Arachne watched the big man pace in the next room. Cavalier was not as tall as Arachne, but he was over six foot and broad shouldered. He’d removed his helmet, and his white uniform had seen better days, but he was impressive all the same. He had several days stubble which gave him a rugged look. She smiled widely. He didn’t know she could see him through the painting he was staring at, but she knew why he was here.
She’d kept him waiting for almost a half an hour, just to see how patient he was. He’d originally just been sitting, but in the last ten minutes, he had started to pace. She had decided to make an entrance soon before he got too antsy and broke something.
One of her lieutenants stepped into the room. “Lady Arachne apologize for the delay, sir. She will be with you in just a moment.” In less than a minute, she entered the room. Cavalier did his best to hide his surprise, he’d only ever heard rumors about the Spider Queen of the underworld. But there she was; pale, almost chalky skin. Seven feet tall, in a white form-fitting floor length dress with a hole in the center showing off an impossibly long, muscled torso.
All six arms were bent with her hands resting coyly on her hips, which swayed as she strolled into the room. “Cavalier! Imagine my surprise to see you here.” He was completely floored by her appearance. At first he didn’t know what to say, he just stared dumbly as she walked in, never tearing his eyes from her.
“What can I help you with my friend?” As she strolled by, she ran one hand across his chin, another across his shoulder and the last his waist. He tensed up immediately, then relaxed. Her voice still had the faintest hints of a South African accent, and her touch was gentle, like Nicky’s before he started getting drunk all the time. “What brings you out west, my friend? I hear you have quite a village going on out east, near the crater of what used to be the City.”
“Things are not as they should be. The citizens of the Village have forgotten themselves and are placing their safety in the hands of wanderers that have made it their home.”
“And you were hoping I could provide what?” Arachne asked, although she knew the answer already.
“Soldiers. A small militia so that I can restore central rule and keep them protected from their own poor decision making.” He straightened his back and puffed out his chest. He’d started keeping his hair close-cropped, and Arachne smiled at the thought that he looked like a drill sergeant wearing white pajamas. “Seems like a reasonable request. What would I get in return for this service?”
Cavalier paused a second. It hadn’t occurred to him that she would want collateral or anything in return, he’d spent most of his life simply being handed things as thanks for his service. He suddenly realized that he needed her help, and she needed exactly nothing from him. His shoulders dropped. “I have nothing to offer you.”
Arachne walked up to him, grasping his shoulders and biceps with her lower arms and cradling his chin with a fifth, lifting his face to meet her eyes. Her perfect, delicate features, straight bone-white teeth and fangs, and piercing brown eyes captured his attention fully. “There there.” She purred. “I wouldn’t say nothing.” She let the implied meaning of her words sink in for a second, and he blushed, and started to sputter something she assumed was a retort of some kind about not being a prostitute. She laughed and turned away.
“I meant trade, you silly man.” Cavalier sighed in relief, but suddenly felt a twinge of disappointment. His ego did not register rejection well, even if it was entirely without basis. “It’s my understanding that your.” She paused for a second, then continued, “I’m sorry, the Village has quite an impressive farm surrounding it.” The large man winced at the correction, and Arachne knew she was rubbing on his sore nerve regarding his leadership of the place. “I also understand you have quite a skilled brewmaster as well.”
Cavalier seemed doubtful as she finished. “Transporting food and drink over such a long distance would be dangerous. I fear we’d have trouble keeping up ur end of the bargain.” Arachne feigned a pout. “Oh, such a shame.”
Then she pretended to suddenly have an idea. “What if we borrowed the individuals responsible for such success? Then we could benefit from their knowledge and the risk is minimized and the reward much higher.” He nodded. “That makes great sense.”
“Okay then. Do we have an agreement, then? I provide you with military strength, and in return I only ask for information.” Cavalier smiled, but it was reserved. “Sounds good. I will track down the individuals you will need as soon as I return. However, I might need help encouraging them to come. My standing has recently diminished. And there is one more thing I could use any assistance you might be able to offer with.”
“Give them an inch…” Arachne thought to herself. “What might that be?”
Cavalier cleared his throat. “A close friend of mine, my partner…” Arachne cut in “The giant you call Crater?” He nodded. “The other day he was out on patrol and was bitten by one of those disgusting undead. He doesn’t share my invincibility, so he is deathly ill. I fear he may already be too far gone, but I need to know if you are aware of a cure.”
This caught Arachne off guard. Her mind immediately started picking through the strands of how she could best use this new fold to her advantage. The twins had made an “antidote” that could be manufactured out of people who were killed by the disease already, but only a limited amount could be produced, and the procedure first slowed the infection, then took a great deal of time to reverse it. It was intensely painful and often drove the recipient insane. Arachne could tie up his friend’s recovery for months or even years and sway the conditions of their agreement wherever she saw fit.
With Crater’s life as leverage, she could probably manipulate Cavalier into almost any kind of agreement. Her smile grew even wider than before and she walked over and took him by the hand. “I believe I may have a solution for you. It will require a steady supply of people infect, and could take months or years. Cavalier let out a deep sigh of relief. “Thank god.”
He started to put his helmet on. “I must go at once.” She held up all of her hands. “Why rush? I will have a team dispatched with the first injection immediately. It should slow the symptoms for a few days and allow the team to set up shop and you some time to lead your new soldiers back to the Village personally.
The team will sedate him immediately upon arrival. He’ll never even know what hit him.” He nodded. He did very much enjoy the thought of arriving at the gates of the village with a militia in tow, ready to seize power back from the people, power he’d never truly exerted before. He’d arrived in desperation, and now had hope. “I can’t fathom how I could ever repay you for this, good lady.”
She laughed. “Please, my name is Arachne.” He repeated her name back. “Arachne.” She once again approached him, this time with her chest thrust forward and her hands seductively on her hips. “And I can think of one way you can show your gratitude right now.”
While their queen was busy with Cavalier, a contingent of elite soldiers boarded a VTOL transport and flew off toward his castle. They were not to make themselves known to the village below, instead they were to infiltrate the building and incapacitate Crater. Each man was armed with an assault rifle loaded with tranquilizers. Provided the large man had not yet succumbed to the vicious zombifying disease, they would then immobilize him and begin administering the cure.
Once Cavalier returned with his new militia, they would assist in procuring new vessels to make more of the serum, which required infecting people with a version of the virus that killed them, reanimated them, and then liquefied their organs. They then only had a matter of minutes to drain as much of the fluid that collected in the brain as possible before the body erupted in a spray of infectious liquid.
It watch pitch black when they arrived, relying on infrared and radar to navigate the mountains that lead to the palatial mansion, and landed in the back yard that was completely obscured from the village below. A crew of six hustled out of the vehicle, their rifles at the ready as they slowly advanced on the building. The back door was closed, but a quick check showed it was unlocked. Apparently Cavalier had never considered a break in a danger considering what he was famous for.
He had mentioned that Crater usually sat on the couch in the living room, so that was where they headed first. Their helmets had a heads-up display that showed blueprints of the house so they knew exactly where each and every one of them were at any given moment. They cautiously approached the giant, half-moon shaped sofa, their guns ready to pump powerful sedatives into the big man to make sure he didn’t pose a threat, but he wasn’t there. In the monochrome green of heir starlight goggles, they could see the room clear as day, so they swept every corner, and checked every door that led from the large living room.
One of the soldiers was heading toward what appeared to be a large bulge in the curtains when suddenly the world went white for everyone else that wasn’t protected by the fabric. Crater, hearing a noise downstairs and thinking it might be Cavalier, had walked in and turned on the light. He was nauseous, was sweating profusely and could barely stand, but when he saw a group of armed men in his home, adrenaline gave him strength he’d not felt in days.
The first soldier had no idea what hit him. Still blinded and in pain, he just felt the oversized fist slam into his side, then he was sailing across the room. The next suffered a monstrous backhand and stopped mid-flight as he collided with the refridgerator in the adjoining kitchen. A third managed to blink his vision clear just in time to catch a flying table in the face, blasting him headfirst into the giant TV behind him.
The soldier behind the curtain stepped out and without hesitation, fired several bursts of tranquilizers into the large man’s side. Crater roared and charged the soldier like an angry gorilla. The other two remaining soldiers fired burst after burst into the enraged man as he charged their comrade. Crater started to roar in outrage but instead collapsed face first into the floor, his momentum carrying him across the smooth marble directly toward the man by the curtain. The soldier just managed to sidestep his bulk before the now snoring Crater collided with the wall.
“Go get the restraints and two gurneys. We need to strap him down.” The man who’d just dodged Crater barked to one of the standing soldiers. “You,” he said indicating the other soldier, “Check on the wounded. We’ll patch up who we can.”
Several minutes later, an additional four soldiers entered the house with two large metal gurneys and reinforced restraints that should prove sufficient for holding even the powerful Crater in place. Both men he’d swatted were injured, but able to walk. Both suffered multiple broken ribs, and the one who hit the fridge had a dislocated shoulder and likely a fracture in his leg, but he would be fine. Unfortunately, the man who’d caught the table in the face was not so lucky. He had two broken neck vertebra and a skull fracture.
If he ever woke up, he would be a quadriplegic, a condition that did not make for a long tenure as an elite soldier in Arachne’s army. With little more than a glance from the commanding officer, one of the soldiers put a tranquilizer round into the unfortunate man’s head , ensuring he would not wake up. He was going to do his part to help the mission anyway; he would be the first to be infected with the serum-creating virus.
Nicole was up early the next morning. She could see orange and red peeking through the grey as the sun rose. She was ecstatic; it was the closest thing to an actual sunrise she’d seen in years. She could feel the plants excitedly turning toward the rising sun.
She paused a second. She really could feel them, almost as if she could understand what they felt. She walked up to her rosemary bushes, her pride and joy. She reached up and plucked a single leaf from one of the stems. She felt a small tingle, like the shock of static when you drag your feet on a carpet and then touch a doorknob, only very faint. She ran her finger over the nub where the leaf had come off amazed that she seemed to feel the plant’s sensation of losing a leaf.
As she moved her hand away to sniff the fresh herb on her finger, something amazing happened; the leaf grew back in a matter of seconds. Nicole almost fell over. She’d felt an affinity for plants her entire life, and it seemed to intensify in the past few years, especially once she started the herb garden. She had simply assumed she had a talent for horticulture when her plants grew enormous while other’s struggled in the muddy light of day. Had she possessed the ability to help them grow all along? How could she not notice it all this time?
She stared at her beloved rosemary tree and thought, on a whim, “Come to me.” To her shock, several of the branches closer to her bent and reached in her direction. when they’d reached their full length, they grew to reach toward her. “Stop!” she said quickly, and they stopped growing. “Um… At ease?” she said, and the newly lengthened branches returned to their original position, only now they were much taller.
William stood dumbstruck. Thick knots of mint had grown over his feet and were winding up his legs. The smell of spearmint was strong and standing across from him was Nicole, absolutely beaming. A few minutes before, she’d excitedly run into the bedroom and dragged him out to the garden. He was barely awake and she’d only let him get his boots and pants on before making him go outside. He wasn’t grasping exactly what she was trying to tell him, so she showed him.
He couldn’t be more awake if he’d been hit by cold water. “When did you figure out that you could do this?” William asked in amazement. “Just now! That’s why I grabbed you. I can’t believe this! It must be why my crops grow so much better than everyone else’s. I wonder if I can use this to help the others!”
William held up his hands. “Hang there a second. We still haven’t told anyone about me. How do you think they will react to finding out they have a couple of…. Supers? What are we? Anyway, what do you think they’ll say?”
Nicole paused for a second. “I can make their crops grow huge and you are indestructible and handy with a shotgun. I think they’ll be happy to find out. Plus, if we keep it from them and they find out on their own…” She let the last sentence just hang in the air for a moment. William nodded. “You’re right. The sooner they know, the better. Then if they have a problem with it, we can be on our way sooner.”
Nicole shook her head. “Worry wart. I’ve known most of these people for years. They don’t fear people with powers. In fact, we’ve relied on that idiot up on the mountain for too long. It’s time for some new power to protect everyone.” She released William’s feet. “So I can encourage plants to grow, and even direct them. I wonder if there is anything else I can do, like shape wood. Oh, that’d be so cool…” William smiled at her, and found she was no longer walking into the house, but staring at their picnic table with an eager look on her face and her tongue sticking out of the side of her mouth.
She glanced up at William. “Might as well try.” He shrugged. Nicole put her hand on the wooden table and thought about how it would look with a small tree growing from the middle. After several tense seconds, nothing happened. He looked at her, judging to see if he could get her attention. He started to say something when suddenly the wood at the center of the table started making a creaking sound, and then suddenly the wood grew, twisted and morphed into a tiny wooden sculpture of a large oak tree maybe a foot tall.
William walked over and sat on one of the stools. “Holy crap.” he exhaled. Nicole was staring at her own hands in awe. “I… I just thought it and it happened. Imagine what I can do! Imagine the structures I can build. The art I can create. The food I can produce!” William was grinning widely at her. This was why he gravitated toward her; she discovers one morning that she has superpowers, and her first thoughts are of how she could benefit everyone, not just herself. He was nervous, though. He’d been run out of plenty of towns where the superstitious inhabitants were inherently distrustful of anyone with extraordinary abilities. He hoped to hell that Nicole was right about the Village. He’d grown accustomed to having a nice warm bed and roof over his head.
Well, he thought. He’d face it the same way he had every other time, with his head up high knowing he walked the high road.
Nicole was still staring at her hands a moment later when she stood up and walked toward their house. “I think our home could use a little sprucing.” She mumbled as she stumbled by.
Hours later, a crowd had gathered outside Nicole’s house watching her in mute awe. She seemed to have limitless energy as she crawled, climbed and hung from every inch of the house. It was less resembling the clapboard building that had been fashioned years ago out of planks and more resembling a living tree with bowl-shaped extensions filled with dirt and overflowing with herbs.
By noon, most of the village was outside watching her work while William nervously watched the crowd for any signs of hostility. None came, just curiosity. When Nicole finally seemed to be winding down, their old one story plank built house was a two floor tree sprouting with flowers and herbs. She turned to face the street and was taken aback by the number of people watching her. She’d been so focused on her work, she hadn’t noticed the growing crowd. She smiled sheepishly. “I guess you all know, then huh?”
Someone in the crowd started clapping, and within seconds it grew. Soon everyone was clapping and Nicole blushed. She’d never been the creative sort, but discovering her power seemed to create some sort of feedback loop; the more she worked with the plants and wood, the more alive they felt and the more they grew, and that seemed to give her even more energy, as if the healthy plants were feeding her.
One of the older members of the village spoke up when the applause subsided. He’d been an engineer in his past life, and had been instrumental in creating the irrigation system that the village used to water its crops. “Ms Nicole. If you don’t mind, it’s probably a good idea for the town to convene and discuss this new talent of yours.” Nicole nodded. There was a lot of good she could do their little community with this new talent, and no doubt they wanted to discuss how best to utilize it.
A thought occurred to her as to why she’d never noticed it before. She’d lived most of her life in the City and the past seven years in the blasted, almost barren shadow of its corpse. Plantlife was weak and scarce, until she started growing herbs. Maybe she needed them around to fuel her ability, and in return they shared their energy with her? It was an exciting thought, especially if she was able to coax more plants to grow in the village area. Who knew what she could accomplish?