The first thing Nomi did was kill the spider.
Mara was going to be pissed, but it wasn’t like she could do anything about it now. What was the deal with the spiders, anyway? Nomi was pretty sure it had less to do with magic and more to do with pretension, which after all was Mara’s forte.
Plus, the spider creeped her out.
“We’re out of honey,” Nomi called down the empty hall. She waited a beat, then sighed and said, “I guess I’ll go get some at the store.”
She didn’t expect a response and she didn’t get one. Of course she didn’t, Nomi thought as she shut the front door, locking it behind her. Mara was too self-involved to honor Nomi with any sort of acknowledgement, even though Nomi was the one who did all the chores, who took care of all the bills, who paid attention to –
“Oh!” A huge black orb spider the size of a terrier – or maybe a large mouse, Nomi couldn’t be expected to accurately measure things in times of stress – dropped suddenly from a tree branch, landing with an almost audible plop a few centimeters from her toe. Nomi flittered to the right just as a passer-by saw the spider and jumped to the left.
Nomi and the stranger made almost identical sounds of alarm as they ricocheted off of each other. Nomi’s keys flew out of her hand and clattered to the sidewalk.
“Stupid of me, sorry, wasn’t looking. Spider,” she said, and then stopped when the stranger didn’t respond. Her cheeks heated as she raised her eyes to his. “I don’t suppose that you’re…hurt? Or that the spider has crawled up your leg?”
The stranger shuddered, but he wasn’t looking at her. He was looking at her key ring. “You must have a lot of locks,” he said in a slow, dark voice.
“I – yes, I guess I do? Some of them aren’t keys, see, like the bottle opener and the little USB dongle, and there are a couple of them that are decorative…” Nomi bit her lip to make herself stop. She was always doing this, bumbling to strangers as though they really wanted to hear the minutiae of her life, or in this case, her key ring. “Anyway, sorry again. I’ll just get out of your way.”
She bent to pick up her keys, but the stranger somehow got there ahead of her. Hadn’t he been standing on her other side? His gloved fingers plucked her key ring from the ground and held it out to her between his thumb and his finger, as though it were some sort of potentially venomous insect.
“Thank you,” she said, but he held on to the keys, an odd look on his face. “Thank you,” Nomi said again, tapping a foot impatiently. She held out her hand, palm up.
The stranger seemed to shake himself, and dropped the keys into her hand.
“I’ll just be – goodbye,” Nomi said, clutching her purse closer to her chest and doing her best to pass him without any part of her touching any part of him. He was blocking most of the sidewalk in an irritatingly proprietary manner. She ended up having to brush against his long wool coat, which gave a little zing of static electricity against her fuzzy sweater.
The stranger didn’t acknowledge her; he merely waited until she had passed him and strode off in the other direction, long coat billowing behind him.
“Rude,” Nomi murmured under her breath. “Rude and creepy and would Mara put up with something like that? No she wouldn’t. She would have -”
Just as Mara’s name left her lips, a long-legged brown spider scurried across the sidewalk at her feet. Nomi gave a strangled squeak and danced around it, twisting an ankle in the process.
Muttering darkly, Nomi limped to the store, only to find that her debit card wouldn’t swipe. “Static electricity,” said the bored goth cashier. She cracked her gum in Nomi’s direction. “Happens sometimes. You got cash?”
Nomi did not.
“I hate this day,” she announced to her fellow shoppers, who were glaring at Nomi while the cashier voided the transaction. “This day is basically the worst of all the days.”
She didn’t think of the sinister stranger again until she got back home without the honey and found that she couldn’t unlock her door.
“Mara!” Nomi yelled, stabbing at the buzzer. “Open up!”
She waited. She waited some more. “Can’t,” came Mara’s voice, finally, muffled through the heavy wood.
“You don’t have the keys.”
“I know that,” Nomi said tightly. “That’s why I need you to open the door.”
“No, Nomi, you don’t have the keys,” Mara said. “Someone else does.”
Nomi blinked. She reached her hand out and touched the lock with her finger. The sting of electricity made her jump.
“But how – who -” She remembered the stranger, his gloves and coat (that he shouldn’t even have been wearing, not in this heat, and why hadn’t she noticed that before?) and the way he’d stared at the key ring like he knew what it was. “Damn it,” Nomi sighed. “There’s another siphonophore in the neighborhood.”
Mara made an irritated noise from behind the door. “Stop saying siphonophore. That’s not what it means and you know it.”
“Oh, shut it,” Nomi said. “It’s close enough, and besides, no one even knows what a siphonophore is.”
“Do you see any zoologists around here? I’m claiming siphonophore as a multi-use word. Which is appropriate, considering.”
“You have got to stop watching nature specials on TV. A swarm is not the same as a collection of tiny sea creatures, Nomi.” Thin, hairy spider legs were working their way into the gap at the bottom of the front door.
“Of course not,” Nomi said soothingly. “And humans are not the same as skin balloons full of organs. Which is totally beside the point, because Mara, I can’t get into the house.”
The spider legs retreated. “Can’t you pick the lock or something?”
“Don’t you think that if I could I would have done it by now? He’s obviously got a witch of his own, and that witch has obviously done some,” she fluttered her hand, “hoodoo.” Technical terms eluded her. Nomi’s thoughts were fractured; she couldn’t settle on any one of them.
The scrabbling of spider legs from behind the door wasn’t helping things one bit.
“Keep it together,” Mara said, as though she could sense Nomi’s distress. “It won’t do either of us any good if you fall apart now.”
“What do you expect me to do, Mara? I’m stuck out here. You’re stuck in there.” Nomi felt like she was blurring at the edges. “I can’t even – wait.”
Nomi remembered the static sting from the stranger’s coat. The keyhole zap.
The machine at the grocery store that wouldn’t read her card.
“Oh you have got to be kidding me.” Nomi spun on her heel and marched back to the grocery store.
The gum-snapping cashier wasn’t there. “I think she went on break,” said her replacement, gesturing vaguely at the other end of the store.
Nomi stomped out and around to the back of the building, where a utility door was propped lazily open with a very large jar of honey. Her honey, Nomi noted with a prick of anger. Of all the impolite, insulting, infuriating –
She flung the door open and stomped inside, where the goth cashier and the sinister man were standing inside a circle of candles, about to dip Nomi’s key ring in a bowl of blood.
“Ew,” Nomi said.
“Oh my god, go away,” said the cashier.
Nomi made a lunge for the keys, but before her fingers could alight the sinister man descended on her, wrapping her in his bony arms. The static electricity that surrounded him snapped at her skin like tiny, angry rubber bands.
“It’s not even going to work,” Nomi said, glaring. “You’re going to ruin my USB drive just so you can live out some creepy dark magic music video.”
“It’s not like I haven’t done this before,” the cashier snapped. “I know what I’m doing.”
“No you don’t. Blood isn’t an all-purpose binding element. You have to choose something appropriate to the subject, like -” Nomi realized she was saying too much and snapped her mouth shut.
The sinister man sighed, making a sound like rustling wings. Now that she was close, Nomi could feel…things…moving just under his skin. Siphonophores were creepy. “You shouldn’t have come here,” he said. “We no longer have need of you.”
“We didn’t have need of her before, Desmond,” the cashier said. “We had need of this ring, and now we have it. I can’t believe she put her keys on a ring of binding, bee tee double-you. Stupid witch.” The cashier made a face and looked at Nomi. “You can’t take it back, you know. It’s ours now.”
“First of all, shut up. Second, yes I can, because you haven’t completed the ritual.” Nomi stepped back hard, her heel smashing into the sinister man’s – Desmond’s – instep. She heard something crunch and Desmond let her go, shrieking.
Nomi snatched the keys out of the hand of the shocked cashier, knocking over the cauldron of blood in the process. It splashed out over the floor, soaking into the sinister man’s shoes…
…and was hungrily lapped up by the dozens of vampire bats that burst out of his suit.
“Ew,” Nomi said again.
The cashier was crying. “You’ve ruined everything,” she said. “I was going to own more of these weird swarm people than anyone, and then the magic community would have to take me seriously.”
“First of all,” Nomi said, “I’m using the word siphonophores, and it is totally catching on, so tell your friends. Second,” and here she put her hands angrily on her hips, “no one owns them. They’re sentient beings. Well, sentient beings made up of a whole bunch of little beings, which is why siphonophore is totally appropriate -”
“She’s right,” said the collection of bats that used to be Desmond. “I don’t think I want to work with anyone who thinks of me as a possession.”
Nomi stalked past the weeping cashier and grabbed the enormous jar of honey. “I think you’ve both got some tough decisions to make,” she said. “I wish you the best of luck, and also I will magic you into telephone poles if I ever see you again.”
“Can she do that?” the cashier asked as Nomi walked away.
Nomi triumphantly let herself into the house, where she found Mara sitting cross-legged on the sofa, playing cat’s cradle with a spider. “I guess you kept it together, then.”
“No thanks to you.” Nomi set the honey jar on the side table and put her hands on her hips. “Things have got to change around here, Mara. You don’t own me. I’m not your errand girl.”
Mara looked shocked. “I never said you were. I’m your witch, not your keeper. Besides, I thought you liked to stay busy.”
“Well,” said Nomi, “I do. But it would be nice if I could get a little appreciation.”
Mara rolled her eyes. “Good job stopping the evil swarm,” she said, and even though she was laughing, her voice was sincere. “And congrats on not falling apart.”
“It was a siphonophore, and it wasn’t evil. And put away that spider,” Nomi sighed. She opened the honey jar. The dozens of bees that lived under her skin swarmed out, devouring the honey as Mara covered her spider with a cup. “Also, you’re welcome.”
*Prompt: A stolen ring, fear of spiders, and a sinister stranger.*
Hopefully when you read this you thought Mara was the swarm and Nomi was the witch – although I did try to drop hints that Nomi was a swarm of bees. Both bees and bats can be killed by spiders (although it’s not super common, especially in the case of bats – but it does happen).