Horatch watched the hunters come. He'd tucked deep into the nearest rut when the girl screamed, and now his turret eyes scanned the jungle. He saw the fronds shift to all sides, the ring of humans closing in like a noose.
Milyi still lay in the vines. Her face had relaxed, the horror of his nature scrubbed clean by unconsciousness. Yet he remembered the expression as if it were still fixed there, proof that even with her talent, her wildness, he still had an uphill battle ahead.
So much fear to overcome. So much history.
Seven men and one woman crept into the open. They held long poles with gleaming metal tips, all raised to shoulder height and pointing inward. The dress of the tribal humans had changed much since a T'rant had last ventured across the rift. They no longer wore clothing fashioned from the beaten tree bark and long fronds. Instead, they'd woven flowing garments.
Weaving, a spider could appreciate. It elevated his opinion of the humans a touch, but not enough to outweigh the blunt-ended tools hanging from each slender waist. Those were built for smashing, and though he doubted the people remembered why the handles were just a little bit longer than a T'rant's reach, it didn't change the fact that he did.
He knew, and the sight of those weapons pressed him deeper into his bark furrow.
"Milyi? It's Milyi!" The bravest of the hunters rushed to the girl's side. He propped his spear tip against the ground and leaned down, examining the sleeping Milyi.
"Is she alive?" The others closed their loop. Most turned to face out, aiming their weapons at the jungle.
"She's breathing. I don't see any wound."
Horatch waited for them to rouse the girl. He held his legs tight against the rut's sides, wedging his body deeply, but at an angle that would allow him to scramble away if he needed to. Three hunters crouched beside Milyi, and the clearing rattled with her first waking breath, ragged, still echoing her panic.
He just might have to run.
"Spider!" She panted her way to consciousness, and her voice came in gasps between breaths. "So big."
Damn it all. Had the war's aftereffects left the humans too frightened? No candidates at the walls. They'd assumed it was only time and memory that kept the Hands away. If the hatred had driven so deep, however, their mission would fail before it ever got started.
A whisper swept through the group, the echo of Milyi's confession. Spider. They chanted it under their breath, and the syllables swam in fear and danger. Spider, big spider. All eight of them reached for their cudgels. Brown hands hovered above the smooth handles, and their eyes scanned the trees, searching.
Searching for him.
Horatch tensed. He dug his rear claws in and prepared to leap free, to scale the trunk as swiftly as his legs could churn. The humans grumbled and shifted from side to side. Their spear points lowered, and their long fingers wrapped around their T'rant smashers.
"Where?" The man hovering at Milyi's side leaned back enough to survey the vines around them, as if the offending arachnid might be creeping up on him already.
His movement offered Horatch a clear view of the girl, however. She'd sat up now, and her eyes fixed on the tree trunk exactly where he hid. What she did next made all the difference. He could see that much, in the way her eyes shimmered and in the tight line of her mouth. The time had come for Milyi to choose, but it had come way too soon. He'd had no chance to speak with her, to prepare her for her destiny.
"Milyi?" The hunter pressed her. The ring of spears swung from side to side. "Where is it?"
"Let her catch her breath, Font." The woman had crept near to his tree. Her voice blasted through the air and caused his toes to tremble.
"There." Milyi found her voice, however. She answered with a shout of her own. Her young mind had decided, and her thin brown arm pointed the way for them. Like an arrow, it stretched out, focused on a tree directly opposite where Horatch actually hid. "It was over there."
The hunters responded, creeping away from the girl and the hidden T'rant. When the last one had passed her by, Milyi turned, lightning fast, and stared straight at him. Horatch bolted. He wanted her to see, to know that she'd done the right thing. He didn't want to give any of the hunters that opportunity, however. And so he scrambled for the canopy, a lightning streak of white against the bark.
His soft skeleton protested the speed. Not enough days had passed since his molt to strengthen his shell, but that made his flight all the more vital. They wouldn't even need the smasher today. Horatch had no defense but his fangs, and those required proximity, didn't deliver a toxic enough bite to slow down his would-be killers. His only advantage would be height. His only hope was to get away before his movement was detected.
The girl covered for him again. Her voice drifted up, misdirecting, guiding the spider smashers to a different tree. He climbed in the open, leaping the deeper ruts, and stretching with each span, closer to the fronds above.
When they closed around him at last, Horatch rested. He clung to the tree without even the strength to tuck himself into a rut. Below, the girl who was destined to be his candidate led his pursuers on a wild chase. If they found some poor arachnid, he would mourn for it. At the moment his heart sang for her, for Milyi. The girl who had defied her people's bias.
She'd passed a first testing and Horatch had every confidence in their future now. Time. All he would need is time to woo her.
The bark beneath his claws vibrated, but it was not the smashers work. This had a high tremor, a speed that no human's hand could muster. It buzzed. It hummed through his legs and across his bristles, and he knew it in an instant, though he'd never felt anything like it in his life.
Their old enemy awoke as well. Horatch had no strength to panic. He waited, let the buzzing build and then fade again, passing over perhaps. Coincidence perhaps. He could pray for that much, tell himself it wasn't what he knew it was.
But only until he won the girl. After that, it would be time to run.