They sat in a circle outside their tents, commiserating on The Plan.
“Wiretaps are very dangerous during the day, so we’re going in at night. Unfortunately they’re only slightly less dangerous at night, so we need to be especially careful.”
He handed out half-masks with tiny slits for the eyes.
“How are we supposed to see in these?” Garth asked, sliding it over his face.
“The wiretap’s web transmits light from along its entire surface area to a central strand it holds on its abdomen.”
Tad snapped his fingers.
“Just like that, it can flip that strand up, and direct an ungodly amount of light straight into your eyes, potentially blinding you forever.” He shrugged. “Or as long as it takes for it to eat you.”
“Each wiretap’s nest has little dark, glassy nubs along the outer edge of the web that it can use to spy on anyone coming or going. It’s almost impossible to catch them by surprise.”
“OH, that’s why they’re called wiretaps!” Garth said. Alicia and Tad gave him a frustrated look while Caitlyn seemed curious.
“Why’s that?” she asked.
“Well, before the fall of man, wiretapping was a form of spying remotely using wires. This thing uses its web to spy from a distance, hence Wiretap Weaver.”
“Of course it’s kind of wrong, because originally wiretapping was listening in on people’s conversations, not-“
“Ed.” Tad said. “Please.”
“During the day, the wiretap’s defences are even stronger. I’ve seen it cause someone to catch fire on an ill-advised full moon run, I can only imagine what it could do during the day. I can only imagine, because no one has ever come back from a day run.”
“laser spiders. Awesome.” Garth whispered under his breath.
“Father chose a new moon for the class to see what we do, so it’s the safest it’s ever going to get, but don’t misunderstand, they’re still dangerous. They are, on average, the size of a cow, with fangs about…” He held his hands a foot and a half apart. “This long. Don’t think for an instant that because we took away their strongest defenses that they’re not dangerous.”
“You’ve told us how dangerous they are, at length, so what’s the plan?” Alicia asked.
“My father is using this opportunity to host a little competition between the Williams, with a reward for the person who brings in the most silk. Their own personal Infiltrator Armor.”
“And you want to win.” Garth hazarded.
“Hell no. I wanna live.” Tad said. “Let this dumbass competition weed out the morons. The Wiretaps closer to the center of the Desert Char migration path are going to be bigger, with more silk pods to snatch. They’re generally better fed, and less desperate for food, but if you do irritate them…” He shrugged. “you’re dead.”
“With a group of three amateurs, the odds of something going horrendously wrong are pretty high, So I want to aim for something more manageable in a worst case scenario.”
“I want to go for a spider on the edge of their territory. I spent the afternoon scouting and I found a web that looks like its owner is well fed. Hopefully we can get the best of both worlds, and the spider is both small and too bloated to lift a finger against intruders.”
In the distance, Garth heard shouting as the covered wagons that had been following them the entire trip unfolded, attracting dozens of students. A single man stood on top of each of them passing things out to the rapidly swelling crowd.
“They’re handing out supplies.” Tad said, standing. “Edward, I need an extra pair of hands.”
“Got it.” Garth said, standing. “Be right back.”
The two boys struggled through the crowd to each of the three wagons, getting four sets of bright white armor, four long spears with thick iron braces. They reminded Garth of boar spears. The other wagons handed out food, firewood and…puppets?
“Decoys.” Tad said on the way back, holding the lightweight taxidermied lizard in front of himself.
“Like I said, they’re very sight oriented, not so much on smell or hearing, so if you can fool their sight, you can fool them.”
“They go like this,” he said, setting the taxidermied lizard the size of a large dog on the ground, then shoving his boar spear up its cloaca. The spear clicked into place with something on the inside, and suddenly the whole thing was one piece, a lizard puppet on a pole.
“The release is here.” Tad said, leaning forward and striking between the lizard’s back legs. The puppet deformed a bit before Tad’s fist hit something solid, and the lizard detached from the spear.
“Caitlyn’s family makes these for us, actually.”
It hadn’t been lost on Garth that Caitlyn’s last name had been Mcdonnell, the same as the baby-carrying, red-mustached patriarch.
When they got back to the tents, Alicia and Caitlyn were happily chatting about their favorite gladiators in the Fighting Pits.
“One shot, every time. You gotta respect somebody who’s that good.” Alicia said.
“Kind of a boring choice, though, All of Goliath’s fights are over too quick. Like, blam, ‘Aiiiii!’ I like Persius, he may not win them all, but he always puts on a good show…and by all the gods, that man’s body…” Caitlyn’s eyes rolled into the back of her head and her jaw dropped while Alicia chuckled.
“Wrestling’s fake.” Garth said as he and Tad got there.
“Nevermind. Got our supplies.”
“You got a…puppet?” Alicia asked.
Garth lifted the lizard on the end of his spear and did his best Kermit impression.
“It’s not easy being green. Especially when you gotta get chewed on by a spider instead of the guy with his hand up your butt.”
Caitlyn gave him a curious glance, while Alicia purposefully ignored him, already used to his antics.
Maybe I should join Linda’s team, at least to have someone to bounce things off of, Garth thought, setting the puppet down and joining the planning session.
Three hours later, when the sun was truly gone, they assembled outside the web that Tad had claimed with a wooden stake with his name on it.
Problem was, his stake was nowhere to be seen, and the shimmering web had five muscle bound, scar-covered, hardbitten types standing around it.
Garth wanted to pay attention to the guys who’d claim jumped Tad’s spot, but his attention was drawn to the creature’s web. It was like looking at a mirage within arm’s length. The ground seemed to morph into the black, star-studded sky at the edge of the web, rippling with the illusion of water as the wind gently blew over it.
It must fool animals into coming in close for a drink before eating them.
“Oh, that’s cool.” Garth muttered. What would silk woven from that even look like? Wait a minute, the prize was Infiltrator Armor? Camo suit? “Very cool.”
“What the hell do you think you’re doing here, Tad?” Tad’s brother said, drawing Garth’s attention to him.
The man’s face was a mass of scar tissue with the exception of the half-mask around his eyes.
“I could say the same.” Tad said. “This is my claim.”
“Really?” His brother acted surprised, looking around with exaggerated concern. “I don’t see your stake anywhere.”
Tad reached into his vest pocket, pulled out some wax paper with deliberate movements.
“Say what you like, chucklefuck.” He said, pulling out a bit of sticky substance and putting it in his mouth. “I’m not leaving this spot. Maybe you win the fight, and maybe you kill me and the others without suffering debilitating injury. I wrote where I’d be hunting on my will. You think father would miss a drop of blood outside this web?”
Tad’s brother slowly smiled. “Alright then. Worth a shot.” He motioned to the others and they walked into the darkness.
“That was odd,” Caitlyn said, staring after them.
“Ever since I was young I was good at telling which webs were the most profitable. Eventually my brothers started trying to steal my claims, rather than figure out how to read the webs themselves.”
Garth glanced over the different webs scattered across the valley, each a night-time mirage reflecting the stars in the sky.
“They all look the same to me.” Garth said. “That one’s a bit bigger.” He pointed, before a motion out of the corner of his eye caught his attention.
Out past the edge of the torch’s light, Garth’s night vision could make out a dim figure wind it’s arm back and hurl something toward them.
“One second.” Garth said, stepping forward and snatching Tad’s wooden claim stake out of the air before it impacted against the young man’s armor.
Tad glanced down at the stake, then grabbed it and slammed it back down in the dusty soil with a grimace.
“Are they trying to kill you?” Garth asked.
“Just scare me. It probably wouldn’t have gone through the armor, but thanks anyway. They’re just jealous I’m the only one our father has been able to teach how to read the webs. They think I’m cheating somehow.”
“Really?” Garth asked, frowning. It couldn’t be that hard. It wasn’t like his brothers were all lazy. Maybe Tad had something all the others didn’t. Or maybe he and his father were missing something everyone else had.
“Are you color-blind?” Garth asked, glancing at Tad.
“Color blindness helps with pattern recognition. They used to use color blind men in the army as scouts because they can see things that were hidden behind camouflage better. Their eyes don’t get confused by the mess of colors.”
Garth shrugged. “Either that or you’re a tetrachromat, which is primarily a female condition. More likely you’re colorblind. Garth put his backpack down and started rummaging through it.
“Does anyone have anything red?” Garth asked. “Green and grey, let’s make a rainbow.”
“Can we just do the thing?” Alicia asked.
“I’m curious.” Garth said.
“Me too. Here’s some rouge.” Caitlyn said, pulling it out of her belt and handing it to Garth.
“Why are you carrying that?” Alicia asked, staring at her.
“It’s not heavy,” she said with a shrug.
“Okay,” Garth said, using the makeup to paint red numbers on various green and yellow leaves torn from the surrounding scrub. “Can you tell me the numbers on these?”
“Do we have to do this?” Tad asked.
“Don’t you wanna see if this is why your brothers can’t ‘read the webs?’” Garth asked.
Tad considered a moment. “Fine.” He held up the leaves under the torchlight.
“Seven, sixteen, forty-two, eight…” He held up another slightly dark green succulent leaf with a red twelve written on it. “You forgot to write anything on this.”
“Yep, Tad’s colorblind, mystery solved,” Garth said, tossing the leaves aside and dusting his hands off while Tad stared down at the leaf in his hand.
“How do you know all that?” Caitlyn asked.
“I’m a veritable well of information.” Garth preened.
“Whatever,” Tad said, tossing the succulent leaf aside. “Get in your positions.”
The positions were: Tad at the front with the decoy, flanked by Garth and Caitlyn, with Alicia holding the most difficult task of rear guard, walking backwards the entire way with her spear upraised without losing the rest of the group.
Tad had been torn between being the rear-guard and the lead, but decided to take the lead because he was the only one who knew what they were looking for.
Under Tad’s direction they crept forward toward the web, decoy in front of them. The spider was diurnal, but it didn’t close its eyes to sleep, or dream. They simply had to present a target small enough that it didn’t think it would make a midnight snack worth waking up for.
To that end, they all hunched down and made themselves small as they approached the edge of the web.
“be prepared for anything,” Tad whispered as he put the puppet close to the ‘pond’ and dipped it down a couple times to ‘drink’.
Garth’s heart hammered in his chest as he waited for the massive spider he’d been promised, but nothing happened.
Kinda boring, actually.
“Ed, Cait, put your spears under the web and lift.” Tad said, a bead of sweat rolling down the side of his temple, holding his puppet spear braced under his foot.
Garth and Cait put their spears under the edge of the web and –
The calm mirage exploded outward as a white haired spider at least eight feet wide leapt out, straight at Tad, ignoring the stuffed animal on the end of his spear.
Tad gave a shout and jerked the spear upward, matching the blur-fast spider’s downward arch.
White-furred spider met muppet, and the creature impaled itself on the blade hidden inside, its downward strike halted by the thick cross guard on the spear.
“Holy-“ Garth shouted, his voice mingling with the screams of alarm from Alicia and Caitlyn.
The creature thrashed violently, and a blinding light hit Garth’s retinas, followed by a fuzzy, blunt impact.
“Gah, son of a bitch!” Garth howled as his eyes burned. He tumbled away into something sticky. Probably a spiderweb.
“Cait, Alicia! Get another spear in it. Don’t be afraid of its legs, just get in there! Cait!”
Garth summoned a separate eye and used its unburned vision to get a handle on his situation. Garth was currently tumbled into the creature’s web, the sticky mirage-like silk closing in around him like a purse as he sunk into the trap.
“Son of a bitch!” Garth still had his spear, and he plunged it into the ground beneath him. He strummed the wood of the spear with mana like a guitar, and it bent nearly ninety degrees before flinging him partially out of the trap, tangible mirages clinging to his skin and clothes as he flew.
Garth landed halfway out of the web, and started clawing the rest of the way out, his clothes ripping as the web tried to reel them back in through some unknown mechanism.
Garth set up a field of force pushing outward from his skin and managed to detach the last of the webs as he crawled forward, trying to take in the situation with his floating eye.
The spider let out a hiss reminiscent of tearing steel as it thrashed, trying to nail Tad with its foreclaws, sharp as daggers and as long as fingers.
Tad covered his face with one arm while his other hand held a death grip on the spear. Brilliant glowing hairs detached from the spider’s abdomen and buried themselves in the white boiled leather of his armor, burning brilliantly like white phosphorous.
God overdesigned spiders. Seriously. How many defenses is this thing supposed to have?
Alicia was snarling under her mask, thrusting forward with her spear, putting another blade into the monster’s underbelly. The creature’s abdomen was still thrashing wildly, spraying them with glaring white light that reflected off their eye-masks and hitting them with white-phosphorous hairs six inches long.
Caitlyn was covering her eyes and reaching for something in her belt, her spear on the ground beside her.
“I need an extra spear to pin its abdomen!” Tad shouted, his arm over his eyes, unaware of the entire situation.
Garth leapt to his feet and lunged forward, commanding Caitlyn’s spear to leap to him.
“Here!” Garth shouted, and Tad reached his arm out blindly.
Garth shoved the spear into his hand.
Tad expertly lowered the spear and rammed it forward into the monster’s slender abdomen, pinning its blinding beam and hairs in place.
The creature shrieked again and nailed the overextended boy on the side of his neck with its talons. Tad saw the blow coming a fraction of a second before it landed, and tucked his neck behind his shoulder right before he was thrown out into the desert sand by the bone-shattering strike.
Tad flew out with a grunt and landed breathless in the sand.
Without thinking, Garth lunged forward and grabbed the boys two spears, keeping them from falling out of the spider and ruining their work.
Suddenly the spider was looming over Garth, it’s claws shredding the air a few inches away from his face as its massive fangs sawed at the wood keeping it on its back feet.
Not a fan of spiders. Garth, like so many others, was not a huge fan of creepy crawlies. It wasn’t bad enough to be called a phobia, but he definitely found them hair-raising.
After this, maybe it’ll be a full blown phobia.
The sheer mind-blowing terror was somewhat offset by the fact that he was watching himself in third person, rather than looking straight up into the bulging eyes and teeth of the monster that wanted to eat him. He was also somewhat distracted by the feel of Alicia pressing up beside him, her focus on keeping the monster still.
“Stay still!” Caitlyn shouted, pulling out a silvery block of…is that a gun? The redheaded girl aimed the muzzle at the spider and pulled the trigger.
Clack, clack, clack! The gunlike object made quiet reports as it sent streaks of reflected light through the air. At each sound, a little hole opened up in the spider’s abdomen. After six shots, Cait fumbled in her belt for another magazine.
The spider gave another shriek, quieter this time.
Tad pushed himself to his feet and ran back over to them, favoring his right arm. He took the first spear from Garth’s left hand and leaned on it, hard.
“Push it over!” The three of them put their superhuman strength into pushing the spider onto its back.
The Wiretap Weaver teetered on its back legs for a moment before finally crashing downward, tangling in its own web.
“Now! Stab the shit out of it!” Tad shouted, leading by example as he drew his spear out one-handed and proceeded to stab the thrashing spider over and over again.
They followed suit, and in a matter of seconds that seemed to stretch into minutes, the spider was dead, curled in on itself.
“Whoo!” Tad whooped, burying his spear in the ground and unlacing his scorched breastplate. Blood pulsed from the deep cut in his upper shoulder as he did. His chest was covered in burn marks where the phosphorous hairs had gotten through to do damage.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen an easier start to a hunt!” he said with a grin, tying a bandage over his shoulder with practiced ease.
Distant shouts of distress and pain echoed on the wind along with flashes of light. They sat down to take a breather and watch the chaos. Their experience was not unique.