A deep, throbbing headache was what greeted Kulgan when he woke up.
D'yargo, he thought with a grimace. How much did I drink last night?
Judging by how hard it was to get a Gray Ranger drunk, he guessed it must have been an entire barrel of beer. It wouldn't have been the first time. He raised his hand to rub his forehead...
D'yargo, he thought again. Everything came back to him at once. Adlis, the Kashni, the gate, the Shapeless. And judging by the way he couldn't move his arms, he didn't need to open his eyes to know where he was now, or what that clicking noise was. Or why it was getting louder.
He opened them anyway, and was greeted by a sight only slightly less disturbing than the Shapeless had been. A massive spider, at least as big as him, was creeping toward him. It's eight spindly legs slowly rose and fell, making its way across the massive web with inhuman dexterity. Each strand of that web was as thick as Kulgan's finger, and covered with a substance so sticky he had seen horses get stuck in them. Sometimes the Rangers would harvest that substance and use it in traps to capture Shapeless.
None of that mattered, though, because now he was the one stuck in that web.
Kulgan tested his body while the titantula clicked its mandibles excitedly. None of his bones were broken. Cracked, perhaps, but not broken— and incredible fact, since he had just fallen who knows how far down the side of a mountain. More importantly, though, he could move one of his hands. The shoulder was stuck to the web, but his elbow and forearm had somehow managed to remain free. That was all he needed.
The titantula pounced, and Kulgan whipped Zagyr from its holster and fired. The giant spider's course immediately reversed as the bullet drilled through its head and out its abdomen, and it fell back onto its web, bleeding gray blood onto the strands. A few flecks of it splattered onto Kulgan's clothes.
“Pitting spiders,” he grunted in disgust. “Hate those things!”
He wasn't out of danger yet, though. Titantulas never nested alone, and judging by the size of the web, which stretched for hundreds of yards in every direction he looked, there would be at least four dozen more living in it. Probably more.
He flicked Zagyr's chamber open, and then closed it again after confirming there were five more bullets in it. He hated to waste the ammo, but all his knife would do is get stuck to the web. A bullet wouldn't have that problem. Closing one eye even though he wasn't aiming down the sights, he pulled the trigger. A second bang rang through the air, and his other arm came free. He drew Zam, but then paused when he heard a skittering noise behind him.
“Just get it over with, will you?” he muttered, and craned his head around to see two more titantulas coming for him. They must have seen him shoot their brother, because they forwent the stalking and charged straight in for the kill. The first one pounced, and Kulgan shot it out of the air. The second one waited for its companion's body to fall back to the web, making it bounce alarmingly up and down, and then darted in at him. Kulgan let this one get within arm's reach before pulling the trigger, killing it just as it was about to sink its massive fangs into his chest.
“Thank you, friend,” he said, bracing his hand against it while he shot both his legs free. Then, being careful not to get stuck again, he grabbed the spider with both hands and hauled himself onto it. Sitting down on its belly, he finally took a good look at—
The spider twitched, and he shot it again.
“Tenacious little bug.”
With the titantula finally dead, he looked around to take stock of his situation. He could still see the mountain that the webs were attached to, and the ceiling of fog told him how far they must have fallen. He could see the ground now, but it was still a good thousand feet below him.
The irony of the situation struck him, and he couldn't help but chuckle. Everything in the Graylands had been built and bred for one reason: to kill. What would Vashiil think if it knew that one of its most horrendous creations had saved somebody's life today?
His work wasn't done yet, though. He stood up, spreading his arms when the titantula corpse teetered on its strand of web. If he was here, then Adlis and Za were too. Whether they were alive or not was another matter, but he'd never be able to leave until he knew for sure. The web was huge, though, and had multiple layers. Exploring it would be tricky, and the spiders themselves were actually the least of his worries. There was only one thing on Haroz that wouldn't stick to a titantula web.
“You want to be my little helper again?” he asked the corpse he stood on. Kneeling down, he pulled out his hunting knife and began sawing away. He could feel even more spiders peering at him from their hiding places, but he ignored them. As long as they kept their distance, he was content not to waste any more bullets on them.
A minute later, he peeled four strips of titantula skin from the unfortunate spider. Two of them he wrapped around his boots and the other two he tied, cringing, around his hands.
“Nasty,” he groaned when the slimy-yet-coarse spider skin touched his own.
It was a necessity, though. With these, he'd be able to climb around the titantula web without getting stuck, assuming that he was careful to only touch things with his hands and feet. And so, with a gun in one hand and his other holding a strand to balance with, he set off.
He groaned again, and had to force himself not to look down. The web was strong enough to hold his weight —it could probably hold twelve of him— but the way it bounced under his feet with every step still made his stomach turn somersaults inside him. Suddenly, he was glad he hadn't eaten that slice of sausage Adlis had offered him.
“Adlis? Za?” he shouted. “Where are you?”
Part of him told him to keep quiet. He was in the enemy's lair, after all. The more sensible part of him reminded him that the titantulas already knew he was there, so giving away his position wasn't an issue. Still, he nearly fell from the web when he spun around to shoot another oncoming spider.
He flicked Zam open and reloaded. Eight bullets gone. D'yargo.
“Adlis?” he called again.
At first he didn't hear anything, but eventually he noticed the mumbling. Like someone trying to talk after being buried in too many bedsheets— or being cocooned by spiderwebs.
“Hold on, I'm coming!” he yelled, setting off in the direction he thought they were coming from. “Keep talking so I can find you!”
“Mmph mmph! Mmmmphhhh!”
A suspicious looking bundle of web was jiggling a few feet in front of him. Hurrying as fast as he dared, Kulgan knelt down in front of it.
“Hold still,” he said. “I'm going to get you out.”
He paused. How was he going to do that? His knife was useless, and he couldn't very well shoot them free of the cocoon. Hesitantly, his hand went to the flint and tinder in his belt.
Slowly, he nodded. “All right, don't move. No matter what you feel, don't move a muscle.”
The cocoon shook. “Mmph?”
Pulling them out, Kulgan struck flint against tinder. Sparks flew from it, and the web immediately ignited. The cocoon began to shake again as its prisoner panicked, obviously feeling the heat, but Kulgan pinned it in place with his hand and drew his knife. The webs weren't burning as fast as the sticky —and highly flammable— substance was, so after lining things up as best he could in his head, he swiped down and sliced cleanly through the fibers. He reached inside, grabbing a fistful of clothes, and hauled the prisoner out.
“No, no, don't hurt me!” Za screamed at the top of his lungs as Kulgan swung him around and threw him against another strand of web. With the simmk secure, Kulgan fired two more bullets, blasting the cocoon free before the flames could spread further. It toppled from its perch, down to the Graylands below.
“Are you all right?” Kulgan asked, finally turning around.
“Do I look all right to you?” the simmk screeched.
Kulgan smirked. “Getting a little mouthy, aren't you?”
Za froze, and then bowed his head. “I- I didn't mean no disrespect, Mr. Kulgan, sir. I was just...”
Kulgan waved his hand. “Forget about it. Did you see Adlis when you landed?”
Za shook his head. “No, sir. I was already in that there web when I woke up.”
“D'yargo.” Kulgan looked down. What were the chances that she was still alive? Not good.
“We gotta find her, Mr. Kulgan,” Za said, struggling to break free of the web and stand up. All he managed to do was nearly throw Kulgan off of it.
“Quit shaking the web, you idiot!” he snapped. Za fell still. “Just hold on. I'll get you mobile in a minute.”
“How're you gonna do that?”
Kulgan was about to answer, but then shook his head. “You don't want to know.”
He sat back to wait, knowing it wouldn't take long. Sure enough, a minute later another titantula dropped onto their part of the web, and Kulgan fired yet another precious bullet into its head.
“Oh, sweet Embin!” Za exclaimed while the spider lay, twitching in death. “What is that?”
“Titantula,” Kulgan answered, already busy carving out four more strips of skin. “A local delicacy.”
Za stared at him, the disbelief evident even in his painted eyes. “You mean you eat those things?”
Kulgan nodded. “Pit yeah, we do. The meat tastes like chicken, and the eyes are like caviar. Sometimes we make sauce out of the blood.”
He approached the simmk with the skin in his hands and, without explanation, began to wrap them around Za's hands and feet.
“D- Do I want to know what that is?” the simmk asked timidly when he was done.
“It's exactly what it feels like.”
Za started, and then leaned over the edge of the web. With one hand he pulled his mask to uncover his mouth, heedless of the gray sun shining on him, and retched. Kulgan smirked again as he watched the vomit plummet down toward the gray landscape below.
“These are the Graylands,” he said while Za replaced his mask, “not a five star hotel. If you can't do what it takes to survive, you'll be dead in an hour.”
To his surprise, Za no longer seemed concerned with the spider flesh tied to him. Standing up on shaky legs, he faced Kulgan.
“We gotta find Adlis. I ain't leavin' till we do!”
“That's the plan,” Kulgan agreed, looking around. “Your ears are better than mine. You hear her?”
Za paused for a second, scanning the webs with his senses, and then shook his head. “No. Just them spiders tiptoein' around.”
Kulgan grunted in disappointment. “Well, we'll just have to keep looking, then. Come on, and stay close.”
They set off again, Kulgan having to step extra carefully with Za's clumsy footsteps following directly behind his own and making the web shake. The strands were orderly, but angled all over the place, sometimes going up, sometimes leading them down. Not once did they spy a single sign of Adlis.
“Mr. Kulgan?” Za timidly asked a few minutes later.
“Do... Do you think—LOOK OUT!”
He pointed, and Kulgan spun around, nearly throwing the simmk off the web, and shot the titantula as it raced toward them.
Kulgan holstered his gun. “There. Now what were you—”
“Not that one, that one!”
He pointed above their heads, and Kulgan looked up to see another spider descending toward them on a strand of web.
“D'yargo!” he cursed. leaping backward just as the titantula dropped. It landed on the web right in front of them, narrowly missing Kulgan. He didn't have time to draw his gun again, and so settled for kicking the ugly creature in the face. It slipped between the web's strands and caught hold with its two front legs, its other eight wiggling desperately in midair for something to grab onto.
“I think I'm gonna be sick,” Za moaned while the huge spider shook the web again. He grabbed hold of the nearest strand with both hands.
“Do it over the edge,” Kulgan said. He flashed a smile. “Maybe you'll hit somebody on the ground.”
The titantula was beginning to pull itself back up again, so Kulgan planted his boot in its face a second time, breaking its grip and sending it tumbling down, down, down.
“That's gonna make one big Pitting splat,” he said, watching it grow smaller until it disappeared from sight.
He looked up at the trembling simmk. “Yeah, what were you trying to say?”
Za faced him, then down where the spider had fallen, and then all around them. “Do you think Miss Adlis is still alive somewhere in here?”
And just like that, Kulgan's high spirits fell, following the titantula down to the base of the barren gray mountain a thousand feet below. Turning away from him, Kulgan continued in the direction they'd been going before. Za didn't push the matter, but he didn't let out a long, low groan.
“I'm going to try calling her,” he said over his shoulder.
Za stood up straight. “But that'll bring all those spiders right to us!”
Kulgan drew Zam, flicking the chamber open to slide more bullets in. “That's a chance we'll have to take. Unless you feel like leaving her here, of course.”
He looked back, and saw Za's posture become even more rigid. It was amazing, he thought, how much emotion he could display through that painted face of his.
Before Kulgan could ask again, Za raised one hand to his mouth and shouted, “Miss AAAAAAADLIS! Can you hear me?”
Kulgan raised his eyebrows, but didn't say anything. Turning back around, he continued on his way.
“Do you hear anything?” he asked.
“Well, keep at it. Neither of us are going anywhere until we find her.”
He cupped his hand to his mouth again. “Miss Adliiiiis, where are yooooou?”
They searched for another hour, slowly winding their way through the titantula nest. Three more spiders tried to attack them, and all three of their lives ended when Kulgan put a bullet between their eyes. There were multiple layers to the web, so Kulgan had to boost Za up to a higher strand of web and get pulled up behind him more than once. The air rang with Za's high pitched voice, calling for his mistress every few seconds.
“Hey Sackhead, I've got something I want to ask you,” Kulgan said once the shrill echoes had faded.
“Beggin' your pardon, Mr. Kulgan, but I'm not sure this is the best time.”
Kulgan shrugged. “We're stuck here till we find Adlis, so we may as well talk to pass the time.” When Za didn't object again, he asked, “Why do you stay with her?”
Za started. “With who? Miss Adlis?”
“No, I mean that lovely spider I shot a few minutes ago.” Kulgan rolled his eyes. “Yes, Adlis, you dumb puken!”
“W- Well, why wouldn't I stay with her?”
Another titantula dropped from the ceiling, and Kulgan casually shot the web strand out from under it, chuckling as it fell to its death.
“She swears up and down that she's set you free,” he went on. “If it were me, I would have taken off right then and there.”
Za shook his head. “I don't understand. Why would I wanna do that?”
Kulgan didn't answer right away. The next part of the web had several crisscrossing strands of web, and he had to walk carefully to keep from getting stuck on them. Za was much less coordinated, and after brushing his head against a strand he walked away leaving his hat dangling in midair.
“Uh, Mr. Kulgan?”
Sighing, Kulgan reached behind him, the two of them unable to trade places on the narrow string of web, and yanked the hat free with a rip. Handing it back to Za, the simmk looked down at the gaping hole in the top, his frown carrying through his sackcloth mask.
“If you lose it again, it stays lost.”
“Y- Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”
“Anyway,” Kulgan finally went on, picking his way across the sticky labyrinth, “seeing as how she still treats you like her servant, I don't know why you bother sticking with her.”
“She does not treat me like a servant!” Za snapped, stomping his foot and making the web bounce beneath them.
Kulgan paused, waiting for the floor to stop moving, and then looked back at him again.
“Could've fooled me. Za do this, Za do that, Za you have to act like a gentleman so carry my bag for me!”
He swore he could see Za's cheeks reddening under the sack. Did simmks blush? He honestly didn't know.
“That's... she does that because I have to learn how normal people act,” he said, looking down sheepishly. “Miss Adlis says the people in Arborough won't treat me right if I can't act civilized like.”
“Funny. I never knew 'civilized' and 'domesticated' meant the same thing.”
Za clenched his fist, possibly the most hostile gesture Kulgan had ever seen him make. “Yeah, well, even if I were still her servant, I wouldn't care! I'd still be happy!”
Kulgan shrugged and continued on his way. “Whatever. It's your life.”
He hoped that Za would continue to argue with him. Provoking the docile simmk came with a strange sense of satisfaction. Adlis believed she had freed him, Kulgan knew she was as sincere in that as she was in anything. And yet, Kulgan was the one who could get Za to speak his mind, not Adlis. He smiled.
“Miss Adlis?” Za continued to call from behind him. Kulgan wasn't even bothering to listen for her anymore. If there was anything to hear, Za would hear it sooner and clearer than he would. He focused his attention on taking care of the titantulas whenever they appeared— which they were doing with more and more frequency now.
“Duck!” he shouted, aiming directly over Za's shoulder. The simmk dropped as quickly as he could without losing his balance, and Kulgan fired, killing the spider just before it sank its fangs into his companion's scrawny legs. After it fell, propped upright by the webs, Kulgan said, “You don't want to get bitten by those things. The venom can melt you from the inside out— literally.”
Za put his hand to his mouth again, and his stomach churned so loudly that even Kulgan could hear it.
“And that's not even the worst part,” he added.
“Do I wanna know?”
Kulgan fired Zam behind him without turning around. Another spider fell from the web.
“Of course you do. Knowledge is power, my friend.”
“I'm not you friend.”
Kulgan raised his eyebrows. That was bold, even for a free simmk. Maybe Adlis had managed to change him more than he'd realized.
Then again, maybe Kulgan was just a Twister...
“The venom they’ve got in their fangs,” he said idly, pushing the issue from his mind, “is the most potent kind you’ll find in Tassendile. It works like acid, so you’ll—”
“MISS ADLIIIIIIISSSS!” Za screamed at the top of his lungs.
Kulgan shrugged and turned back around. “Suit yourself, but it's rude to—”
Za's hand shot out, pointing to something above them. “No, look! It's Miss Adlis!”
Kulgan looked where he was pointing just as a cloud moved in front of the gray sun, casting them in shadow. Then he paused. That wasn't a cloud. That was...
“That is the biggest d'yargo spider I've ever seen,” he said quietly as the mammoth titantula crawled by above them. Easily ten times bigger than the other spiders they'd encountered, one of its legs came down just in front of Kulgan, nearly crushing him. It was like watching a tree trunk come down out of the sky. He stared at it until it went back up again.
The queen titantula, because there was nothing else it could have been, didn't seem to have noticed him or Za. It continued on its way, stepping on the strands of web just as the smaller spiders did, somehow not breaking them as it went. It's movements were slower, more deliberate than those of the smaller spiders, and yet it easily outpaced its underlings.
A few seconds later, Kulgan shook himself out of his stupor. “Sorry to tell you, bud, but that's not Adlis. It does bear a striking resemblance, though.”
“No,” the simmk insisted, pointing again. “She's there. Look!”
Kulgan squinted his eyes at the building-sized spider, and this time he noticed the cocoons. They were just like the one Za had been trapped in, but here there was half a dozen of them, and they were all dangling from the queen's underbelly. Kulgan's mouth fell open.
“You mean to tell me...”
Za nodded frantically. “She's in there!”
NEXT TIME: That’s right! It’s giant spider time! Why? Because screw you, that’s why! (I’m just kidding, I love you all and you’re all awesome and smart and handsome and/or beautiful)