Chateaux Devaneaux, 1547
Consciousness returned slowly to Marielle. For a moment, she hung limply, suspended in the silvery gloom - surprised and elated at finding herself to be still alive. Memory returned; and with it the fear.
Marielle moved her arm, experimentally. Shivers of cold, argent light fluttered along those strands holding the arm; blinding her night-attuned eyes, despite their low level. She blinked away tears, and waited for the motes in her vision to settle, and die.
She wondered how long she had been unconscious. Was it long enough, she wondered, for her disappearance to have been noticed at the Chateaux? Even if it had been, how long before anybody came into the forest to look for her? Would they even dare?
Marielle knew, as well as anybody, the reputation of the forest. It would take a brave soul indeed, she thought, to come searching for her here, inside the forbidding perimeter of trees. If there was any hope of escape to be had, she knew - it would have to come from within herself.
At the least, she told herself, she appeared to be uninjured. A mental examination of her body revealed nothing amiss that she could tell, without being able to see. She attempted to look around, moving her head slowly and cautiously, so that as few strands as possible were disturbed. Even so, a few worms of illumination were released, to dance before her shrinking vision like summer fireflies.
Marielle was, as far as she could tell, suspended less than a meter from the ground, in an attitude that was uncannily close to that she assumed in church, when kneeling to pray. Her arms and hands floated to either side, at a level just below that of her head. All in all, she thought; not an altogether uncomfortable position - it might have been worse. How, exactly, she was not certain, but at least she still had her life.
A sudden snort of exhaled breath somewhere behind her startled her, and she let escape a small, high scream. Forgetful for the moment, of her predicament, she twisted towards the noise. Immediately, her sensitive eyes were overwhelmed, as a coruscation of silvered sparks flashed along the strands in all directions, confusing and blinding her.
When her vision cleared, Marielle was surprised to find that she had, against all her expectations, succeeded in dropping almost half a meter towards the ground. The toe of her right foot was mere centimeters from the forest floor - her left, only slightly higher. She had also twisted her position, so the extent that she could now see both ways along the forest path. She could now see what had made the noise, and she gasped - a sharp inhalation of breathe, that chilled her heart and lungs.
Several meters away, her horse was trapped. For a moment, Marielle feared that the poor beast was dead, then the colt's chest twitched a little. One foreleg twitched spasmodically, sending argent sparks scurrying in all directions.
Too weak to struggle, it seemed that the young horse had all but given up the struggle to live. Marielle felt a sharp stab of sympathy for the beast; compounded with a fresh influx of fear for herself.
'Horse.' She whispered - then stronger, as she found her voice. 'Hey boy - I'm here. Horse?'
For a moment or two, there was no sign that her horse had heard her, and Marielle feared that he was unconscious, or worse. Then the beast snorted, and struggled in his bonds. The area above and below the horse was suddenly illuminated in soft silver.
Marielle was unable to restrain the scream that erupted from her lips to stain the silence. She stared in stunned horror at the creature that lurked upon the path, beneath the horse. A second scream leapt from her wildly beating heart and into her throat. Marielle trapped the scream behind clenched teeth and forced herself to remain still, lest she attract the creature's attention.
The spider was the size of a large dog. It crouched beneath the young horse, as if mesmerized by the weakly struggling beast above it. Then it moved, scuttling backwards slightly, and Marielle saw that the resemblance to a spider was but a fleeting one.
It had too many legs to be a spider. The long, vaguely elliptical body was supported by at least five pairs of thick, stubby limbs, that propelled the beast nimbly and at great speed along the path. The body itself, was slender; slick; as though recently emerged from water. In the lambent silvery illumination of the strands, the hide took on a dark green tinge, fading almost to black at the rear. Beneath the carapace, wickedly serrated mandibles moved lethargically, as if tasting the air around the beast. Glossy orbs glistened, reflecting silver shards, set deeply within the shelter of its shell.
As if sensing the creature, the colt struggled suddenly; giving vent to a sudden burst of stubborn energy. Beneath it, the creature reacted instantly to the outpouring of lambent illumination from the strands binding the beast. It leapt, mandibles clicking. It twisted impossibly in mid-flight, several pairs of the forward legs turning inwards. The colt squealed, a high-pitched, terrified sound, as the beast made solid contact - the forward legs of the creature hitting, and sinking deeply into the colt's flanks.
Marielle stared, shocked into horrified immobility, as the creature's mandibles widened, before slamming down with massive force upon the horses back. Inexorably, they closed, coming together, and Marielle heard clearly, above the terrified animals agonized screams, the sickening crunch of bone as the spinal cord was severed.
Blood gushed, black ichor in the silvered light. It coated the creature as it continued to slice into the flesh, and spattered across the ground below. Almost immediately, there was movement among the shadows bordering the path; smaller shadows that flitted among their larger cousins. The shadows grew rapidly, solidifying into smaller versions of the creature destroying the carcass of the now dead horse. The largest of them was the size of a small dog. They clustered together beneath the grotesque tableaux above them, wading through pools of blood and climbing over each other in their eagerness to feed upon the pieces of flesh that were now falling from above.
Several of the creatures, those larger than the others, were leaping excitedly, mandibles and legs waving frenetically as they attempted to reach the horse. One managed the leap, and clung on, as its legs scrabbled frantically in an effort to gain purchase. It succeeded, and scuttled rapidly along the carcass, as more of its kin joined it. All too soon, the carcass was a mass of legs and clicking mandibles.
The dead horse jerked, twitching in an obscene parody of life, as the flesh was stripped rapidly from the bone, and Marielle fought to keep from vomiting; terrified to move, lest she attract the creature's attention. Despite her best efforts, her imagination ran riot; conjuring images of herself, covered in the snapping, devouring beasts, and she cringed, her mind on the verge of sliding sideways into madness.
Within minutes, it seemed to her, her once vibrant and enthusiastic colt was a shriveled package of bloodied bones. Soon, she knew, the creatures would be done. Then, it would be her turn. She fought back the almost overpowering urge to scream, and struggle; the knowledge that the act would be her last, a powerful spur. Yet it was, she knew, only a matter of time. She was unable to control the occasional tremor of terror, that would send flickers of argent light scuttling down the strands that bound her. She could have, at the best, minutes left to her, before one or more of the creatures decided to explore what lay along the vibrating strands.
Marielle began to pray.
Eyes clamped tightly shut against the horror unfolding before her, she prayed to her God; for succor or, at the very least, and quick, merciful end.
'Mama; Papa. I will be with you soon.' Marielle wept silent tears, at the thought of not being able to say goodbye to her uncle, and to Max.
Would they ever know, what had become of her? They would surely wonder, she thought; praying for her safe return to them.
It was not until she heard the sudden increase in the excited clicking of the multitude of creatures, that Marielle forced open her eyes. At any moment, she expected them to swarm over her, pinching, and slicing into her flesh.