OUR First stop wasthe cave of Ba'Halen's spiders, where Seba had taken me when I was suffering after my Trial on the Path of Needles. The quartermaster went in by himself, carrying Madam Octa in the palm of his left hand. He was grim-looking and empty-handed when he emerged, eyes half-closed. "Did it work?" I asked. "Were you able -" He shushed me with a quick wave of a hand. Closing his eyes completely, he concentrated fiercely. Moments later, Madam Octa crept out of the cave, followed by a spider with light grey spots on its back. I recognized that spider - I'd seen it mooning after Madam Octa before.

Behind the grey-spotted spider came several more of the mildly poisonous mountain spiders. Others followed, and soon a thick stream of spiders was flowing out of the cave and gathering around us. Seba was directing them, communicating mentally with the wild eight-legged predators.

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"I am going to transfer control now," he told Mr. Crepsley and me when all the spiders were in place. "Larten, take the spiders to my right. Darren, those to my left."

We nodded and faced the spiders. Mr. Crepsley was able to communicate without the use of aids, as Seba was, but I needed my familiar flute to focus my thoughts and transmit them. Raising it to my lips, I blew a few practice notes. It was awkward, because of my bent right thumb - which still hadn't straightened out - but I quickly learned to compensate for the damaged digit. Then I stood awaiting Seba's word.

"Now," he said softly.

Gently, I played and sent a repeated mental message to the spiders. "Stay where you are," I told them. "Hold, my beauties, hold."

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The body of spiders swayed uncertainly when Seba stopped transmitting his thoughts, before fixing on mine and Mr. Crepsley's. After a few confused seconds they clicked into sync with our brainwaves.

"Excellent." Seba beamed, stepping forward, careful not to squash any of the spiders. "I will leave you with them and go find others. Escort these to the meeting point and wait for me. If any start to drift away, send Madam Octa to rally them - they will obey her."

We let Seba exit, then turned toward each other. "You need not play the flute continuously," Mr. Crepsley advised. "A few whistles and commands once we get moving should be enough. They will fall into place behind us and advance naturally. Save the flute for stragglers or rebels."

"Should we lead or take the rear?" I asked, lowering my flute to wet my lips.

"Lead," Mr. Crepsley said. "But keep an eye on them and be prepared to drop back if need be, ideally without interrupting the march of the others."

"I'll try," I said, then faced forward and played.

Off I went, Mr. Crepsley beside me, the spiders scuttling along behind. When we reached the larger tunnels, we moved farther apart to form two separate lines.

It wasn't as difficult to command the spiders as I'd feared. A few gave me problems - they fought with others or tried to edge away - but a quick intervention on the part of Madam Octa was enough to knock them back into shape. She was enjoying her role and even started patrolling the ranks of her own accord, without prompting. She'd have made a great General if she'd been a vampire!

Finally, we pulled into the large cave we'd established as our base. We arranged the spiders around us in a circle, then sat in the middle of them and waited for Seba.

He was leading an army of spiders almost half again as large as ours when he arrived. "Where'd you get them all?" I asked as they encircled those already in the cave.

"The mountain is full of spiders," he said. "One simply needs to know where to look." He sat beside us and smiled. "Having said that, I have never in my life seen such a concentration in one place at one time. It is enough to unnerve even a hardened handler such as myself!"

"I feel that way too," Mr. Crepsley agreed, then laughed. "If they have such an effect on us, what sort of terror will they provoke in the unsuspecting vampaneze?"

"That is what we shall shortly discover," Seba chuckled.

While we waited to be contacted by the Princes, Mr. Crepsley took my flute from me and fiddled with it. When he handed it back, it no longer worked and thus couldn't alert the vampaneze. The fact that it had been muted didn't matter - the music itself made no difference to the spiders. I only used the flute out of habit, after years of performing with Madam Octa at the Cirque Du Freak.

After a long, uncomfortable wait, we spotted a platoon of vampires slipping by. Arrow soon appeared and advanced to the edge of the eight-legged sea. He gazed uneasily around at the spiders and came no closer. He was gripping two heavy, sharp-tipped boomerangs and had three more strapped to his waist. The boomerang was his weapon of choice. "We're ready," he whispered. "The vampaneze haven't left their cave. Our troops are in position. The sun shines brightly outside. It is time."

We nodded obediently and got to our feet.

"You know what to do?" Mr. Crepsley asked me.

"I take my spiders out," I responded. "I get close to the mouth of the tunnel, taking care not to be seen. You and Seba will guide your spiders forward, using the tiny cracks and holes in the walls and roof of the cave. You'll hold them there until I make the first move. I'll send my spiders against the guards in the tunnel opening. When you hear the commotion, you'll order yours in - then the fun begins!"

"Allow us a decent amount of time to position our spiders," Seba instructed me. "They will be difficult to maneuver, since we cannot see where they are going. It will be a slow, painstaking process."

"I'm in no hurry," I said. "Will three hours be enough?"

"That should be plenty," Seba said, and Mr. Crepsley agreed.

We wished each other luck and shook hands, then I summoned my troops - the smallest of the three clusters of spiders, since they'd have the least to do - and set off for the outside.

The sun shone weakly in a mostly cloudless sky, which was helpful - the vampaneze guards would keep far away from the mouth of the tunnel to avoid the deadly rays of light.

I emerged about forty yards up from the tunnel. I held my position until all my spiders were out in the open around me, then urged them forward, slowly and carefully. We crept down the mountain until we were ten yards shy of the tunnel, sheltered by a large rock that jutted out of the mountain face, providing perfect cover. This was as close to the tunnel as I dared to get.

Once in place, I lay down and watched the sun cross the sky. I'd been chosen for the external leg of the operation partly because it provided fewer problems than the pair working within the mountain would have to deal with, but also because I was immune to the sun. It was vital that we attack by day - the vampaneze would be reluctant to leave their sanctuary and face the sun - but the vampires would have been restrained by the solar giant as much as their foes. Only I could move about outside as freely as I pleased.

When slightly more than three hours had passed, I blew mutely on my flute and ordered the spiders to spread out wide, before advancing. Only the spiders moved forward - I stayed where I was, hidden by the rock. The spiders formed a ring around the mouth of the tunnel. From the outside they looked harmless, but when they entered the cave, they'd assume a different dimension - they'd look more numerous and a lot more threatening. Cramped spaces have a way of magnifying one's fears. The vampaneze would hopefully feel they were under siege and panic accordingly.

A couple of minutes later the ranks were orderly. Then I gave the signal to enter. They slipped in silently, covering not just the floor of the tunnel, but also the walls and the roof. If everything went as planned, the vampaneze would think the tunnel was coming alive with spiders.

I was supposed to stay where I was, out of the way, but the temptation to sneak forward and observe the unfolding of my plan proved too great to resist. Lying flat on the rough face of the mountain, I slid down to the top of the tunnel and listened for the sounds of chaos within.

I could hear the heavy breathing of vampaneze, farther back from the entrance than I'd expected. For a while, that was all I could hear, calm and regular. I was starting to wonder if maybe the spiders had slipped through cracks and deserted back to their natural habitat. Then one of the vampaneze grunted, "Hey! Is it my imagination, or are the walls moving?"

His colleagues laughed. "Don't be stu -," one began, then stopped. "What in the name of the gods...?" I heard him gasp.

"What's happening?" somebody shouted, alarmed. "What are they?"

"They look like spiders," one of his less-agitated comrades answered.

"There's millions of them!" a vampaneze whimpered.

"Are they poisonous?" another asked.

"Of course not," the unafraid vampaneze snorted. "They're just ordinary mountain spiders. They can't do any -?

Blowing hard on my flute, I sent the order to the spiders: "Now!"

Inside the tunnel, screams erupted.

"They're dropping!" someone howled.

"They're all over me! Get them off! Get them off! Get them -?

"Calm down!" the levelheaded vampaneze yelled. "Just brush them off and - ahhhhh!" he screamed as the spiders seized hold and sank their fangs in.

Individually, the spiders were harmless - their bites were only mildly irritating. But the simultaneous bites of hundreds of them... that was a different matter entirely!

As the vampaneze thrashed around the tunnel, slapping and stamping at the spiders, screaming with pain and fear, I heard others advance from within the cave to see what was wrong. Darting into the tunnel, I crouched down low and ordered the spiders to surge ahead. As they obeyed, panicking the newcomers and forcing them backward, the cave behind echoed with the screams and writhing of the vampaneze, as Mr. Crepsley and Seba's spiders slipped from the walls and roof and worked their fearsome charms.

The battle had truly begun.

    

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