The Crafter at the Web’s Heart

6,100 words

When I was little, I’d lay in Ma’s arms and listen to her stories. Beneath us, the web swayed so gently, you could almost forget it was there. Now Ma’s tongue is a tangle of vines, and I’m the one telling the stories, but the web still vibrates, still speaks, if you know how to listen.

So, listen: when I arrived at Pliny’s shop, there was an orb spider spinning a gorgeous web that caught the morning light, and the spider proud as anything, black and silver and fat on her prey. A good omen, I thought. It was almost enough to make me forget, for a moment, that I hadn’t eaten in a day, didn’t have two coins to rub together, and that Ma needed spraying for aphids. I stepped inside, feeling good.

Pliny smiled when he saw me, looking rather ridiculous under his conical hat. No matter. He paid me fair, sometimes gave me scraps of bread when he didn’t have work for me, and asked about Ma once in a while. Under his hat, what had been his hair spilled out, its thin pages covered in fine, cramped handwriting. Last time I’d seen him, most of his hair had still been hair. It seemed he’d been practicing a lot of Bibliomancy of late.

“Danae,” Pliny called happily. “Come in. I’ve got work.”

“I’m your girl,” I said and leaned over his counter. “Whatcha got?” The shop smelled of dust, of well-cared-for leather, and spiced tea. It was cramped, floor to ceiling, with books of all shapes and sizes. At least a few were whispering at any given time, and a few would, if you let them, bore you until you were ready for the Drop.

Pliny grinned and set on the counter a package wrapped in butcher’s paper and bound with twine. Obviously, a tome. “Package delivery,” he said. “But a bit farther than usual. Thirty-fourth strand, Northeast.” All the fingers on his left hand and most on his right were leather, but they still moved tenderly over the paper.

I whistled. “There aren’t many out that far who can even read, much less do any bibliomancy.” I didn’t say, I should rutting know.

“True enough, but if the pay’s right, eh?” He sat a small stack of coins on the counter. Double my usual rate. More than enough to make up for the fact it would take me half the day to get out that far. You’d think that such generosity would worry me, but I was just glad for the coin.

“That’s fair,” I said, and scooped up the payment, glad my fingers were still fingers. I’d been cautious with my own magic.

“Be careful out there, Danae,” he said. Sometimes, he still treated me like the girl who’d first run deliveries for him, not a young woman. I grabbed the tome and fastened it to a loop in my belt.

“Same to you,” I said. “And go easy on the magic, would ya? I can’t get paid by a tome.”

He laughed. “I don’t expect to be, ahem, closing my covers any time soon.” He paused. “Oh, and make sure the package stays sealed until you hand it off. The seller insisted.”

“Hey,” I said, and flashed my cheesiest grin. “I’m a professional.” I couldn’t figure why he’d bother to warn me. We both knew words on a page meant nothing to me.

A moment later, I was out into the street. I tipped my cap to the orb spider because I knew my manners and because Ma used to say they were cousins of the Crafter and deserved our respect.

I took off running. The morning air was thick with the smells of the city—fresh bread and spices and shit and sweat. It smelled like home, even this far in, where the web-strands run so close together that the walkways don’t have gaps. Rich folk can go their whole lives without seeing the Drop, without wondering just how far down the bottom of the canyon is, and knowing they’ll find out if they ever slip up and take that one-way trip.

I hurried to get clear of those claustrophobic streets, and soon I’d broken out of the tangled towers of the inner city and out to where a girl could breathe, could dash across open spaces, could feel the web, still very slightly sticky after eons, beneath her bare feet.

That feeling, the web’s vibrations speaking to me, barely registered as magical to me anymore, I’d been listening so long. It was the first trick I learned, and I could use it without it hastening my transformation.

Soon, I was in mid-city, dodging mules and vendors’ carts, shimmying up drainpipes to run across rooftop gardens—I was tempted to help myself to a handful of berries or a bit of barley, but I couldn’t bring myself to steal food from neighborhood gardens—and then back to the strands.

I came to gaps in the walkways, and I could see far, far down into the gulf. Ma always told me to beware those spaces, but I never had any fear. Not for myself, anyway. I once watched a whole block of shanties groan, wobble and, oh-so-slowly, tip over …

There’s nothing more to say about that.

§

That morning, I didn’t have any idea how bad things were going to get. But I did feel strange, as though I were being watched. A premonition, I realize now. Nothing magical, just an instinct sharpened by experience.

When the feeling got to be too much, I ducked around a corner and climbed a windmill to check the path behind me. I saw no stalkers or spies, just the city spread out before me. I always had a good sense of her, so sometimes I forgot to really see her, but damn was she gorgeous. Out this far, Traverse is sparse, mostly open space and two-meter-wide strands of web, almost all of it exposed. I could see all the way back to the heart of the city, where money and power gathers, where the towers of the skyline are dominated by Lord Mayor’s spire and the great needle of the Wise Ones’ Chambers. Hishonor keeps the coin flowing, while the Wise Ones practice their magics and do whatever it is ancient mages do. Which is mostly not practice magic, unless they like the idea of completing their transformation to an eagle or ball lightning or whatever it is each of them studies.

The whole of Traverse builds to its middle—or almost to the middle. I can’t see the center from out here, but I can feel the place where the orb is empty, where there is nothing but the Drop. Where, if you believe Ma’s stories, the Crafter herself once sat and fed on some unfathomable prey. Then she climbed a line up to the moon and left her labors behind.

Might be it happened that way. I can tell you, the Wise Ones didn’t shape the web, nor did the Lord Mayor’s money.

I chided myself for getting lost in the view, jumped down, and darted across the web toward my goal. It was tucked away in a cluster of cheap wood and tarpaper, the whole block looking precarious, though it felt relatively stable under my feet. I found the shack with the right number and knocked.

The door creaked open, and a hooded figure stood in the darkness. “I’ve got a package delivery from Pliny’s,” I said.

“At last,” the figure said, drawing out the S. “Do come in,” and opened the door wider. I hesitated. The people of the web’s edge were my people. I knew them well, and they had little use for books, less ability to afford them. Most didn’t mean you harm, and the ones who did mean it made sure you couldn’t identify them.

I took a step back. The figure who had greeted me inched forward. Two antennae poked out from its hood. “Don’t be afraid,” he said. Real reassuring.

“Not a problem,” I said, stepping back slowly. “Just go back inside and I’ll leave this for you—” I fumbled with the clasp on my belt. The figure tensed.

“Give it to us.” The last word came out in a hiss, as though language was a struggle for him. How much magic was going on in there?

“Uh, yeah—” I hesitated with the clasp.

He made a noise, a skreetch-skreetch that gave me a headache. Threw back his cloak. The mouth was mostly transformed; he was speaking out of his stunted proboscis. My tense face reflected in compound eyes.

I’d never seen anything like it. Diptomancy? I thought inanely. That’s probably why I was a little slow to see the knife in his hand.

He lunged forward, aiming for my gut. I was lucky: his instincts were those of a scavenger, just a moment too slow. He slashed. I spun away. The blade slashed against my side, but by then, I was running. I was fast, and confident, and the web was my friend. But he had his own friends.

I first realized that when I heard buzzing. I rounded a corner of the web and looked back. Two hooded figures were flying after me, Mr. Ominous Hood and a trio of his friends on the web behind. They were all in idiotic grey robes, the kind you wore if you were dumb enough to want everyone to know you were in a cult. The robes had been cut to allow their rutting wings to burst free. Who’d have thought flies could be so inventive?

I ran, hard as I could. Should’ve paced myself. In my defense, I’d never been chased by fly-cultists before. I just wanted to get clear. That far out, there are clusters of buildings, but never more than seven or eight together, with large stretches of open space—web-strands and the Drop—between them. And I didn’t want to find out if any of my pursuers could throw those knives.

I pushed myself harder. The flying ones were closing in, though: I could hear the buzzing in my ears. I tried to tune it out, to listen instead to what the web was telling me. And I found it: a lot of movement, not far. I aimed for the nearest cluster of buildings.

A shiver from the web reached me before I’d registered the sound. I didn’t need to turn around to know the knife had missed me by less than a meter.

I leapt forward, threw myself through the back window of the nearest shack. Shocked, dirty faces stared back at me. I didn’t have time to explain. I darted across, ducked out a side window onto a disturbingly uneven platform.

It shifted, tilted above the void. I didn’t look down. Brought it back into equilibrium. My balance has always been good.

Flies might not be the brightest, but it wasn’t like there were a lot of places I could’ve gone. They’d find me if I didn’t keep moving. I scrambled through a gap in the wall of the next building—empty, thankfully—and out onto the web in front of it. Fortune smiled: the commotion I’d sensed in the web was a caravan, a cheap one, just departing from a hovel of an inn. I rolled under one of the carts, grabbed onto the undercarriage. Not a comfortable ride, but I was out of sight of the flies.

The cart moved slowly, and that bought me time to catch my breath and to think. Back then, I wasn’t used to attempts to murder me, especially when they could’ve just stopped creeping and taken the damn book.

By the time my heart stopped feeling like it wanted to cut its way free, I’d had time to come up with a plan. I needed to know what I was carrying, and why these scum-feeders were willing to kill for it. I needed someone I could trust, someone who could read. That was a small list. I knew I had to swallow my pride and talk to Socha.

§

When Socha opened the door, I saw the range of emotions play out on their face: surprise, annoyance, and then, when their eyes reached the bloody spot on my side, worry.

“Oh, my gods, Ae, what did you do?” Socha said.

I flashed my best rogue’s smile. “I swear, it wasn’t my fault.”

“Right,” they said, obviously not meaning it. “Well, come in before you bleed all over my porch.”

Socha’s flat was mid-town, third floor. I’d always liked the view of the Webway it provided, the long line of caravans making their slow way through the city. As good as the view was, though, being that far from the web for long chafed me.

Socha sat me down on their couch and refused to let me explain until they’d got their medical supplies. They sat down next to me. Their hair, the color of sunset, moved as though there was a breeze, and the edges of their skin blurred slightly. They’d improved their skills since we broke up, which did nothing at all to dull the ache of my desire.

“Pull your shirt up and let me see,” they said. I did so. And saw why the wound wasn’t worse. The blade, aimed at the soft skin of my gut, had instead impacted against the plating that edged along my sides. I’d backed off magic for a while, so the plating hadn’t grown much, was nowhere close to being a full exoskeleton, but that morning, it may well have saved my life.

Socha touched me gently, cleaned the wound, and taped me up. I kept hoping to feel something like the old desire from them, but their concern was genuine and entirely non-sexual. Shit.

“It really wasn’t my fault,” I told them when they were satisfied I wasn’t going to bleed to death or get infected. I gave the quick version, though I may have played up my heroic escape.

They didn’t seem impressed. You see what risking your life gets you. “Well,” they said. “You’d better let me see this tome, then.”

“Sorry to drag you into this, Socha,” I said softly, and handed over the package. You couldn’t say I hadn’t gotten a little better at apologies.

“If you’d just let me teach you how to read, you wouldn’t need me.”

I’d told them it was boring, but in truth, I’d hated looking incompetent in front of them. Maybe I just wanted them to see the tough girl. You can guess how well that worked. “Maybe I just want an excuse to see your face?”

A breeze dropped the temperature in the room by five degrees. Conservatively. “Just give it here, Ae.” I handed the package over. The grey cover was made of rotted cloth, but over pages only slightly yellowed, as if someone had re-bound the book in an ancient cover. Socha leaned over it, flipping pages carefully. I poured some water from the jug on their counter while they read. I resisted the temptation to poke my head into the bedroom for old times’ sake, but I couldn’t resist grabbing a handful of bread from their pantry: once I’d stopped moving, the hunger pains came back.

I felt a little better with some bread in my stomach, but still achingly hungry. And still felt exposed, though whether it was the altitude or the fact that they were so cool toward me, I couldn’t say.

“Well, shit, Ae,” they said. “What have you gotten into?”

They didn’t even swear between the sheets. “That bad?” I asked, retreating to the couch.

“It reads like a religious text. A lot of gibberish about ‘kings of the heap’ and ‘our home, the rotting world.’”

“Rutting flies,” I said.

“That’s not the worst part.” The pages of the book rippled in a breeze of Socha’s making. They fell open to a page near the end, a circle filled with swirls of elaborate calligraphy. “This is the real heart of the text. And it’s a summoning spell, Ae.”

“So, they’re, what—trying to summon their god?”

Their god? I don’t think so.” There wasn’t much Socha didn’t know a bit about. There are always secrets on the wind. “This is the kind of thing you give sheep. It’s an offering. Of prey.”

“That doesn’t sound good.”

“No,” they said. “But it explains why they attacked you. They didn’t just need the book—they needed blood for this ritual—”

The crash interrupted them. Something big had hit against the window of Socha’s place. I jumped up in surprise and scooped up the tome. The cultist was pulling its human head and furry forelimbs from the cracked glass.

That’s when I felt the wind. I glanced behind me. Socha had risen to their full, impressive height, and their dress was whipping around them.

“That,” Socha said, “was a very bad idea.” The furniture was beginning to rattle in the cyclone that was spinning up. I’d only seen Socha so mad once before, and it was more fun when their fury was directed at someone else. “I’ll keep them occupied,” they said. “You get out of here.”

The window shattered, and the cultist went spinning away. It was going to be a bad day to be a fly. Even worse than usual, I mean. I dashed out the door. “Be careful, Socha,” I called behind me. I didn’t say what I was feeling because you never know what the wind will pick up.

§

The cultists were going to be the least of my problems until whoever was trying to get them to sacrifice—or be sacrificed—was stopped. And, selfishness aside, they’d attacked my lover—okay, my ex, but I was cautiously optimistic—and nothing that was going to be summoned this way was likely to be good news for Traverse, or for me.

So, I was going to have to talk to Pliny, find out what he knew about whoever had sent that book. Someone had ordered that book delivered, had set me up to die. And Pliny was the only lead I had.

But first, I needed to talk to Ma. If nothing else, I could hand over the coin. She was still able to use it, some days, and I was starting to think that all this was too big for me. I wasn’t sure I was going to be okay, and I needed to wish Ma goodnight at least once more.

Our little flat was dark when I got home. The candles I’d lit in the morning had burned out. I could smell the tomatoes ripening on the roof of the community garden next door, and the fresh-turned earth. She’d been working. I went twice around the block, keeping in contact with the exposed web. No sign the cultists had followed me, but I’d thought that at Socha’s, too. When I was as sure as I could be that no one had tailed me, I ducked inside.

§

There’s an empty space at the heart of every web. Empty, that is, to the observer. To the spider it is part of the whole. Someone who isn’t Traversian might assume from my tale that Traverse is different from other places, that we’re all in the midst of transformation. That’s not true. Most of us don’t bother with magic at all, except for cantrips. You know the stuff: a bit of igniomancy to light a cigarette, then some aquamancy to clean windows. Anybody can do it with a little focus, and as long as you don’t specialize, you won’t start to identify too much. You won’t start to change.

Of course, you won’t be able to work big effects, either. That’s the tradeoff. But there aren’t any more people in Traverse willing to risk changing into a fireball or a tome or a falcon than anywhere else. Not a lot more, anyway. Living on the edge of the Drop might make us a bit more—wild? We might feel like we’re barely hanging on. But if I seem to know only mages, it’s because of who I am and what I’ve had to do to survive.

That’s the heart of this web, and you need to know it, so you don’t misunderstand about Ma.

I stepped inside. Our little shack was all slanting patterns of light and dark, the last of the day spilling in through windows as big as the walls will take, the darkness seeming to grow from the center. But that’s not magic, just poverty. Ma sat on her chair by the biggest window, butterflies flitting over her patchy green hair. She’d moved since I was home last, gone to work and come back. I can tell from the line of green water to and from the stairs, and because she’s sitting in a new position, her arms on the rests of her chair instead of folded before her. She didn’t bother with small movements. Her extremities moving lightly in the wind was enough.

“I’m home, Ma,” I said. Her eyes moved to me. I think they were smiling. “I won’t be able to stay long. Work.” Was I going to tell her crazy cultists were trying to gut her favorite and only child? No rutting way.

I went to the counter and grabbed the jug I’d filled that morning from the rain-trough on the community roof. Gently I leaned her head back; her face was still its previous dark complexion, not forest green like her limbs, or bright green like the tip of her tongue-vines. Over that tongue I poured about a third of the jug. I watched the muscles in her throat contract. She was still consuming some things in the old way. I poured the rest of the water over her greening body, watched it run down toward the pail of dirt in which she rested her feet, then sat down beside her.

“This job might take me longer than usual, Ma,” I told her. “But I got paid. I’m going to leave you some coin. When Ms. Lyra stops by, she can get you the aphid spray and anything else you need.”

I could see the disapproval in her eyes—what daughter could miss it? “Don’t look at me that way, Ma. You were up there keeping the garden healthy, and don’t pretend you weren’t.”

She didn’t bother trying to deny it, not that I’d have wanted her to waste the words. “Just—please, Ma. You can stop all that. The garden’s going to be fine. There are spiders to keep the bugs away, and plenty of light and water.” And yeah, the plants wouldn’t grow as well in natural soil as they would with her magic thumb, and yeah, people in the neighborhood depended on that garden. But I wasn’t ready to come home to a tree in my living room. Selfish, I know.

The sun was growing low in the sky. She’d want to sleep with dusk, conserve energy, and once the night came I’d head out. That wouldn’t slow the flies, but I was always more comfortable at night, where my senses felt keener and the quiet streets made the web’s messages clearer. I had a bit of time to kill.

“How ‘bout a story before bed?” I asked. I guess you could say I was feeling nostalgic. “How about the one with the Crafter and the founding of Traverse?” It had always been my favorite as a kid.

I sat beside her and told her of the Crafter, the web she’d spun across the great rift in the world, and how one day she’d tired of this place and taken her refuge on the dark side of the moon. Then I kissed Ma goodbye.

Ma had never wanted to become a tree, but she did what she did to keep people fed. So, if you think everyone in Traverse is working magic, let me ask you: why are so many of us so damn hungry?

§

In the narrow streets of the inner web, the nights are never fully dark, with lamps casting their strange shadows everywhere. Outside Pliny’s, the orb spider was busy wrapping up a meal for later. She was glorious, and that steadied my nerves as I pounded on Pliny’s door.

It took a while, but I knew Pliny slept upstairs, so even with the shop closed he wouldn’t ignore me forever. The door cracked open. His head darted out. His face fell.

“Danae,” he said. “What happened? You still have the book—” His eyes flicked to the dark stain on my shirt. “Is that blood? Come in.” He was hatless for once, and the pages on top his head fluttered as he glanced each way and shut the door behind us. As he lit the candles, some of the tomes began to whisper to me, a rustling that only resolved into words if I wanted to listen closely. I most definitely didn’t. Most tomes had never been bibliomancers, and the ones that had didn’t seem to care about stories or anything fun. They mostly seemed to gripe about arcane theories and one another. Boring old men, even the ones who had never been men.

Pliny pushed aside some space on a low table and sat me down. “Tell me what happened?” he asked and went about brewing some tea. I told him the whole thing, leaving out the part where I was mooning over my ex and telling stories to Ma because those weren’t any of his business.

“How awful,” he said, then handed me a tea and took the seat across from me.

I waited for him to take a drink of his tea before I sipped my own. You see, even back then I wasn’t totally naive.

“Yeah, well, I’ve had worse.” I hadn’t. “But I can’t figure out why they’d attack me, rather than just let me hand over the package.”

“They might have been trying to cover their tracks,” he said, and sipped his drink. “Or maybe they’re just dumb. I mean, nothing about—what was it you called them?—fly cultists suggests cleverness.”

“Good point. But I’d really rather not get killed by anyone that stupid, so I need your help.”

“Of course,” he said. “Anything. What do you need?”

“I need to know who ordered that delivery—what they looked like, how they signed for the delivery. I need to know who tried to kill me.”

“I don’t know how much I have recorded,” he said, sadly. He noticed my expression. “Don’t worry. I think I can help you. But I need you to promise me you’ll let me give you all the details before you go off and get in over your head.” I had to stop myself from tensing. What if things were even worse than I feared? Pliny didn’t seem distressed, though. He sipped his tea casually.

“No problem,” I said. “It’s a little late in the evening for a rampage.” I had to know. Without answers, I was good as Dropped.

“In a strange way,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter who sent the book. There have always been doomsday cultists among the lower classes—no offense. But you’ve seen it. People with nothing to lose start thinking the end of everything might work out well for them.”

“That tome wasn’t going to help them with that, though.”

“No,” he said. “Not in the way they thought, anyway. Whoever sent it was likely manipulating them. To get them to enact whatever ritual the tome contained.”

“Wouldn’t they see that coming?” I asked. “My—friend figured it out in ten minutes.”

“The cultists? All they needed to do was get you inside without tipping you off, and they couldn’t even manage that.”

“Fair point,” I said. “So, someone’s trying to bait them into—what? Bringing about the end of the world?”

“Nothing so dramatic. Most gods want the world to continue—some variant of the world, anyway. They want to hold on to their power.”

“So, what are they up to?” I asked. The knot in my gut was tightening.

“You’ve been all over this city, Danae. Does it seem like a good deal for most people? Like they’re living good lives?”

I grunted and sipped my tea. I liked Pliny well enough, and more than that I needed answers, so I didn’t tell him he didn’t know much about what life was like farther out.

“The Lord Mayor profits, and his friends profit,” he went on. “The Wise Ones play elaborate games against each other and Hishonor. And people starve.”

“We manage,” I said. “Mostly. I don’t see what this has to do with the end of the world.”

“I told you it’s not the end, Danae.” He brought his hands up expansively. “The toppling of the social order. Tearing down the towers of the powerful. Making everyone equal.”

I looked around. There was more wealth in this room than in the whole of the outer web, if I guessed right. “Silly me,” I said. “I’d settle for more water-collection vats.”

He leaned forward. The pages that had been his hair parted down the middle. “I know you have more vision than that. Things will keep getting worse and worse. None of the powerful care a bit about us.”

Oh. You’re probably thinking, shit, took her long enough to be sure. Fair enough. But not many of us are ready the first time a friend tries to bring about an apocalypse. I pushed back from the table.

“And of course, whoever made the ritual possible would earn something from the Power they summoned, wouldn’t they?”

“Well, yes,” he said. “I would expect so.”

“So, who was it?” I tried to think of who he’d want. “One of the Elder Lords? A Winter God?”

He laughed, finished his tea. “Nothing so banal. The Crafter herself.”

I’d never been sure she was up there behind the moon. But even if he was wrong, something was coming if the ritual took place.

“This can’t all be about—about leveling things,” I said. “What do you want from her, Pliny?”

“Justice,” he said, and stood up, flicking lint from his robes. “And she’s the Crafter—she can put me back the way I was. Think of it, Danae! All the power without the, ahem, side-effects.”

I shifted my weight. I didn’t like thinking of the change that way, as if it was a curse. “Why are you telling me this?”

He sighed. “I thought it was obvious. I want your help. I know you have an—affinity with her. And you can’t like the rich folk any more than I do. And of course, she might be able to help your mother.”

Well, that brought me up short. I wasn’t sure I believed in the Crafter or undoing transformations. But as much as I love Traverse, the web is no place for a tree. I could plant her in the garden, but even then …

“The gardens,” I said.

He’d picked up a book and was flipping through it. “What are you talking about?” I gauged the distance between us: no more than a meter. But bibliomancers were bad news. Given a well-chosen text to read from, they could work magic more diverse than even the greatest pictomancers, and of course I had no idea what he was reading, so no way to prepare. That’s when I realized I was going to die.

“The gardens,” I said sadly. “When the Crafter comes back and takes control of her web, everything’s coming down. The gardens won’t survive.”

I watched his expression move from bafflement to contempt. “There are always costs when things change, Danae.”

And I knew who would bear those costs. “Okay,” I said. “I’ll hear you out. What’s your off—” I lunged at him, swinging hard at his jaw. I was fast. He was old. But I had not caught him as off-guard as I’d hoped.

“Shield my steps,” he blurted, and I hit hard into a wall of energy. I staggered back and threw myself behind the counter. Just in time.

“The foul betrayer is a poison,” he shouted. I gagged. The air fouled around me. So much for cover. I used the counter for leverage and leapt to the far wall, where I clutched the bookcase. It creaked and swayed ominously. He turned to face me. I leapt again, sending books clattering from their shelves. One of them shouted obscenities.

I didn’t hear what Pliny said, but there was a flash of light, a room-shaking explosion, and the bookshelf in front of me was smoldering.

I pushed off, landed on the table—tea went flying—and dove for his midsection. He sidestepped. Almost fast enough. I clipped his shoulder, then hit the ground hard. When I got my head up again he was struggling out of a pile of books. He’d grabbed a new one.

“You’re really galling me,” he spat, and read. “Oh, the spears of fate.”

I really didn’t want to be murdered by a cliché. Three spears materialized, flying at my chest. I leapt and clutched the ceiling, my fingers and toes holding fast. I hadn’t consciously called on that magic, but I’d called on it nonetheless. It had saved my life. For the moment.

I gathered myself for another attempt. “You’re a talented girl,” he said. “But it’s time you learned, ‘everything breaks.’”

I heard the crack a moment before my brain decided to clue me in that a bone was jutting out from my arm. A moment later I was screaming in agony on the floor.

And what did that rutting mage do? Calmly rose to his feet and stood over me, tears in his eyes, while I was trying not to pass out. “I do so hate to waste promising materials,” he said, and flipped through his book. “Trash, nothing but trash. Ah well. This will do—”

I wish I could tell you I had a good one-liner. But I was fighting against shock, and it was all I could do to call upon the power I’d been avoiding. Transformation is no curse.

I spat at him with all the contempt I could muster.

He blinked, then clutched his face, screamed, and fell back over the scattered books, landing hard. The scream’s pitch kept rising and rising. He clutched at the ruins of his skin, thrashing wildly. Spiders have so many tricks, you see. I clutched my badly broken arm to my side and crawled over to him. It was an agonizing few feet, but I made it.

I didn’t taunt him, and he didn’t have a snappy line. His thrashing felt familiar to me. He felt like prey. I embraced my power, and bit hard into the soft skin of his leg. I felt the venom flow through my bite.

After a few minutes, the screaming stopped. Did his rich neighbors lift a finger to help? No rutting chance. It would take a while before he was soft enough. No matter. Despite the pain in my arm shooting white fireworks over the edges of my vision, I felt Traverse stretching out on all sides: The Lord Mayor asleep in his tower, a Wise One walking the streets incognito, merchants in finery eating imported delicacies, children playing on the edge of nothing. I felt my Ma, asleep, her green heart beating slowly. I felt Socha, looking out over the night, their muscles tense. I felt the fly-cultists plotting in an abandoned house. Let them come for me. I would be ready.

I tore off Pliny’s robes and fashioned a splint as best I could. Nearly passed out, but I managed to secure it. I had never felt more alive. As far as I was concerned, all the gods could take the Drop. But Pliny was right about one thing: Traverse was a mess. And, of course, every web needs its spider.

Pliny was prepared soon enough. When I was fully sated, I forced myself to my feet. The arm would need care, but I was owed a favor or two.

At the front door, I nodded to the orb spider, one equal to another. Then I went out into my city.

Izzy Wasserstein writes fiction and poetry, teaches writing and literature at a public university on the Great Plains, and shares a house with a variety of animal companions and the writer Nora E. Derrington. Her most recent poetry collection is When Creation Falls (Meadowlark Books, 2018), and her fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming from Clarkesworld, PseudoPod, Fireside Magazine, and elsewhere. She is a member of the 2017 class of Clarion West, and likes to slowly run long distances. Her website is www.izzywasserstein.com.

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  1. On superheroes, deification, and the relationship between writer and reader – Izzy Wasserstein - […] the day! My short story “The Crafter at the Web’s Heart” is up at […]

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