Niatha spun in the darkness of her burrow. She stretched, pinned the silk to the stone wall, and swept her abdomen across the lair, laying the sheets back and forth, one layer over the next, until the inside of her home was coated in pillowy, white silk. She'd torn down every scrap of old webbing the day Horatch left the city. That silk still carried Metacha's stench, his irritating little hairs stuck to it like flies that would not digest.
She'd rolled the whole mess into a wad and devoured it, used the nutrients to make a new lining, stronger, better silk.
Now she let the movements pull her away from time and mating, let the trance of weaving descend and drew the fibers with her spinerettes, this way and then that way. Her mind drifted, flew into the wind and the faint calling of the Great Ones. They drummed in more numbers now, no longer waking but awake. Their earth trembled with the steady tapping of many mighty toes, and Niatha heard each one as if it called directly to her.
She'd failed them. Unless the T'rant scouts brought back Hand candidates, the Great Ones would tire of waiting. They might already, a few always wandered from their holes to search. If they found her city in rubble, her people sparse and struggling just to remain fertile, it would all fall on her name. Niatha, the leader who had seen the Great Ones return and offered them vacant ruins.
Horatch, if only you could hear me. I trust you. I believe in you. If you bring back what we seek, Horatch, you can save us all.
The plea was only half selfless. He'd been gone too many days, and her toes had started twitching at the thought of the distance. She'd woken three days in a row to a churning dread, had climbed before the sun to the apex of her pyramid and watched the jungles as far as she could see, sensing, praying that he might be near by now.
That she might feel him again soon.
Horatch. Be safe, setalia.
Instead of her ex-mate's soft steps, however, a clumsy drumming sounded at her burrow's mouth. Niatha knew that rhythm, the heavy, plodding, unimaginative thump, as the toe taps of her current mate, Metacha. She clicked her fangs once and leapt down the tunnel leading out of her lair. Her abdomen still trailed a sheet of silk, and the strands flowed in a wide swath like a veil behind her.
Metacha, she didn't want to see. Their spiderlings were still young, had only lived through two or three molts, and if the giant T'rant meant to trip into her burrow again this soon, Niatha would add his nutrients to her silk.
She rocketed down the sluice. The surface of each of the city temples was notched with long troughs where the T'rants could fashion their burrows. Niatha's angled near the very top of the primary temple. Not one burrow had been webbed above the High One's, and not one burrow had ever erupted with such fury. She exploded from the silk tunnel with her forelegs raised to the sun and her black fangs pried apart and dripping her anger.
Metacha, fortunately for him, had retreated to a safe distance long before his mate appeared. He waited on the narrow shelf below the burrow, and Niatha clicked her fangs together and wish he'd been more careless. He was fat. She could see the engorged state of his abdomen from above. His orange bristles had gone dull and even his stout, velvety legs had to flex more than usual to keep his weight from sagging.
"It's definitely too soon to mate, I see." He lowered his abdomen until the underside had to scrape the stones.
"Why don't you come and see?"
"You're cranky this morning."
"What do you want, Metacha? I'm spinning today."
"Your scouts have returned." He stretched the statement out, teased her with it. Then his voice dropped, and a note of a threat entered it. "Some of them, at least."
He was suspicions after all. Niatha cursed him silently and dropped her attack pose. She brushed one long leg through her fangs as casually as possible, as if the bristles had only twisted a little on the way out. Inside, her heart leapt. Some of them back. Some of them. Had Horatch found her a Hand so swiftly?
"Did they bring candidates, then?" Niatha used her haughty voice, the one she hated but that served her well in council meetings and when she needed to remind anyone who she was. "Do we have Hands?"
"There is one. The other scout was injured and had to return alone."
"Show me." She leaped down to the shelf, satisfied at how quickly her mate shuffled away. She had scared him, even if he pretended otherwise. Good. It would keep his thoughts off mating for a while longer. "Where are they?"
Where are you, my setalia?
"The west temple. They came in through the rift gate."
If Metacha followed her, he fell behind before Niatha reached the courtyard stones. She slid most of the distance, only used her claws to slow herself enough near the end so that her abdomen didn't jar too hard and risk a tear when she landed. Her legs zipped her across the open space, between clusters of spiderlings that may even have been her own offspring.
Horatch, please let it be.
But when the High One joined the crowd in front of the West Temple, her former mate was not there. The T'rants parted for her, lowered their abdomens and offered her respect. They made an aisle straight to the base of the pyramid, and there, a brawny human stood, shoulders back and chin up, staring at the T'rants as if he meant to go to war.
With them or against them, Niatha couldn't say, but her scout, Braffin, clung to the boy's arm even as that limb clenched and shielded the body from the sea of spiders. To one side, Braffin's mate tended to another scout. Tofar had lost two legs on his journey, had come back without a candidate. At least he'd made it back.
At least...Niatha had no time to let her disappointment blossom into fear. They had a Hand in the city. A candidate had come. She raised her voice so that the boy and her people too could hear the glory of her announcement. If her heart was dark with worry, she held it firmly from the words of her ritual, and the city rang with the High One's vibrating message.
"Welcome back, brave scouts. Welcome, first of all Hands. May you, as thousands of your people have done, find your destiny here."