Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
I didn’t have to wait long.
Beaming with all the satisfaction of a spider finding a fly in her web, the Spinster sashayed through the blackness, her figure aglow. She radiated warmth and light, dispelling the darkness around her. A smug smile, like the ancestor of Malia’s coyness, curled the edges of her lips. As for her robes, it was hard to tell where the light fabric ended and the void began because the fringe faded from papery thin to ethereal in an imperceptible gradient.
“My, my,” she said. The quick flash of her teeth gave her a skeletal cast. “What a lodestone for trouble you are.”
“This is a dream, then?” I swept my hand over our surroundings. “You ‘ageless ones’ never visit the land of the living anymore.”
“Portentous words to say so close to a crypt.”
As before, she held her aura within herself. I felt no sense of impending doom and, unlike before, my quick questing for her power revealed no terrifying labyrinth of power. So this arena wasn’t her work, at least not directly.
Resting her chin on her hands, she floated over and watched me with an unreadable gaze. “Satisfied?”
I shook my head. “Your kind never comes without some wheedling prophecy or condescending gloat to bestow upon us lower beings. And I’m rather short on clues for why you’ve come this time.”
“Nearly eliminating yourself agitating a dormant hive of lakrabua isn’t context enough for you?” She aimed for funny, but the quirk in her lips ruined the effect.
“The problem with false sympathy is the hollow sound it makes when it collides with reality.” I shifted my grip on my Sword. “You were scared. I would’ve taken out the lot of them, but that would’ve ruined your plans, wouldn’t it?”
“Your brazenness will be your undoing, Little Child.” She swam through the darkness, slowly circling me. “Your mocking words will rebound off your pride, cutting your ankles from beneath you at the least opportune time.”
“So you’ve picked a side, then?”
She scowled. “Side? Do the stars in the heavens see sides to the earth? How then should I see sides amongst the squabbling ants?”
“If we’re so lowly,” I said, flashing a grin, “then why are you here, meddling in our affairs?”
“A lack of exercise leads to atrophy.” Her eyes sparkled with their own light. “But my saving the scorpion-men has nothing to do with preserving your fleeting existence, or theirs. As mortal lives are to you, so are your divine ages to me. So to spare the severance of their fated thread by tugging yours is not a mercy, because I weave my own tapestry.”
“Pretty speech.” I folded my arms because moving my feet made me flail like a fish. The flat of my Sword rested on my arm, bands of light reflecting off its angles as the Spinsters made another circuit. “I’m sure you practiced it on the way over.”
“Know this, midge,” she snapped, her jaw clenched. “You are alive because I saw fit to retract the tie which binds you to that terrestrial tunnel. If I’d let you continue in your recklessness, your discovery would have smothered you. Then how would you return to your precious gorgon?”
“If I’m so worthless, why bother?” I shook my head. “I must have had some chance against them, otherwise you wouldn’t have cut me off.”
“You are guessing at the tapestry from a few threads, without considering the loom.” A knowing smile crept out. “Is it so strange to think that, perhaps, I have need of you both?”
I snorted. “It’s not much of a rescue if you ‘save’ me, only to set the ketri loose on my flank.”
“Who said anything about setting them free?” She hummed as she floated around me. “But fine, if you insist. It is a simple matter to alter the pattern so that they do not accost you during this encounter.” Rolling her eyes, she flicked her hand. “There, it is done. But you worry about the wrong threat.”
“More hazy hints in place of help?”
Drifting on her back, she frowned at me upside down. Her hair trailed behind her like slender tentacles. “Your impertinence dwarfs your standing, chit. After scorning my prior transparency, you expect further forthrightness?”
“I’d hardly call your words plain.” I pointed my Sword at her. “At least the Sybil spoke with concrete meaning.”
Her jaw dropped. For a moment she hung there, staring aghast at me, and then she huffed a laugh that, at first, I mistook for retching. Her glow pulsed with her jerks. “That jest was…unexpected, but well placed.” Still convulsing, she wiped at her eyes. “Very well, raucous guttersnipe, a parting of all veils and a taste of clarity.” Her gaze was intense, laden with a strange cocktail of emotion I couldn’t parse. “With wit like yours, you should handle the sight quite well.”
“I can see quite—”
Light blossomed around us, burgeoning from a trunk of power that gave the mixed impression of a sacred oak and a raging waterfall. From its head spread budding tendrils, translucent lily pads blanketing the canopy of space. Pinpricks of starlight pierced the leaves without perforating them, dark halos etched on the membranes around the beams. Boiling like a stormy sea, roots thrashed from beneath the trunk, azure auroras radiating away from each inflection. In the span of a breath, the celestial river-tree consumed the darkness, leaving only a blot on its roots far below, beneath my feet.
Underneath the majesty of the view, I saw parallels to the structure of the garden in which I’d first met the Spinster. But it was as if the garden was the shadow of this place, each tree the pale particular of this imperial universal. As to the age of the primordial plant, I had no idea. If divine beasts had a botanical equivalent, this would have been the progenitor of all. Its writhing roots and imposing aura added to the impression that the thing was alive, although I had my doubts. But, given how far from my frame of reference I was, it wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility.
“Glad to see your diminutive mind didn’t explode after the transition.” The Spinster smiled, pleased with herself. “Thoroughly saturated with awe yet?”
“I’m still working out whether this is the room with the curtains.”
She blinked. “Ah, what a wonder your memory is.” Smiling, she opened her thin hand, letting three spheres of light drift free. As they floated away, one darkened before winking out, and the third shrank as the middle grew. “Some windows have closed, and others you set a watch upon that was not yourself. The final one, you hurtle towards with abandon.”
“She was taken by the Paedens, not the Sea Mother,” I said as an image of Jade filled the swelling sphere. “But we know that Tamiyat is coming to Tingid to free her mate.”
The Spinster tilted her head, a curious expression on her face. “Really? Then you careen towards your doom even more aware of the danger than I first thought.”
“If your surprise is spoiled, can I go? I have a rescue to attend to.”
“You’ve only glimpsed the face of secrets, shrouded in shadows. Do not be overconfident.” She folded her arms, her dress crackling like dry paper. “Have you seen my sister since we last met?”
“I almost wish I had. At least that way I’d have more information to work with.” I swished my feet experimentally. Unlike the garden, I didn’t go shooting across the expanse to collide with the tree. Whatever kept me suspended held me in place.
“Would that your intellect were as consistent as your incorrigible attitude.” Her hair caught the light of the leaves above, its color shifting from copper to bronze. “I have confirmed the conclusion of one of my warnings and highlighted, to the best of my ability, the pressing need of the most imminent. What more do you want?”
“I need to know what your goal is.” I gave her a hard stare. “At first, it was just vague, taunting proclamations, but now you Primes are sticking your fingers in the pot. I have enough transcendent enemies as it is.”
“I will meddle where I will. And I’d hoped you would have appreciated how very much not an enemy I’ve been to you,” the Spinster said flatly. “But, fine. Return to your lowly lack of knowledge and short-sighted squabbling. And, since you cannot stand the insecurity of your own ignorance, be warned that you stand to collide with that elder deity far sooner than you realize. As for my sister’s prophecy, I cannot say, since you refuse to reveal it.”
Huffing, she squinted at me. What she saw made her frown, and she raised her hand and flicked the air.
Pain exploded across my chest. I curled up, gasping for breath as stars danced across my vision. The circular leaves above blurred into stubby golden icicles, the branches crisscrossing like a river delta. My ears rang, whether from a shockwave or my vibrating ribs, I didn’t know. Whatever she’d done, it hurt.
When my vision cleared, I saw her hovering not far from me, reclined, with a satisfied smile on her face.
“If she truly didn’t mark you,” she said, her smile broadening, “then I might just have to do so myself. What a beautiful sound your spirit makes.” Her eyes crinkled as she laughed. “I look forward to seeing how your thread untangles after this next pass of the shuttle. Goodbye, little one.”
With that encouraging dismissal, she waved her hand. I felt something tug at my waist, stirring up the new aches in my chest from the Spinster’s snap, and the primordial tree faded as the darkness returned. Spinster and space dimmed, converging to a white speck, and then the warped dimension flung me back into the mineshaft.