In a just world, archaeology would be a boring profession, but sadly Eleanor did not live in a just world. She came to this conclusion while she was on expedition several miles below the surface of the earth carving a path through cobwebs by torchlight.
She fought the urge to sneeze as she cut through another clump and thought she could feel it settling on her skin. It was musty down here but, on balance, far from the worst place she’d been in her career. Once, she’d found herself waist deep in bog water after digging into the wrong bit of a bronze age burial mound.
The torch flickered as she cut through the last of the webbing that blocked the path ahead of her. A bad omen. Torches, in her experience, were faultlessly reliable right up until the moment you were about to be attacked by something. The heavily armed spirit guardians of an abandoned temple taught her that particular lesson. It was one of the chief virtues of torches in her experience, and why she never went out on expedition without one. Or a pair of good running shoes for that matter. Running from giant rolling boulders or leaping over pits full of snakes had become almost as routine to her as meetings with the faculty. And she liked to have the extra cushioning for the flagstone floors, it softened the impact on the knees.
None of this was what she expected she’d be doing when she applied for a position in the department of archaeology, but then again neither was trawling through cobwebs deep underground, but here she was nevertheless.
Something rustled in the darkness. She tightened her grip on the knife and, as slowly as possible, rolled the torch beam along the ground to where she thought the noise had come from. Nothing. She felt the tension leave her chest.
After waiting for a few moments (just in case) she decided it was probably best to press forward. Department heads preferred it when you returned with something for the collections and weren’t particularly interested in stories about encounters with aggressive wildlife or your contact selling you out to the other guys.
That was the strangest thing about this trip so far, there was always someone on her tail. She should have met a rival archaeologist by now, or at least a private military contractor hired by a foreign government. It worried her at first, but followed a pretty predictable pattern after a while. She’d thwart their efforts along the way in car chases and shoot-outs, yet somehow they’d always get the drop on her at the last moment. Then, they’d prematurely declare victory, raise the artefact above their head in triumph, only to get eaten by a dragon or strangled by a mummy. It was for this reason she’d refused to work with a partner this trip. They all ended up betraying her for some reason or other. Sudden yet inevitable betrayals were very profitable until your new employer’s face started to melt. None of it ever stopped her getting what she wanted eventually, but it made the journey more stressful than it needed to be.
Maybe this time what she was looking for really was just an artefact of historical interest and not some supernatural weapon or phylactery for an undead monarch. Maybe she’d even get away without a blood curse. She’d just take the thing home and publish a paper.
It was just as her mood brightened at the thought when she looked up to see a large shape looming out of the darkness.
The spider was gigantic. From the tip of one leg to the other it spanned almost the width of the cave, and its fangs were as long as her forearms. By torchlight she could see all eight of its eyes staring at her and the hairs on its legs bristling. It was too late to run – the spider could bite her before she’d even turned around. There was little chance of fighting it off. Terror squeezed her insides, but she felt oddly annoyed at herself. It was a stupid way to die really.
Cursing herself for her chosen profession, she closed her eyes and waited. She listened to the sounds of it shifting and jostling it’s monstrous body in the cave for what felt like hours, but the bite never came.
Cautiously, she opened one eye to see the spider standing there, not injecting her with a potent venom that would liquefy her internal organs. Instead, it had raised a single hairy leg to the ceiling. She opened her other eye. The spider lowered its leg in stiff clockwork motions until it touched the floor then threw another leg on the other side of its body high in the air and let it fall in the same rhythmic fashion. Eleanor couldn’t help but notice that she still wasn’t dead.
She watched as the spider repeated the leg movements one at a time, then threw both legs high in the air. She flinched, expecting it to leap forward for the kill, but the spider just lowered its legs again. She relaxed slightly as the spider continued to raise and lower its legs, and she wondered why she wasn’t soup. Then the spider raised its abdomen.
Blues, yellows, reds, and oranges cut across it’s back in strange concentric circles and the spider moved them to face her and she could see that the whole thing was shaking slightly.
The spider did not take its eight-eyed gaze from her for a moment, as it began to time the raising and lowering of its legs to the abdomen’s movements. It took a small step to the side. Then to the other. It scurried backwards and zig-zagged its way forwards, all the while raising and lowering its arms in the same clockwork fashion. It occurred to Eleanor that she might not be about to die.
The spider’s movements got larger and more frantic as she watched. It shook its abdomen and wiggled its legs while they were in the air. She swore she could see it drumming a little rhythm on its fangs with the masses that dangled in front of its mouth. It seemed to be enjoying itself.
With a final shake of its abdomen; the spider leapt away from her, did a surprisingly elegant spin in a wider part of the cave, then ran towards her at full pelt. She raised the knife to cover her face, but the spider stopped just short of reaching her. It unfurled its long front leg and presented her with a single pink rose.
She blinked, too gobsmacked to do anything else. After several moments of total silence, she looked up into the spider’s eyes and saw that they were looking back at her calmly. Beyond, she could see the colourful abdomen settling back to its normal position and suddenly, something she’d read in a book about arachnids when she was a child arrived at the edge of her memory. She knew she had to do something or it would just become too awkward, so she decided to say what she usually said in these situations.
“Urm,” she croaked, “I’m flattered, but I’m just not looking for anything like that right now?”
The leg holding the flower curled and withdrew. The spider smiled behind its fangs. “That’s okay,” it replied cheerily, “thanks for being so nice about it.” Then disappeared back into the darkness of the cave without saying another word.
Once she was sure the spider was gone, Eleanor shrugged and continued along her route. Maybe this trip really would be straightforward after all.