Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Spider Queen Spins a Story

Engine oil and jasmine.

Nora Swift awoke to engine oil and jasmine, mingled in the warm, close air. Eyes still shut, half-dreaming, she rolled sideways — and found herself tangled, limbs swathed.

Nora lurched to full consciousness in a panic, arms and legs flailing, anything to escape the horrible, choking helplessness of the dark tendrils—

But these were sheets. Silk. The tendrils were gone, and Nora was alone, and indoors, and quietly afraid.

The room was dim and golden-hued, illuminated by paper lanterns strung from the walls. Thick steel girders ribbed the walls, studded with bolts as hefty as a fat man’s knuckles, stretching up beyond the pools of lantern-light into shadows that softly shaded into absolute darkness, some unknown distance above. The steady thrum of immense, constant machinery pulsed through the walls and floor, almost more felt than heard.

Nora threw off the sheets and sat up, slowly. She tried to remember. The tendrils had pulled her out of the window, Sully clinging to her hand; they’d been hauled up into the mist, dizzyingly high, momentarily breaks in the clouds showing glimpses of light shimmering on rain-drenched streets sickeningly far below. And then…

She couldn’t recall. Nora checked her watch; a smashed, ugly crystal and horribly blank display looked back at her. She had to get up from this strange bed, get out, find Sully, escape from wherever this was. She tried to stand up.

Heavy iron shackles, cuffed around the hems of her jeans, clanked and rattled, and she nearly fell over.

Nora stared at the shackles, not knowing whether to burst out laughing or get really, really pissed off.

She tested them. Thick, sturdy, peppered with rust and age, but they offered no easy escape. The damn things weighed a ton, and had just enough chain between them to allow Nora a convict’s sort of half-shuffle. Enough to move, but not enough to run.

Nora briefly considered that, not four days ago, she had been worried about processing the report on the near-collision between two small planes over Waukegan. Given that, wherever this place was, it didn’t seem to have a dress code, she wasn’t entirely sure whether this was worse.

“Hello?” she called out to the darkness. “Someone wanna let me out of these damn things? I mean, this is, like, five kinds of wrong.” No one responded, save Nora’s own faint echo. “Fine,” she grumbled. “See if I don’t sue your ass.”

The room was vast, and at a shuffle, it took several minutes to circle completely. It was mostly empty space, populated here and there with tables and glass cases containing strange, carefully lit and displayed relics. At the far end of the chamber from the low, mosquito-netted bed where she’d awakened, Nora found a thick hatch, but it, too, was sealed tight, and five minutes of irrationally optimistic tugging at it only made her arms tired.

So back at a clanking shuffle she went, legs already getting sore, to inspect each of the cases in turn. The significance of the objects inside largely escaped her: a gorgeous, jewelled scimitar in one, a golden statue of a falcon in another. Only the case closest to the bed gave her pause; a leather aviator’s jacket, and a six-shot pistol, slightly worried by age, and uncomfortably familiar.

And then there was the box.

It had no case; only a pedestal, lit with a single flickering spot. It was built from black lacquered wood, inlaid with mother of pearl, and Nora could not even hope to guess at its age. Nora stretched out a hand to touch the box; it felt strangely warm. The patterns etched in its surface curved and swirled hypnotically, labyrinths for the eyes. There was no latch.

Nora opened the lid, just a crack. From the darkness within, a sickly-sweet smell slid out, mingling with the jasmine and the engine oil. She started to lift the lid further.

And let it drop shut, with a snap, as a voice coiled down out of the darkness above her.

“Hello, sister,” it said.

It was a woman’s voice, made of smoke and sand; audibly ancient, yet somehow still musical, dipping and swaying with the ghost of some unfixable accent. Nora looked up, but saw nothing but shadow. She shivered and backed away from the box, suddenly feeling very small, and very alone.

“At last,” the woman’s voice said. “You’ve come home, sister.”

“Where am I?” Nora called out, with all the courage she could muster. “And what’s with these damn shackles?”

“Not to your comfort?” the voice chuckled, affecting a treacly, mothering voice, shot through with a curl of poison. “I can sympathize. They were mine, once. After the first three months, your ankles stop bleeding. By six, the calluses have formed. And within a year, your legs forget that you could ever run, that you ever did without them. And you carry your cage with you.”

“Are you — are you with the Needlemen?” Nora asked, eyes raised, slowly shuffling backward toward the nearest wall. Right now, she wanted her back against something firm, impermeable; maybe them, the voice wouldn’t sound like it was always just over her shoulder.

“The Needlemen? The Needlemen are a myth, sister,” the voice laughed, dry and mirthless. “Of course, so am I. Your spook-stories don’t trade here.”

“They’re real as a heart attack,” Nora risked, “and — and if they know where I am, and they probably do, you better believe there’s a whole bunch of ‘em on their way to pay you a visit.” Maybe this woman, whoever she was, was as scared of the Needlemen as Nora. Then again… Nora remembered the black tendrils, and shuddered. Maybe not.

“These Needlemen…” the voice began. “Do they have wings, perhaps?”

“They’ve got helicopters,” Nora answered. “Close enough?”

The voice sighed, almost wistfully. “Helicopters. Haven’t eaten any of those in, oh, I can’t remember. I can’t wait.”

Nora risked a glance over her shoulder; the wall was maybe fifteen feet away, agonizingly close. But with every step, the heavy shackles bit into her legs, dragging at her, scraping noisily along the metal-plated floor.

“Who are you? Why did you bring me here?” Nora asked, trying to control the quaver in her voice. It suddenly occurred to her that if she died, no one would ever feed her cat again. If it hadn’t gone feral already.

“Would you like to hear a story?” the voice asked. “Stories are — forgive me, stories were my trade, long before blood and steel. Shall I tell you a story, sister?”

“Is it a story about getting these damn shackles off me?” Nora said, anger flaring in her.

“In a manner of speaking, perhaps,” the voice responded. “Once upon a time — that, you see, is how all good stories should begin — there was a princess in a distant kingdom. The details no longer matter; how wise was her father, how brave her mother, how numerous her courtiers … how she bathed in perfume and danced on pearls … how very happy she was. All irrelevant. All dust and ash.

“They say seven is a lucky number, but not for this princess. She had seven years, seven years of goodness and happiness. And then, because the world hates nothing so much as imbalance, she received all those years’ allotment of misery in a single night. The Enemy came, ten foot tall to the last of them, swarming over the walls. The princess watched her garden burn, her horses and camels and dogs and cats punctured and bled to lifelessness. They painted her mother across the walls of the dancing-chamber, and hung bits of her father in the rafters.

“And what of the child, you ask? Oh, they saved something very special for her. When she thought she had lost everything there was to lose, they proved her wrong. They brought out a steel box, not much bigger than the princess herself, and they locked her inside. And for seven years, she lost the light of the sun.

“Imagine. Seven years of noises in the dark, of sudden thumps and blows. Seven years of having food, such as it was, pass in through one slot, and passing its remains out through another. Seven years in a world of arbitrary gravity, where up could just as easily become down. You can understand, can’t you? How it would drive anyone, even a princess, utterly mad?

“And then, after seven years, after the dark had even become her friend, the light, the terrible light. And the pain. And the men, endless men, with stinking breath and rough, cruel hands. And the princess discovered yet more things that could be taken from her, and knew she must be mad. In her youth, you see, every face had been different, unique. Now every man wore one face, cruel and hateful. And the princess, mad though she was, had wits enough to know this, know the wrongness of her perceptions, and despair in her madness.

“Sometimes, the princess found, she could spin a story to her visitors, and delay the pain they visited upon her. Some were amused. Some not. But she became known as a storyteller, and the visitors began to insist upon it, and the stories became just another shackle, in the end.

“They say a single bite of food can be crueler to a starving man than continued hunger. So it was for the princess, to know tiny islands of kindness in her ocean of pain. To share the company of women, other women like her; to hear them, at night, whisper bits and baubles of their former happiness, like treasures shown and shared only in secret, only for moments. To learn from them of art and science and mathematics, things to focus the mind during those moments when the princess had to sever it from her body, make a dead object of herself, or else go madder still from the purposes to which she was put.

“They kept her chained when the men came to her, of course; it was assumed that long years of captivity had broken her spirit, but no one wished to risk her fingernails across their tender eyes all the same. But they unshackled her feet, for reasons I shall spare you, however obvious they may prove upon careful thought. And the body, oh, the body is a wonder. Infinitely adaptable, infinitely resourceful. And so it was that on the day a careless man at last forgot to leave behind the knife at the back of his belt, the princess gripped it fast in her her toes, and with her legs and feet drove it deep into his back, again and again, until at last he died. And when his death-cries brought the guard, the foolish guard with the keys on his belt, who came too close, who did not see the knife in her toes until it had lodged in his belly… she was free.

“Freedom. After fourteen years without it, it seems huge and abstract, less real even than death. It is shameful to relate, now, that at first the princess feared to even leave her cell, though the door swung wide. But leave she did, her hard-won knife in one hand, and the keys in the other. She freed the other women, her friends. And together they swarmed as one over the guards, devouring them with blows and curses, and regained the air and the sun. Long years of shackles had, perversely, made them strong.

“And when the princess looked over the faces of her dead tormentors, she still saw one and the same face. And she knew she had passed beyond madness, and reached real sanity, real truth. That the world had held but one good man, her father; and that with his passing he had left behind an ocean of vermin, demanding extermination.

“So she took one of their heads. And she kept it, preserved it, as a reminder. And it served her well.

“Like a hot wind the princess and her new army swept across the distant kingdom upon whose shores time and confinement had washed them. Their feet grew stained with shed blood, their hands leathered from the grip of swords and guns. They were a tide of liberation, and wherever women suffered, their ranks only grew.

“And at last they reached a palace, not that of the princess’s youth, but similar in its way, and yes, haunting for that similarity. And they stormed over the walls, and burned the gardens, and put every last man to the sword. Not the girls, no, not the women, even the poor sad beasts so blinded by their slavery as to fight them. No, they were turned aside with care and kindness, for they knew not what they did. And when they died, as they sometimes insisted, they died with the invaders’ apologies, and with their love and respect.

“They came to the throne room, and found the king there, waiting, fat and stupid and terrified. Livestock. And as the princess stepped forward to dash off his head, a young girl stepped forth to block her path. The king’s daughter.

“She spun the most outrageous lies, of course. That her father was a new ruler, fresh to power following the death of his wicked, greedy brother. That he had not known of the women’s confinement until he took the throne, and indeed, had moved to abolish it in the country’s laws. As if laws were more than breath and air. But her blindness stirred pity in the princess’s heart, and moved by her courage, the princess agreed to make the one and only exception of all her remaining days, and spare the stupid king’s life.

“And as her price for this generosity, the princess took her lash, the one she had hand-braided from leather and bits of broken glass, and struck the girl’s arm in a spiral, nearly down to the bone. To remind her of her simpleton’s loyalty, of her tragic error, evermore.

“And then, ripe with rightful spoils, the princess and her army left the soiled, blood-soaked earth behind, and took to their rightful place in the skies. And the princess became a Queen.

“For a decade, and more, the Queen and her army of sisters roamed the blue kingdom of the skies as they pleased, and took what they wished, and devoured whom they would. And even the low animals bowed to her, and learned to fly at her merest whim, and became her dutiful army, as well they should.

“And then came the betrayer. The False Sister. Swaggering and deceitful, she won the Queen’s trust, then tore out her heart. For the second time, the Queen saw all she loved, all she had amassed, burnt to nothingness. And from that time forth, the Queen breathed hate, ate fury, drank rancor, all to destroy the False Sister who mocked her with every heartbeat more.

“Again and again they would clash, and the False Sister was bold and cruel and clever. Again and again she took more from the Queen, and redoubled her fury. But the Queen remained strong in her anger, and the False Sister at last grew weak, and tired, and conspired to deny the Queen one last victory. She hid, you see. The False Sister fled forever from the skies, and scattered her craft upon the surface of the sea, and left behind her jacket and her gun in the wreckage, to make the Queen think her dead. But the Queen knew better — knew that she must yet live, and be laughing at the Queen, laughing and laughing.

“So the Queen persisted, down through the years, even as her army withered and her own body failed. She learned to replace the parts of herself that betrayed her, surrendered herself piece by piece. And yet her hate grew steadily brighter, and hotter, and in the end, it glowed like a star, and became larger and more glorious and more true than the Queen herself.

“And still she draws breath, such as it is. And still she clings to life by her nails and her teeth. She waits for her deliverance.

“And you, Ruby Gale … you have brought me that deliverance at last.”

Ice formed in the pit of Nora’s stomach as she shuffled the last steps back to rest against the wall.

“I’m not her,” Nora said, quickly, desperately. “My name’s Nora Swift — I — I work in an office. I’m not her!”

And then she realized the wall was moving. She turned and saw a curtain of the black coils covering the wall, wriggling against her back, curling around her arms and legs. Before she could scream, the tendrils had seized her and held her fast.

She heard the coils buzzling and rustling above, and then something lowered itself down out of the shadows that cloaked the ceiling. A woman, unguessably old, her face lined with bright white lines of uncountable scars. At first, Nora thought her frail husk of a body was merely cocooned in the slithering coils. But they shifted, and Nora realized that the coils, dozens of them, led directly into her, and seemed to pulse in some obscene, circulatory rhythm.

Wicked West’s eyes slowly opened, and fixed on Nora, blazing with fierce hatred. “You were so very clever, sister. You even changed your face, changed your voice, shed your years. But I can smell the truth in your blood. I could have killed you in your sleep, I suppose. But I made myself wait. I wanted to see the fear in your eyes. I wanted you to know.”

The coils snaked around Nora’s throat, tightening slowly, as she struggled in the grip of a waking nightmare. The coils lowered Wicked West, or what remained of her, inch by gradual inch until her face was level with Nora’s. And then the pirate queen smiled, slow and terrible, and spoke two last words:

“I win.”

Next: Trip and Rafe partner with an unlikely ally, breach the ruins of an underground empire, and discover the difference between bad and worse.

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