Quartz dreams, dreams of slipping out of his body to toddle off into the mists waiting for him in the Forest of Tears. The shadowy haze swallows everything, including himself.
Quartz: Huh. Guess this what it’s like for Christopher.
He reaches out, only to feel tendrils of silken thread wrapping around his arms and legs. He’s lifted off his feet.
Quartz: Oi! Let go!
Vanessa: What ugly male voice dares to invade the Gardens of Arachne?
Quartz blinks, sees the haze clear to reveal a woman wearing a loose lavender gown, her raven hair ripping down her black, caught in twists of silver, falling around her four…arms?
Yes. She has four arms. One points a finger at him, another gestures in what might be arcane symbols. The third and fourth are clenched in fists.
Quartz: Quartz, if we haven’t met before. We may have, even if we don’t remember.
Vanessa: Your wits may be fuddled, but mine are not. You have the uninvited honor of looking upon an arachnocrat. The Lady Vanessa Ashelocke.
Quartz: You’re the one that caught me in your web…lady.
Vanesss fixed angry rose-purple eyes upon him while a fold of flesh under each opens, revealing that a third and fourth eye, filled with blazing white light.
Quartz: (swallows and mutters) Not good.
Vanessa: No, it’s not, you hideous little man. Any of your kind caught in the Gardens are devoured and destroyed.
Quartz: Hope by my kind, you mean men. Because I’m not.
Vanessa: (scowling, looking him up and down) Not a man? You look far too much like one. The sight of you brings back bad memories.
Quartz: Erm, sorry about that. The bad memories, that is. Not my looks. Not sure why you think I’m similar to a man. Got a better beard than any ruddy man. I’m a dwarf.
Vanessa: A dwarf?
Quartz: That’s right. We’re not human, no matter what any human might think.
Vanessa: Human? Are you suggesting that I’m a human? How dare you!
Quartz: Not trying to be daring. Just being honest.
Vanessa: I already told you I was an arachnocrat! These are my…our…gardens you’re trespassing in!
Quartz: How many times do I have to say sorry? (He tries to move, but the webs hold him fast.) Right. I’ll say it again. Didn’t mean to trespass. I was dreaming.
Vanessa: (sniffing) These are the Gardens of Arachne, not the Shadow Forest. Dreamers have no business here. You shouldn’t be here. Unless…
She pauses for a moment, looking down at her four hands, the hedge before her where Quartz hangs in an opening. Some of the flowers are floating in the air.
Vanessa: Unless I’m the one dreaming. (She groans, dropping all four of her hands.) Unless I somehow summoned you the way I summoned Christopher.
Quartz: Christopher was here?
He looks beyond Vanessa at the floating flowers, the rose petals drifting in the air, the faint sound of boyish laughter, high and sweet. One of those voices could have been Christopher’s.
Quartz: Right. Course he was. Grew up here, didn’t he?
Vanessa: You know Christopher. That hardly seems possible.
Quartz: You know him. Spends lots of time in the Shadow Forest. Hardly possible happens there, to hear him talk. He and I share a Cauldron. Or a blog. Same thing, really.
Vanessa: Blog? Cauldron? Sounds like a load of nonsense.
Quartz: Right. We’re in the Cauldron now. Didn’t you know?
Vanessa: (sniffs) If I was in a cauldron, I’d know it.
Quartz: Maybe not.
Vanessa: And just what you implying?
Quartz: Nothing. Look, according to you, I’m a dream. You’re dreaming. You brought me here. This means you wanted to talk to me.
Vanessa: Why would I want to talk to you?
Quartz: You tell me.
Vanessa: I seem to recall having a similar dream about Christopher. (Her cheeks color.) What would I possibly wish to say to you that I couldn’t say to my own brother?
Quartz: Your brother, huh? Wouldn’t have guessed.
Vanessa: We’re not related by blood, but yes, he was raised as my brother. Quit avoiding my question.
Quartz: Not avoiding it, but you’re the one who needs to answer.
Vanessa: Impudent little dream. You claim you’re not a man, but you have a man’s arrogance. Especially in claiming I brought you.
Quartz: Not sure how else I could come if this is my dream.
Vanessa: You could be an imp, a hobgoblin sent to vex me. Did Damian send you? (She sounds almost hopeful.)
Quartz: If he did, he didn’t tell me.
Vanessa: He wouldn’t. (She smiles a bit sadly.) I suppose there things I can’t talk to Christopher about. I called him my brother, but he wasn’t really mine. Any more than Damian. She took him away from me just as she took Stefan.
Vanessa: Duessa. She takes everything from me.
Quartz: Beginning to remember you. Think we’ve talked about Duessa unless I’m mixing you up with someone else.
Vanessa: (frowning) Anyway this isn’t what I wanted to talk about.
Vanessa: There’s nothing right about this. Not these gardens, nor your presence in them. It’s supposd to be perfect.
Quartz: Perfect, huh? There’s a short supply of that going around. If any.
Vanessa: I’ve strived for perfection my entire life and I’ve failed to find it. All I’ve found is what’s wrong.
Quartz: Stands out, what’s wrong. Particularly if you want perfection.
Vanessa: True. And you know what’s wrong? Christopher.
Quartz: How so?
Vanessa: He appeared as a ghost, a shadow of his former self. If he’d attacked me, draining my memories or strength, it would have made sense.
Quartz: Guessing he didn’t.
Vanessa: He was kind, compassionate.
Quartz: Often is. It can get a bit annoying.
Vanessa: It’s worse than annoying. How can be like that? When Stefan gave me to his friend, I wanted to rip them both apart! How can he forgive me for giving him to Duessa? For letting her take him as her Marriage Feast?
Quartz: This Stefan owned you? And you owned Christopher?
Vanessa: Stefan was my older brother and lord of the tower. He could give me to whomever he wished. No matter how much I hated it. Now I’m an arachnocrat. No one can give me to anyone.
Quartz: You could give Christopher to Duessa. If I’m following right.
Vanessa: He was a boy. I was his older sister, an Ashelocke, and an arachnocrat. Not that I could refuse Duessa anything. She’s the guardian of the Gardens, the first arachnocat of Arachne. What she wants, she gets.
Quartz: What about what you want?
Vanessa: Second to what she wants. Always has been.
Quartz: Sounds like a secondary character. (He scowls.) You feel like forgiving these fools?
Vanessa: What fools?
Quartz: Duessa. This Stefan, your brother. His friend.
Vanessa: No! I’ll never forgive any of them! I’m a monster because of them!
Quartz: How so?
Vanessa: The only way to escape Stefan and Redcrysse was to become a monster with Duessa. To help the Gardens grow. They were supposed to keep us safe.
Quartz winces, thinking of the mountain kingdom he and his brothers fled from. That was supposed to be safe, but the other dwarves were dragging everyone into their fights over treasure. They’d escaped to another mountain, only to find it occupied by a dragon. They’d taken refuge in a cottage in the Forest of Tears. The cottage was supposed to be safe, but Quartz had been forced to bargain with a kobold to get it.
Quartz: Any place safe is hard to find, even harder to keep. Too often you have to give something up to get it.
Vanessa: (swallowing and raising her chin) Don’t think I regret my choice, for all my…misgivings. Arachnocrats may be monsters, but we’re kinder to the boys we feed on than men ever were to us. We treat our victims, no, Marrage Feasts better than we were treated.
Quartz: Maybe that’s why.
Vanessa: Why what?
Quartz: Why Christopher can forgive you. If you treated him better than you were treated, maybe there’s less to forgive.
Vanessa: Christoper was devoured. I’m still here.
Quartz: Aye. (He thinks of a girl, sleeping in the crystal coffin he now occupies. How lost, how lonely he felt, trying to waken her, until he finally succeeded.) Sometimes the worst thing you can do is hurt someone, forcing them to carry on.
Vanessa: No. I don’t believe that.
Vanessa opens her third and fourth eyes, revealing the brilliant whites, shining like tiny stars without iris or pupil.
Vanessa: I’m alive. Where there’s life, there’s power. Power to work change in the world, even if it’s a tiny change. No matter how long it takes.
Imprisoned dwarf and arachnocrat gaze at each other. Quartz blinks slowly.
Quartz: Aye. Aye, that’s true. (He gazes at Vanessa.) Thank’ee, Lady Van. Seems I needed to listen as much as you needed to talk.
Vanessa: Don’t call me Lady Van. I don’t know why you’re thanking me. You’re still caught in our webs.
Quartz: Am I?
He grins, feeling himself fade away, slipping out of the strands. Slipping into another dream.
Vanessa watches him disappear, leaving an empty space in the hedge.
Vanessa: I’ve been having such odd dreams of late. Too odd. Maybe it’s something in the air.
She turns to stride in the opposite direction, oblivious to the Gardens or her own body fading away, vanishing into the rising mist.