Monday, 16 July 2012

Chapter Twenty

Winter and Jenny burst through another door and found themselves on a narrow balcony overlooking a parlour. By now Jenny had recovered and was walking unaided. They had been lost in the hotel for almost fifteen minutes, and she was beginning to panic, her stomach going tight and fluttery every time they came to a dead end or locked door. She glanced at Winter, and saw that her face was set in a mask of uncharacteristic hardness. She wondered again about Christopher. Could he really be dead? Actually dead? It hardly seemed possible, and yet she senses that now was not the time to probe Winter with further questions.

"I think I know where we are," said Winter, though she sounded far from certain. "This way, come on."

They followed the balcony around and descended a creaking set of stairs, brushing aside spindly stands of cobweb as they did so. The door at the bottom opened out into the lounge, a well of darkness populated with the dim shapes of bulky armchairs and spindle-legged coffee tables. As they emerged from the stairs, Jenny felt around for the light switch.

"Yes," said Winter, suddenly. "I recognise this, I'm sure of it. We're just on the other side of the lobby. All we have to do is go through that door and then--" Winter stopped talking. She stopped talking because Jenny had found the light switch and flicked it on, bathing the room in a tired yellow glow.

Revealed by the light, awfully and unnaturally still, were hundreds and hundreds of spiders, bristling from every surface, each one the size of a chicken's egg.

"Bloody hell," murmured Jenny.

And then from behind them on the staircase she heard a rustling, quivering sound. A sound like bacon sizzling in a pan a hundred times over. She turned. So did Winter. Flowing down the staircase behind them was a black and gleaming tide. Their bodies dripped over each riser, jaws working, legs whirring in almost-silence. Jenny felt her bladder contract, her heart seeming to stall in her chest like a faulty starter engine.

Beside her, Winter abruptly sank to the floor, her face frozen. Jenny crouched beside her.

"What's going on? What are these things? Winter, tell me!"

Winter shook her head. "They're the children."

"The children? How do you mean? The children to what?"

But Winter simply shook her head and would say no more. Ahead of them, the carpet of scuttling black creatures parted, leaving a narrow channel that led into the centre of the lounge. The spiders on the stairs behind surged forward, pincers working, legs raised as if in anger. Jenny gave a small scream, disgust and terror welling up like poison. She grabbed Winter's arm and together the two girls were herded into the centre of the room.

"What are they doing?" whispered Jenny. "Winter, talk to me."

Winter was gazing fixedly at an entryway on the far side of the lounge. Beyond it a set of stairs led down into the darkness of the basement. "We can't go in there," she said, her voice low and urgent and terrified. "We can't. If they take us in there we'll die."

But that seemed to be where the spiders were intent on taking them, the channel opening up like a parting river before their shuffling feet. Jenny paused, wondering what would happen if she simply tried to run across the carpet of spiders. How long would she last? How long before they swarmed up her legs and started biting? How much poison could she take before she fell, before they flowed like water over her arms and chest and face? A mental image of herself wrapped up in a cocoon of webbing flashed through her mind and she shuddered.

"We have to run," said Winter. "No choice, no choice, we have to."

"They'll swarm all over us," said Jenny.

"Better than what's down there," said Winter, her voice trembling. "Ready?"

"No," said Jenny. She was not ready, not at all. If Winter ran at that precise moment she was not sure she would have the strength to do the same. "Not ready at all."

Winter was breathing heavily, sucking in air and spitting it out again. Her grip was tight on Jenny's hand, and the spiders seemed to sense their readiness. A ripple ran through the ranks, legs and pincers twitching. Jenny could hear a squealing, keening noise, so high-pitched as to be almost inaudible.

"Go," said Winter, and then she screamed it, "GO!" and the both of them were running, Winter in the lead, almost dragging Jenny with a death-grip on her wrist. Jenny felt something crunch underneath her heel, and cold slime coated her bare foot. A shudder ran through her and she squealed in disgust, but didn't stop. There was no stopping now. Spiders were bowled aside, screaming in protest while their fellows pressed in. Jenny felt something disturbingly heavy seize on the knee of her pyjamas and reached down to slap away a scrabbling, hairy body. Another one hit her leg halfway up the calf and swarmed up to her hip before she could hit it. Its body broke with a sound like a cracking egg and it fell, leaving pincers embedded in the fabric.

"Through here!" shouted Winter, and then they were through into the lobby. Jenny felt a stinging, stabbing sensation on her heel and kicked convulsively, sending a hairy body flying into the wall. There was another on her thigh; she felt its legs scrabbling a second before the pincers pierced her skin. She howled and crushed it flat, red-black goo leaking between her fingers.

The lobby was mercifully clear, but even as they crossed Jenny could hear the rustling, creeping noise of the spiders spilling in behind them. They slammed into the main doors and each seized a handle, pulling with all their strength.

The doors didn't move. Not an inch. Jenny looked at Winter, who was still tugging at the door, spitting and cursing, yanking at the handle to no avail.

"It's not going to open," she said, surprising herself with how even her voice was. Winter ignored her. "Winter!" yelled Jenny. She grabbed her friends arm and dragged her away from the door. The flood of arachnid bodies had spread out across the floor like a pool of water, and there was nowhere else for them to go except along the far wall. There was a door at the far end, their only chance. Jenny reached for it, found the handle, fumbled, found it again and pulled.

Nothing. The door was bolted.

The two girls huddled up against it, backs to the wall, as the spiders clustered at their feet, hissing and squealing. Jenny felt sick inside: it was so unfair. They had tried, they had run, they had done everything that they could. It wasn't supposed to go like this. This wasn't... couldn't be the way she was going to die. She shut her eyes. Winter was gripping her arm so hard it hurt.

A moment passed, and then another. Jenny cracked her eyes open again. The spiders were still massed around their feet. They weren't attacking.

"Why..." she began, but just as soon as the word was out of her mouth she heard something that made her fall silent. From the door to the lounge through which they'd come drifted a faint scrabbling, dragging noise. It was loud. Too loud to be one of the spiders that surrounded them.

"It's her," breathed Winter, her voice thin and high. "It's the mother."

Jenny saw it. At first only a thin section of the monster was visible through the doorway, and she had an impression of thick, brawny legs, a low body, so black and shiny it looked wet. And then the thing, the horrid thing was hauling itself through the doorway one leg at a time. Jenny was appalled by it, horrified, and yet she couldn't look away.

It was at least four foot tall, the body the size of a child, rounded and covered in heavy black hairs that looked sharp as razor wire. The pincers were long and curved, the legs the thickness of arms. It moved with an arthritic slowness, not the fast scuttle of its many children. Jenny saw the eight eyes staring from its blunt head like little search lamps. They were red and deep and empty as old mineshafts.

Winter's grip tightened still further, and Jenny realised that this must have been what killed Christopher. With that knowledge she looked again and saw that the pincers were coated in a tacky layer of dried blood, and scraps of tissue hung like foul decorations from the stiff hairs of its front legs. It was so close, so close and all Jenny felt was a numb sadness that this was how her life would end.

The mother paused, seemed to consider the two girls with its many eyes. Its head tilted this way and that. Jenny wondered if it could smell them. If it could sense the hot blood that pumped around their bodies. And then it started forward again, and Jenny shut her eyes, shrinking back against the door.

From outside, beyond the big old front doors of the hotel came a roaring screeching clamour of noise.

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