Horatch stretched his legs out along the bark and watched the boy cringing. Milyi didn't see it, failed to note how delicate their situation had become. But Horatch knew. He saw barely controlled terror in the clenching of the boy's hands, in the constant working of his jaw and the twitch of his fingers.
They rattled, and in that drumming, Horatch heard the Wisp's influence.
He couldn't lose her now, not this close to the city. Not with the Great One mending in the next clearing. If the boy knew that, if he ran to tell his masters--Horatch would see him dead first, but that killing would lose him his candidate. He saw that much in the girl's wide eyes, in the way she leaned toward the boy when he spoke.
"Tell me about your village, Saku." Milyi crouched beside the fire, hands on her knees and eyes fixated on the rapidly recovering boy. "Did you have a trade yet?"
"I was learning to hunt." The boy smiled for her, but his eyes darted to the tree, to Horatch. "What about you?"
Horatch twitched his legs and watched the enemy. Milyi would balk at leaving him behind. She'd mutiny at feeding him to the Great One. What was he to do? If he left her now, not only would he fail Niatha, return home empty handed and fully shamed, but he'd miss the girl's company as well.
She was his. That was it, his candidate, and the boy had no claim to her. The Wisps never would, not so long as Horatch had a breath inside his carapace.
"My grandmother wouldn't let me hunt." Milyi's laughter filled the clearing, drowned out the crackle of the fire. "But she made me try everything else."
"Milyi is a dancer," Horatch said. Best to remind her of that now. The skill would be her salvation later, would keep her off the fangs of whatever Great One summoned her to its burrow. Best to keep her focused on that. Horatch meant for his candidate to return from the summons alive. "She's very good."
"Really?" The boy leaned forward and put his hands on his knees. "Show me."
"Oh no." Milyi's long hair danced from side to side. She giggled again, and despite her words, when the boys hands began to drum an awkward rhythm against his thighs, Milyi stood and swirled her skirts. The Wisp spy found a beat, hammered it with all the grace of a second instar with a missing limb, and Milyi moved to the side of the fire and began to dance.
She'd definitely survive the summons. Horatch knew talent when he saw it...and the lack of it when he heard it. The boy's drumming faltered too much, but Milyi made up for the lapse by clapping, by stamping her feet and evening out the rough music.
Her hips swayed. Her arms rolled like a wind through the fronds. She closed her eyes and twisted her body, and her brown feet pattered against the ground, making better music than the boy's hands could, making her own song.
Underneath its drumming, Horatch heard another patter, deep, mighty. The Great One, moving! Had their moment come already? If Milyi could answer her summons now, before they reached the city...no other candidate would have done as much.
He hugged the tree and listened, watched the girl and prayed. But the Great One's motions told a different story. Horatch felt the desperation in it, the pain. He needed to supervise the girl, his girl, with the spy. But more than that, he needed to quell the restlessness thrumming from the next clearing over.
Damn. He bolted up the tree trunk, left Milyi to her dancing for only a moment. Once the foliage hid his movements, Horatch leapt between the fronds, flew to the spot where they'd left the giant spider only to find the clearing empty.
No! The jungle parted in a swath of mangled brush where the Great One had made no gentle passing. Horatch scurried after it, followed the obvious trail, the trail any fool could see. The foliage bent and twisted. The canopy gaped. From above, that gash would lead the enemy straight in.
And the Great One had made little progress. Horatch found it only a few spans farther along, jerking it's leg free from a vine and leaning heavily to one side. Its frustration vibrated through the jungle. Fury at a body that no longer obeyed the massive mind's commands.
Horatch drummed to soothe it. He begged it to stop, to still itself again, to wait for the girl. He could fetch her soon enough.
She cannot come.
Horatch drummed assurance. Yes. He could bring her now.
Our hands cannot reach us. We must leave the burrow. Must find our hands.
The Great One had left its hole with this intention. Horatch felt it, felt the desperate need that should have come as summons only. The candidate always traveled to the burrow. The joining must happen where they pair were safely ensconced.
But the Great One's thoughts were muddled. Its body had not survived the Wisp attack unscathed. It pulled one foot free, jerked forward only to find another stuck and resisting.
Must find our hands.
Perhaps the poison had dulled its thoughts as well. But then, it had left its burrow long before the Wisps had done their damage. Horatch drummed again, pleaded Milyi's case, her talent and her proximity through his toes.
Our hands cannot reach us.
Horatch tapped and pleaded, but the Great One freed its mighty foot and moved forward again. The gigantic body still leaned. The paralysis still had an effect on the spider's movements, but it continued, as ever, toward its goal. Single-minded, once the summons was upon them. And if that drove the Great One away, then Milyi was not the correct candidate for it.
Their time had not yet come.
He stopped his drum, watched the orb of the Great One's abdomen vanish into the jungle, and sent a prayer after it. He wished for its safety and a success that Horatch felt was utterly impossible. Then he dashed to the nearest tree and back through the canopy to the firelight and the girl whose long journey would not end today.
She'd moved around the fire. Now she danced close beside the boy. He'd stopped drumming, and his body leaned out. His attention fixed on the girl's movements, and both of them swayed together, entranced, synched in the dance.
Failure. Horatch could see that from the highest fronds. He'd failed to stall the Great One, and here, with Milyi and the Wisp spy's laughter singing a happy chorus, he'd failed all over again.