"THEY'RE CRAWLINGup my leg," Spits said after a while. He hadn't lowered his foot and was trembling wildly.
"And mine," Harkat said.
"Let them," I said. "Spits - lower your foot, as slowly as you can, and make sure you don't squash any of the spiders."
"Can you talk to them and - control them?" Harkat asked.
"I'll try in a minute," I said. "First I want to find out if these are all we have to deal with." I'd been fascinated by spiders when I was a kid. That's how I got mixed up with Mr Crepsley, through his performing tarantula, Madam Octa. I had a gift for communicating with arachnids and had learnt to control them with my thoughts. But that had been on Earth. Would my powers extend to the spiders here?
I penetrated the darkness with my ears. There were hundreds, maybe thousands of spiders in the tunnel, covering the floor, walls and ceiling. As I listened, one dropped on to my head and began exploring my scalp. I didn't brush it off. Judging from the noise and the feel of the spider on my head, these were medium-sized tarantulas. If there were any giant spiders, they weren't moving - maybe because they were waiting for us to walk into their lair?
I carefully raised my right hand and touched my fingers to the side of my head. The spider found them a few seconds later. It tested the new surface, then crawled on to my hand. I brought my hand and the spider down and around, so that I was facing it (even though I couldn't see it). Taking a deep breath, I focused my attention on the spider and began talking to it inside my head. When I'd done this in the past, I'd used a flute to help focus my thoughts. This time I just had to wing it and hope for the best.
"Hello, little one. Is this your home? We're not intruders - we're just passing through. I can tell you're a beauty. Intelligent too. You can hear me, can't you? You understand. We're not going to harm you. We just want safe passage." As I continued talking to the spider, reassuring it of our peaceful intentions, flattering it and trying to get inside its head, I extended my range of thought and directed my words at the spiders around us. It's not necessary to control every spider in a huge pack, just those nearest to you. If you have the talent and experience, you can then use those spiders to control the rest. I could do that with spiders in my own world - were this lot the same, or were we doomed flies caught in an underground web?
After a couple of minutes, I put my abilities to the test. Bending, I let the spider crawl off my fingers on to the floor, then addressed the group around us. "We need to move on now, but we don't want to hurt any of you. You'll have to spread out of our way. We can't see you. If you stay bunched together, we won't be able to avoid you. Move, my beauties. Slip to the sides. Let us pass freely."
Nothing happened. I feared the worst but kept on trying, talking to them, urging them to part. I'd have been more authoritative with normal spiders, and ordered them out of our way. But I didn't know how these would react to direct commands, and didn't want to risk angering them.
For two or three minutes I spoke to the spiders, asking them to move. Then, when I was almost on the point of quitting and making a break for freedom, Harkat said, "They're climbing off me."
"Me too," Spits croaked a moment later. He sounded on the verge of tears.
All around us the spiders were retreating, slowly edging out of our way. I stood, relieved, but didn't break mental contact with them. I kept on talking inside my head, thanking them, congratulating them, keeping them on the move.
"Is it safe to advance?" Harkat asked.
"Yes," I grunted, anxious not to lose my concentration. "But slowly. Feel in front with your toes everytime you take a step."
I went back to communicating my thoughts to the spiders. Harkat edged ahead, one sliding step after another. I followed, keeping close, maintaining my link with the spiders. Spits stumbled along behind, holding on to my sleeve with one hand, clutching his bottle of poteen to his chest with his other.
We walked for a long time in this way, many of the spiders keeping pace with us, new recruits joining them further along the tunnel. No signs of any giants. It was hard work talking to them for such an extended amount of time, but I didn't let my concentration slip.
Finally, after twenty or thirty minutes, Harkat stopped and said, "I've come to a door."
Stepping up beside him, I laid a hand on hard, smooth wood. It was covered in cobwebs, but they were old and dry, and brushed away easily at my touch. "How do you know it's a door?" I asked, momentarily breaking contact with the spiders. "Maybe the tunnel's just blocked off." Harkat found my right hand and guided it to a metal handle. "Does it turn?" I whispered.
"Only one way to - find out," he said, and together we twisted it down. There was almost no resistance, and the door swung inwards the instant the latch was retracted. A soft buzzing noise greeted us from inside. The spiders around us scuttled backwards half a metre.
"I don't like this," I hissed. "I'll go in alone and check it out." Moving ahead of Harkat, I entered the room and found myself standing on cold, hard tiles. I flexed my bare toes a few times, to be certain.
"What's wrong?" Harkat asked when he didn't hear me moving.
"Nothing," I said. Remembering the spiders, I re-established contact and told them to stay where they were. Then I took a step forward. Something long and thin brushed against my face - it felt like a giant spider leg! I ducked sharply - the spiders had guided us into a trap! We were going to be devoured by monster arachnids! We had to run, get out, flee for our lives! We ?
But nothing happened. I wasn't seized by long, hairy spider legs. There was no sound of a giant spider creeping towards me, intent on finishing me off. In fact there were no sounds at all, except for the strange buzzing and the fast, hard beating of my heart.
Rising slowly, I stretched out my arms and explored. My left hand found a long, narrow piece of cord hanging from above. Wrapping my fingers around it, I tugged softly. It resisted, so I tugged again, slightly harder. There was a click, then a harsh white light flooded the room.
I winced and covered my eyes - the light was blinding after the blackness of the tunnel. Behind me, I heard Harkat and Spits spin aside to avoid the glare. The spiders took no notice of it - living in utter darkness, they must have discarded their sense of sight some time in the past. "Are you OK?" Harkat roared. "Is it a trap?"
"No," I muttered, spreading my fingers slightly in front of my eyes, allowing my pupils to adjust. "It's just a ?" I stopped as my fingers parted. Lowering my hands, I gazed around, bewildered.
"Darren?" Harkat said. When I didn't answer, he poked his head through the door. "What's ??" He stopped when he saw what I was looking at, and stepped into the room, speechless. Spits did the same moments later.
We were in a large kitchen, like any modern kitchen back on Earth. There was a fridge - the source of the buzzing - a sink, cupboards, a bread bin, a kettle, even a clock over the table, though the hands had stopped. Closing the door to the room to keep the spiders out, we quickly searched the cupboards. We found plates, mugs, glasses, cans of food and drink (no labels or dates on the cans). There was nothing in the fridge when we opened it, but it was in full working order. "What's going on?" Spits asked. "Where'd all this stuff come from? And what's that?" Hailing from the 1930s, he'd never seen a fridge like this before.
"I don't?" I started to answer, then stopped, my eyes falling on a saltcellar on the table - there was a piece of paper underneath, with a note scribbled across it. Removing the saltcellar, I scanned the note in silence, then read it out loud.
"'Top of the morning to you, gentlemen! If you've made it this far, you're doing splendidly. After your narrow escape in the temple, you've earned a rest, so put your feet up and tuck into the refreshments - courtesy of this kitchen's previous owner, who never got round to enjoying them. There's a secret exit tunnel behind the refrigerator. It's a few hundred metres to the surface. After that, you face a short walk to the valley wherein lies the Lake of Souls. Head due south and you can't miss it. Congratulations on overcoming the obstacles to date. Here's hoping all goes well in the final stretch. Best regards, your dear friend and sincere benefactor - Desmond Tiny.'"
Before discussing the note, we nudged the fridge aside and checked behind it. Mr Tiny had told the truth about the tunnel, though we wouldn't know for sure where it led until we explored it.
"What do you think?" I asked Harkat, sitting and pouring myself one of the fizzy drinks from the cupboard. Spits was busy examining the fridge, oohing and aahing with wonder at the advanced technology.
"We have to do as - Mr Tiny says," Harkat replied. "We were heading in a general - southerly direction anyway."
I glanced at the note again. "I don't like the bit about 'here's hoping all goes well in the final stretch'. It sounds as though he thinks itwon't !'
Harkat shrugged. "He might have said that - just to worry us. At least we know we're - close to the?"
We were startled by a shrill cry. Leaping to our feet, we saw Spits turning away from one of the cupboards, which he'd moved on to after the fridge. He was shaking and there were tears in his eyes.
"What is it?" I yelled, thinking it must be something dreadful.
"It's - it's ?" Spits held up a bottle full of a dark golden liquid, and broke into a wet-eyed grin. "It'swhisky !" he croaked, and his face was as awe-filled as the Kulashkas' had been when they knelt before their Grotesque god.
Several hours later, Spits had drunk himself into a stupor and lay snoring on a rug on the floor. Harkat and I had eaten a filling meal and were resting against a wall, discussing our adventures, Mr Tiny and the kitchen. "I wonder where all this - came from?" Harkat said. "The fridge, food and drinks - are all from our world."
"The kitchen too," I noted. "It looks to me like a nuclear fallout shelter. I saw a programme about places like this. People built underground shelters and stocked them with imperishable goods."
"You think Mr Tiny transported an entire - shelter here?" Harkat asked.
"Looks that way. I've no idea why he'd bother, but the Kulashkas certainly didn't build this place."
"No," Harkat agreed. He was silent a moment, then said, "Did the Kulashkas remind you - of anyone?"
"What do you mean?"
"There was something about their appearance - and the way they talked. It took me a while to work it out - but now I have it. They were like the Guardians of the Blood."
The Guardians of the Blood were strange humans who lived in Vampire Mountain and disposed of dead vampires in exchange for their internal organs. They had white eyes like the Kulashkas, but no pink hair, and spoke in a strange language which, now that I thought about it, did seem quite like the Kulashkas'.
"Therewere similarities," I said hesitantly, "but differences too. The hair was pink, and the eyes were a duller white colour. Anyway, how could they be related?"
"Mr Tiny might have transported - them here," Harkat said. "Or maybe this is where the Guardians of the - Blood originally came from."
I mused that one over for a while, then rose and walked to the door.
"What are you doing?" Harkat asked as I opened the door on to the tunnel.
"Checking out a hunch," I said, crouching low and casting about with my eyes. Most of the spiders had left but a few were still close by, hunting for food or resting. I made mental contact with one and summoned it. It crawled on to my left hand and lay snugly in my palm as I lifted it to the light and examined it. It was a large grey spider with unusual green spots. I studied it from all sides, to be absolutely certain, then set it on the floor of the tunnel and closed the door again.
"Ba'Shan's spiders," I said to Harkat. "They're the spiders Madam Octa created when she bred with Ba'Halen's spiders in Vampire Mountain."
"You're certain?" Harkat asked.
"They were named in my honour by Seba. I'm positive." I sat down again beside Harkat, my forehead creased as I picked away at the puzzle. "Mr Tiny must have brought them here, like the kitchen, so I guess he could have brought some of the Guardians of the Blood too. But Ba'Shan's spiders aren't blind and the Guardians don't have pink hair. If Mr Tiny did bring them here, it must have been decades ago in this world's time, if not longer - they'd need that long to transform."
"It seems like a lot of effort to - go to," Harkat said. "Maybe he wanted the Guardians to build - the Temple of the Grotesque. And the kitchen might just have - been for a joke. But why bring the spiders?"
"I don't know," I said. "When you put them all together, they don't add up. There's something more to this, a bigger picture which we're missing."
"Maybe the answer's in the kitchen," Harkat said, rising and slowly surveying the tiles, table and cupboards. "The details are so fine. Maybe the answer is hidden - among them." He wandered around the room, gradually winding his way over to the fridge, where several postcards were attached by magnets to the door. They were from various tourist attractions on Earth - Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, and so on. I'd seen them earlier but paid no attention.
"Maybe there are clues or further - instructions on the back of these," Harkat said, taking down one of the cards. Turning it over, he studied it in silence, then quickly grabbed another, and another.
"Anything?" I asked. Harkat didn't answer. He was gazing down at the postcards, his lips moving silently. "Harkat? Are you OK? Is something wrong?"
Harkat's gaze flicked over me, then returned to the postcards. "No," he said, tucking the cards away inside his tattered blue robes. He reached for the others.
"Can I see the cards?" I asked.
Harkat paused, then said softly, "No. I'll show them to you - later. No point distracting ourselves now." That raised my interest, but before I could press to see the postcards, Harkat sighed. "It's a shame we don't - have any of the holy liquid. I suppose we'll just have to ?" He stopped when he saw me grin and reach inside my shirt. "No way!" he whooped.
I held up the vial I'd tucked away after being blown from the altar. "Am I brilliant or what?" I smirked.
"If you were a girl - I'd kiss you!" Harkat cheered, rushing over.
I passed the vial to him and forgot about the postcards. "How do you think it works?" I asked as he turned the vial around, careful not to slosh the explosive liquid. "With all that force in its venom, surely the Grotesque should have blown its head off the first time it sunk its fangs into something."
"It must not be explosive - to begin with," Harkat guessed. "Maybe an element in the air - reacts with the poison after its release - and changes it."
"A pretty big change," I laughed, then took the vial back. "How do you think we're supposed to use it?"
"There must be something - we have to blow up," Harkat said. "Perhaps the Lake is covered - and we have to blast a way through. What puzzles me more are the - globes." He picked out one of the gelatinous globes from within his robes and tossed it up and down. "They must serve a - purpose, but I can't for the life of - me think what it is."
"I'm sure it'll become clear," I smiled, tucking the vial away. Pointing at the sleeping Spits, I said, "We should apologize to him when he wakes up."
"What for?" Harkat snorted. "Killing the Kulashkas and almost - getting us killed too?"
"But don't you see? He wasmeant to. Mr Tiny wanted us to come here, but we wouldn't haveif Spits hadn't barged in. Without him, we'd have no holy liquid. And even if we'd managed to sneak a vial out of the temple, we wouldn't have known about its explosive properties - we'd have blown ourselves to bits!"
"You're right," Harkat chuckled. "But I think an apology - would be wasted. All Spits cares about now - is his whisky. We could call him every foul - name in the world, or praise him - to the heavens, and he wouldn't notice."
"True!" I laughed.
We lay down after that and rested. I spent the quiet moments before sleep thinking about our adventures and the puzzle this world presented, and wondering what awful, life-threatening obstacles lay in wait for us at the end, in the valley of the Lake of Souls.