Mick swung the machete wildly, cutting down the overgrowth in his path. At the start of their journey he made a point to periodically wipe the beads of sweat rolling down his forehead. Now he just ignored them entirely, focusing on breathing through the dense humidity permeating every inch of the jungle.
He could hear his partners’ footsteps squishing the muddy earth behind him. Gwen’s boots made heavy sloshing noises while Samantha’s only tapped the ground. He’d been through enough with those two to know they always had his back. The man they were meeting was a complete mystery, though, and in their line of work unknowns got people killed.
After clearing the last piece of thick foliage in front of him, Mick discovered the small lagoon he’d been searching for. The jungle opened up a bit, allowing the brutal sun to glimmer across the water. The fourth member of their team stood by the coastline with his back to them, his head covered by a wide sun hat.
Mick approached him cautiously with an outstretched hand, but the man spun around on his heels before Mick could reach him.
“Hiya!” he said with an enthusiastic smile. “I’m Jamal.”
“Hey,” Mick replied, surprised and somewhat confused by the overzealous greeting.
Noticing the apprehension, Jamal furrowed his brow, but it did little to stifle his energy. “What’s wrong? You guys expecting someone else?”
“No. Just…” Mick hesitated as his eyes scanned the man from head to toe, oddly noticing that his cargo pants were neatly pressed. “I wasn’t sure if you were our guide or not.”
“Sure am,” Jamal noted while holding up a crinkled piece of paper. “Got the map right here.”
“Wait,” Gwen said as she stepped forward. “A map? I thought you knew the way to the temple.”
“Yeah,” Sam agreed. “They told us you saw it with your own eyes.”
“Not really,” Jamal confessed with a wide, nervous smile. “But the guy I bought the map from did.”
Uneasy, Gwen turned to Mick and Sam as if to deliberate with them privately. “This is not what we discussed.”
“Listen,” Jamal interjected. “You want to see the temple? Then I can get you there. That’s all that matters, right?”
Mick glanced at the two women. Both of their grimacing faces became long with disappointment. He shared their skepticism, but the ladies didn’t object. They knew as well as Mick did that this was their last chance of finding the temple. Following this guy and his map wasn’t their ideal option. It just happened to be their only option.
“All right,” Mick said with a reluctant nod. “Lead the way.”
Jamal took the trio deeper into the jungle, occasionally glancing at the map. Mick noticed he kept the weathered piece of paper fairly close to his chest, probably aware it was the only thing making him useful.
The group traveled by foot for several hours, longer than Mick anticipated the journey would take. He expected a day trip at most, and now they were pushing into mid-afternoon without reaching their destination. They had already begun cutting back on water and rations but only because they were saving some for the voyage home.
The jungle seemed to grow denser with every step they took. Daylight barely squeaked through the trees, covering their path in a thin veil of darkness. Jamal had no problem reading the map, but he kept glancing at the pistol holstered on Mick’s hip.
“So what’s the gun for?” he asked with a curious pitch in his voice. “Boars? Anacondas? Panthers?”
Mick chuckled and kept his focus on clearing the way with his machete.
“You haven’t heard the rumors about this place?” Sam said.
“Rumors?” Jamal repeated, confused.
“They say the insect population of this jungle has taken some… interesting evolutionary paths.”
Jamal shivered. “You’re saying there’s monster bugs in here?”
“Nobody’s ever seen them,” Mick pointed out. “At least nobody that’s been able to come back and report it. But the locals are quite adamant they exist.”
“Even without them,” Gwen chimed in while looking straight up, “this jungle is incredible on its own. I can’t believe how dense the canopy is. You think we have a moment to—”
“There’s no time to stop,” Mick interrupted. “We’ll just have to take pictures on the way back.”
Gwen stopped anyway to joyously stare at the treetops. “But look at the leaves fluttering by themselves. It’s like there’s no wind.”
Everyone else stopped, but nobody shared her enthusiasm. The crisscrossing mess of leaves didn’t look like leaves at all. The dark forest canopy seemed to be layered sheets of thick paper. It wasn’t still, though. There was definitely something moving along its surface.
“Umm…Gwen?” Sam said, nervously.
But Gwen was too lost in observing the trees to hear her name. “It’s like they have a mind of their own.”
“Stop talking,” Mick ordered.
She squinted, curiously examining the movement overhead. “It’s almost like they’re alive.”
“Gwen!” Mick shouted. “That’s because they are alive.”
The movement along the canopy trickled down the tree trunks, sporadically entering the thin streaks of light. In those brief illuminated moments, Mick didn’t want to believe what he was looking at it, but there they were: wasps the size of dogs crawling towards them with their wings held high and ready to soar.
“Run!” Mick screamed.
A loud buzz exploded all around them as the wasps dropped from the treetops. The four adventurers took off running through the jungle, shoving the giant leaves out of their way. Mick stayed in the lead, chopping whatever brush he could without slowing down. He could feel the wasps flying overheard, the buzz of their wings flowing as if the noise itself were alive.
Jamal stayed close and divided his focus between moving forward and the map in his hands. Glancing back, Mick saw Jamal had no clue about the wasp racing behind him. The wasp had its abdomen thrust forward, exposing a stinger that resembled a short dagger.
“Duck!” Mick yelled as he reached out and grabbed Jamal.
He pushed him down just as the wasp soared by. Jamal looked up, his wide eyes shaking. He gave Mick a curt nod of thanks, but Mick’s attention had already moved elsewhere.
He drew his sidearm and began aiming at the wasps circling above. One shot. Two shots. Each one hitting its mark and dropping a dead insect beside him. The large bodies hit the mossy ground with a thud, and Jamal took off running again in a panic.
Mick followed, alternating between pulling the trigger and swinging his machete at anything moving close by that wasn’t human. When he heard heavy footsteps gaining on him, Mick turned and tossed the blade behind him.
“Sam, catch!” he yelled over his shoulder.
Sam snatched the machete out of the air by its handle before turning and cutting an approaching wasp in half.
Mick kept moving with one hand in front to push the brush out of the way. The other hand tightly gripped his pistol, the only thing separating him from wave after wave of incoming wasps.
“I dropped the map,” Jamal’s voice rang out.
“What?!” Gwen yelled from somewhere close by.
“It slipped and I just—”
Jamal’s sentence ended with a scream. Mick imagined a wasp impaling him in the back, but a moment later he stumbled upon Jamal on the ground with his foot caught in an exposed root. It was a far less dramatic scene than Mick was expecting. He began helping Jamal up when Sam and Gwen soon joined them.
“Keep moving!” Mick ordered. “We’ll catch up!”
The women ran past them without saying a word. Meanwhile, Jamal cursed and screamed as Mick worked to free his foot. Once the root was broken, Jamal sprung up and took off, this time without a show of gratitude. Mick sprinted to catch up, determined not to let the man out of his sight.
A few seconds later, the two of them entered a giant clearing in the middle of the jungle with a large stone temple looming before them. The structure was magnificent, covered in vines and easily a hundred feet high. It had to have been centuries old, but its weathered, pockmarked surface still stood as strong as the day it was built. Mick felt the urge to reach for his camera, but the continuous buzzing of wasps circling overhead made it easy to resist.
“Come on!” Sam’s voice bellowed at him. “Hurry!”
She and Gwen held open a doorway at the base of the temple. Jamal was still admiring the building, and Mick had to push him to get his legs moving again.
The two men sprinted for the opening as the wasps continued to dip and soar around them. Mick opened fire with his pistol, but there were too many targets to choose from. He shot randomly, squeezing the trigger as he ran until the gun clicked empty. As soon as he and Jamal passed the temple’s threshold Sam and Gwen let go of the door, causing the stone slab to thrust shut with a boom.
The buzzing had ceased, but the huffs and puffs of heavy breaths replaced it. For a moment, it was the only sound that filled the temple’s entryway until Gwen snapped in Jamal’s direction. “What the hell is wrong with you, man?!”
“You almost got us killed,” Sam said, a bit more reserved than her partner.
“I…” Jamal stammered. “I just…I just…”
Mick couldn’t tell if the man was afraid of the women or still rattled by the wasps.
“Jamal.” Mick addressed him softly.
Jamal turned to him, his lips still quivering. “Yes?”
“How many expeditions like this have you actually been on?”
Jamal’s face sunk as each word slowly crept out of his mouth. “This… is… my… first.”
Gwen scoffed, and Sam threw her hands in the air.
“Sorry! Okay?” he said, shamefaced. “I was on vacation and heard this guy talking about a temple and—”
“You’re a tourist?!” Sam exclaimed.
Jamal looked away.
Mick, Sam, and Gwen all turned to each other as if to instinctually convene a counsel. Though Jamal was clearly outside their conversation, Gwen spoke loud enough for their “guide” to hear. “What are we gonna do with him?”
“It’s too late to go back,” Mick said, regretfully shaking his head. “We’ll just have to find the jewel and pray we can get this buffoon out of here alive.”
He led the way deeper into the temple with Gwen and Sam following. Jamal kept his distance, close enough that he felt safe, but not so close that he overstayed his welcome.
The temple corridors were tight and damp. A cool breeze hung in the air, far different than the steamy jungle outside. Thin strands of light entered the hall through window slits in the ceiling, allowing just enough light so the travellers weren’t venturing into darkness.
Although he had no idea how, Mick could’ve sworn the journey inside the temple took just as long as the one through the jungle. The labyrinth of tunnels twisted and turned in a million directions. To say they were lost would be an understatement, and at one point Mick thought they were going to be trapped inside the temple forever.
That was when the corridor opened into a large chamber booming with light. A maze of small walkways crisscrossed the room, looming above a pit draped in darkness. Even though he knew it was impossible, a part of Mick feared the hole below them was bottomless. In the center of the chamber, protruding up from the void, stood a single stone pedestal. Resting on the pedestal was a glistening red stone the size of a human head.
“There she is,” Mick said, struck by the stone’s beauty. “The Jewel of Arachne.”
“That’s what you came here for?” Jamal asked, curiously.
Sam nodded but couldn’t look away from it either. “We weren’t sure we’d find it, though.”
“Damn,” Jamal gasped. “It must be worth a fortune.”
Gwen was the first to take her eyes off the treasure. “You think we did this for money? The jewel is priceless. It needs to be studied, and archived, and put on display for the whole world to—”
“All right,” Jamal surrendered with his hands up. “I get it. Not for sale. But I’ve seen enough movies to know that picking it up would be a bad idea.”
“Please,” Mick said through a laugh. “This isn’t some pulp comic book. Cursed treasure and booby traps don’t exist in real life.”
He started carefully navigating the walkway while the other three remained by the chamber’s entrance. It wasn’t that difficult a challenge. The path was wide and sturdy enough to hold him. Strange, Mick mused, that the final leg of his quest would be the simplest.
He reached the pedestal without complications and didn’t hesitate to remove the jewel from its home. Jamal, the tourist with a wild imagination, would’ve paused dramatically before grabbing it, but Mick wasn’t concerned with theatrics. His mind hadn’t been corrupted by fantastical myths that scared others from conquest. Fearlessness allowed Mick to find the rarest artifacts the world had ever seen, but it was a mindset he began to question when a large stone door slammed the entrance shut, sealing all four of them inside the chamber.
“Will ya look at that,” Jamal bragged. “The tourist was right.”
A loud, raucous hiss emanated from the pit. Mick couldn’t see a thing, but he heard a sharp tapping against the pit’s walls. Slowly, large glowing orbs glimmered in the darkness, moving closer and closer until an army of spiders the size of automobiles revealed themselves climbing up from the depths. They crawled along the edges of the pit, their long legs scampering as their snapping jaws oozed mucus.
“Get out of there!” Mick shouted at the trio.
The three of them rushed to the walkway as a spider reached the entrance. Sam made it first, but Jamal pushed Gwen out of his way to be second. Gwen recovered quickly, but the spider had already stepped in her path. Mick couldn’t see her over the arachnid’s monstrous body, but Gwen’s scream was all he needed to know it was too late.
“Hurry!” Mick shouted.
As the first wave of spiders reached the walkway, it dawned on Mick that he probably should’ve reloaded his pistol earlier. He scrambled to load another magazine when Sam came barreling towards him, swinging the machete at every spider within reach. Countless jaws snapped at her from every direction, but Sam didn’t stop. She kept swinging the blade, slicing and dicing arachnid appendages that tumbled into the pit.
She and Mick leapt from walkway to walkway, shooting and chopping every spider in their way. Jamal tried to follow and jumped after them only to have a spider catch him in mid-air.
Glancing over his shoulder, Mick watched as the spider pinned Jamal to the ground and covered him in stringy webs. Jamal flailed frantically but it was futile. The webs continued to entomb his body until his screams of desperation were nothing more than muffled hums inside a silky coffin.
Mick resisted the surge of dread that wanted to overwhelm him and continued to run, dodging the massive spiders growing closer by the second. He and Sam worked together like a team, alternating between shots and swipes to keep the spiders at bay, but the arachnids just kept coming. The cluster of spiders grew larger and larger until the humans were completely surrounded.
Mick didn’t give up. He continued firing, right up until the moment a spray of webbing bombarded him from every angle.
Then everything went white.