Chapter 4 — A swarm


An edited and improved version of this story is now available for purchase as part of the ‘Prophecies of the Drowned Oracle’ collection.

Shane slowly lowered the spider-jar when he caught the look on Danielle’s face. She was pale, her eyes were red and underlined with dark bags. “Danielle?”

Her smile was unconvincing. “Come in.”

The hallway was even darker than it normally was on overcast days. The little autumn decorations on the table against the wall were starting to rot, and multiple flies crawled around on the squash pumpkin.

Danielle sat down in her usual seat first. The leaves of the Monstera to her left were yellowing and the stem of the palm on her other side was wrinkly and dry.

Shane didn’t waste any time once he sat down. “What’s wrong?”

A harsh laugh, a sound that he’d never heard Danielle make before. “The flies of course. What else could it be? They-” She swallowed. “The spiders are all gone.” Shane looked around. The two spiders they’d left in the living room in past week were gone.

He waited, not understanding why that would upset her this much. He tapped on the lid of the jar. Spiders vanish all the time, that’s just what they do.

“Yesterday, there was only one left. I expected them to move around, but to vanish completely?” She shook her head. “I stayed awake last night. I had to see if they’d just ran off after all.” She laughed again. “It didn’t run.”

Shane sat up straighter at the dark tone of her voice.

“The web was already covered in flies when I began to watch. Some were dead, others still flailing around. There were far more than the spider could ever need. It was gorging itself on a particularly fat one. You’d expect the supply of flies to run out at some point, but they just kept coming. As if the web was covered in syrup! Even the spider got uneasy. It dropped the one it was eating before he finished and moved around, killing a few of the ones still flailing.

“Still more flies came. The spider moved the edge of its web. I thought that was it. The spiders all vanished because the flies freaked them out. But before it could leave, they began to land on the spider itself.”

She paused for a moment, lost in the memory. Shane stared at her, not sure if he should believe it, not wanting to believe it, but Danielle had never lied to him before. She continued.

“The spider struggled of course, but there were so many. I couldn’t see what was happening. One moment two or three were on the spider, the next the whole spider was covered.” She shuddered. “I couldn’t move, couldn’t do anything. I just stared at the writhing mass for what must have been minutes.

“When-” She wiped at her eyes. “When they flew away the spider was gone.”

Silence fell between them. Shane knew she wasn’t lying, but did that mean she was telling the truth? He searched her face for signs of insanity. She was clearly in distress and hadn’t slept either. Her eyes were red-rimmed. She sniffled, looked at him, willing him to believe her.

He nodded. “What are you going to do about it?” He turned the jar in his hands, swiped a fly off the glass.

Her voice wobbled. “I called an exterminator. I don’t think any pesticide I could get my hands on would work.”

He hesitated. “Your plants?”

“They said they have something that shouldn’t harm them, but they couldn’t guarantee anything.”

Anticipating the tears already forming in her eyes, Shane quickly asked her, “Do you want to stay at my place? You can stay until it’s safe to go in your house again.”

She wiped at her eyes and nodded. “That would be nice.”

Shane pressed down and turned the stove button. The clicks of the built-in lighter were quickly replaced by the rushing of the fire. He turned the dial back a little and put on the kettle. After comforting Danielle for some time, he went home to prepare some tea while she gathered her essentials.

The exterminator would come tomorrow, but Danielle didn’t fancy staying with the flies another night. She wouldn’t be able to sleep, she’d said.

Shane was happy to be home. The counters were clean, the air warm and dry. No flies in sight. Not even the fruit bowl had any fruit-flies near it. Away from the perpetual static of Danielle’s house, he could imagine how the next few days would be. They would drink tea and talk, and then he’d make the guest room ready for her. Or maybe…

The kettle whistled, and he quickly turned the fire off. He poured the steaming water into his best tea-cups.

A sound like a dozen thunderclaps shook the floor beneath his feet. The kettle clattered on the floor, spilling hot liquid over the floor and his legs. He ignored the pain, sprinted to the front of the house.

He stopped dead in his tracks when he saw the rubble on the other side of the street. Everything vanished around him, only the rubble where Danielle’s house was supposed to be remained. A cloud of dust wafted up from the wreckage, blocking his view. The dust moved, undulated. Not because of the wind, he realised, but because it wasn’t dust at all.

Thousands of flies, each small enough to look like dust, together a swarm big enough to rival a cloud. They whirred around the flattened house and buzzed with that static that had become familiar in Danielle’s house the past few weeks.

Shane’s legs gave out. He crawled to the window and pulled himself up. The swarm bulged and converged in an incomprehensible rhythm. Tendrils of the things extended in every direction, testing, feeling. Then all but one tendril absorbed back in the swarm. The remaining tendril thickened, lengthened, extended over the place a concaved roof once sat, then went up and away from town.

This writhing arm continued and continued, picking up momentum as it was picked up by the wind, flying away in a never-ending stream.

At some point, Shane realised the steam had ended, and he blearily focused on the rubble once more. Danielle!

He stumbled once, but then sprinted through the living room out the front door. Within seconds he stood before the rubble. He called out to her, over and over, running around the pulverised stone, climbing over it, eyes roving through every crevice, calling until his voice gave out.

There came no answer.

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