It was the age old story, the band of brave adventurers off to rescue the fair maidens in peril. The stuff of classic fairy tales.
This particular version had some slight variations from the traditional tropes, though.
The reluctant hero wasn’t usually as reluctant as I was, for a start. And the adventurers who set forth tended to have some kind of a chance of being victorious. Joshaya was like the guy in the Magnificent Seven going around collecting an assortment of sharpshooters and cutthroats, only all of them were out when he called, so he had to take us.
“What do you know about the priestess and her powers?” I asked.
“Not much,” said Joshaya. “There’s seven of them, and they’ll kill you first chance they get. About all you need to know.”
“Do you have a plan?”
“Kill them first.”
He shrugged. “See when we get there. Never tried this before.”
Very reassuring. I huddled in the back of the cart using my grumpiness to keep me warm.
“This is your fault,” I said to Maurice.
“Me? What did I do?”
“You put ideas in their heads. Made them think they should think for themselves. I know you taught them how to force me to do things I didn’t want to do. Now look where we are.”
“It was only for emergencies,” said Maurice. “And you don’t know that’s what this is about. It could be… It could be something else.”
He didn’t sound convincing. Or convinced. I stared out into the dark, pissed off. I couldn’t even get comfortable with my irritation niggling at me. The cart was covered in straw but it did little to soften the journey.
The feeling that I had been Shanghaied into this scheme hung heavily over me. It was like the girls had realised they couldn’t talk me into doing the right thing, so out of respect for my views, they hadn’t asked me and did it anyway. I brooded and sulked, the uneven cart floor poking at me as we trundled along the muddy track.
“Are you a Visitor?” Maurice asked Joshaya, trying to avoid meeting my accusing gaze.
“Visitor? Me? No, no. Do I look like one of them pasty, weedy little oiks? No offence.”
He was a heavyset man, although his build suggested he may have been quite a formidable fighter in his day. He was fat but he was solid.
“What about the man you call master? Was he a Visitor?”
“Wiz? Yes, he was one of your lot. A great man. He taught me everything I know, trained me from when I was a mere whelp.”
“Was that his special ability? To train people?” Maurice had his notebook out, ready to take down any vital clues to help us meet the next disaster quicker than the last.
“Ah, well, I wouldn’t call it a special ability, exactly. He could look at a person and know what it was they were meant to do, and then help them do it better. Born teacher. Nothing unnatural about that.”
I scoffed but no one paid any attention. Clearly this Wiz guy had the power to augment the abilities of others. Peter had mentioned his fellow Visitor who could do this. At least I knew the guy really existed. Now I just had to find him. After this detour. Assuming we didn’t die. Or weren’t maimed, poisoned or imprisoned. Life wasn’t like this when I was single. Mind you, fewer blow jobs when you’re single, unless you’re very flexible.
Maurice scribbled away as the horse plodded on. The horizon glowed with the first signs of dawn and we trundled towards an encounter with seven witches, or priestesses and their One True God. At least there was only one of him. There was a forest ahead and little else. The fields looked wild and overgrown. The sounds of a river nearby. The occasional unidentifiable animal call.
The silence extended into an uncomfortable area as Maurice and I bristled against each other, creating an awkwardness you could have buttered bread with.
“And what is it you do?” asked Dudley, unable to take the silence, his voice strained with the effort of being polite while having every bone in his body rattled by the suspensionless cart.
“I kill monsters,” said Joshaya.
“Then why the fuck do you need us?” I said.
Joshaya pulled on the reins and the horse came to a stop, although we’d been going so slow it was hard to tell the difference.
“Look here, my lad. This wasn’t my idea. I’m retired. Leave well alone, I say. Two or three kids lost to witches ain’t so bad. Not like you wouldn’t lose a couple anyway. That’s kids for you, always wandering off and doing themselves a mischief. But they insisted. Said this was a special quest and I had to show you boys how it’s done. Pass on the torch, as it were.”
Looking at Joshaya, he wasn’t a young man. I could completely believe he had left his monster hunting days behind him, so why was he here? “When you say ‘they insisted,’ who do you mean? The three girls?”
“That’s right. Very persuasive, they were. Offered me a fine prize for my services.”
“And what was that?” I asked.
“My own bride to take home.”
“One of the witches?”
“No!” said Joshaya, appalled. “I wouldn’t want one of those hags in my bed. I’d never see another sunrise. No, one of your girls.”
There was a change in the atmosphere as the occupants to the rear of the vehicle shifted uncomfortably. We worked with the full spectrum of awkwardness.
“Which one?” asked Maurice, nervously.
“I get to choose,” Joshaya said grandly.
I had the strong feeling there had been some kind of misunderstanding. The girls had attempted to broker a deal and had somehow sold their magic beans for an old cow.
“Are you sure that was the deal?” I asked as gently as I could. I didn’t want to spook him with the realisation he wasn’t getting the pick of the litter. There was no way that’s what they had agreed with him. A man choosing a woman as his prize was a completely outdated and unacceptable way of doing business. In addition to which, the girls belonged to us and weren’t for sale. Not unless we got a much better offer.
“That was the deal,” said Joshaya. “One for me, you can keep the other two.”
I exchanged a look with Maurice and Dudley. They didn’t look worried, per se, just a little baffled. Neither of them believed the girls would make that kind of deal. Had they lied to trick Joshaya? That also seemed unlike them. Without needing to say anything, the three of us put aside our differences and came to the same conclusion. We would have to wait until we found the girls and then demand a reckoning. Unless it wasn’t my girl he wanted, in which case I was open to negotiations. I am not an unreasonable person.
By the time the morning sun had risen to the height of the treetops, we had reached the edge of the forest. The mud track stopped at the treeline, either because the vegetation was too thick to take a cart through, or this was where everyone who came here died.
“The castle’s in there?” I asked, hoping the answer was no. The kind of answer I would have been happy with was some sort of indication of assistance from the forest folk, perhaps a fountain of spring water that made bathers immune to harm. Or exploding acorns. Anything that gave us an edge over women with the power to call down bolts of lightning.
“It’s in the middle of the woods. Castle’s a grand word for it, really. More of an old ruin. Used to be quite a sight back when I was a boy, centre of attention in these parts. Then the One True God moved in and we got this.”
He jumped down from the cart and kicked at a stone in the grass. The stone, about the size of a fist, flew into the air heading for the forest and then stopped in mid-air, hanging there.
We got down to get a better look. The stone looked like it was stuck to the air.
By angling my head and rocking back and forth I could see strange gleams in the air that grew into streaks. These streaks slanted from the ground up to the branches above. There were more shimmering gleams among the branches when you squinted and moved your head from side to side. They outlined a monstrous web covering the forest’s border.
Dudley reached out his hand and took hold of the suspended stone. He pulled and twisted in an effort to get it loose, but it remained where it was, swaying slightly. He stepped back. A rising breeze rustled the thick carpet of dead leaves and made the stone wobble wildly.
“How do we get through that?” Maurice asked.
Getting through the web didn’t seem like the most pressing issue. I was more concerned with what had made it.
“I don’t know,” said Joshaya. “Trial and error, I should think.”
He had taken a package from the tail of the cart. A leather roll bound with buckled straps. He laid it on the grass and unfurled it like a carpet. The insides were lined with an assortment of weapons. Swords and daggers and axes. Blades connected by chains. Balls covered in spikes. A blow pipe with a set of tiny darts.
It was very well organised and obviously lovingly cared for. We stood watching as he removed the equipment and methodically cleaned each piece with a rag he soaked in oil from a small flask. The oil smelled like flowers. Which flowers? How the fuck would I know? Flowery flowers.
He really went all out in the polishing and waxing, removing his cuirass and shirt to get some real elbow grease into it. I tried to watch how he worked on his weapons, sliding his hands around, really grinding down the edges to a brilliant sheen that you could tell was razor sharp just by looking, but I had to look away. Watching a sweaty man with an extremely hairy back is no easy thing before breakfast.
Maurice pointed at a small axe. “Can I borrow this?”
“I haven’t prepared it yet,” said Joshaya. “Killing monsters is all in the preparation.”
“Actually, I want to use it before you clean it.”
Joshaya handed it over. Maurice took it, tested the weight like he knew what he was doing, and then gripped the handle with both hands and slammed the axe-blade into the ground. He repeated this a few times, hacking and slashing at the defenceless grass, and then handed the axe back. Joshaya looked baffled.
Then Maurice grabbed some of the grass and yanked, ripping the loosened turf free. The underside was a large block of earth and mud, attached to the roots, neatly cut out of the ground by Joshaya’s axe.
Maurice walked over to the web and shook the giant divot, sending dirt spraying into the air. Particles stuck to the web, revealing its shape and form.
It was very impressive, beautiful even. He was only able to reveal the lowest parts, but they gave the impression of a windmill, its blades sweeping past as the threads trembled in the breeze.
It spread in every direction. Being able to see it didn’t make it any easier to find a way past. Objects in nature, however, tend to have some common vulnerabilities. I reached out and lit a flame on the end of my finger. I touched it to the web.
Now, trees tend to be made of wood, which is flammable. Setting fire to the web risked setting the whole forest alight. I understood this was a bad thing, but on the other hand, somewhere in that forest was a giant fucking spider. Not giant like bigger than my hand, I mean giant like one of those SUVs mums pick up their kids in and fill up three parking spaces because no one showed them how to parallel park a tank.
Of course, it could also mean killing everything else in the forest, including the girls, but that’s why you shouldn’t run off to the woods to save children from witches and make your boyfriends follow you. Do that shit on your own, like when there’s a game on and you’re bored.
The flame ran up the single thread I had lit, like it was running along a fuse to detonate a bomb, and then petered out somewhere above me. The web seemed undamaged, although the stone that had been stuck to it fell down.
“Interesting,” said Maurice, jotting down his observations in his book. “Not as sticky once it’s been exposed to heat.”
There was also another side effect of applying heat to the web. The web’s owner turned up.
It was, as advertised, a large spider, but not SUV-sized. It was much, much bigger.
It came over the treetops and climbed down until it reached halfway to the ground. It sat there staring at us.
The three of us were frozen, unable to move or speak. Joshaya was facing the other direction and I could hear him squeaking away with his rag, oblivious to his opponent’s early arrival. I didn’t want to make any loud noises in case I scared the giant arachnid into eating me.
“Can you shoot it in the eye?” I whispered at Dudley. If it was blind we might be able to get away.
“I don’t think I have enough arrows,” said Dudley. The spider had a ring of black eyes circling its head.
We started to back away, very light on our feet, but the horse, which had been frozen like us when the behemoth appeared, suddenly decided it was time to do its best Aguilera impression and screamed in three different octaves.
A stream of webbing shot out of the spider’s mouth. I dived out of the way, but it was aimed at the horse which got full-body bukake. And then the horse was airborne as the webbing snapped back like elastic.
A horse’s belly flashed over my head as I lay on the ground, followed by the cart. I did the only thing I could think of, I threw a ball of flame after it.
My flames weren’t great at setting things on fire, not deliberately in any case, but the cart was covered in straw. It caught fire immediately.
The spider had raised the first two legs on either side of its head, rearing up to reveal the fanged opening under its scythe-blade mandibles. The horse was sucked right into the spider’s hideous maw, followed by the flaming wagon.
In movies, things explode all the time. A car falls off a cliff, a plane hits the water, someone throws a snowball in a Michael Bay movie. Boom! In real life, it tends to take more than a collision to produce a mushroom cloud.
The cart exploded into a fireball. Not a very big one, but enough to engulf the spider’s head in flames. It screamed. At least, it made a very painful whistling sound, almost as painful as listening to someone actually whistling.
Its body was covered in thick black fur which glowed orange with the spreading flames and smelled horrible and strangely like plastic melting. Like a barbecue with vegan sausages.
“Damn it,” said Joshaya, slamming his oily rag into the ground. “There was a month’s supply of lubricating oil in that cart.
I assumed he had a barrel of the oil he used for his weapons attached to the underside of the cart. I certainly didn’t want to know what else he might want to lube up, so didn’t ask him to confirm.
Flames streaked along the web lines and then faded away. The crispy remains of the spider fell to the ground with a crash, the back end of a horse sticking out of its mouth.
“I didn’t expect to defeat the first guardian so easily,” said Joshaya, scratching at his abundantly hairy shoulders. He should have covered them up in case a stray ember did the same to him as it had to the spider. And also because it was disgusting. I gagged like a cat with a hairball in the back of its throat.
“How many guardians are there?” asked Maurice.
“Two left,” said Joshaya. “They get bigger.”