The Silk Mind

Ashlin Smith is bored with his apparently pointless job in the Royal Badger Survey, and is trying to quit so he can go and be a blacksmith like his family expected. However, the true purpose of the Badger Survey is a lot less boring than he knows or would prefer.

Ashlin, Jenna, Justin and Derk face monsters natural and unnatural as they are tangled up in political intrigue and the civilization-threatening side-effects of ancient sorcery.

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45. A Path Through the Webs

In the morning, mist was still hanging in the branches of the pines. Green had expressed a hope that the sun would clear it off a bit, but it remained, so they advanced. There was a muttered debate between the rangers, after which two of them were left behind to watch the equipment and supplies that they wouldn’t need that day.

“Nobody’s going to come out here and steal it,” explained one. “But we don’t want anyone or anything touching it. We don’t know what's out here, or what it might do. Even if there’s only some completely ordinary bears, we don’t want them ripping into our food neither.”

As the advance party approached the tree line, they saw the mist in the branches sparkling like dew.

“That’s ... spider webs, isn’t it?” asked Jenna, her voice a little uneven.

“There aren’t any biters this far north, not that I ever heard of. Get a grip and stay alert,” admonished Green.

As it happened, the webs were mostly in the upper branches and in the bushes and undergrowth on either side of them. There was almost a clear path or tunnel through the woods, heading more or less due north. According to plan then, they proceeded along that route.

“What are we looking for?” asked Ashlin.

“Anything,” was the gruff reply. “Eyes open, mouth shut.”

It was quiet in this forest. They didn’t hear any birds or see any squirrels. There wasn’t even the whine of mosquitoes, which disappointed nobody. The path they were following weaved slightly but stayed nearly true north. There began to be a stench hanging in the still air.

“Death.”

Four rangers went ahead, and two remained with the survey team, under strict instructions to stay put. The rangers came back a few minutes later, unhurried but grim.

“Come on. This is what we were looking for, I think.”

In a clearing ahead, the smell became almost unbearable. In the centre, a huge, brown, porous column sprouted from the marshy ground. It was as thick as a man’s body and two men high. It stank like shit. It looked like shit, for that matter.

“If we meet the animal that did that, I’m running. Just telling you that now,” commented Derk.

“Jobelisk,” said Green. “Some kind of fungus, I’m told. It smells like that to attract flies. They carry its spores or something. Never seen one that big.”

“It’s horrible! That’s what we were smelling?”

“Part of.” Green pointed to the other side of the clearing. Bodies lay in the undergrowth, in leather and even steel armour. They wore the colours and bore the insignia of Andaro.

“What killed them?” asked Ashlin, going a little closer, but reluctantly. Maggots were crawling on exposed flesh. He felt suddenly sick, and withdrew again. He spat. He could taste the stink of the clearing.

Green strode directly over to the nearest body and pulled its clothing aside with the point of his sword.

“I think ... each other. There was swordplay done and I don’t see any other bodies. I don’t think anyone could ambush a bunch of these lads and put them all down without taking casualties.”

“Maybe the smell drove them mad,” said Ashlin.

Green scowled at him and continued looking around the clearing.

“What do we do now?”

“We take notes,” said Jenna. “We sketch the clearing, mark where the bodies were. We don’t touch anything. And then we get out of here.”

Green nodded, with a grunt. The rangers stood guard while Ashlin and Jenna tried to record as much of the scene as possible without getting too near the corpses, and in Jenna’s case, the cobwebs in the undergrowth. Derk stood by with his harpoon, and looked back the way they had come. The path weaved away into the distance. Nothing stirred.

“I think we’re finished here,” said Jenna. “Should we try to find something on the bodies to identify them? They must have loved ones who’ll want to know what happened.”

“Not necessarily,” said Ashlin. “I mean, they won’t necessarily want to know.”

“Don’t touch the bodies.” Green looked amazed at her foolishness. “Let’s go.”

They followed the same trail back through the forest, with webs either side, heading approximately south. The rangers maintained their vigilance, walking four ahead at a short distance and two immediately behind them.

“Something’s wrong.” Green held up a hand and the party came to a stop. He looked around, and back up the trail behind them. He gestured, and his men regrouped, three immediately in front and three behind. “Move on. Keep your eyes open.”

They moved on at a brisk pace, but soon came to an abrupt halt, with a steep rocky slope rising in front of them. It formed a curved wall with an overhang. Above that, the web-misted trees loomed over them.

“This wasn’t here on the way in.” said Ashlin. “Did we take a wrong turn?”

“We didn't take one. We were given one. The way we came must have been over there.” Green pointed left through thickly webbed brambles. “The path has moved. Well, no. The webs have moved.”

Behind them, the trail they had been following misted over, as webs grew across and draped down from above. Small black dots swarmed here and there in the gauzy spaces between branches. Not swarms of hundreds or thousands, but always a few, and wherever they looked.

“It’s a trap, or a trick anyway. God knows how spiders play a trick, but that’s what it looks like to me.” Green gave orders, and one of the rangers began wrapping a stick with oiled cloth to use as a torch.

There was silence around them. Jenna imagined she could hear the rustling of thousands of spiders, but it was most likely just wind in the trees.

“Oh shit, oh shit,” she said, over and over again.

“Don’t panic,” said Green, “there’s nothing deadly here yet, except us—”

A damp thud and scrape, a crackle of dry twigs. Hooves sounded, stepping unevenly on the forest floor. Through the thickly misting woods lurched a stag. Its head was webbed and white. Its eyes were covered over, making it a faceless thing, not even an animal. It staggered. A line of drool fell from its mouth. Its antlers trailed web as it approached, sharp, swinging erratically, jerking aggressively.

“Except us—and that. Bows out. Get up that slope if you can, Jen and Ash. Derk, brace that stupid fish-spear against the ground or get out the way. Here it comes!”

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