When the giant sea spider swallowed the entire town of Cobble, it was decided that something should be done about it.
Flee, the next town over and slightly higher up, had watched the unfortunate event from their balconies and terraces, very pale and very shaky, and also very quiet—in case the sea spider decided to look up and think about dessert.
But lucky for the town of Flee, the sea spider had poor vision. He was old—old as the sea in which he inhabited—and every century or so felt peckish for a town or two, depending on his appetite. Or so the tales said.
It was far more unlucky for the tourists. Adventurists hoping for a selfie in front of the ruins of the last leveled town or maybe a fridge magnet from the souvenir shop or a beer mug with eight handles (the region was quite fond of beer).
It wasn’t the tourists’ fault they were in the wrong place at the wrong time—they’d just chosen the worst weekend to visit. No one really knew when the sea spider would strike—rumor had it he took very long sleeps and when he awoke felt a certain grumbling in the belly.
“We need to do something about the sea spider,” the town of Flee declared. “Or we’ll be next.”
Many meetings followed. Speeches were given. Some more rousing than others—like the antiques dealer from Green Street, who managed to lull even the colicky baby into the deepest of slumbers. Others—like the brewer of Scram Brewery and Blood Sausage—got everyone up and yelling and talking over one another all at once.
It was only many hours and days of golden ales and nutty stouts and fruity shandys later that the town came to an (almost) unanimous decision: someone should kill the sea spider.
The only problem was, no one could figure out who that someone was, exactly.
Thus was born the Choosing of the Stones—which is really just a more distinguished name for the Unlucky Lottery. Here the able-bodied and unwed men and women were to plunge their hand in a barrel of stones (blindfolded, of course) and select a stone of their choosing. Now there was only one red stone out of all black, and old George the drunk was the unlucky picker of said red stone.
Naturally, he chose that very moment to suffer heart failure and collapse dead in the town square so that the entire stone picking business had to be re-done. This became quite tedious, as cheaters abounded. Most had magically procured black stones of their own—wedged in a fist or tucked up a sleeve. After everyone had picked a stone for the second round, the red stone somehow remained at the bottom of the barrel.
By the time the third Picking of the Stones was underway, night had fallen and this made organizing more complicated. A third of the people in line slipped off down a dark alley or into a bush and were never seen again.
There were simply not enough lanterns to go around and not enough guards to maintain the order of things. Besides, the guards didn’t really want to chase after anybody because what would happen once they caught them? It was becoming rather uncomfortable for everyone and soon talk of bed were circulating and someone very reasonably suggested that the day had been long and wouldn’t everyone be a lot more fresh-faced come morning (after a breakfast brew)?
You might be starting to gather what sort of town this is. How can so many cowards exist in one place? There are one thousand and forty-six.
The town of Flee was in fact founded by cowards. In the Great Battle of the Desert Snakes of 1746, a small cluster of soldiers quietly slipped off before the fighting and snake-slaying had begun. They traveled many miles until they found a nice little spot overlooking the sea where they could settle, brew beer and drink it shamelessly for the rest of their days.
And so it was as the town of cowardly Flee residents started to disperse that a boy came forward (hardly as tall as a horse’s knee and just as bony) to announce in a surprisingly loud and strong voice that he would like to volunteer to kill the sea spider.
The townspeople of Flee responded to this announcement with utter silence. Probably because a third of them had never heard the word ‘volunteer’ ever used before. Whispers spread. Someone fetched a dictionary.
The apothecarist patted the boy’s head—which was an astonishing tuft of blue—and asked him what his name was and who his mother and father were?
“I lost my name,” the boy replied. “As well as my mother and father. And now I would very much like to get on to the business of the sea spider because it is getting late and nearly past my bedtime.”
“But who is this boy?” the tailor pressed. “And where did he come from?”
“I come from the town of Cobble,” the blue haired boy answered.
To which the town of Flee nodded collectively. “Makes sense.”
And so it was decided that the boy should go as there were no other objections. And, they added, he did sound rather eager. Who were they to stand in his way?
The blue haired boy was supplied with all the tools that could be used as weapons. The butcher supplied his best cleaver. The church sweeper offered his rake. The baker gave her favorite rolling pin. The blacksmith forged a custom suit of armor, complete with a helmet and chainmail.
And when it was time, the town walked the blue haired boy down the edge of the cliff and bade him good luck, as good luck as one needed for killing sea spiders, and watched as he climbed down the rugged path to the seven caves where it was said the sea spider took up residence.
The blue haired boy did not wish to offend anyone, so as soon as he was out of sight and quite alone, he left behind the suit of armor and the wheelbarrow of weapons and kept only the transcriber’s penknife.
He thought of his dead mother and father and sisters as he picked his way down into the caves that were steep and jagged and slick with salt spray. The cave was wet and cold. The ocean raged against the rocks. The last of the sunset trickled across his feet in the water.
It was too quiet and he wondered if the spider has gone back to sleep. Maybe he wasn’t here at all. Maybe—
“Where are you?” the blue haired boy cried out before he could change his mind. “Come out and meet me!”
Who’s there? replied not a voice but a song. Who would dare?
The boy whirled around but there was no one with him in the small cave. No one and nothing at all.
“I seek the sea spider who destroyed my town,” the boy said. “I seek the sea spider who killed my mother and father and sisters. Tell me where can I find him?”
The song chuckled. I am she and she is me. We are one and the same but have no name. We roam from house to home, still we are unknown.
“But I saw you,” demanded the boy, turning around still. “You were a spider as big as—”
Sometimes we are a spider, sometimes we are not, sometimes we are seen, sometimes forgot.
The boy was finding this all very mind-muddling and it didn’t help that the night was looking darker and murkier. “Why don’t you show yourself then?”
Why don’t you tell me what you would like to see? I can be what you wish me to be.
“I don’t know what you mean.”
Here the cloud turned into a gust of wind so strong the boy was knocked backward.
Once I was a storm, blowing cold and warm. I blew ships under the sea, I blew homes to debris.
Then the song became a burst of flame.
Then I was fire, hot and bright, burning all day and night. I burned through forest and land, burning till there was nothing but sand.
The boy felt his hair singe. The song turned into a grey cloud, swirling in the cave.
Once I was a disease, drifting on a sneeze. When they saw me they cried and hid inside.
But the cloud soon morphed into something else entirely—an ancient woman stooped and withered on a cane.
Then I was old and poor, alone forevermore. Children scorned me, the living mourned me.
The old woman regarded the boy, her eyes sagging with lines of unbearable sorrow.
Everywhere I go, I cheat, I steal, I take.
I eat, I tear, I break.
I ruin, I rip, I raid.
This is what I am, this is how I was made.
I have been there and I have been here;
Some call me The Future, others know me as Fear.
The boy took a small step forward. The knife was tight in his fist. The old woman did not flinch.
I see in your heart what is true. Do what you came here to do.
The boy shook his head. “I’ve never killed anybody before.”
The old woman gave him a sad smile. She reminded him of his grandmother. The boy squeezed his eyes shut. No--she was not anyone he loved or knew. She was a monster. He tried to remember her as he had seen her, as the giant sea spider as it crashed through his town and demolished houses and balconies and streets and swallowed his neighbors, his family, his friends, even his donkey.
She was human now, perhaps, but soon she would be a spider again—a fire, a storm, a plague—or something else, anything else and worse, and she would never leave them in peace.
There was only one thing left to do.
When he opened his eyes, the old woman was gone. The knife in his hand was wet with blood.
The blue haired boy walked out of the cave. The sky was bright with morning sun. The town was waiting for him at the top of the cliff path, waiting to cheer him as their hero.
But from somewhere afar, moving across the sea, he swore he could still hear a song.
Or was it a memory of a song now gone?
He cleaned the knife and walked on.