Niatha stretched and let the sunlight warm the nervousness out of her legs. Still time--many of the scouts had yet to return. She'd been unreasonable expecting Horatch first. Three times the gates had opened with her heart in her toes. Three times. And still her setalia did not come home.
She flexed and rubbed one of her long rear legs over the bulb of her tiger-striped abdomen. Three hands so far and four of her scouts back. Good numbers. She'd call it a success if Horatch would only return alive. She'd call it a good plan, if only the distant jungles didn't seethe with danger.
The stones beneath her vibrated, a familiar patter, and one that gave her no alarm. At least it wasn't her beastly mate approaching.
"Yes, Tofar. You may come."
"T-thank you, High One."
They still tread lightly around her, even now. Though she'd ruled them peacefully for more than eight sun cycles, and she'd only ever eaten one messenger. Perhaps it was her position they feared, or perhaps, Metacha had been telling tales.
"You are healing well, scout. How are your remaining limbs?"
"Fine. Thank you. I'm hoping to recover fully next molt. I know they say you cannot tell, but I feel it. Just a little in my--"
"What brings you to the top of my temple, Tofar?"
"Rifani has spotted another scout returning." He shifted his legs absently, could not sit still in her presence. "She had watch at sun up, and saw them coming across the rift bridge."
"Excellent news!" She moved too quickly, drew her legs back underneath her and scared poor Tofar over the lip of the pyramid. "Tofar? Who is it? Have they reached the gates?"
The sun had been up for half the day. The bridge was wide, but not so much so that it took all day to cross. She knew it, when Tofar's chelicerae peeked over the edge, cautious, afraid not of her but of the news he'd been told to bring her.
Niatha leapt at him. Before the trembling front legs could gain purchase on the wall, she'd scared Tofar into a further slip. No matter, she continued over the edge after him, diving where he fell.
"What is it, Tofar? What has happened?"
"The one who comes is...they're..."
"Wounded. The going is slow. Rifani thinks--"
She scrambled around him and down to the next shelf. The tower had the best view, and Niatha gauged her distance and jumped, flew from one, crumbing stone temple to the next, lower one.
Across the plaza. She skittered over the top of the lesser temple and leapt again. The air fluttered through her setae and Niatha stretched her legs out, long and wide, and landed on the outer wall.
She ran the length of the complex, reached the tower on her meager eight legs and still the gates didn't open. The drums didn't sound.
Rifani met her at the tower base. The junior T'rants worked as sentries once they'd reached their final instar, and though Rifani already showed the bulky, fat-legged shape of her breeding, she'd yet to finish her adult molt. Her legs lacked the velvety orange of her mother's, and her body was dull brown instead of black.
"High One!" She dropped to her belly as soon as she noticed Niatha.
"Who comes, child? Are they over yet? Who is it?"
"I-I'm sorry, High One. We cannot see the T'rant from here, and they aren't drumming."
No drumming. It could mean a missing palp. Horatch had been close to molting--she'd smelled it on him. She never should have sent him out there so near to...
"The candidate is damaged," Rifani continued, broke Niatha's anxious train of thought. "I believe her T'rant is busy guiding her over."
"The candidate? The Hand is wounded?"
"It seems so," Rifani waved her front leg toward the rift. "She has trouble walking, nearly fell from the strands once already."
"Braffin and the First of Hands have gone already."
"Good." It was fitting, a Hand helping her. Niatha lifted her body a hair higher, unclenched her legs a little. "The First of Hands will be more help than we could. He's got the strength of a Great One in him. Show me."
"This way, High One." Rifani swiveled and climbed back up the stones. Each corner of the Temple city had a watchtower built into the wall. The south-western tower offered the best view of the rift and bridge. Both eastern towers looked out over secure territory, even if it was dry wasteland. It was there's still, land unpolluted by the enemy.
Unwanted by the enemy.
Niatha climbed behind the juvenile and ruminated, calm now that she knew the damaged individual could not be her setalia. The Wisps ignored the waste. She'd often wondered why? Was is strictly the lack of Hands in the deserts that kept the enemy out? Or was there something there, something in the wastelands they might use in defense...
"There, High One. He's got her." Rifani pointed with her foremost appendages. "The First of Hands is carrying the girl across."
Niatha sprang to the top of the tower and did her best to make sense of the view. The strand bridge shimmered, barely visible over the chasm. It made a twinkling ribbon above the darkness and the jungle painted an emerald backdrop. Mostly a smearing of colors in her many eyes, broken by the stuttering movement across the gap.
Not much use staring at them. No one drummed. She'd find out who came with the broken Hand at the gates instead.
"Keep watch, Rifani. Well done."
The juvenile mumbled something, drummed a respectful rhythm in reply, but Niatha had already bolted. She heard the sounds behind her, another disruption, another distraction between her and the T'rant scout approaching the city.
Over the wall she ran, around the next tower and onto the very center of the Temple city's gate. There she paused, for the softest drumming trembled through her toes now. They'd made it across, and the girl had their First of Hands to assist her. Her T'rant was free to communicate.
Niatha listened to the message with the sensitive bristles on her toes and tried to still the squirming of fear in her abdomen. Not yet. Not home yet. This scout was a female, a leggy orange with a nasty temperament and speed that Niatha would have killed for...would have killed with. If she'd had Tonathi's speed, Metacha never would have survived knocking a second time.
The city drums repeated the message: COMING OVER. CANDIDATE IN DISTRESS. WISPS IN THE JUNGLE.
Niatha flew to her tip toes and gazed out, listened with every single hair for that sound. The sound that had never been heard in her lifetime, in any of their lifetimes. She'd know it just the same, the drone of the enemy. She'd know it in her core, and even though the far trees were silent now, suddenly, that silence felt like waiting.
Tonathi tapped the warning. WISPS. She drummed it to them all, and Niatha could not doubt her, not even if she wanted to. Not with the Great Ones stirring. It had been too much to hope they were the only ones waking.
Now she couldn't wait for Horatch. She couldn't wait for anyone else, no matter how her insides boiled. The enemy was coming, and if she meant to have a city in which to welcome the Great Ones, Niatha would have to prepare her T'rants for something far less pleasant.
She'd would ready her people for war.