Chapter 3
A More Pleasing Shape

AT 1081 (AZ 1453) - Early Autumn
The Stone Forest, The Darklands

The years did nothing to calm the bitter rivalry between Arachne and Basilissa. If anything, tensions were only inflamed further as harvesters from the growing colonies were encroaching on the Spider Queen's territory to forage. If the Zephyrians did not arrive soon, the two sides might break out in open warfare. Of course, it was not a dispute over territory that twisted Arachne bowels as she brooded in her nest.
Arachne would not lose to the wretched Herakles queen. It was she who won the right and privilege to be the Monarch Lich's consort. She would not allow some upstart insect to take that from her. But how could she compete with one who was making such dramatic strides in growing her power and influence?
The answer came to her when she realized how much of her jealousy was rooted in her long-lost humanity. Though it was easy to forget when faced with his overwhelming power, the Monarch Lich was more human than he would ever admit. Perhaps he could be won over as any man is won over.
Of course, her current form would only stir the lusts of the most perverse heart. If only there was a way to recapture her former beauty. They Olympians were highly selective in their attendants. Only the most beautiful and brilliant would do and in her original glory, Arachne was beautiful and brilliant indeed.
The petty Olympians were always quick to slay any who displeased them, but in their boundless spite, the worst offenders were consigned to fates worse than death. In Arachne's case, she was cursed to live forever as a spider, though her power and the strength of her hatred allowed her to grow to monstrous proportions and give birth to an army to serve her. Then there was her friend Medusa, turned into a hideous cross of snake and woman whose visage was so terrible to behold that men would turn to stone at the mere sight of it.
Both cursed by Pallas Athena, Arachne and Medusa were drawn together by the mutual touch of their hated enemy. They were kindred spirits and cleaved to each other as no one else could, for who else could understand their suffering? It was thanks to this strong bond that Medusa was an ally worth more than a thousand of the Herakles' mindless slaves.
Like Arachne, Medusa had no small magical ability and for months the two of them had thrown themselves into researching the means to overcome her curse so that she could claim the advantage over Basilissa for the Monarch Lich's favor.
"Are you ready for this, my friend?" Medusa asked her.
"Yes, yes," Arachne said impatiently. "We cannot afford to tarry any longer."
In the heart of Arachne's nest, a circle had been prepared with the blood of her daughters. Their sacrifice would give the rite its power. Because none of her daughters had any real magical ability to speak of and because there were no others in all the Dominion she trusted, it rested with Arachne and Medusa alone to cast the spell.
Arachne took her place in the center of the circle and Medusa at the head.
"Clear your mind of all except the form you wish to take," Medusa said. "Now let us begin."
It had been so long, Arachne's human form was more imagination than memory, but she fixed the image in her mind as she and Medusa began to chant, calling on the sun, the moon and the stars, the earth beneath them, the forest around them, the flowing rivers, the crashing seas, and the towering mountains. Light and shadow, life and death, love and hate. All that is, all that was, all that would be. They would draw power from anywhere and everywhere. Everything and nothing. The life in the blood spilled out would give birth to new life, a new shape, a new fate.
Arachne's entire body started to twitch and convulse and then froze in place. The strangest sensation came over her, as if she were withdrawing into herself. Part of her wondered if its was the same sort of sensation her prey felt as their bodies dissolved from the inside out. Another part of her feared they had made some mistake and instead of transforming her, the spell would destroy her.
It seemed strange that she would fear death. How many centuries had she borne her curse, driven only by her hatred? Could she ever expect another chance to exact her revenge? If she could not best Basilissa, would she ever again find an opportunity so great to increase her power? What reason did she have to continue living if this spell was unsuccessful?
It was her will that brought her this far and it would deliver her through this trial. She focused on the form she wished to take. She would be transformed. She would be born anew and when she was, she would take everything that was rightfully hers.
As her thoughts came into sharper focus, she could feel her essence drawing itself back in, coalescing. Her form solidified and with a shudder she was quickened once more. She was changed, but in what way she did not know. She was trapped in darkness.
She felt around with her hands--yes, hands!--and found the hard shell beneath her. She struck it, but it would not yield. She struck again and again to no avail. Where was she? Had the spell not only transformed her but transported her as well?
She continued to beat on the shell until she heard a dull crunch. A split in the shell opened up, and Arachne spilled out onto the ground below in a rush of slime. It took her a moment to get her bearings. She was still in the Stone Forest. Medusa was before her, covered in the same slime pooled around her. Above her was the empty husk of her old body, slime still dripping from the open hole in the thorax.
She looked down at her hand. Pleasingly shaped. Soft, supple and slender, but also an unnatural pink, lined with purplish veins. Almost like an unborn child not yet fully formed. The rest of her body was much the same. The shape was well-formed but the flesh was terrible to behold. She then realized that she was still seeing the world through eight eyes and besides her more human arms and legs, two pairs of spider claws flexed uncertainly on her back.
"How do you feel?" Medusa asked.
Arachne slowly drew herself up. Her human legs were still weak, but her spider claws caught her as she started to stumble. She gave herself a second look. True, it was not all she had hoped for, but it was a more pleasing shape than Basilissa could ever present. It would do nicely.
How did she feel?
"Better," Arachne replied with a grin.