Thursday, May 8, 2014

Episode Three

Horatch lifted his front legs and used both pedipalps to tap out his thanks on the swine's bristly flank. The pig grunted, dodged a low-hanging vine, and trotted on. If he knew the T'rant hitched a lift,  he didn't signal, but he made no effort to dislodge his passenger either and Horatch was grateful for it. 

Walking had begun to wear on him three days out. His joints tightened every day, and the urge to twist and wriggle free had begun that very morning. He had a molt coming, an interruption to his quest that would not be ignored, that would leave him defenseless for a time and most certainly delay his hopes of a rapid return to the temple city. 

He'd need shelter soon, a burrow, and he'd left the rift behind too long ago to consider turning back. 

The pig rocked from side to side, lurched forward and hopped over some obstacle on the jungle floor. Horatch slipped a quarter legspan to the right and had to scrape his claws against the sparse bristles to keep from falling. Already his strength waned, his abdomen burned, and he could feel the cool air through the crack forming in his exoskeleton. 

No time left to search for Hands. No time to find the humans with a molt already starting. 
He flexed all eight legs, dug his claws again, and earned a startled squeal from his host. The animal veered to one side, trotted closer to the stout tree trunks, and gave Horatch the opportunity he needed. In one spring, he left the swine's company. Moist air rippled across his setae as his body arced from fleshy pig to thick, deeply rutted bark.

The leap took more effort than he should have spent, but he landed well, clung to the vertical surface, and held perfectly still, a splotch of white and black against the lichen-encrusted tree. The bark would suffice for burrow weaving. It had deep ruts that could be fashioned into shelter. He only needed the strength to do it, and to climb high enough first to be out of the reach of the jungle's ground dwelling predators.

Niatha's burrow had shimmered at the edges. Her silk lined the stone walls, and she'd flavored it with all the grace and skill that had earned her position as High One. Horatch remembered as he climbed. He placed each foot in turn, crawled one rigid step after another higher along the tree, and imagined the time when he had won the prize of all prizes. 

The greatness that was Niatha still fueled his heart, and now he allowed it to drive his steps, inch by inch, toward safety. He reached the lower canopy where the branches pressed into flat fans and offered slash-like glimpses of the wider jungle. The bark thinned already. Any greater height and he would lose the foundation on which he meant to build. His body turned to parallel the ground and he shuffled in a circuit around the tree, searching, testing each rut for depth and strength. 

The top of his exoskeleton already threatened to open. Each movement he made required gentle premeditation. The tree disappointed him. His molting burrow needed to be deep and wide enough to accommodate his overturned body. There had to be room to twitch free of his too-small skeleton, and even with the addition of a silken canopy, the bark did not offer much hope. 

A little lower, then. 

Horatch descended, one velvet toe at a time. He spiraled down and searched for the right space to weave. Back in the temple city, Horatch had a permanent burrow, his personal sluice along the pyramid's stone face. He'd molted there in safety his entire life, had never once in more than forty seasons ventured from the stout outer walls.  

A flash of thought shook him, a weak moment where he imagined dying here, beyond the rift, in the jungles of the Hands. Niatha would never know how he ended. The council would announce his mission failed, and his burrow would be cleaned of canopy and mat, the silk collected and consumed, and all traces of his work eliminated. 

His life would have meant little, a failed mating, an empty egg sac and a mission from which he never returned, but at least there had been a mission. Most T'rants lived all their years inside the walls, mated, died, and had their burrows cleaned to make way for whatever spiderlings the previous generation had managed to produce.

They were fading, his people. Without change, the T'rants would not exist for long. More burrows went empty each year, and no Hands came to repair the chinks in the wall. The scars where temple stones tumbled free remained in rubble. 

His rearmost left toe slipped into a crack. Horatch tilted to that side, scruffed his claws against the bark and managed not to slide lower, to risk tearing the trapped limb from his weakened exoskeleton. 

The Hands were the key to it. If the Great Ones awoke and they had Hands to offer, many of his people's problems would be solved. 

His foot twisted. He felt the pull where the leg met his body and, for a moment, considered amputating the thing. If it tore lose, he'd risk bleeding out, but if he sacrificed the limb, he'd have a long wait till the next molt for a new one. His task would suffer. Instead, he eased his body lower and probed with another leg for the crack that held him fast. A breeze riffled the branch fans, Horatch slid his foot free and, in the same instant, caught the distant sound of something promising on the wind. 


Their voices gargled across the distance, rough-edged and too loud. The sound rattled his tarsi, but it gave his heart hope. Hands would mean a village nearby. They would mean, he'd been led to the right place after all. The Great Ones had guided his journey, had pushed his molt to ensure he settled here long enough to find their candidate. 

Horatch bowed low and raised his abdomen to the sun. His chelicerae rubbed together and he hissed a word of thanks. Even as he felt the crack that nearly ended him, he knew it would be the right size. He'd make a burrow there, and he'd molt without fear of molestation. 

The Great Ones wanted him alive and safe, or else he'd never have made it across the rift, never have encountered the right pig, the right tree, and if he guessed correctly, the right village. 

Somewhere inside it, his candidate waited. All Horatch had to do was survive, to avoid capture long enough to convince one special human to follow him home. 

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