Alice couldn’t see anyone or anything nearby that stood out as unusual. The wolf was crouched low, emitting a rumbling growl that was the first actual sound she had heard from Odi. It vibrated through her body making her teeth grind; the strewn bits of bone and rock rattled across the surface of the path. Alice heard small pieces of mortar shake loose and crumble from the edge of the wall. She took a step closer to the center of the path. She had yet to see anything resembling a bottom to the steep chasms that opened on either side of the path.
She tried to follow where Odi was looking, but couldn’t see anything of note in the dim light of the Dreamlands. The lighthouse had grown more and more distant as they walked, but its lazy rotation still brought light to them, and it was only as it made its pass now that Alice realized that the world had become dimmer and darker the further they had gone.
She could see now the gossamer strands of webbing running across their path, stretching down and around the edges of the path ahead and up into the darkness. As she looked up, she saw the dark shapes dangling above them, black in the dim, carapaces as big around as Travis’s spreading gut, glinting in the slow light of the distant turning lantern, multifaceted eyes, eight legs bristly and tipped in sharp points, moving in concert, spooling silk as they slowly lowered down, directly above them.
Neither Odi nor Esther had seen them, and the spiders were uncoiling, about to drop from above. Alice had no time to communicate, just to act. She let out a grunting yell as she launched herself forward, just as the spiders above them dropped.
She collided with Esther, barreling the small woman’s frame ahead of her in as soft a tackle as she could manage on the pathway, taking her clear of the spider reaching out to grab her from above. Odi, seeming to sense something was amiss, turned and snapped at the air just as one of the things was dropping onto him, catching a leg in his jaws and snapping it off with a hiss from the spider and a short spurt of ichor out into the darkness. The rest of the creature landed on the giant wolf and dug the tips of its sharp legs into his hide, rearing back and revealing gleaming fangs dripping with venom.
Alice rolled to her feet, leaving Esther lying on her stomach, and with a practice flick of her wrist, extended the blade of her combat knife. It was only a two inch blade, but she would take any amount of distance between her and these creatures. Now would have been a good time to have her .45, and she regretted not getting the magazine back from Chip. An empty gun was still an effective threat against something that understood what it was. She doubted these spiders would respect the firearm’s reputation. She stepped forward to stand between Esther and the two spiders. More dropped from above. She could hear Odi snarling and snapping behind her.
One of the spiders made a dash forward, up on six legs, the two front legs raised, ready to spear any exposed flesh. As the creature closed, Alice darted straight forward, between the legs, driving her knife straight into one of the thing’s reddish bulbous eyes. It hissed and ichor spilled out around the blade as Alice pulled it free. The spider’s legs were behind her, but she had gotten in closer before it could strike on the presumption that the tips were the only dangerous part, and were useless if she was too close to stab. “Know your distance” she muttered to herself as she kicked the dying thing back toward its companions.
Esther pushed herself up onto her elbows and started to roll over. Alice glanced over her shoulder to see Odi crushing a spider in his jaws and shake his head viciously, spraying the black fetid liquid all across the path. There were two more of the things clinging to his back and bringing the barbed tips of their legs down into him over and over. Blood stained his fur, but if he was hurt, he did not show it as he tossed the corpse off the edge of the path. His mouth was black with the things’ blood as he looked up at Alice. Everything slowed as she felt his words in her mind again. “Do not worry about me. Keep them off her.” And in the next instant, he was rolling onto his back, trying to dislodge the spiders stabbing at him.
Alice turned back around in time to see another of the creatures skittering towards her, feinting and withdrawing, and the other moved sideways to surround her and Esther. She couldn’t move off where she was without leaving Esther exposed to attack, but she couldn’t let them surround her either. Once there was one on either side of her, it would not take them long to bring her, and Esther, down. Odi seemed to be capable of standing the things off on his own. If she could just stay on her feet long enough for him to join their fight, she thought she’d probably turn out okay.
She switched her grip on her knife and threw it overhand into the one circling on her left. Her aim was good, and the blade would have stuck if the creature hadn’t reared up and batted the knife aside with its forelegs, sending it off into the deep chasm behind it. Alice hadn’t been counting on the knife killing the thing, and was already following up by darting in and planting a steel toed boot into the spider’s underbelly. With a crunch of broken carapace, it went flying from the path and into the darkness after the knife.
She turned to see the other spiders closing. One rushed straight to her, trying to bull her off the edge, while another leapt directly onto Esther, just as she rolled to her stomach. Esther planted the palm of her hand against the thing’s abdomen, and it went still. She pulled its head close and began to speak to it.
The spider coming for her wasn’t feinting, and Alice threw herself sideways out of its path. She felt a searing pain as one of its legs tore a line of pain through her calf as it sailed by. As it went over the edge, she caught a glimpse of gossamer silk trailing from behind it, and realized that falling wasn’t nearly the risk for these things as it was for her. She looked up to see several more, maybe dozens of the creatures skittering down the path toward them from behind. “We need to go!” She shouted, pointing at them.
Esther released the spider from her lap, and it began to march toward the coming horde of red eyed arachnids, standing on its rear four legs and waving its front four around wildly. Esther reached out for Alice’s hand, and said “Agreed.” She looked back at the wolf, who was holding a last spider down under one paw and ripping its legs off with his teeth, and yelled “Odi! We need you!”
Odi only growled and pulled the last leg off the spider, leaving the black disk on its back, snapping venomous mandibles, and oozing its fetid blood onto the pathway. He looked at the oncoming spiders and bared his teeth. Alice felt her heart shudder at the growl and the dripping blood. As it came toward her, she could barely stay on her feet, her instincts screamed at her to run, to drop everything and to get to cover. In that instant, whatever else she might have thought about the world, about her place in it, she understood for a moment, that right here, right now, the wolf was the predator, and everything else, including her, was just meat, waiting to be eaten.
Alice dimly realized that she was pulling on Esther’s hand, bringing her to her feet. The great wolf brushed past her, and she felt relief wash in behind it, as that hot menacing pressure, the threat of being hunted, and the certainty of violence went with it. Esther was saying something, but Alice couldn’t make out what it was until she felt the small woman’s hand slap against her face. She was yelling, “…behind with him!”and Esther turned to face the webbing blocking their path.
Alice shook her head clear of the daze, and began to move toward the webbing. Esther came with her, raising her hands and chanting something in a language Alice didn’t understand. The webbing began to glow and vibrate, and after a moment, smoke began to peel up from it. Another second later and it burst into flame, leaving the path clear. Esther and Alice both looked at the fight behind them. Odi had planted himself int he middle of the path, and the approaching spiders were swarming him. He was knocking them off the pathway, and his massive jaws were tearing them apart, but there were too many of them for him to fight them all. For every three that he killed or sent over the edge, one would sneak past him or find purchase in his great shaggy coat.
Esther pushed at Alice’s back, yelling, “We’re close! Just run!” And she did.