Authors: Preston Norton
Though our surroundings were obscured in darkness, it was obvious we were in a sewer. Circular passageways of metal and concrete branched out in several directions. Pipes lined the ceilings and walls. An inch-deep layer of murky water splashed beneath our feet. However, down the distant passages, I could sense shadowy movement. We weren’t alone.
I glanced back at the doorway which strangely appeared to be a mere opening in thin air. As the sliding door then closed on its own, it was like a dimensional portal closing. All indication of an opening vanished entirely. There was no turning back now.
“Wading in poopy water with Zero,” I said with a sigh. “It doesn’t get much better than this.”
For once, Nero didn’t respond to my insult. His distracted gaze wandered. “I’m sensing an electric lighting system in here. I can feel it.”
“Electric lighting in a sewer?” I said, raising an unconvinced eyebrow.
“It’s not a real sewer, Bonehead. It’s a Challenge Chamber.”
Though we had to strain to see in the shadows, we pressed forward. Neither of us hesitated reaching and grabbing and feeling, searching the walls blindly. Maybe we just didn’t want to look like wimps in front of each other. I know my pride refused to give Nero the pleasure. Even when I heard something—several somethings—crawling across the floor. The walls. Even the ceiling.
My hand grazed a lever, slanted downward. “I think I found it.”
Gripping the handle with both hands, I forced the lever up.
The lights turned on. The entire sewer was moving. Swarming. Fat hairy bodies pulsed and squirmed, elongated legs twitching and clawing.
Spiders. Lots of ‘em.
And they were nearly as big as us.
The spiders rampaged forward in a synchronized wave. Their scratchy, stampeding legs resonated throughout the spacious tunnel. Hungry pincers flared open from their slimy mouths.
Nero was already on it. He levitated from the floor, telekinetically lifting five spiders with him. His black hair swayed over his pale face, his expression dominated by sick satisfaction. Without even moving a muscle, a hundred legs instantly dismembered themselves from their fat hairy abdomens, spewing a shower of goopy yellow blood.
I was only a second behind him.
I mentally tapped into my bone structure and immediately felt myself become lighter.
Have you ever wondered how small animals and insects can move so fast for their size? How a squirrel can be so balanced jumping from tree to tree without a second thought? How a bird can swoop from the sky and snatch a fish out of the water?
I’m like the human version of those creatures.
I leapt into the air, practically flying. Time seemed to fall into slow motion as I soared. As I came down on the front line of racing spiders, I channeled as much density into my fist as possible. I hit the floor like a meteor. The metal and concrete of the sewer floor shattered, sending up waves of spiders in the explosion.
Smoke billowed up as debris rained down. Spiders staggered through the rubble, disoriented.
I wasn’t about to wait for them to regain their bearings.
I darted to the nearest spider—slightly smaller than the others—and snatched it by its rear leg. I shuddered slightly at the bristly texture beneath my fingers but didn’t let that slow me down. Adding just enough density to my arm for added strength, I swung the spider up like a hairy ball and chain. Another spider had already reared back and lunged at me. I smacked it with its cousin, sending it sailing.
I’ve never been above a good game of whack-a-mole, and that certainly showed here. Lifting my spider bludgeon, I beat and smashed away at the force of arachnids scuttling towards me. Spinning a full three hundred and sixty degrees, I managed to gracefully bash away half a dozen spiders at once.
The bodies—some still twitching—were beginning to stack up around me. I forced myself to step up on their bulbous corpses for a better swinging range.
Then, rather abruptly, the spider I was using as my weapon detached from its leg. It took a little longer than it should have for me to realize I only had a hairy appendage as a weapon now. Yellow mucus spurted out the end.
One particularly fat spider took advantage of my sudden disarming, lunging at me with pincers flailing.
I shoved the dismembered limb into the back of its throat. Stunned and convulsing, the spider toppled down the hill of corpses.
Nero, meanwhile, hovered past me, a spider levitating in his telekinetic grasp. He squeezed his raised fist, and the spider contorted and crumpled in mid-air. And then he tossed it aside, like a kid bored with a toy.
Mildly distracted, I barely noticed the new spider dropping from the ceiling, suspended by a thick slimy cord. It screeched as eight dangling legs reached down for my head.
I responded with a left uppercut. With only the bare minimum bone density to slow my arm, it shot up like a missile. It wasn’t until momentum was already on my side that I tapped specifically into the bone density of my hand, channeling as much weight as I could into the blow. The spider might as well have been a piñata. My fist launched with the force of a cannonball, blasting right through the spider in a slimy yellow explosion.
Making my fist light once more, I ripped my gooey arm free. I then grabbed the spider at the base of its pincers. Distributing just enough weight in my arms, I ripped the pincers out and apart like a wishbone. The spider dropped with a thud. I repositioned my grip on these new weapons, grabbing them by their hairy husks. The bladed pincers gleamed in the overhead light like twin daggers.
I leapt down from the mound of yellow-stained corpses as more spiders ascended. I added to my gravity as I magnified my entire bone density tenfold. I dropped like an anchor. Two unfortunate spiders happened to be beneath me as I plummeted. I crushed them into the floor.
Retracting my bone density on impact, I refastened my grip on the pincers and plunged into an onslaught of oncoming spiders. I practically glided across the floor. I slashed and sliced and stabbed, weaving through the throng of hairy bodies and appendages like a ghost. Limbs dropped. Wounds oozed. Bodies fell.
And then the ground rumbled beneath me. I redirected my gaze as the biggest spider yet lumbered out of the shadows like a gangly eight-legged bear. Lifeless bodies were shoved aside as it plowed through, roaring rather than screeching. I flipped the pincers in my hands, grabbing them by their bladed tips. Pulling both of my arms back, I flung them like throwing knives. With my enhanced speed and reflexes, they whizzed like bullets.
One pincer sunk deep into the massive spider’s face, between several sets of eyes. The other shot through the back of its snarling throat. Yellow blood spurted out the back of its head. With a resounding thud, it collapsed heavily amid its fallen kind.
I whipped around, fully prepared to punch the next spider’s head clean off.
However, the only spiders in sight were dead and dismembered with occasional parts still twitching. My head kept jerking from side to side as I continued to turn.
“They’re dead,” said Nero in a flat tone. I glanced over to find him standing in the corpses rather than levitating. “We got all of them.”
Despite the good news, he hardly looked pleased.
As I stopped to catch my breath, I normalized my bone density. Even though there was no external change, it was amazing how fat I always felt after returning to normal.
“You took out forty-two of them,” Nero grumbled.
“Forty-two?” I said. I was caught off guard by the randomness of the comment. Though Nero was only Telekinetic, hardly a Telepath, he still had a gift for keeping track of such things without even trying. “How many did you get?”
Nero snorted and redirected his attention elsewhere.
Ah. So that explained the sour look. I took down more spiders than him. Nero was the sorest loser of them all.
“Arachnis,” said Nero.
“Arachnis,” he repeated. “She’s the Defeated we’re facing in this Challenge.”
Arachnis. I knew that name. “She was one of the traitors that Fantom killed, right?”
“Yeah,” said Nero, nodding. “She was one of the first. A real nasty one from what I’ve heard.”
“Good,” I said. “Let’s beat the tar out of her. Can you sense her?”
Nero paused a moment, his gaze wandering, and his lips pursed. There was something in his eyes that I couldn’t put my finger on.
“I think she’s that way,” said Nero, pointing down a particularly dank tunnel. “East.”
Only Nero would know which way was east in an underground sewer hideout. We both started in that direction. Trudging through the inch-deep water, I was immediately glad that our bodysuits were waterproof. Even if it was just to keep our feet dry. And poop-free.
I couldn’t believe Nero was actually being this cooperative. Out of the corner of my eye, I noted that his eyes were still lowered, and his mouth was pulled into a straight line.
“What’s up?” I asked, trying not to sound concerned. Which I wasn’t. Honestly, the only thing I was concerned about was finishing the Challenge.
Nero looked over at me, silent. As if mulling over whether he would actually respond or not. I was finding it increasingly difficult to maintain eye-contact.
“Back in 1995 . . . a hero named Cortex fought Arachnis,” Nero said finally. “Before Fantom killed Arachnis. He was an Omnipotent.”
I blinked. An Omnipotent? I’d never heard Nero mention Omnipotents before. Omnipotents were Supers with both telekinetic
telepathic power. Though Omnipotents were termed to be practically invincible, they were also, ironically, extinct.
“So . . . I’m assuming Arachnis beat him?” I asked.
“She killed him,” said Nero.
“Oh,” I said. I had no clue what else to say.
“There’s a chance that Arachnis might have a defense against mind powers,” said Nero. “If that’s the case . . . just be ready.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Was Nero seriously admitting that he might be useless in this fight? As much as the prospect boosted my ego, I didn’t like the idea of fighting a freaky spider lady on my own.
“It’s just a virtual recreation of Arachnis,” I said, attempting to sound like I didn’t care. “A dumbed down version. Besides, if Arachnis had any sort of defense against an Omnipotent, it would probably be a block against telepathic power, not telekinesis. Cortex probably walked in cocky, thinking he could read Arachnis’s mind, and he couldn’t.”
Whether or not I actually believed my words, they sounded convincing enough coming out of my mouth.
“Yeah,” said Nero, forcing an uncertain smirk. “You’re probably right.”
The tunnel grew murkier as we progressed, our shadows blending against dark walls. The hope of light glimmered distantly ahead like a single star in a black sky. Despite the sloshing water beneath our feet, a new sound permeated the atmosphere. Soft and shrill, echoing indiscernibly.
“Do you hear that?” asked Nero.
I didn’t respond right away, still straining to discern what it was. Suddenly, random high pitched sounds began to correlate with each other. It was then that I noticed the melodious nature of the sound. It was a female voice . . .
Whether we were drawing nearer or the voice was growing louder, the words became clear.
“The itsssy bitsssy ssspider walked up the water ssspout . . . Down came the rain and washed the ssspider out . . .”
I shuddered at the eerie, hissing voice. From what I could gather, she seemed to be singing the same song over and over. It was Arachnis, no doubt. If she was trying to scare us . . . well . . . she wasn’t doing a bad job.
The narrow expanse of the tunnel finally expanded into a vast chamber. The sheer size of it was obscured by veils of draped webbing. These were all connected amid an infrastructure of thick strands intertwining the floor, walls, and ceiling. The end result was a sticky white labyrinth.
As I stepped out into the open, the floor crunched beneath my feet. I glanced down. The floor was blanketed in small skeletons—rats, fish, and several other animals that I did not care to identify. Pulling my gaze up, Nero and I cautiously proceeded into the labyrinth.
Through the transparent sheets of webbing, a hulking silhouette was finally visible—even bigger than the last spider I had taken down, although strangely human in shape. Whatever the nature of Arachnis’s power, it had obviously come with physical side effects.
Arachnis finally ceased her singing, only to be replaced with the rhythmic chant of another nursery rhyme.
“Little Missss Muffet sssat on a tuffet, eat her curdsss and whey . . . Along came a ssspider, who sssat down bessside her . . . and had a Little-Missss-Muffet-filet.”
Even with layers of web between us, Arachnis turned a very human head our direction. The details of her face were obscured, but it was obvious she was looking directly at us. Nero and I both froze.
“Hello, my delectable little guests,” she said in a voice as melodious as her singing. She gestured with a thin, elongated arm. “Come. Come so that I may see you clearly.”
Nero and I exchanged anxious glances. The element of surprise was clearly out of the question.
“We should communicate to each other with Morse code or something,” Nero whispered.
“Morse code?” I repeated. “Seriously? Are you a Boy Scout?”
Nero flushed red.
“Havoc,” I breathed, looking away. “If one of us says ‘Havoc’, we both attack.”
Nero simply nodded, avoiding eye contact as well. Without another word, we followed the last sheet of webbing as it curved inward. At last, we stepped into the open core of the nest.
Arachnis appeared both beautiful and horrifying. She seemed human from the waist up, but even that was pushing the definition of human. She was covered by a black, gown-like top with a swooping neckline. Two pairs of abnormally long arms met with twenty spindly fingers interlocked. Her face was statuesque, a flawless complexion complemented by full lips and lush eyelashes. Her eyes, however, were big and black . . . accompanied by several smaller pairs of eyes clustered together. Sharp black hair sliced down to her bare shoulders. Four gargantuan legs jutted out like angled tree trunks. Her most notable feature, however, was an abdomen the size of a hot air balloon, pulsing gently behind her. Though not as hairy as her spider minions, her legs and abdomen were dominated by a splotchy but very distinct brown and black striped pattern.
It was almost impossible to believe that this
“You killed my babies,” said Arachnis in a surprisingly calm tone.
I blinked myself back to the reality of the situation. Even if she wasn’t real, the Challenge certainly was. We had one goal: Kill her.