The Phantom Inker



Bugs Are People Too

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Tom climbed the hillside, scanning in every direction. Ellen had come up here, he was sure of it this time, and he was going to find her. So what if the police had given up? She wasn't dead. He was certain.

He glanced up at the bright blue sky, and then looked around this latest little valley. Valley after valley they'd searched, but that was months ago. Even her own parents --- damn them! Ellen was a skilled outdoorswoman! She couldn't be dead, not here, not anywhere. Whatever didn't kill her only made her stronger. She was indestructible, and had survived far worse than a July hailstorm in the mountains of Greece. Not that he could think of such a time offhand.

He trudged along the mountainside path, the fresh air stinging his nostrils as it rushed down, down over the cliffside into the green valley below. How many islands had it been now, he wondered? Ten? Twenty? She was on one of these. And there was a wrecked boat on the shore here that looked a little like the one she'd used. Of course, there were hundreds of wrecked boats after that storm, but...

The entrance to a small cave suddenly popped into view as he turned a bend. Maybe she'd taken refuge in there? It was a long way from any supplies, but it was on the leeward side of the wind. Maybe there was a clue inside, a torn shred of clothing, a doused campfire, a spatter of blood --- even a tiny mark would be enough.

No, wait. That couldn't be --- a small plume of smoke trailing from the cave entrance? No, it was just the light playing tricks on the granite --- no, no, it was real! There was a fire inside somewhere!

Excitedly, he ran to the cave as best he could on the narrow ledge, threw aside some large yellowy vines hanging over the entrance, and stepped through. "Ellen!" he cried. "Ellen! Are you here!?"

The lighting inside was dim at best, but there was indeed a small smoldering fire ringed by rocks a few yards from the cave entrance, and the flickering firelight lit up the near end. It was a larger cave than at first he'd expected, and the floor was smooth and level. Stalagtites hung from the ceiling everywhere, and the sounds of dripping water barely echoed over the fire's quiet crackles.

A large, misshapen creature huddled in the back of the cave.

Tom froze. The bear hadn't seen him! But --- wait. Why would a bear be hiding out in a cave with a fire? Weren't bears afraid of fire?

He relaxed a little. "He --- hello?"

The figure shrank.

"Who's there? I'm friendly!"

The figure didn't move.

"I'm looking for a girl, about twenty years old. Her name's Ellen. Have you seen her?"

"No," said the figure, its voice hoarse and raspy. "Go away."

"Are you okay?"

"I'm fine. Leave."

Tom took a step forward.

"Don't come closer!" cried the figure, and in its anguish, its voice had changed from a dark raspy rattle to a young woman's gentle soprano.

"Ellen?" said Tom, taking another step.

Tom froze. It wasn't by choice this time. His arms were stuck, glued in place by something sticky. He pulled back, and suddenly he found himself hanging a few inches off the floor, his entire body suspended in sticky --- ropes? No... the light glistened on the fine strands. This was a spider's web, stretching halfway across the cave!

"Ellen!" he cried, struggling. "Is that you!? I'm stuck!"

The figure stood up, slowly, and turned toward him. It walked closer, and reached the light.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I never wanted you to see me like this."

Tom's eyes grew wide. It was Ellen, that much was certain, but --- what was she? She was bare from the waist up, her dull yellow hair tied back in a ponytail, her eyes sadder than he'd ever seen. And... and at her waist... that couldn't be a spider, could it? With each step, it looked more and more like Ellen, and more and more like a spider's eight spindly legs under her, and a giant bulbous body behind her, and it was no trick of the light. Her human legs were gone. Only a spider remained.

"What... what happened to you? Oh my God, Ellen, look at you... I've been searching for you for three months. I knew you weren't dead... but I didn't expect this..."

She reached up with her hands and gently severed one of the lines holding him with her fingernails.

"I didn't expect this either," she said. "And I guess... I should've known you'd come. Thank you for coming. I can't imagine any of my other boyfriends would've spent such time tracking me down. Has it really been three months?"

"It feels like only yesterday that you went out," he said. "When you didn't come back in time for dinner, I knew something was wrong. We had the police combing the islands for weeks... but I don't think anybody came up here."

"They... did," she said. "I hid on the windward side of the mountain, in a crevasse no human could reach."

"But... why... I mean..."

She had continued to slice through the strands, and suddenly he fell onto the floor.

"Sorry," she said. "I'm still getting the hang of this."

He leapt up, tripping on webbing still wrapped around his feet, and hugged her. "I missed you."

"Tom... we can't do this," she said, looking aside.

He let go and took a couple of steps back. "I'm --- sorry. What happened? I mean... how did this happen?"

She lifted a leg and gently pointed back into the depths of the cave. There was a pedestal there that he hadn't noticed before, and a little glowing yellow statue sitting on it. The statue... looked like a woman-spider. Like Ellen.

"What --- is that?"

"It has writing on it," she said. "It's the statue Athena used to --- curse --- Arachne. I never believed the old Greek legends. I'm a scientist, Tom! I was supposed to study bugs! I wasn't supposed to beone..."

"There has to be a way to reverse it," he said, stepping toward it.

"Don't touch," she said. "I don't know what it'll do to you, and I don't want to know. I touched it, and in a flash, this was my --- payment. Curse. Whatever. Either way, I'm now the most qualified entomologist in the world, and I can't tell anyone."

"Geez... So you've been living up here all by yourself?" He turned back to face her, and she was busily repairing the web he'd damaged. It was strangely hypnotic to watch her, the strands emerging from her backend, running through her legs like the guides on a sewing machine to her hands, which were moving fast to skillfully replace the strands in an elegant spiral.

"It's... lonely," she said. "Yes. I... I did miss you."

"Ellen, we have to get you changed back. You can't stay like this," he said. "There has to be a way! You can't be a monster the rest of your life!"

She paused and turned to look at him from the other side of the web. Her big, sad brown eyes looked on the verge of tears. She lifted a leg and cradled it in her arm. "Bugs are people too, Tom. I don't hate this. I can't go back, but I don't hate it. After all the trips we took together for me to study bugs, you should understand that."

Tom nodded soberly.

"Anyway, when you leave, don't tell anyone I'm here," she said, lowering her leg. "I can't be discovered like this. They'd dissect me for sure."

"I'm not leaving," he said, shaking his head.


"I found you again, finally, and I'm never leaving your side again."

"Tom, you can't stay!" she shouted angrily.

"Yes," he said. "Yes, I can." He turned around and strode toward the pedestal behind him.

"Tom, stop! You don't know what that --- " she cried and started to dart around the side of her web, but as he reached out his hand, she could only look through the lattice with horrified eyes and a pounding heart. His fingers touched the odd-looking statue and suddenly the room shone brilliantly ---

And for the first time in three months, Ellen smiled.

Two hours to sketch. Eight or so to shade and color. And another half hour for the story. All artwork done with a mouse, entirely in CorelDRAW.

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