The House of a Thousand Spiders

Summary: A roleplaying podcast recorded in an old Southern mansion is sporadically interrupted by an unearthly noise. The host and his friends try to determine the peculiar source.

The Sounds

I hope you don't mind the new introduction theme to the podcast, but I have my reasons for including it. You see, it's related to the problems we've had these last few months with the incessant background noise. Kate's been kind enough to let us record in her grandma's old mansion, but we've been intermittently plagued by that sound you heard in Episode 3.

Right when I'm about to explain the results of the party's perception checks, you heard that sound like a pattering of heavy rain. It's only due to Todd's amazing audio processing we managed to remove it from successive episodes. Nevertheless, you can still hear a few residual races of it, like the ghoul battle in Episode 11. As much as I'd like to claim otherwise, that creepy ambience in the cult ritual in Episode 24 was what remained after a partial clean-up.

I should have realized the Reynolds Manor would be plagued by something creepy. At first glance, it is a prominent example of antebellum architecture, a white mansion looming over overgrown fields where slaves once labored. Its second story is crowned with black turrets that rose skywards like the spearpoints of an invading army. Where an expansive garden once bloomed are now worn brambles, almost entirely subsumed by the ever-present kudzu infestation. In short, it is a perfect visual metaphor for Southern Gothic.

I'd have to thank Kate again for letting us record here. Her grandmother left it to her traveling parents, but they left it to her to manage. She plays the troubled aristocrat Tyra, which was inspired by her grandmother's teenage years. Without both her and her fictional alter ego, the Vulture's Rest campaign would have been impossible. I remember the first time we set up the recording gear in that cavernous old dining room. A fictional counterpart of this place appeared as the Cardinal's Manse in Episode 19, during that tense dinner scene with the corrupt theocrat.

Like its fictional counterpart, the Manor terrified its guests with inexplicable sounds. Each occurrence was simultaneously irritating and unnerving. It started almost innocuously, like distant raindrops. It gradually increased in cadence and intensity, moving from a light sprinkle to a maddening torrent. Such reverberations carried through the walls of that old, ancient house, amplifying them and obscuring their origin. After it climaxed, each abnormal crescendo diminished in intensity, as though slinking back to whatever dark place spawned it.

At first, each occurrence was seemingly. As weeks rolled onwards, we noted their consistent recurrence around the old dining room where we gamed. Each time it occurred, we ceased talking, fearing whatever caused it would descend on us like some great, ravenous beast. It was a testament to their iron wills that they continued playing. I truly am fortunate to have such a great group, in many ways.

I have relatively humble means on my own, but my group all chipped into hire the first two exterminators that came to the house. The first found nothing but some lint and long-dead rats in the crawlspace, which was far from the numerous horde we'd first imagined. The second thought he found nothing more intimidating than lint in the walls. Despite the traps, poisons, and other methods we tried, nothing stopped that infernal skittering. Curiously, it only occurred when our recording gear was set up, but the four sound engineers I consulted offered insufficient explanations.

It was towards the middle of October we reached our limit. The sound came once more, this like a torrent of stamping feet above our very heads. I swore I saw the ceiling shake above us, but none of the others did. Despite thinking myself inured against that sound, I nevertheless found myself scared shitless. As I found myself edging towards the back door, I was more than ready to accept even a supernatural explanation for whatever was blighting us. Sensing the displeasure on my players' faces, I realized ignoring it was no longer an option.

I suppose it was a foolhardy pride that drove us to act the way we did, instead of the more sensible solution of finding another venue for our game. Despite what you might think of my players' characters on the podcast, in person they're very different. Kate, the owner of the house and distraught noblewoman in game, was an exuberant martial artist and self-defense instructor in real life. Derek, who played the party's boisterous tank, was a tall black nerd that can quote superhero origin comics like scripture. I'm sure you'd wondered about Sam, who played the rapacious merchant, and her real-life profession was in structural engineering. Lastly but not least was Todd, the party's healer and former cult member, who was an accountant in his day job. They took time out of their schedule to help. This was no longer about a creaky old house, but about being able to preserve our friendship. This was a fight for Vulture's Rest, both the podcast and the doomed, fictional city of the same name.

The Scouring

Before starting our hunt, we researched Reynolds Manor and its history. It dated back to the antebellum period, back when the railroads first came to Atlanta, and land outside the city was cheap. It's located in Bartow County, which was only recently added to the greater Atlanta area. The estate was built by a slaveholder, George Reynolds, who left the state due to family affairs. It was put up for sale due to a minor land use dispute that escalated with two neighbors, and Kate's distant ancestors acquired it. They largely solid the disputed parts of the once sprawling estate, converting it from a cotton plantation to a series of orchards and gardens.

While the new owners came from a line of plantation owners, they were no fans of slavery. While not overt abolitionists, they turned their house into an Underground Railroad station. So successful was the Keene family at quelling the rumors, it only became known after the war. While Sherman marched nearby, the house narrowly escaped the torch. The Keene family became ardent Republicans, earning the ire and disrepute of their neighbors. Such scorn eventually drove them to associate with bootleggers during Prohibition. After losing their three sons in World War II, the fortunes of the family similarly plummeted.

Cassandra Keene was the last scion of her family to inhabit that house, prior to Kate inheriting it. Before we'd began gaming there, her relatives sifted through her possessions like a gang of prospectors. I could easily imagine musty furniture and timeworn trophies filling every nook and cranny, given the empty spaces left in their wake. The interior of the house was like a naked corpse, stripped bare for autopsy. We were equipped suitably for the job.

We left nothing to chance, preparing for causes mundane and supernatural. We carried hunting shotguns borrowed from Todd's boyfriend, wushu weapons from Kate's stash, a water pistol loaded with holy water, bug spray, and even a Taoist exorcist's wooden sword. I personally carried a nine-ring broadsword that felt just right in my hand. We started up on the second floor, and we worked our way down.

We charged around that upper floor with high spirits and ready reflexes. We felt like a party of adventurers, slogging through the echelons of some evil overlord's keep. What had once been a master bedroom was nothing but a shadow-haunted chamber. We saw the empty bookshelves of what was once a voluminous study. We searched a closet larger than my old apartment. We finished on the grimy bathroom we always avoided.

Descending the grand staircase, I saw the sunlight filter in through the front window, banishing all shadows from outside. The table where we'd spent innumerable hours looked as was partially covered in shadows from a nearby cabinet. From the gurgling stomachs, I sensed my friends were similarly hungry for lunch. We searched the rooms on the first floor in a piecemeal manner, haphazard and sloppy compared to the second floor. Nevertheless, I was content we'd missed nothing of note. Even revisiting where we'd heard earlier sounds prove similarly fruitless.

We had lunch stewing in quiet frustration, but I was honestly a little relieved. Given the weapons and tools we'd brought, I was confident we'd be more than a match for anything I'd considered. I still recall that sandwich, which felt a lot heavier than it typically did. I could tell Kate was getting restless at the fact we'd stopped, but the rest of us did not stop until we cleaned our plates. As we returned to our feet, I wondered if we'd find something that would disgorge our lunches. What we'd find in the basement was much worse.

The Basement

Tramping through forgotten smuggling tunnels sounded more fun than it was. The Manor's basement was crudely bricked over at some point during Catherine's stewardship of the house, and there were boxes left down here that Kate's relatives never bothered to remove. Most of them were old Christmas decorations and forlorn furniture, but there were a few crates buried beneath them. We debated checking them out, but what we heard rapidly quashed all debate.

In the wall opposite the stairs, we heard the sound with an intensity that dwarfed all previous manifestations. It was like an underground river was pressing against the ancient bricks, with chthonic rapids echoing before us. I brought the sword up reflexively, as though a mere piece of sharpened steel would protect me from the torrent behind. Like the march of a thousand spiders, I could imagine some unseen pressure beyond that adjacent wall. Much to my friends' credit, they pointed their weapons at the source when I was seriously considering bolting.

As the sound climaxed, Kate strode forwards with the confidence of a victorious general. With the butt of her guandao, she smashed the center of that wall. The ancient brick and mortar yielded, and she struck again. She used the halberd's head to brush aside the last stubborn bricks, completing a hole big enough to step through. The sound vanished completely afterwards, and she turned to look at the rest of us with a confident grin on her face. Todd and Sam lowered their shotguns as we edged closer.

The hole in the fake wall was a portal into a realm of abject darkness. I guessed it was built to conceal the entryway to the old smuggling tunnels, which undoubtedly honeycombed the entire property. Kate shown her flashlight into that black abyss, the light illuminating that timeworn passage. I could see the places where timbers might have stood once, but I honestly did not focus where the beam of her flashlight fell. I held the others back from the entrance, only for voices to issue forth from the tunnel.

Those voices echoed through the tunnel, and I struggled to comprehend what I heard. Derek recoiled in disbelief, holding the wooden sword in one hand and a longsword in the other. Kate staggered backwards like a punch-drunk boxer, nearly crashing into a box of Christmas decorations. I felt myself moving backwards involuntary as my conscious mind made that terrifying realization. The voices were us. Those evil mimics were distorted voices from prior roleplaying sessions, like someone distorted our podcast. There was a sense of malignant mockery with it, but I saw the responsible party soon enough.

They closed in on us from all angles, from the tunnel, behind the boxes, and even the stairs. They descended with that awful sound that always heralded their massing. A black, crawling tide descended on us, comprised of beings that moved like wriggling clumps of hair. At first, I thought they were spiders, but each of them had no central body, nor the symmetry expected from a natural lifeform. The number of legs was seemingly random between them, and they resembled animated, skittering lint more than any bug. They continued that mocking playback of our roleplaying sessions as they closed in on us.

We fought as best we could, but to no avail. My ears still ring from those shotguns going off in that enclosed basement. I remember my frantic swatting and stomping, only for a dozen wrigglers to replace each crushed underfoot. I saw them completely engulf Kate, Todd, and then Derek. I felt their fibrous bodies crawling up me like rising floodwaters. I dropped my now-useless sword and moved my hands up to protect my face, but it was no use. I closed my eyes, covered my mouth and nose, and blindly sprinted for the door. I tasted a dry, woolen taste before it all went black.

The Welcoming

If all of that happened to us, you may ask, why are we still alive? Allow me to elucidate. You see, they never meant us ill. They were merely curious about our electronic and acoustic signals, as it was the most intriguing phenomena they'd encountered in their long tenure here on Earth. They have senses I can't even begin to describe, but they go dormant for long cycles. As best as the can tell, they may be made of carbon nanotubes, or even more exotic materials.

It was thanks to them I recognized why they let the Keene family live, even after they were disturbed by their illicit excavations. Once they got into their heads, they recognized the Underground Railroad, and the later bootlegging, were both perfect ways to spread themselves into the outside world. They're most powerful in numbers, and unable to control hosts when isolated and lacking the proper stimuli.

So, you have millions of unwitting carriers across the world, but those wrigglers remained dormant in their brains. Even after their initial hosts died, they were often able to go dormant or cross over to another host. The fact they resemble dust helps them hide. You might remember that new theme song? That's their wakeup signal. If you're lucky, you can join our next session, even if you're not here. Don't fight. After all, we might be sharing a mind soon.