Alex Reynard

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Toby was twirled around like a corncob. He screamed the entire time.

He hadn't seen the thing for very long, but that one good glance was enough to turn his brain pure blank white with terror. The beast was octopus-shaped, the size of a washing machine. It came gliding down the web with effortless speed, covering twice the distance Toby had traveled in a second and a half. All eight tentacles and the full surface of its body were covered in the bristly, dense hairs of a tarantula. A cluster of bulbous, bobbing eyes gaped wetly at Toby, their W-shaped pupils twitching in eight directions at once. Then it picked him up and introduced him to the sight of its mollusk-like beak, encircled with a ring of venom-tipped mandibles.

It spun him and vomited sludge all over his body. The monster was making cotton candy, and Toby was the spool. When it finished, it had made a nice little compact cocoon. A freshly-wrapped meal.

This wasn't Toby's worst nightmare come true: it was worse. Because no matter how hard his mind tried, it could not wake up. There was no alarm clock to save him this time. He was trapped tight in clammy blackness. The same slimy material as the web. And he was being carried. The thing was taking him back home to be devoured.

Thankfully it didn't have far to go. Soon enough, Toby felt himself become weightless as he sailed through the air and crashed down on something soft, wet, dry and hard.

Oh no. No. No no no. He knew what this was. He'd been thrown onto a pile of discarded cocoons. And from the crunch he'd heard and the knobby shapes he felt beneath him, each one contained a skeleton sucked dry.

Toby screamed until the edges of his mouth bled. Until his voice turned into a strangled, withered gurgle.

And then he realized he was running out of air.

Each breath was more difficult than the last. He was going to suffocate before the monster started eating him. Was that good or bad?

His survival instinct was kicking him in the ribs with a steel toed boot. Suddenly he knew exactly what he had to do.

Oh, it wasn't FAIR!

Toby opened his trembling jaws and prepared to chew himself an air hole.

He shook with sobs of misery as he bit down. The taste and texture were every bit as awful as he'd imagined. Like sinews and boiled cauliflower and glue and wet wads of toilet paper. And worst of all was the knowledge that he had no choice. It was either do this or die. And his instincts weren't even allowing him the cowardice to simply choose death. Toby gnawed and gnawed through the foul stuff, spitting out chunks of it that slid wetly down his neck.

His lungs were burning, and a sense of dizzy disorientation had started creeping into his brain. But finally he broke through. He succeeded in making just enough of a space to suck a mouthful of air through. It was delicious.

The problem was, the hole was scarcely bigger than a straw. It wasn't enough. He kept chewing. He put maximum effort into ignoring the flavor. If he threw up now he'd suffocate for sure. All he needed was for the hole to be just a little bit bigger. Just big enough to poke his nose through.

There. Finally. Toby had never been more grateful for oxygen. He didn't even mind the stench of the arachnopus' inner lair: a fragrance of sewage, seaweed and leftover sushi. It was breathable. That was all that mattered.

Toby lay quietly for a few moments, just trying to keep himself sane. He felt like someone had been grinding his nerves with a cheese grater. How much fear could a furson experience until they died from it? Every single one of Toby's bodily processes felt shaky, ready to crack. And worst of all, there was no hope now. He hadn't been able to escape the web and there was absolutely no way to escape this cocoon. He was doomed to lie here helpless until the monster felt like ending his suffering. Would it poison him first? A spurt of venom to paralyze his muscles and turn his flesh to soup? Or would it just open that hideous mouth wide and shove him right in? What would it feel like to be digested alive?

Toby was crying again. Who cared if the creature heard him? Maybe it'd kill him quickly to shut him up.

"Hey there, don't be sad," said a pleasant voice.

That voice! Toby was so startled he actually managed to spin himself around, cocoon included, to face the direction it had come from. "WHO ARE YOU? WHY DID YOU LURE ME DOWN HERE?" (He'd tried to sound intimidating but it came out like a panicked plea.)

The response was a giggle. A giggle so light and airy it was like tossing armfuls of popcorn into the air. "Jeepers, fella! That wasn't my voice you heard. I fell for the same trick!"

"Oh," Toby said. And now that he could hear her more clearly, it was obvious. This voice sounded like a little girl's. The voice in the woods that had trapped him had been... difficult to describe. Genderless and persuasive. Telepathy, maybe?

"I think that's how it attracts its prey." the girlvoice continued. "Though I'm not sure whether it knew what it was saying or was just being like a parrot. It's hard to tell what things around here can actually talk."

"Wait, here? You know where we are?" Toby squeaked. Any new information was potentially helpful. At this point, Toby was desperate for even the illusion of hope. "Tell me, please!"

That same giggle. "Impatience is impolite, silly! Introductions first! What's your name?"

"Um... Toby."

"Tohhh-beeee," she sounded out. "That's a nice name." Then in a blink, her tone turned suddenly dead serious. "Toby... do you remember your last name?"

He was surprised she'd show so much concern over that. "Um, yeah. Toby deLeon."

A tiny gasp. "Wowee! You must really be new! I figgered so from the fact you still knew your name. But to still have your last name too? It's only been a few days for you, hasn't it? If I were you, I'd write that down right away!"

Oh great, a new thing to worry about. "What do you mean? Is something going to steal my memories!?"

"Steal's not the right word," the voice said. "But y'know how you start forgetting your dreams after you first wake up from 'em?"


"Here the same thing happens in reverse. Phobiopolis is made out of nightmares y'see, so the longer you're here, the more your old life fades away..." She sounded quite melancholy about that, but then happiness returned to her voice. "Oh, but you've still got a chance! I'm so glad we met and I could warn you in time! Find a journal quick and jot down everything you want to keep!"

"I have to get out of here first before I can do that," he whined. Then something else struck him. "You called this place Phobiopolis? And it's all just a nightmare? But that can't... I've been in a cave for days. I'm sure I would have woken up by now."

He could hear the squish-squish of the girl shaking her head. "You goof! You're not in a nightmare, this place is made of nightmares! Like bad dream clay. At least, that's everyone's best guess. This is where all the world's bad dreams end up. Like when your fur gets caught in the shower drain."

"That's... impossible."

"Not really," she gently contradicted. "After all, stars 'n planets are formed by little chunks of stardust, dancing and smashing in space till they get bigger. Why couldn't the same be true for dreams?"

That almost made sense. Almost. "Hey, did you ever actually tell me your name?"

She squeaked with adorable embarrassment. "Whoopsy! Hee hee! Sorry, Toby! You may have the honor of addressing me as Piffle." He could practically hear her curtsy at the end of it.

'What kind of a name is Piffle?' is what he automatically thought. But that would be rude, so instead he said, "That's a nice name too."

"Thanks! I made it myself. After I forgot my old one, I mean. But I kinda feel like maybe I didn't like my old one anyway? So it all works out. My full new name is actually Shimmer-Thistle Whisper-Kimmy Vivilandria Lavender Dorabelle Loribelle Trixi Fizzy Piffle McPerricone."

Toby bit back a guffaw. "That's the girliest name I've ever heard!" he blurted. Though he tried to make it sound like a compliment instead of an insult. "That name sounds like how cake frosting tastes!"

"Oooh, I've never thought about it like that before! You're absolutely right!" Piffle whooped with laughter, then pouted. "Oh fiddlesticks. Now that makes me think of cupcakes, and now I want cupcakes. So obviously we have to escape because I need to go eat cupcakes."

This girl must have been magic because Toby realized he was actually smiling. Trapped in an octoweb with zero hope of escape, and he was smiling. "So, um, do you have any ideas on how to escape, Piffle?"

"No, not really," she said, sounding unconcerned. "But we'll be fine, I'm sure of it."

"How can you be? That thing out there's stronger and faster than us. I'm webbed up so tight I can't move. I can't even see! ...Wait, can you see anything?"

"Nope! Blind as a bedpost!"

Toby grumbled. "I'm out of ideas then. I don't think I could stand chewing myself loose."

"Same here. It tastes ickaroonie. I'm guessing you made a breathing-hole too? This webbing definitely doesn't taste like cupcakes."

Something else occurred to Toby. "I just realized... maybe we should've been keeping our voices down all this time. We're over here discussing escape plans and we have no idea if it can hear us. You said you don't know if this thing can speak English. We don't know if it can understand it either."

From directly above came a casual bass voice. "Oh, I understand."

Toby's blood ran cold.

"I just don't care."

The next thing Toby heard was Piffle's shriek of pain as the arachnopus bit into her and started eating her alive.

Toby thrashed at his webbing in sheer blind feral delirium.


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