12 “SPIDERS AND SNAKES” [Speck of Light]

John Smith’s armory was well stocked with some of the finest Daemon weaponry in the cosmos. He had even garnered a few Elven trophies won by wager at the poker table. But the finest weapon in his armory lay asleep on the top floor of his manor house. The Lucifer was a living breathing force to be reckoned with when she was in battle mode. And he would not give her up so easily to the Elven Invicta who sought to woo her away.

Daeron had moved into Thomas’ garage apartment to be there to help Thomas hone his skills as an Invicta. There was a time when Helen would have wandered off and established a new life after having exposed herself to strangers. But this time she decided not to move on. There was something comfortable about being Helen Zaranie. Helen had gone back to living in John’s estate house. And she really loved her lofty room in the cupola above the manor’s central hall. It was an odd architectural feature inconsistent with the rest of the design of the manor house. It was situated at the back of the house at the top of what could only be described as a keep.

Although Helen had given herself a week away from being an accountant, it only took her a few days to become bored of doing absolutely nothing. She began to explore the manor house a room at a time inspecting every nook and corner of each of the rooms on the topmost floor. Most of the previous owners had used them for storage and had left most of their stored items behind. There was a lot for Helen to pick through in the rooms closest to hers.

The first room that Helen entered dated back so far that even the spiders had abandoned it. The cobwebs had cobwebs and those had a thick coat of dust. And old spindle cradle held a dusty old doll whose dress had turned brown with age. Her porcelain face and legs were a creamy white beneath the dust and mildew in the room. A small carved rocking horse bore a cracked leather saddle that had once been a bright red. And old wooden trunk held the remains of a wedding dress and a crinoline. The white leather boots inside had shriveled and cracked with age. The one treasure was a long-forgotten portrait of the bride and groom. Helen rescued the oil painting from the obscurity of the trunk, determined to find it a suitable frame.

Another dusty room was someone’s sewing room. An old spinning wheel sat at one end, a loom at another, and an old pedal driven sewing machine facing the window. An antique stuffed dress form stood leaking straw onto the floor. A dense cobweb held the last of the straw dangling through the hole. A long-abandoned mouse nest lay in one corner of the room. There was evidence that the mouse fled in haste. Helen smiled as she imagined herself at work there. As she went through the motion of spinning and weaving, she found a small silver thimble that she pocketed. At the table where the fabric would be cut, she found a pair of scissors that had been spared from rust by its brocade case. She returned to her room to add those two items to her small collection.

As she pushed open the door to one of the rooms she felt resistance on the other side. Except for the floor to ceiling cobwebs, the room was empty. The light of day barely filtered through the dense dust-coated webbing. There must have been a thriving colony of spiders living there, but now there were only dusty old cobwebs and the old remains of a few insects. Helen closed the door and moved on to another room. John knew that in her exploration of the manor house that it was only a matter of time until Helen discovered the armory.

Helen also spent some time wandering about the grounds of the estate. Outside the house she spent time in the gardens wondering how John found the time to keep them. It helped that the flower gardens were perennials but they were both weed and pest free. In the vegetable garden to the back of the manor, she found a colony of garden snakes hard at work keeping the plants free of pests. She gently lifted one off the ground and inspected it as it traveled around her hand. Smiling, she set it loose back into the garden and wandered back into the house.

Inside the back kitchen, Helen spotted a small furry spider watching her. She walked close to the wall where it clung to get a better view. It was there that she noticed the seam in the wainscot paneling of the kitchen wall. She gently pressed against it opening it up and revealing the vestibule of a stairway going up. The small spider leapt inside the stairwell and skittered upward. Helen followed the spider to a landing above. She pulled open the door and entered the sunlit space. It was full of wire shelves and cooking supplies, looking a bit like John had raided a restaurant supply store at some point. On the other side of the room was another door leading to a second set of stairs leading up.

The next level up had been a child’s playroom at some point based on the decorations on the wall. Most of them were the trappings of a circus: clowns, balloons, elephants, strong men, and various depictions of zoo animals in train car cages. The carpet on the floor of the room depicted a town with roadways and buildings common to the era. The remains of several wooden cars and trucks lay piled against a wall. A toy chest held wooden building blocks, woodcut jigsaw puzzles, and several other toys suitable for indoor play. But the crowning glory of the room was a puppet theatre stocked with both hand puppets and marionettes. Much of the red velvet curtains had become coated with dust and spider webs. Helen took each puppet carefully out of where it had been stored and laid them out on the floor behind the stage. A small marionette meant for a child’s hand was the last denizen of the storage box. It depicted a fairy with gossamer wings and a dress of pink silk. “I’ll be back for you later,” Helen told the little toy as she laid it carefully on the top of the storage box. She found another secret door opposite the one she came in and pushed it open.

The door on the next level up had a puzzle lock on the door. After examining the mechanism, Helen deftly solved the puzzle and opened the door to a child’s bedroom. The bed was close to the floor and curtained. The handmaid quilt upon the bed depicted a family coat of arms. There was a small wardrobe against a wall. A table and chair were against another wall beneath a lamp. Yellowed drawing paper and charcoal pencils were scattered on the table and nearby floor. Helen studied one of the crude drawings. A man stood beside a unicorn being ridden by a woman, or at least that is what it looked like to Helen. Another drawing showed a steam train engine stopped by a water tower. Helen piled up the papers and left the unicorn on top.

The next door up the secret staircase had another puzzle lock to solve. It took Helen a little longer to solve the slide lock as there were more pieces to this lock than the one on the door below. She slowly pulled open the door to a familiar sight. There before her was the bed she had been using since moving into the manor house. Coming into the room from the other side offered her a view of things in the room that she hadn’t noticed before. On the side of the wardrobe facing the secret door hung a charcoal portrait of the marionette from the playroom fighting off an attack from a spider, below it was another picture of the marionette fighting off a knot of snakes. Clearly, that marionette had been special to the child that made the drawings.

Helen explored the walls of the room to see what else may have been hidden from notice and discovered a dumbwaiter that began in the formal kitchen of the house. Breakfast was likely sent up on days when the master of the house slept in. She made a note of the place where the dumbwaiter was in the room and a mental note to check the rooms below.

The secret staircase had ended at the parent’s bedroom. It did not go to the glass cupola on the roof. The only stairs up were from inside the parent’s room. Thick panes of glass had been fitted into brass frames. A solid rod ran down the side of the manor and sank below the earth to carry away the consequences of the occasional lightning strike. A set of doors led to a tiled rooftop deck. A solid railing surrounded the deck with slits near the bottom to allow for the drainage of storm water. Helen had slept in the glass cupola from time to time.

Although recently she hadn’t been sleeping much of anywhere. Every time she closed her eyes she was visited by a recurring nightmare. She was caught in the midst of a war between arachnids and reptilians unable to take a side simply because she had no idea who was in the wrong. Or was she there to scare them both into ending their war? Helen would have to ask Mammon about the dream war. But for now, she just wanted to finish exploring the manor house.

The dumbwaiter had piqued her curiosity about the original kitchen. She walked down the central hall stairs until she reached the foyer. She entered the dining hall and headed toward the back of the manor. Stepping into the master kitchen was quite an experience. An old fashioned central fireplace was outfitted with several iron pots and supplied heat to a quartet of brick ovens flanking it. Water could be drawn from a cistern in the center of the room. Several gas appliances had been installed against the outer wall opposite the fireplace. A variety of cast iron, steel, and aluminum cookware hung from the ceiling from racks. The cupboards were full of antique china and stoneware. The eclectic nature of the space was the result of gradual attempts to modernize without losing too much of the character of the house in the process.

At the back of the ballroom were two lounges designated Gentlemen and Ladies. The men’s lounge had overstuffed leather armchairs arranged in small conversational groups. The oak paneled walls sported a thin layer of tar and soot from cigar smoke. Ashtrays with the remnants of tobacco ashes were scattered about various tables. A door labeled ‘WATER CLOSET’ led to a small toilet and sink. A carved cherry billiard table stood near the window. Hanging overhead were a pair of railroad lanterns.

The women’s lounge had several velvet upholstered settees and armchairs as well as a door to another water closet. At the back of the room was a door labeled ‘BIDET’ behind which there was a small carved unicorn with an oblong copper basin where a saddle would have been. There was also a brocaded fainting couch near the window. The eggshell base was decorated with blue and silver threads creating a paisley pattern. The legs of the couch were brass claws clutching glass balls. One end of the couch rose upward to form a pillow.

Helen lay down on the couch and quickly succumbed to exhaustion. Entering the dreamscape, she soon found herself back on the battlefield fighting both spiders and snakes and too fed-up to care if she left any of them standing at the end of it all.

“Enough!” Helen shouted into the melee as she let loose a burst of light strong enough to stun the combatants into stillness. “Can’t we settle this without more senseless fighting and death?”

A spider raised a leg to impale a snake only to lose it as Helen burned it off. “I guess not,” she sighed.

The snake slithered off for the safety of its lines while the spider examined the stump Helen had left. It made a run at Helen, only to end up a steaming husk. The snakes had wisely surmised that the way to survive was to leave the battlefield without attacking their enemy on the way off. A few more spiders were boiled alive before they caught on. While the rest of the spiders took off for their side of the battlefield, a single small spider strode slowly toward Helen. It reached for her cheek and stroked it gently.

Helen awoke in the late afternoon to the sight of the little jumping spider sitting on her cheek. As she sat up, the spider jumped away and ran off toward the wall. Helen yawned and stretched and stumbled toward the door. The little spider followed her agilely jumping through the door when Helen opened it.

Feeling the need for caffeine, Helen headed back toward John’s kitchen to brew a pot of coffee. Her grumbling stomach complained about being empty. She couldn’t remember when she had eaten last. Inside the refrigerator she found a wrapped sandwich with her name on it. Helen grabbed a plate and sat the sandwich down on it. A bag of chips and a mug of coffee rounded out her lunch.

The jumping spider joined Helen at the table and watched her eat. She slowly unwrapped the sandwich to see what John had made for her lunch. It was an avocado and chicken salad sandwich on tomato basil bread. She threw the little jumping spider a crumb of chicken which it gratefully accepted. After finishing her lunch, she cleared away the trash and placed the empty plate into the sink. Helen poured a second mugful of coffee and turned the machine off. As she walked out to the front portico, the small spider jumped to her shoulder and traveled with her.

Helen sipped her coffee and watched the shadows lengthen across the front gardens. She slipped into a reverie of a life without combat. It was a fantasy of hers, a personal fairy tale where she and John were just two ordinary people. Since finding the child’s room she added to that fantasy. She watched as an imaginary child frolicked among the flower beds chasing butterflies. She hadn’t decided whether the child would be a boy or a girl. “Perhaps I should add another and have one of each,” she thought.

Helen’s reverie was interrupted by John reaching to flick the spider off her shoulder. She reached out to intercept his hand. “No, don’t do that. He’s a friend.”

“You’re adopting spiders now?” John sat down next to her. “How was your day?”

“Strangely calm, except for the recurring nightmare war.”

“Ready to share?”

Helen shrugged her shoulders prompting the little spider to jump to her hand. John laughed. “Looks like your little friend would be safer with me.”

Helen sighed. “Probably. The giant yellow spiders in my dream didn’t do too well. I killed a few before they decided to leave me alone. The snake-faced reptilians took off right away.”

“Spiders and snakes?” John offered his hand to the little spider who took the leap of faith that he wouldn’t be killed. “Hmm, there was a battle between Araneomorphs and Lacerta, but that was ages ago. It ended suddenly with an uneasy peace between the two sides. Neither side will talk about it.”

“Perhaps it’s time they did,” Helen mused as she rose from the steps and started walking toward the door. “But first, I need to consult with a real estate agent about something.”

“Planning on moving out?” John held open the door and followed her to the back of the house. Helen poured another mug of coffee and sat down at the table. Closing her eyes, she silently called out a name. John joined her at the table with his own cup. Before Helen could warn him, he took a sip and she waited for him to spit it out. He didn’t. “I see that you’ve cut back on your sugar.” He took another sip. The room momentarily grew dark followed by the appearance of Heolstor Umbra.

“Something bothering you, Lucifer?” Umbra shuffled over to the coffeemaker and poured out a cup for himself before joining Helen and John at the kitchen table.

“I’ve been having nightmares about being caught in the middle of a war.”

“Sounds serious,” Umbra said before taking a sip of coffee. “Which one?”

“How many wars have I been in?” Helen tapped at the latte mug. “I only remember the one.” John grabbed the carafe of hot coffee from the machine behind him and poured out a fresh mugful for Helen before pouring out a cup for himself.

“Ah, yes. The Angels and Demons war. You performed as a perfect weapon there. Not that you were a letdown the first time I used you to intervene.”

“Was it between Spiders and Snakes?” Helen placed her hands around her mug.

“She means Araneomorph and Lacerta, I think.” John poured some milk into Helen’s coffee.

“No, that wasn’t your first time. That came later, after you took down the mad trio.”

“The mad trio?” Helen puzzled for a moment. “Ah, Tiamat, Marduk, and Enki.”

“You were the spark that ignited the atmosphere, which caused the raging storms above them. But the Araneomorphs and the Lacerta have been going at it for a long time. You broke up the last fight, scared them off. Someday they’ll be back.”

“I suspect they’re already coming.”

“What makes you say that?” Umbra finished his coffee and pushed his empty cup toward John who refilled it.

“Something had to trigger the dreams – or memories, if that’s what they are.” Helen frowned over her empty mug, then let out a heavy sigh. “If I handled them once, I suppose that I can handle them again. Perhaps impress on them that not every enemy they face is going to roll over and die.”

“What do you have in mind?” John asked as he sat down at the head of the table with a cup of fresh brewed coffee.

“It depends.” Helen downed the last of her cold coffee and wandered off to take another nap. She had a lot of sleep to catch up on. Helen drifted off to sleep mulling over her options for dealing with the warring aliens who she sensed were a threat to her home. She settled upon a remote location in the middle of the Sahara. She would meet with representatives from both factions, but she would not be there alone. The Elves had faced the Araneomorphs in the past, the presence of Daeron and Thomas, members of the Invicta, should serve to deter any notions they had of an easy win. Daemon forces had frequently turned back the armies of the Lacerta. Both John and Gillian Fox would stand against them. If the negotiations gained no ground, Helen held an Ace up her sleeve.

Helen had no trouble convincing her four friends to stand with her for the parley with the opposing forces. She would set up a beacon at the rendezvous site for the two shuttles to home in on. And then she waited to see what tricks they would pull in an effort to gain control. During an exchange of fire between the two small ships, both sides managed to fake damage to their ships and land at a considerable hike from the site.

The Araneomorphs were the first to arrive. The large yellow spiders blended well with the sand, their presence betrayed by their red eyes and black mandibles. They attempted to flank the area where Helen stood. The Araneomorphs started by demanding the immediate surrender of the elves. Daeron and Thomas laughed and swung their blades to demonstrate their skill. Helen walked up to the nearest Araneomorph and burned a hole in his carapace with her finger. She smiled. “Now, imagine what I could do with the entire hand.” The arachnid backed away slowly and the rest of the spiders closed rank. The elves kept a watchful eye on the spiders while they discussed what they were going to do next.

While the spiders conversed, the Lacerta, who had used the sand for cover as they approached, popped up and made their presence known. The Lacerta demanded the withdrawal of the Berserkers and the right to claim the planet as their own. Helen sighed as she slowly walked to where their leader stood. She extended a finger and slowly reached forward. “Are you certain that you want to make that claim?”

Before she could touch him, he stepped back. “We saw.” His men closed rank and sat down on the sand dune.

Helen turned back to the spider leader. “I didn’t ask you here to negotiate a peace between you. I asked you here to warn you to stay away from this planet.” Helen could hear the drop ships falling from both forces. She smiled as she spoke. “It’s your choice – stay and die or leave and live another day.”

She turned back to the Lacerta. “If you do not leave this world, this star system, immediately after this conversation ends, then I will be forced to destroy you and your ships. I guarantee that your people will be too busy defending themselves to send reinforcements.”

Both opposing forces emitted what passed for laughter by their species. “I see.” Helen started to rise into the air while her four friends closed rank beneath her. Targeting two of the drop ships, Helen emitted two tight beams of plasma that vaporized the ships. For a brief moment the cloaked ships were visible and then they were gone. Drop ships that reversed course were allowed to return to their mothership. Helen turned her attention toward the warriors on the ground picking off the ones who were farthest from their drop ship.

Both bands of warriors broke into a run heading back to the drop ship they came down on. Helen pursued the fleeing ships as they rose into space. She followed them as they broke atmosphere and continued to chase after them until she reached Jupiter’s orbit. Both Araneomorph and Lacerta motherships had received urgent calls to return to their home worlds. Something had appeared that was devouring the civilian population on both worlds.

Back at the manor house, John prepared lunch for everyone. “What did you say to get them to leave?” John poured Helen a mug of fresh brewed coffee.

“Nothing. I just gave them something else to worry about.” Helen took a sip of coffee.

“And how did you do that?” Thomas asked as he sat down with his second plateful of quiche Lorraine.

“I gave the Golgoth access to their home worlds. They’ll survive the Golgoth once they figure out where to strike at them.”

“That shouldn’t take them long,” Daeron commented. “The Araneomorphs are a resourceful species.”

“It’ll take them longer than you think.” Gillian stole a forkful of quiche off Thomas’ plate. “The Golgoth can be tricksters if need be.”