Sigh…what is wrong with me…?

I honestly don't know. I'm sorry, guys. I don't understand…I don't usually…I'm sorry. Again. Here's the chapter.

Cucumbus awoke far before dawn, his heart pounding and adrenaline rushing through his veins like a neon sign on Broadway. Slowly, he hid his supplies in the thick underbrush so that they would not be stolen while he was gone. He memorized and then memorized again the spot where they were hidden so that he would be able to find them again when he returned. He sat down by the sizzling fire and went over his plan again and again, finding the holes, debating disasters, figuring out ways to escape. But no matter how hard he thought, how much he planned, Cucumbus knew that there was absolutely no way to know exactly what was about to unfold that day.

Cucumbus watched patiently as the sun rose over the horizon, as the black walls of Duke's castle came into view and the spiders roamed. He waited until he was sure that everyone was awake.

He wanted them awake.

He wanted every single spider to be watching when Duke was finally killed.

…***…***…***…***…***…***…***…***…***…***…***…***…***…***…***…***

The sky was dark and threatening rain as Cucumbus stole through the bushes and up the slope to Duke's castle. He was strangely unseen, as he knew that he would be, and not a spider turned to acknowledge him as he drew closer and closer to the castle doors.

Soon they were only a few feet away, and Cucumbus hid quickly behind the face of a rock as a group of spiders walked past.

"…sssusssesssful," one spider was saying to another.

"I know," the other spider replied in disbelief. "Who would have thhhought?"

"Where is she?" asked a third spider.

"Massster's tower," said the first spider. "He sssays he can keep a better eye on her thhhere."

When the spiders had left in a frantic flurry of over exaggerated s's and th's, Cucumbus slowly crept out from behind the face of the rock and crept carefully over to the door.

It must have been three or four times Cucumbus's height, engraved in odd purple letters that read the strange motto, "In Your Face, Mother."

Blinking out the confusion, Cucumbus carefully reached towards the big, brass door handle, his hands shaking in the cold.

The door suddenly began to open; bright light streaming from the corridor, and, looking around in a panic, Cucumbus quickly hid himself in the shadows.

Out strode a very impressive spider, bigger than the rest, and behind him were two others that must have been his goons.

"ASSSEMBLE!" he shouted throughout the courtyard. "SSSPIDERS, ASSSEMBLE!"

Quickly, and wondering how he could be so unnoticeable, Cucumbus darted out from the shadows and through the castle doors as they closed rapidly behind him.

He took a deep breath, his heart pounding with adrenaline and fear, as he looked around at the corridors of the king's brother's castle.

The first thing he noticed about anything was that it was covered completely in the webs of the spiders. They wrapped around everything – the chairs, the tables, the doorways, the lanterns that glowed dimly through the halls – like a protective blanket, as if nothing could be used unless it had a web on it. But aside from that, everything was empty and dark. It was as if the castle was expecting something.

Cucumbus hoped it was vengeance.

His footsteps echoed throughout the halls as he walked through them, his eyes darting through every picture frame, and he wondered just where he was supposed to go next. The spiders had said that Theodora was being kept in their master's tower. 'Master' obviously meant Duke, but as for the tower, Cucumbus was lost. There had to be several dozen towers throughout the building, and there was no way Cucumbus was ever going to be able to search them all without being caught. He wasn't even sure he could make it to one.

And then he heard a frantic hissing, charging down the halls like a stampede. Again Cucumbus wondered just where he could hide, and finally settled for standing behind a dusty curtain. Very cliché, he knew, but those spiders couldn't spot anything even if it was right in front of their nose.

It wasn't long at all after Cucumbus was sure he was hidden that he could see the feet of what must have been all the spiders in the castle as they made their way to the courtyard, all hissing in their strange exaggerated accent.

"Asssemble," a spider muttered as he walked past. "They think we can jussst asssemble. Like we're free any time of day."

"Do you thhhink I should go?" asked another spider worriedly. "Massster told me to guard the door to his tower. Do you thhhink I should go back?"

"Nah," said the first spider. "Massster's tower is only a few sssteps away. You can always hurry back if thhhere's any trouble."

"I guess you're right," the second spider said doubtfully.

How stupid can these spiders be? Cucumbus wondered to himself. Everything was falling into place so unbelievably perfectly, it was just silly. Princes didn't just get told where the princess was. And they didn't just get told how to get there a few minutes later.

On the other hand, maybe they did. How else would they be able to succeed every time?

And so, even though Cucumbus knew there was something very wrong with this indeed, he waited until the spiders were gone and crept out from behind the curtain. And he headed casually down the hallway until he saw a bold wooden door that looked a great deal nicer than the others, and, though the back of his neck was prickling, Cucumbus opened it.

Behind the door was a long set of spiraling stairs, looking even grimmer than all the other stairs in the castle. Cucumbus knew in his gut that they led to Duke's tower, and to the princess.

He could feel his knees shake as he carefully gripped the rail and climbed up the winding staircase, his heart thudding faster and faster every minute, his hands beginning to shake, his breath coming less easily. Everything was finally coming to an end. Once he opened those doors – those huge, desolate doors at the top of the stairs – everything would be over. There would be a battle, between him and the dark wizard, which, of course, he would win. There would be a successful rescue, a party, a wedding, a family. The kingdoms would unite, Cucumbus would be a hero, and Theodora wouldn't be hated anymore. Everything would be perfect, and their troubles would be over, as the two of them rode off into the sunset on a gleaming white steed. And it would be the end.

There was a sharp pang in his chest, a catch in his throat.

Once he opened those doors, he was a goner. Once he opened those doors, his life would practically be over, and Gwyneth would never be seen again.

Cucumbus stopped at the top of the staircase, all these thoughts and more racing through his mind, feeling on the edge of desertion, of infinite sadness. And, though he felt his heart begin to break, Prince Cucumbus took a long, shaky breath, opened his eyes, and reached for the long, brassy handle of Duke's tower door.

And opened it.

There, behind the door, stood Duke, the king's brother, holding out a dagger and a magic wand, his eyes glowing, his beard waving, his face smoldering, just inches from the face of the prince.

Duke said, "If you make a sound, I'll kill you."

And Duke began to smile.

And then he said, almost like an afterthought, "You're late."

…***…***…***…***…***…***…***…***…***…***…***…***…***…***…***…***

The sky was dark, and the clouds were cast upon the city like a magnificent spell.

But it didn't mean the wedding was off.

"It's an indoor wedding, anyway," Thelma said busily to her son as she brushed off the lint on the king's royal suit. "And rain is very sacred in Allradia."

"Allradia is a desert, Mother," Reichstein said with an exasperated sigh. "Of course it's sacred. And I'm not –"

"Who says we can't adopt other kingdom's traditions, hmmm?" Thelma pinched his cheek with something almost like love. "I'm so proud of you, Reichstein. Finally doing what's best for the kingdom and not what's best for you."

"Mother, I'm not –"

Thelma shrieked. "What is that thing?" she screamed.

Reichstein looked around wildly for some sort of threat, but the only thing he could find was the dove, perched on the windowsill. "That's Aphrodite," he said in surprise. "My bird."

Thelma pursed her lips disapprovingly. "Well," she said at last. "It'll make a good appetizer, at least."

"Mother, that's –"

"Guards," she twitted. And they came through the doors immediately. "Remove that bird," she ordered.

There was a loud, constant squawking as Aphrodite was grabbed firmly by the wings and dragged out of the room while Reichstein shouted angrily, "Stop! That's my bird! Stop!"

But the guards did not seem to listen.

And soon Aphrodite was gone.

Steaming hot and red, Reichstein turned to his mother. "Thelma," he growled. "That's my bird. You had no right to –"

"Take it off," Thelma said abruptly. "It's too loose in the middle." She tugged abruptly on the suit.

"Thelma, I –"

"Don't worry. It'll be ready by tomorrow," Thelma said briskly.

And then she was gone.

"Does nobody hear me?" Reichstein bellowed.

There was no answer.

The king kicked a chair with a roar of frustration, and then sat down upon it, trying to hide his despair.

…***…***…***…***…***…***…***…***…***…***…***…***…***…***…***…***

The center of Guneer was bright and wonderful.

The castle was surrounded by a sort of town square, and street vendors were lined all along the streets, selling hot buns and offering accommodations. There were sausage stands, barber shops, nail salons, and other business that were rather shady. You could get anything you asked for at the center of Guneer, if only you had the money to get it.

Thea twirled around in astonishment. "It's beautiful," she gasped.

Felt was standing next to her, looking oddly pale and very overwhelmed. "Whoa," he said.

Giggling uncontrollably at the look on his face, Thea grabbed Felt's hand and pulled him along, pointing at the buildings and the people that were slowly gathering near the front of the castle.

"Excuse me," said a man with a very strange mustache, tapping Thea gently on the shoulder and taking her arm. "You look like a very pretty young lady. How would you like to try some of Queen Thelma's Salon Perfume? Ten cents for the pretty lady." And he flashed her a grin.

She blinked. "Queen Thelma?"

Felt grabbed her arm. "She's not interested," he said, dragging her away from the strange, mustached man. "Don't talk to those people," he told her. "We don't have any money."

"Who's Queen Thelma?"

"Your grandmother," Felt said distractedly, looking at a man who was holding quite a great amount of colorful balloons in his hand.

"Flower?" asked a woman, approaching them. "Would you like to buy a flower for the pretty lady?"

"I don't have any money," Felt told her, and she went away disappointedly.

"She's still alive?" Thea asked.

"What?"

"Queen Thelma," Thea said. "You said kings had to die before –"

"Get your sausages," a man shouted abruptly. "Get some red hot sausages while you can!"

"It's different for queens," Felt said, still looking extremely distracted. "Boys are –"

"Puppies! Five cents! Get a puppy, get a friend!"

"Boys are what?"

"They're –"

"Excuse me, sir," said a man, grabbing Felt's arm. "Tell me…is that your real hair?"

"I don't have any money," Felt said, wrenching his arm away.

"Oh, no, no," he said quickly, hurrying after him. "I don't want your money. It's just…your hair…if I could cut hair like yours, surely it would attract business…I'd even pay you, sir! I'll pay you thirty cents, that's how much business you'll get me! Fifty cents, even!"

Felt stopped, and looked at him intriguingly. "Fifty cents?" he said slowly.

…***…***…***…***…***…***…***…***…***…***…***…***…***…***…***…***

Cucumbus stared silently at the old, dark wizard as he mixed the pink stuff in the cauldron even faster. He should have known, he thought furiously. He should have known there was no way he could succeed at anything. It was too easy.

And it all made sense. There was no Theodora. There never was. It was just a made up scheme to get Cucumbus in his grasp, and it had succeeded, three weeks overdue. And he knew, with a sudden sadness, that he was going to die.

Eventually.

He wasn't sure why he was still alive, stuck in a weird magical tube in Duke's tower, or even what the significance of that other girl was. For a moment, he thought she could be Theodora, but her dark skin and hair proved that she could not be Reichstein's daughter in a million years. When asked, the girl said her name was Marian.

Marian was in a similar shield-tube only a few feet away, and though the tube seemed thick, their voices ran through it like it was only fog. She liked to stare at him, as much as he liked to stare at Duke, with her eyes wide with admiration. Which was pretty weird. Nobody admired Cucumbus.

But Cucumbus didn't really care that much about Marian, or why she was here. He was far more focused on the bubbling pink potion Duke was stirring, and the lingering suspicions that it would bring him instant death.

Or worse.

…***…***…***…***…***…***…***…***…***…***…***…***…***…***…***…***

Aeneas was inside the borders.

And he was confused.

It wasn't that no giant hadn't tried to go into Guneer in the last hundred years. Of course they had. Bozzleton even had his own counsel for it, a whole fleet of giant intellects working out ways to get a human in their grasp, to conquer Guneer and save it from the horrible wasteland it had become. Because surely, a life without giants was no life at all.

And yet, all Aeneas had had to do was walk across. Just like that.

And he was in.

Immediately, he thought of the boy. Felt.

Of course. The spell. It must have been done.

But when Aeneas had arrived at the border three weeks ago, he hadn't been able to get in. And he figured that the spell must have failed.

And yet, now, the shield was gone. But no giant forces, no one coming to try and actually enter.

Yet.

Aeneas sighed. If they were coming, he had to get out of there. Fast.

So he picked up his supplies and headed off into the distance, straight into the heart of Guneer.