Web Of Answers
“I don’t get it,” says Jake, joining Hamfrd beneath the glowing orb. “We’ve been all the way around this room twice. Looked in every corner, behind every rock. And the only way out of here is that tunnel we squeezed through to get in here.”
“Aye, there must be something we’re missing,” the big man replies, scratching at his head through his thick red hair. “But damned if I can see what it is.”
The two men return to where the skeletons lie broken and twisted on the floor. Scarlet stands there, hands on hips, staring down at the remains, a scowl on her face.
“What are you thinking, Scar?” asks Jake.
She narrows her eyes at the two skeletons.
“They’re super dead,” she says.
“That they are,” he agrees. “Super dead.”
“Think about it, Jake.”
“Okay.” He scrunches up his brow. “I’m thinking about how dead these dead guys are. Super dead. And? What now?”
“Mathos, bring your light over here,” she growls.
The mage walks over, glowing orb in tow. Elaine follows, hugging herself against the chill.
“Look at them, Jake,” Scarlet insists.
“I see them, Scar. They’re super dead. We’ve established that.”
Her scowl deepens.
“You requested my presence,” Mathos says, saluting. “How may I–“
“Not you. Your stupid light,” she snarls. “Shine it on them.”
“Your wish is my–“
Mathos snaps his mouth closed and does as she says; his orb floats lazily to hover between the two dead members of the Hammer and Shield Guild.
“Look at them lying there,” Scarlet says. “Look.” She narrows her eyes at Jake. “Super dead.”
Jake spreads his hands, not sure what she wants him to say.
“But what killed them?” asks Elaine quietly.
Scarlet turns towards the cleric, her scowl fading.
“Aye, the way they’re lying there,” rumbles Hamfrd. “It’s strange. They look as though they fell. From a height.”
“Fell?” echoes Jake, dubious. He peers up into the darkness. “From where? The ceiling? We’re in a cave. Underground. It’s not like–“
“Mathos,” says Scarlet. “Orb.” She points to the darkness above them. “There.”
They watch together as the ball of light floats overhead, its glow illuminating the contours of the stone ceiling of the cavern. Except one patch directly overhead that remains shadowed. The orb moves closer, rising, until it slips into that darkened area and keeps rising. Suddenly, its glow reflects off the steep walls of a vertical shaft stretching overhead into darkness. The companions stare upwards, following the progress of the ball of light as it floats higher and higher.
“By the Gods,” breathes Hamfrd. The big man barks a laugh that echoes around the dark chamber. “They did fall from the ceiling.”
“That’s our way out,” Jake says. “Scar, you found it. Nicely done.”
“What can I say?” She shrugs. “Dead bodies are kind of my thing.”
“And you totally made it weird,” Jake continues, smile dropping. He forces it to return. “But you found the way out, so that’s okay. But still weird. But it’s okay.”
“Shut up, Jake.”
“I’m gonna shut up.”
* * *
“The question now,” says Hamfrd, face turned up towards the darkness above, “is how do we get up there?”
Jake turns to Mathos. “Can you float us up?”
“Sorry, Jake,” says the mage, shaking his head. “Ordinarily, I might be able to get us up there, but right now I’m spent from back in the Sun King’s tomb. I can’t do anything without some rest.” He gestures to the orb floating overhead. “It’s all I can do to keep the light on, and this is a cantrip easy enough for a child to manage. I feel so useless. Curse my frail body!”
“Mathos, it’s alright,” Jake assures him. “You saved our lives.”
The five companions stand together, staring up into the illuminated shaft overhead. Mathos’s orb hovers just above, near the opening; previously, it had risen high enough to reveal the distant lip of the shaft, high above.
“How far do you reckon it is to the top?” Jake asks.
Hamfrd scratches his head, neck craned upwards. “It’s a good five stories up there, I’d say. Sixty, seventy feet, at least.” The big man grins. “I have rope.”
“A hundred feet.”
“Why didn’t you say so?”
“I just did,” he grins.
A minute later, the big man is pulling the bundled rope from his bulging pack.
“What else do you have stuffed in there?” asks Jake, amazed.
Hamfrd’s laughter echoes around the cavern. Then he’s standing underneath the opening, staring up the shaft, grappling hook affixed to one end of the rope in hand.
“Think you can do it?” asks Jake.
“Let’s find out,” says the big man.
His first throw bangs against the side of the shaft on the way up.
“Everyone out of the way!” he cries, and the group scatters as the metal claw comes tumbling back down to the stone floor.
A second throw goes very similar to first. And a third.
His fourth heave sees the hook soar to the top of the shaft; it clatters distantly on the stone above. However, it finds nothing to grip, and eventually comes tumbling back down the shaft, bouncing and clanging off the rock walls.
The big man sighs, staring forlornly up into the darkness. The hook dangles from his hand. “I’ll keep trying,” he says, but he sounds defeated.
Jake looks to Mathos expectantly.
The mage turns his hands up. “I’m sorry, Jake. I can barely lift my arms, right now. I’m worse than useless.”
The group stares into the shaft.
“I can do it,” says Scarlet.
“Do what?” asks Jake.
“Get the rope up there.”
“Climb,” she snaps back, fierce eyes daring him to challenge her. She glances sideways at Hamfrd. “Think you can boost me up?” she asks the big man.
Hamfrd’s face brightens. “Aye, you bet I can, Scar.” He rumbles a laugh, grins. “You bet I can.”
Jake opens his mouth to protest, but Scarlet shuts him up with a glare.
Hamfrd winds the length of rope around hand and elbow, and then once that’s done, hangs the thick bundle of loops over Scarlet’s head and across a shoulder. “Too heavy?” he asks.
“Alright,” the big man says, grinning. “When you’re ready.”
He squats down, clasping his hands together to make a step. Scarlet places a foot there, and balances on her other leg.
“Set?” rumbles Hamfrd.
The others stand back as the big man straightens from his squat and simultaneously raises his arms, hands together and holding Scarlet’s foot, up and over his head. The black-clad woman stays poised there on his giant hands until the top of his motion, and then she springs up, arms extended. Her fingers scratch and dig and find purchase there in the wall of the vertical shaft. She hangs for a moment, Mathos’s magical orb hovering a few feet above her, providing her light to see.
To words of encouragement from the group watching from the ground below, Scarlet steadies herself, breathes a few full breaths, and then nimbly raises a leg up into the shaft, searches for and finds a spot in the rock to stick her toes. The second leg follows a moment later.
Soon, she is picking her way up the vertical shaft, fingers and toes deftly finding crevices and rock steps to hold her, the heavy rope slung over her shoulders, and the glowing magical orb floating right along with her to the top.
“She’s amazing,” Elaine breathes, watching the other woman climb.
“Like a cat,” Hamfrd laughs.
“That’s why she would make a master thief,” Mathos says, nodding wisely. “Well, that and her skewed moral compass.”
Jake slaps the mage on the back of the head. The four companions watch Scarlet navigate the rest of the way up to the top of the shaft in silence.
She scrambles over the lip and then is out of sight for a moment before her tiny face reappears, peering down the shaft at them. Her voice comes echoing down. “Heads up!”
The heavy rope drops from above, the last couple dozen coiled feet of it thumping down onto the stone floor.
“I’ll go first,” says Hamfrd, gripping the dangling rope and giving it a few solid yanks. “If it holds me, friends,” he laughs, “it will hold the rest of you.” Hand over hand, the big man begins to pull himself up the rope and into the vertical shaft.
The others stand below, watching and awaiting their own turns.
* * *
Mathos is the last one to make the ascent. Halfway up, dangling a few dozen feet above the cavern floor, he clings to the rope. The muscles in his arms are screaming in protest. It’s all he can do to hold on; he’s stuck where he is. The idea of reaching up, climbing even another foot, is out of the question.
“Hang in there,” Hamfrd calls down to the mage, sending his bellowing laughter echoing through the shaft as well. The big man turns to Jake. “Hang in there. See what I did?”
“Sure do,” Jake replies with a polite smile. “Just relax, Mathos,” he calls down the shaft to the mage. “We’re gonna pull you up.”
Together, Hamfrd and Jake drag the heavy rope foot by foot from the shaft. The mage comes along with it, appearing at the lip of the hole, white-knuckled grip on the rope, and is pulled up and onto the safety of the solid floor.
“I’m sorry, Jake,” he says, lying on his back, panting. “I thought I could make it. I froze. My arms stopped working. Thank you, Jake. Hamfrd. Whew! I haven’t felt this close to death since I ate those beach clams that turned out to be poisonous.”
The big man laughs, beginning to coil the length of rope intending to return it to his pack. “You’re welcome, friend. I hope it wasn’t too much of a drag for you.” He chuckles. “Drag.”
“Really?” Jake peers at the giant, shakes his head as though trying to clear away Hamfrd’s attempts at humor.
“What’s the matter, Jake?” Hamfrd asks innocently, winding the final length of rope around his thick arm. “Reached the end of your–“
“Okay, three is just too many,” Jake snaps, holding up a warning finger.
The big man rumbles with mirth. Nearby Elaine puts a hand to her lips, politely keeping her laughter in her mouth.
Scarlet scowls. “Are you two done?” She stands, arms crossed, waiting for their lingering smiles to peter out.
The moment stretches on.
Hamfrd scratches his red hair.
Jake clears his throat, tries for an apologetic grin.
“Oh,” the swordarm says, eventually. “I thought you were gonna–“
“Yeah, ‘fraid not,” she growls. “Come on. Let’s find a way out of here.”
She turns and stalks off into the gloom.
Elaine’s mouth hangs open. “Did she just–“
“Had to be an accident,” Jake says, glancing over at Hamfrd.
The big man roars with laughter. “Frayed knot!” He slaps his huge thigh. Still chuckling, he walks to where Mathos lies on the stone floor. “Up you go,” he tells the mage, pulling Mathos to his feet. More chuckling.
“And bring the mage’s light,” Scarlet snarls from the darkness.
* * *
“Well,” says Jake, standing at Scarlet’s shoulder. “Looks like we know what happened to the rest of the Hammer and Shield Guild.” He glances around warily, drawing his sword. Scarlet’s knives are already in her hands.
Ahead, a crumbling dead-end corridor is crisscrossed by thick tangles of web, the size and volume of which portend a webspinner of unwelcome proportions. The dust-laden curtains of webbing stretch from wall to wall, dense as fabric in places, and limp broken strands hang from the ceiling above, swaying in the disturbed air caused by the Companions presence.
Scattered on the floor and piled into shadowed corners, human bones are piled high, along with a few discarded weapons and scraps of armor and other assorted undigestables. A single metal gauntlet, tangled deep in the web, hangs suspended at eye level.
Elaine, with her medallion in hand, bows her head.
Jake steps slowly back into the wider cavern from which this dead-end extends. There are numerous similar nooks and alcoves tucked along the shadowed walls of this large chamber and several side passages leading into further darkness. The glowing orb reveals additional bones littering the floor of this main chamber and more strands of the withered web in the shadows and hanging from the rocks overhead.
“These webs are old and falling apart,” Jake says. “Whatever made them is probably long gone.”
“Probably,” Scarlet growls.
Hamfrd makes a rumbling in his throat that might mean anything.
Mathos says, “I’m afraid I have to offer a dissenting opinion, Jake.”
“Of course you do,” the swordarm mutters. He turns to the mage. “On what basis?”
Mathos gestures to the shadows at the edge of his orb’s glow, looking embarrassed to be correct. Jake follows with his eyes to where the mage is pointing, takes an involuntary step back.
A furry eight-legged monstrosity advances from the gloom, the light of the magical orb reflecting in several mirror-like black eyes. The beast is the size of bear. A massive one. It chitters menacingly.
Jake raises his sword with grim determination. “Giant lake creature, vertical rope climbing. Now a giant spider? I’m about done with these caves,” he says, gritting his teeth. Then he raises his voice in a wild battlecry. Rushes forward.
The giant spider rears up, its front legs rising off the stone floor. It stands taller than Hamfrd by several feet.
Jake is glad to feel Scarlet and Hamfrd at his shoulders, charging forward with him, no hesitation.
They arrive together.
Jake spins, slashing with precision, lops off one of the spider’s raised legs at an upper joint.
Hamfrd rushes in swinging his heavy mace, bashes the creature’s face as its fangs snap near. The beast screeches in pain or anger or both. Dark ichor splashes from the crushed jaw.
The spider rears back.
Scarlet parries aside a leg that stabs down from above with her twin blades, tumbles acrobatically along the stone ground, and comes back onto her feet beneath the bulk of the spider. Her blades slash across the vulnerable underside. Blood and innards gush from the wounds, splattering Scarlet and spilling onto the ground.
The spider spasms in agony, flailing its remaining legs. Scarlet tucks and rolls clear of the wounded beast. Jake and Hamfrd retreat from the razor-sharp appendages, watching as the injured spider struggles to slink away back into the shadows, slipping and stumbling on the stones made slick by its own life juices.
Just as quickly as it appeared, the spider vanishes into the darkness.
“Damn,” says Jake, slamming his sword into its scabbard. “Barely even got started.”
Scarlet wipes something wet and slimy from her cheek.
“Uh, guys,” calls Elaine.
“Can’t believe that spider took out the entire Hammer and Shield Guild,” Jake says, shaking his head.
“Actually, I’m not sure it did, Jake,” says Mathos. The mage is in the center of the room, standing beneath his glowing orb.
“Are you just disagreeing with everything I say?”
“You guys,” calls Elaine, voice pitched strangely.
Jake shares a quick glance with Hamfrd, and then searches the gloom and finds the young cleric, who is stumbling towards the center of the room nearer to the mage and his light.
“What is it?” Jake calls, beginning to walk that direction. He’s about to call out again to either Elaine or Mathos, both of whom are presently turned away from him, but the shout dies on his lips. He slows, then stops. Feels Hamfrd, at his shoulder, also stop and tense.
A dozen sets of round black eyes shine and reflect the glow of Mathos’s floating orb. A dozen furry faces each connected to massive eight-legged bodies gather at the edge of the light’s reach, each emerging from some dark corner or shadowed passage or hidden alcove.
Jake and Hamfrd join Mathos and Elaine and face this new threat. Jake slides his sword free once again. Elaine clutches her medallion and begins to speak prayers.
“You guys,” calls Scarlet.
“We’ve got a bit of an issue here, Scar,” Jake says over his shoulder, without looking.
“Got one here, too,” she replies, voice grim. “More than one.” Then he does look. Sees Scarlet backing towards him and the others, blades in her hands, at least four more of the spiders in the shadows beyond her.
“Okay,” says Jake, forcing a panicked grin onto his face through the tingling fear he feels. “On second thought, these are probably the spiders that took out the Hammer and Shield Guild.”
“Logical assumption,” Mathos says. “Although we don’t know the life expectancy of these creatures. Most ordinary spiders don’t live ten years. Large ones can. These certainly might. At any rate, it’s fair to assume either these specific spiders or their ancestors.”
“Shut up, Mathos.”
“I’m agreeing with you, Jake!”
“Friends,” says Hamfrd quietly, his voice still a rumble. “What about our life expectancy?”
Scarlet barks a sardonic laugh.
Jake raises his sword, Hamfrd his mace. Mathos has brought out a dagger from within the voluminous folds of his robe. The cavern becomes eerily silent, apart from Elaine’s low murmured prayers. The group stands backed together into the center of the cavern. The spiders advance, a wall of fur and legs and bared fangs and countless sparkling eyes like luminous black pearls, closing in on all sides.