Thursday, March 3, 2016

Episode Thirty-One: The Call

The Wisps swept the far jungle,  humming their evil patterns back and forth. Niatha perched on the stone lip, on the precipice that marked the farthest edge of her domain, the highest corner, and listened to the enemy with her eight, velvety toes.  Searching. A horde of deadly Wisps combed the other side of the great rift, and Niatha could only listen, wait, and pray. 

Not Horatch. 

The damned council had voted to do nothing. Of course they had. Too many generations had passed without risk or incident. Too many egg sacs had been unviable. There are not enough of us to risk over a single scout. She might have agreed with them, if she hadn't a belly full of fear for her true mate. 

Where are you, my setalia? 

For the first time since the scouts had ventured through the gates, Niatha prayed Horatch was not on his way home. She watched the far greenery shift in the breezes. She listened with her tarsi, and she wished her lover away. 

Her instinct argued that he was close, far too close to be safe. Niatha's bristles flicked to attention and told her very clearly that Horatch was almost home. If anyone could pick the worst time for a happy reunion, it would be her setalia.

"High one?" A soft voice, with trembles at its edges. She knew it well enough now, didn't need to turn from her vigil. 

"Yes, Rifani, what is it?" The girl had volunteered to watch beyond her normal shift, perhaps to keep an eye on the High One who ghosted the walls and clung like a gargoyle to the edge of  her tower. 

"There's a problem with the girl, the Hand with no legs."

"She has legs, Rifani." Their latest acquisition had no use of her lower limbs, and the Hand's structure did not serve them nearly so well as a T'rants. They needed all their appendages to function with any effectiveness.

"My apologies, High One." The juvenile dipped her thorax and raised her abdomen high in submission. "I do not understand their bodies well."

"Relax, child. You meant no harm by it." She sighed and pushed back from the edge a fraction. "My nerves are showing." 

"The Council?"

"The damn constant buzzing!" Niatha's palps drummed against the stones. The juvenile cringed from her, however, and brought her back to her senses. "Apologies. Tell me what has happened."

"The girl is trying to leave."
"Leave?" She turned away from the rift, spun to face the pyramids and the stone streets between their steps. "Why would she leave?" 

The main gate lay to their right, and the widest of the avenues led there, to the pathway that made a winding passage all the way to the great rift in the ground, to the distinct sparkle of spider silk woven over the gap. They'd need to cross that to reach safety, if he even made it that far. Niatha tried again, willed him to find somewhere safe and hide. 

"High one?"

Distracted would not do, not with Wisps in the distance, just out of sight, just where her toes could barely sense them. 

"Lead the way, Rifani. I will follow." Niatha flexed, but before they could spring, the street below filled with the vibrations of many voices and feet. The Hands they'd gathered, a meager four to offer the Great Ones, stumbled into view. 

Their First of Hands shouted to them, skipped to catch the two boys who'd only just arrived with their T'rants, who hadn't even had a chance to learn their duties, and yet, who marched toward the main gate with the broken girl held aloft between them. 

"It's not safe!" Janta's voice lifted to the top of the wall. "She can't even walk."

Where were their T'rants? Where was the guidance her people should have provided these young ones? Niatha leapt to the nearest pyramid step and scrambled down the tiers, listening, and drumming for assistance as she ran.

By the time she reached the bottom, Tofar, Braffin and a crowd of juveniles appeared, trailing a wash of T'rants behind them, her people, eager to see the show if not to prevent it. Niatha raised her front legs, lifted her body high and shouted, "Stop."

The scene froze, but only for a moment, a captured image, broken by the keening of the Hand girl. She sagged in her kinsman's grip, but she struggled even without her legs to aid her. She twisted and fell to the stones. Even then, she moved, grabbing at the ground and dragging herself closer to the gate. The Hands moved in, tried to lift her but she batted them away and wailed again.

"I can hear him!"

Great Ones help us, not now.

"Let go. He's calling  me."

If the girl heard the call, there would be no stopping her. No saving her either, with a jungle full of Wisps. Niatha tapped for silence and tried to reason it out. Why now? Why would a Great One summon the child to her death? In the end, it was not her right to question them, and yet it seemed a senseless death, even if a natural one. She'd ordered the scouts out that brought the girl here... to be a sacrifice? Niatha's chelicerae ground together. 

"Let her go." She spoke the words like thunder and cringed at their clatter. 

"We'll take her." The other Hands reached again. 

"You cannot." Niatha's voice hammered at her heart. To send them all would be to waste them all. But the girl would never make it across the strands without help. "Her Great One summons her. She must go alone."

"She'll die." The First of Hands, stepped to defy the High One. He hadn't the right, but today, Niatha felt, it was best he didn't know the laws he broke. It was best that she heard his just complaint though there would be no justice for the girl. Her Great One called her to her doom. 

"If you go, then so will you." Niatha listened to the humming and cursed the council's cowardice. 

"Even if you survived the bridge and the enemies beyond the gap, when the Great One calls, only the Hand who hears may come. The wrong Hand would not be accepted... except as a meal."

There was silence again, a horrible wake to words that sounded foul even to the speaker. Today, the rituals seemed particularly cruel. The girl scratched at the dusty paving stones, and Niatha heard her efforts as an ache. She heard them throbbing, like a distant drum.

"We will guard her," Janta insisted. 

"If you enter the burrow, you will die."

"Then we'll take her to the burrow and wait."

"She may not come out." What could the legless child do to impress her giant? It was not for anyone to know what made a Great One pick a Hand, but Niatha knew there would be a test, and she didn't see much chance for a happy resolution here. "She will likely die inside, and we'd have risked three more chances if you all go. We can't afford..."


"We have no Hands to spare for..."

The stones sing. 

"He calls me!" The girl on the ground howled, but it was the city below her toes that answered Niatha's prayers. 

"It's coming here." But no Great One had ever ventured from the burrow without its bonded Hand.  "Is it coming here?"

"I feel it too." Rifani hissed beside her. "Beyond the Gap."

Where the Wisps circled and searched the jungles. The enemy was not attacking the city, they were up to something far worse. Niataha's setae tingled. She lifted to the tips of her toes and felt the Great One's drumming in her claws. The council might vote against a war to defend their home, but they could not dare to vote against their main purpose. They would not, and Niatha would not allow it if they tried. 

She drummed the signal to the towers. Open the main gate. Spread the word to all corners. Gather and Prepare. She sent a silent prayer for her true mate's safety as well, for the T'rant she knew approached the city now. Somehow. Somehow her Horatch had brought a Great One to the walls.
Niatha's voice sounded the alarm. The High One called her people to honor their ancient promise and serve their long-sworn duty. She shouted, and the city of tiny, velvet feet repeated her words, spreading the call from wall to wall, from the base of the pyramids to their sunlit tips. Calling them to fight, likely to die. 

The High One shouted, and the spider city sprang toward war.

"Defend the Great One!"

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Episode: Thirty

Saku followed the girl with the devil on her shoulder and tried to imagine how he'd save her. That she needed saving, he didn't doubt. Even more surely than that, he wanted to be the one to do it. 

"We'll head a little south and then turn east again." She called back to him, tossed her long hair and skipping in place. Musical Milyi, always dancing, even when she wasn't. 

He'd take her to Angel. Maybe. His head hurt, buzzed at the edges and he shook it and tried to dislodge the fog. In the corners, his mind blurred. Saku knew it was right, getting the girl away from that thing. He knew it, but the ache in his head confused him. 

Why had Angel dropped him?

Somehow, he suspected it was this T'rant's fault. Horatch, the demon who clung to Milyi like a boil and led them now straight toward the edge of all things safe and human. Maybe the girl lived far enough away not to know about the gap. Maybe she hadn't seen it before.

Saku's father had looked into that chasm once. He'd told stories of hunters chasing prey right over the edge, driven to mad suicide by the monsters on the other side, by the drumming. 

Once he got Milyi free, he'd have to find Angel fast.  They trod through thick jungle now, ducked and wriggled through vines under a dense canopy. The Wisp would not be able to snatch them up here, but near the gulf, yes. He heard the buzzing agree, in the back of his thoughts. Near the edge of that gap the foliage thinned. There would be an open stretch, a space before the edge. 

Yes, my Saku. Bring her to us. 

"Are you all right?" Milyi appeared before him, and Saku blinked. He'd stopped walking, and the girl had turned around and come back to him. On her shoulder, the devil spider shifted its wretched legs. 

"Sorry." He'd heard Angel's voice. He was sure of it, but now, his brain buzzed like static again. Was she close? Was she looking for him? "I was just watching the trees."

"You were just staring up at the branches." Her dark eyes narrowed. She looked him up and down and a furrow appeared in the center of her forehead. "Do you need to rest? We've pushed you too hard."

"No. no." An urgency pushed him now, new and arguing with his sore muscles. "I can keep on a little more."

Her face darkened, tilted up at him like a little brown heart, and the prodding in his thoughts increased, buzzing him to action. 

"I feel great," he lied. "And I'm anxious to arrive."

"Me too!" The girl brightened, but the spider on her shoulder hissed a soft, disapproving note. If Milyi heard it, she ignored the devil and beamed up at Saku now. "I'm so glad you're coming with us."

Saku smiled for her, forced his eyes to stay on the girl's face, to ignore the monster on her arm the same as he'd ignored the thumping from the jungle behind them, the sound of whatever they'd hidden from him making its way in the other direction.

The same direction, really. He'd hunted enough to know he was being led away and around. Still, their destination was East, and the evidence of something else moving that way as well was not easily ignored. Saku did his best not to mark it. He followed the girl and matched her bright mood with as fair a copy as he could force. 

She didn't know, perhaps, that they marched into a confrontation. Saku believed her spider friend did. His head buzzed angrily, but it also pressed him to continue. Angel had ideas about their goal as well. The gap, Saku. The great rift.

Angel would be there to help him. She pushed that thought to the front of his mind. Help is waiting at the gap. All he had to do was follow... and possibly, when the time came, dislodge a monster from his friend's shoulder. Get Milyi free of her demon, and then Angel's kind could heal her. 

Yes. Good, Saku. 

"Saku?" Milyi interrupted his fugue again, frowning, fidgeting from one foot to the other. 

"Let's go," he said. "I'm fine." 

He passed her on the side with no spider clinging and marched forward through the vines. Already, the jungle thinned here. Though they headed primarily south, his guides had edged that line at an eastern angle. Saku squinted into the trees and thought he saw brighter light filtering in. 

A wide, open space ahead. A swath of clearing before the rift. Open air, space where Angel could snatch them easily. 


His steps sprang now, despite the twinges of fatigue. The goal lay ahead, and Saku felt it's lure drawing him onward. He heard it, in the buzzing, and let that energy soothe away his doubts.

Milyi caught the excitement too. She scampered to catch up, skipping in place. Twirling, excited and dancing for him.  It would be nice to help her. She'd thank him afterwards, once the beast was slain. 

"It opens up ahead." She pointed out what he'd already seen, smiled and spun with the wretched spider clinging to her like a cancer. "Look, Saku! We're almost there."

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Episode: Twenty-nine

Milyi slipped away when Saku fell asleep beside the fire. Her feet still throbbed from the dancing, but her heart beat louder than it had since leaving home. She threw her arms wide and looked up to the net of fronds over her head. When had she stopped fearing the jungle? When had she ever felt like this?

She scanned the trees for Horatch, slipped between the trunks, and stumbled into the mangled clearing where their Great One should have been. 

"Horatch?" The jungle broke at the far side as if a huge hand had crushed the foliage. "Horatch!"

"I am still here." His voice drifted down, and today it had a flatness to it, a note that made the skin prickle down her arms.

"Where is the Great One?"

"He's gone to find his Hands." Horatch moved and then, at last, Milyi could see him. His white and black legs shifted and he slid further into view. "We must cover his leaving, Milyi. You and I. The boy must not know."

"Why?" She bit her lower lip and frowned at the stretch of tree bark where he'd all but vanished.
 Horatch didn't care for Saku. He'd not bothered to hide it, even though the boy had done nothing but need their help. Even though he understood exactly what Milyi had been through, had been thrust from his own village just as abruptly, lost, unwanted... just like her. "Saku wouldn't do anything."

"Maybe not." There was fatigue in the T'rant's voice today. 


"Yes, Milyi?"

"Why don't you like Saku?" She crept nearer to his tree, tried to see his posture, to gauge from what she'd learned of him, all the secret things that always hid beneath his conversation. "You don't want me to like him either."

"It is a natural thing. Neither of us can prevent that, nor would I, Milyi... but like him or not, I fear this boy. I fear what he might be and what he hides from us."


The front legs came up together. Horatch reared, defensive, and she let her protest trail away. She'd sensed it too, how Saku chose his words with care, how he crafted his story. She didn't want to lie to Horatch, nor to lose him. But she wanted to keep Saku as well, and the miserable knot in her belly suggested that might be too much to ask.


"I know," she said. "But do we have to just leave him, Horatch?"

And that quickly, she'd chosen the T'rant. Saku's sweet eyes flashed through her mind, the way he'd laughed and clapped while she danced. But he hadn't offered her a future, not like Horatch had. Milyi would see the T'rant's city. She would find out why the spider had chosen her, or she would have left her life, her grandmother, even little Rani, for nothing. 

"No." Horatch lowered his legs. She might have imagined the relief in his words, might only have wished for it to be there. "But we will have to go wider, now. We must lead the Wisps away from our wounded friend."

"And you think they follow Saku?"

"I believe he is theirs, Milyi. Yes."

"But, isn't there something we can do for him? Some way to..." She couldn't even imagine what it was she wanted now. She'd seen the red and black beasts, the arm-long stingers and the flat, unfeeling reflections in the Wisp's eyes. "Maybe if he knew the truth about them?"

"Are you certain that he doesn't already?"

"Yes." How could he know? How could Saku know what the Wisps were capable of and still wear those robes? "I want to try, Horatch."

"If he listens to you at all," Horatch said. "He will still have their poison in his veins, child. The remedy for that is not sure, nor painless."

"But there is a remedy?"

"My people used it once, long before the Great Ones returned to their resting. It is difficult, and must be chosen freely."

"We can ask him." A flutter of hope stirred her. Of course, Saku would listen. If the T'rants could save him from the Wisps, then why would he not? "I can ask him, can't I?"

"I would not stop you." Horatch agreed in that much. "But I would ask you to wait, to give the Great One a little lead, in case your feelings for the boy are misplaced."

"Feelings?" Milyi's face warmed. She stuck out her chin and crossed her arms over her breast. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"In case the boy says no, Milyi. We must wait a little, for the Great One's sake."


"I wish to move again. My time away stretches and I would have safe walls around us sooner rather than later. We can skirt to the south and avoid the Great One's trail. It will add a little time, but less than standing still to wait."

"And Saku can come?"

"If you wish it." The only sign of the spider's agitation was the slight shuffling of his velvet toes. Milyi saw it. She marked it. But her heart still raced when he agreed with her. "If he wishes, he may come."

"Thank you, Horatch." Milyi danced in place. The vines underfoot stuttered her steps, but she threw her arms out again and held her balance. "Thank you for being reasonable, and wise, and... you."

"Don't thank me. Not yet, Milyi."

But her heart already fluttered in her chest. She heard the warning in the T'rant's words. She heard the touch of fear and concern. He sounded almost like her grandmother would have. Still, Milyi's feet pounded her joy against the jungle floor. She danced, and she couldn't for a second believe that Saku would say anything but yes. 

She couldn't fear, as Horatch did. Couldn't let the thread of foreboding in the spider's words take root.  She danced it away because, if she let it sink in and grow, she might have to imagine what would happen to her heart, to her song, if the boy said no. If Saku refused them... 

Milyi spun and laughed and wished that thought into non-existence.  

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Episode: Twenty-Eight

Horatch stretched his legs out along the bark and watched the boy cringing. Milyi didn't see it, failed to note how delicate their situation had become. But Horatch knew. He saw barely controlled terror in the clenching of the boy's hands, in the constant working of his jaw and the twitch of his fingers.
They rattled, and in that drumming, Horatch heard the Wisp's influence. 

He couldn't lose her now, not this close to the city. Not with the Great One mending in the next clearing. If the boy knew that, if he ran to tell his masters--Horatch would see him dead first, but that killing would lose him his candidate. He saw that much in the girl's wide eyes, in the way she leaned toward the boy when he spoke. 


"Tell me about your village, Saku." Milyi crouched beside the fire, hands on her knees and eyes fixated on the rapidly recovering boy. "Did you have a trade yet?"

"I was learning to hunt." The boy smiled for her, but his eyes darted to the tree, to Horatch. "What about you?"

Horatch twitched his legs and watched the enemy. Milyi would balk at leaving him behind. She'd mutiny at feeding him to the Great One. What was he to do? If he left her now, not only would he fail Niatha, return home empty handed and fully shamed, but he'd miss the girl's company as well. 

She was his. That was it, his candidate, and the boy had no claim to her. The Wisps never would, not so long as Horatch had a breath inside his carapace. 

"My grandmother wouldn't let me hunt." Milyi's laughter filled the clearing, drowned out the crackle of the fire. "But she made me try everything else."

"Milyi is a dancer," Horatch said. Best to remind her of that now. The skill would be her salvation later, would keep her off the fangs of whatever Great One summoned her to its burrow. Best to keep her focused on that. Horatch meant for his candidate to return from the summons alive. "She's very good."

"Really?" The boy leaned forward and put his hands on his knees. "Show me."

"Oh no." Milyi's long hair danced from side to side. She giggled again, and despite her words, when the boys hands began to drum an awkward rhythm against his thighs, Milyi stood and swirled her skirts. The Wisp spy found a beat, hammered it with all the grace of a second instar with a missing limb, and Milyi moved to the side of the fire and began to dance.

She'd definitely survive the summons. Horatch knew talent when he saw it...and the lack of it when he heard it. The boy's drumming faltered too much, but Milyi made up for the lapse by clapping, by stamping her feet and evening out the rough music. 

Her hips swayed. Her arms rolled like a wind through the fronds. She closed her eyes and twisted her body, and her brown feet pattered against the ground, making better music than the boy's hands could, making her own song. 

Underneath its drumming, Horatch heard another patter, deep, mighty. The Great One, moving! Had their moment come already? If Milyi could answer her summons now, before they reached the other candidate would have done as much. 

He hugged the tree and listened, watched the girl and prayed. But the Great One's motions told a different story. Horatch felt the desperation in it, the pain. He needed to supervise the girl, his girl, with the spy. But more than that, he needed to quell the restlessness thrumming from the next clearing over. 

Damn. He bolted up the tree trunk, left Milyi to her dancing for only a moment. Once the foliage hid his movements, Horatch leapt between the fronds, flew to the spot where they'd left the giant spider only to find the clearing empty.

No! The jungle parted in a swath of mangled brush where the Great One had made no gentle passing. Horatch scurried after it, followed the obvious trail, the trail any fool could see. The foliage bent and twisted. The canopy gaped. From above, that gash would lead the enemy straight in.

And the Great One had made little progress. Horatch found it only a few spans farther along, jerking it's leg free from a vine and leaning heavily to one side. Its frustration vibrated through the jungle. Fury at a body that no longer obeyed the massive mind's commands. 

Horatch drummed to soothe it. He begged it to stop, to still itself again, to wait for the girl. He could fetch her soon enough. 

She cannot come. 

Horatch drummed assurance. Yes. He could bring her now.

Our hands cannot reach us. We must leave the burrow. Must find our hands. 

The Great One had left its hole with this intention. Horatch felt it, felt the desperate need that should have come as summons only. The candidate always traveled to the burrow. The joining must happen where they pair were safely ensconced. 

But the Great One's thoughts were muddled. Its body had not survived the Wisp attack unscathed. It pulled one foot free, jerked forward only to find another stuck and resisting. 

Must find our hands.

Perhaps the poison had dulled its thoughts as well. But then, it had left its burrow long before the Wisps had done their damage. Horatch drummed again, pleaded Milyi's case, her talent and her proximity through his toes. 

Our hands cannot reach us. 

Horatch tapped and pleaded, but the Great One freed its mighty foot and moved forward again. The gigantic body still leaned. The paralysis still had an effect on the spider's movements, but it continued, as ever, toward its goal. Single-minded, once the summons was upon them. And if that drove the Great One away, then Milyi was not the correct candidate for it. 

Their time had not yet come. 

He stopped his drum, watched the orb of the Great One's abdomen vanish into the jungle, and sent a prayer after it. He wished for its safety and a success that Horatch felt was utterly impossible. Then he dashed to the nearest tree and back through the canopy to the firelight and the girl whose long journey would not end today. 

She'd moved around the fire. Now she danced close beside the boy. He'd stopped drumming, and his body leaned out. His attention fixed on the girl's movements, and both of them swayed together, entranced, synched in the dance. 

Failure. Horatch could see that from the highest fronds. He'd failed to stall the Great One, and here, with Milyi and the Wisp spy's laughter singing a happy chorus, he'd failed all over again.