Read Almost Alive (The Beautiful Dead Book 3) Online
Authors: Daryl Banner
The moment I dare to challenge the spider with my sword, three more have descended from the web of branches above us. One lands on Marigold’s back, inspiring Jimmy to jerk awake screaming, and another lands on the blue-haired girl Kaela, who opts to start running away maniacally instead of scream.
Then quite suddenly I can’t help them as a spider descends on me. I fight to bring my sword arm up, but the spider’s skillfully wrapped my arm somehow, binding it to my torso. I struggle, throwing myself against the nearest tree and grunting horribly. In an instant, John’s thrown himself on the spider in some desperate attempt to free me. He grips the spider by its body and pulls, groaning nastily in the effort.
All I hear is screaming and the crunching of dead things beneath our shuffling feet and the tittering activity of spindly spider legs at work.
I hear a muffled scream and a spider is darting past me with what appears to be a big cotton ball—possibly Ann’s head that was just stolen out of Jasmine’s grasp.
John’s pried the spider off me, wrestling with it now on his own, but my arms are still trapped at my sides by the spider’s silk and I’m struggling to break free. In my struggle, I watch the Chief fend off another spider with an axe he’s magically brandished, and somewhere in the distance, the little Lock has taken off running.
“THE WARLOCK!” I cry out, desperate. “GET HIM!”
No one hears me. Ash and Will and the kid are fighting the same spider, each of them grappling with a leg or two. The teen girls have run off themselves, to who-knows-where, and Jasmine is attempting to pry a spider off of Marigold’s back—where Jimmy is screaming like a banshee, strapped to her backside by gooey lengths of spider silk.
Then, to my surprise, a knife draws down my front—its holder is Collin—and I’m freed from my silken prison. “The Lock!” I tell him, my voice breaking. “He’s running away! He can’t get away!” Collin presses the knife into my hand and tears off into the woods in pursuit of the Lock—but doesn’t seem to know precisely which direction he’s run off to, and too soon Collin is out of sight.
No matter, first thing’s first. I lunge with my knife at the spider John’s wrestling, my teeth bared and my eyes psychotic, I’m quite sure. I aim for the head with a general sort of awkward stabbing motion, I miss horribly and stab John in the shoulder just as he engages in a strange sort of somersault maneuver with the spider, rolling away from me and taking my weapon with him. He didn’t feel it, likely won’t notice a knife’s protruding from his shoulder until his skirmish is over.
I drop to the ground and search for my sword, only to find that Ash has picked it up and is repeatedly hacking at the spider that’s succeeded in wrapping Will, the kid, and the old man together in a giant silken cocoon. Quite suddenly Ash becomes part of that cocoon too—her leg, then her arm, then her entire body enveloped in the hastily-weaving web of the expert spider. I’m almost in awe, struck by the quickness of the spider’s work.
Ash drops the sword, screaming. I lunge for it.
“WINTER!” cries Jasmine, and I turn just in time to watch a half-cocooned Jasmine lift off the ground by a long rope of spider silk, drawing her high up into the air, far away, further, then gone.
Just as I gather the courage to challenge the spiders that have so skillfully wrapped up my friends in various balls of gooey crap, I find myself suddenly in a face-off with seven—
—additional spider-giants that have decided to join the party. I start backing away, feeling it to be the only reasonable move I can make. Horribly outnumbered, I keep my eyes on them and my shaking sword visible, brandished in front of me like some sort of master samurai. Really, I’m no swordsman. I hack and slice and lunge, and I’m not so confident in my ability to outhack, outslice, and outlunge a family of enormous spiders. I know quite well what these tricky monsters are capable of.
Instantly, I bolt away, throwing myself as far away from this nightmare as I possibly can. I don’t dare look back to see if they’re following. This is my only course of action. Maybe it’s why Lynx ran. Maybe he’s the smartest of us all, running when he still easily could, running when he had no spider’s thousand-eye attention on him.
Well, now I have seven spiders’ worth of eyes on me. And there’s my reward for being so “brave”.
“Winter!” he cries, and I’m given a merciful sight of John running parallel with me. “Hurry, hurry!”
I have no idea to where the hell he expects us to hurry, but I shift my trajectory and line up with him. Side by side we race through the trees, narrowly ducking as a web threatens to catch us. I fear what’ll happen if we accidentally find our faces meeting these
webs, noting how horribly difficult it was to get my sword out of that last massive one. Uncaring, reckless and damn-well desperate, we keep moving our feet.
I stumble over a rock. The sword is dislodged from my hand, and I clamber back to my feet to resume running. I don’t even go for reclaiming my weapon, imagining a horde of spider-giants pursuing us, I figure there isn’t even a second to spare. The Judge’s sword, my legendary weapon, lost in one stupid instant, lost in one dumb stumble of my dumb feet.
Isn’t that how all our most precious things are lost? In one silly, insignificant moment? Like swords? Like puppies and best friends and lives?
And then abrupt as a slap to the face, we’re at a cliff’s edge, the forest ended at once, and John’s screaming, teetering on the brim, his hands waving frantically in the air to keep his balance.
I grab him. “I got you!” I cry out, just as he falls.
“WINTER!” he screams.
And then I’m on the ground, gripping John’s hand as he hangs desperately over the ledge. He screams out, trying not to flail his body, frozen as he dangles from my hand. I stare into his eyes, horror filling them, and I say, “Keep still, keep still. Just pull, John … Pull!”
The horror keeps filling his eyes.
Desperation fills mine.
And then something else entirely seems to fill our eyes. The spiders no longer exist. There is no cliff, no trees, no webs, nothing. John and I, we’ve been here before. Hanging for dear life, my Living John. We’ve been here before, the love of my life at the end of my hand, his existence depending on my stupid, unreliable grasp.
“Winter,” he seems to whisper, his eyes filling with awe, filling with terror, filling with wonder and panic and darkness, all at once as he dangles over the cliff.
“John, pull,” I tell him, fighting the stars that seem to spin in his unblinking eyes. “Pull, John, pull!”
My lips parted, I stare down at my John, my love. I’m about to tell him to pull again when, quite suddenly, I allow myself to see that something in him has changed.
“John? … Why aren’t you pulling?”
“I remember,” he says.
C H A P T E R – F O U R T E E N
D E A T H F U L
The spiders win.
Dragged in a blinding cocoon of sticky cotton, I’m pulled across the planet, my head knocking helplessly against every annoying bump and root and stone in the terrain.
And John remembers.
I can’t move my arms and I’m forced to relive that moment at the cliff—
my moments at
the cliffs. What is it with me and Waking Dreams and cliffs? He remembers and I can’t speak to him now. My old John is back the same day I finally come to love the new John.
What a horrible, horrible world this is.
“I remember,” he had said.
Dragged along the endless and horribly bumpy terrain, I sigh with relief when quite suddenly the ground feels soft and slick. The earth slopes downward and I feel the familiar embrace of darkness as the outside world slips away. Underground, we’ve gone. Some spider’s pit, I imagine. Has a kingdom of spiders taken over the woods? Maybe they’ve rebelled against Shee, figuring the crazy woman had torn enough of them apart.
When I come to a stop, I don’t even care. I don’t struggle. I simply speak: “John.” My voice is stolen by the thick mask of goo. Even the effort at parting lips is nearly impossible. “John,” I try again, and it only comes out as a horrible, amorphous moan.
And then the world flips around and I feel myself rising from the feet. I squirm, but it’s a hilariously futile labor as the silk holds strong. I go up, up, up.
Then nothing. I try to look left, but I see nothing but a blurry off-white mess. I look right and am met with just the same. I struggle and squirm and writhe. Nothing.
With my hands bound firmly to my sides, I imagine the little Lock still running free. I imagine him giggling to himself, screaming out to the world in glee, praising the turn of fate that has so set him free. I sigh, thinking of that horrible, creepy little man. All the horrible things he’s done …
But his horrible acts makes me think of Claire’s horrible acts, and I find a heavy stone of guilt forming in my stomach. How can I hold any of his actions against him when I’ve so many to answer for myself?
“John?” I try again, and again my voice is nothing but a moan and a muffled syllable.
He remembers and he knows everything now.
My John is back.
And I’m hanging within a spider’s cocoon, immobile, mute, stupid and useless and dead.
I do nothing but wait. I feel wind stirring around me, wherever I am. Maybe I’m imagining it, the wind that’s somehow swirling around my body. Or maybe it’s like a muscle memory thing and, in my patient, agonizing act of waiting here and doing nothing, my body is remembering the gentle pull and push of the Whispers’ wind. Twelve years, I rested on my knees in that foul, barren place. Twelve years, I waited by John’s side for him to Rise.
“Cut about their eyes,” says a voice, cool and clear.
I’m startled by the voice, uncertain where it came from. Then, even more startlingly, I feel a spider leap onto me, embracing my whole body, and quite abruptly a hole is carved out where my face is. In an instant, the spider’s gone and, upside-down, I’m left to make sense of my surroundings. There are many other cocoons; my companions, I desperately hope. All of us hang from the ceiling of a cozy, dome-shaped earthen room the size of a small auditorium, I’d estimate, presumably dug out by insects. We are arranged in a sort of slapdash semi-circle, each of us gently swaying in our hanging state. In the center of our crescent moon of cocoons there is a mound of white stones. After closer inspection, I realize they’re skulls, and perched at the peak is the Empress Shee.
The one called Shee has not changed. Not one bit. Her bubblegum-pink hair rests atop her bony shoulders, cascading down just far enough to hide the nakedness of her breasts, as she is notably undressed. Metal rings decorate her ears and her vague red-or-purple eyes flash with crazed enthusiasm. Down one of her arms there is a mural of ink dragons and monsters, to the wrist. Where a Human set of legs ought to be, instead what one finds is a crazy array of scorpion legs, spider legs, cricket legs, and other assortments of insect parts. The twenty or thirty of them work in perfect unison as she moves, giving her the strange appearance of some kind of insect-octopus.
“I like this arrangement,” she decides, her wild eyes surveying us from her seemingly less-than-comfortable perch on that mound of skulls. “But I’m not sure I like any of you. Hmm. Bring me one.”
At once, three spiders skitter up the walls of the cave and descend the same dangling cocoon, as if their minds were locked, knowing precisely which one of us to fetch. The cocoon is clipped, dropping it with an inelegant thud on the cave floor. Four other spiders peck at the cocoon the way a person with a million fingers might go about unraveling a massive knot, until the Undead boy is spilled out onto the floor. He gets to his feet instantly, wary, scared. He turns in a circle, taking in his surroundings. Then he gazes up, peering at each of the cocoons with mounting fright in his beady little eyes.
“What’s your name, dead boy?” asks Shee, her weird, tinny voice echoing oddly against the walls of the cave.
“F-F-Farris,” he finally gets out.
“Hmm. You look little and weak.” The boy has no response to that, only picking anxiously at his fingers. Shee studies him, tapping her face with a finger. “My mommy once told me it’s not what’s on the outside that counts.” Quite suddenly, she grins. “Let’s open him up!”
Before the boy even has a chance to scream, the four spiders tear into him. I clench shut my eyes, forcing myself to recall that Undead feel no pain.
Undead feel no pain, Undead feel no pain, Undead feel no pain
. When I open my eyes, the boy has been severed into eleven different pieces. His severed head is somewhere near the cave wall, screaming in its own otherworldliness. What remains in place of where he stood is a mess of bone, metal pieces, and shredded clothing.
“Not so pretty on the inside,” Shee decides. “Get rid of it. Gross.”
The spiders skillfully gather
of the pieces that once made the boy, whose name I never knew was Farris. I’m such a horrible leader; I don’t even know all the names of my companions. One of the spiders stabs the screaming head with its leg—silencing it immediately—then scurries into a tunnel, all the spiders gone.