|The silence in the chamber below seems to have a life of its own, as if it were a thirsty creature that drinks up sound as a vampire drinks blood.|
Jack descends slowly, painfully aware of the scrape of his boots on the ladder rungs, the clatter of the metal shaft as he missteps and catches himself. There is an overwhelming sense that something awaits him below, and that every slight noise he makes jerks it further from sleep.
He emerges onto a FloatSteel platform near the ceiling of a large rectilinear chamber. It is easy to sense that there is no floor beneath him; it is like being suspended over an enormous maw, from which the faint rotten scent of its previous meals still wafts. Across a yawning gap, a single block of FloatSteel hangs suspended; beyond that, a slender pillar of the same material . . . and beyond that, he cannot see.
The leap across to the tiny solitary block is enough to tax the courage of the greatest hero. The second leap is worse. He slips as he lands upon the pillar, reaches into the murk in a desperate attempt to catch himself on something – anything – and seizes a nearly invisible strand of silk, which prevents his fall. His hand immediately adheres to the silk and with an unthinking surge of panic, he lashes out with his blade, severing the strand and freeing his hand.
Even before the slender cord drifts away into the murk and his darkvision adjusts to reveal the scene, he realizes what he has done. The strand he has cut is an anchor line for an enormous spider web that fills the corner of the chamber. The spider, alerted by his sword stroke against the anchor line, charges across the web in an ochre blur. He leaps back just as the huge mandibles close where his head had been.
His retreat carries him back to the solitary block, where he crouches shakily. The spider seems loath to abandon the terrain where she is most at ease, and retreats to the center of her web. Jack observes another pillar of FloatSteel below and hope surges – perhaps he can avoid the web altogether. He leaps to the pillar, landing near another anchor line, but finds that his hope is unfounded. Only a gaping pit and a blank wall await him in this direction. Beyond the web, he can see a narrow alcove near the ceiling, which his intuition tells him is the destination he seeks. There is no help for it; he will have to get past the spider’s web.
Even as he contemplates, the spider suddenly rushes him again, charging across the web and down the anchor line. Only a hasty slash of his sword, which severs the anchor line and sends the spider swinging across the pit clinging to her silk, saves his life. He is forced to leap away, back to the relative safety of the solitary block, before she swings back again to strike at him.
This entire labyrinth, Jack thinks, indulging a rare moment of self-pity, is monstrously unfair. First the token-puzzle that induces such overwhelming compulsion, yet can only be solved with the greatest of difficulty, then the magic battle-axes that promise such power yet cannot be mastered, and now the prospect of this lengthy and enervating combat – and for what? He does not even know what waits on the other side of the web. Perhaps nothing.
He chokes back his frustration and considers the challenge before him. It is clear that the spider moves too quickly to engage with his sword; he will have to rely on the Dancing Dagger of Danzibar to fight from a distance – but this means he will need a clear line of sight to throw, and he will have to be within range, otherwise the Dagger will simply return without engaging the enemy. He cannot attack from his current position of safety – the FloatSteel pillar that anchors half the web also protects the spider. The only places he can attack are from the top of the pillar, which is too near the center of the web for comfort, or from below, which is likely too far to fling the Dancing Dagger.
A solution occurs to him – not one he favors, because of the value of the resources involved, but there seems to be no other option. He drinks a Potion of Haste and waits for the magic to take hold. Suddenly his breathing seems to slow, the steady stream of condensation from the FloatSteel pillar across the void from him becomes a glacially patient trickle, and the very atmosphere surrounding him seems to shudder and shake with stored kinetic potential.
He jumps for the pillar, drawing his sword as he does, and before he even realizes he has landed, he has already flung the Dancing Dagger toward the center of the web – he can see with exquisitely clear eyes every motion of the huge spider as she charges toward him – and cuts at an anchor line with his sword. The Dagger scores, gouging out an eye, and whirls back through the air toward him. He watches with fascination as it tumbles end over end, point and pommel flashing in alternation. Before he realizes that he is reaching out for the Dagger, it is already in his hand and he has leapt away toward the safety of his solitary block. Behind him, another section of the web sags, and the spider scrambles to knit the broken sections together.
Exhilarated with his high-speed assault, Jack pants a few breathes, shakes out his quivering arms, and leaps again, flinging the Dagger in mid-air. The spider, clearly overwhelmed by his first blindingly fast attack, cannot react quickly enough as the Dagger spins toward her head. The blade crashes home with terrific force, ejecting a jet of black ichor, every drop of which Jack is able to trace as it soars through the air. He cuts again, slicing another strand of silk, and leaps away as the spider abandons her web and sails across the gap.
Jack lands badly, nearly skidding straight off the solitary block, and throws himself backward a second time as the spider drops down from the pillar. He flings the Dancing Dagger a third time as he drops from the solitary block down toward the pit below, and watches with satisfaction as the blade scores again in the creature’s neck, tearing open even further the previous wound. Her head half torn away, the dead spider plunges down into the pit.
The Dancing Dagger tears itself free and sails up toward Jack’s reaching hand – the fleeting magic of the Potion of Haste fades, returning him with a rush to the normal passage of time – and he lands in a disordered heap on the final pillar, near enough to the edge that only the spinal ridge on the back of his breastplate suffices to keep him from sliding off the smooth steel block and following the spider into oblivion. He rolls over – carefully – and lies on the pillar for a moment, panting to regain his breath. There have been many close calls in his career; few closer than this one.
When he has recovered his breath and his calm, he regains the upper pillar and assays the difficult climb across. From previous encounters with Giant Spiders, Jack knows that the radial lines of the web are structural, and not adhesive. By carefully cutting away the sticky transverse lines and clinging to the radial spokes like a tightrope walker, Jack is able to cross the web and gain the niche in the ceiling.
There he finds a single steel chest, containing a huge bull’s horn of gleaming purple-black stone, the same stone from which the Minotaurs’ battle-axes are carved. A rune decorates the base of the Black Horn, which Jack recognizes as the second Rune of Power on the opaque surface of the dormant Warp Portal. He now has the key necessary to open the Warp Portal and continue.