Africa’s greatest hidden terrors hide in the rainforest, and like a web they have woven unseen a trap around our collective subconscious. Humanity’s most enduring fear is given life. Arachnophobes beware – giant spiders are here to stay.

*

Undoubtedly, the swarming rainforests of Western Africa are leaf-canopied sanctuaries for those lost beasts that fail to find their place in the modern world. Their prehistoric roots once carried the fledgling cousins of the better known and more evolved incarnations seen in the contemporary world, and unseen by human eyes is the secret world moss-cloaked and jungle-mantled, concealed within untouched nature isolated from the ravening advances of man’s near-ubiquitous pollution.

Inside these sun-baked sanctuaries the ladder of evolution continues to be climbed. The incessant desire of lower bestial species to claim head of the food chain drives them towards predatory perfection. Instead of the gradual ascension mankind exhibits, these creatures make sharp leaps up the coveted rungs, an ever-growing eternal need to evolve and prosper. Thusly it can be said that the oft-brutal campaigns waged amongst this outside furtive world society has shunned for its simplistic adherence to nature’s laws has led to the establishment of a secondary evolutionary rise; one that should it be completed, would alter the very core of the world as it is known.

What is hidden in the humid vine-swamped rainforests of the Congo Basin should not be unveiled to the world, lest its truth be the undoing of all that is sane and precious – what has grown there like the festering tumour knows only to hunt, only to kill. Only to further its bestial dominance.

As the river must have its source, must too the ill-fated scientific expedition launched to explore nature’s secretive bayous in Africa’s shadow-fringed rainforests. Previous expeditions had been tasked with the gruelling mission of uncovering the furtively suggestive rumours as fact or fiction, and all had come up short. It seemed that the many whispers of ancient creatures roaming within the rainforests took umbrage with premature discovery, but the delirious and widely-circulated conjectures refused to quieten down without substantial evidence to advise anything to the contrary.

One such cryptid said to exist was the Mokele-Mbembe, a Sauropod rumoured to have survived throughout the millennia, and which haunts Lake Tele in the Congo Basin. Renowned Creationist researcher William Gibbons, working under the authority of the Institute of Creation Research, hunted for his mark in the wet low-lands and the snaking bows and bends of the numerous meandering rivers, but his much coveted and documented target eluded his holy pursuit. Having all but given up on his intellectual crusade he instead explored the rumours of another cryptid gem said to inhabit the shadowed bands of forestry hitherto uncharted.

And it was from his many trips and theories and extensive studies on cryptozoological topics that a new self-funded expedition emerged. Several had attempted a thorough investigation before but these pseudo-scientific voyages reaped only the same lacklustre results as William Gibbons’. To their inadvertent merit, these largely fruitless trips awarded future outings with a promising forecast; the pitfalls to avoid, networking within the native Baka people, and nebulously documented sightings and formerly illusive hints all in the interests of scientific enlightenment.

The day Francis Dumont stepped onto the sun-pecked lands of Cameroon was the day abhorrent secrets coiled around his tender mind and refused to let go. His small team consisted of Taylor Sanders, a creationist scientist from Montana; Leah Moor, an arachnologist specialising in araneology; and Howard Phillips from the university of Cambridge, a post-graduate from the curriculum of natural science.

Their aim was to follow in William Gibbons’ sizeable footsteps, to unravel the shrouds surrounding the dark whisperings of the natives, and those scarce sightings contributing to the surge of myths and monsters.

They had searched for two weeks in the cluttered chaos of the breath-taking rainforests, on the far green fringes of the Congo Basin, and followed the various rivers and winding tributaries until they met the glistening, sun-touched reservoirs, finally arriving at the conclusion that despite their best efforts the high-flung hope of randomly encountering their elusive quarry was dismal at best, and decided to defer to the natives’ superior knowledge.

After several panicked calls to his colleagues back home, Francis located the likely location of the Baka tribe; who were purported to be stationed in the outer strata of the Congo forest on the western most flank according to the navigational coordinates graciously provided. As the Baka are nomads, and move hurriedly to a new location when their local hunting ground dries up or a death occurs, he knew the expedition would have to capitalise on this promising opportunity immediately or risk squandering their dim chances.

Taylor openly voiced his disappointment.

‘We don’t need them!’ he argued. ‘This is our expedition, our chance to find it! We’re giving up our right to fully claim this as our discovery if there’s anyone else involved!’

‘There won’t be a discovery at this rate,’ Leah reasoned. ‘We’ve searched everywhere and we haven’t found a sniff. Gibbons spoke to the Baka, they gave him tons of information, more than anything we’ve ever known about these things. If anyone knows where they are, it’s the Baka.’

The day-long trip to the camp drained the last few drops of their waning enthusiasm. The once shimmering and warming glow of the auburn horizon diffused into a baleful orange eye fixated on their mounting failures; the swelling chorus of the forever-cheeping birds and the mad, hungry howls of the bestial herds grazing the rolling emerald plains goaded madness like the marching drums of war; the dusty, arid winds carried on their ethereal backs contemptuous volcanic heat and greedily looked to sink their bitter claws into exposed skin – and in the rueful sneers of the malignantly warped trees there sang the forlorn melody of a dissolving fantasy as beauty and grace were forfeit.

They came despairingly upon the camp in the small hours of the morning, exhausted and travel-worn. Nestled in a circled clearing enclosed by a squalor ring of shabby, leaf-shaded huts, the Baka’s temporary camp had been constructed with impressive speed and proficiency, a talent acquired from generations of nomadic practice. From the local land they had scavenged the tools and materials required to build their camp on the ragged fringes of the forest. At first glance it would appear simplistic and rustic; bundled branches and twigs knotted between leafy sheaths, held in place with condensed dirt and gravel, arranged in six or seven triangular, dilapidated huts that lined the clearing’s edge. In their centre sat a singular campfire, blackened with ash from previous use.

The tribe’s adults peered curiously as the expedition arrived. Their presence was an unwelcome intrusion, and as such the expedition made sure to tread cautiously. Valuable knowledge and secrets were hidden among the cluttered trees, and it was the Baka who kept them.

Howard stepped forward first, palms raised as a sign of non-aggression. At once the busy camp dispelled its crowded activity, blanketed silence dropped, and into the safety of their homes many retreated, peeking like children as the intruders arrived. Rain smattered the syrupy dirt, turning the already moist land into a black, sludgy paste.

A tall, scrawny man with ruffles of thick black hair, a scraggly greying beard and a distinct crescent shaped scar running down his cheek appeared from one of the huts and cautiously greeted Howard in the Baka language. The greeting was respectfully returned and the two began conversing.

Francis’ knowledge of the Baka extended to and stopped at their expertise of the local land and their nomadic preferences, and thusly the conversation was to him as two magpies discussing their day’s loot. There were, however, two words he recognised within the white noise; the mere utterance of which caused his pulse to skyrocket: ‘J’ba Fofi’.

This involuntary reaction manifested in the tribe leader, too. At once he urged the expedition to follow him into his hut, which stood no larger than the rest but boasted unusual and colourful ornamentations inside. Glaring eyes followed them, tracked their every movement for anything that could be construed as hostile, until those eyes disappeared behind a blockade of forcefully loomed twigs and leaves, and Francis was at once swallowed by the cramped confines of the leader’s home.

He sat awkwardly on an uncomfortable twiggy mat while the leader related a conversation to an absorbed Howard.

Inside an alcove at the back of the hut two young children, perhaps seven or eight, were attended to by an older woman. One of the children, a baby-faced girl no older than ten, had her arm in a sheet-white sling while the woman prodded inquisitively at an ugly gash carved into her forearm. A dearth of medical supplies elevated holistic and make-shift medicinal support as the only route to bodily repair; no pills, no painkillers, no expert knowledge on which to draw, so the Baka had repurposed the land’s offerings into their therapeutic framework. Francis shared in Leah’s muted surprise as he recognised the crude sling’s material. They said nothing – exchanged knowing glares and silently agreed to discuss it later.

Howard listened intently to the leader as his nebulous tale unwound like web.

‘He’s saying,’ Howard translated eventually, between breaks in the leader’s yarn, ‘that what we seek hides in the forest, and that we aren’t the first to go looking for them. He prays we will be the last.’

The leader paused thoughtfully, considered his options, and continued speaking.

‘The rainforest is a hive for these creatures; they hide among the dense tangles of boughs, hunt birds come to berth and yellow-backed duiker roaming in the bushes. The entire forest is basically their hunting ground, their own personal paradise. The Baka gave up on fighting them decades ago after they lost three hunters to the damned beasts.’

Leah bit her lip, the promise of formerly unknown knowledge nourished what was left of her enthusiasm.

‘Details about the creatures,’ she pressed. ‘Empirical details, anything he can tell us. I need to know everything to draw up a preliminary.’

‘I’ll get there in a second. There’s more to cover.’ He gestured for the leader to continue and dutifully translated. ‘The beasts… are hard to find – they dwell in the dark, where no other animal treads. As their habitats dwindle, so do their numbers, retreating further into the dense everglades to escape encroachment. The Baka keep away from their territory; marked by massive webs between trees and tangled lairs just beneath the canopy. That’s how we’ll know we’ve found them. He says he’ll gather a group to guide us to the right place. One of the foragers saw the webs yesterday morning, that’s our best chance.’

Taylor barged into the conversation. ‘What proof does he have these things exist? We’re not chasing ghosts through the forest!’

‘Taylor, that’s all we’ve been doing for two weeks,’ Leah grumbled, pinching her nose. ‘Would you please be quiet so I can hear what I need to hear?’

Tensions had elevated over the journey. Francis had his misgivings bringing along Taylor in the first place: the term ‘Creationist Scientist’ struck out as a hulking oxymoron, and one meeting with the man had done nothing to bridge a growing divide between faith and fact. Leah had butted heads with him more than once during their preparations for the expedition; arguments about the raw concepts of god, the afterlife and evolution were common fixtures in their few heated discussions.

‘We’ll find the proof ourselves,’ Howard reasoned. ‘They’ll take us out to the creatures’ last known location, and we can investigate the area. It’s promising. This is the best chance we’ve got.’

The tribe’s leader seemed more than happy to divulge the information – giddy, almost. Perhaps isolation had gestated a burning need to unveil this ghastly knowledge, or perhaps it was to share the burden.

‘The adults are about the size of a car,’ Howard claimed, with no small amount of trepidation. ‘Leg span… about ten feet across. Brown colouring for the adults. It works like a natural camouflage, helps them blend in with the environment.’

‘Brown like a tarantula,’ said Leah, taking notes. ‘Fits with my estimates. What about juveniles?’

‘They have dark yellowish colouring that turns brown as they mature. Leg span is around two to five feet across. They must be from the tarantula genus, right?’

‘I would guess so. Rusty brown colouring would suggest tarantula, and the king baboon spider, the African genus I’m estimating these things to be close to, is also a tarantula. It does make sense. How about behaviour? Are they docile, aggressive? Do they keep away from humans?’

The leader shied away from the question, seemed tentative to answer.

‘Largely docile,’ Howard related. ‘There hasn’t been a confrontation for decades, since before Timbo here was born. But that could be because the Baka actively avoid them. Can’t say I blame them… I mean, giant car-sized spiders?’

‘Says the man who helped fund an expedition to find said giant spiders,’ said Leah dryly. ‘Docility isn’t guaranteed, we shouldn’t take safety for granted. Most spider genera are happy to keep to themselves, they don’t actively seek to harm humans, but we can’t know for sure how these things will react to us -’

‘If they exist,’ Taylor added.

‘– so it’s a good idea we have some backup,’ she continued, shooting Taylor daggers.

‘We should know what kind of defences they have, if they have any,’ Taylor said thoughtfully. ‘Are they poisonous?’

‘You mean venomous,’ Leah clarified.

‘He doesn’t know,’ said Howard. ‘Don’t tarantulas usually have venom?’

‘All tarantulas have venom but it’s usually injected in small amounts. No recorded case of a fatal bite exists. You’re more likely to die from an allergic reaction to the bite than you are to the venom.’ She paused, calculating. ‘That isn’t to say we should be lax with a bite. Take the king baboon spider for example: their venom causes severe pain and discomfort for several days, and has been known to cause hallucinations. It would be a very poor idea to go around poking your fingers into any spiders around here, even if it doesn’t kill you it’ll still hurt like a hammer to the head.

‘And if the amount of venom produced is directly proportional to the spider’s size, the venom’s potency is almost irrelevant – we’ll be pumped so full of the stuff we could swallow anti-venom until the cows come home and it won’t neutralize a drop. Not to mention the venom’s delivery system…’

‘Fangs on something that size…’ Francis squeaked, shuddered.

Everything went silent. Francis’ thoughts were hijacked by claymore fangs, thin spindly legs, and eight beady, blank eyes staring at him in the dark.

‘That’s if they exist,’ said Taylor. ‘No point in dwelling on the dangers when the danger might not even be real.’

‘Have faith, Taylor,’ Leah growled.

‘Are we ready to go?’ said Howard at Timbo’s questioning.

Leah glanced at the young girl in the corner, arm in a white sling.

‘Actually, could we have a few minutes to get ready, please?’ she said. ‘In private.’

Timbo respected their wishes, took the two children and the woman from the hut, and left the group to go over their plan. Taylor was about to discredit the story and pick apart the flimsy proof – the irony of a creationist doing so was completely lost on him – Howard examined the cramped space, studying the ornaments and decorations with scientific fascination, and Leah scurried to the discarded and slightly bloodied sling, turning it over in her arms like she was unravelling film. To her surprise the sling’s end continued, further revealing a trundled white mass sticky to the touch rolled into a fettered heap.

‘Is that what I think it is?’ Francis asked.

‘Webbing,’ said Leah. ‘They were using it to treat the girl’s wound.’

They all stared at the lithe sheet draped across Leah’s arms. The entire roll was at least ten feet long, making Leah look as though she were carrying a wedding dress.

‘Why?’ said Taylor eventually.

‘We have bandages to spare,’ said Howard. ‘We could give them some.’

‘Never mind that! Why would they use webs like this?’

‘It has some scientific basis,’ Leah claimed. She pulled a section of it taut, held it to the light to observe its solidity, then collected a sample. ‘In the eighteenth-century, some people placed webs on open wounds because they believed it helped stop the bleeding. We now know spider silk contains vitamin K, which helps blood clot, reduces bleeding. Sort of like a magical bandage.’

‘Silk?’ said Francis. ‘You mean web.’

‘I mean silk. All spiders make silk, not all spiders make web. Just like how all spiders are arachnids, not all arachnids are spiders. It looks like there’s silk woven into the web, which is surprisingly common.’ She flipped the strand, shook it, examined it intently. ‘This web isn’t like anything I’ve seen before. This could well be the first step in proving the J’ba Fofi’s existence.’

‘It’s just web,’ said Taylor.

‘The length and texture isn’t consistent with normal webbing. It’s thicker and longer than anything an ordinary spider should be able to produce, and it’s all part of one strand.’

Francis found in the tangled mess a budding dread, in the snarling waterfall of white a bitter victory. One step closer to deciphering the mystery – but was the truth more rewarding than the fantasy?

‘Leah, do you need anything else?’ he asked.

‘I’ve got enough to think about. The rest I’ll have to confirm in person.’

A group split from the Baka tribe, waited at the clearing’s edge – warriors in the trench expecting the final order to go over. Howard offered his thanks to Timbo, intimating sincere gratitude for his hospitality and information. As this thankfulness was exchanged, Timbo took Howard’s hands, bowed his head as if respecting the dead, and barked an order to the waiting Baka. At once they nodded in uniform fashion and led the expedition into the rainforest, as the tribe leader watched on helplessly.

The swarming foliage clawed and bit and snapped, humid air clamped around Francis’ throat like clammy hands, furrowed vines and viscid moss infested the rain soaked trees and pervious dirt-shackled path. This gauntlet of uninhabitable land fostered hostility, saturated in poison and dripped with menace. Whatever could grow and flourish in the darkened corners, where nature had abandoned kindness and civility, where malice had nurtured with a sombre kiss and a harsh hand the burgeoning creatures that owned the tortuous shadows, eradicated the ordinary boundaries of sanity as the river erodes the mountainside.

The five Baka hunters gifted to them by Timbo led the expedition, armed with machetes they cut down the snarling claws, carved a path through the pest-addled chaos. Francis guessed they were heading east towards the heart of the forest, deeper into its rambling, overrun sprawl. The damp air buzzed, hissed, fizzled with the living orchestra of nature; animal calls echoed between the dangling vines and sagging tree-tops, hoots and howls and despairing cries crashed together in the heavy air like savage tidal waves, deafened the solitary chirps of the less violently-inclined concealed on the forest’s bed.

Rain leaked through the entangled ceiling, a mosaic of weak sunlight dripped into the sheltered corridor. Francis suddenly felt very claustrophobic, as if he could never leave the forest’s hungry throat, that the further he invaded this isolated segment of undefiled nature the closer to warped insanity he would venture. Branches closed around him, vines snared his feet like pythons; the dreadful light flickered and spluttered as if about to extinguish.

‘Are those the webs?’ Howard asked, pointing to a collection of thin, veil-like cobwebs covering a nearby tree.

‘No. That’s Stegodyphus,’ Leah explained. ‘You can tell by the style of web. They build huge colonies high up on trees. Spiders aren’t typically social creatures, they prefer to be alone, but Stegodyphus are, for whatever reason, socially inclined. I’ve heard of colonies in India that range for miles.’

‘Do you think our mysterious targets are social?’

‘If I had to guess – which I am – I’d say they’re likely very social animals. Their size, even in somewhere as huge as the rainforest, makes it impossible for individual isolation. It’s not like they can hide from each other, or maintain individual hunting areas. Survival in this place would be a communal goal, a common thread with which to unify. Personally, I’m more interested in how something reportedly the size of a car can navigate between the trees and the fauna, how they hunt, how they’ve evaded notice save for a few unconfirmed sightings. If their size is to be believed, then the fact they haven’t been found can’t be.’

Francis brushed off his shoulder a wiry vine, slapped away a hounding mosquito and its entourage of flies.

‘A little different from where we’ve been before, isn’t it?’ said Leah, looking over him with a smirk. ‘You can almost feel it, the heartbeat of the animal kingdom drumming on your skin.’

‘This is god’s kingdom,’ said Taylor. ‘Unpolluted by man. Untouched by his hate. The natural world is the greatest expression of god’s work, so tread carefully.’

‘God’s kingdom is a little disappointing. I expected pearly white clouds, a sunny sky, maybe some angels. Mosquitoes and giant arachnids aren’t in the bible – or maybe I’m remembering it wrong.’

Taylor grumbled like a curmudgeonly old man and slipped to the back of the pack.

‘You’re really into spiders,’ said Howard. ‘It’s quite endearing to meet someone with so much passion for what many consider a remarkably odd subject.’

‘I am really into spiders,’ Leah replied with her usual tone of viperous sarcasm. ‘It’s almost like I studied them for almost a decade, almost like I dedicated my entire adult life to learning how they worked.’

‘What’s your favourite spider?’

‘Tough one. I’d have to say the Brazillian wandering spider – Phoneutria nigriventer. You ever heard of it?

‘Can’t say I have. What’s so special about it?’

She chuckled. ‘Do you know what priapism is?’

‘When… Oh.’ Howard’s cheeks went tomato red. ‘I know what it is. What about it?’

‘The venom of the Brazilian wandering spider causes it. Very painful. But it is an example of an arachnid’s ability to affect both the body and the mind. There’s a good reason for arachnophobia, and we should all pay attention.’

They walked for what felt like hours, detecting in the madness of the rainforest a haze of fugue. By the time the Baka hunters exploded in wild shouts and frantic jabbing, Francis had turned his brain to auto-pilot, shoving aside his aching limbs, ignored his parched throat. Kind obliviousness nullified the horror he would have to face.

Howard calmed the Baka entourage, demanded an answer. One pointed frantically to a leafed archway that spiralled into oblique, impossible shadows, like an open maw inviting into the throat. Francis halted the company and examined the opening with the hawk-like eyes of a tracker as Dante must have as Virgil guided him through the nine circles.

Francis stood at the open entrance and took stock of the broken branches and scarred bark, the disturbed mud and slathered twigs outlined like railway tracks. It would be obvious to an untrained eye that some animal had barged train-like through the undergrowth, had torn a hole in the delicate verdant tapestry, but to Francis’ trained eyes these were muddled pieces of a puzzle, and like a complicated jigsaw the pieces gradually slotted into their rightful places.

‘Are they saying it’s the spiders?’ he asked Howard.

‘They saw the webbing down this way yesterday,’ Howard replied. ‘But this whole thing wasn’t here then. The location they’re taking us to is through this… and they don’t want to go through.’

‘Why not?’

‘Because of what might be waiting on the other side. These people live within one of the most dangerous environments on the planet, Francis, they know it like we know streets in the city. Fear is something they experience on a daily basis, and just like us becoming accustomed to the sounds, sights and smells of a city, they’ve become accustomed to that fear. If they’re afraid to go through, we have to consider the severity of what we’re about to do.’

Taylor at once barged Francis and Howard aside and personally inspected the opening, as if their sizeable expertise were in question.

‘Superstitious nonsense,’ he grumbled. ‘This could’ve been made by anything! Tell them we’re going in. Fear will not stop us.’

He kissed the rosary beads dangling from his wrist. In a rare display of patience Leah swallowed the obligatory insult.

‘Howard, we have to keep going,’ she said.

‘I know, I know. Give me a second.’

Easing the Baka’s grounded worries wasn’t an easy task but Howard persevered until they reluctantly agreed to lead the anxious expedition into the portentous portal, and presently hovered at the fanged maw.

Francis followed them first. The opening morphed into a damp tunnel, where dribbles of diluted sunlight filtered through the woven blanket of leaves, clouds of hot condensation hung like vacuous pockets in the air, and the torn branches and scarred mud lay like Hansel’s breadcrumbs.

The smell was unbearable – the wild stink untamed by civility clinging to every drifting particle, and it only got worse as they crawled through the tunnel.

Navigating the wilderness in such a way reminded Francis of his previous exploits. Africa was a land he had believed conquered in his early twenties, a territory claimed in his name, and only after Leah had approached him with the prospect of returning, and the reason why, was he lured back into the hunt by the promise of a new discovery – a discovery that would sign his name on the dotted line of history.

Knee-deep in thick wet mud, under a horde of mosquitoes’ aerial bombardments and throat burning up like he had swallowed a firecracker, he started to ponder if he had made the right choice.

As the scraggly tunnel narrowed and a shabby halo appeared ahead, Francis quickened his pace, sensing the moment had come.

Shattered beams of sun fell out of the treetops, scattered into the bushes as they spilled over the ground. Dust and dirt hovered in the air like insects, drifting listlessly on rivers of the forest’s breath. Francis froze at the end of the tunnel, gripped in shock. His eyes adjusted to the feeble light, blinked twice. A hazy dream, that’s all it was. Truth mutilated by impossibility. Reality lying straight to his face.

His mind bent under the strain, carefully piecing the fractured images together like an abstract painting too tortuously crafted to understand at first glance. What stood before him like a hearth in the forest defied logic, and for it to simply exist, to be hidden amongst the trees that man had abandoned in his infant years, changed the nature that Francis had known his entire life.

In the pale light, distorted by subtle sheets of rain, there lay as lifeless as a statue a rusty brown mound, gangly contorted limbs rising from its core like an eight-pronged claw, congealed thatches of reedy hair sprouting from the joints like weeds. It was lying forward on its stomach; its back end, usually a bulbous appendage, was flat and wrinkled like a deflated balloon. Streaks of nauseating yellow banded the core. The head hid behind the forward-facing legs – a blessing for which Francis almost thanked god. Whatever controlled the rest of that gruesome body should not be visited by human eyes.

In a way it seemed to be immersed in the spiralling tunnels of knotted boughs and wooden limbs and those serpentine roots freshly exhumed from their timely burial. Like an artist taken by his muses, staring into the ever-expanding cosmos and plucking his artistic subjects from the pirouetting stars as they danced across the night sky.

‘Oh, my god…’

It looked dead. Completely immobile. But spiders, even giant ones, are notoriously tricky to decipher.

Leah nudged him aside, peeked at the thing. People behind him gasped in shock and surprise, intoning terror quietly as possible.

The thing had been lifted directly from a nightmare. Its prone form reached Francis’ neck, meaning it would be just under six-feet tall. If it were to raise its abdomen from the ground and stand upright, it would dwarf even the tallest man. And its breadth reached even farther.

‘Is it dead?’

‘It’s not moving.’

‘That doesn’t mean it’s dead.’

As Howard and Taylor squabbled in the bush, mediating the danger with hushed voices, and Francis stared helplessly frozen at the monstrous creature spawned from a nightmarish seed, Leah creeped forward out of the tunnel, eyes dazzled with awe and desire – and charged directly towards the thing.

‘Leah!’

Francis tensed, waited for the spider to turn at the advancing woman, swipe her aside with a massive leg or pounce in a flash and decant its liquefying venom into her exposed neck.

How small she looked next to the creature – how easy it would be.

She stopped at the spider’s right flank. Petted its leg proprietorially. Kicked the scrawny abdomen. Francis tensed again, calculating how long it would take to run back the way they came, mapping a mental path that involved knocking Howard aside, abandoning the Baka, and throwing Taylor behind him to satiate the ravenous monster. Leah was already dead – she didn’t stand a chance. He’d have to be quick. All in one movement.

Before he could turn, as his legs made the necessary spasms to begin a panicked sprint, Leah’s laughter flowered in the busy air.

‘You know spiders shed their skin, right?’

Francis examined the husk, Howard and Taylor beside him. It wasn’t an easy study: Francis was afraid, despite Leah’s assurances, that it would spring suddenly to life, the vacuum inside suddenly filled, and bestial rage suddenly unleashed. But it was a fantastically empty husk bereft of locomotion or emotive frenzy and not for anything but divine intervention would it move

Hands glided across the skin as though this were the coveted trophy at the end of an exemplary marathon. This, however, was only the end of the first leg, and even though the expedition knew this at their core they couldn’t help but bask in the awe that surrounded their first solid proof that their illusive mystery not only existed, but haunted the very region in which they were searching.

It didn’t feel real: the coarse skin, the rubbery limbs, the rigid tufts of rancid hair lancing from flaccid crevices; and worst of all was every hint of evolutionary malice manifest in the creature, everything that the abandoned shell implied. No smoke without fire.

How strange, thought Francis, that a creature could simply walk away from its former self, leave behind the empty husk that once it was. To be reborn, to delete the crowded self and be renewed, to survive the metamorphosis and emerge from the cocoon of old flesh anew; an attractive philosophy for those whose old flesh is scarred with their life’s stories. If one could escape the trappings of their outward shells, shed that awful history, what would emerge from the abandoned shadow?

The Baka hunters dragged Leah from her lifeless muse, pointed into the eastern corridors of the forest. Of course, she had already noticed what hung between two trees like a ghostly weave; that would come later.

Samples were excitedly collected; Leah spared not a second in absorbing each detail of the creature in full scientific gluttony, murmuring borderline nonsensical jargon under her breath as her eyes hungrily devoured the creature’s secrets.

‘Tagmata intact… cephalothorax, abdomen, spinnerets. Abdomen deflated, obviously. Space for fangs – big ones! Oh. Palps. Freaky at this size, like they’re magnified. Urticating hairs. Yes, tarantula. You can almost see the lung-book! Impressive. And look at the size of that thorax! Looks damaged – possibly weather worn. Internally… no different. Just bigger than the average tarantula. And more exciting.’

‘They’re real,’ Taylor muttered, bewildered. He hadn’t spoken a word since confronting the molt and hadn’t stopped shaking.

‘Keep it to yourself,’ Leah whispered, ducking under a crooked leg. ‘Surprise will have to wait, there’s a lot to learn here and I haven’t even started on the webbing yet. And then there’s the tree problem.’

‘Tree?’ said Howard absent-mindedly.

‘You mean how they move through the forest?’ said Taylor.

‘No. I mean there’s something wrong with the trees.’

Francis had made a mental note of this too, but like a student’s cluttered journal it had been lost somewhere amidst the hasty scrawl.

‘The trees around this area are dead,’ he said simply. ‘You can tell by the bark, the way the leaves are dripping off it like raindrops.’

Howard and Taylor confirmed this observation, noting the blackened, dishevelled bark peeling like old paint seemingly hardwired into the area’s DNA. Naturally, this was a distracting afterthought to the main event, a pointless encore none in attendance had requested.

‘So what?’ Taylor sneered. ‘We just discovered that giant spiders exist! How can you be worrying about trees at a time like this?!’

‘The environment is just as important to understanding the J’ba Fofi as anything else,’ Leah explained softly. ‘Life is shaped by its environment – the lifeless clump is moulded by evolution and instilled with everything it needs to survive in its local habitat. It might seem stupid to be worried about the trees when the skin of a giant spider is lying right in front of us, but to cast aside what contributed to their creation is even worse! True scientific understanding requires a cold look at all available factors and variables, no matter how trivial they may seem. Besides, I’ve got this. Somebody else can check out the trees.’

Francis checked the bark. It crumbled in his palm like sawdust. This was more his speed – investigating the natural occurrences that defied normal assemblies of logic and rational thinking. Leave overgrown arachnids for Leah.

He mentally compiled a list of potential causes, a cerebral menagerie consisting of root rot and various other diseases he had encountered during his travels which could have contributed to cellular degradation within the arboreous spectrum. This took second place priority – many of his mental faculties were occupied digesting the hollow vessel left like a washed-up corpse. The trees would have to do with a preliminary diagnosis.

‘Francis, what have you got?’

‘The trees are rotted to the core, roots are dead. It could be some sort of fungus growing underground or on the roots themselves acting like a parasite, leeching their food sources and such. It’s really impossible to say anything else for the time-being. I’m just guessing based on what I’ve seen. They’re dead and the likely culprit is some malignant virus spreading throughout the forest. It would be easy for something like that to survive in spores, latch on to the closest available food source like lichen. In a place as hostile as this, it’s not surprising to discover aggressive viruses lurking where there’s vulnerable food.’

‘Could we forget about the damn trees for a second?’ Taylor snapped.

‘Of course.’ Leah diligently went over her notes. ‘The size of the molt is in keeping with what Timbo told us, suggesting this is one of the adults. I don’t suspect they’ll reach a larger size after this – anything bigger and it would be impossible to navigate the environment. Exhibit A here, I’ll call him Legs, will probably only shed one more time after this, maybe not at all. Tarantula species usually live for about twenty years, I’d estimate this one to be about sixteen years old, possibly slightly younger, and I don’t see it hanging around for much longer. Get it? Hanging. Cause it’s a spider. No?’

Blank looks invited her to continue. Without the humour. She was the only one capable of finding a shred of wit in the absurd moment.

‘Anyway… I’ve taken photographs, I’ll send them off when I have service to be studied by better eyes. Some of my more learned colleagues should be able to make sense of what we’ve found. I wish I could see their faces. They’ll think it’s fake -’

‘Leah,’ Francis urged.

‘Right. I’ll study the web; it looks like there’s something coming off it.’

Distant howls warbled amidst the trees. It was easy to forget where they were – where their arduous journey had taken them, and that they were gathered around a bygone relic, a forgotten ghost of nature; the crude instrument evolution had fashioned into a web-spinning weapon. The moment would have humbled the hardest of hearts – should have belittled even the strongest mind in the face of impossible discovery, but like any momentous occasion the true weight hadn’t and wouldn’t fall before the moment had already passed.

Taylor hovered uneasily beside a leg, enraptured and seemingly struggling with the size of what lay before them. The rosary beads dangled lifelessly from his wrist, and perfectly matched the empty glaze that had coated his rheumy eyes. Francis was about to approach him, to extend a comforting hand and provide a warmth his precious beads failed to intimate, when Leah called them over in a sharp bark that demanded immediate attention.

The web flapped in the humid air like some tattered banner of a valiant army flying the colours of its martial aptitude, flaunting its maddening patterns as if in insult to fascinated observers. This was irrefutably a claim of authority; the province of hidden genera mankind had yet to uncover.

Of its spoked patterns little could be gleaned but for the kaleidoscopic effect they induced in an observer. It was to Francis as looking into two parallel mirrors, infinite reflections stretching out to meet eternity, never quite meeting; almost like twinned worlds separated by a flimsy barrier, where one would broach the other if only to test its busy waters with a tentative toe. Viscous globules glistened in the delicate light, shimmering like fist-sized pearls, and within the never-ending spirals which seemed to engage the eyes with a wholly alien allure there glimmered the promise of further shaded secrets concealed behind monstrous, dreadful forms.

‘Christ…’

‘Don’t take the lord’s name in vain, Taylor,’ said Leah.

From afar she studied the intricate decorations flapping between the trees, as if her eyes were tiny stars and the web a black hole gradually pulling them in. To Francis the web was an easier hurdle to jump than the hollow thing behind him – both were impossible, both had haunting implications, but despite the provocative web’s mesmeric pull its horrifying visage, that of a tortured ghost hanging below the canopy forever frozen in its final moments, was bleakly ordinary in comparison to the sagging bag of crumpled yellow-brown skin baking in the humid, oppressive air.

‘What’s coming off it?’

‘Don’t touch it!’

Leah’s hand snapped serpentine at Francis’ outstretched fingers, retreating from the strange white strand appended to the web’s flank, which snaked and vanished into the infested floral growth.

‘Don’t touch the web! You don’t just go around touching every strange thing you see just because it’s there!’ Leah snapped. ‘Look with your eyes, not your hands. Webbing is more than just a passive trap, it actively seeks prey. It’s a little known fact that webs are coated with a substance that creates a small electromagnetic charge – when luckless prey ambles past the web rather literally leaps to catch it. Think of it like a snake. It’s fine until you go poking at it, then you can’t be mad when it strikes out.

‘Not to mention that it is still part of the web. Touching it will set off an alarm, alert the web’s owner that something’s been caught. And I don’t know about you three but I’d rather not advertise our presence to a giant, car-sized spider, like a big billboard that says ‘Giant spiders eat free!’. It would be identical to wrapping ourselves up in the damned web and yanking on all the strands like Cirque Du Soleil performers!’

She followed the ghostly strand until it met the gloomy blankets of knotted foliage, where it disappeared beneath the tangled nets, seemingly becoming one with the disturbed dirt bed below. Francis fancied that there suggested the intent; a trap conceived with malicious purpose and conscious ambition. Perhaps the strand had been threaded into the muck like a trip-wire; but such a thing suggested predatory sentience and to accept this cabalistic theory sanity would have to be disobeyed.

‘It looks like it goes east,’ Leah observed. ‘We should follow it. Only one place it could lead – where there’s web, there’s spiders. Legs won’t be far off. Maybe he has a lair nearby. Francis, are you able to track this?’

Like a doting mother leaving her child for the first time, Leah had to be dragged kicking and screaming from her vacuous muse – not before snapping every angle possible with her camera, making thorough sketches and noting each horrific moment in excruciating detail. Nothing was to be left undocumented. Had physical strength been no challenge, she would have holstered the entire thing on her back and carried it like a knapsack all the way home – and in some way this was her prerogative; she made several methodical calculations on the precise location of the thing, co-ordinates and bearings and anything nearby that could be used to guide her back as a sailor would note the location of certain constellations to bring them to port.

Howard dismissed the Baka, thanked them for their guidance. Before they left, with worried expressions best left undescribed, they whispered something to Howard, gracefully bowing their heads as if in silent respect. Despite the expedition’s insistence their words were left untranslated, although a marked decline in Howard’s enthusiasm oozed with animated suspicion.

Francis felt like he was tracking an ancient leyline submerged in aeons-old crust like some holy man on a forbidden pilgrimage, navigating the dank, warped passages of emaciated trees and sunken boughs. The web strand continued for longer than he had predicted, curling away into the forest’s farthest limbs as if searching with the same insatiable scientific lust as him.

‘It’s getting thicker,’ said Leah. ‘We must be getting closer to the source.’

‘To the spider you mean,’ said Taylor.

‘The spider, yes. Well done, you’ve been paying attention.’

Her voice was a brisk hiss rattling between her teeth. Francis agreed with her cue; it was a time for silence, not a time for inviting famished monsters in the dark to a free meal.

Before them opened like a bomb-site a black, frayed pit, carved acutely into the ground, scattered carelessly with shattered branches, traumatised edges swirling into a hazy abyss whose cavernous end burrowed into the planet’s skin like a ringworm. Fat lines of helical webs spiralled and vanished into the sickening blackness like an intricate network of wires.

‘A pit?’ said Leah, skirting the scarred edges. ‘That’s not what I expected.’

Francis considered this. Occasionally, when elevated by tension and extreme panic, the mind can do either of two things: rise to the challenge and operate under prodigious direction, or collapse, crumble and disintegrate – the smaller details expand or dissolve – and on both possibilities Francis’ mind deferred to the latter, and a crucial thread that might have saved his sanity slipped forever out of his grasp. Had he connected the two salient details he would have turned away from the pit, stubbornly leave that page of the world unturned, and perhaps life would have returned to normal. Abandoning insanity is often easier than confronting it.

The strand they had followed hurtled over the edge and plunged into darkness. Presently Leah inspected the opening with dutiful curiosity, taking particular interest in the worn, well-travelled rim which displayed indisputable evidence of heavy traffic – something large by Francis’ reckoning.

‘Recently used,’ he mumbled, largely to the world in general. ‘The tracks on the outside…’

‘Weird seeing spider tracks,’ said Leah. ‘It’s just not right. I can’t be the only one thinking there’s something wrong here, right? I can feel it but I can’t put my finger on it, like something in the corner of my eye. I know it’s there, staring at me in the face just out of view. There for a second and then gone when I look for it.’

‘Occam’s razor,’ said Howard. ‘The simplest explanation is usually the strongest explanation. There’s nothing there, no problem for you to fix, and given the nature of our exploration there really should be, so it’s like you’re filling an empty space with something – anything, really – to complete the picture the way you think it should look.’

Francis withheld his own misgivings. Upsetting the already delicate balance holding the team on a knife edge equated to endangering the entire operation, and they were so close to concluding their mission.

Leah cleared her throat. ‘So, are we going in?’

They all looked down into the swirling black pool, where ghostly eels of web swam in the inky depths.

‘I’m not going.’

The claim was met with sympathetic glares.

‘Taylor, we’ve come all this way,’ said Leah. ‘You really don’t want to finish this? We’re so close!’

The rosary beads were placed ceremoniously at his feet.

‘You three can go in. I’m not doing it.’

‘But -’

‘No.’ His gaze avoided the pit. ‘I can’t do this. No god would… You saw that thing. It was right in front of us. That is proof enough that…’

Taylor turned to the forest.

‘Follow the devil and you’ll find hell. Well, we found it, and it’s everything I imagined and worse. We all know what’s down there. The Baka knew back at the camp this would be the point of no return. I’ll go to them, then leave for home. I won’t wait for any of you. You go down there, you’re not coming back.’

Francis tried another approach, sensing a sudden drought of faith.

‘What about the money you put into this?’ he ventured. ‘You gave more than a third of the money we needed all by yourself and I for one can’t promise it’ll be returned.’

‘Keep the money. I’ve already traded my faith. I won’t trade my sanity.’

‘At least wait…’

Like smoke into fog Taylor morphed into the bleak haze, tracking lonely, shallow footprints in a wiry trail back the way they came.

‘Think he’ll make it back?’ said Howard dryly.

‘Without the Baka I doubt it,’ Leah replied. ‘Which does bring up an awkward question…’

‘We’ll be fine,’ said Francis. ‘I’ve got the place mapped out, don’t worry. The only problem I see is if we’re accosted by giant spiders. I’m not much of a fighter.’

‘You could be a world-class boxer,’ said Leah, ‘won’t matter to a giant arachnid. Kind of like a realistic David Versus Goliath story, except Goliath has eight legs, eight eyes, and venom that could paralyze and liquefy the insides of a herd of elephants.’

‘Sounds good. Can’t wait.’

‘I’ll do the sarcasm here, thank you.’ She skittered around the pit’s edge, hanging over the rim. ‘I can’t see a thing down there.’

A nearby rock was employed as a depth-tester; as the lantern is lit and sent to the heavens as was the rock an earth-coated gift delivered to hell, and within it they imparted their hopes of discovery and bringing to light the flames that licked the underbelly of the world.

Down into the pit it skidded, then stopped rather abruptly, as if the pit had a bottom closer to the surface than could be gleaned in the darkness.

‘Sixteen feet,’ said Francis, ear to the black. ‘And it sounds like there’s a curve in the wall. The rock bounced before it stopped and the echo sounded like it rolled. We could lower ourselves down on the web, it’s not a steep drop.’

‘Brilliant idea,’ said Leah bitterly. ‘While we’re at it we can season ourselves so any hungry spiders can just snap us up like hors d’oeuvres.’

‘Any ideas then?’

‘We can go down but we avoid the web at all costs. Use the gaps to climb down.’

‘I never thought’, said Howard glumly, ‘that I’d be standing at the precipice of something like this. And Taylor…’

‘Forget him,’ said Francis. ‘With where we’re about to go, stray thoughts are a distraction. I can’t stress how important it is we stay focused in there. You’ve heard of going into a lion’s den. Well, we’re going into a spider’s eyrie – the effect is much the same.’

Francis slipped leg-first into a slender gap between two webby streams, careful not to touch its sticky coating. He felt like a spy in a terrible thriller, delicately threading the needle in the divide between two lasers.

Into absolute blackness and the unknown plunged the expedition. Downwards they clambered, hooking into the scarred rock like climbers scaling a mountainous glacier, until finally they were swallowed in the condensed shadows.

Solid ground found their feet a few metres down. Francis followed the curve with his foot, blindly tracing the rock as it swept underground into a cramped tunnel. Fingers stumbled in the dark, found traction in the damp wall.

The first thing he noticed, with no small amount of disgust, was the draft drenched in rotting flesh evacuating from the tunnel; packed fists of miasma lunged again and again into his nostrils. Somebody behind him gagged.

‘What is that smell?’ he hissed.

‘Best not to think about it,’ said Leah’s disembodied voice. ‘Move forward, watch your footing.’

‘I can’t see!’

‘Hold on,’ said Howard.

A frail beam of silvery light launched forward as if desperate to cleanse the dark. The shadows retreated and scurried away further into the tunnel, afraid of what the light might reveal.

What it did reveal were obese webs thick as tree trunks running wildly across the profoundly mutilated and tattered dirt walls like industrial piping. Scattered silver caught the multi-faceted surfaces like millions of tiny mirrors meshed into crystal pipes and reflected the fickle beam around the confined tunnel.

‘It’s not very strong,’ said Howard, adjusting his phone flashlight. ‘But it’ll have to do, it’s not like we have a choice. Francis, go forward. Avoid the web at all costs.’

‘You didn’t think that might’ve been helpful a second ago?’ said Francis.

‘Sorry. Totally forgot. You managed fine, stop complaining.’

Within the damp, repressive channel the stagnant air limped ghoulishly along. The narrow passage continued further than expected, contained more entangled webs like bleached veins. Francis sucked in his elbows, crouched as though crawling through a battle-ridden trench.

They followed the twisted festival, guided only by the pitiful silver light, until finally the tunnel opened in all directions into the largest cavern Francis had ever seen.

The seemingly bottomless pit dropped sharply and suddenly, plummeting endlessly into solid darkness. What felt and looked like miles overhead the shadow-shrouded ceiling bowled and from the inky blanket dribbled noxious plumes of almost palpable malice which indiscriminately smothered the rigid, unmoving air. It seemed purposefully designed to conceal, and masterfully so.

Deep in the dark recess silver fingers poked the black curtain, curious to peel back the veil and sample its hitherto undiscovered riches. Silver eyes glanced around at the cloaked walls, the tarped ceiling, but had little power to pierce the congealed stains of shadows and despite pitching forward with full desperation could but shimmer the black ocean’s surface; could only uncover from below further writhing darkness, from above glinting rock, and from around the walls an unnerving texture which seemed entirely divorced from the dirt and stone. No matter where he looked Francis found only universal gloom.

‘This place is massive,’ Howard whispered, peeking over the sudden ledge. ‘Either the spider’s even bigger than you thought or it has some serious need to over-compensate. And what’s wrong with the walls? They just look messed up.’

‘It isn’t unheard of for burrowing spiders to create lairs far beyond their needs,’ Leah whispered back, joining Howard. ‘But I do agree, this is a bit much. It’s almost impossible to believe this could be made by an arachnid, it’s so deep and precise. Must’ve been crafted over decades. As for the walls, your guess is as good as mine.’

Francis found in the strange walls a growing distress which percolated somewhere at the back of his mind. Something was wrong with the way the light reflected, direct yet always shifting. Embedded metal, perhaps. This far down into the earth it wasn’t unlikely, not impossible. But injected into his mind was the order to run. He pushed it aside. More to discover, too much to see. The exploration of forbidden paths, enticing to the curious mind, is often a velvety distraction to the tawdry gauntlet life presents, and those with the mind to pursue the unknown are easy prey to its searching jaws.

‘I wonder where the web goes,’ said Leah. ‘They just vanish into the darkness, like waterfalls over a cliff. Granted a spider does have some favourable qualities for an environment like this, I don’t think they’d be too bothered by a giant pit, what with the wall-climbing and all, but it would make sense to be closer to the pit’s exit so it could react to a strand being tripped.’ She projected the light below. ‘Could be for safety I suppose. Predators could easily find this place and who knows – maybe there’s not many spiders left, Timbo did say they had a dwindling population, and maybe this one is just protecting itself anyway it can. It’s highly impressive if that’s the case, a kind of bestial intelligence elevated far higher than I thought. And the pit itself is mind-boggling. A giant arachnid made all this, that’s tough to swallow.’

Francis couldn’t figure out the shifting walls, the way the light refracted as though spilling through spiralling boughs. The deltoid shaft of light pawed delicately at sheets of darkness, never quite elbowing free. No matter the light’s convictions the darkness is always stubborn, unwilling to bend as the light does, for the formless is stronger than the material.

Infected with a nameless paranoia, Francis followed the light as it glided lazily like an ethereal ghost haunting its former home.

‘I’ve never heard of a spider living in a pit,’ he said quietly. ‘It’s not right…’

As he looked out over the brimmed black swill hoarding its secrets beneath a murky sheath and observed the wraithlike silver’s ethereal, serpentine dance with unspoken vigilance, a fresh terror seized him like a snake’s constricting coil – fingers tunnelled into his shoulder with such determination and conviction they touched his very soul and sent currents of unspeakable horror shooting throughout his fear-frozen body.

Leah’s hand trembled. Her voice was the low squeak of twilight as it is snatched away by the bleak night.

‘Turn around. We have to leave.’

Francis was about to argue.

‘Don’t. Don’t say anything.’

Her nails dug deep as if afraid he would simply vanish; an anchor for a lost soul trapped in an unfamiliar harbour.

The silver light flickered, the shadows twitched.

It felt like the air had been suctioned out and what remained was the gaunt corpse of oxygen. The woven lattices of dark swallowed the light. The earth itself appeared to contract; web slathered walls squeezing closer as though to strangle life from the cramped channel.

In Leah’s hyper-agitated tone Francis sensed explosive urgency, the kind that couldn’t be related in panicked whispers. The tone that told him to run. The tone that echoed the disharmony of the inexplicably terrifying walls, which with a louder volume was becoming a familiar song, and one that resonated suddenly and without warning.

He stared at the pit, at the walls, at the shifting dark. The gloom bellowed, bells tolled in the steepled cathedral of the mind.

A wary step back, never breaking gaze with the cold stare of the drab dusk. Leah’s grip never softened, clamped she kept her fingers around his shoulder. His stomach tightened. Obscure, shadow engulfed outlines had taken shape, inherited forms, and by no descriptive power known to man could they be defined. When a nightmare adopts the physical it sheds the skin of the unknown and in this it unravels the real – claws a messy hole in the fabric that binds all known assemblies of the sane, the normal and the accepted.

Howard was already moving back towards the entrance, stumbling blindly through the blackness. A new world had opened and he was oblivious to its dangers, knowing only to escape its pull. Francis and Leah trailed behind him, neither willing to avert their eyes to see where they stumbled. Tripping a web was still a pertinent hazard but to them this was secondary, cathartic in comparison to what clung menacingly to the shrouded walls in that devil’s hollow.

‘What’s -’

Francis threw a cupped palm over Howard’s mouth, pantomimed the gesture for silence. Not a noise. Not a single noise.

He hadn’t the heart to tell him. Part of him didn’t believe it – couldn’t believe it. But now was not the time for debating the unthinkable and the probable. Logic had long since been abandoned at the wayside; what would save them now was a miracle.

Despite the frenzied panic they treaded cautiously, taking large strides to avoid the slumbering pythons of web. Leah and Francis felt the tide behind them, breaching sanity as the ocean invades the shore, and they would ride that frothy crest until it deposited them on calmer land.

A delicate pool of fragile light snuck through the entrance and merged on the carven stone floor. Fresh air drifted among the prismed beams. The smell of freedom. Hope like the blue flame of a deep heat cremated the shadows.

In the brutal stillness the tiniest motion was like an avalanche, so when Francis caught a glimmer of movement in the corner of his eye he suddenly froze, waited for the oncoming swell of suffocation. Leah saw it too, went rigid. Down there only two options existed: the tripped trap or the homebound hunter.

They yanked Howard back by the cuff of his shirt, eyes fixed on the entrance. They crouched, held their breaths. Afraid to besmirch the silence. Afraid to draw attention.

Another subtle twitch. Leah’s gasp lunged at the squalid air. This time Howard saw it, shrunk away from the wall as if to force his body to cave in.

‘That can’t have happened,’ he said, voice wavering. ‘That’s impossible!’

Leah, usually a sane picture, almost completely faltered.

‘Insane! Completely insane! We have to get out!’

A semi-comforting hand, all Francis could offer. ‘Stay calm. Keep your voices low.’

‘Why don’t we go back to the hollow?’ Howard asked tensely. ‘We can find somewhere to hide!’

‘Forget it,’ said Leah gravely. ‘We can’t go back there. Our only chance is to sneak out the exit.’

‘Why not? It could be coming back right now! We’ll walk right into it!’

‘Leave it, Howard. This is not a thread you want to pull.’

‘Tell me why we can’t go back!’

‘Because this isn’t an eyrie. It’s a hive.’

‘A hive?’ He tried to take this down in one bite, struggled. ‘You mean the walls…’

‘Spiders. More than one brood. That’s why we can’t go back.’

A lion’s den is a safe place to stay until the lion comes home – made only worse when it comes home and wakes its hungry cubs.

‘The only way we have is forward,’ Leah continued. ‘Up and out. Don’t think about anything else. Leave the spiders behind and just focus.’

Sometimes assistance has to be offered and with this in mind Francis nudged Howard forward, the driving force behind the desperate escape. The hollow they were leaving so far behind and out of mind drenched in the foul stench of mind-breaking creatures; their very existence conquering sanity’s expansive yet unchallenged kingdom. What fear might be felt emerged, spread, dominated. Those vague forms, nothing more than ambiguous shapes and undefined lines, sprouted legs, eyes, fangs; idle shells suddenly filled, inflated, resurrected.

Francis glared at the twitching web. Couldn’t be moving. Couldn’t be real. It was like a synapse transmitting to its owner the command to awaken and in small glistening waves the sleeping limbs and groggy extremities clambered out of unconsciousness.

They hunched, crouched, ears to the wind. Peeled for any movement. The slightest twitch, the subtlest breath.

Through the streaming light crept a spindly leg…

It was one thing to observe the depleted shell, another to see it occupied.

Then more legs…

Another to see it moving, living.

A fur-covered body…

A functioning predator.

It looked exactly how Francis had imagined it would look; the size, breadth, the dominating predatism, the glint of the curved fangs, the sheen of the clotted weedy hairs, the bow-like arch of the legs, the eight ovoid, expressionless eyes permeating the congealed fur like rotting cysts; the way it moved slowly, calculated, each foul limb arching after the other like some ancient steam machine.

Onto the ceiling it shifted, springing wires of webs. It crawled, flipped upside down, sickly body hovering above. Leg-span over ten feet, reached effortlessly from one wall to the other.

There on the ceiling it paused. Stiff. Lifeless. Nothing but a deficient, abandoned shell. An old home left to decay, no longer adequate for present needs.

It wouldn’t take a few metres for it to be above the expedition and once it was in position there’d be no stopping it. One lazy swipe with a leg and the trio would be finished.

A rogue thought took hold. Francis’ hands acted on instinct. If the webs were indeed like synapses, like a carefully wired network responding to their owner’s imperatives, a foreign thought would be enough to disrupt the communication, buy them time.

The silver beam, that holy lantern dispelling hell’s mighty shades, tumbled into his palm. Its silky trajectory rambled erratically, stopped. He seized up as the cast projection glided sharply over the distant beast, igniting a ghostly triangle of hard black skin, foetid bony protrusions, dark shocks of scrawny fur, and three of those deep-set, flappy eyes, never once looking with purpose or passion like dead, bulging tumours.

The thing didn’t flinch, gave no indication it had noticed the light. Perhaps those vile eyes had sprouted in forgotten warrens, and in those dark catacombs they had bent to blindness.

Francis didn’t have the time to think, to re-consider. Had to take action, seize the moment. Self-preservation blossomed in the rejuvenating light of horror, and in one swift, subtle sweep aimed and fired hope like the last grenade on a soldier’s belt.

A lobbed explosion of silver erupted. Deflected prisms caught the web and blasted into split streams. The phone bounced off a ceiling strand, clattered in the dark. Vibrations trembled along the length of the web, an ominous telegram shot to the closest receiver. Francis followed it, breathless, hopeful. One chance to escape those scimitar fangs, no doubt doused in debilitating poison and primed to strike.

The spider shuddered. Its foggy outline quivered. At once a terrible reply was broadcast, legs trembled, shook; one lanky appendage experimented with the web, tested its solidity, as if reading with fibrous hairs the concealed message therein.

And then it scurried. Few descriptions could ever match the frenzy of its sickening locomotion, how quickly it could move, how two sets of four legs rose and fell with masterful precision and propulsion. The ceiling was like a travellator, transported the frenetic beast towards the fount of its discomfort. Gangly limbs gripped to the stone and dirt, liberated small showers of dust and mud, and rapaciously pursued the strand that dived suicidal into the heavily populated hollow.

Without restraint Francis threw his stomach to the ground, chin pressed to the dirt. Just over his drumming heartbeat another layer of sound rolled above on scrawny, arachnid wheels. He felt the shadow pass over him, brooks of loose dirt trickled down his back.

Putrefied, scraggly hair brushed against his skin like scouring pads. He bit his lip, suffocated a frightened whimper. Leah and Howard too had their faces buried in the grime, bracing as the raw-boned beast scampered and raced alongside to the hysterical thrashing of their overstrained hearts.

Like a dog chasing a thrown ball the spider hunted for the unruly disruption, small thoughts occupied with the boxy device throwing silvery embers into the impassive dark, and the vibrations so rich in solid terror.

As the beast crawled on its web-paved pathway towards the unidentified disturbance, so did Francis crawl on his stomach to that lonely portal promising freedom.

Taking too long. Too far to crawl. And what would happen when he got there? He couldn’t slyly escape, he’d have to use the web, alert the eight-legged devil succulent prey was wriggling free from its pencil-thin clasp.

Had to get on his feet, had to run, had to be fast.

He pushed off the ground with a start, complete reckless abandon, feet pounding behind him quick as they would move. Webby pylons lay against the wall ahead of him like ladders, found his hand reaching for them. Vast strides resolved the divide between his searching fingers and the catatonic veins draping the violently disfigured walls like some horrid in-body exploration.

He was climbing, pushing one hand ahead of its twin, eyes burning as the sun lanced exposed retinas like bayonets. The halo opened above him; the last gasp of adrenaline escaped his besieged lungs. Tired arms did their work, propelled onwards and upwards by mighty engines of fear. Gluey web licked his fingers, seemed to suck his fingertips into its gummy mass. Against its admittedly proficient stickiness he fought, wrestled free his hands and threw them up, up toward freedom and hope, where angelic light begged to be basked in, enjoyed, where even the moss-sheathed trees clasped their boughs in prayer and beseeched their roots to carry him safely into their arms.

Fingers dug into damp mud, gripped, pulled. The scarred outer ring of the hellish pit’s portal welcomed his exhausted body, where he rolled onto his back, guzzled air. Only for a second he rested, then he was on his feet again, pounding through the knotted boughs, dodging snapping claws and snaring traps like some wild madman segregated from civilisation’s comfort, following that fateful web all the way back he came, never once looking behind. The forest parted its lush curtain and gave the demented runner his path, and for all that it offered he cursed the foul air, those infernal serpentine trees; all that had breathed life into dead underground vaults and gifted humanity’s worst horrors avatars and the means to use them.

Not until the hive was out of sight did he stop to catch his breath, fell into the dirt and moss and hiding insects, onto the forest floor where he wept as haunting memories formed and collected and were dedicated eternally to memory. Terminal horror fed to his mind like the most devastating, fast-acting poison and for which an antidote was but a distant dream. The rain comforted where it could; patted his back, moistened his cheeks, cooled his aching muscles, but could never remove from him the memories engraved into his collapsing mind like some ancient cave-drawing designed by a tiny Neanderthal brain, filled with all the toothy terrors of the prehistoric world.

Something collapsed on either side of him. A tired peek confirmed Leah and Howard had also escaped, and were in no better or saner condition. Leah looked almost completely comatose, Howard was on his knees gulping air like a freshly surfaced diver.

Francis unsteadily pushed himself off the ground, arms shaking, knuckles whitened. Swallowed a surge of vomit. Moist dirt stuck to his lips. Hot leaves decorated his hair.

‘How are we alive?’ Howard panted.

Leah assembled her few remaining senses. ‘Spiders… blind…’

She struggled with her dwindling oxygen supplies, managed to vacuum enough to speak.

‘The spiders are blind. That’s why there’s so much webbing, they rely on it to hunt and navigate. Good thinking with the web, Francis. You’re the reason we’re alive.’

He waved her aside, barely energy enough to move a muscle let alone speak.

‘It was massive,’ Howard observed. ‘Way bigger than Timbo said it would be. That definitely wasn’t the one that shed its skin.’

‘Female,’ said Leah. ‘Had to be. The females are always bigger and stronger, and usually overly aggressive. Legs must be with another hive.’

‘Another hive?!’

‘Social creatures have to stick together to survive. There were more tunnels inside the hive, they probably connect to others around the area.’ She inhaled sharply. ‘Huge nests of giant arachnids hidden around the rainforest. It’s a wonder they haven’t been found yet.’

‘I know why they haven’t,’ said Francis, woozily finding his unstable feet. ‘The trees. We should have paid attention to the trees.’

‘I’d thought that as well,’ Leah lamented. ‘We shouldn’t have gone down there, we could’ve looked closer at the trees and we’d have figured it out. We had the map, we just didn’t know to read it.’

‘What about the damn trees?’ Howard snapped.

‘Look around. Look at them. Dead to the roots. Like some sort of root rot jabbed straight into their base. It’s not a natural occurrence, it was forced. What do we do in cities when we want to build a highway and a building is in the way? We bulldoze the building. We remove it. And then we build our precious road over and around its rubble. They’ve carved their tunnels, made their homes where they won’t be hunted, won’t be bothered. Delete the obstacle and you’re left with a clear path to do whatever you want.

‘You saw that thing. Too big to negotiate tight gaps in the forest. An entire species dwarfing its environment, and one place they could go. Somewhere they could create a domain, generations and generations working towards a singular goal – a haven they can call home. They’ve chipped away the earth, the dirt, the stone, the trees, they’ve dug into the surface, burrowed deep and built their tall caverns where no one would find them. There they could live in relative peace and comfort. It also engenders sociability, survival by co-operation.’ Leah paused, thoughtful, spit phlegm. ‘I can’t even begin to explain how dangerous that is. It’s not like they’re isolated or separate communities, they’re like a single unit, almost like a hive-mind serving some greater purpose.’

‘And the webs,’ Howard echoed, ‘they’re like hunters’ traps. Leave them out in the open, wait for an unfortunate victim to get caught and set off the alarms, then they go collect their meal and re-set the trap. With their hive underground they’ve got the safest place in one of the most hostile environments on the planet to hunt from.’

‘Which means,’ Leah continued, regaining her usual rational spark, ‘the spiders have actually developed a hunter-gatherer culture. Only one spider was active, nothing else reacted to the web. It’s almost like the rest of the hive were sleeping – possibly hibernating. One gathers food while the others sleep. That’s why the Baka believe their population is dwindling; not because they’re dying out, but because they’re hibernating. All they see is the hunter, the prey. They don’t see the sleeping army. They don’t see the colony.

Francis listened to this and wished he had could forget it all, remove the memories like the spiders had removed the tree roots. Delete the obstacle, live once again sane.

‘The Baka…’ he wheezed. ‘What did they say to you? When they left?’

‘They said – well, they told me they would pray to Ashanti that our souls would be granted a place in his kingdom,’ said Howard. ‘Like we’d never be seen again. Can’t say…’ He chuckled bitterly, speckled with sparkling tinges of madness. ‘Taylor. Bloody Taylor. He’s safe with the Baka and we’re here. That little prick got away with it.’

Leah had recovered remarkably well. She paced irritably back and forth, picking apart the loomed threads of memory for the smallest details. An extraordinary mind annealed with insatiable dedication is a mind to be feared.

‘Hibernating spiders,’ she mumbled. ‘Fascinating. Maintaining a breeding population should be nearly impossible. Then again, we can’t say for sure how many are active at any given time, or how many colonies have been formed.’

Francis rested against a tree as the last few electric drops of terror-fuelled adrenaline drained from his dying system.

‘I remember… reading about the J’ba Fofi,’ he said, each syllable a verbal hurdle. ‘The first sighting was in the eighteen-nineties: some missionary on an expedition to a village next to Lake Nyasa got caught in a giant web and attacked by large spiders. That’s the first recorded sighting.’

Recorded being the operative word,’ said Howard. ‘Remember; most of the rainforests are unexplored, at the very least unmapped even in the modern world. Just because it’s not scribed into history’s manuscript doesn’t mean it never happened.’

‘Think about the extent of the spider’s invasion into contemporary culture,’ Leah explained. ‘The spider has woven its web into almost every cultural landscape, as far back as history goes. Fish into any cultural water and you’ll reel in the arachnids hiding beneath. Arachne, Ashanti, Anansi, Neith, Ishtar, Iktomi; spiders have trapped us for centuries. They’re even given pride of place in the Nazca lines! No, Francis. Recorded history has more holes than you’re ever taught. I think it’s safe to assume these creatures have been around for a while, we just didn’t know it.’

‘Maybe we did,’ Howard ventured. ‘Arachnophobia is one of the most common phobias in the world, millions suffer from it, and it’s always been this unexplainable thing. Most people are only directly exposed to common spiders – your average, garden variety arachnid no larger than a penny – yet they’ll run screaming when they see one luxuriating in a bathtub. Psychologically speaking, there’s no valid reason to be afraid of them. I read about a scientific solution: arachnophobes are avoiding particularly dangerous spider species, the ones bursting with venom. It definitely promises an advantage over non-arachnophobes. But what if there’s more to it? What if there’s something else contributing to our cultural fascination with arachnids?

‘It’s not surprising our web-obsessed crawlers are found in Africa – the cradle of humanity, the cradle of civilisation. This was the birthplace of uncountable species, and once they’d taken their fill they migrated, spread across the Pangaea. The land split, separated, and all those species did the same, evolved along different spectrums. But what if, like us, they had a common ancestor who called Africa home? And after generations of evolution, adapting to the environment they had manipulated, breeding and growing underground, they became what we just saw. The J’ba Fofi are what is left of those ancient predators, the descendants that will inherit their fortunes and future. The ones who never journeyed, the ones who festered in the shadows of the world that had forgotten them.

‘And in Africa our ancestors roamed the prehistoric swamps and mires, brushing shoulders with these creatures. According to the evolution’s strict rules of progression, and based on the J’ba Fofi’s tunnels, their bodies developed to fit the size of their new environment.’

Francis spat, almost tumbled fully over. He caught himself mid-fall on a nearby tree.

‘What are you getting at?’ he said.

‘The J’ba Fofi are smaller than their ancestors. At whichever point they chose to duck their heads in the dirt and carve their homes they also chose to adapt to that home. Their bodies shrunk, their legs shrunk, even their beady eyes shrunk, all to fit into the homes they made. Think about what we just faced, about what we just experienced. Imagine that but anywhere between ten to twenty times larger. The Fofi stronger, faster, expertly crafted as an instrument of hunting. Our ancestors had to face that. Now, consider why so many people, in drastically different countries with drastically dissimilar lifestyles share the same ungrounded fear – that the penny-sized spider crawling up their wall is somehow a threat. Arachnophobia is a not a genetic trait but instead a cultural transgression we taught ourselves to survive in the prehistoric tundra alongside the progenitors of all modern arachnids. These primeval spiders were once so far beyond the norm, so terrifying, they have been imprinted in our cultural heritage since we first encountered them; an imprint which survives in our hearts and minds to this very day.’

‘People are afraid of spiders,’ said Francis thoughtfully, ‘because humanity’s forerunners once walked the planet with the parents of the Fofi family. I can finally say I understand arachnophobia.’

‘There’s other issues,’ Howard mused. ‘I remember reading about fossils found in China. Nobody was quite sure what to make of them at first, but eventually it was revealed they hinted at arachnids much larger than anything discovered in the modern world.’

‘If you’re suggesting…’

‘He is,’ said Leah. ‘The J’ba Fofi aren’t the only giant spiders. They’re everywhere on the planet. Following Howard’s theory of a common ancestor, if indeed all spiders emerged from the same primordial spring, then they must share much of the same genetic qualities and behaviours. Such as hibernation…’

‘The J’ba Fofi’s genus,’ Howard hissed, ‘are found all over the planet, hidden away and sleeping. No matter where you are on the planet, other than Antarctica, you’re never more than ten feet away from a spider. I believe – and this is difficult to admit – it may be an even smaller distance than that. Underground we may be facing a far more crowded sample size. And one day they may awaken from hibernation, return to the world above. It won’t be like swatting aside a normal spider, dealing with a meek spider on your wall. Up against something like that, humanity doesn’t stand a chance.’

Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.

‘An arachnid revolution,’ Leah said as if this were a terrifically ordinary possibility. ‘Entire continents overrun. Even if humanity survived it would change the entire planet. We didn’t just find the J’ba Fofi, we found our successors.’

Francis tucked these theories away in his mind’s deepest, darkest pits, never again to see the light.

‘Leah, have you sent any of the documents? Any notes, photos, anything about the spiders?’

‘I don’t have service. I was waiting until we got back then I could send someone to collect the molt. It’d be much easier to convince people with physical proof. Why do you ask?’

‘Erase it. Delete it all.’

She almost exploded. ‘What?! What are you talking about?! We didn’t do all this for nothing! Why would I get rid of it all?’

‘Your notes are like the black-box of our experience. Somebody finds that, they’ll know everything we know; peel the planet’s skin and you’ll find the spiders nesting in its organs. That gets out, society changes. What we’ve found here, everything that you’ve documented, it’s monumental, it’s life-changing, society-altering! To protect ourselves there can’t be a trace of what we’ve discovered. We go home, we forget, we pretend like everything’s normal, we tell the world we searched for spiders and all we found was the forest. The J’ba Fofi don’t exist. They’re a myth fabricated by suggestible minds.’

‘Would it not be better to be prepared?’ Leah argued. ‘If the ground starts burping giant spiders people should know to be ready for it!’

‘Society will never be ready for this,’ Howard reasoned. ‘And there’s no telling how long they’ll hibernate. We could cause mass hysteria; panic, riots, god-knows-what-else in desperate pre-emptive attacks, and the damned things don’t appear for another hundred years, maybe more. Unnecessary mob-hysteria with something this huge could destabilise countries. As counter-intuitive as it seems, a cover-up is our safest option.’

‘So we just ignore one of the greatest scientific and biological discoveries of the last century?’ Leah wasn’t taking the unified front of Howard and Francis well. ‘This deserves to be known. You’re both acting like the Fofi are invincible, like our current technology couldn’t hold them. We can take this global! Sat at the cusp of a scientific leap and you’re too afraid to take the plunge.’

‘Not as simple as that,’ said Howard, taking his feet. ‘This isn’t about scientific glory or exploration anymore. We’re talking about the introduction of a dangerous new species of arachnid possibly capable of mass-extinction. Take us as your control group in a global experiment. One encounter with one arachnid, which only threatened danger, and we’ll be traumatised until our last days. We will never overcome what we’ve seen. Now, you want to force that on the entire human race and see what happens? Humanity stops being the hunter. It starts being vermin, and the J’ba Fofi become our exterminators without so much as lifting a leg.

‘Or – you can tell everyone right now. You can lift the veil and let the world peek at what hides beneath their feet, what crawls underground, what breeds in pitch-black corridors and builds webs large enough to snare a fully-grown man twice over; you can give them a vision of the prehistoric world and yes, your name will go down in history. And should the spiders never arrive, should they hibernate for decades or centuries, should your name be besmirched and should your proof be discredited, you will never find a day of peace for as long as you live. Riots, rebellions, entire country-sides ripped open like carcasses. And once they’ve finally finished the planet’s autopsy, it’s you that’ll be found as the murderer.’

‘What do we do, then?’ said Leah, conceding somewhat. ‘Wait for the day the planet births car-sized spiders?’

‘Go home,’ said Francis. ‘Leave Africa behind. Declare the expedition a failure and work off our debt. It’s our only option unless you want to turn the world inside-out.’

‘It just sounds wrong…’ The dying light shambled across her sullen expression.

‘It is wrong. But it’s the right wrong. Human chaos will always be superior to the chaos of the unknown. Better the devil you know and all that.’

He surreptitiously checked the rosary beads in his pocket, stolen as he sprinted dazed from the colony. Of relatively meagre importance to the non-religiously inclined, he had taken them in that terrified instant, when the world had suddenly closed its rational departments. Surprised was he to find their presence in his pocket a comforting one; as if this were the very miracle his soul had desired since intimate contact with devils beyond human grasp had exterminated the last refuge of his fleeting sanity. Occupying that new emptiness formerly dense with a forest of intellectual thoughts and theories was the vague figure of hope, a shady and distant torch flaring at the end of the darkest road.

Perhaps, like a spider shedding its skin, he should embrace the transformation; take stock with a faith hitherto alien to his cerebrally-driven world. After all, if the devil is real, then so too is god.

He had to believe there was good in the world; that though sanity had abandoned him and fled white-faced and yellow-bellied from the spiders’ colony, it could one day return – if not by science, then by faith.

‘You remember the way back?’ said Leah.

‘I remember,’ he replied.

‘Not a word to anyone,’ said Howard. ‘Not a whisper. Take this to your grave.’

How close that grave could be, Francis thought woefully. How effortlessly it would be dug. How facilely he would be pulled in. How he would be forgotten – and how right the world would be to do so, for it was not his mind that had been sacrificed to escape but his heart, and without his heart a man is nothing.

The logic that had once guided him to scientific enlightenment, that had lifted his weary soul to the throne of intellectual progress, resigned its ancient position, abdicated its seat of power so that a new monarch might inherit its imperial duties. Like the spider bursting forth from molt anew, he had outgrown his need for the person once he was. Nor when looking back at that fresh-faced stranger stepping onto the glittering plains of Cameroon would he recognise in him anything resembling the haggard face of the madman he now suffered in his reflection.

He got to his feet, cupped his palm as warm rain squeezed through the canopy and pooled on his skin. Delightful drops of heaven. Let the clouds pour down righteousness, let the Earth open up and salvation bear fruit and righteousness spring up with it; a bible verse he had heard Taylor recite like he may someday forget its meaning. Francis himself could offer few interpretations, but he liked the way it sounded.

Francis Dumont, newly baptised in fire, stilled his heart and quietened his turbulent mind, and walked into the sneering forest, while the children of Ashanti and Arachne dwelled and festered and bred in ancient catacombs inherited from their mother and father – and their distant cousins and wayward siblings, whose domains run deep underground where they have built their fortresses of dirt and stone, ache for the surface air, for the day they may taste the light. Within the crusted gut of the planet hides the vast J’ba Fofi pedigree, concealed beneath the land on which walks the blind and the ignorant, never fearing what lies just below their very feet – what lies under river beds, entombed beneath concrete, prods at garden patios and flowerbeds, fondles the meadow’s belly, eats at embedded tree roots, breeds, hunts, pollutes and infests every inch of almost every continent, insidiously hidden in their unexplored warrens until the surface has softened, has grown fat and weak on a diet of arrogance and self-servitude. Nature is not so often led astray, and once forgotten species will once again reveal themselves. Much, much closer than one might dare to think. Closer than one might dare to fear.

Where there’s webs, there’s spiders.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s