When Elemir awoke me for my turn at guarding, I stood, stretched, and took in the camp. Darrien was snoring loudly enough to keep bears at bay, as usual, and Elemir’s voice joined that chorus almost immediately. It was some while before I started to have the feeling that something was wrong, but a tour of the camp did not suggest what it might be.
At least not at first. As my thoughts cleared up and I shook off the webs of slumber, I thought about the ruins. Shadryn seemed to be sleeping peacefully, with her bedroll pulled up tight around her, but as I looked at it, it gradually dawned on me that it wasn’t a cool night, and she was not the sort to feel cold at the slightest chill. I crept closer to her bedroll, and when I heard no breathing, I dared to pull back a bit of the bedroll gingerly, to find only a pile of her clothes and belongings that she had stuffed into the bedroll in the approximate shape of a woman, so she might sneak off without being noticed.
She had slipped out from under my watchful eye dozens of times on our journey, but never in so devious, nor so thorough, a way. She might have been gone for hours. I muttered a few words that a proper Captain should not know, and began to lope towards the ruins, dimly visible in the starlight. I was nearly there when it occurred to me I ought to have wakened the others, but it was too late to turn back.
The silent stones stood on the soggy ground as if they might topple over onto me at any moment, though I knew that, having stood for thousands of years, they would endure another night. No matter which way I faced, it seemed that there was movement from just to one side or the other, never where I could see it. The stars were miserly in their gift of light, and there was no moon to help them. It was not a place for shouts, but I dared to whisper Shadryn’s name, hoping she might hear and answer, that I might find her. Hoping nothing else would hear and find me.
At last I heard a muffled sound. In the darkness I moved towards it, and found myself in what must have been an indoor room, facing towards a corner where two mostly-intact walls met, and an uneven triangle of stone bridged the corner, a remnant of a roof. Some of the stones beneath my feet were more of that roof, long since caved in, allowing a hint of starlight within, but there in the corner, there was nearly no light to be seen, only the faintest perception of movement, so little I doubted my eyes. Had I not chanced to see, in the boggy soil nearby, some telltale scoops of dirt, the signs of Shadryn’s excavations, I might have moved on. Instead, I moved closer to that shadow-shrouded corner.
At last I could dimly see a shape. Shadryn, standing. No, not standing, but dangling. Her hands were above her head, and shrouded in spiderwebs which held her just a hand’s-width above the ground, leaving her no freedom to do anything but squirm and shimmy. More webbing had been wrapped around her head, a spiral of web that had made its way down to just below her neck, so that she could neither see me nor make any more than a muffled sound.
I took a step forward to cut her free, then stopped. Whatever had been shrouding her in webs must be nearby; it had probably only stopped in its work because of my approach. As slowly and silently as I dared, I slipped my sword from its scabbard and held it at the ready, then took another step forward.
The starlight abandoned me. Cast into sudden darkness, I raised my sword defensively, and thus, the spider, at least as large as a bear, that was leaping down from atop that fragment of roof, blocking out the light, very nearly impaled itself. It skittered aside, trailing a green ichor that seemed somehow to glow, or perhaps it simply caught the starlight in an odd way in the darkness. There was a horrific noise as it moved, plates sliding across one another, an odd sound midway between scraping and rubbing, accompanied by a warning chitter.
Though shrouded in web, Shadryn must have sensed the movement, or perhaps the vibration as the vast creature had launched itself from the fragment of ruins from which she dangled. She began to writhe all the more vigorously, dislodging a part of the incomplete webbing that covered her eyes and face. There was fear in her eyes, and something more I could not identify. Studying her gaze for only a heartbeat, I saw where she was looking, and turned to face that way just in time to meet the spider launching itself once again out of the shadows.
The battle felt like it lasted a day and a night, and the metronome of my heartbeat agreed with that assessment, but it could not have been more than a few moments before I fell back, ichor dripping from my armor, from the ruined pile of horrific limbs that was all that remained of the spider. The axe-like mandibles had closed around my arm at one point, digging into my armor and leaving deep bruises I could not even feel yet, but which would ache for days; but I had carefully watched for the stinger and knocked it aside every time until finally my sword plunged into the great beast’s midsection and it collapsed, twitching and finally lying still. I could not know if the spider’s venom was deadly, and thought it best not to find out.
After a few breaths and a moment for my heart to slow, I turned back to Shadryn, who still hung there, eyes wide. I crossed the ground back to her, watching for other spiders, though I did not expect any, as one so large as this was likely to be solitary; and at last came up to right before her, reaching up to pull the webbing from her mouth.
With a sticky handful of web in my hand, I paused. Her eyes widened again as I just stood there, leaving her in this state, so close I could feel her breathing against my cheek. I fixed my gaze on her eyes, and, still panting a bit from the exertion of the fight, my voice had the roughness of stone, but an edge of steel. “I told you not to come to these ruins.” She almost flinched, or so I thought, from these words. “Had I noticed your ruse an hour later, you would be supper for a spider now. You will,” I put enough force on this word to be clear it was not a question, “you will heed me when I forbid you from ruins in the future, yes?” But she could not answer, and I drew my hand back, leaving the web over her mouth a moment. I took a half-step back, looking her up and down, giving her a few moments for my words to sink in while she was still helpless. Then a few more moments, long enough to let her wonder if I might not leave her like this until morning, or perhaps just stay here watching her dangle.
When I was sure her thoughts were a jumble of fears, I finally stepped forward and, with one great slice of my greatsword, cut through the webs above her hands, letting her fall. Unprepared for this, she sank to her knees in the muck, and cast a resentful glare up at me as I sheathed my sword. I stepped closer, and reached down to her; she tried to draw back, perhaps fearing I might take some liberty with her, but relaxed when she saw the knife I’d given her, which I’d just retrieved from her belt. With a few cuts I used it to free her hands from one another, then I let the knife drop point-first, sinking into the ground, and turned to walk away, leaving her to remove the rest of the webs herself.
She was silent as we trudged back to the camp. When she didn’t object to leaving the ruins right away, despite the evident fact that the threat in them was now removed, I wondered if I’d made the proper impression. A few moments later, I saw a subtle motion from her, slipping something into her clothes, followed by a satisfied smirk, quickly suppressed when she saw me watching her, but too late. Before we even made our way back to the camp she was laughing off the incident, making it out like she’d never really even been that afraid, nor in that much peril. She even suggested she would have been able to work her own way free, somehow, and she seemed to even believe it, despite all the evidence to the contrary. I thought, at one point, I saw a little flicker of red light, but it would be several days before I knew this was more than a trick of the faint starlight.