A Deal with Spiders

The light of the torch danced on the tangled, moss-covered roots of the trees ahead. Johan cursed to himself as he tried to navigate his way through the undergrowth, stumbling every few steps. He made it through the maze of limbs snaking from the looming tree and paused to brush a calloused hand through the mat of shaggy, brown-and-gray-streaked hair that clung to his brow.

Keep going, Johan thought as he caught his breath, it's either do this or lose the farm and starve to death. Or worse. Beg.

He took a moment to check his surroundings. The air of the summer night was thick and humid. The pale glow of the full moon filtering through the canopy caught in a steadily rising fog, washing the forest in hues of silver and emerald. Beyond the light of his torch, the forest existed only as a mass of vague shadows and specters. He could see pockets of grass staking their claim amongst the tree roots, and all manner of ferns and shrubs doing the same, everything fighting for a place. The trees were oppressively tall, and their trunks were covered in a latticework of vines and ivy. Johan couldn't help but feel dwarfed standing beside them. He gazed upward and raised his torch, straining his eyes to look through the canopy, trying to find any sort of webbing, cocoons, or hollowed-out carcasses- any sort of evidence that he was getting closer.

As far as Johan could tell, the canopy was empty. More than that, the forest itself seemed abandoned. No birds or squirrels flitted through the branches; no game paths wound their way through the grass. Not even the chirping of crickets filled the night. The forest was utterly devoid of life, except for Johan and his torch.

He tightened his grip on the wooden handle and swallowed the urge to scream for one of the gray-skin witches to come see him. He knew he had to find them. That's how the deals worked: Find the forest, find a thread, find the Spider.

Just thinking about them sent chills down his spine and he cursed again. The Spiders were mysterious creatures with the power to give you anything you desired, so long as you were willing to bargain.

As a boy, Johan had heard stories from travelers of noble men and women journeying to the forest with coffers laden with gold and gems as offering to the Spiders. Every traveler had said that those same nobles had been found weeks, months, or years later, at the edges of the forest, as little more than skin and bone, their faces twisted in eternal agony, still clutching the gold-filled coffers.

Johan remembered asking a traveler why people didn't check the forest regularly to claim the gold. The traveler told him, with a grim smile, that many poor souls have tried, but the Spiders did not take kindly to people trying to pillage their lands. There could very well be a king's ransom in the forest, but the Spiders would never let anyone take it from them without getting something in return and they always seemed to know what they wanted. Johan wasn't sure how true the stories were, but he believed one thing: The Spiders didn't care about material wealth. Why would they? They live in a forest.

Chuckling under his breath, Johan swung himself around and prepared to plunge deeper into the forest when a glinting silver thread caught the corner of his eye.

He stared at it for a moment, unsure it was really there, before shaking himself and carefully approaching the thread. The thread was incredibly fine, positioned just below eye level, and woven around the small branch of a tree before disappearing deeper into the shadows of the forest. If he was going to follow it, he'd have to keep a hand on it.

Johan couldn't suppress the uneasiness spreading through his chest at the idea of holding on to the thread. It wasn't that the thread looked unpleasant to hold, but Johan couldn't shake the feeling that something was wrong with it.

You have to do this, he thought.

Johan steeled himself, grabbed hold of the thread and continued walking. The thread materialized itself in the torchlight as he followed it and was swallowed by the darkness behind him as he walked. After a few minutes, Johan wondered, briefly, whether he'd be able to find his way back.

Johan followed the thread for what felt like miles. It was surprisingly soft and cool as it ran through his fingers; it reminded him of the feeling he got when he put his hand into a stream and felt the water currents racing across his palm.

The thread weaved through trees and around jutting rocks in areas he could not follow, forcing Johan to stray away from it in order to make his way around the obstacles and return. He lost sight of the thread several times and had to double back and search for it again before he was able to progress.

Finally, Johan spotted another thread. And another. Until the forest was trapped under a blanket of silver webbing. They glowed so brightly in the moonlight that Johan didn't need to use his torch. He doused it and strapped it to the side of his bag while he walked. The webs danced in a sudden gust of wind that caught the moonlight and turned the entire forest into a ghostly ocean of shimmering, undulating, waves.

Johan's vision blurred with the motion and he could feel his stomach beginning to bubble. He screwed his eyes shut and took a few deep breaths to master himself. After a moment, his body returned to normal and he let out a satisfied sigh that caught and died in his throat as he opened his eyes and took in what stood before him.

She towered at least another foot over him. Her hair was white as bone, her skin gray as death. Her face was delicately chiseled into unearthly beauty and her eyes glowed yellow in the night, piercing him with an expectant gaze he could only shrink under. Her face, frame, and arms were slender and delicate, but exuded power. There was no rise and fall in her chest, laid bare for the world to see. Her abdomen was flat and lithe, undoubtedly coursing with muscles completely unlike the ones covered by the slight flab on his own.

That was where the human half of her body ended and twisted in a sickening curve to meld into the shiny black and blue carapace that swelled behind her and formed the lower half of the body that gave the name to her kind. Each of her eight legs spread wide around her and were as tall as he was. Her front two legs stretched to either side of him, trapping him in front of her. Johan's body begged him to run, to get away from this thing, but he couldn't summon the will into his legs to move. There was nothing in his body but numbing fear.

She said nothing, merely looked at him and waited.

Say something! Johan accosted himself, remember that this thing is not a person. It's an it.

The thought reassured him a bit and tempered his voice, "My name is Johan Mellvere. I've come to make a deal."

It did not reply.

"I am a farmer from a village two week's journey from here. My family destroyed the crops this season."

It didn't so much as blink. Johan's blood began to boil but he kept his voice even.

"Without a proper harvest, I will not be able to pay what I owe on the land or have enough to feed me. But I know that you can fix it for me."

He let the words hang in the air, determined not to say anything more. The silence stretched for an eternity before the Spider narrowed its eyes and leveled him with a glare.

"What have you to offer."

Johan bristled at her tone. It wasn't asking for his offer; it demanded it. Because it knew he was here for its help. He was at its mercy.

"I will give you a portion of the harvest once it grows, that's the most I have."

Johan gave a little bow as he said this, demonstrating his humility. He had thought for a long time about what he could offer the Spiders once he was here. He didn't have money to give, and even if he did, he believed the stories of the nobles who had met their end here. Johan figured that the Spiders would want a sacrifice of some sort. Something that actually cost him something and would interrupt his life. Giving it a portion of the harvest would mean that his wife and children would have little to no food once he had his fill, but that hardly mattered.

"No."

Johan's head bolted up and stared at the demon.

"That's all that I have. I can offer nothing more."

"Then leave."

Shock replaced the anger foaming in Johan's belly.

"You can grow more crops. You can farm more land. What you offer is inconsequential to you."

Her eyes narrowed and pierced through him.

No! It's not a person, Johan reminded himself. Not that it mattered. He could feel the ground crumbling beneath him as he realized that he could not leave this forest without a deal; and he had no idea what this demon wanted or what he'd be willing to pay.

The Spider stood statuesque where it was and assessed him.

Fine. But even it needs to eat.

Johan summoned a heaving sigh and ran a hand over his face as theatrically as he could and hesitated, "All I can offer you is my first-born son."

That had to do it. What could be more precious than a human life?

The Spider's eyes sharpened, and it rose upward as its legs thumped forward in the web-covered grass.

"You have journeyed here thinking only of yourself. Not once have you thought of your family's needs or desires."

The Spider continued to advance, and Johan found himself stumbling backward as it did, his hands raised in protest,

"You would offer your child to ensure your own survival. Your son holds no value to you. You care only for yourself; you value only yourself, your power, your survival."

She had risen another foot higher and dwarfed him. He fell backward trying to keep sight of her and inched away.

The air had filled with her presence. Now with the way she bared down on him, forcing him to acknowledge her, he could only call her a her

"I know how you have treated your children; I've seen the marks you've left on your wife."

Her eyes flared and ignited like a pyre and brilliant yellow light washed over Johan.

"If you wish to make a deal, you must give me that which you value most."

Her voice fell to a whisper that sounded like a scream in the silence.

"With every step you take from this forest, your limbs will lose strength, your body will begin to fail. With every drop of strength you lose, your crops will gain thrice that. When you return home, you will be frail and thin. You will never be able to strike your wife or your children again. You will live knowing that you must now rely on the ones you harmed to care for you."

She paused, her mouth twisting into a cruel sneer, "If they see fit."

No. No, this isn't right! Johan couldn't bring himself to speak. White-hot fear ran through his veins and kept him rooted and paralyzed on the forest floor.

Just kill me. Please just kill me! He begged in silence. But, instinctively, he knew she would never give him the release of death. Even if he tried to kill himself, he was sure she would bring him back to face the deal again.

She peered down her nose at him and waited for his answer- the answer she knew she would get from the moment he stepped into the forest.