Chapter 2
Confronting the Rival

AT 1079 (AZ 1451) - Spring
Poris Herakles Colony, The Darklands

Though Arachne was recognized as the Monarch Lich's consort, their union had not yet been consummated. Twenty-five years was not so long a time for one who had lived centuries, but Arachne found herself growing anxious. It was not out of any frustrated carnal desire. That would have been absurd. Rather, it was because she expected to benefit from their coupling by claiming a portion of the Monarch Lich's power and in the intervening years since their pact was forged, a rival had emerged to challenge her place as consort.
A Lich mated only once, at the height of his power, when his physical form was on the verge of being wholly consumed. There was no room for a rival for the honor of bringing the next generation of the Dark Race into the world. Arachne would not suffer any interference.
To that end, the Spider Queen traveled to the northern port city of Poris. It was too great a journey to face her rival directly, so her puppet would have to suffice. Arachne brought along an honor guard of two hundred of her daughters. Should her rival resort to violence, they would sacrifice their lives in order for Arachne to escape back to the forest. It was not the most dignified plan, but she had not lived this long by foolish bravado.
The hive that had overtaken the ruined city was abhorrent to her, but Arachne would enter all the same. Though her honor guard was vastly outnumbered, she was nevertheless obliged to shed more and more as she passed deeper into the hive. It reminded her of the story of the descent of Ishtar of Uruk into the underworld. Rather than clothing and ornaments, Arachne was being stripped of her protection. Could she also expect to be stricken with sixty diseases and have her body hung from a hook when she arrived at her destination?
There was no reasoning with the mindless soldiers that barred her way. Perhaps it was fortunate that her honor guard was slowly whittled down over the course of six 'gates'. It meant her daughters were positioned throughout the length of the tunnel leading to the inner sanctum. Should things go ill, it could well facilitate her escape more than if all two hundred remained with her the entire way.
Within the inner sanctum, the loathsome queen busily laid her eggs, but this queen was nothing more than a puppet of the queen of queens the Monarch Lich dubbed Basilissa. Still, this puppet queen acted as Basilissa's eyes and ears so far removed from the mother colony and in rare cases, she acted as Basilissa's mouth as well. It was through the puppet queen that the two rivals would speak.
Just as Arachne spoke to her daughters without speaking, so too did the vile Herakles communicate without words.
The puppet queen made an insincere gesture of courtesy and through her, Basilissa asked, "To what do I owe the honor of this visit, O Spider Queen?"
Arachne asked in turn, "How long has it been since my husband subdued you?"
It was not Arachne's custom to refer to the Monarch Lich as husband and she only did so here to more firmly assert her claim. The unnatural expression did not escape Basilissa's notice.
"You speak of him as a mate though you have never mated with him."
"How long?" Arachne asked again.
The puppet queen swayed back and forth in an apparent display of Basilissa thinking on the question.
"It has been seven hibernations since the Darkness Made Flesh revealed his great power to us."
"You have waxed mighty in a mere seven years' time."
"And we shall wax mightier still," Basilissa boasted. "The enemy from afar is coming and we shall consume them in the name of the Darkness Made Flesh."
"You grow proud, insect. Too proud."
The puppet queen bobbed her head as if following some unheard tune.
"Do I sense envy from you, Spider Queen? Or is it fear? Perhaps a little of both."
"You cannot have him."
The puppet queen reared back and waved her claws in feigned surprise.
"Oh," she replied, "envy of a different color, fear of another hue." The puppet queen then leaned in and Basilissa said, "The Darkness Made Flesh will choose the one best suited to continue his line. If his pact with you is abrogated, it is because another is better suited."
Arachne could have torn the puppet queen apart, but instead she said with words dripping with ice and venom, "Know that you have been warned."
"I shall remember it," Basilissa replied dismissively. "Fare you well, Spider Queen."
The puppet queen bowed and Arachne turned to leave. She did not meet with any treachery. Nothing immediate at any rate. If Basilissa would not withdraw the challenge, then Arachne would make her regret it. The only question was how.