even towering old growth oak trees stood sentinel, surrounding a circular clearing in the Misty Forest. This Oaken Oval formed one of the eight ancient portals established by the Old Gods, one portal on each land of Arthe. With the use of special keys that used to be controlled by the Warden of each land, people could travel from one land to another almost instantly.
The Old Gods had been gone from Arthe almost a century now. For almost half that time the portals had fallen into disuse as the peoples of Arthe, stripped of the Old Gods and their influences, lapsed back into traditional patterns of distrust and fear. Travel between the lands was now done the old fashioned way, by boat. And the Ostrians still carried messages and small packages through the air.
Streamers of bright sunlight drifted down through the leafy canopy surrounding the Oval, penetrating the heavy morning mist that gave the forest its name. Even the clearing was less than clear, everything shrouded in the bright mist. Birds and insects, hidden in the swirling mist, gave the morning a chorus of cheerful song. A pair of butterflies, dimly visible in the sun brightened moisture, winged their way into the Oaken Oval, following a random path from trees to bushes to open air.
Teal wings tinged with black fluttered as the lead butterfly drifted above a small camp table, sitting between two of the oaks at the edge of the Oval. Four dark, lumpy shadows, men and women in leather armor sat around the camp table, looking at the pile of golden coins that glistened in its center. The second butterfly, almost the same color as the pile of coins, followed the teal butterfly, swooping down towards the coins, then back up towards its mate. The armed guards ignored the butterflies, concentrting on their cards and the coins.
“Why do we have to guard these stupid trees, anyway? Nothing ever happens here,” Hoshea grumbled. He spat blackleaf out of the side of his mouth, while his ham-fisted hands raked in the coins.
“Quit yer belly-achin’,” Bretal snapped, slamming his cards down on the table. Crooked teeth peeked out from his scraggly beard, gleaming off-white in the mist. “Ye’re winnin’ aintcha? Seems like you always win.”
“Besides,” Dright added, with a wide smile, “Guardin these trees gets us paid, don’t it?” Tousled red hair atop a smooth, freckled face made her look like a young lass next to the other three grizzled guards sitting around the table.
Certes cleard her throat loudly and gathered the cards on the table, preparing to shuffle and deal the next hand. Her jaws scrunched up around her face, turning the straight lines of knife scars into a series of criss-crossing lightning bolt shapes. Her mouth worked around a little, then spat a gob of chew to the side before she went on. “I’ve told you before, and I’ll tell you again,” she said slowly, shifting her head to look at each of the other three in turn. “Nobody’s supposed to come through this here portal.” She jerked her thumb in the direction of the surrounding oaks.
“I know, I know,” Hoshea groused. “Your grandpappy, rest his soul, used to tell you ’bout how them Styrexians sent three assassins through this portal here.”
Bretal took up the tale where Hoshea left off. “And they murdered Queen Falita, Princess Quall and Warden Jouffer, all in one day.” He puffed out his chest and wagged a finger at the others. His voice got higher and raspier, mimicking Certes. “And they would’ve made us all slaves to the Styrexians today, if it wasn’t for my grandpappy.”
The soldiers chuckled , even Certes appreciating Bretal’s caricature of herself. Dright finished the story. “But your grandpa saw the one what kilt our Warden and kilt him dead, keeping Styrexia from gettin’ all our keys to this here Oaken Oval and taking over Palance.”
“At least you lot have been lissenin’,” Certes grumbled with grudging respect. She leaned back in her camp chair and started shuffling the deck of cards.
“Look! Somethin’s happenin’!” Dright stood up, knocking the coins in front of her to the ground. Certes and Bretal turned to look in the same direction as Dright, towards the center of the Oval. All three of them stared at the air surrounded by the stately trunks. Hoshea ducked under the table to grab the spilled coins.
As they watched, the air twisted and shifted, forming a large hole in the mist, even though there was no breeze and not a cloud in the sky. Suddenly the shape of a large, nightmarish creature filled the hole in the mist. The misshapen intruder dropped through the hole and skittered sideways.
The soldiers stood mesmerized by a giant, black arachnid body, fully ten feet across. It stood tall on one side of the Oval on six fat, hairy legs. Two more spidery legs, ending in wicked looking pincers, extended in front of the thing. A humanoid torso thrust upward from its thorax. Blue-black skin stretched taught over smooth, well-oiled muscles. That torso held a curved sword in one human-like hand, a notched stick in the other.
Standing still, the creature stared straight at the guards. Certes, Bretal and Dright stared right back at the thing. This was not a Styrexian. The surrounding forest had gone quiet. The butterflies were gone. The only sound was the clink of the coins Hoshea stuffed in his pockets as he stood up from beneath the camp table.
For a moment longer the tableau stood frozen, captured as if in a painting. Time seemed to slow to a crawl. Silent moments ticked by. Even Hoshea finally stopped, one dirty coin grasped in his grimy fist. The thing with the bodies of both spider and human, lavender eyes slitted against the misty, morning sun, stared at the guards, pincered forelegs waving in small circles.
“Steel!” Certes commanded her guards, drawing her own sword and rushing towards the invading monstrosity. Bretal and Dright drew weapons and charged in behind their sergeant. Hoshea hastily crammed the last of the gold coins into his vest pocket, then drew his own sword to follow after them.
The spidery creature sprang forward, thrusting one of its pincered forelegs out towards Bretal and the other straight at Dright. Bretal froze, and the pincer grabbed him by the throat. He reacted finally, bringing his sword up, but too late and too slow. The pincer snapped shut.
Dright ducked beneath the hairy leg and rushed the arachnid body. The creature swung its curved sword at her head. Concentrating on the large black body, she didn’t see the sword flashing towards her neck. She nicked the spider body with her sword, and green goo seeped out; but it was the last wound she would ever inflict on a foe. The curved sword sliced through her neck, nearly decapitating her.
The alien creature brought the sword back in a high arc, away from Dright’s neck. The blade flashed in the sun-brightened mist, adding crimson drops of Dright’s blood to the white-speckled air. The backward sweep of the sword caught Hoshea across the arm, while Certes took a swipe at the invader. The spider-man-thing moved to block Certes’ swing with its notched stick, but the grizzled veteran bent at the waist, and the stick whooshed through nothing but air.
The sergeant thrust upwards and sideways with her sword, slicing through one of the pincered forelegs. This brought a shrill, high-pitched squeal from the alien’s human throat. The thing brought its other pincer around, grabbing Certes at the waist. Still squealing, it closed its pincer and flung Certes to the far side of the Oval. Hoshea moved behind the thing and swung his sword at the huge, hairy spider body. His blade bit into the dark skin where one of the multi-jointed legs joined the thorax, and more green ichor spurted out.
Glancing briefly at his fallen mates he drew back for another swing and gave a desperate yell. “For Palance and the Queen!” He thrust wildly with the sword, but the spider thing had turned. Its human-like torso blocked his swing with the notched stick, catching Hoshea’s blade and twisting. Hoshea’s sword spun out of his hand and flew high and wide, landing between two of the sentinel oak trees. The intruder swung its own sword strongly at Hoshea, cutting him nearly in half. He cried out in surprise and pain, and fell to the ground. After a few seconds of loud panting he lay still and silent.
The human head on the spidery creature swung back and forth as it surveyed the Oaken Oval and its fallen enemies. Screeching out another of the high-pitched chittering noises, the spider-man stretched its human arms high overhead. The hole in the sky opened up one more, and the creature lifted into the air and disappeared. Minutes later the sounds of the forest broke forth in a symphony of sorrow. Almost half an hour later the forest quieted once more, as another squad of soldiers approached the Oval.
“Hey Certes, you old fool, did you lose all your money to Hoshea again?” Commander Philus Nasu called out, as she and her men approached the Oaken Oval to relieve Certes and her squad. There was no answer. The Commander drew her sword, and motioned for her men to sprad out into an arc.The soldiers behind her drew their own weapons and widened the formation as instructed. All heads turned back and forth, watching for any sign of an enemy, as their commander advanced towards the Oval. The wide arc formed by her men followed slowly, two steps behind. Moments after Philus was swallowed by the mist of the Oval, she called out once more.
“Gervan, to me. Reser, Trestin, approach and hold. Gervan followed the sound of his commander’s voice, stepping towards the Oval. When he reached the edge of the tall oaks he stopped and stared. The mist was burning off, and the bottom area of the Oval was clear now. Commander Nasu was bent over a headless male corpse, sword held low, muttering under her breath. Beyond the commander Gervan saw to more bodies, forming grotesque shapes atop the mossy forest floor. Across the Oval he noticed a large lump, covered with tousled black hair. Looking around nervously, Gervan continued into the oval and joined Commander Nasu.
Trestin gave a low whistle as he stopped beside a wide tree trunk. Beyond him lay the remains of Certes and her squad. Commander Nasu was straightening beside one of the bodies as Gervan stepped up beside her. Trestin held his breath, adding his silence to that surrounding the grisly scene. He startled at a sudden noise to his right and turned in that direction, crouching and extending his sword.
Reser was bent at the waist, spewing breakfast across her boots and over the forest floor, just outside the Oval. Trestin relaxed his grip. Then his sword tumbled from his hand as he, too, bent over and threw up violently.
“What in the world did this to them?” Gervan moved his gaze from one broken body to the next.
“Maybe not something in this world.” Commander Nasu picked something up from the ground. She turned towards Gervan, holding out a fat, hairy, pincered foreleg, sticky green ichor dripping from the ragged end where it had been severed from the invader’s body. “I’ve never seen anything like this before. Have you?”
Gervan looked at the ugly thing extended towards him. It was as long as his sword, maybe an inch or two longer. He stared at it a moment longer, then raised his head to look at his commander. Wide eyes stared at her, surrounding by skin turned ashen white.
“Yes,” he whispered hoarsely. “Only it was about fifty times smaller than that.”
Peering into Gervan’s troubled eyes, Philus nodded, remembering a campaign in Phayren years ago. “The pony spiders.” Her face paled then, as well. The two shared a grim look, reflecting back on the battle to free the Desert of the Singing Sand in Phayren from the plague of the pony spiders. She still had nightmares about that campaign, all these years later. It felt good to be back home in Palance where things like the pony spiders were only a memory. Until today. “It can’t be.” She paused, staring at Gervan. “It’s too big. It can’t be pony spiders. Can it?” Gervan shrugged his shoulders.
“I don’t know what else it could be. Unless, like you said, it is not from this world.”
Commander Nasu looked over at the noisily retching recruits, Trestin and Reser. Done distributing breakfast across the forest floor the pair stood sheepishly, wiping sleeves across their mouths.
“Reser. Trestin,” she called. The pair turned bloodshot eyes away from the carnage in the Oaken Oval and towards their commander.
“Go back to Grand Key. Tell the queen what happened,” she directed. “And bring back a full squad of eight to stand watch.”
“Shouldn’t three of us stay here?” Gervan wondered. “In case whatever that pincer belongs to comes back?”
“Maybe,” Philus answered. She swiveled her head to take in all four bodies of Certes’ squad scattered about the Oval. “But three here won’t be any better than two if that happens. After all, look at what happened to Certes plus three.” She raised her gaze from her fallen comrades to Gervan’s face. He saw fear there, but determination, as well, both struggling against the nightmare of the pony spiders they had faced once before. Much smaller pony spiders.
“I’d rather send that pair back to Grand Key instead of keeping them here. Or instead of sending just one of them,” she added. Her voice dropped to a deep whisper so only Gervan could hear what she said next. “In case the owner of this thing,” the waved the pincer at Gervan, “is still out there and loose.” She paused. “Hopefully at least one of them can make it there. And back again.”
Gervan returned her worried look. He frowned then, his own eyes holding a look of reigned in terror, and resignation. Pressing his lips together firmly, he nodded his understanding and assent.
“Sir, yes sir!” Trestin and Reser acknowledge in unison, snapping to attention. Saluting the commander, they turned and started walking back towards Grand Key. Five strides away from the Oval, and out of sight of Philus and Gervan, they broke into a run, eager to leave the Oval and the dead behind.