Annalise followed Harlequin’s directions, purposely ducking between alleys and the open street to avoid monsters.
The “house,” if she could call it that, reminded her of Winnie the Pooh’s.
She cringed, flinching in embarrassment. She didn’t think the owner would appreciate such a comparison.
A large tree, ancient and twisted, was the body of the abode with an ornate dark red carved door set on copper colored hinges and angled slightly down. Like a cellar door, but prettier. It was a very wide door, more square than rectangular, with a push latch handle instead of a doorknob.
Anna knocked. She heard a muffled call to come in. Or at least that’s what she thought it was.
“Hello?” she said, pulling the outward opening door. She immediately ran into a dozen spiderwebs overlapping each other as she stepped down a small stone and mortar stairwell. She sputtered as the spiders fell into her face, crawling into her skull through her socket. The scratching noises and the sensation of crawling on the inside of her head was an immediate “nope” no matter how much she actually liked spiders. She screamed. Or yelped, really.
She heard a distant neighbor call out a laugh-filled compliment for whoever the scarer was, but Anna was too busy trying to shake the spider out of her head.
The poor spider slipped through into her mouth, and she spit it out, coughing and shuddering. There was a leg stuck between her teeth.
The seven-legged spider scuttled away up the stone wall of the house’s entryway before disappearing into another tangle of webs.
Anna shuddered and caught her “breath.” She popped off her skull and shook it a few times, eyes closed and pushing through the nausea of the movement as she juggled it and the fabric bolt.
She heard a noise and opened her eyes, meeting at least eight more, dropping the bolt.
A massive spider was staring at her, upside down from the ceiling at the entrance that opened into a larger room beyond the sloping hallway. It was about the size of a small car. Its body was a matte black, and the legs were glimmering turquoise at the toes that shimmered in the lamplight from behind it while the rest of the legs were black with red segments at the joints. Its abdomen was a bit slender but still held that plumpness that most spiders did.
There was no movement for at least a minute.
“I, ah, brought this from Harlequin Demon’s shop,” Anna said, putting on her head (wincing at the click) and picking up the bolt of fabric she had dropped in her panic. “I didn’t squish anyone, did I?” She fidgeted, desperately hoping she didn’t accidentally kill another monster or any of this creature’s children.
The spider stared at her but didn’t speak, not helping Annalise’s anxiety about the situation. It gestured behind them with one hairy leg and moved out of the way.
Anna wasn’t willing to assume this monster couldn’t speak. She skirted around and got her first look at the shop that supplied some fabrics that made up the clothing of Hallow citizens.
The doorway may have been in a tree, but the rest of the house was mostly underground, with roots making up the ceiling and well-placed glass windows letting in orange-grey light from above. In the very center of the room was a large stone brazier set in the ground with a fire already glowing and casting more warm light. Beyond it, a small metal spiral staircase curled up into the hollow trunk of the tree.
There were dozens of looms of various sizes, some small and set on desks next to tools she didn’t know, others taller than Anna and closer to the walls. Several spinning wheels were set up around the room, and just as many barrels and vats with different colored liquids took up more space. And yet there was room to move around so long as you didn’t mind running into spiderweb.
Spiderweb covered everything, dressing the walls and ceilings in white lacy cotton candy. It was beautiful how the light caught on the threads.
The monstrous spider fell off the ceiling, landing with a scraping thud and startling Anna. It reached for a large piece of cloth hanging on a polished root that resembled a curtain rod near the small hallway Anna just exited.
Anna stiffened at the sound of exoskeleton cracking, and the spider made odd quiet screeches as one foot touched the cloth and shifted.
She couldn’t look away even as the exoskeleton melted away to human skin and the spider’s legs shortened until they had morphed to fingers. The head grew like a balloon as some hair fell away. All the while, Anna watched as the spider navigated the cloth around itself even as her form changed in what seemed to be a painful manner.
Before long, the skeleton was looking at a woman with soft black hair that slicked back, black pupilless eyes with six black spots set like freckles on her cheeks. Her wrists, elbows, and ankles seemed tattooed with a stripe of red and the last knuckles of her fingers were turquoise. She wasn’t wearing anything except the cloth and remained barefoot.
“May you hand me that zoster?” she asked with a light accent Anna couldn’t tell was Spanish or Greek.
That was more because she knew what a Spanish accent sounded like, but a friend when she was alive (she couldn’t remember who) had mentioned that Greek accents sounded a lot like Spanish.
Anna looked at the desk the lady was pointing at but saw a woven wide belt and a bunch of tools and bowls. Which was the zoster?
“The belt,” the lady said.
“Oh,” Anna handed her the object and watched as the woman slipped her arms into sleeves created by edges of the fabric sewn together and wrapped the belt around her waist.
The dress in place, she walked past Anna to pick up a long thin leather string from a bowl which she used to put her hair up as she spoke.
“And who might you be?”
Anna nodded, she glanced back at the doorway and shifted, “I didn’t hurt anyone, did I…”
“What? Oh, no, most spiders are not sapient.” To prove so, she snatched one off Anna’s shoulder and popped it in her mouth. It crunched between the not-quite-human teeth, and Anna watched the yellow juices slick the woman’s mouth for a moment.
“I have the Trick to telepathically control spiders,” the woman explained impatiently, even as her eyes lit with a bit of amused pride. “I can’t control them if they make the decision to have their own will and awareness and break from me. In that case they are employees if they don’t decide to leave. Say hello, Ester.”
Anna followed the small and distant-sounding voice to a small black widow watching her from the lip of the bowl where the zoster previously was.
“Oh, hello,” Anna replied, making a note to be very careful where she stepped anyway.
“If a spider yells at you, listen,” the woman said with a smile that sported slightly pointed teeth beneath her inky black eyes. She gestured for the fabric in Anna’s hands.
Anna passed it off and stood by curiously.
The woman unfurled the fabric from the thin wood board it was wrapped around and set the wood aside before stuffing the fabric into a three-foot-tall barrel of water. She then poured some kind of powder out of a jar. It sizzled as it touched the water. The woman stirred the fabric around with a large ladle. Immediately the dye began to leach out of the fabric and float to the top, thickening as the woman hummed.
“Dinner tonight,” she said to Annalise. As if that explained. “As soon as I get the dyes out.”
Anna blinked. She squinted a bit, taking in the woman’s chiton, the spider features, the Greek lettering carved into the brazier and etched into the looms. She tried to make out the images woven into the purple trimmed cloth the woman wore, but her movements made the threads and folds shift and Anna didn’t dare stare at the complicated pattern with all its imagery and little silver-and-gold-threaded people too long.
“Are you Arachne?” the teenager asked, deciding she needed to be blunt.
“That’s my name.”
“Are you the same Arachne that Athena turned into a spider after you beat her in a weaving contest?” Anna clarified.
Arachne looked at the skeleton with a bit of pleasant surprise.
“I beat her then? Is that the version you’ve heard?”
“That’s the version I liked more,” Anna said with a nod. Her eyes roved the room more, taking in the wispy beauty of a workshop completely neat and well-kept but covered in webs. No one would see something like this in the real world—dustless strings of silver.
She shifted a bit, still too paranoid about stepping on someone to walk around.
“Ah, flattery’s natural to you. You really are Jack’s blood.”
Anna didn’t turn her head to look at Arachne, though her unseen eyes shifted toward the woman, unsure how to respond. Her posture pointed another direction as she froze.
“Sore subject then?”
Annalise didn’t answer immediately. “A bit, ma’am.”
“Polite too! Well, I will not apologize,” Arachne said bluntly. “Not for an observation. You better get used to it.”
“Used…to people comparing Jack and I?”
“That too. But also me not caring about others’ sensibilities if I wish to tell something how it is. I’ve been so kindly told I’m arrogant and rude. It’s no coincidence I have little respect for those who say that.”
“Usually Harlequin, or whoever he manages to rope into his chores—” Arachne snorted. “—sets the delivery by the door. I don’t like being interrupted.”
“Oh. My apologies. Harlequin wanted me to bring more fabric back. I can come back…later?”
“Waste of time. Sit.” Arachne gestured at stool near one large loom.
Anna pinched her face—probably in confusion, she decided for herself—but she sat down as she tried to sort her thoughts. The stool clearly wasn’t made for someone of her height.