Travelling with Maralith, the mechanical spider-lady, was less fraught with terrifying surprises than running through the Mechanical Web solo had been. Betty clung to that thought as a more generalized feeling of dread rose within her. She and the spider-lady were making excellent time but not necessarily in a direction that made sense.
“It looks like we’re heading towards the outside of the web,” she said as she struggled to keep up with Maralith.
“The outside of this web, yes,” Maralith said, implicitly confirming that the realm was larger than even the widest stretches of the web that Betty was able to see.
“The portals aren’t at the center of the web?” Betty asked. That was different than what she was used to, but there was no reason to assume that the Mechanical Web was functionally similar to the Demon Web, which lay at the bottom of the pit the Goblin Deeps were carved into, except that form and function were often closely linked together.
“Yes, the Grand Portals are at the center of the webs,” Maralith said. “But the Spinners are not. They reside in the shadow lands at the edge of the Great Webs”.
Betty felt a small trill resound up her nerves at that thought. Shadow lands weren’t inherently hostile or malevolent, but they were rarely all that safe either.
Not that the Mechanical Web was particularly safe either. The spider-lady was able to traverse the corridors within the web strands with the kind of automatic easer that came from an instinctive knowledge of the terrain. Betty, on the other hand, found that she had to spend at least half her time with her eyes down to find spots that were safe to step on. She’d been able to run from the smaller spider-mechs, but she wasn’t sure if she could outpace Maralith if a fight or flight situation arose.
“And where do you live?” Betty asked. “When you’re not helping stray goblins find a path to get home, that is.”
“Maintainers live in the junctions, or in the heart of the web, depending on their station,” Maralith said. “I am not highly ranked, so I make my home not far from here.”
“I should apologize for interrupting your day,” Betty said. “I’m sure you probably have more important things to be taking care of than me.”
“I have duties to perform today, but I do not believe they are more important than aiding an Other who is capable of speech and reason,” Maralith said.
“You still have my thanks,” Betty said.
“I have not helped you yet,” Maralith said. “The Spinners may yet choose to devour you.”
“That’s on them, not you,” Betty said. “I know what I’m getting myself into. Or at least I think I do.” She paused for a moment, considering that notion, before adding, “What can you tell me about the Spinners?”
“They are the creators of this realm,” Maralith said. “They built it collect the food they need to survive.”
“They built the realm itself?” Betty asked. “Not just the webs but the whole reality that surrounds us here?”
“That is what our Primary Tales record,” Maralith said. “I am not a Literalist though, so I must acknowledge that the Spinners may have co-opted an existing realm and transformed it into something suitable for their needs.”
“Are there any signs of people or things that were here before the Webs?” Betty asked.
They passed through another junction where spider-mechs were at work. Unlike the ones she’d raced through on her own though, Betty saw that these junctions were functioning properly and not under any sort of repairs. Maralith slowed as they passed through the first couple of areas and flashed as series of lights at the spider-person who seemed to be in charge of each site. They flashed lights back at her, and then she led Betty onwards, clearance apparently obtained. Or it could have been a clever method of coordinating an all out attack, but since Betty was pretty sure she couldn’t take Maralith in a fair fight, the idea of the spider-lady planning an elaborate ambush seemed well into the category of “unlikely and pointless”.
“Only the Great Webs and the Spinners remain from the days before Graven Records exist,” Maralith said. “But the Spinners can be very thorough, so certainty is not a supportable position there, given what they would be capable of erasing. We believe the Primary Tales mostly because it is convenient to do so.”
“The Spinners created you as well?” Betty asked.
“That is part of the Primary Tales,” Maralith said. “We are taught that we were woven by the Spinners to care for the Great Webs, and that it is from them that our purpose is derived.”
“But there are other stories aren’t there?” Betty asked, hearing unspoken words lurking behind Maralith’s answer.
“Yes, but they are no better than fictions either at this point,” Maralith said.
“Let me guess,” Betty said. “There’s also the idea that maybe you were here before the Spinners and that what you are now is what they changed you into?”
“That is one of the Shadow Tales,” Maralith said. “There’s also the story that imagines we hail from the same source as the Spinners and ventured here with them.”
“Which do you think is true?” Betty asked.
“I think they are likely all fictions, and irrelevant,” Maralith said. “We are required to deal with our world as it is today and not as the dream of what it was once intended to be. If dreams matter at all, it is not in their record of the past but in the map they can provide us towards our future.”
“I’m just hoping I can avoid running into any nightmares,” Betty said.
That, of course, is when they reached the edge of the web and crossed into the shadows at the edge of the realm.
Within the grey gloom, Betty found a thousand points of light waiting for her. Unfortunately they were all eyes, each the size of her fist, and the creature they belonged to looked neither friendly, nor merciful.