Prologue
Two Women Scorned

AT 812 (AZ 1184) - Early Autumn
The Stone Forest, The Darklands

How long had she been living under this curse? Medusa had long since forgotten. It was a wonder she could remember anything with the constant grinding pain of the serpents restlessly writhing about in her skull. Nothing could get rid of them. Tearing them out, cutting off their heads, it did not matter. They would always grow back and continue to torment her.
She who was once so beautiful, made hideous out of cruel spite and exiled to lands unknown to wander aimlessly, hunted and despised as a monster by all who beheld her, those who were not first stricken by her gaze. It was a miserable existence and yet death seemed distant. Perhaps immortality was part of her curse, that she might suffer for all time.
When she crossed the river and green lands gave way to ashen wastes, it should have repelled her, and yet she found some strange kinship with this blighted country. She was passing through a large forest where all the trees had turned to stone. It was a fitting place for her.
The deeper she went into the forest, the more she saw the webs knitting tree to tree. The spiders who wove them were getting larger as well. Most would remain in the safety of their webs and burrows, but some were bold enough to try to attack her. With a stray look, Medusa would leave them lifeless stone. They were no threat to her.
As she went deeper into the forest, more spiders challenged her, some even bigger than she was, but they all met the same fate. She did not bother counting how many she had turned to stone, but the attacks ended all at once. Perhaps they had learned their lesson.
They were still out there, lurking in the shadows, watching with their many eyes like black pearls. So long as they left her be, they could watch their fill.
She entered a into clearing. The ground was bare in a wide circle, but the branches of the trees still wove themselves together to form a nearly impenetrable canopy. The webs were thickest here. It had to be the heart of the nest. It was not where she would have preferred to be, but in truth her wandering had no real destination, so perhaps here was no better or worse than anywhere else she might have gone.
From the canopy descended a spider that was truly a giant, more than twice as large as the biggest one Medusa had faced thus far. So this was the matriarch of the clan, a great and ancient power. Medusa would be hard-pressed if it came to a direct confrontation. There was not a moment to lose.
When she was first cursed, Medusa had no control over her ability to turn creatures to stone, but with time and practice, it much like flexing a muscle. Or perhaps it was better compared to relaxing a muscle as it required conscious effort on her part to not petrify everything around her.
Because it came so naturally to her, she was all the more stunned to see the giant spider still standing completely unaffected by her power.
"That will not work on me," the spider said in a voice that eerily echoed all around them. "Why do you intrude on my forest and curse my poor children?"
Medusa had other powers, of course, but with her strongest ability proven completely ineffective, she had little confidence in the rest. She was not certain how to proceed, but better to pretend she was coming from a position of strength.
Drawing herself up to make her look taller, Medusa replied scornfully, "Your children received their due for their hospitality. Are all travelers to these lands so well received?"
The spider responded in kind, straightening her legs to loom over Medusa.
"There are no travelers in this forest," she said. "Only prey."
There was no escape. The best thing she could do was show no fear and perhaps she could yet bluff her way out.
"You will find me an unpleasant meal," she told the spider.
The spider leaned forward and twisted her head, opening her mouth. A human face pushed its way forward. In shape at least you might say it was beautiful, but the wet, pinkish, skin lined with dark veins and milk-white eyes spoiled any fairness.
The face spoke, in the same reverberating voice, and asked, "Who are you?"
For a woman more serpent than human with a nest of snakes writhing about in her skull, Medusa should not have been so unnerved by what she saw. She dare not show it, though. Her unwavering boldness might yet be her salvation.
"Should not you be the one to speak your name first?"
The mouth on the face curled into a faint smile.
"Very well," she said. "I am called Arachne."
"Arachne? I have heard that name before."
"And what have you heard?"
The half-remembered story bubbled up in Medusa's mind. The vain weaver who dared to challenge the gods. Some say she succeeded, others say she failed. Either way, she was punished as all mortals who would challenge the gods must be punished.
Medusa did not relay the entire tale, though. Instead she simply said, "I heard that she is dead."
"Not quite," the face replied. "The tyrants of Olympus do not grant death so easily to those who displease them."
Medusa knew this only too well. If this was truly the Arachne of legend...
"Your curse... It is the work of Pallas Athena, is it not?"
"Do not speak that name," the face growled. The long fangs and the little arms on either side of the mouth of her spider body rubbed together agitatedly, making an angry hiss.
The display of anger from so fearsome a creature should have served to heighten her unease, but instead Medusa felt as if her heart was lightened.
"We are not so different then, you and I," she said. "I was once a devotee of that grey-eyed harlot, until the Lord of Waters took me while I was serving in her temple. She could do nothing to him, so instead I was the one to be punished and she made me into this."
Arachne's movements stilled and the hissing stopped.
"What are you called?" she asked.
"I am called Medusa."
Arachne relaxed her posture, bending her knees and lowering her body so that they now met each other eye to eye.
"Well then, Medusa," she said in a more genial tone, "perhaps we should start anew. There is a kinship between us."
"What of your children?" Medusa asked.
"I can always bear more," Arachne replied without the slightest hint of concern. "The ill-mannered have earned their reward." She curled her foreleg to beckon Medusa and said, "Come, we have much to talk about."
And so began an unlikely friendship that sprang up in the soil of common misery, was fertilized by shared hatred for a nemesis and blossomed with a dream for the future, a glorious future free of the curses that plagued them. It was a friendship that would stand the test of time, but their true trial remained far on the horizon.