to be a little lost.”
Thorgaut laughed. “That’s the understatement of the year. I’ve been lost for several days.”
He felt the same warm pressure on the top of his head as she probed his thoughts.
“I don’t know how to get you back to the house of that woman in the woods,” she said. “It seems to be the place you most want to go right now.”
“Halldora’s house,” he nodded.
“There is a magical warding spell that is cloaking the house to keep anyone from finding it. I sense that there are caverns that come out near that area. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you which ones without more information about the location.”
“It’s okay,” Thorgaut replied. “Can you help me get back to my friends by that bend in the river.”
“Of course,” she replied. “I’ll even take you there myself. First, I need to go back and check in on my babies though. Come along and follow me.”
Thorgaut and Svart followed Happy Feet back up the tunnel the way they had come. They started walking when a voice hissed out from the darkness behind them.
“Stealing food that’s headed to my trap, are we Draunrysn. You could at least share. There’s enough for each of us. You can even keep the bigger one for yourself and your babies. The little one there is plenty big for me.