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To do what you hate, practice it. Repetition numbs distress.

To avoid what you love, avoid the thought of it. Banish it from your habit, your home, your memory.

To know what you want, imagine having it. What will you do, now that it’s yours? What will you want next? Where does it end? What’s left of you when you get there?

  • Excerpt from “The Path of The Longstrider”



1 Day Later (Lighthome Time) - Copycat - A Far Eastern Branch

“It’s getting misty, does that mean we’re getting close?” asks Presto.

“The Lost Tree is often seen in mist, so probably!” chirps Saga, our harpy friend.

They’re happy. Practically skipping down the branch.

“Or, it’s just mist.” mutters Cy. “It’s always misty this time of day. Lighthome is pretty fucking humid.”

Cy and I are plodding along behind them. We’re not unhappy, but we ain’t skipping either.

“The Lost Tree’s name is Glorian.” says Saga.

Presto gasps. “That’s a perfect name for a tree!”

I’ve noticed Cy leads when we know where we’re going, and Presto leads when we don’t.

“The Great Tree’s name is Valaria.” adds Saga. “She told me in a dream.”

“That’s so cool.” says Presto. “I should start a dream journal.”

I never lead. Is that because the boys have complete coverage of the binary knowledge versus ignorance situation? Or has my amnesia robbed me of some vital motivation? I’m the one with the quest, but Cy’s the one who got us moving. Without him, I’d probably be back on Lowgarden, licking glasses with Hyperion.

Or maybe I was always lazy? Fucking amnesia.

“Hey!” calls Cy. He’s stopped twenty feet back, pointing at a sign. “This looks important.”

We shuffle back. The sign is a crude carving of a skeleton in a cobweb.

“I saw that.” nods Presto. “Thought it was trail art.”

“I believe it’s a warning sign.” says Cyan.

“Angry skeletons throwing nets?” ponders Presto. “I guess that could be trouble. Should I pull out Duke? Set up a parley?”

“Or we could take the other path.” Cyan points to a forking branch without a dire warning.

“Maybe?” Presto turns to Saga. “Can we get to the Lost Tree that way?”

Saga smiles. “All paths lead to Glorian. If you stay positive.”

Her answer satisfies Presto and visibly ages Cyan. So we’re off, down the other branch. Lost or bust. We’re here for another week either way.

As we walk, the mist gets thicker. Coiling around us, lowering the temperature, reducing visibility. It’s like we’re in a cave again.

“Uhh… guys?” says Presto from up ahead. “I don’t think that sign was warning about angry skeletons.”

He’s looking up. There’s a huge spider web above us. Silky, sticky, strands as thick as my wrist, knotted together in an impenetrable fractal mass. The whole thing quivering gently as a multitude of pony-sized spiders scuttle above us.

Saga’s points at a large node of webbing. “Are those people?” There’s a pale foot sticking out of it.

I look around. There’s lots of big web nodes. Well shit.

“We should head back.” says Presto. “I think they put the warning sign on the wrong branch.”

I look over the edge. There’s webs below us too. “Maybe someone moved it.”

“Why would anyone move a warning sign?” asks Saga.

psssss-THUCK!!

An arrow slams into Cy’s back. “Unbelievable.” he mutters. He doesn’t look hurt, just disappointed.

Arrows scorch around us. They’re not especially accurate - probably due to the mist - but there’s a lot of them.

Presto looks at the arrows coming from our backtrail. At the tunnel of webs down branch. “Umm… parley?”

“Sure.” says Cy. “YOU LOOKING TO DIE, ELF!! I WILL FIND YOU!!”

“I meant with the spiders.”

“Right. Hey spiders. You looking to die? I’ve already found you.”

The spiders get agitated. Chitter down at Cy.

“Huh.” Cy turns to Presto. “The spiders say we’re good to go. Just don’t touch the webs.”

“Ah, guys?” says a small voice from above.

We look up. Saga is stuck spread eagle in the webs. “I got spooked by the arrows and accidentally launched. Please don’t leave me.”

“Don’t worry, gorgeous. I got ya.” Presto jumps and grabs her legs. Tugs mightily. They drop down to the branch, then snap back up, spinning. Now they’re both stuck up there, trussed tightly together.

“Huh.” says Presto. “That did not work out the way I thought it would.”

psssss-THUCK!!

An arrow slams into Cy’s thigh. “Mother fucker.” He snaps. “This whole situation is starting to look pretty fucking flammable.”

“Nope.” I declare. “You’ll torch our guys.”

Cy clutches his brow. Sighs. Takes his huge mace off his back.

“Fine. You deal with this.” He waves at our friends and the mess of spiders. “I’m gonna go kill an elf.”

He strides into the mist, blowing poisonous fog before him. He’s pissed off and dangerous. Only limping a little.

The fat spiders are edging closer to my guys. I guess I better get them loose. Okay. How am I going to do that? I have a big stick and a small knife. Neither seems up to the job.

I jump and grab their legs. Tug mightily. I’m acutely aware this is exactly how Presto fucked up. But I weigh a lot more than he does. That counts for something. Maybe?

We stretch towards the branch. Slow. As soon as my boots hit, I kick off sideways. Bear down as hard as I can. There’s a snap and I slam them into the tree.

“Sorry.”

“No, this is good.” Presto wheezes. “Thanks. Are we stuck to the tree now?”

I get my feet under me. Yank up. They bring some bark with them, but come loose. Thankfully they’re light. Also, my hands are stuck to them. A chunky spider drops next to us. I punt it off the branch. Time to go.

I hustle down branch, hauling ass, kicking spiders. It’s going pretty good until one drops on my back.

“Mmph!” I go down, Presto and Saga cushioning my fall with a squawk. The spider sinks dagger like fangs into my back. I struggle to shake it off, but feel weak. And hot, and dizzy, and queasy. And sleepy. Not good.

More spiders drop around us. Another sinks his fangs into my back. Doesn’t hurt this time. My vision starts to tunnel, darkness surrounding me. Looks like I’m gonna be a spider snack…

No.

A horrible pressure expands in my chest. There’s a loud POP! and the spiders are blown clear. I’m feeling woozy, but a lot better. My vision clears as I’m pulled to my feet. Now there’s three big orc girls stuck to the bundle of webbing that holds my friends.

Another me frowns. “Make a wish.” We all pull, until we unstick with a gross sploorsh. I’m left holding Presto and Saga. The other two of me are free. The spiders recover from our explosive appearance. Chitter furiously as they drop among us.

“Go. We’ll hold them off.”

I shake my head. “I’m not leaving you for spider food.”

She grins, punches a spider with a loud crunch. “Yeah, that’s not how this is going down.”

A pair of spiders grab the third me, and try to pull her in two. With a loud POP!, she obliges, but not how they wanted. Spider squishing ensues.

“Go on. We outnumber them. Kinda. Eventually.”

Right. I pull my peeps close and run hell for leather. There really is a clear path through the webs. It’s tight, but that kinda helps. If I hit the webs, I’m stuck and fucked. But otherwise, there’s not much room for spiders to overwhelm me. Only one or two can block me at any time, and that’s not enough. I don’t know how strong I am, but it’s enough to pound through a couple spiders.

There’s a hoard of them boiling up behind me, but they’re too late. I sprint out of their trap, into the clean air of Lighthome. “Are they following us?”

“Nope.” says Presto. “Probably get homesick.”

Good. I slow down. I’m beat.

“Maybe they’re afraid of bears?” says Saga.

That’s oddly specific. Surely it’s hypothetical.

RAWR!!!

Godsdammit. There’s a huge kodiak bear waiting down branch. The spiders chitter mockingly. Seal their tunnel with webs.

“This seems like a good time for a bunch of orcs.” says Presto.

“I can’t duplicate on command. I have to be near death.”

The bear stands. He’s at least ten foot tall. Gotta be a couple tons.

“I think this qualifies.” says Presto.

“I mean, I have to be seriously injured.”

“Okay, so, soon then.”

“I guess so.”

The bear slams down. It shakes the whole branch.

“What happens if the bear kills you instantly?” asks Saga.

“Not sure. Nothing good. Maybe I could get past it. Should I run?”

“You can’t outrun a bear.” says Presto. “You’re supposed to climb a tree.”

“We’re in a fucking tree!”

“Good point.” Presto yells. “Hear that bear! You’re not allowed up here!”

The bear snarls, advances.

“I don’t think he cares. Next idea.”

“I could sing a song of peace.” says Saga.

Why not? “Give’er.”

Saga croons a hauntingly soothing melody. It’s really good. I’d like to hear it again if I survive.

The bear slows, looks confused, chuffs. “That you Longstrider?”

Presto perks up. “Oh hey, Oak. How’s it going?”

I’m confused. “You know this bear?”

“Yeah, we go way back.”

The bear shimmers and shrinks. Turns into a really hairy gnome in a green vest. He’s confused and agitated.

“What the hell, dude? Why were the spiders after you?“ Fire flickers from his hands briefly, and the webs flash off Presto and Saga. “They're supposed to let gnomes through. That’s the deal.”

“I dunno.” says Presto. “Good help is hard to find. Maybe they got spooked by the elves that were chasing us.”

“What?” exclaims Oak. “You led elves to our secret enclave?”

“Maybe? I didn’t know you had a secret enclave.” says Presto. “It was too secret.”

“Also, is it a secret if you tell us?” I ask.

“I dunno. Is it a secret if you’re bear shit?”

“That doesn’t really make sense, but I get your point.” I nod. “We will keep your secret.”

“Good. Let’s head to the enclave. Gotta tell them what’s up.”

Presto and I nod, but Saga is concerned. “What about Cy?”

“Fuck.” I swear. “We left Cyan fighting the elves.”

“Seriously?” Oak clutches his brow. “Okay, I can deal with the elves. But you’ve botched our truce with the spiders, and I can’t fit through the web path as a bear. I’ll need your help to fight thru.”

Saga nods. “I’ll help. But I don’t know how to fight.”

“You have my blade.” Presto pulls out his wooden practice sword. “Oh yeah. I keep forgetting this isn’t real.”

I’ve lost my stick, but already have my socks off. “Can anyone lend me a rock? I don’t see one growing on the tree... “

Oak stares at us. Shakes his head, and sets off towards the spider nest.

Before we get to the blocked web funnel, a huge mace rips the blockage away. Cyan unfolds out of the tunnel. Smiles and waves.

“Hey guys! Couldn’t find the elf, but I was passed by a large mob of orcs covered in spider guts. Thought I should head back and see how fucked you guys were.”

Oak hugs the big dragonman. “Cy! Look at you? Real weapon and everything. So glad to see you.”

“Hey Oak. Long time. Good to see you too. Dad been giving you trouble?”

“Immediately. Just like the old days. Wanna see my secret enclave?”

“Absolutely. Let’s party.”

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A note from Doctor Zero

The spiders share a sacred text made of webbing and small bones. If you have eight eyes you can make out the following runes:

The past never happened.

The future never comes.

There is only now.


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About the author

Doctor Zero

Bio: Hi! I like reading and writing sci-fi and fantasy.

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