The Scuttler in the Dark by R.S. Cartwright

Something in his dreams was calling to him.

Gary had backpacked the Hualapai Mountains many times, but he never could shake the uneasy feeling of lurking scorpions and rattlesnakes. He remembered Don's story -- camping and waking up to find three scorpions snuggled next to him in his sleeping bag. The thought of it made Gary's skin crawl.

And those Mohave Greens, the baddest badass biters that ever slithered through the brush, undergrowth, pinion pines, and chaparral of northwestern Arizona! Gary hadn't seen one yet, and really didn't care to see one. It was enough to know their reputation, or more precise -- the reputation of their bite! Still, he enjoyed backpacking and camping the Hualapai Range, keeping an ever watchful eye out for any scurrying, curved-tail menace or slithering, rattling serpent he might come across. Thus far he had been lucky -- until now.

It was a small bite. Not a snake bite or scorpion sting. Some other kind of bite, a nuisance. Gary had been camping near the long closed and abandoned Fire Mine just east of Hualapai Peak. Something got him in the night, bit him on his left forearm. It left a round puffy area about the size of a quarter, slightly discolored -- pinkish and swollen. And it itched like Hell.

No snake, no scorpion. Damn! What the Hell is it?! His thoughts raced with concern as he scratched the itchy bite. Don't scratch; it'll only make it worse.

Deciding he needed to see a doctor as soon as possible, Gary tore down his camp and rolled it into the back seat of his Jeep. He jumped into the driver's seat, unconsciously rubbing his forearm against the side of his pants leg. He started the Jeep, rolled past the recessed and barred entrance to Fire Mine, and disappeared down Fire Mine Road on his way back to town.

By the time Gary got back to town, the swelling had gone down. The discoloration was fading, having nearly returned to normal, and the itching was gone. He shrugged. "Hmph, maybe something I ate," he voiced softly as he turned off his Jeep in the apartment complex parking lot.

* * *

That same night came Gary's nightmare. There was a narrow stone passage, irregular, seemingly cut . . .

The walls of the passage were damp, clammy, and glowed with a soft blue incandescence of some unknown source. Somewhere in the distance came the soft trickling of water. Gary paused in his crawl and peered down at the passage floor beneath him. On the floor of the passage was a thin sticky film of water about an inch deep, soaking Gary's lower pants legs. He raised a hand, glanced at the watery stickiness that clung to his fingers and cringed. He didn't like this, didn't like it at all.

Gary shrugged and continued, crawling on his hands and knees through the narrow stone passage, wondering what was causing the soft blue light ahead. He noticed an ever increasing abundance of stringy cobwebs as he crawled deeper into the passage. They were old, out of use, tattered. Like some damned ghost house. Halloween! He paused, brushed aside a tattered web that dangled before his face, then continued on. It was then he heard the sound.

A whisper. Soft and indistinct, almost a hissing, but whispered words nonetheless. A chill ran through Gary as he paused. It was a voice all right -- an alien voice. Well, not precisely some bug-eyed monster from outer space, but a voice that certainly wasn't human. At least it didn't seem so to Gary. And the voiced beckoned to him, urging him on to something he was convinced he didn't want to see or know.

His forearm suddenly began to itch. Again. He glanced down at his arm. In the pale blue light he could see that the swelling had returned. He leaned sideways against the rock of the narrow rock passage, scratching feverishly at the . . . bite?

"Dammit," Gary complained aloud. "Maybe I should've had the Doc take a look at it!"

"It would do you no good," came a soft hissing whisper directly in front of him.

The voice startled Gary, evidently much closer than he had thought. He recoiled, sitting up, banging his head on the rocky roof of the narrow passage. He gritted his teeth as he sat back and rubbed his head, the bite on his arm momentarily forgotten.

Ahead in the dim blue glow a form moved. Gary leaned forward, straining his eyes. There was a pause, then the form scampered out of the shadows and stood in full view just beyond Gary's feet. Gary's eyes went wide with terror. He shuffled himself backward on his hands and feet, trying desperately to get away from the thing that sat there in the passage eyeing him.

It was a spider, a huge one. Much larger than a typical tarantula. The head, thorax, and abdomen of the spider were a glossy purple, slimy looking, just like the damn water I'm crawling in, Gary's mind growled distaste. The spider sat perched on extremely elongated legs that were as big around as cigars. And as Gary slipped in the slimy water beneath him, the huge spider suddenly dashed across the floor, scurried up Gary's leg, and perched itself on his chest.

Gary reclined in the soft blue light, his eyes wide, holding his breath, his body racked with terror. He stared into the eyes of the spider, waiting to see what it would do next. He suddenly had the strangest impression that there was some form of intelligence in those spider eyes -- all eight of them.

"Relax," came the soft hissing whisper again. "You cannot get away. You are marked. The bite makes it so."

Gary did relax as a sudden euphoria descended upon him. Like a drug, it made him passive, uncaring -- docile. No longer did he fear the spider, no longer did he care. Numbed except for the slight tingling sensation he felt in his left forearm, Gary gave in to the presence that now shadowed his mind, soothed him, comforted him, assured him that he had nothing to fear. It wasn't the spider that sat perched upon his chest that was speaking to him now, but rather another voice, something from afar. And though now calm, deep inside doubt and hesitation flickered softly in the deep recesses of his mind.

"Come," the voice whispered. "Come to the cavern."

The slimy purple spider perched on his chest suddenly turned and scurried back into the shadows the way it had come. Gary paused only a second, but knew he must follow. The voice in his thoughts, the other voice, urged him on. He rolled over on his hands and knees, and began to crawl forward, following the passage in the direction the spider had gone.

In the soft blue glow Gary could see that the walls of the passage began to widen. Ahead he could see the purple spider scurrying on. Gary could tell he was nearing the cavern. Beyond, he could see more shadowy forms dancing and scurrying about. They were beyond count. Gary's apprehension began to grow, telling him to turn back, telling him he didn't want to see what was in the cavern.

The soft other voice in his thoughts grew louder, filling his mind with strange words and images, words and images which held no meaning for him, places and things he had never heard before. There were things such as the Plateau of Leng, Cykranosh, Atlach-Nacha, Tree of Death, Mount Voormithadreth, and the Gulf of Yarnak. He tossed the words over and over in his mind, trying to comprehend them, to make sense of them. And as he did so, he gained the entrance to the cavern and stopped in his tracks.

What befell his eyes in the shadows and soft blue glow caused his apprehension to explode upon his consciousness. The cavern was laced with glistening spider webs, purple spiders of various sizes scurrying everywhere, and the moaning of a figure along the cavern wall to his right was enough to jar him awake from his nightmare. He bolted upright in his bed, eyes wide, gasping for breath.

Gone were the strange words, the spiders, the blue glow, the cavern, the wretched figure reclining in the shadows tangled fast in a glistening network of webbing. Gary tried to convince himself that it had been a nightmare, knew he had dreamed the episode, but he couldn't shake the feeling that there was an element of truth to it, that somewhere the image of the cavern and what it contained were, in fact, real. The images were so clear. And sitting up in the comfort of his bed, Gary felt a fear that was greater than any scorpion or rattlesnake could ever produce.

* * *

By midmorning the voice had returned to Gary's thoughts, the other voice. Once again he heard the soft, soothing, unearthly voice assuring him that he had nothing to fear, that he was destined to take part in an event of the highest honor.

Throughout the day the voice spoke to Gary, sometimes in fragments. Again he heard strange words -- places, things he didn't recognize. Yog-Sothoth, Azathoth, Mnar, Yuggoth, R'lyeh, Tsathoggua, Kadath, and 'Umr at-Tawil were among these strange words. And toward evening Gary came to know that the strange unearthly voice had a name. It was Atlach-Nacha, a being from a far place and time, the great Gulf of Yarnak.

Yet, Gary was still unaware of just what Atlach-Nacha was. A spider like the purple spiders of his nightmare? Perhaps, perhaps not. Atlach-Nacha had not yet revealed itself to Gary yet. Nor had Atlach-Nacha revealed the purpose or content of Gary's honor. Only that it would be an honor. A great honor.

The sun had set, the east a deepening purple, the west casting a soft orange glow. A name suddenly exploded upon Gary's consciousness. Fire Mine! It hadn't been his own thought, but rather that of Atlach-Nacha. And Atlach-Nacha beckoned again. Come to the mine. It is time.

Gary went, urged on by the soft soothing voice of Atlach-Nacha. He gave no thought otherwise. He was at peace, serene. This time there was no doubt, no hesitation, no fear. His mind was numbed, his thoughts dreamy, ethereal. And the bite on his arm tingled.

He found himself in the Hualapai Mountains at the entrance to Fire Mine. The metal grating that sealed the mine entrance was gone. He never gave it a passing thought, didn't care why or who had removed the grate. Gary entered the narrow passage, crawling on his hands and knees.

This is it, his thoughts said softly. This is the place I saw in my dream. But it did not disturb him, cause him concern or fear. His thoughts had said dream, not nightmare. He knew that honor awaited him in the underground cavern -- that same cavern with the multitude of scurrying spiders, the soft blue glow, the wretched moaning figure. He gave momentary thought to the wretched figure, but the thought suddenly vanished as if something had removed it from his mind.

And then he was there. Gary crawled into the cavern from the passage and stood up. The soft blue glow was brighter, illuminating the cavern, the shadows he had seen in his nightmare now confined to the corners of the cavern. The purple spiders were everywhere -- scurrying across the cavern floor, and dancing on a multitude of glistening webs that laced the cavern.

Gary turned his eyes to the wall where he knew the shadowy form of the wretched figure to be. The figure was there, a young woman moaning as she slowly turned her head from side to side. She was caught fast in a network of webbing, bound to the cavern wall, her clothing but tattered rags that hung loosely on her body like curtains from a curtain rod. And all over her body were pulsing nodules of varying sizes as though something alive lay just beneath her skin.

Next to her was a young man, or what was left of a young man. His clothing also hung in tatters, and all over his body were . . . holes! Deep infected holes -- some draining blood, others exhibiting blood which had congealed, drying to a crusty brown. His breathing was shallow, almost nonexistent. Gary knew that the man was nearly dead, soon to meet the same fate of other figures that, Gary now noticed, were lying entangled in webs along the cavern wall. These other figures were silent, long dead, in various stages of decay.

A long drawn out scream of pain and anguish suddenly forced its way out from deep within the young woman's throat. Gary passively turned his eyes back to her. A large pulsing nodule on her right shoulder began to tear open. It suddenly burst, blood spattering her shoulder and the web which bound her to the cavern wall. From the opening in her shoulder hundreds of tiny translucent purple spiderlings poured forth, stained red with the young woman's blood. They scurried across her body, across the web which bound her, and fanned out across the cavern wall and floor.

Gary watched impassively, undisturbed. Still there was no concern, no fear, no terror. Things were as they should be. This Gary knew. It was an honor to be doing what this young woman was doing, the same thing he would soon be doing as he now realized his purpose, his honor. And, indeed, Gary felt honored to host the Children of Atlach-Nacha as was this young woman.

Without realizing he had moved away from the passage, Gary found himself sitting on the cavern floor, his back against the wall. Next to him reclined the young woman, her scream having faded to moans once again. He glanced at her, wondering if she had any idea that he was there. It made no difference. He really didn't care.

Large purple spiders began to spin their webbing about Gary, thick sticky strands that fastened him to the cavern wall. Like the young woman, he found he could only move his head.

Then, suddenly, in the center of the cavern, a whirlpool began to form in the soft blue glow. It spun slowly, clockwise, the center opening up to reveal an alien world, a world of a great rocky chasm with a huge web being spun across it. In the center of this vast web sat a huge black and purple spider, its face eerily anthropoid, a spider as large, if not larger, than an elephant. This, Gary realized, was the great Gulf of Yarnak, and the great spider with the anthropoid face was Atlach-Nacha, the Mistress of the Web.

Gary watched impassively as the Great Atlach-Nacha crossed the web toward the opening of the whirlpool. As the Mistress approached, the thousands of spiders in the cavern suddenly formed into two ranks several rows deep, creating an opening on the cavern floor between Gary and the whirlpool.

Still unafraid, uncaring, impassive, Gary watched as Atlach-Nacha crossed the threshold into the cavern. The Great Spider paused, her eyes gleaming in the soft light. She sat there, gently pulsing up and down on her huge legs, her eyes intent on Gary. Her voice softly glided across Gary's thoughts. The time has been long. Now once again my children are beginning to thrive as they did in ages past. As with the others you see here, I give you the honor of hosting my children.

Gary smiled as the Mistress of all spiders slowly approached him. She turned, rocking on her huge legs, turning her abdomen to Gary. A glistening tube extended from the base of her abdomen. The tip of the tube, though nearly a quarter inch in diameter, had an angular opening much like the needle of a syringe. There was a momentary prick of pain as the tube punctured the skin of Gary's upper right arm. He laid his head back and closed his eyes as he felt Atlach-Nacha's eggs pumped into his arm just beneath the skin, creating a bulging nodule.

Atlach-Nacha continued to lay the eggs of her children in the new host. By the time she had finished, there were nodules of new eggs all over Gary's body -- his face, both upper and lower arms, his shoulders, chest, stomach, up and down the length of his legs. Gary could feel them pulsing, pushing against his skin. Soon he would feel them grow, feeding on him for nourishment, until it was time to burst forth as they had done from the young woman's shoulder, as they had done with all their hosts, living or dead, who lay in the cavern entangled in the web of the purple spiders.

For now Gary was at peace, knowing the honor bestowed upon him by the Mistress of the Web. A faint flicker in his mind suddenly questioned if the emotions of peace and contentment were real, were his own, or perhaps had been placed there. He immediately dismissed the thought. Silly, his mind said. What could do such a thing?

Gary watched Atlach-Nacha pass back through the whirlpool, back to the great web she ceaselessly spun across the Gulf of Yarnak. The whirlpool slowly closed, then faded. The thousands of purple spiders in the cavern went about their business. The young woman lying next to Gary was forcing another scream. He strained his head to the side, to gaze at her. A pulsing nodule on her cheek exploded, showering her face and the web with blood. Hundreds of Atlach-Nacha's tiny spiderling children poured forth from the new hole in her face.

Soon that honor would be Gary's, and he smiled.

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© 2000 Edward P. Berglund
"The Scuttler in the Dark": © 1999 R.S. Cartwright. All rights reserved. Reprinted from the Arkham Shadows website.
Graphics © 1999-2000 Old Erebus Graphic Design. All rights reserved. Email to: James V. Kracht.

Created: May 16, 2000; Current Update: August 9, 2004