Bonus Chapter 5 – The Albino Arachnid

Act 1: A Little White Spider

Bleakclaw Mountain had a reputation in the Dark Lands. Plenty of mountains did, because mountains were where dungeon cores absolutely loved to plant themselves, but Bleakclaw was well known for playing host to one of the deadliest dungeons on the entire continent, one that had spread throughout the entire mountain and acted with a shocking lethality towards any daring enough to venture in.

Even some of the strongest adventurers in the land were wary of entering the brutal dungeon, and for fear of wandering monsters, there were no settlements at all living on the mountain’s vast surface.

And for those living within Bleakclaw, it was no less dangerous. 

After a particularly strong adventurer–powerful, daring, and far too stupid for her own good–had managed to outright cripple the core–splitting a chunk off of its surface, to the point it almost resembled a crescent moon–the monsters of the mountain had turned on each other. What were once conjured beasts and beings working in tandem, set in their own areas and operating with a single-minded intelligence to drive out and massacre those who would seek their creator’s treasure, devolved into a vicious bloodbath unlike any other.

Even the bloodiest of wars could scarcely compare to the pure insanity of over ten thousand monsters, once connected and even protective of one another, erupting into brutal violence without reason or pause. By the time the initial slaughter subsided, the mountain’s population had been quite literally decimated, and Bleakclaw became an ever more savage place, home to beasts seeking only to kill and survive.

However, the creatures still formed by the broken core weren’t completely mindless, and they still saw the benefits of allying with those similar to them, once the slaughter settled. So, to ensure their survival, the various beasts banded together and Bleakclaw Mountain found itself host to several groups, all seeking to survive above all else.

And yet, even if the weak were to band together, they were still weak. And weakness was unacceptable when faced with the strong.

Such were the thoughts of one spider as they devoured their recent spoils: a simple crimson lizard that had been too slow to run. The spider, like many other beasts within the mountain, had been born at the same time as a number of others. Formed by the great core with its siblings–a cluster easily numbering fifty–who it was meant to fight alongside, because they were all weak. 

Low-level, some would say; the type of monster that had little worth on their own, but could be dangerous when in large packs. And their brood certainly did well for themselves, in the short time they all lived, leaping and swarming over other beasts, then bringing them down with their potent venom. They were dangerous enough that they seemed fine, like they could survive the vile place they had the misfortune to be born in.

That is, until they were all killed by a large, feathered snake, with eyes that pierced their bodies and a ghastly beak that crushed them in seconds. All besides one. 

The small, white spider didn’t know why they survived, out of all their other siblings; whether it was luck or skill, they were able to escape the jaws of the snake while everyone else died horribly. And as they hid in the shadows, somehow just barely concealed from the massive beast’s cruel eyes, only one emotion filled the spider as they watched the larger creature feast on their siblings. 

Hatred. 

Not at the deaths of their siblings, but at their own weakness. They’d failed, completely and utterly, when they were so certain, from the very moment they’d climbed from their egg and seen all the other spiders had been blue in comparison to their white coloration, that they’d been a special being. Red-eyed and white, standing out from the yellow-eyed, blue crowd. Someone of importance, a leader to their brood.

And yet, there they were, cowering in terror until the snake finished its feast and left once again. Ever since then, the spider had been very conscious of where they really were in the order of their world. How so many other creatures stood above them in strength.

In that moment, the spider’s fangs plunged deep into the half-eaten lizard, their natural corrosives further liquifying its melted insides. It had taken some time, but they’d learned to ambush beasts on their own, and at that moment, now that they’d felt at least some assurance, some further understanding of where they were in their world, they made a promise to themself.

They would never die. Not to anything.

Nothing would ever hold power over the spider again.

And she made sure nothing within Bleakclaw ever would.

So, she fought. Whether it be face to face, or attacking from the shadows, the spider continued to fight those that would see her dead to fill their bellies and grew stronger with every life she claimed. There were a great many beasts to slaughter, from the repulsive serpents–smaller than the abomination that murdered her kin–to large, razor-backed rats and ashen salamanders burning with dark flames. 

However, as she butchered those irritating beasts, she began to notice that her meals were no longer satisfying. The beasts she found were getting smaller, even though they seemed to be the same as they ever were…did the core crack again? Was someone foolish enough to venture into its domain? 

… 

An odd hunger struck her at the moment. 

At the time of her creation, the spider was filled with knowledge. Knowledge of what the core was and what to protect the core from. The source of life within her homeland needed to be protected from invaders, this she knew. 

And then she realized something. Not once had she actually fought someone from outside the mountain. Not once had she eaten someone from outside the mountain. And she dearly wanted to.

And, with what she would later learn was a grin, the spider rushed to where she knew the core was, high up in the great heights of Bleakclaw, the innate location forever ingrained inside her mind. It was certainly a long and treacherous trek from her home down towards the peak of the mountain, but she was amazing so there really wasn’t a problem in the slightest. She could also climb up walls, so the steepness really wasn’t a problem, and she could easily avoid some of the more dangerous monsters in the passageways.

However, as she peeked in from one of the holes meant for her type of creature to sneak around–to ambush those seeking the core’s powers–disappointment filled her as she found nothing…huh, did the core get smaller? 

Her many eyes blinked in unified confusion, before she immediately skittered back into the annoyingly cramped passage when the core’s guardian shifted below its pedestal. For the briefest moment, there was a sound of skittering claws and a flash of massive eyes in the darkness, before the smaller mound’s great shell settled once more, wrapped around the immense body the pedestal rested on top of.

The spider watched, still and careful, then moved back into the passageway. She had promised she would never die to anything within the mountain, and that included the most dangerous beast within its depths. So for now, she retreated. But one day…

Still, that new reminder of how weak she was rankled at her immensely, so she went out and killed some more snakes. She utterly despised the repulsive, wriggling things and they tasted delicious, so she’d often track down a nest to wipe out when she was feeling agitated. Such was life.

And that life continued as it did until her outer layer began to shed and she abruptly realized that of course the stupid beasts she’d eaten weren’t getting smaller, she was getting bigger! Ugh, she felt stupid when she finally figured it out. And by that point, the usual snake nests were too small for her to even enjoy destroying. But then she noticed the very familiar feathers of a certain serpent in its den, and she had a sudden, devious, cruel urge.

Where once she leapt and pinned her prey, her newer, larger, stronger form came with the lovely ability to form a thread. A sticky thread, made for trapping, born from an innate magic she had evolved to gain! And with that new gift, she sealed up its den. Every single entrance it could hope to escape from was covered in layer after layer. It was a long work to complete, but oh so satisfying as she heard its panic. Its eyes couldn’t touch her now.

She busied herself with other hunts in the meantime–learning to trap and bind the even larger King Rats and Sledgeheads–before eventually returning to the now entirely dehydrated and starved basilisk. Its dying eyes may have stung, but they could no longer kill, and tasted divine.

It was almost a shame that she couldn’t finish it all, but at least she had a new den, much larger than her last one, and as the strongest, she clearly deserved the biggest den, so this would be a nice stepping stone until then. Hm, would killing the guardian make her the new one? She didn’t particularly care for the role, but it was meant for the strongest… 

And so, with that in mind, she continued to kill and grow stronger, making her way through the mountain, and seeking stronger opponents, before returning to her den, always covering the entrances with web. As strong as she was, she wasn’t foolish enough to think she could survive an ambush while asleep. 

And this way she would usually find herself greeted by a morning snack, even if it was a small morsel of something weak and dumb. Thankfully, there never seemed to be an end to the idiotic creatures spawned by the core. 

Yet one day, something happened; in what appeared to be yet another day of feasting, she felt something enter her territory. Something different. Something very different.

Rushing back to where her den was, she found the various traps that she had placed were destroyed. Odd. She’d grown accustomed to some of the smarter creatures managing to foil one or two of her traps, but never all of them. Feeling her hunger grow, she grinned–in a sense; her face at the time was not one that expressed joy easily, but a “grin” was the closest approximation as her fangs flared in anticipation–slowly stalking into her den where her trapped food awaited. 

However, while her eyes feasted on them, her body paused. Not out of fear, but of confusion. These things weren’t like any of the creatures she knew about, and they were so different, so alien, so lacking in connection that the core, the mountain, couldn’t have made them. 

Some were short, others were tall, there was something resembling fur on some, and others had scales similar to a salamander. And they were all speaking in something she didn’t understand, and not all the same thing. When talking with one another, it seemed to be one thing, but if anyone said anything quietly, as if to themselves, it was completely different. 

And this group of new creatures…intrigued her, enough for her to not attack and kill them immediately. So she followed them, studying their movements and actions as she did. Though she refrained from getting too close as it seemed whenever she tried to approach, one of the small ones would whip around and look, their eyes darting to and fro with suspicion, yet never alighting on her specifically. 

They were observant, that much was true, these invaders. And they were invaders, the things she had the inherent knowledge she was meant to eliminate for the core’s sake, but it was a muted instinct by this point; she could ignore it easily as she carefully tracked them through the winding caves that served as her territory. There were other monsters about: the amalgamated rats connected by their tails with a crowned King at their head, the rockish-reptiles with plated heads, and the occasional larger, emerald snake or burning salamander, but the invaders made short work of them, often using strategy and displaying a keen insight into how each beast should be dealt with. Seeing them, and how they worked…it was almost alluring.

So the spider stalked her interests far further than she normally would go. Her den was one of the lowest points on the mountain, so it was interesting exploring upward with this strange group, particularly since they left a great deal of corpses in their wake. Corpses of beasts she hadn’t yet encountered, monsters of the upper levels. So, at points, typically when they had left the rooms they slayed the monsters in, the spider would drop from the ceiling, and have a snack. Or a meal. Some were more filling than others, and the spider was getting quite hungry in the group’s presence, so the situation worked quite well for her all around, up until it didn’t.

It wasn’t through any fault of her own, no; the rooms did get more hazardous than the spider had expected, that was true, but she navigated them well enough anyhow and it wasn’t as though slippery or acidic walls were too much of a bother. She was still stealthy enough to avoid getting noticed by the invaders, even if she had to hide under some corpses once or twice.

No, the excursion ended when the group ran into an enemy they could not beat on the Ogre Floor. To elaborate, the floor where ogres–bipedal monsters loosely resembling the taller invaders, yet in a far more brutish, warped, primitive way; gray-toned, possessing small, lumpish horns and mouths full of crooked fangs and tusks, and wearing core-made loincloths and wielding core-made clubs, hatchets, and cleavers–were the most prominent monster species.

Those were not what ultimately ended the invaders’ trek though. No, that was The Peeler.

The Peeler was the “boss” of the floor. Nowhere near as mighty and vast as the core’s guardian, but far more brutish and fearsome than the ogres the group had already found difficulty with. The spider didn’t know it at the time, but The Peeler was more akin to the trolls found even higher up the mountain, if more like a unique variant. Almost like her, in that sense. Though instead of possessing a beautiful, luxurious alabaster carapace, the large, lean biped was an ugly, mottled red, its face distended into a long snout filled with crooked fangs.

It was rather gangly as well, with long arms and narrow, triple-jointed legs, ending in paws that clicked against the stone floors as it walked. The spider would later learn that The Peeler was more canine in appearance than the typical simian troll–and would further learn that trolls could vary remarkably in appearance depending on their environment, with some even appearing porcine or cervine–though its long, stringy, matted hair threw that comparison into doubt. It did lack the horns other trolls possessed, yet made up for that lack in the sheer bevy of carving knives it had strapped across its body. The belts it wore were its only clothing; it was an unsightly beast, though the spider could not deny its skill with the two sickles it carried as its primary weapons.

It was too much for the invaders to handle, though they did have the handicap of multiple fights wearing them down, as well as the disadvantage in an unfamiliar territory. They also seemed immensely disturbed by the flayed ogre carcasses The Peeler had hung up as decoration and occasional snack food. Such was Bleakclaw, and the invaders were not ready.

With sickles in hand, The Peeler attacked the group as soon as they entered its den, leaping across the room and rapidly slashing at them before they could even begin to fight back. It was incredible that none died–at least not in the mountain anyhow–with how many deep gashes The Peeler left on them. They did manage some struggle, yet soon enough, the leader seemed to come to a decision and barked out something to everyone, and a few moments later, all the invaders vanished, probably because of the crystals they’d suddenly pulled from their clothes.

That didn’t stop The Peeler though, who continued to wildly thrash even after they left. It took some time for it to finally realize its prey was gone, and even longer for it to fully calm down and stop wildly snapping at the air. Once it settled down, The Peeler walked over to a bag that had fallen on the floor–the straps had been cut mid-battle so it was left behind by the group. Tearing the bag open, it began to look through everything in it, most likely searching for food.

How foolish; after all, there was food right there. For the spider, at least.

She truly was the master of stealth, for the stupid brute didn’t notice her presence in the slightest before she leapt onto its back and drove her fangs deep into its neck. The Peeler managed a strangled, distorted yelp before her forelegs stabbed through its shoulders and snapped its arms back with two sharp cracks. She still made sure to bind the broken arms with her webs though, even as her prey sank to the floor, her venom coursing through its veins.

It was a lucky day for her all around; not only did she get a fantastic meal that sent the most wonderful surge of energy through her growing body, but she had a new den full of new prey! Oh, and some weird bag, which she carefully prodded with a foreleg in case of ambush. By what, she wasn’t sure, but it belonged to an invader which meant it was an invader. If a strange one.

Could items be invaders? Probably. Still, she’d eaten her fill and successfully started webbing her new den, so now she had this bag to focus on. And whatever weird things were inside it, including more bags and strange, fluttery things, with covers and bindings that she would later learn meant they were books.

She also learned much sooner that books didn’t taste good. Really, nothing the invader’s bags had tasted good. The worst was the strange container she decided to try from one smaller bag. It had a liquid in it, and the exterior seemed crunchy like a lesser bug’s carapace, so she gave it a try. Later in life, she learned that it was glass.

At the time, she had glass in her mouth, and it hurt worse as she tried to spit it out, spilling a red liquid with it that she was concerned was her blood before her wounds suddenly healed. So the item wounded her, then healed her. A terrible invention, clearly, and she threw that bag against the wall in a fit of pique.

The bag then exploded. She stared at the scorch mark, then at the glass still on her floor. She very carefully claimed her remaining bags, moved away from the glass, and began sorting her newfound loot away from the dangerous material.

There wasn’t anything especially interesting in the remaining bags; just a few knives and weird fabrics. So the spider did the most logical thing with her new collection of books and made a proper bed for herself in her new den. Their hard surfaces felt quite nice on her carapace and she slept well.

And when she woke up, she could read.

Well, not quite. When she woke up, she’d somehow become smart enough to realize the strange symbols on the books were words and not just vague scribblings. How that happened, she had no idea, but it was obviously because she was amazing, so she didn’t question it.

Now she just needed to know how to decipher the things she now realized were letters, and so the spider had her first quest, which she solved in at a remarkable pace because, again, she was amazing, and very easily figured out that the best way to further develop her brain, which had obviously grown with the rest of her body after she ate The Peeler. Oh, right, she’d also molted again and was a great deal bigger. About the size of that basilisk she’d eaten so very long ago–in “outside terms”, she was about the size of a wild boar, instead of the “large dog”-size she was previously.

Point was! She was remarkably intelligent, and she knew how to raise that intelligence further by eating more and more powerful monsters!

So up she went, to the higher floors, and began putting her talents to very good use. Even with her increasing size, she remained exceptionally agile and her threads gave her a strong advantage over the more unobservant beasts. Ogres and trolls, idiots that they were, were remarkably easy to catch, and quite filling too. The issue came with the simple fact that they were remarkably stupid too, and didn’t really help in terms of gaining brainpower.

Realistically speaking, the spider should have had no chance of learning to read in her current situation. She had no capability to understand the local language, she didn’t know what the Dark Land alphabet was, and she barely had context for what most words would mean even if she did know how to read. If she had some type of tutor or even a dictionary, she might have a slight chance, but neither of those were readily available, so it was a lost cause from the start, and she really should have admitted that. 

But that would mean quitting, and the spider was nothing if not the most stubborn creature Bleakclaw Mountain had ever birthed. She would learn how to read, and she would gain that power from the mountain by any means necessary! The mountain would provide, and she would feast from its bounty!

And the mountain did provide, eventually, at Bleakclaw’s penultimate floor. So about one floor above the troll floor, which was above the centipede floor, which was above the skull-ape floor, which was above the sickle-claw floor–which was technically more of a blade floor in general–that was right above her den, otherwise known as the ogre floor. So it took a bit of trekking, but that didn’t matter because stubbornness had won the day once again!

It was on that floor, filled with its oddly glowy insignias along the darker, bluish stones, silver lined carpets and tapestries, and strange tubes and beakers and vials that bubbled with potions of varying types that she found exactly what she was looking for! Brainfood!

Not literally, no, though the uzia did look a little brainlike? In the right lighting. She later learned they were more like flying jellyfish, what with their mushroom-like caps and drifting tentacles. 

What made the air-jellies stand out from sea-jellies though was their more solid structure, made up of a single, floating cap and about eight semi-translucent tentacles dangling down from their center. Their caps could vary in color, but one thing consistent about them was that they had about four sensory organs attached to the sides of their caps. Fully formed, humanoid sensory organs, to be specific.

Specifically humanoid too. The spider found two variants of the uzia species up on the Arcane Floor, as she decided to call it: Eyezia and Earzia. Or Watchers and Listeners, if one wanted to be unoriginal. Technically the species in general were also called “Sentries” for their utility as dungeon security systems, but she didn’t know that at the time, nor did she really care either. Anyhow, the Eyezia, as she so aptly called them, were the red air-jellies, with four eyes lining the sides of their cap, while the Earzia were blue and had four ears instead. Round, human-like ears. It was weird. They were weird.

Tasty though, if tricky to properly pin down. The Eyezia were great at spotting approaching threats and then firing fiery eye-beams at them, while the Earzia would get all electrified if they detected someone approaching. But the spider was undeterred and a master of stealth, so she gradually managed to pin down one and drink its spicy brain juices. Intelligence juices? They didn’t exactly have brains…

Regardless, the spider had SUCCEEDED in her mission! It was a successful quest! She had gained intelligence! She knew, because she could suddenly tell the tapestries around her were actually warning signs, telling of darker horrors awaiting and that there was no return beyond this point! Which was silly, because she clearly could return and did so very easily so she could retrieve her books and finally figure out what the words inside meant. Though not without a little practice with all the writings scrawled on the walls about some secret artistry she didn’t have context for, so she really didn’t feel like bothering.

And the very first book she read was a riveting one too!

She didn’t exactly know what exactly it was at the time, but it seemed to tell the tale about a pair of adventurers who were forced to work together, fighting alongside one another and growing closer all the while. While she was interested in what was going to happen, as well as wondering who had transcribed these events like this, one line in particular caught her attention. 

“We’re stronger together, right?” 

…She didn’t know why, but that line made her think. The reason she had strived to become this strong in the first place was because her brood had died, but would that have changed if one had survived? 

Or maybe if she had teamed up with one of the other arachnids from her floor. Would someone like the Peeler be a good companion? 

No matter. She was alone now; she gained her strength on her own, and nothing would stop her until she reached her goal. With that in mind, she prepared herself, knowing that one way or another, the battle to decide the strongest in Bleakclaw would happen the next day. 

And that preparation involved reading some more! Partially because she really liked the relationship between the two protagonists, and partially because she wanted to figure out how they did things like making fire with their hands. Sure, the uzia had lasers, but this seemed to imply more creatures could learn things like that, and that made her very curious.

Unfortunately, her first book didn’t exactly get into mechanics, instead focusing on adventure and, as she read further, a deep romance that made her shiver in delight. Still, that wasn’t immediately useful, so she went onto the next book. And the next. And the one after that.

The next day, she blinked awake on her pile of books, her eyes pressed close to one involving the forbidden romance between a cambion–which were like humans, which were apparently a type of biped called “apefolk”, but with partial demon blood, and demons were apparently weird horned bipeds from a different “planet” or something? She didn’t quite get it, but the books said that’s how things were–and an angel, which were weird winged bipeds from another entirely different planet. She didn’t quite get why the romance was forbidden, but both ladies sounded incredibly cute and she couldn’t help but feel all warm and fuzzy reading about them, to the degree that she’d call the particular books in that series her favorites.

And, in honor of her favorite, the spider chose her name. She decided she needed one after reading about so many named beings, so she did something very simple and named herself after the angel with pure white feathers from the lovely novel: Ikariel. Though she decided to drop the “Ik” part. She didn’t want to be wholly unoriginal, and it was her name, she reserved the right to make it look however she wanted!

Thus it was Ariel, the white spider of Bleakclaw, who made her way to the core room, stepping proudly through the halls with the surety of her purpose. Though she did snag a few uzia on the way for a meal. One shouldn’t have a grand battle of destiny on an empty stomach.

So it was a satiated Ariel that strode through the grand round door leading into the core room, which slid into the wall with a rough rumble, waking the great beast inside before she could even set the slightest trap. But no matter, her strength would be more than enough to handle the monster of the mountain.

And what a great beast it was. Its massive body rested in the center of the circular room, directly under the great cage set in the ceiling that held the mountain’s broken core, whose dim light combined with green torches to illuminate the crags of the Colossus’s shell.

The Stone Branch Colossus consisted of two parts: 1, an utterly massive mound, similar to the shell of a tortoise, thick with stone scales lined with ancient carvings, and 2, eight “heads” extending off of long “necks”, all resembling massive, skittering centipedes. Each beast of blood-red stone rose at the interruption to their deep slumber, the chattering and clattering of their massive mandibles filling the air with disturbing echoes, booming through the room as they twisted up and around, their legs darting as they turned as one to glare down at Ariel with pitch-black eyes.

Then the Colossus paused in sudden confusion; one head, its antenna set above its mandibles and curling from its face in a pseudo-mustache, loomed forward and stared down at her, tilting as it examined the unexpected invader. The boss of the mountain didn’t have lesser monsters invade its dominion, so it clearly thought, because that went against all known natural orders. Unfortunately for it, Ariel was a defier of stupid expectations!

A thick stream of webbing shot from her mouth and stuck quickly to the mustachioed “branch” as her forelegs dug deep into the floor, giving her the leverage she needed to pull it straight to the ground with a loud crash, echoed by its surprised shriek. Then she was moving, leaping free of the floor and flipping over its head, pulling webbing over its eyes as she retreated along its back, pulling the webbing tighter as its legs struggled to find purchase on the floor and the other heads finally recognized the threat in their midst, two lurching forward to crush her with their massive mandibles when she darted back further, letting them slam both into the main head’s spine, but also the trailing blanket of webbing she was leaving with both her mouth and forelegs.

There were more shocked shrieks as she leapt again, immediately fixing both heads to the main branch’s back as rapidly as she could, their flailing struggles only tangling them further as she rushed along the underbelly of the right head. By then, the other branches of the Colossus had begun extending across the room, recognizing the threat of her threads and moving out of their reach, though that was easily the stupidest thing they could’ve done. It left her free reign to web up the legs of the branch she was under, and she was completely blocked from any ranged attacks she might have to face from the heads. Of which, she wasn’t entirely sure they had, but there were potentials there.

The further point that made them stupid was the simple fact that they were all attached to one single point. So once she got to the mound at the center, she promptly started webbing up the “entrances” the branches she’d already captured were extending from, before moving to the next one, earning a panicked shriek from it as it twisted around and lunged right for her. Which was still a stupid move because she immediately leapt back and pinned it down with multiple webs, then leapt again when another head tried to capitalized on her “distraction” and wound up slamming straight into its fellow branch, earning yelps from both of them before she landed and promptly started webbing the two together, then leapt once again as one of the slightly smarter heads ripped one of the stalactites from the ceiling with its pincers and threw it straight at her.

Slightly smarter, since it managed to smash two of its fellow branches straight against their mound in a rough *CRACK* that echoed through the room. Ariel capitalized on its mistake though and promptly began skittering up its belly, pinning its legs down as they tried to stab at her and dodging as the remaining heads began tearing more crags from the ceiling and even the central mound to fling at her. They didn’t have the best aim, but one did manage to get a lucky shot right on target. Well, towards the target. While Ariel was right on its fellow branch’s head.

She leapt to the ceiling right as a massive rock crashed straight into the head in question, smashing its shell to pulp and sending it crashing to the floor in a pained squeal, where it was promptly stuck due to all the webs binding it already. Which left two branches to go, one of which let out a shriek of fury and immediately skittered up to the ceiling where she was, its black eyes glittering with hatred. Ariel couldn’t help but feel her fangs flare at the sight, a giddy feeling overcoming her at its clear fury, before it charged straight for her, extending far further than its fellows and attempting to crush her between its jaws.

However, Ariel was far smaller and more maneuverable than the colossal centipede, and each snap of its jaws was easy to dance around, her grip kept on the ceiling and its crags in complete defiance of gravity while it smashed through stone after stone, heedless of the rocks it was raining down on the rest of its body. 

Eventually though, the dance had to come to an end, and Ariel ducked straight below the branch’s final lunges, its jaws clamping shut mere inches above her body, its “chin” just barely brushing the top of her carapace. And then she jumped.

She jumped as hard as she could, directly under the centipede’s head, and smashed straight into its jaw. Normally, such a move would not be particularly effective, but there were a few factors in play. Namely that the stupid bug had extended itself past the point it could actually control most of its movements–removing the leverage it would normally have to raise up like a snake–and the simple fact that they were both still on the ceiling. So when she smashed into its head, she had the full force of gravity on her side, and both of them fell fast.

Well, the centipede fell fast. Ariel had a convenient balloon of webbing for herself to drift down with. Quite easily formed, really. The branch had no such thing though, and its back smashed hard on the top of its own mound, a pained shriek sounded out with the shattering of its shell. Then Ariel landed straight on top of it again and promptly webbed up its head to silence said shrieking. Nice and neat, just the way she liked it.

Though that did leave one more head. And some careful investigation let her discover that it had taken the opposite route of its fellow branch, and actually retreated deep inside its mound, much like a cowering turtle. Though it had the audacity to let out a smug chirp when it saw her, confident in its complete inability to be harmed while in its solid den. So she just webbed up the entrance and left that one as it was, its smug chirping quickly morphing into enraged shrieking, much like most of its fellows.

And with that, Ariel had won. She’d conquered the greatest beast in the mountain and pinned it down in every conceivable way. She’d succeeded where no one else ever had! She, Ariel the spider, a minuscule creature most would consider barely worthy of notice, had conquered Bleakclaw Mountain!!

And it was a very satisfied spider indeed that walked to the front of the Stone Branch Colossus, its main branch still pinned to the floor with two more atop it. The brute shrieked as she approached, struggling even though it was as pinned as it could possibly be, and only stilled when she jabbed one foreleg directly against its eye. Not deep enough to pierce, but enough to command its attention.

Because Ariel had realized something. Yes, she could kill and eat this great beast. She easily could. She’d won, she’d beaten it, it was hers to do with as she wanted. But then it wouldn’t be around. This was the mightiest creature in the mountain–before her, of course–and there was a value in that. A value in not simply killing and eating it, but in dominating it.

And her foreleg slowly shifted, twisting into a clawed hand that gripped the beast as she stood taller and stronger than ever before, a wide grin spreading across her newly formed face as Ariel the Arachne spoke her very first word: “Mine.

After all, they would be stronger together.

Act 2: A True Queen

Bleakclaw Mountain had a new ruler, and she was very set on making sure every part of the mountain knew precisely that fact. Starting with its core, which she plucked from its perch with ease. 

The instant she did, she felt something akin to massive bells ringing in her mind as the cracked core panicked at the sudden contact, but she immediately forced that all down as she clamped it between her newly formed hands. “MINE.

There was a stutter, then the dimly glowing core settled, still emanating fear as she carried it down from the ceiling, where the Stone Branch Colossus glared balefully at her, one of its heads even daring to shriek a warning to handle the core with care.

Silence!” She glared straight back at the Colossus, which flinched then settled back, one head chittering mutinously before she turned her four newly formed eyes straight to it and it immediately retreated back to the mound, yiping an apology. “Your place, under me. All under me!

“Core.” She held her creator up to her eyes as her legs touched the floor, glaring deep into its pulsing amber depths, its cracks casting shades of black across its surface. “Is under me. I am Ariel. I am Queen! Core is mine! Mountain is MINE!

The core shuddered, then she felt another sense in her mind. Acceptance. And then she smiled and petted her core, placing it closer to her chitinous chest. “Good. Monsters are mine. Make still, want food.”

More affirmative. “Also, no perch. Too far. Stay with…” She looked up at the Colossus, frowning at its lack of a proper name. Which felt interesting. Having lips was interesting. Still, things needed names, and “Stone Branch Colossus” wasn’t a proper one. Nor was “core”. 

She wracked her brain for a few names, then nodded as two came to her from her books. “Peter.”

Peter flickered, their surface glowing with confusion as Ariel nodded to them, then glanced up at the Colossus. “Elliot.”

All Elliot’s heads blinked in unison, then began staring amongst each other before the mustachioed head leaned forward and chittered a question. “Yes, you are all Elliot. Why would you get many names? You are one creature.”

Another chitter. “Yes you are. Your heads are not separate.”

A nearby head shrieked in reproach and she glared straight at him. “Yes, you are. No, actually, now you are Bitch.” 

There was a shriek of offense, Elliot chittered again and she scowled. “I decide names. That is Bitch. Rest are Elliot.” Then again, she might need to refer to the heads separately…Ariel stuffed Peter under her armpit and pointed at Elliot with her free hand. “Elliot, Bitch, Luca, Kymani, Jaren, Tyson, Noah, Zaeed.” 

Now how to tell them apart? Elliot was easy, he had the mustache… “You need hats.”

She looked to Peter. “You need a hat too.” 

Hats weren’t something she could easily find in the dungeon, but she did give it a try, after placing Peter atop Elliot’s mound and instructing him and the rest of him to protect her primary food source. She felt a brief tinge of offense from Peter at the designation, but she quelled that rebellion with another sharp glare. She was getting very good at those; likely due to her new eyes.

Now to find hats. Though, truth be told, she wasn’t entirely sure what a hat was. All she knew was that the books said hats were something that goes on the head. A garment of some description. Pirates wore them? There wasn’t anything like that in the bags she got from the invaders…maybe other things had been left behind by other invaders elsewhere? With that thought in mind, she walked out of the cavern and made her way down the mountain. 

As was expected, no creatures attempted to get in her way, cowering at the sight of the rightful ruler of the mountain. At one point, she pondered just grabbing some of the smaller creatures and making them sit atop the heads of her vassals to be their hats. The uzia could be nice? Though the tendrils were likely too dangerous…Rats might make good hats, the words did rhyme.

However, before she could fully explore the merits of rat-based hattery, her search paid off for her as she found a number of creatures that she could most assuredly take from. Invaders.

“-this is the furthest anyone has made it in years, right? No one gets past the red troll on the sixth floor, but here we are!” one of them, a male wearing black and reeking of death, explained to his companions as he led the way through the halls, “So turning back now would be foolhardy! And I, Sir Ambrose–”

She didn’t bother to listen to the rest of his words. The language was interesting enough, but she had more important matters on the mind as she glanced over all of the invaders present. All bipeds, two small pointy-eared green ones, two large tusked gray ones, the pale leader and a yellow-green one at about the same height as him that was wearing robes and had a bag, like that one invader that had all those books, so that was the one Ariel wanted most. 

However, she was smarter than just jumping right in the middle of a group of invaders, so she did the far more logical thing of following behind them, snatching the ones at the rear with webs and yanking them up to the ceiling and moving forward until she had six bound, struggling invaders pinned properly.

She took their bags and weapons first, obviously, looking through the former and generally tossing the latter around because she really didn’t care. Said bags had things in them, so she secured them over her shoulders and then began searching the invaders more thoroughly. When they started struggling too much, usually when she began divesting them of their garments, she just pinched their noses shut until they stopped moving, then went back to what she was doing, though “Ambrose” seemed oddly fine with the lack of air, so she slammed his head against the ceiling a few times. Soon enough, she had a decent amount of “loot” consisting of various stuff and things, at which point she stored her valuables in her newfound bags, carried the unconscious invaders back to the entrance on her back, snagged a snake along the way to snack on, and deposited the lot outside again.

On a different day, she might’ve marveled at the wonders of the outside world; the glimmering sun up in the cloudy sky, the birds hooting and cawing in the trees, the soft babble of a blackwater river forming a pseudo moat around the mountain, etc, but that day was not one of those days. She was more interested in her new stuff, so she just tossed the invaders to the ground, then prodded one of them with a foreleg until it woke up.

The small thing squealed in its gag and tried inching away from her, so she pressed firmly on its chest to keep it in place. “Bring more stuff.”

Its eyes went wide as she spoke, but Ariel had better things to focus on now that her message was received and strolled back into her mountain to figure out what, precisely, she’d managed to find. And what among those things counted as hats.

Luckily, she had Elliot to figure that part out. Less luckily, he didn’t know what a hat was either, though he was willing to give it a try as his various centipedes began exploring her gathered loot. Out of all the things she had on her, only a few were actually worn on someone’s head, so she had a decent guess that the odd, round black thing she’d found on Ambrose’s head counted as a hat. And it fit perfectly on Peter, so that’s where that one went.

Eventually all of them had a hat on, except for Bitch, because he didn’t deserve one. Sure, none of the hats actually resembled the hat Peter had and were mostly made up of loot that was large enough to fit properly in between or over their antennae, but it was the thought that counted.

Regardless, with that settled, she began to ponder just what to do. Food would, of course, come first, but now that she was the queen, what would come next? Hm… 

Glancing over at Elliot, a thought crossed her mind. Working together would make them stronger, and as the stronger of the two, it was up to her to get them up to her level, so that he in turn would make her stronger. With that in mind, she grabbed her favorite book, and walked up to the colossus. 

“Down,” she commanded, gesturing to the floor. 

Elliot blinked at her for a moment, then did so, causing the cloth draped over his head to shift slightly. Once he was properly lowered, Ariel climbed on top of him, then settled on the…shawl. It was probably a shawl, now that she thought about it, which was fine, since that was also headwear. Regardless, she settled in and started to read aloud, drawing the attention of Elliot’s other heads, who started settling in around her to listen as she regaled them with the best story she’d ever read.

And thus, a routine was established. 

She would read to the heads, Peter would provide them with food, and whenever any intruders came, she would take anything she wanted from them. It was simple and easy, really. Elliot appreciated the reading, she gained new books from those she robbed, and Peter was getting better at manifesting naturally fatter rats and snakes varieties, which were delightfully tasty. The core even started branching out into other scrumptious monstrosities, once she brought them a proper set of cookbooks she took from some invader with aspirations of chefhood.

Why said chef aspirant decided to come to the deadliest dungeon in the Dark Lands as unknown to Ariel, though she did have to admit, her home had dropped severely in lethality. Sure, there were still monsters, but the ones she kept around were more intended to be lures, ways of enticing the invaders in deeper so she could properly isolate and divest them. The invaders were apparently hearing rumors of the glorious queen of Bleakclaw, so she had to get more creative in how she dealt with them.

And she was being very smart about it too. She took great pains not to kill the silly oafs traipsing about her dominion, all so they’d tell tales of her dominion and bring in more seeking great treasures. One didn’t just kill the cattle that brought them milk, to use an analogy she knew of; it was why she kept Peter around, after all.

That, and a slight fondness for her creator. In a way, the core was like a parent. A genderless, semi-inanimate parent that initially had no care in the slightest about whether she lived or died, but a parent nonetheless, and a parent should be treasured, so long as they actually benefited their child. Or, more accurately, benefited Ariel.

And Elliot, to a lesser extent. She had a fondness for him too, though in the sense that a younger sister may be fond of an elder brother several centuries older than her that also tried to kill her when they first met. In fairness, she did attack first, but the point was, he’d become her closest friend and confidant within the mountain, and thus she rewarded him with better hats and more treasures, which the invaders continued to bring. 

Sure, they tended to just bring weaponry and clothing, but those were still treasures, and she had a fondness for the other knicknacks they carried with them. She’d also made a practice of at least leaving the undergarments of those who brought books, as a sort of encouragement for those outside to bring more of those; if they brought something instructional, or just a book from a series she liked, she’d even let them keep the rest of their clothing. No weapons, those were hers, and she’d amassed quite a pile. She had the vague impulse to melt them all down and make a throne from the metals, but that seemed too impractical. She couldn’t really fit on a throne made for bipeds, so she’d need a lot more swords…

Ariel sighed, pouting at her reflection in her full-length mirror. A birthday gift she’d gained from Peter, who apparently knew what day she was actually born. It was a nice gesture, one she felt she had to reciprocate at some point, but then she didn’t know what day Peter was specifically “born” on. Neither did Elliot when she asked him, and the core seemed smug about her lack of knowledge, so she wasn’t asking them, the stupid orb…

She continued to pout, then started to feel her cheeks, huffing at the image mimicking her. Her upper body was so…soft. It felt weird. Sure, the rest of her body wasn’t exactly a hardened shell like Elliot’s, but there was a strong difference between chitin and skin. It moved differently too; when she was younger, her body moved through its internal fluids, moving to give her limbs movement. Moving to move, to be redundant. But now she had muscles? And an internal skeleton?? It was weird! Really weird!

Though she was beautiful, she had to admit that. She smiled then, and nearly shivered at the delightful feeling there. The way her lips peeled back and bared her sharp white teeth sent an odd rush through her. How was it that the act of smiling made her feel happy? It was weird. Quite weird.

And yet, every part of her body felt natural. The way her two arms–arms, not legs–bent and flexed, the fingers on her hands, the sharpened claws at their ends, the way her chest rose and fell with each breath, her hair–Ha! Her hair! No longer was her hair merely spread across her body, now it fell from her head! Long and white, the same ivory tone as the rest of her body, falling all the way down her back and reaching her thorax; it’d grown out, ever since she first gained her new body. She never cut it, that would be silly. A queen needed to look regal.

Besides, Kymani showed a surprising talent with hair brushing. His forelegs were quite dextrous; perhaps she should have him braid it? Maybe if she had the proper materials…

Ariel pursed her lips, then smiled again. It was decided. She’d go out and find a “hairdresser”. One should probably wander into Bleakclaw at some point. Or maybe she could find one? She didn’t go outside the mountain, except to toss out the invaders she robbed, so she didn’t quite know where to find someone like that…Though she did have options if she wanted to…

So it was decided! Again! And with that decision, she turned and promptly pulled one of her dresses from the makeshift rack she had made some time ago. She’d become quite the handy arachne–not just because she now had hands–due to some helpful books that described things like how to assemble furniture, how to sew, and how to skin various animals. As such, she now had a number of amenities in her own personal quarters, formed at her request by Peter, and a number of lovely gowns to go with them.

Without informing Elliot or Peter her plans, she immediately went off, going to the exit of the mountains in search of a hairdresser. Where one would be found, she wasn’t sure, but she was sure that it would be easy enough for someone like her. 

After all, she did let several invaders out without harming any of them, so clearly they owed her. Though she did have to say, the light from the sun was quite harsh today; good thing she also brought one of her many hats. It was one of her heavier hats, wide-brimmed and woven from her own silk, but that just meant that it would better protect her from the sun. Walking through the fields past Bleakclaw’s moat, she made her way towards a single direction, assured in her decision that she would find people soon enough. 

And she did, eventually. More specifically, she found a town. She’d later learn the town was named Mountainshade, for its close proximity to her home, but at the moment, she was more interested in the people and less in the town itself. Sure, it was a nice town, composed of stone and woods and tiles and walls that criss-crossed through its streets due to its status as the former lair of a long dead lord, and it was also technically the first town she’d ever been in, but she had better things to focus on than history she didn’t know.

Like people! Though the first people she saw immediately ran away in obvious panic. So that was something. What made it more awkward was the fact that they seemed to be the town’s guardians, so…No matter, that merely meant her ability to traverse the town would go unhindered. And it was still quite the cute town, mostly composed of black stone that reminded her of home. 

“You.” She pointed to one of the peasants nearby, who was pressed up against the wall, out of her path. Most of the peasants seemed to be out of her path, in fact. In a way, she almost felt like the queen in her royal procession back in–Ah, no, focusing. “Are you a hairdresser?”

“…N-No? Uh…s-s-sorry.”

Useless then. “Point me to one.”

“…A-Ah, uh, th-th-there’s a barber-”

“I did not ask for a barber.” She walked closer to the…human? Brown skin, black hair, rounded ears, bearded…either a human or a dwarf…She didn’t know heights, precisely, but he was smaller than her. “Point me to the hairdresser.”

“R-R-Right, s-s-sorry milady! A-Ah, u-u-uh-” He glanced around, looking to other townsfolk for some type of hint–

“You’re an arachne.”

Ariel paused, then turned to the source of the voice behind her. Then stared. And stared. And continued to stare. And stared some more.

The radiant beauty waited for her with a simple smile, her golden eyes meeting Ariel’s with ease despite the height difference between them. Her ears were pointed. So. Not a human? “Are you human?”

“Mostly,” the beauty replied, continuing to smile. There was such an ease to her stance, no rigidity, no tension, simply calm, collected interest. Interest in Ariel? That…

“I see.” She didn’t, not quite…well, people of different races could interbreed, so…Yes, of course, the beauty had to come from…from some other type of person. Something divine, certainly. She was too bright not to be.

Ariel could see it so easily. The color that pulsed just under her skin, the sheer well of power there, shimmering obviously through the crimson robe she wore…Plague and Blood and Thirst, intertwined and glowing so very bright…

Ariel abruptly remembered that there were protocols and manners and things she should be doing when meeting someone of such obviously royal bearing and so she turned fully to face the beauty and smiled and curtsied, gripping the silks of her skirt as delicately as she could as she bowed her head. “I am Ariel, Queen of Bleakclaw.”

“Greetings to you, oh Queen of Bleakclaw,” the beauty replied as she bowed in return. A short, respectful bow, but not a deep one. That meant…something? Were they meant to be equals? “I am Countess Claire Valondrac of Blekhon, and it’s my sincere pleasure to meet you!”

A count? “You are a vampire?” Ariel paused, then looked up. The sun was up. That was the sun, right? Yes, it was, so…

“Nope! Again, mostly human. Human enough to be considered more human than not,” Valondrac explained as she straightened, still smiling. She had a very nice smile. “I just happen to hold the title of a count.” 

“Right…is there something you need?” 

“You, actually.” 

Her heart thumped. “…H-Huh?” 

“I came here to see the queen of Bleakclaw, and since that’s you, that means I came here to see you.” 

“O-Oh, I see. Well, if that is the case, then give me whatever offerings you have. Otherwise, show me to a hairdresser.” 

Valondrac shook her head, still smiling her pretty smile. “My apologies, I didn’t bring any offerings. I can, however, offer tea if you’re willing to talk with me.” 

“…Tea?” Hm. Yes, that was something from the book she had never been able to have. Peter was able to make tea leaves, but none of them knew how to make that into tea. And it was quite common for a queen to drink tea, right? So, obviously, she should drink some for the first time in her life. 

“Very well, I shall have this tea,” Ariel, keeping her voice calm to not appear too eager, acquiesced, then gestured for the countess to lead the way. 

Smiling, the countess turned, leading Ariel away from the village, and as they walked, the arachne noticed that some flamboyant fool was going about the town, seemingly trying to calm the villagers. Oddly pale, that one, much whiter than most of the humans. Humans?

“Those were humans, correct?”

“Probably,” Valondrac agreed without hesitation, “I doubt any of them would have orcish blood this far out. You might see some people with that closer to the larger cities, where the caravans tend to travel, but out here in the boonies? Nope. I’d consider potential goblin heritage, but they also tend to stick to cities, and Bleakclaw acts as a decent deterrent to most people looking to settle somewhere nearby.”

“Hm. Fascinating.” It actually was. She was learning so much! Though what would be a good follow-up question? “So why is that village there?”

“You can attribute that to human stubbornness. Did you know there’s a saying on the subject? ‘Goblins can live anywhere because they adapt to their surroundings. Humans can live anywhere because they force their surroundings to adapt to them.’ I’m sure there’s a simpler version than that, but that’s how I heard it. Anyhow, people will live where it feels safe and there’s potential to thrive, and while Bleakclaw does deter some people, it also draws others looking for adventure.” Valondrac grinned back at her and Ariel felt her heart thump again. “Essentially, what you have here is a town perfect for fleecing suckers looking to strike it rich by conquering the unconquerable mountain.”

Ariel stood straighter and tilted her head back in an “imperious” manner, like the books said to do. “Unconquerable to lesser fools, perhaps, yet here I stand, the conqueror of the once unconquered mountain.”

“Yup yup, I can see you’re quite the majestic conqueror too.” Ariel’s face went hot right as Valondrac turned again, leading her towards some sort of house on wheels–Carriage! That was a carriage, she knew what a carriage was. It was a little ways outside the village too, out near the plains surrounding, waiting there with some sort of attendant. “Which brings me to my main point of coming to you today. The subject of conquering, rulership, and all those types of fiddly things that go into how nations work. Mainly because I’m aiming to conquer every nation.”

Ariel could believe it. Looking at Valondrac, she could see how it could be possible. Ariel had conquered her home mountain so how hard could it be to keep going with that? Just keep doing what she did until all the “nations” were hers, simple. That being said. 

“And are you aiming to conquer Bleakclaw as well?” 

“And what would you do if I said yes?” Grinning, Valondrac’s eyes seemed to sharpen as she looked up at Ariel. Crossing her arms, Ariel glared back.

“I would have to show you how I conquered Bleakclaw in the first place.” 

“Is that so-” As the tension grew, both paused as they heard a loud rumbling that made Bleakclaw itself seem to shake. And as they both looked over at the mountain, they saw its peak burst apart as a familiar sight let out a guttural screech and immediately raced down the mountain, aiming directly at the two.

Which was probably bad, because the village was in Elliot’s way.

“Is that a colossus?” Valondrac didn’t seem bothered though, more interested.

“A stone branch colossus, yes,” Ariel replied, smiling at her advantage in knowledge, “That would be my brother, Elliot. And the rest of my brother, Luca, Kymani, Jaren, Tyson, Noah, Zaeed, and Bitch.”

“And he wears top hats?”

Ariel beamed proudly. “I made them for him.” Aside from Jaren’s hat, since he preferred wearing a shield instead like a sort of cap. 

“Fascinating. Is he going to stop?”

“Probably not. I didn’t realize he could even move. Well, I know his branches can move, but I didn’t think his mound could.” The massive legs jutting from Elliot’s central body were certainly new. They actually reminded Ariel a bit of her own, with how they were shaped, and she could faintly see Peter glowing on his pedestal in the middle of said mound. Also, there was a great deal of panicked screaming coming from the town.

“Great, good to know, can you get him to stop?”

“Probably. Why?”

“If he doesn’t stop, the town gets flattened. Though it might anyhow, considering that landslide…” Valondrac frowned, then…sprouted wings. Huh.

“…Are you an angel?”

“No, different thing. Do you want me to carry you, or can you make it over there yourself?”

Ariel blinked. “…Carry me?”

“Alright, but this’ll take some maneuvering.” Ariel blinked again, then most definitely did not squeak when Valondrac hopped on her back and wrapped her arms around her upper waist.

“Eep-W-What are-” Then they were both flying and Ariel felt her face burning again as she was outright carried over the village before she was set down, surprisingly gently, in front of the village gates again. Which still had no guards in front of it. Were they ever coming back? No, no, more important matters to address, like the fact that Valondrac’s chest had been right up against her back and that–

“Alright, this’ll be interesting,” Valondrac muttered as she hopped off and walked in front of Ariel, focused right on the approaching landslide and enraged colossus. She took a deep breath, planted one foot firmly on the ground, set her arms out, palms down, then rose them like she was lifting–

A massive set of earthen walls erupted from the ground in front of her, blocking every last chunk of stone in its tracks in an immense explosion of dust, Elliot’s surprised shrieking sounding out through all the noise. Then Ariel suddenly felt Valondrac’s hand in hers, setting her face alight again, when she was suddenly yanked then pushed forward, in front of Valondrac.

“Landslide handled, please tell your brother I’m not an issue.”

Ariel blinked once again, then looked back at Valondrac with wide eyes. The human(??) stared back, her gaze now distinctly unamused. “…H-Hm. Before I do-” Her eyes sharpened into a glare and Ariel reflexively gulped. Just…not exactly out of fear. It was a different emotion. “-…W-Why, precisely, were you looking for me in the first place?”

“Oh, that.” She relaxed. “Two reasons, really. One, I wanted to find out more about the ‘white arachne of Bleakclaw’. You’ve made a name for yourself, and if you turned out to be amicable to the idea, I was going to ask if you wanted to join my armies in conquering the world.”

“…As your subordinate?” Ariel felt a very weird sensation right then and there. For some reason…the idea appealed?

“Subordinate, partner, nominal ally who I can trust to watch my back, whichever. I like finding interesting people and bringing them to my side. I can’t exactly rule the world all on my own, can I? It’s a big place, and I need some people to help.”

“…We’re stronger together…” Ariel echoed, barely even noticing Elliot’s heads poking over the wall and chattering amongst himself as he tried to figure out what was going on.

Valondrac beamed. She had a lovely smile. “Exactly! Oh, and as for reason two, how would you like to be in charge of your own coterie, completely leaderless and ripe for the taking?”

“…What?”

Act 3: The Darling of the Woodcourt Coterie

“Okay, so quick refresher before we get there,” Claire began, clapping her hands together as she sat cross-legged on the cushion laid out for her, her lovely black hair blowing slightly in the breeze as they moved through the plains and marshes the outside world seemed to consist of.

“I understand the basics just fine,” Ariel retorted, sitting on a cushion of her own. Which consisted of extending her legs far enough to let her abdomen rest on the cushion, which had been brought by Claire’s oddly pale servant, who was named Jonathan. Claire left him behind to guard that town from any other curious monsters that may come from Bleakclaw, so Ariel was having a nice trip without any potential interruptions. “There are other spiders like me out in the world–” Though none quite as gorgeously alabaster, from what she had heard. “–and they have their own little societies, and this one needs a new queen.”

“Yeah yeah, you definitely do get the basics there, but that’s still just the basics, and the members of the coterie will have annoying things like ‘expectations’ and ‘protocols’ that we should at least play along with if you really do want to help me with this.”

“Of course I do, having a sudden increase in minions would be beneficial to me too–” And there was, admittedly, a part of her that was intrigued by the prospect of meeting others of her kind again. “–but are constant ‘refreshers’ really necessary?”

Elliot raised his head and glanced back at them, chittering a reprimand that got Ariel to scowl at the potential interruption she completely disregarded because she didn’t think he’d comment. “I’m not being obtuse! I just don’t see the point here! I’ll come in, beat the biggest one, and the rest will fall in line!” 

“…Right, we do need to talk more. Because that’s just…super wrong.”

Ariel frowned, then huffed, just a tad annoyed. This trip was supposed to be more…well not romantic, but at least fun.

As for the trip itself, she and Claire were traveling in style to the “Wood Court”, the dominion of some sort of group called the Woodcourt Coterie. There’d been a few mentions of such things in Ariel’s book collection, but mostly in the context of merchant groups, so she really didn’t see why they were such a big deal. Oh, and the “in style” part referred to the fact that they were traveling on Elliot’s back.

He’d been more than happy to calm down and hear Claire out once it was explained that she hadn’t abducted Ariel from the mountain or attempted to kill her, as Peter assumed when they apparently detected Ariel’s…reactions. Which wasn’t her fault, really it was theirs for assuming, but she did give a slight apology for just up and leaving without telling them a thing. Then she had to back away immediately because Elliot tried to nuzzle her and there was no way she was showing that kind of weakness in front of her crush–In front of her potential partner in conquest.

“Fine. Then regale me with the history of my people.”

Claire snorted, an utterly adorable noise. “Fine fine, you got it. Now, you know better than anyone that dungeons have a tendency to spawn monsters, ranging from the minuscule to the gigantic.” She rapped her knuckles on Elliot’s shell for emphasis while Peter pinged with pride, a smug aura emanating from the core that Ariel frowned at. “Some cores tend to find specializations too, things they become especially good at creating in a sort of ‘theme’, which leads to things like ‘gold dungeons’ that lure in travelers with shiny treasure and rob them of everything they’re worth or ‘slime dungeons’, which are essentially just filled with the most basic, squishy, and adorable of monsters in existence. They develop their own biomes, find specific niches, all that.

“Here’s the thing though. If you have a type of…well, whether a core counts as an object or a being depends on who you ask, but things that create life have a tendency to wind up not knowing exactly what they’re doing, especially when they mix and match things in an attempt to create more effective protectors. It’s why you’ll see things like chimeras wandering out in the world.”

“And what, pray tell, does this have to do with arachnes?” Ariel demanded, getting impatient. Sure, Claire’s voice was nice, but she didn’t like being lectured.

“Right, my bad, I get wordy sometimes. To sum it up, the main theory for why your people exist as they do is ‘a dungeon did it’. Take a natural predator like a spider and boost its size while rearranging its internal systems to make a viable guardian and you get giant spiders. Now, as for your intelligence, that’s a harder one to figure out. Random mutation could be the cause, or it could be that cores figured out intelligent monsters were better guardians. We have evidence for either in the form of the myrmidons from Olafiba and the melifers of Skiritaba, along with other ‘apocrit’ races, but aranae, the collective name for intelligent species of giant spiders, are weird. Amazing, but weird.”

Ariel tried not to preen at being called amazing. “And what makes us so amazing to you?”

Claire’s face twitched, almost like she stopped herself from laughing. “G-Good question. So, aranae have a few quirks that separate them from the other…I’m not sure if there’s even a collective term here…arthropodic races? I suppose? Anyhow, aranae are something of a mystery, because no one’s sure how long they’ve actually been around. We have records of giant spiders dating back thousands of years, but we don’t know how many were intelligent because there are so many conflicting accounts and legends there. What we know for sure is that aranae suddenly rose up around three thousand years ago, at the start of the current era and actually turned out to be a huge counter force to the vampiric nobility of Inrapaba, overwhelming longstanding power structures that were just starting to reform themselves after the fall of Parzeli.”

“Who?”

“Not important at the moment, I can explain that jackass later. Point is, it turns out giant spiders beat vampires in most direct conflicts, especially when it comes to a vampire going up against an arachne, the ‘natural queens’ of the aranae race. Like you.”

Like her. “Like me.”

“Exactly. Now, the ‘natural queen’ thing is another one of those amazing slash weird points, where specifically the females of the aranae race are capable of metamorphosing into shapes like yours when some specific requirements are met. I don’t know the exact details, books can only tell you so much and aranae lore is filled with nonsensical fear mongering from arachnophobes, but most give mention to arachne having a natural ‘soul of authority’ that makes them naturally trend towards leadership roles in hierarchical structures. As such, most large groups of aranae will have an arachne at their head, and some, such as the coteries, have multiple, usually with their own hierarchical structure among them.”

“Hm. So why doesn’t the ‘wood court’ have one?”

“Conflict, mostly. Coteries are different from traditional noble structures in that they’re more like large scale guilds, with an emphasis on the production and selling of goods and amenities to obtain economic powers. See, while aranae have been involved in multiple wars of conquest and whatnot, often joining up with or even becoming Demon Lords in their drives for wealth and power, but that’s not exactly sustainable for any sort of society, particularly when one actually wants to take advantage of other races’ unique talents and not just have their own ‘queendom of webs’ where they and their kin rule over basically empty wastelands due to overhunting and-”

“You’re rambling again.”

Claire blinked, blushed, and cleared her throat, not noticing how Ariel had to actively resist fawning over how adorable she was. “Right. Anyhow, the long and short of it is that they decided to focus on using things like their ability to produce silk and surprising talents at domesticating monsters to form ‘business societies’, with them at the top. So now Inrapaba has two types of aristocracy, one that asserts itself through divine privilege and another that uses economic influence.”

“Truly fascinating, Countess Valondrac. However, you still didn’t explain why the Woodcourt doesn’t have a leader.”

“…Mmph.” She looked quite cute when she pouted too. “From what I know, the old president of the coterie, Lady Abigail Leicester, died of an illness without any heirs. The lumber-focused coterie took some hits with a combination of Demon Lord Orast drawing in some of their members decades ago, and then the more recent Demon Lord Irascagan actively killed a few of their ranking members during his own ascension. Add in at least one other coterie poaching some talent, and they’ve been on a severe downswing that I, in my very magnanimous way, have offered to help them out of.”

“Which is why I am here.”

“Precisely! They want a new queen, you’re a new queen, you want minions, they’re natural minions, I want an ally, I help you out, everyone wins!”

Ariel nodded and stood from her cushion. “Understood. Let’s be off then.” 

With that, she promptly hopped from Elliot’s back and strolled towards the sprawling lumberyard as Claire let out an impressed noise behind her. “Woah. I didn’t even notice we stopped.”

Ariel sniffed, affecting an air of noble composure as she walked through the cleared plain, drawing the eyes of a startlingly diverse mix of workers. Mostly a mix of aranae, who seemed to be of the brown and black speckled variety, and green and gray bipeds, the former of which were smaller–which probably made them goblins–while the latter stood taller than Claire and nearly at the same height as Ariel, which meant they had to be orcs. That, or goliaths, but goliaths supposedly had pale skin tones and lacked tusks, so she doubted that.

The lumberyard was surprisingly open too, though that may be owed to the large boars she saw they were using as draft animals, pulling carts of logs and whatnot. The rough, spine covered animals did exude an aura of menace she was used to seeing from some of Bleakclaw’s residents, though they noticeably shrunk back when she turned her gaze on them.

None of them mattered though. Not the workers pausing to stare, not the sawmills casting chips of wood in the air nor the windmills creaking ominously in the wind, and certainly not the beasts of burden hitched to carts full of uncut logs or finished planks. What mattered was the immense manor she saw towards the center of the yard, where webs spread through the large columns supporting its tilted roof, centered by a gazebo-esque dome cocooned in webbing.

In other words, the type of manor the nobles from her novels had, almost exactly as she pictured. Though this one had more aranae walking across it, which just made it better in her opinion.

And one was approaching her as she walked towards it, a small, black and brown speckled male wearing a deep green overcoat and matching bowler hat. His black eyes examined her for a moment, then he had the gall to turn his gaze towards Claire. “Countess Valondrac. I see you have returned.”

“I said I would, didn’t I?” Claire smiled though, then pressed a hand to her chest while raising the other towards Ariel as she gave a shallow bow. “May I present to you the Queen of Bleakclaw Mountain, Ariel. Ariel, this is Edmond Rowlatt, one of the upper managers of the coterie.”

“Queen eh? Hm.” His pedipalps flared, radiating audacious displeasure as he turned his gaze back to her. “Quite the pale one, isn’t she?”

I am a guest on your lands,” Ariel sniped back, scowling.

“Guest, eh? A guest, bringing monsters.” He glared over at Elliot, whose heads were looking around curiously at the workers watching him warily. “You realize this could very well count as an invasion of our territory, Countess Valondrac.”

Ariel stepped forward, scowling deeper. “You are not speaking to her, you are speaking to me! I am here because you seek a queen. I am a queen. Here is your solution, right in front of you.”

Edmond sniffed, dismissive. “You’re a dungeon-born beast, no true queen–”

He squealed as she drove a leg down on his head, pushing him into the dirt. “WHAT WAS THAT?!

“GYAH! G-GET OFF! Y-YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHAT YOU’RE-”

“I KNOW EXACTLY WHAT I’M DOING! YOU DARE TRY TO DISMISS ME!? YOU SPEAK TO ME AS IF I AM A BEAST!?”

She caught the web shot at her and yanked the idiot aranae that spat it off his feet, gripping him by the face as he shrieked in panic. She snapped her gaze towards him and he quelled in her hand before she raised her head, looking at the other workers around. There were some orcs and goblins holding crossbows and some aranae in wide-brimmed, high-crowned plains hats and blue coats were aiming at her with glowing balls of fiery darkness in between their pedipalps.

Claire was frowning. Elliot seemed tense. Neither moved as Ariel let her gaze drift over every last idiot in the yard.

“Let the boss go, freak,” one of the spiders snarled, only to immediately quail as Ariel glared straight at him.

Freak? Freak. You think I’m a freak? Are you stupid? Are you a fucking moron? Can none of you recognize beauty when it’s right in front of you?! You think I’m some idiot beast wandering in here, throwing her weight around? No.” She promptly chucked the spider in her grip over her shoulder, letting him land with a squeak and obvious panic as he scurried away. “I want you to understand this. I am your new queen. You want one, don’t you? So let me ask, why are you so absolutely stupid to reject what gift arrives right in front of you?”

“…You’re some random white arachne that’s stepping on our boss.”

“AND IS HE REALLY WORTHY OF BEING YOUR BOSS IF I CAN DO THIS!?” She pressed harder for emphasis, earning a strange noise from Edmond that made his workers stare at him oddly for some reason.

“…I mean, he’s not our top boss.”

“And who would that be?”

“Me, young miss.” 

Ariel paused, then looked back at the manor, and at the very, very large aranae now standing over her. He wasn’t exactly Elliot’s size, but he was large and felt old. Unlike the rest, the black spider in front of her was flecked with gray instead of brown, and he wore a number of monocles over some of his aged eyes. He also had a very lovely top hat, and an equally nice black coat.

She nodded to him, inclining her head enough to show respect but not even a hint of deference. “Greetings, elder one. I am Ariel, Queen of Bleakclaw. I request knowledge of your name.”

The elder’s fangs flared in surprise, before he nodded respectfully back. “I am Bartram Leicester-Rowlatt, husband to my late Abigail, may the Miser rest her soul, and acting President of the Woodcourt Coterie. If I may apologize, it seems my son has acted with haste in his attitudes towards you, your majesty.”

“He did.” Ariel didn’t smile yet, nor remove her tarsus from Edmond’s head. She liked the proper use of her title and clear respect here, but she was taking things seriously. “Why doesn’t he share your surname?”

“It is a tradition, your majesty, for the arachne of a coterie to take a spouse from amongst her noble followers. Of the children produced from their union, only those of our race who become arachne retain the royal name, while all others instead retake the noble name.”

“And you are satisfied with this arrangement?”

“Of course, your majesty. One must know where one stands in life. To be royal is different from being noble which is different from being servile. Similarly, one must be aware of their suitability for their positions. You wove that dress yourself, did you not?”

She frowned. He was going somewhere with this that she didn’t like. “I did.”

“It is lovely. The hats your companion wears are quite spiffy as well. You would do well as a garment maker, should you focus your talents that way. You clearly would do well as a fighter as well, judging by your command over such a grand monster.” He nodded to Elliot, who preened, some heads chittering modestly while others acted smug. “Yet you lack the knowledge of aranae culture. We, if you would pardon the cliché, weave a tangled web of etiquette and political intrigue as we maintain our power and authority in a land with very mixed opinions towards our kind. You stand out already with your alabaster radiance. Would you be satisfied with being branded an ignorant nouveau riche if you were to walk amongst our competitors?”

“Of course not! That’s why I’ll bring one of you with me to tell me what those idiots will be going on about! I can read up on the rest in the meantime. You do have books on the subject, don’t you?”

Bartram blinked. “Your majesty, that would be…Having one of us follow you–”

“Royals have attendants for social events and interpreters when dealing with foreign powers. I have no experience with this society, thus I am a foreign power. You will interpret, and you will do your job right so I don’t look like an idiot, got it?”

“I-Now-My word, you-Are you truly this arrogant?? Young lady, we are talking about–”

Ariel stepped on his head too. Simply lifted a leg and slammed it down on his head, driving him into the dirt too amid panicked cries of “BOSS!” from the peons around.

We are talking about how I am your queen now, so you will be doing as I say and working for my advancement in this society. ‘We are stronger together’, and that means I am stronger when you help me properly! And in turn, I’ll fix this ramshackle stupidity you’ve apparently let your coterie fall into. Am I understood?”

“Gh-Y-Yes m-m-mistress!” came the immediate reply, Bartram’s legs twitching with the effort of keeping himself in place. By now, Edmond was just making some odd keening noise. 

“Good. Now, we’ll also be moving operations closer to my home. Bleakclaw is much better situated than this weird field place. We can keep it as an outpost as I expand my territory. You’ll also be delivering information on the other coteries so we can work on getting them on our side and removing any forces that are active threats to us.”

“O-O-Of c-c-course, m-m-mistress!”

“Further, we will be allying with the Countess Valondrac posthaste, and I will be in discussions with her on how exactly that alliance shall be progressing, understood?”

“N-Nhhooh, h-h-harder…”

She frowned, ignoring the collective “what” she heard sound out around her, and stepped down harder on Bartram’s head. “Understood?

“Y-Y-Yes! Y-Yes, y-y-yes, o-of c-course, m-mistress! A-Anything you desire!”

“Good.” And she finally let the two shaking spiders up, before turning her crimson gaze on the rest of the peons watching, all of them stiffening to attention as she glared. “Well? Do you want a prize? GET BACK TO WORK!

They all immediately darted off, some outright dropping their weapons as they went. Which was stupid, those were valuable. Also, one crossbow went off and wound up smashing one of the manor’s windows. 

“…” Ariel turned back to Bartram, then noted one of his own monocles was visibly broken. “I’ll replace that later.”

“A-A-Ah, o-of course. Thank you, m-my most generous mistress…” Still shaking, the larger aranae turned back to the manor with an oddly eager energy in his step. He must’ve really been happy to get a new queen. 

And Edmond was also there, staring up at her. “What?”

“…a-ah, n-n-nothing, m-mistress. I’ll, uh…I’ll get back to it.” He scurried off too, which left her alone with Claire, who Ariel turned towards with a wide grin, clapping her hands together.

“Well that went fantastically! As I said, all I have to do is make them obey properly and know their place! A success all around!”

“…” Claire gave her a weird looking smile, nodded, and gave her a thumbs up. For some reason, Elliot sighed behind her, but Ariel didn’t care about that, because she had so many new things to get caught up on!

And catch up she did, as she improved, grew in power, and worked alongside her many new minions to gradually expand their businesses and operations. She discovered a rather impressive talent for management and sabotage, working amid a truly tangled web of politics and economics to build herself up higher and higher, though it would take a very long time to elaborate on every last maneuver and scheme she put together to ensure all the other arachne in power knew just who they were dealing with.

Thus the small white spider of Bleakclaw Mountain became Lady Ariel Leicester, Darling President of the Woodcourt Coterie, ruler of Bleakclaw Manor–built right on top of the ruined mountain–and the newest ally of the woman she loved.

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