Josephyne stood out from the motley crowd like a white ermine on a black velvet cape. Her beauty was disturbing. Thigpen couldn’t take his eyes off of her even if he wanted to. She looked human, or mostly so. She didn’t belong here, that was obvious. And the fact that she used this façade to prey on others made her especially dangerous. It wasn’t like a great flaming golem was on the loose in the city. This predator was dangerous precisely because she didn’t look like a hazard.
She walked through the other people on the street like a panther through a herd of oblivious sheep. Her eyes never met those of anyone else, and plenty of eyes were watching her, you could be sure of that. She moved with a fluidity one would associate with a dancer. Thigpen could feel his jaw clenching. He disliked this woman, and not because of what he believed her to be. She didn’t belong here, not at all. She had only come here to hunt, and her prey was under Thigpen’s protection. He was the sheepdog here, and he was going to take this panther down.
He watched as she went up the stairs, and into the front door of the bordello. She wouldn’t strike while she was in there, Thigpen was reasonably sure of that. She didn’t live there, so she couldn’t keep the body there to feed off of for the next several days. Even if she was in league with the controlling crime clan, the Torkezahn cartel, they wouldn’t likely give somebody new to their operation such a free hand to kill random men on their turf. Thigpen had been wondering what her gimmick was, what she might bring to the Torkezahn clan that they didn’t already have. Surely they didn’t just keep somebody as dangerous as her just to work in their house of ill repute.
Thigpen wished he could see through walls. He wanted to know where she was at all times, and not having anyone here to back him up made him anxious. He fished out a few more coins to pay for what he had eaten during the last few hours, and left them on the table. His right hand took hold of the truncheon on the table. His eyes never left the front of the hotel. People came and went, but the red-headed woman didn’t come out. Thigpen wondered where Queller was, and how much longer it would take him to get back.
It was about another hour or more before Queller appeared again at the table. This time he genuinely startled Thigpen when he sat down across from him. He had a half-shadow elf with him this time, a handsome fellow with a dark gleam in his eye.
“This is Trenvane, the man I told you about.” Queller said quietly. “We had a nice talk on the way here. He knows the setup. He has agreed to be our bait, in exchange for legal considerations.”
Thigpen looked at the accused robber. “This true?” he asked.
Trenvane smirked. “Yea, it’s true. If I can shake this charge, and help you boys catch a killer, it might be the turn-around I been lookin for.” He chuckled. “I never thought I’d be a copper, but this is sure enough the most exciting thing I’ve ever been asked to do. And I like the excitement.” His smile made Thigpen want to smash him in the mouth with his truncheon. If he did get killed during this, Thigpen wasn’t sure that he’d mind all that much.
“Alright.” Said Thigpen, turning his attention back out the window. “She will have to come out of there alone. Any idea of taking her work home with her is strictly forbidden. So she will be alone.” He paused, and then said “Trenvane, you need to be across the street over there, catty-corner to us. She came in from that direction, so you can make contact to her there.”
Queller and Trenvane both nodded their heads. Thigpen continued to lay out the plan. “Queller, you go get the squad and tell them to form up nearby, and when Trenvane here makes a move, we all move together. We have to keep him in sight.”
Trenvane whispered “Amen, brother.”
“Ok, you better get going, Queller.” Thigpen looked at Trenvane. “And you can head out for that corner once we see her appear in that front door, if she comes out before Queller and the squad get back.”
Trenvane nodded his head and sighed. Queller got up quickly, and made his way out of the tavern. He went around the other side of the tavern to get to the precinct tower, where the squad was already suited up for battle and awaiting further instructions.
The half-shadow elf moved to the chair closer to the window, and he and Thigpen stared at the front door of the Roufeener Hotel. An albino barmaid came by, unnoticed, and took away the remains of Thigpen’s meal and the coins. Thigpen was aware that he was sweating, and he felt hot. He knew the squad would be here soon, but he was nervous that they wouldn’t arrive before the Red Widow left the bordello. She had to be half-starved by now. Her need to kill again would be very strong. He looked at Trenvane out of the corner of his eye. This poor bastard probably wouldn’t survive tonight, if the squad was slow in getting here.
The two half-breeds sat mostly in silence, their eyes glued to the front of the Roufeener Hotel. They each made mental notes of the people that entered and left, and every time somebody opened the front door to leave they could feel their muscles tense up. Thigpen was feeling fatigued, having been on edge for so long this afternoon and evening. He wondered to himself if he would make it home tonight, and how good he would sleep once he did.
Queller came back into the tavern at almost exactly the same time the Red Widow opened the front door of the bordello and stepped out. Trenvane scrambled past Queller to get across the street to make contact. Thigpen stood up and was right on his heels. The rest of the squad that Queller had brought Pushed their way into the tavern so as to not be seen by their quarry. The constables were wearing chainmail armor, and had small shields or crossbows in addition to swords. Thigpen was going to be the odd man out, but there wasn’t time for him to put on the armor Queller had brought for him. It was time to go, and set the trap for a monster.
Trenvane got into place with style, and looked for all the world like he had been waiting on that corner all his life, just to meet Josephyne. The guy had a wickedly good smile, and his half-elven features boosted his charisma more than the goblinoids that were common in the undercity. As a result, the red-headed woman noticed him smiling at her and a big smile ran across her face, too. The squad was awkwardly hunkered down in the tavern so none of them would be seen through the windows. This was hardly necessary, though, as Trenvane and Josephyne appeared to only have eyes for each other.
This trap was going very well, and Thigpen peered out the door of the tavern to watch Trenvane and the red-head start what had to be a flirty little conversation. He must have asked her if he could escort her someplace, because she took his arm and they began to head off down the street. Thigpen headed off after them, whispering to Queller to bring the squad along within whistle distance as the older constable handed him a shielded lantern. The half-orc kept his kepi in his hand with the lantern, and held tight to his truncheon. He kept the couple within sight easily. Thigpen thought this curious, that a predator such as what he was hunting should care so little about being caught. But then again, it was more than likely that she had no fear of being found out. If a Red Widow was as rare as the dark elf bookseller intimated, then she probably felt that she could act with impunity.
Thigpen didn’t bother to look behind him to see if Queller and the attack squad was in place, but if he had he would have been amused. They were way behind him, but still able to see him. They were clustered together, armed to the teeth, and creeping along like they were stalking a dragon. Had they just been adventurers any observer would have found them ridiculous. But they were constables, and while they looked silly, the message that was sent very clearly said “there is something to be terrified of and we’re going to kill it; or at least try.” Several people scattered for safety when they realized the squad was moving methodically up the street. Others asked if they could help, if they needed to arm themselves, or if there was anything they could do. Queller waved them all aside and kept his eye on Thigpen. The half-orc’s tussled hair was like a beacon to the old man.
The parade went up the main street and then turned left down a smaller walkway. There were not as many people down this way, and Thigpen had to work not to be seen if Josephyne was to look over her shoulder. He tried to look casual, but he was so used to walking upright and dignified, as befitted his office, that he found it clumsy, almost comical. Behind him a good city block was the attack squad and they were having an even worse time of it.
A fair distance along, Josephyne pointed down another narrow gangplank to the right behind a boot maker’s shop. Trenvane ran his hand playfully along her back, and she led the way, taking his hand in hers alluringly. Thigpen could feel his pulse quicken. He moved quickly, and surveyed the walkway the couple had gone down.
It wasn’t exactly an alley, it was too small. On the right side was the windowless wall of the boot maker, and above that probably apartments. No windows anywhere along this side of the building. The left side of the walkway was a near-solid row of columns, massive pilings that were each a good four feet in diameter and lashed together in groups of three to form great triangular supports. These were grounded deep in the swamp all the way to the bedrock, and reached three stories or more straight up. From there arching rafters held the upper boardwalk in place, and supported the upper city. These rows of pilings ran north to south, east to west, in regular intervals. They all had a small easement to each side that couldn’t be used for other construction purposes so that regular maintenance could be done without obstructions. But sometimes little hovels did appear in the small spaces between the pilings. Maybe the Red Widow had been living in one of those.
Peeking around the corner of the building, Thigpen could not see where the couple had gone. His infravision was good, but they had vanished. She must have led him between the pilings because they weren’t on the walkway anymore. Thigpen cursed under his breath, and moved as fast as he could down the walkway, his eyes and ears on full alert. All he heard was the soft splash of the swamp against the pilings and the creaking of the walkway under his feet. He glanced back over his shoulder and saw a couple of the squad peering around the corner after him.
Thigpen turned his gaze back to the walkway and the pilings, and paused his movements to listen. A man’s piercing scream startled him, and he almost dropped the lantern. Thigpen Pushed the lantern shield up with his truncheon, and a wide beam of light flooded the walkway. He rushed to the area between the pilings from where the scream had originated, and light poured into the gap with blinding ferocity. Thigpen was momentarily frozen in horror to what he was witnessing.
Josephyne was right in the middle of her transformation from woman to spider. She had a death grip on Trenvane, who was struggling to no avail against her arms, and more arms were being added as the red-headed woman morphed into an arachnid. Thigpen set the lantern down and leapt forward, dropping his kepi in the process. He managed to get a loud whistle burst, before he began smashing at the Red Widow with his truncheon. The attack squad dropped all pretense of covert activity, and sprang forward. One of them had a lantern as well, and the rest clambered forth with a shout of “CONSTABULARY!” as if this would somehow persuade the monster to release her prey.
Thigpen managed to land a terrific hit on the Red Widow’s head, and she let out a hissing scream. There was pandemonium between the pilings, as she scrambled to get away from the flailing half-orc with her victim, and it became evident that she had to choose one course or the other. Thigpen dove in on her, holding his own hand up to block her spear-like spider legs from pushing him off balance while he directed two more well-aimed blows against her thorax. Each hit made a dull crunching sound, and she hissed wildly in pain. Trenvane was released as the monster skittered backwards up and around one of the pilings.
The attack squad rounded the gap, and two of them, including Queller, managed to shoot their crossbows at the retreating Red Widow. Queller missed, but the other bolt hit her squarely in the top of her thorax. A grotesque ichor squirted out, and with a wretched wail she vanished behind the pilings. But like a tidal wave of terror, at least a hundred spiders of all sizes swarmed from behind the piling and onto the constables who were closing in on the back-pedaling Red Widow. Most of the spiders were of normal size, but some were as big as cats and dogs. And when the ettercap dropped into the battle, from near the top of the pilings where the supports formed great arching rafters, the battle took a whole other turn.
The ettercap had long gangly arms that reached nearly to the ground, and short skinny legs. Its pot-belly and hunched appearance made it look ridiculous, but it had a venomous bite, and was not to be trifled with. It was determined to defend the Red Widow, which must have been normal, since ettercaps loved all things spider related. It arrived with enough of a surprise factor that the constables were briefly startled, but soon they fell into attacking both the ettercap and the swarm of spiders that had tumbled into the battle.
Thigpen looked about for Trenvane, but the half-shadow elf had vanished, probably into the swamp below. He frantically looked down into the murky depths but didn’t see any sign of Trenvane. He cursed again, and turned his attention back to crushing spiders with his truncheon.
The majority of the attack squad were slashing at the ettercap, and the hapless creature was rapidly dispatched through the concerted efforts of the well-trained constables. Killing all of the attacking spiders took longer, mostly because of the sheer number of the wretched things, but also due to the fact that even the clever giant spiders were not retreating but instead pushing an attack doomed to fail. Thigpen didn’t have time to marvel at the power the Red Widow exerted over these creatures, as he was too busy smashing them.
There were a few minor injuries among the constables, but nobody was badly hurt. Thigpen retrieved his lantern, and the other constables began searching in earnest for Trenvane and Josephyne, in whatever form they could find her. There wasn’t any sign of either. Thigpen put his kepi on and buttoned up his tunic. Some of the constables picked up the body of the ettercap and began hauling it back to the main street. Monklar went with them, and whistled for assistance. It would be a few minutes before the wagon appeared, and in the meantime Thigpen was determined to find where the gigantic red spider had hidden itself.
He was the first to spot her lair just a couple of pilings over, and straight up in the air underneath the upper city boardwalk. Her web was elaborate and seemed from down here to be constructed of cables instead of webbing. She had camouflaged it well, and it sat in an area that didn’t get even the slightest tinge of indirect light. It wasn’t readily apparent if she was ensconced inside this gigantic tarp-like main web, but the light drafty breeze from between the boardwalk above caused it to ripple in a decidedly foreboding fashion.
Thigpen looked at Queller, who had been bitten by one of the smaller spiders. “Do you have any desire to climb up there and see if she is home?” the half-orc asked.
“Nope. Not even a little.” Replied Queller, who had cut open the bite wound on his hand and was trying to bleed out the poison. “If I never see another spider again, I’ll die a happy man.” The old constable reflexively shuddered.
Thigpen laughed, and blew his whistle. To everyone within earshot he called out “Ok, somebody fetch us a mage. We need to light up that web, and see if there is any evidence to be had.”
Gwenda called back “I’ll go to the precinct tower and bring back a spellcaster.” With that she trotted off to hitch a ride back to the tower with the constabulary wagon that was carrying the dead ettercap.
The remaining constables formed into teams of two and methodically began scouring the area for any clues. The lanterns were trained on the overhead web, but wary eyes all around kept watch for the monster red spider. Or a red-haired woman. Either would have been warmly received at this point.