The Wisps swept the far jungle, humming their evil patterns back and forth. Niatha perched on the stone lip, on the precipice that marked the farthest edge of her domain, the highest corner, and listened to the enemy with her eight, velvety toes. Searching. A horde of deadly Wisps combed the other side of the great rift, and Niatha could only listen, wait, and pray.
The damned council had voted to do nothing. Of course they had. Too many generations had passed without risk or incident. Too many egg sacs had been unviable. There are not enough of us to risk over a single scout. She might have agreed with them, if she hadn't a belly full of fear for her true mate.
Where are you, my setalia?
For the first time since the scouts had ventured through the gates, Niatha prayed Horatch was not on his way home. She watched the far greenery shift in the breezes. She listened with her tarsi, and she wished her lover away.
Her instinct argued that he was close, far too close to be safe. Niatha's bristles flicked to attention and told her very clearly that Horatch was almost home. If anyone could pick the worst time for a happy reunion, it would be her setalia.
"High one?" A soft voice, with trembles at its edges. She knew it well enough now, didn't need to turn from her vigil.
"Yes, Rifani, what is it?" The girl had volunteered to watch beyond her normal shift, perhaps to keep an eye on the High One who ghosted the walls and clung like a gargoyle to the edge of her tower.
"There's a problem with the girl, the Hand with no legs."
"She has legs, Rifani." Their latest acquisition had no use of her lower limbs, and the Hand's structure did not serve them nearly so well as a T'rants. They needed all their appendages to function with any effectiveness.
"My apologies, High One." The juvenile dipped her thorax and raised her abdomen high in submission. "I do not understand their bodies well."
"Relax, child. You meant no harm by it." She sighed and pushed back from the edge a fraction. "My nerves are showing."
"The damn constant buzzing!" Niatha's palps drummed against the stones. The juvenile cringed from her, however, and brought her back to her senses. "Apologies. Tell me what has happened."
"The girl is trying to leave."
"Leave?" She turned away from the rift, spun to face the pyramids and the stone streets between their steps. "Why would she leave?"
The main gate lay to their right, and the widest of the avenues led there, to the pathway that made a winding passage all the way to the great rift in the ground, to the distinct sparkle of spider silk woven over the gap. They'd need to cross that to reach safety, if he even made it that far. Niatha tried again, willed him to find somewhere safe and hide.
Distracted would not do, not with Wisps in the distance, just out of sight, just where her toes could barely sense them.
"Lead the way, Rifani. I will follow." Niatha flexed, but before they could spring, the street below filled with the vibrations of many voices and feet. The Hands they'd gathered, a meager four to offer the Great Ones, stumbled into view.
Their First of Hands shouted to them, skipped to catch the two boys who'd only just arrived with their T'rants, who hadn't even had a chance to learn their duties, and yet, who marched toward the main gate with the broken girl held aloft between them.
"It's not safe!" Janta's voice lifted to the top of the wall. "She can't even walk."
Where were their T'rants? Where was the guidance her people should have provided these young ones? Niatha leapt to the nearest pyramid step and scrambled down the tiers, listening, and drumming for assistance as she ran.
By the time she reached the bottom, Tofar, Braffin and a crowd of juveniles appeared, trailing a wash of T'rants behind them, her people, eager to see the show if not to prevent it. Niatha raised her front legs, lifted her body high and shouted, "Stop."
The scene froze, but only for a moment, a captured image, broken by the keening of the Hand girl. She sagged in her kinsman's grip, but she struggled even without her legs to aid her. She twisted and fell to the stones. Even then, she moved, grabbing at the ground and dragging herself closer to the gate. The Hands moved in, tried to lift her but she batted them away and wailed again.
"I can hear him!"
Great Ones help us, not now.
"Let go. He's calling me."
If the girl heard the call, there would be no stopping her. No saving her either, with a jungle full of Wisps. Niatha tapped for silence and tried to reason it out. Why now? Why would a Great One summon the child to her death? In the end, it was not her right to question them, and yet it seemed a senseless death, even if a natural one. She'd ordered the scouts out that brought the girl here... to be a sacrifice? Niatha's chelicerae ground together.
"Let her go." She spoke the words like thunder and cringed at their clatter.
"We'll take her." The other Hands reached again.
"You cannot." Niatha's voice hammered at her heart. To send them all would be to waste them all. But the girl would never make it across the strands without help. "Her Great One summons her. She must go alone."
"She'll die." The First of Hands, stepped to defy the High One. He hadn't the right, but today, Niatha felt, it was best he didn't know the laws he broke. It was best that she heard his just complaint though there would be no justice for the girl. Her Great One called her to her doom.
"If you go, then so will you." Niatha listened to the humming and cursed the council's cowardice.
"Even if you survived the bridge and the enemies beyond the gap, when the Great One calls, only the Hand who hears may come. The wrong Hand would not be accepted... except as a meal."
There was silence again, a horrible wake to words that sounded foul even to the speaker. Today, the rituals seemed particularly cruel. The girl scratched at the dusty paving stones, and Niatha heard her efforts as an ache. She heard them throbbing, like a distant drum.
"We will guard her," Janta insisted.
"If you enter the burrow, you will die."
"Then we'll take her to the burrow and wait."
"She may not come out." What could the legless child do to impress her giant? It was not for anyone to know what made a Great One pick a Hand, but Niatha knew there would be a test, and she didn't see much chance for a happy resolution here. "She will likely die inside, and we'd have risked three more chances if you all go. We can't afford..."
"We have no Hands to spare for..."
The stones sing.
"He calls me!" The girl on the ground howled, but it was the city below her toes that answered Niatha's prayers.
"It's coming here." But no Great One had ever ventured from the burrow without its bonded Hand. "Is it coming here?"
"I feel it too." Rifani hissed beside her. "Beyond the Gap."
Where the Wisps circled and searched the jungles. The enemy was not attacking the city, they were up to something far worse. Niataha's setae tingled. She lifted to the tips of her toes and felt the Great One's drumming in her claws. The council might vote against a war to defend their home, but they could not dare to vote against their main purpose. They would not, and Niatha would not allow it if they tried.
She drummed the signal to the towers. Open the main gate. Spread the word to all corners. Gather and Prepare. She sent a silent prayer for her true mate's safety as well, for the T'rant she knew approached the city now. Somehow. Somehow her Horatch had brought a Great One to the walls.
Niatha's voice sounded the alarm. The High One called her people to honor their ancient promise and serve their long-sworn duty. She shouted, and the city of tiny, velvet feet repeated her words, spreading the call from wall to wall, from the base of the pyramids to their sunlit tips. Calling them to fight, likely to die.
The High One shouted, and the spider city sprang toward war.
"Defend the Great One!"