Milyi pushed the fronds apart with shaking fingers. They'd crept into the jungle, away from the river and, according to Horatch's stories, off course if they meant to find the rift. The ground thudded regularly now, and on occasion, shook hard enough to threaten her footing. Whatever they stalked was large enough to move the earth, and if that thought would have sent her scurrying in the other direction, it only seemed to excite her T'rant companion more with every step they took.
"Remember not to panic," he said. "Just focus on the rhythm and dance. Fear is natural, but the less you show of it the better. If you can get lost in the..."
"Shhh." Milya resisted the urge to swat at him. She'd gotten used to the prickle of his claws soon enough, but this incessant chatter had her nerves frayed. When the ground trembled again, she shook her head. "I don't think this is safe, Horatch."
"To be safe is overrated."
They couldn't have disagreed more. Milyi, for the first time since running away with the T'rant, imagined her soft bed, the safety of canvas walls and a belly full of warm soup. She'd left everything comfortable behind her, and now, she had a feeling Horatch meant to march her straight into something very dangerous.
"Just dance," he said.
He kept talking, but this time the drone in the air masked his words. The humming returned. Since they'd awoken, the sound had come and gone three times. Each time it buzzed through the canopy, Horatch stiffened. His claws dug deeper into her skin, and her shirt bunched under his legs.
"Don't move." He didn't have to say it. She'd already frozen in place.
The branches overhead shifted against one another, letting loose a rain of dust and smaller leaves. The buzzing grew. The ground rumbled with the Great One's drumming.
Horatch shouted in her ear. "Down!"
Milyi already squatted close to the vines. Now she dropped to her belly on the mat of vegetation. The T'rant clung to her still, but he worked his way higher onto her shoulder, tangling a few of his legs into her hair. The foliage rattled around them, and the droning continued, louder and louder. The drums of the Great One challenged it, pounding harder.
"What is it?"
"Go?" She shook her head, and the T'rant moved with the gesture, nearly losing his grip on her. "In there?"
"Hurry, Milyi. There might still be time."
But when she crawled on, when the last few fronds parted, she knew better. Even without his foreknowledge, Milyi understood they witnessed a battle. She felt the antagonism, the soul-deep hatred unfolding in the circle of cleared jungle, no doubt trampled flat by the circling of a monster so big the whole of grandmother's tent could have rested on the thing's head.
Cephalothorax, she corrected mentally. Horatch had instructed her a little on his anatomy, and this thing, this house-dwarfing arachnid, most certainly mirrored a T'rant in construction. The abdomen swung to face them, blocking out the jungle, blocking the sky.
Milyi's vision filled with wiry, arm-long amber bristles. Her brain registered only the size, enormous, gigantic, impossible. Her heart hammered like the T'rant's toes, drumming his secret message to this Great One. This, was a Great One. She had no doubt now, and no doubt at all that she had made the wrong choice in coming.
The monster spun the other way, lifted the front of its body off of the ground and revealed its fangs. They stared into certain death. Milyi closed her eyes. She couldn't have run if she'd tried, couldn't have found the strength to move her body. This thing could not exist. It couldn't be, and yet, her vision filled with it.
"Where is it?" Horatch hissed to her, his words as insane as the thing they watched. "I can't see it."
But it was everywhere. The whole world was one enormous, furious spider. The droning reminded her. The buzz above that echoed the hammering steps of the Great One. Its fury was not for them, at least not yet. The monster reared higher, waved four front limbs to the canopy and batted at the source of the buzzing.
A second monster hovered just out of reach of the Great One's tree-like limbs. Blurring red wings held the long body aloft. That stretched as long as two of Milyi, and the slender black legs that curled below the segments ended in a series of jagged spikes. Those, however, didn't look nearly as deadly as the single spire at the butt of the black abdomen. The stinger gleamed like a well polished spear tip but three times as long.
"The Wisps have found him." Horatch flexed his toes against her shirt and hissed. "They're attacking."
Milyi nodded, and her hair danced, dragging the T'rant with it. Attacking. Giant bees and Monster spiders. While they watched, a second Wisp fell below the treetops. It came from the opposite side, and the two smaller demons harassed the Great One from both ends. The spider flicked one leg after the other to bat at them, but the wasps dodged. They had more room, could maneuver better.
The ending of this battle had already been decided. Milyi surprised herself by feeling sorry for it. Perhaps her association with spiders had gone a little too far. Perhaps, she should go straight home and find a nice, fist-sized stone.
But she couldn't go back. Not even if Horatch would have let her. The thought felt too much like whimsy, like a dream, while the battle raging in the jungle seemed real and vitally important. Her leggy partner had done his job well. She wanted the spider to win.
Not as much as Horatch did, apparently. His legs tightened. His voice shouted above the sound of monsters clashing.
"We have to help him!"
Before she could laugh or cry in answer, Horatch sprang. He hit the nearest frond and leaped again, a black and white streak on a field of green, a tiny demon dashing straight into the madness.