Once upon a time in a land far, far away there was a story that became well known in all the kingdoms of men. It started as a whisper in the back of ale-houses and progressed to the point of street-corner news barkers. No one knew if the story was true, but it slowly captured the imaginations of the common folk and royalty alike as it swept across the land through word of mouth and traveling caravans. Sometimes the smaller details would change but the heart of the story always remained true.
The account told of a princess of unparalleled beauty, Arachne, who was being held captive in a hidden castle by a monstrous creature whose identity ranged from a fire-breathing dragon with golden scales to a massive, green troll who cannibalized any who would come to save her. The only way she could be found was by listening for her melodic voice as she spent day and night singing a beautiful song while she waited in the highest tower for someone to rescue her. It concludes that only bravest knight, prince or warrior would stand a chance against the monster but if one were able to slay the creature and free Arachne, they would be blessed with not only her hand in marriage but also with the mountain of treasure the castle’s dungeons.
Stories like these weren’t uncommon; they were known as “Fairy Tales” and were generally dismissed as children’s entertainment, but not Arachne’s. For reasons unknown, hers took on a life of its own to the point where actual suitors began to gather and search for the elusive castle. Prince Pleasant became one such searcher after the boring political duties of a royal court became too much for him. Young and strong and with no desire for governing, the prince wanted some excitement; an adventure. Plus, slaying a dragon and rescuing a beautiful damsel in distress wouldn’t look too bad on his resume.
Pleasant searched for many months, to no avail, for any information that would help the quest and had just about decided to give up when, at a tavern practically in the middle of nowhere, he met the nomad. Happenstance put them across from each other at the same table and, much as it always did, the subject of Princess Arachne came up. Instead of the one of usual variations Pleasant usually heard, the nomad had very unique and very specific version of the story. His was a first-hand account rather than a regurgitation of what Pleasant had heard a million times before.
He told of a kingdom of mist, some distance away, with a castle that could barely be seen; probably wouldn’t have been seen had he and his group not heard the beautiful tones listing through the mist. It was a hypnotic melody that brought images of the sirens calling sailors to their dooms and in some regards had very much the same effect as three men from his group could not help themselves but to push through the mist and investigate. The nomad, preferring the company of men, was able to resist the temptation, although he admitted to feeling the pull as well.
The traveler waited for a day but his companions never returned and he made a hasty exit from the land of mist; the song still lingered in his head. My heart…my heart…true love for my heart…our ways will not part…new lives we will start. The words were fairly innocuous as he described them but there was something about the tones that got stuck inside his mind and refused to leave like an ailment he had been unable to cure. That, and the fact that he had never seen his friends again.
His story held everything accounted for in the fairy-tale and so, so much more. It was the many details that convinced the prince of its authenticity and, for a fair amount of coin, the nomad made a map for Pleasant to follow. It came with, at no added price, a dire warning. Despite the lovely song and the innocent seeming nature of the mist, there was something just…wrong about the place. “I felt an evil presence in my soul,” were the man’s exact words.
Warnings like these usually accompanied such quests and Pleasant wasn’t about to be dissuaded by the old-wives ramblings of a scared old fool. The pure exhilaration and excitement of finally having a legitimate destination for his quest carried through the next three weeks of rugged travel that traversed a number of landscapes from dells to forests to the swamps. When he finally reached his destination, the prince’s initial reaction was one of anger. The nomad had lied to him.
There was no castle…no mist or fog…no song; just an empty field and the fading sunlight. Tired from the journey and depressed at its finale, Pleasant decided to make camp for the night. He didn’t know where to go from there anyway; home maybe? It was all so anti-climactic the young nobleman needed an evening before a fire to nurse his wounded pride and temper his wild expectations for what his life should be. It was a troubled sleep, full of self-doubt and deprecation, as one might expect.
He was awakened by song just before dawn as the smallest sliver of sunlight began peering over the horizon to greet the new day. It was a divine melody; sweet and gently carried by the wind directly to him, as if an angel were lying at his side whispering heavenly promises into his ear. “My heart…my heart…true love for my heart.” Pleasant shot upright, instantly awake and aware; the princess! It had to be Princess Arachne.
There was very little light yet, but what small amount there was did nothing to reveal his surroundings as he was lost in a thick haze of fog, unable to see his hands in front of his face. The effect was disorientating; it made for a difficult time packing up his camp-site and even longer deliberating on whether or not to actually leave his horse and belongings behind and seek out the source of the song. In the end he did, of course, since that was why he was there after all.
Progress was slow at first as even the rising sun did little to clear the way. Pleasant didn’t remember seeing a body of water nearby but he figured that there must have been one somewhere close. That type of fog or mist didn’t just come from nowhere. He was unable to count on his eyes at all; all he had was the soft, lulling melody to lead him through the hazy unknown. The louder the song got, the more uneasy the prince began to feel. The unrelenting mist began to take on unusual physical qualities as well as he began to feel the mist brushing against his skin like soft silken strands.
The prince went on like this for some time, hands held out defensively, before finally seeing a large, hazy image looming before him: it was the castle. Pleasant had to place himself inches before the giant stone structure before he could make it out with any degree of clarity and when he placed his hands on the cool wall the singing stopped immediately. Instinctively, he pulled them away again but with a small degree of difficulty; the wall was sticky for some reason.
“Hello?” the prince called out, fearful he had lost his only trail of breadcrumbs and hoping it didn’t come out in his voice. “Is there anybody there?” It was deathly quiet for several long second before the angelic voice called back to him.
“Is there someone there…have you come to rescue me?” The prince’s heart skipped a beat. It was her; it had to be!
“Yes,” he was louder this time, with more authority. “I mean…well, are you Princess Arachne?”
“Please,” her voice seemed strained, “you need to come to the pipe.”
“Yes,” she insisted, “follow the wall in the direction of my voice until you find a pipe that sticks out. We can talk there.” Pleasant was confused but he had come too far to start questioning the circumstances now. If she needed for him to find a pipe; he would find the pipe. The idea sounded easier than it actually was. The building was enormous and the acoustics in the fog were…different, and after going a far distance he started wondering if perhaps he had started off in the wrong direction to begin with.
“Princess Arachne?” he called out; needing some sense of bearings.
“You’re close,” she called back, much louder this time, and he was close; the pipe was just ahead. Poking out a few inches at eye-level, the small pipe protruding from the smooth stone wall was an unusual appendage at best.
“I’m here.” The prince spoke into the pipe, assuming that was its purpose; the princess’s voice returned, as if she were standing right before him.
“Oh thank the gods…are you here to rescue me, good sir?”
“Yes,” Pleasant shook his head emphatically even though she couldn’t see him. “That is exactly why I’m here, Princess. I have traveled a long way for that exact purpose.” He could hear sobs coming through the pipe. Tears of joy? He could not imagine how frightened and tired the poor girl must have been; being held captive for so long. After all, it had been nearly a year since Pleasant first came across the captivating tale of her plight and he was certain it had come some distance before reaching him.
“Dear lady, please tell me how to enter and I come immediately to your aid. Also…” Not that he was worried, “if you have any information about the vile beast that’s imprisoned you, it might be…beneficial…for both our endeavors.” No reason to beat around the bush, he thought.
“Oh…” she sounded slightly different. “The beast…well, I don’t know. I’ve not seen the thing in a long time; I don’t even know if it’s still alive. I just can’t get out of this room.”
“That’s why I’m here; so do not worry.”
More sobbing and then, “If you do then I’m yours if you’ll have me; along with the treasure. I only worry that my beauty will not be enough for a man of your caliber.” It was an unusual remark but Pleasant never pretended to fully understand what went on in the mind of a lady. He was however, as was usually the case, quite suave when responding to them.
“With a name like Arachne I cannot imagine a beauty that would surpass you.” The princess laughed on the other end of the pipe.
“You are a sweet man. Do you know the story of my name?”
“Of course, Princess Arachne, that’s why I’m here…remember?” Another chuckle.
“Not my story…the story of my name: ‘Arachne’?” The prince remembered the name from childhood stories but couldn’t recall the details.
“I…can’t remember, Princess.”
“Come inside and I will tell it to you. There are no doors in the wall but if you walk backwards ten paces you will find a wooden hatch in the ground. That’s your way in. I’m in the very top floor; it’s quite large so any stairwell you find should lead to me. I’ll be able to hear and speak to you when you find one.” Then, with strained desperation, “please hurry.” Those last two words were all the incentive the prince needed and he set himself in motion; counting off the paces as he went.
The wooden hatch was exactly where she said it would be but something about it struck him odd. Not that the situation as a whole wasn’t odd. The dirt had been swept away from the area and the hatch was relatively clean. Not that there was anything particularly ominous about that but it just didn’t sit right. He wasn’t the only person to have come through that hatch in a long time. Perhaps the nomad’s traveling companions? He didn’t linger on the image for too long though; his dear Arachne had waited long enough to be rescued.
The wooden ladder led to a relatively clean, somewhat well-traveled tunnel which, surprisingly, was lit at periodic distances with burning torches. Who had lit these torches? What sort of caretaker did this place have? He wasn’t sure he wanted to know the answers. Perhaps there was a creature of some type still living within the walls, but what sort of monster keeps the torches and maintains the premises? Generally known for lurking in shadows while skulking their prey with occasional bone-crushing or fire-breathing involved, they’re not commonly imagined with feather-dusters in hand.
The tunnel was longer than he expected, nearly two-hundred paces and he passed nearly a dozen torches before reaching a set of wooden double-doors. They creaked with old-age but didn’t resist in the least leading into a massive hall adorned with elaborate tapestries and ornate hand-carved furniture. Pleasant wasn’t sure what he was expecting, but for some reason…this was not it. Rather than the dungeon-like facilities one might imagine a hostage being held in, it looked like something a duke or duchess, or even his own royal family, might live in. Even the massive fire-place that served as the center-piece of the room held a roaring fire.
The only indication that suggested that this was the home of no one, and it was a strong one, were the inordinate number of spiders running about with their webbing covering almost every surface. Combined with the elegant decorum, the effect was sufficiently unnerving. It wasn’t that he was afraid of spiders per se, but…well, nobody likes spiders.
Pleasant grabbed the closest torch from a wall hook and proceeded to bend and burn his way through the webs until he found what he was looking for at the end of a hallway on the far side of the room. There was an archway that led to a darkened circular staircase. Torch in hand, the prince headed up, his boots echoing before him, and after he had taken a couple he could hear the princess again.
“Is that you, my hero?” It sounded like she was right behind him, breathing over his neck. So odd were the acoustics that he couldn’t help but look behind him.
“Yes, my dear princess, it is I: Prince Pleasant of the Kingdom Farfrumer. I am on my way to your aide right now. I have just begun my ascent and I do not know how far up these stairs go, I’m afraid, but I will not dally.” The princess laughed again and it was a sound Pleasant knew he was already in love with. His was an ordained destiny and when they finished telling his tale it would decidedly end with, “happily, ever after”.
“I’m afraid you’ve a significant number to climb, but worry not, I will avail you with the tale I promised: the story of “Arachne”. I loved the Greek and Roman myths growing up; didn’t you?”
The prince smiled. “I enjoyed the heroes…the action: Hercules, Ulysses and the like.”
“Well isn’t that just perfectly a man answer?” They were already building a repoire and he hadn’t even seen her yet; theirs would be a love for the ages. “I rather enjoyed the maidens and goddesses and the stories of love and jealousy; but I guess you’d say that would be a typical woman’s point of view, wouldn’t you?”
“I would say no such thing, Princess.” She giggled again and then continued her story.
“The tale of Arachne wasn’t my favorite, especially, but I’ve never been able to get it out of my mind. There are several variations but, in my opinion, the Roman poet Ovid gave the account most accurately. As he told it, Arachne was a beautiful maiden, of completely human blood, who was unparalleled among her peers in her weaving skills. She wove beautiful tapestries showing amazing, life-like scenes from the tales of the gods.
She became so enamored with her own abilities that she began to brag…and brag…and brag. Arachne boasted of her abilities so much that she claimed no one, even the gods for goddesses, could do any better. The goddess Athena took offence at the prideful nature of the shepherd’s daughter and came to her in the form of an old lady; warning her ‘You can never compare to any of the gods. Plead for forgiveness and Athena might spare your soul.’
The foolish girl responded by saying, ‘Ha! I only speak the truth and if Athena thinks otherwise then let her come down and challenge me herself’. Athena removed her disguise and revealed herself appearing in shimmering glory, clad in a sparkling white chiton. The two began their weaving contest right away.” Pleasant’s breathing began to labor a bit and the princess seemed to notice.
“You can take a break if you need to, dear prince.”
“I’m fine. Please continue your story.” He didn’t want to come across as weak despite the fact that his legs were beginning to tire a bit.
“Very well, but if you need to rest I will think no less of you. So where were we…oh yes, the weavings. They both wove furiously and created master pictures of the gods. Athena’s represented four contests between mortals and the gods in which the gods punished mortals for setting themselves as equals of the gods, while Arachne’s weaving depicted ways that the gods had misled and abused mortals, particularly Zeus, tricking and seducing the many women he had been known to do.
When Athena saw the way Arachne had insulted the gods and with work far more beautiful than her own, she became enraged and ripped her tapestry to shreds. The goddess then struck the maiden several times and chastised her to the point of utter depression. Arachne, so devastated by the experience, tried to hang herself and end her life but Athena discovered this as well and placed a series of curses on her. The initial curse saw to it that the maiden would never again be able to take her own life, nor would anyone else be able to either. ‘Live on then, and yet hang, condemned one, but, lest you are careless in future, this condition is declared as punishment against you and your descendants, to the last generation!’ the goddess declared.
Her second punishment then was so much worse than the first. With the poisonous juice from Hecate’s herb and incantations, Athena made all of Arachne’s hair fall out. With it went her nose and ears; her head shrank to the smallest size, and her whole body became tiny. Arachne’s slender fingers became stuck to her sides as spindly legs while the rest became a belly, from which she still spins a thread, and, as a spider, weaves her ancient webs; her descendants destined for eight legs rather than two. This showed how goddesses punished mortals who dared to insult them.” Arachne paused to allow the finality of the story to stick.
“What then, dear prince, do you think of the tale?”
“I don’t know…it’s a bit…morose, don’t you think?” The princess laughed again and Pleasant wondered if it was possible to fall in love with someone, sight unseen. He was fairly certain it was…and he was.
“Morose? Hmmm…I suppose that’s one way of looking at it. There are several variations on the myth; Ovid’s was just one of them. None of them get the legend quite right, however. The truth was a little stranger than even that.”
The prince smiled, “and just how would you know that?”
“She’s my namesake…and I’ve had a lot of time to study while I’ve been waiting.”
“Waiting?” he asked. “Waiting for what?” There was a momentary pause before she answered.
“For you, of course. I’ve been waiting for you.” Her voice was louder now. He had to be getting close; which was a good thing because his legs were on the verge of jelly. Pleasant prided himself on being a man’s man, in excellent physical condition, but he had never been up this many stairs in his entire life combined. He made a mental note to find a set of stairs after the rescue and utilize them in his exercise routine. They made for one hell of a workout and he finally conceded to a small rest and took a seat.
The last thing he wanted to do was make her wait any longer but at the same time he definitely didn’t want to meet her and then be unable to sweep her off her feet. This was Pleasant’s first attempt at a fairy-tale and although he knew the rescued princesses were always “swept off their feet”, he had no clue if this was a literal expectation or metaphorical. With a short rest, he would be prepared for either.
“So how did the story really go then, Princess Arachne?” The prince leaned his torch against the wall one step below where he sat and tried to catch his breath.
“I’m glad you asked,” the princess continued. “Athena’s poison did curse the maiden and all her offspring to an existence as eternal eight-legged creatures, but she wasn’t turned in the tiny, unassuming…insect that the myth makers liked to represent her as. That was Athena’s final insult: a lie forever remembered.”“What was she then?” Pleasant prompted.
“Something much more glorious than a bug to be squashed.” A tiny spider dropped onto the prince’s knee causing him to reflexively swat it away accidentally kicking the torch down the stairs in the process. He didn’t figure the light would get too far away from him but considering the alternative was sitting in the pitch-black with a bunch of little spiders, Pleasant hustled behind it rather quickly. It only went about a ten steps down, or a rotation and a half, but what stopped it from going any further shocked him into immobility.
There was a wall of solid white, from the staircase to the ceiling. It was a spider-web, but not just a spider-web. It was made of thousands of thousands of spider-webs, intricately linked together to create the nearly unimaginable barrier. How in the hell were spiders able to build this? He only passed this point a few minutes ago.
“Are you okay?” the princess asked. Pleasant didn’t respond but the question was enough to break his stasis. He grabbed the torch and promptly burned through the webbing only to see another such wall formed on the next step down. After burning that, he found another, then another, then another. What had he walked into?
“Prince Pleasant?” she asked again. For the first time in his life, Pleasant wasn’t exactly sure what to say.
“There’s…spiders,” was all he could manage.
“Spiders?” her voice became odd again, like when he first asked her about the beast who had abducted her. “You say there are spiders out there?”
“Yes, my lady, there are…thousands…millions even. They’re everywhere…and building these massive…webs.” How could she not know about the bugs?
“Oh my,” she sounded herself again and genuinely worried, “How repulsive it must be. By all means, please hurry to my aide so that we may remove ourselves from the spider’s web.” The phrasing ‘from the spider’s web’ struck Pleasant as odd and put an uncomfortable feeling in his gut. It wasn’t any stranger than the entire experience had been up to that point but it was enough to re-confirm his need for defensive caution. He would keep his free hand very close to his sword’s hilt from here on out.
Heading back up again, he found that his initial assertation of being close to the top earlier to be accurate. It was only another ten steps beyond where he had rested. Another set of immense double-doors sat at the top…no lock whatsoever. She must be trapped further in. The doors gave way to another massive hallway lined on both sides with more beautifully hand-woven tapestries, the quality of which were incredible, even to his untrained eye. The striking detail they displayed would have rivaled a master painter, although they all bore very similar scenes: a handsome young man striving towards but never quite reaching a beautiful maiden. A tribute to the lovelorn, perhaps? There were many doors on both sides of the hall and none appeared to even be closed, let alone locked shut.
“Princess?” he called out. “Where are you?”
“I’m here.” It came from the open doorway at the far end of the hall. Pleasant went very slowly, fully expecting some hideous beast to jump out at him at any moment but all he saw were clean, well-appointed living quarters and social rooms. Finally reaching the end of the hall the room he entered must have been the princess’s bedroom complete with a vanity and four-poster bed. To the left of the bed was another open doorway and in that doorway stood…the princess.
It was significantly darker in her room than the others so the fine details still remained a mystery but from what Pleasant could tell…he could have no greater fortune. Prince Pleasant had been no stranger to the company of women. He had known bar-maids and brothel girls, school-marms and yes…even princesses; but he had never known a beauty such as what he saw across the room. Someone had sculpted his every desire and then breathed life into her and now she was waiting for him.
So overwhelmed, was he, by her raven hair, dark eyes and ruby lips that he didn’t wonder why she was there or why he had faced no opposition in finding her. He was simply enraptured to a point of hazy hypnosis; never before so awestruck.
“You’re…you’re beautiful,” was all he could stammer. She smiled and it brought an ethereal light into the room that seemed to radiate from his cheeks, making him both flush and elated at the same time. Had ever before a smile been so perfect…so inspiring? That smile alone made the labor of the journey all worthwhile.
The princess opened her mouth as if to speak and Pleasant found himself awash with excitement at the simple prospect of seeing her voice matched to her form. Before she could utter a word, however, she was jerked backwards into the darkened room behind her as if grabbed by some unseen hand. Her terrified cries erupted from the blackness.
With his unsheathed sword in one hand and the torch in the other, Pleasant hurried over to the opposite doorway and stepped through the threshold. The princess was no longer making any noise. The room he stepped into was pitch-black save the meager illumination of his torch. The light barely made a dent because, apparently, the room was enormous. There was a stream of dripping water somewhere in the far end and the echo acoustics alone gave a strong indication of its size.
He was a few tentative paces into the center of the room when the door he had entered slammed shut behind him causing the prince to spin around. The door looked to be black for the split-second before he got close enough with the light to cause the layer of tiny spiders to scurry away revealing a white door…a white door that was locked tight; and sticky.
Pleasant turned back around to face the cavernous darkness, sword at the ready for whatever might leap from its midst. The room was fairly quiet; not silent however. Aside from the dripping water there was a very distinct scurrying noise, like a billion little legs brushing against the floor, walls and ceiling all around him; and then there were the bigger ones. Still the same familiar brushing noise, just with more depth like someone, or several someone’s, were sweeping the floor in various places. It was more than a little unsettling.
“Princess…?” he called out timidly to the scuttling ocean of shadow around him. “Are you here?” There was no response for a moment as several small spiders dropped down onto Pleasant’s head and shoulders producing a convulsive motion as he swept them away. They continued to dive bomb until the prince waved the torch around the area, burning the wisps of web away with a flash and cooking the bodies of more than a few in the process.
“Help me.” It was the princess. She sounded weak, possibly injured but it was impossible to tell where it came from.
“Princess?” he called again, the fact that his nerves were getting the better of him apparent in his voice. “I don’t…”
“Please…I’m hurt.” She was somewhere to his right; twenty or thirty paces if he were hearing her right. He held the torch out as far as he could but the oil was beginning to expire causing his small circle of light to slowly shrink. This would not deter the prince, however and he forged forward, burning web and spider alike as he went. A lifetime of seconds later, he found her; standing in the center of the room, smiling her radiant smile.
“Princess…” the look caught him off guard entirely. “Are you…do you need…c’mon, let’s get out of here.” She reached her arms out towards him.
“You’ll need to carry me, I’m afraid.” Her voice was soft and sing-song and could not have been more out of place given the troubling circumstances. “I’m sorely afraid that I’ve been injured and won’t be able to walk on my own.” Everything about the moment felt wrong. Pleasant’s primordial instincts were screaming at him to escape the situation but…but she was right there. A vision of splendor greater than any goddess or pre-pubescent fantasy he might have imagined, everything he had ever desired of a mate, and she was right there for the taking; asking to be taken.
Despite the trepidation, Pleasant dropped his sword and torch and lunged forward to grab his future wife, throwing his arms around her. The moment his hands locked around her waist he knew he had made a terrible mistake. In a matter of milliseconds several crushing realizations came to the prince. The first of which, and probably the worst, was that he was not hugging the waist of a slender maiden at all. Whatever he had wrapped his arms around was not human at all.
The width of a tree trunk, it was immovable with thick, rigid hairs the size of his fingers covering it. Pleasant immediately threw himself back, or tried to at least; the thing was so sticky it took a real effort. He fell backwards onto the floor and grabbed his torch, holding it before him. Arachne the beautiful princess was no longer there. The black trunk he had been holding, which extended well into the darkness above, lifted itself from the ground and came back down next to him. It was a leg, jointed just above where his head had been and angling inward towards…the face.
Its head alone was nearly the size of his stallion with eight evenly spaced eyes, as big as birds and black as night. They were, in no way, human eyes but they did convey a deep intelligence. Pleasant was frozen with fear as the mutated creature’s two massive fangs swayed above his head, dripping…something…onto his chest. Seemingly, he had found the monster.
“What have you done with the princess, foul beast?” He wanted to sound commanding but given the position he was in, he was lucky it came out at all; not that he fully expected the hideous thing to understand anyway. Apparently it did, however, because it replied and its voice was like nothing the prince had ever heard, or would hope to hear again.
“Princess? What princess?” Although English, it was an inhuman sound nonetheless…ancient; like the words came from before time itself. “The only ones here are me and my children.”
“Arachne” Pleasant blurted out. “Where is Arachne?” He interpreted the noise that came next as laughter but only the kind heard from demons in the great abyss, a sick, low rumbling cacophony that literally made his hairs stand on end.
“I’m right here, little fly, don’t you see me?” Pleasant’s mind raced and told him this can’t be happening, but his heart knew better. “I told you I was changed into some much more glorious than a bug. Pleasant’s hand darted for his sword but Arachne was much quicker, her fangs lightly breaking the skin on his neck although they could have easily eviscerated him had she wanted. The poison, some of Hecate’s very own, began working very quickly; placing the prince in a state of paralysis.
“That’s good, sweet prince,” Arachne rumbled, “no need to get yourself all worked up. You will make a wonderful host for my babies…and eventually their first meal. I’d consider it an honor were I you. If you don’t feel that way, however, all I can say is to blame that damnable Athena. She’s the one who put us all in this position after all.” Pleasant could no longer move his mouth to speak but he could see, hear and feel everything.
“I don’t want you to worry that your sacrifice will be in vain, little fly, as I will weave a marvelous tapestry of your likeness and your beloved princess for my castle. In that way you will always be remembered…happily, ever after.”
Credit: Shannon Higdon
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