Much to Veximarl’s horror, the spider had turned around. It’s bulbous abdomen split open to reveal a set of short benches inside. Sybil didn’t hesitate to step within. She placed her bar on a red plate near the back, waiting for it to light up before taking a seat. He was more cautious, taking slow steps and sitting down opposite of her.
The outer shell of the abdomen was clear, allowing them to see outside. Though there were glowing crystals along the walls of the inner caves, it was still difficult for Veximarl to see. He removed his glasses and placed them within his robe, squinting at the outside world.
As the spider started to walk along the roof of the tunnel, the abdomen twisted about so that the seats always remained in a proper orientation. Sybil explained that the upside down position made the golems use less energy to balance themselves, but Veximarl was to busy being horrified to pay attention. The cave gave way to a massive vertical cavern. Perhaps there was a hint of light at the very top where the outside world was, but it was mostly blocked by the mass of webbing that was in the way.
Dozens of spiders similar to the one they were riding within were traversing the webbing. Occasionally he would see a madman who chose to dart along the webs unassisted by any creature. The webbing seemed flexible and bouncy, allowing people to jump up from one strand to another like tightrope walkers. Everything about their behavior seemed… Completely ill-advisable.
The spider came to a stop to by one of the hundreds of balconies that were along the cavern wall. Its abdomen split open again and Sybil stepped out first with her shoes in one hand. She gracefully stepped along the thin web that was between her and the balcony, hopped down, and gave him a wave.
“... I might just stay here.” Veximarl had walked to the entrance but found himself unable to move. He chose instead to clutch onto his staff in a terrified fashion.
“You’re not going to fall. It’s fine.” Sybil attempted to coax him out by speaking to him as if he were a child.
As if in a hurry, the spider set a leg under each of Veximarl’s arms. It partially carried, partially pushed him forward along the web until he stumbled onto the balcony. He let out a whimper and slumped to the ground while continuing to clutch onto his staff. Veximarl hated spiders. He hated them so very much. Sybil had told them that the golems here were often shaped like them, but he had not expected giant spiders to swallow him up and prod him about.
“... It’s not that I am afraid, it is simply a matter of darkness. My eyes aren’t able to adjust,” he whispered, somewhat embarrassed by the trembling in his voice. “I am unable to feel a sense of ease if my vision is so obfuscated. I was not thinking that it would be this bad.”
Sybil lifted up a delivery box that had been dropped off on the balcony and put it under her arm. “Use your staff. The sphere in it lights up if you charge it with a little mana. It shouldn’t exhaust you in a mist region like this.” A faint light started to glow behind her as she put her hand on a red plate next to the door. It lit up, and the door unlocked and slid open.
She stepped inside and Veximarl followed with his glowing torch staff leading his path. It was a small apartment. Nearly everything was carved from stone. The ceiling was low, much to low for Veximarl, and the furniture was minimalistic. There was a couch, but it had no legs underneath it. The dining table was also short, and was next to the couch, with sitting pillows neatly tucked underneath it. A kitchen was nearby, and a short hall led to the bedrooms. There was another door near the kitchen, which lead out to caverns that made up the rest of the core.
A metallic looking man stepped out from the hall, carrying with him a cooking pan. Its mouth opened and a demonic hissing, squealing noise came from it. This made Veximarl, who was still near the entrance at the balcony, hesitant to enter. This was only slightly more terrifying to him than the spider was, but it had caught him off guard.
“Yes, I’m home. I know I’ve been gone awhile. I told you before that I was leaving for a few weeks. It’s going to be a few years after this, so you better be prepared.” Sybil set down the box on a counter in the kitchen and left into the hallway. Veximarl heard a door open and close. An awkward silence followed as he realized he was alone with this thing.
He cleared his throat and stepped into the apartment. The balcony door slid closed automatically behind him, which made him skitter forward in a panic. “A-ah… Hello there.” Veximarl bowed in a polite manner. “I’m Veximarl Tuton.”
The golem bent forward, making unsettling popping noises as it did so. Any movements it made were slightly inhuman in nature. Its mouth dropped open again, releasing another spree of clicks, screeches, and hissing. Veximarl’s emotional state was in flux. The light on his torch staff flickering between different brightnesses, reflected accurately how he felt about this situation.
“Don’t mind Edwin.” Sybil exited her room with a roll of cloth. She unfurled it on the kitchen counter to reveal an array of tools. “I always tell him to stop test tasting the morning gruel, but he never listens. Dad insists it’s being served to hot, so Edwin tests it, even though he has no sensors in his mouth, and it ends up gunking up his gears. I don’t even want to think about how long it’s been gunked up this time.”
A spree of clicks came from Edwin’s mouth and Sybil shook her head. “I keep telling you that you can’t talk if you try food. Golems only need occasional maintenance and mist. Stop trying other forms of sustenance. Dad just needs to learn to blow on his food.” She paused and looked over to Veximarl. “Sorry about this, Vex. Just set your things in the corner and relax. Our home is one of the most modern places in the core. You won’t be bored for long.
If you need to wash off, let me know. We don’t have a bathtub or a shower here, just a toilet. I’ll heat up some water for you and bring out the bathing pitcher. We’re stuck with the good old rag and bowl method, but it’s not that bad if you’re used to it. Soaps made from grub fat and ground shells are great for the skin. Remind me to buy some extra bars of it when we’re leaving.”
She tapped her finger against a shelf and a set of orbs on it unfurled into small spiders. They wove a few strands between them and then lifted their legs to display a web. The webbing began to vibrate and started broadcast music. Occasionally a warbling voice would interrupt to give out the latest news. It was mostly traffic reports for the spiders. Something else about an unusually large rat population in the cave networks, and to not travel around at night in the caves to prevent unwanted attacks by tusked snakes during the breeding season.
Eventually Sybil scrapped clean Edwin’s insides and put his chestplate back. Its voice hissed and sputtered, but was much clearer in sound this time. “Madam, madam. Master, work.”
“That doesn’t surprise me. He never left his lab before unless I forced him out. Are you delivering his meals?” The golem nodded. “Good. Please start up a recording. I need you to pass a message along for me.” A beeping sound resonated from Edwin’s mouth. “Hey, dad! It’s Sybil.
I know you and Lydia always said it would be a dumb idea to try Braytons, but I managed to get in anyways. Yes, exactly. I know. It’s a waste of my tinkering abilities, but I can’t think of a better way of carrying on Lydia’s message than by doing this. I’m in town for just a little while but I plan on leaving as soon as possible. I’m escorting a fellow student to the west. We’ll be going to the outerland soon to see if we can join up with a caravan. Hope to see you before I leave. If not, I’ll catch you on the way back.”
She held up a hand and another beep resonated from Edwin. “The larvae shipment came in,” she remarked to the golem. “We brought in some greens from the outside. I think they’ll go nicely together. Would you mind frying up some for us?”
Edwin nodded again and set out to work. Sybil pulled out some of the herbs and other vegetables that Veximarl had insisted they stopped to gather and set them down where the golem had easy access to them. She then pulled out some envelopes from her travel bag and sat next to the table.
Veximarl watched hesitantly as Edwin opened the box and pulled out thick white grubs that were as big as his own thumb. The golem itself didn’t do any chopping. He only inspected the items and before setting them down. His hands went up like a puppeteer, and a series of small spider golems rolled out of the cabinets of the kitchen to start the cooking
“I see. This will be a short visit.” He felt so horrified by the sight that everything inside him went numb at once.
“Yes. It might be longer if we can’t find a caravan that’s leaving soon. I told a white lie in hopes that he’ll bother to show up at some point.” She stood up and went to a shelf that contained a series of metallic balls, taking a few and sitting down at the table again. “Zani and Chickadee gave me letters to give to their families. I’m going to send them on their way now before I forget.” Showing up in person would just lead to delays. “We can go up to the outerland once we eat.”
“Did Alton give you anything for his family?” She shot him a glare and he quickly changed the subject. “Do they use golems like this in the outerland?” Veximarl studied Edwin as he moved about.
Sybil shook their head. “Edwin is... Well, he’s experimental and left over from a project dad was removed from. No one uses tech like him anywhere. Besides, technology is wasted on the world above. They say golems steal the jobs of the working man. Why ride on a spider when you can hire a horse and carriage? People need drivers and people need to work on taking care of stables. Why use webbing to transmit sound when there are newspapers to deliver and musicians you can hire?
Why use something like Edwin when you can hire a butler? You know, he’s only loyal and you don’t have to worry about anything you would if he were a person. It’s not like replacing all the low ranking jobs out there will help in, I don’t know, creating an even playing field for the social classes. People from the outerland think that the best way to keep everyone happy is to use other people. It’s disgusting.”
The smell of garlic and fried… Something filled the air. While it wasn’t entirely unpleasant, but it still made Veximarl’s stomach churn as he remembered the sight of the living grubs. “Sybil. I want to stress that I was raised in the swamps. The smell alone is horrid. Half the year, you have to always watch your step or sink down into a rotten abyss. A fourth of the year, it’s frozen solid, and tainted beasts come down from the north in an effort to eat you and everyone you love.”
“Hmm? What about it?” She tightly wrapped the papers into small cylinders and placed them in a hole located in each ball. They unfurled into yet more spiders that started to carry the messages off. The window of the apartment opened quickly to let them through and shut after they left.
“What I want to say is…” Veximarl juggled the words about in his brain. “Is that I’m not entirely certain that the outerland is incorrect in their assessment that the core is a horrific nightmare demon hole.” Sybil glared at him. “Maybe use fewer spiders, and disregard eating insects? They’re quite poisonous where I’m from and I- … Uhm.”
Her glare intensified. “Nature is the best designer when it comes to efficiency. Copying existing creatures into golems is better than attempting to invent new designs. Spiders are good for the environment and keep natural pests away. Grubs are also an excellent source of protein, which is hard to come by in the core, and these are in no way poisonous.”
“I will agree to some of that, but...” Veximarl inhaled and exhaled. “My personal experience with giant spiders is less for riding about in their friendly posteriors and more for running from as they attempt to spit acid at my face. What I am attempting trying to say is... Maybe some flexibility of thought needs to be had by both the core and the outerland. Both sides have flaws that the other can assist in.”
“There’s nothing wrong with golems, Vex. Spider engineering is a legitimate practice.” She folded her arms. “I would argue they would be a perfect addition to the swamp, but they would just end up rusting out there.”
He would have argued further but saw no point in it. Instead, he looked on in horror as the bowl of fried grubs was placed down on the table with a set of forks. They had been cooked to a golden brown crisp and mixed with chives.
“This is fantastic, Edwin. Make sure dad gets plenty. You know how much he loves fusion cuisine,” Sybil said with a large smile. She picked up her unusually long, two-pronged fork and began to eat away.
Veximarl watched her for a moment and then stated that the ride here had upset his stomach. He’d make sure to eat something around supper time. Occasionally he’d give a nod towards Sybil as she explained that she was surprised that she had missed core food so much, but he couldn’t look at her. His body gave a visible tick every time he heard another grub pop open in her mouth.
Afterward, she used the metallic bar she had to summon yet another spider which carried them up through the roof of the core. Veximarl set his dark glasses over his face and examined his surroundings as he exited the spider abdomen. The core and outerlands weren’t as divided as he initially thought, as the area around the top of the core appeared to be a meeting ground between the two.
Stalls were set up to sell various core goods. Silk, clockwork toys, mushrooms, and ethnic artwork. There were a variety of items for sale, and the majority of those who were passing through appeared to be tourists to the city. One such stall sold only “exotic core cuisine,” daring people to try bat wing jerky, deep fried cave crickets, or rat nuggets. Another stall offered cups of ice cold water. Purified to perfection using core technology and stored within the abdomen of a spider golem.
Performers did tricks to amuse those who were passing through. There were tightrope acrobatics as well as a group of string players. They even had a smaller golem in a round pen that gave children rides. While Veximarl spun about to take in the sights, Sybil paused to watch the painted acrobatics twirl and spring through the air.
Her focus was on one of the taller ones, who had naturally green hair and was only wearing a loincloth and vivid stripes of paint. “That’s Zynn.” She gave a tug to Veximarl’s sleeve. “He’s a bit of a slut.” Veximarl raised his eyebrows. “Zaniyah’s words, not mine.”
“Really?” Veximarl turned around and looked up at the handsome figure with the muscular frame as he tossed a woman in the air and caught her on his shoulders. He didn’t look much like Zaniyah, but his hair was somewhat of a hint. “Was that the one that Zaniyah said you broke up with?”
Sybil elbowed him in the ribs, making him let out a grunt in pain. “No, that’s Zaniyah’s other brother. This is the one with the cleric magic, but he never wanted to put in the time to study. Can barely cast a spell because of it.” She turned and started to walk away, leaving Veximarl confused about Zynn’s magical abilities. “Come on. We have things to do and this place sickens me.”
She would later explain that the core’s edge was just a caricature of what the culture of the core was really like. They ate some bugs, yes, but bats and rats were prone to carry disease and parasites. Clockwork toys, although awesome, were no true representation of golem technology, and the musicians only played music that the outerland people liked.
The tightrope dancing was true. Every person in the core knew how to do that. They also all loved to do it, Sybil especially so, but that wasn’t the point. And no, she wasn’t going to give a demonstration. Everything at the roof was for the enjoyment of the travelers that came through from mid-spring to early autumn, and all of the core citizens had to work to the bone to ensure they had enough money for the rest of the year.
“And this is one of the two Highland hospitals.” They had walked for around ten minutes before stopping across the street from a wide building. The massive crest on it was different than one that was on Vincent’s shield. His was of three mountains, while this one appeared to be a single mountain with a flat top. “Sound familiar?”
“The paladin from the exam?” It appeared to be a prestigious building, and Vincent did seem like he came from a prosperous family.
“Yep. They claim it’s for low-income citizens, but they don’t let people from the core in unless it’s an emergency,” she said with a growl. “I don’t think it’s their fault, at least I hope not. Something about stupid laws or bureaucracy. Long story short, Duke Rubire is a massive jerk, and the mayor of the core is also a bigot. Let’s keep going. This place also pisses me off.”
They continued along a road as Veximarl took in the sights. Everything was carved from light gray rocks, the same material as the mountain they were on. Buildings were tall and covered in different shades of lichen, giving wonderful color to the city. Earth magic had allowed for elaborate looking windows and doors, making this place look more like a fairy tale than an actual city.
Eventually, they entered another market street, which was much calmer than the one near the entrance of the core. The people here dressed in expensive looking fabrics with brazen decoration. Much like how the Starsons student outfits had a giant school crest on the side, every Carapace citizen wore similar ornate crests to give themselves distinction from others. Designs denoting either places they worked, their school, or family crests.
Sybil had to stop and ask for directions at more than one point, as she had never traveled this far out into the outerland before. This gave Veximarl a chance to stop by a stall and buy himself some food. Some of which he hid in his pack for later consumption, but he had been told to eat the rice, meat, and yogurt mixture that had been stuffed into a flatbread while it was still warm. The spiciness of it lead him to loudly exhale every now and then, which drew Sybil’s attention.
Seeing him eating made Sybil stare at him with silent judgment. It gave him a slight sense of guilt. He had seen how those grubs gushed and burst when they were bit into, and he had firmly decided that he did not want to know what that particular sensation felt like in his own mouth. That was something he would just have to live with. What a shame indeed.
They eventually reached the trade building they were looking for. Veximarl had explained to Sybil during their journey here that he was capable of leading them directly through the swamp. However, he wanted the safety of a caravan. The established ones had maintained bridges and huts they could stay in as they traveled. One would also cover the costs of any inns and sometimes the food they had along the way.
It appeared as though the next caravan would be leaving the day after tomorrow. They also wanted a considerable travel fee. This was lowered slightly when Veximarl flashed his identification. It was a polished wooden plaque with a blood iron medallion in it that had Braytons crest. Tied to it was a thin rope of twisted brown and gray fibers.
When Veximarl pressed his thumb on the button, a secondary crest appeared etched in light on the wood itself. It was a shield with twisting dragon tails hanging off the bottom. On shield was a stone fort with a hawk flying above it.
Being a knight had the benefit of being able to travel freely with any passing caravans as long as the knight brought their own supplies. A squire, not exactly free, but there was at least a discount. That price reduction let Sybil travel along, as he made up a lie that he was a knight and she was his squire. They didn’t seem to know the difference between a squire identification and a knight one, and the sunken features of Veximarl’s face made him appear older than he actually was. He was not about to correct them.
“What should we do now?” Veximarl stretched his arms and took in the sunlight while he still could. He felt troubled that he would not see it again tomorrow.
Sybil shrugged as they walked. “I would say we could do some things around the outerland, but everything costs money as far as I know. I’m not even sure what they do for fun around here,” she said with a sigh. Nearly all of their money went to the caravan. That meant no caravan on the way back, and maybe not enough to make it the rest of the way to Braytons.
“Then we will venture back down into the hole.” Veximarl also sighed in a dismayed fashion. It wasn’t that he truly minded the core, he was just developing a growing fear of its golems. Every single one of them set off his fight or flee instincts.
“I need to pick up some supplies when we get there. Mist charges and more rope would be nice.” Her last ball of rope was used to climb the wall at Braytons during their first day of exams. It seemed like a useful thing to have if the swamp terrain encouraged climbing into trees for safety.
Veximarl let out a hum. “It would be interesting to see more of the common life of the core. Day to day activities and perhaps some more of the culture.”
“Not much is going on at the moment. Summer is always slow.” Sybil folded her arms behind her back as they walked. “I guess you understand. It’s a small community with a few thousand people. Everyone knows everyone else. We do big meetups sometimes, but it’s split up by age group since there aren’t many places for a lot of people to gather. There are some festivals, and I guess it’s different from what you would expect on the outside. I’m told that some of our ways of doing things can seem cold or heartless, but I never felt that way.”
He tried to imagine what festival in the core would look like and shuddered at what he imagined. “It’s a shame to miss out on all of that.”
“Tomorrow, I’m going to show you how to walk on the webs.” She beamed at the thought, even though he grimaced. “It honestly isn’t that bad. Nearly everyone gets around on spider, but it’s important to know how to walk the ropes in case there’s an emergency. It’s like learning how to swim if you lived by the ocean.”
“You stated before that you don’t know how to swim,” he muttered with disdain.
“I don’t live near the ocean,” she replied.
They reached the edge of the core, where Sybil pulled out her metal communication device again. She explained it was called a “letter,” and was used to summon travel golems and hers had other services built in as well. For example, they could also send small notes to other letters in the form of wing mail. She insisted that it was high tech, very fancy, and everyone in the core had one of their own.
She then added that the outlanders couldn’t understand the usefulness of a device, because they would rather hire messengers. That annoyed tone in her voice had returned. Her opinions on outlanders were just as strong as those she claimed were placed on her people, but Veximarl knew he’d get in trouble if he pointed that out.
He shook his head at the thought as they descended into the darkness. Hopefully their trip would be a success and she could see that the people outside of Carapace were completely different. Exposure to the rest of the world over the next three years could do wonders for Sybil’s view of things. On the other hand, Veximarl was still uncertain traveling to the swamp would fix this. There were too many risks, and if his morals weren’t forcing him to go along, he wouldn’t be doing this at all.
This wasn’t worth it, and there was little that could change his mind on that.