From the remains of the brigand leader’s ruined body she picked up his bloodsoaked keyring holding a number of keys for warded locks all equally dull from one another after thoroughly washing it in water and cleansing it with an unopened bottle of the alcohol to disinfect she turned towards the caverns. Cautiously as to not attract any attention though it was unknown how much of the hysterical screams could be heard from the inside she had low expectations. Despite the initial information of the cave being a shallow one, she could feel the miniature seismic waves coming from much deeper and reaches.
The entrance was rigged with cords holding up a wooden bucket precariously balanced over the edge holding some rusted metallics and small stones in place. Should the lines be disturbed the pail would surely crash spectacularly causing quite the racket. A rudimentary alarm system, judging from its design it was meant to alert the creator to the flight of someone from inside rather than to catch trespassers from outside, as it could easily be disarmed from the outside by simply pushing the bucket further back. Although the wires were visible to a degree in daylight, at night she could see it being difficult to notice.
After walking a fair bit she could make out an orange light coming from the depths, seldomly the flickering glow wavered in its brightness casting deep black shadows to dance on the subterranean walls. Indiscernible hushed whispers, sniffles along with the foul smell of ordure and urine became more prevalent with each step she took. Peeking around a corner behind a turn she could see a man passed out on a small table uneven from the rough cavern surface, seated on a simple stool with an empty bottle on the floor. Whole chamber was illuminated by a lone torch on top of a sconce.
Some ways past him seemed to be a dark holding cell with thick wooden bars wherein she could sense people in them from their faint shuffling.
- ‘Six in there… six to the right in another cell… five more to left… three on the wall?’
The cells seemed to be made recently and hastily, locked with a bolt padlock in which were women of varying ages however most could be considered young. Their clothes were a revealing apron like attire1See pinafore dress. mostly made out of linen though it’s unlikely that this was a conscious choice of fashion as judging from the condition. The linen was so thin that it couldn’t even be trusted to hide their bodies from prying eyes in sufficient light with all its wear and tear let alone keep warm with.
She couldn’t make out much but the furnishing seemed to be barebones at best. Coarse wool and dried haystack for sleeping and a wooden shallow dish for passing in whatever foodstuff the jailor decided to throw in. Without a privy to properly relieve themselves, all the excrements had to be left in their cells. The occupants tried to keep it somewhat hygienic by sectioning off a part of their cell as a latrine with hay to soak and hold their bodily wastes. Shameful as it may be to expose oneself to others, they take some consolation from the blinding darkness offering some privacy from their cellmates, the sound and smell of streaming fluid and the breaking wind2Also known as flatulence however…
⟨ Cold-Reader ⟩
↳ Despondence… Melancholy… Ennui… Fear…
Mix of emotions could be sensed from the prisoners amongst them all an air of hopeless lethargy stood out the most, even their thoughts had taken a turn for the pessimistic.While outside the cave she could only vaguely feel all the vibrations from one direction now closer to the source she could tell them apart with much more precision. She found the causes of the whisperings, sobbings, whimpering she heard. Few who’ve yet to lose hope still whispering some words of comfort to those whimpering.
Further into the depths she could hear metallic clinking, passing by the cells to investigate she found the last three captives in a pitch black corner. Collared and cuffed to the walls with metal chains3See Jougs they had no clothes to speak of, the awkward height of their metallic collars forced them to stand up halfway lest their bindings around their neck choke the life out of them under their weight. Their legs were trembling and teetering barely standing, tremors of which shook the chains that caused the clinking sounds to echo throughout. Fresh lashes of whips were ever so slightly visible. They appeared to be more of the defiant prisoners being ‘disciplined’.
From browsing through their surface memories most seem to have been in captivity for more than a month, perhaps even longer as they’ve lost a sense of time since they were moved underground. From Iosif’s last few memories before his death; the settlement was a small village way off from the forest edge, his plan was to make that village their next target of raiding. Their modus operandi was to raid outlying villages and cross borders to let any investigations blow over before ‘cashing in’(sell off) their ‘meat’(captives) to ‘butchers’(slave traders).
Most of the current ‘meat’ was considered safe without any connections to the current nation they were in save for one. They were taken from the villages of neighbouring petty kingdoms and city states. Although remorseful:
- ‘We should leave…’
- ‘The ringleader’s gone and there’s only three left of them left, four counting that guy passed out on the table. They don’t have the manpower to keep operating, it's likely they’ll set them free or abandon them. After that what they do is not our concern.’
- ‘Can others help…?’
- ‘The Elves were just scraping by with their food situation and finally things are looking up for them recently, with what they’ve done so far I don’t want to add baggage of another 19 mouths to feed. Trolls won’t click with them. Too much of a culture shock even if they accept to take them in.’
- ‘Can we help…?’
- ‘Take into account that to them we’re some monster that just so happened to slaughter all their captors, not their saviour. We can’t keep hiding ourselves either, living a lie, they’ll get suspicious sooner or later before a single thread unravels everything.
Sure we won’t hurt them if they’re agreeable, but will they truly believe that? Who knows if given the opportunity they run away to call in some local militia or military. If that happens, silencing everyone becomes the safest bet we have… You know the saying dead men tell no tales. We both want the best for the twins, that’s why we are here in the first place, revealing ourselves to them… places an uncertain risk to their and our safety. And forcing compliance makes us no different than their previous holders. Well… at least we’ll provide better clothes…’
- ‘Last option… try others first.’
- ‘You’re right… It’s not us who decides their fate, let them make their own decisions. And if they fail the sincerity check… we’ll deal with them discreetly, it's no one’s fault, it’s just how the cookie is going to crumble. Let’s think how we’ll go through with this…’
Mumbling blackguard finally dozed off after hollering a slurring series of insults. She had grown used to the once suffocating stale air. Even the sore pangs of hunger now felt like an old friend coming to visit her. The thin gruel that was served at the same time everyday was the only thing that helped her keep track of time and the only anchor that kept her sanity from slipping away though she has since lost count.
She once had a name, a dream, a future to look forward to… Wedlock life to a rancher tending to barnyard cattle as a milkmaid. She always was quite fond of livestock, despite their unpleasant stink of manure. It all changed when a fire broke out and brigands came charging. Everyone was out for themselves, trying to run or hide. Screams of girls who hid under stable hay as they were dragged out, blazing flames dying the cloudy skies red, how the man she fancied and her plain but kindly father were massacred in front of her as a show of morbid exhibition are still imprinted in her mind.
Her mother was hauled away in tears, nails broken as she clung to the rough earth. Sometimes she wonders if her mother is still in this world, better off, just the same or even worse than she is today. Alia, that was her name, now it's something along the lines of wench and whore. Sometimes she wonders if she had hoped too much out of life. Tinkling sounds of keys ringing pulled her thoughts back into reality. Strange… It felt that today’s serving was a bit overdue. Unusualities did not end there either for from around the corner came wasn’t the filthy men she was used to; instead a fair maiden dressed fine and somewhat exotic clothes untouched by the mars of dirt and grime, who possessed an untarnished, otherworldly beauty. Smooth straight cascading hair of hers seemingly outshined the pale white garments in its platinum shine.
Many ideas and guesses came to her mind of who and what she could be. Perhaps because of her appearance or privileged status from birthright the men hadn’t laid a hand on her yet, a small tingle of jealousy shot through her. There was still something strange about her, empty, there was no emotion on her face, the same placid expression that the nobles wore in discomfort. Nonetheless she took solace, however small in learning that even the mighty can fall so low to the ranks of a slave, not noticing the keys in her hands.
What surprised her were the following events, where she so quietly and effortlessly glided towards the snoring guardsman as if she was not even touching the ground before pulling him up by the tuft of his hair and forcefully bringing it back down with great strength, causing the table and its legs to creak loudly, bringing about shock and silence to the captives. Whilst they were in the process of digesting what just had happened, a huge figure soon followed behind her. A monstrous wolf peeked around her earning the terrified trembles of the girls locked behind the wooden cell.
For the first time in their lives they were thankful for their prison, now their bastion against a monster. As the beast drew near their unconscious jailor they could only watch in fearful anticipation of what would happen to him, forgetting their past gripes against the unsober miscreant. They were baffled as the maw of the creature opened not to rend but to drag the man out of the room, as if he was some lost pup being carried back to a mother’s den.
While they were still recovering from the astonishment they didn’t realize the strange girl had already unlocked their cell. Swinging the wooden door wide open:
- “If you can walk then assemble outside, help those who can’t.”
Declaring so she turned to the entrance of the cave, the girls who had been taken deeper shuffling behind her, clutching blankets over themselves.
She and others took time hesitating and taking in the situation but everyone eventually prepared themselves. What happened to the bandits that captured them? Who was she? grabbing the lone torch on the sconce they followed the mysterious girl shortly thereafter with many unanswered questions swirling in their minds. Though their sight had adjusted to the light from the torch’s glow, still the rays of sun mercilessly assaulted their scotopic eyes when they exited the cave. Their sight was drawn to the luxuriously arranged foodstuff upon a long dining table. Beef, fowl, bread and drinks prepared in various ways, from roasted to smoked. The spectacle and the scent was irresistibly attractive to the starving group.
- “Go ahead, try not to choke.”
‘They had quite the stock of food in those crates, it would be a shame if I let it go to waste.’
Most of the food was cold. Bread was hard and stale, although almost all the drinks they had were mostly alcoholic ill suited for malnutritioned prisoners she found some bottles of weak cider to water down. Meat was tough even to young teeth, seasoned aggressively with salt and only salt to preserve for a longer period of time. Alicia was by no means proud of what she served rather it stung at her pride as a homecook, especially compared to what she could prepare with proper fresh ingredients.
The pain was numbed a little when she saw how they wolfed down on it all without much care.
‘Hey! hey! hey! There's enough for everyone! Stop licking the bowls!’
In her opinion this food tasted too one dimensional and bland but they didn’t care at all. Hunger, after all, is the greatest seasoning of all…
- “It appears most of you are all done, then let’s move on to the main issue. Follow me.”
After feeding them a plenty and letting the colors return to them, she brought them all to the front of a large tent - formerly the abode of the ring leader - making sure everyone’s attention was on her Alicia proceeded to deliver her ultimatum.
- “You all have more or less two choices. Behind me are travel packs each filled with long lasting food, some silver and a makeshift waterskin and to the south there is the nearest village. And…-”
They just noticed it now but they were surrounded with the same monstrous wolves all emerging from the surrounding woods. They sat down after making their presence known like a guard dog in waiting. A direwolf was a serious problem, a pack like one here was a disaster in the making. Though none of them knew that direwolves do not form a pack naturally, the fact that they seemed to be under her beck and call immediately told them that the situation they were in was beyond unnatural.
- “-as you can see my… associates here will escort you out of the forest and ensure your safety. You take one of them, leave the forest, forget about everything that happened here, after that you’re free.”
- “Of course the second option is to stay here… and live under my command and strict rules, failure to comply will be paid for by your life as well as to keep a little secret to yourselves only unless I say you can divulge it to others. So those are your choices, leave or stay. If you want to leave, just take one of the bags and follow a wolf out.”
‘Hum, hm… People don’t like being told what they can and can’t do. Besides the latter one reeks with suspicion, yes I’m not trustworthy, I’m a shady dangerous person so you should leave. With how generous the first option is they should all choose to leave, yes… They should notice that I prepared more bags than the number of people present, someone keen should start running any moment now, to secure more provisions for themselves…’
Break into a sprint, rushing to grab a bag or more, stealing from the slower one and making a clamor to flee as soon as possible. That was only in her head as no one made a move or a peep.
‘Maybe they need some time… they probably made friends with each other right? They may need to discuss it with each other… obviously…’
But however long she waited it appeared as though they had made their choice to stay, they simply did not vocalize it.
‘Are they serious…? Real estate value of this place is terrible, your neighbours want to eat you alive or otherwise. There’s no safety and security. No medical, religious or whatever services to speak of and you don’t get any sunlight half the time because of the canopies! They did understand me… right? Well… time to give them a little push I guess…’
At the snapping of her fingers the completely still wolves all stood up at once and slowly closed in their encirclement in almost perfect unison. Her actions were a completely unnecessary display as she could issue orders without it but she had to keep up with the established role without drawing suspicion on herself, not realizing that her being able to even control one dire wolf not to mention a pack was already exceedingly conspicuous, as in her mind they were already filed under the ‘dogs’ file.
- “Once you’re staying and you know my secret… I would like to add that you cannot go back to option one. And if you try to go back on your word anyway…”
As if to complete her sentence for her the low growls of the wolves quickly followed up. Causing many of them to huddle up shuddering, but still they stood their ground.
- “…Are… you serious…?”
Not knowing if it's in their place to speak, few of them weakly nodded.
‘We’ll let’s see how serious you all are after this… now don’t go saying to that girl upstairs that I didn’t give you a fair chance.’
⟩ Mimicry ⟨
It didn’t take long for her to assume her true form. She fully anticipated ear piercing screams and panic to spread followed by the wolf pack running down any that tries to flee.
⟨ Cold-reader ⟩
Instead what reached her ears were gasps of surprise and peeking into their thoughts revealed that though surprised and awed, fewer than expected showed fear, understandably but all seemed sincere with their wishes to stay baffling, Alicia. Cold reader also revealed rather disturbing reactions as well…
⟨ Surprise… Wariness… Confusion… Pretty… Cute… ⟩
Biting her tongue, she almost yelled out: “Which one of you deviants think I'm cute!?” ‘ah that was close… Still they aren’t normal… you should be more scared you know? Why the hell didn’t you choose the first option? What is wrong with you all!’
What she didn’t understand was that her demands weren’t all that different from any other lords and nobles' law in city states and minor settlements and sometimes even kingdoms. Characters and words she used were different of course, but the implication and meanings wasn’t all that dissimilar. Additionally, these girls were not scorned by some monster attack, no they were imprisoned by their own race, other humans did this to them. Going back to civilization, to more humans were good as going anywhere else. Rather felt veraciousness from her words than anything else, besides it was the first time they had encountered a spider like monster and in the various local folklore of the continent, monsters that spoke human tongue were often depicted as some nature spirits or deities of varying temperaments.
Since she confirmed the authenticity of their wish to stay and most importantly not to tell anyone about her.
‘I didn’t plan for this outcome… now what… Well first thing’s first…’
- ‘Stand down. Return to your regular duties, you… and you, stay with me.’
- “Suppose introductions are first, Alicia, an Araneae spirit. Pleased to make your acquaintances.” ‘Or at least that’s the closest thing Llynbel defined me as.’
Tension in the air seemed to disappear with the blithe delivery of her introductions and physically as the most of the wolves slowly trotted away.
- “While I'd love to stay and have a proper introduction with everyone that will have to wait, you all need a place to stay don’t you?”
‘While I’m confident in my skills as an engineer, housing for 19 in what…? not even half a day? I would say that is beyond my reach even for me, but really I can’t tell with my current tools… Procurement of wood is going to be a problem with the current rate, since only I and Dryssia can sustainably… extract and graft live tree houses. I can recycle the wood and timber of this place… I think I’ll have the weapons and armors of the brigands’ smelted down to something useful like nails, hinges, locks and other miscellaneous things. Hope the old man doesn’t mind that… without a hammer to my head at least. What about the foundation… slabs or basements… going to need… materials…’
She was carried away in her thoughts as her professional passion flared up, and only now noticing how the girls were lagging behind her.
- “Hm? Aren’t you coming? Don’t worry I’ll use everything in that camp for your new .”
Timidly one of them spoke up.
- “Uhm… is… e… what happened… to the bandits that were here…?”
It appeared to be a question that was on everyone’s mind as they all expectantly looked at her for an answer…
- “If I remember right, 3 unconscious, 21 dead, 3 more missing. That’s a total of 27? My friends are looking for the last 3, I’m sure they’ll turn up sooner or later.”
A strange reaction came from them, some glad, some disturbed and others seemingly too dazed to even think. What bothered Alicia the most was many of them seemed to be at peace…
- ‘What kind of psychopaths that are happy to hear that we killed over 20 people directly and indirectly, did we free?’ Are we sure they are human? They didn’t even flinch when seeing us or are monsters that much of a normal occurrence?’
- ‘Don’t worry…’
- ‘Alice I would put you in the same category as a psychopath if you weren’t a spider.’
- ‘You know what… forget it. Let’s just go home…’
- ‘Home… not a den.’