The Wisp guards hovered above the carnage while their leader injected its vile cargo. Failure. Horatch had met the first Great One to walk the surface in his lifetime, and he'd let them destroy it. If it weren't for the girl, he'd have rushed in and allowed the Wisps to spear him as well. Better that than returning to tell this tale.
"Horatch," Milyi whispered. She huddled near the vines, darting looks between the tragedy unfolding on the Great One's back and the two, hovering demons looking on. "What do we do?"
"Nothing." He tightened his grip on her arm. "We wait until they go and then get as far away as possible before the egg hatches."
"Egg. You mean she's..."
"Yes. And once the larva is in control..." Maybe they should kill him first. Horatch couldn't do it, couldn't harm a Great One even to save it from that. The very thought froze him like a stone. But the girl might be able to. She had the strength to do it, and no underlying reverence to interfere. "Wait until they're finished. We'll decide then."
"Why don't they attack us?"
"They don't need to." The buzz from above lowered, worked its way up his toes enough to rattle his joints. "They want us to see it, and if we survive, to carry the message back to my home."
"That there is no point in waking. The Great Ones will be vulnerable again. History will repeat itself."
"I don't know what any of that means."
He could tell her, but it meant he'd probably lose her. If she knew about the Great Ones' history, how it affected her people, would she still follow him to the city? Horatch couldn't guess, and they didn't have time as it turned out. The wisp removed her stinger from the Great One's back. She tilted her heart-shaped head, turned a flat gaze on them before lifting off.
It is done, scout. Again. Tell your gods to stay where they belong. This is no longer their world. Tell them, or else lose them.
At least he'd guessed that much right. These Wisps would not harm them. They wanted their threat delivered. It would buy him a little time, if the girl would follow orders. They only had one real course of action left to them, and the Wisps were betting he wouldn't take it.
They were right about that much. He wouldn't do it.
The red wings droned and three black bodies lifted from the clearing. The Great One stood, leaking from the wound, completely paralyzed. It's wide, slow mind dimmed, became even wider and slower, the thoughts spaced out like Milyi's stars and nearly unreadable.
He only needed its permission fist, wouldn't let her do the deed without the Great One understanding.
Horatch leapt from the girl's arm. "Get your stick again, Milyi. Be ready."
He drummed against the earth, fast in the way of his people. Horatch asked his question and waited for a response that would allow them to end his god. He waited, and part of him prayed it would not come, that he would not be the one T'rant in all of history to willingly oversee a Great One's death.
The mind he touched was vast, too old and too large to focus on individual moments. This was why the Hands were needed, why the symbiosis facilitated the Great Ones waking. Without a small mind to guide it, the Great One would simply return to a burrow and ponder the universe, the movement of time, and other things too enormous for a T'rant to imagine. They had grown beyond their world, had forgotten in their evolution, to remember anything as base as survival--mating, feeding, defending themselves.
These things happened as reflexes, as functions of a body whose mind was occupied elsewhere.
Without a Hand to guide them, they were as vulnerable as a spiderling, as blind as a mole, and as large a target as had ever walked their world. They'd made easy prey for the Wisps before, and once again today.
Horatch heard his answer, one drawn out syllable that came as subtly as a season. He latched onto it before the sigh was complete.
"Hurry Milyi. We must strike before the larva hatches."
"The Great One is paralyzed. He won't be able to feed himself, to hunt or move at all. If we allow that thing to hatch, we give him to the Wisps. They would control him, Milyi. Do you understand that?"
"You want me to kill him." She clutched her weapon, but now she pulled it closer, hugged it to her chest.
"Yes. Pierce him directly behind the eyes. It will be instantaneous, and nearly painless."
"Nearly painless." She stared at the giant, but didn't move to obey.
"He is in agreement."
"Can't we save him?"
"If the larva hatches, he will kill us. You must hurry."
She shook her head but moved forward just the same. Horatch drummed his apologies against the vines and mentally urged the girl to hurry. He didn't want to scare her out of action, but the Wisps' larvae hatched swiftly. She paused at the first huge leg, and he saw her take a deep breath.
"Climb up, Milyi. He can't move, and you'll have a better angle."
She shoved her branch up first, laid it across the wide cephalothorax and then used the second and third leg to swing herself up as well. When she sat aboard, Horatch suffered a pang of regret. That sight, a Hand astride the Great One, had been etched into his daydreams since his second instar. The heroic match, the goal of all T'rants. Reuniting the gods with their Hands.
And today he would help her destroy one.
"Right behind the eyes. There's a dent in the skeleton."
"Wait." She turned to face the abdomen instead, squatted down and examined the wound. "Can it bite me?"
"We don't have time, Milyi." They didn't. Still, a spark of hope flared in him despite all logic.
Nothing could bring a spider back from this fate. Nothing ever had. If they allowed the parasite to hatch, they'd be handing the Wisps a massive weapon, the means to destroy them all. "You have to..."
She shook her head at him again. Perhaps, in hindsight, he should have told her everything. Now, he could only watch her and wonder. Could it work?
Milyi shook her head, closed her eyes, and stuck her hand into the wound.