There were many ways to spend your shore leave after a bloody battle. Most of those revolved around getting roaring drunk. And maybe hitting up a pleasure house. Elpsis had decided to spend her time by talking to spiders. Giant spiders. Probably not fun for arachnophobes. She'd taken two friends along. And so the trio made their way through dense forest. Visibility was at a premium due to all the trees and bushes. She wore simple spacer clothes - a vest, battered trousers - and sturdy hiking boots. She was still missing her left ear. Here and there, spiders could be heard skittering. The noise increased the closer they got to the lair.

"Should've brought better weapons," Mel muttered. Like Elpsis, she was dressed in rugged spacer clothes. She had a pistol holstered on her thigh. She sported elaborate tattoos on her forehead and cheeks.
"We're here to chat, Mel, not fight," Elpsis countered. She walked with a limp.
"Yeah, just in case they decide the meat we offer isn't tasty enough," the Mirialan responded a bit sourly. "They're creepy. Like something a Vaderite would feed slaves to."
"Don't mind Mel of the single spirit tribe, Hunts-Silently," a melodic, if somewhat high-pitched voice spoke. Shikoba walked alongside an enormous spider, petting its head. Their arachnide guide was as tall as an adult human and more than two metres long. The Partuz had eight eyes and sharp mandibles emerged from her mouth.

"Many have done her ill, and so she expects everyone to do it. She is not mean like many other sky people though. There are nasty ones who burn worlds. You must eat them if you see them. And I don't think she'll leave plastic lying around."
Puzzled and annoyed, Mel looked to Elpsis. "Uh...can it understand her?"
The human shrugged. "Not sure."
"Hunts-Silently heard that. She understands a lot. She can smell you're nervous," Shikoba chimed in. "Partuz are smart, not like Yazgid. Treat them fairly, and your bond will grow strong. My clan pays more attention to our Partuz Queen than to the High Queen. Or the Skyqueen, honestly. We'll always cross paths with her, but rarely with those. She's more helpful, too."
"Yeah, and that's good...for you," Mel muttered under her breath. "It's kinda your fault they're here anyway. One of you lot didn't pay attention while cruising around with a bunch of spiders and now there's a whole nest of them."

"Yes. 'Tis heartening to see them flourish. Warmer here than they're used to."
"Girls," Elpsis interjected a bit irritably.
"Fine. You do your meld thing, they stay out of our way, we stay out of theirs, some of our folks who aren't me get to ride them," Mel stated.
Shikoba gave her a long look. "I judge your words honest. You are, I wager, not like those fools who ventured to Yarkul to proclaim they cherished nature, but rode in floating vehicles that spit poison, and left their rubbish lying around."
"Idiots. Were they eaten?"
"Scared away."
"Shame. We're not like that. Or like those rich arseholes frakking up planets for profit. Already lived on one planet that went to chit."

They finally reached their destination on the hill. There were trees as far as the naked eye could see. Here and there, webbing could be seen. Hunts-Silently skittered across the ground, giving Elpsis a nudge, playfully rubbing her leg.
"Approach the web," Shikoba spoke softly. "Announce your presence. If they accept your parley, a drone will drop down and lead you to the rope that will take you up. Climb up and meet the queen. If Her Highness doesn't accept your supplication, they will throw webs as a warning shot. Do not linger if it happens."

Elpsis nodded. "Okay, back in a bit." She stepped forward towards the wall of webs. Reaching out with the Force, she could sense over a dozen of the creatures - watching them in the dark. "I'm...Elpsis Kerrigan. I speak for the people of the nearby town - the Unchained. I want to parley." She removed her rucksack from her shoulder and held it up. "I brought offerings." Briefly, she opened the rucksack and held up some meat.

For a moment all was quiet. Then skittering could be heard. Moving swiftly, a large Partuz dropped down from on high, landing on the ground with surprising grace. Elpsis winced a bit. The creature's shade of green matched the forest perfectly. If it had not been for her Force Sight, she would not have seen it coming. Yet the creature did not appear threatening. It raised a long leg and rubbed her, as if beckoning her to follow. Then the spider turned and walked to a tree. As Shikoba had said, a strand of non-sticky web was dropped down. It resembled a rope.

Taking the rope in hand, Elpsis began to climb up the web. It was a bit awkward, especially since she had to rely more on touch than sight, but she managed well enough. Her cyborg hand gave her a strong grip. It was less difficult than the steep cliffs she was used to climbing back on the island where she had set up her cabin. The lair had been built high off the ground, where the tops of several trees had come together. Strong webs had created a mesh of sorts. In a way, it reminded Elpsis of the tree cities the Vashyada and Wookies had built. Partuz drones moved freely above ground.

One in particular stood out. She stood in the centre, towering over the lesser spiders. But this was not her most unique feature. Elpsis sensed a formidable mind inside it. Not sentient, but not far from it. Her aura shone more brightly than that of the other Partuz. This could only be the queen. She regarded the two-legged interloper curiously. Pheromones emanated from her. Elpsis felt herself becoming less tense.

Bending down, she unzipped the rucksack, took out a couple pieces of still bloody meat. Then she took a few steps forward and laid them on the floor. "For you," she said, reaching out with the Force to gently brush against the queen's mind. Like any spider, the Partuz lacked a nose. But Strong-Web could smell through the intricate network of hairs on her legs. Having probed the offering, she seized the meat and swallowed it. Elpsis felt a feeling of contentment emanate from the queen. Drawing more strongly on her inner flame, she deeped the mental contact.

Her senses expanded as she felt their minds melt. The sensation caused her to feel dizzy. She was Elpsis, but she was also the queen spider. She saw the world through her own, blind and dead eyes, but also the eight eyes clustered atop the queen's head. She could perceive a huge nest - walls of webbing, providing both protection and storage for prey, manifold drones and eggs, waiting to hatch. She could feel the queen's fierce protectiveness towards her nest. Feel the flesh and the coppery taste of blood in her mouth. And then she could hear the queen spider's thoughts.

You Elpsis. Red-mane.
Elpsis was momentarily taken off-guard by her seeming so...coherent. Yeah, that's me. What's your name?
I Strong-Web. You want parley.
Right. The Vashyada taught me they make deals with your kind. Do you, uh, remember them?
Know the pale, pointy-eared two-legs. Treat us fairly. Not like grey and bronze, pointy-eared two legs. But they go away. You pale and two-legged, but not pointy-eared. Many strange two-legs in this forest. Green, red, pale, brown. Sky is different. Land is warmer.

The Vashyada aren't're a different forest. It was an accident. The two-legs you met are the Unchained. They're not bad people.
They attack.
They were scared, and didn't know who you were. Just like your children attacked some of them.
This their tribute. Elpsis speak for them? Unchained two legs want pact.
Elpsis paused. I know the Vash who made the first pact with your kind. She taught me. Reaching out, she let the Partuz partake in the memory. Elpsis could not actually envisage Tylania's image since she did not know what the Vashyada prophetess looked like. But she knew her voice; her scent; her aura of light.

There was a spark of recognition. White Queen. Strong-Web knows. Have dreams-memories. Foremothers know her. Two others at tree with you.
The pale, pointy-eared one is Shikoba. A Vash. A disciple of the White Queen.
Elpsis was not sure whether this was entirely correct, but Shikoba was a druid, and they followed Tylania's teachings. The green one's Mel. She's an Unchained
Partuz not attack two legs. Two leg stay out of forests. Only envoys from Unchained two legs may enter. Must provide tribute. One deer sized creature per week at base of this tree. Every tenth drone will be theirs to ride. Treat drones well. Or drones go.

Elpsis nodded. Okay, that's fair. Thanks. I'll tell them. The giant spider nuzzled her, and Elpsis reached out with her flesh and blood hand to stroke her head, touching the whitish hairs on top of it while taking care to avoid her many eyes. Strong-Web made a noise that Elpsis took as a sign of contentment.

You're a lot more, well, developed than I'd thought you'd be. More talkative.
There is in the forest I came from. It is cold-dark. It beckons with lure of food-prey. Inside it burns like ice...but gives thought-strength. Kin fear to tread there, but I was drawn-lured to it. I came back different.

Elpsis frowned. Sounds like a nexus.
I know not what that is. Or its name. You'll understand if you go. Return to other two legs now.

Elpsis withdrew her hand and picked up her rucksack after emptying its contents, leaving the rest of the meat for Strong-Web or her children to eat. Well, thanks for the audience. Take care of your colony.
Red-mane may return. Alone.
Thanks. I'll come visit. Maybe go hunting with you.
And with that Elpsis turned away, using the rope to climb back down. She had lost track of time, but it seemed enough had passed for her to feel a wave of impatience, along with some subdued, worry, emanating from Mel when she had finally had solid ground beneath her feet again.

"What'd the spiders say?" Mel asked bluntly.
"Well, queenie didn't eat me and invited me back to go hunting or something," Elpsis shrugged. "She wants your people to stay out of the forest. Only your bosses are supposed to come to her habitat, and she wants a deer sized animal per week. Lay it down at the base of that tree over there. If you do that, ten percent of her drones will be yours."
Mel looked thoughtful, nodded. "Sounds fine. I'll tell Phoebe. It's strangely coherent animal. You sure she's not possessed or something?"
"She mentioned going to a place that changed her. Back in Yarkul, I figure. Sounded like a nexus." Elpsis glanced at Shikoba. "You know anything about that?"
"The Dark Heart. 'Tis a cursed place of great power. Darkness permeates it."

The Mirialan looked a bit uncomfortable. "We got places like that on Tephrike. Bad places, filled with ghosts and monsters. Sane people shun them."
"There is an ember of light in the darkness. Healing plants grow there. Our druids venture into the Heart to test themselves. You cannot resist the dark without having faced it in your soul."
"You ever been there?"
The druidess shook her head. "Nay, but I will have to in order to pass my final trials."
"I'm not one for mystical stuff, but if it's made queen spider easier to talk to and there aren't any cursed creatures around, swell."

"Yes. Remember that this bargain only holds as long as the queen lives. When she dies, you will have to renegotiate or the drones will return," Shikoba added. "And her daughters may split off to found their own nests."
"This is going to be a fun Majiles meeting," Mel grumbled.
"Majiles? That's a Qadiri word," the Vashyada noted.
"Yeah, for our council. On Tephrike, we didn't have a word for an assembly where the people's voice actually matters. Called it Apella at first - after the local assemblies in the Dominion - but that didn't fit. The only power it had back home was to clap when the kind Jedi Masters decreed that we had to increase grain quotas to assure the 'inevitable triumph of the Light', even if thousands had to starve."
"That is an interesting loan of the word. We use..." Shikoba paused and turned to Hunts-Silently. There seemed to be some communication because the Partuz rubbed its legs together and came over to Mel. "She would like to offer you this present."
Mel stared when she saw the big spider lay a webbed gift at her feet. "A rabbit?" she asked, looking perplexed.
"'Tis very rude to refuse a gift," Shikoba lectured her earnestly. "I can instruct you on how to prepare it if you need guidance."
"I know how to prepare a rabbit," the Mirialan said irritably. Reaching out, she picked up the gift. "I'll just...remove the webbing, cook some stew. Maybe make some gloves.'re a...good girl." She tensed up when the Partuz stroked her affectionately with a leg. "Can you tell leave me alone?"

Hunts-Silently seemed to get the hint and gave her some space. Instead the Partuz lay on the ground, offering its back. "She is offering a ride," Shikoba explained. "Mayhaps you should try, Elpsis."
"Sure, why not. Uh, how do I hold on?"
"Move with your mount not against her. Don't grip with your legs. Wrap them around your mount. Keep knees and thighs relaxed. And hold on to this," Shikoba pointed to some bony protrusions behind Hunts-Silently's head. They were almost like a pommel.
"Ok, alright," Elpsis said, walking towards the waiting spider. "Do you guys use saddles or something?"
"Some do. Partuz don't like them. And a true rider doesn't need them. The mount and rider are one," Shikoba stated authoritatively.
"Have fun, don't fall off. Maybe try going upside down. Or have your friend jump," Mel suggested sardonically while Elpsis sat up cautiously. The moment she had settled on the Partuz, Hunts-Silently had arisen and was in motion again.

"Steady, girl." Perhaps the Partuz sensed that her rider was untrained, so she slowed down her tempo, giving Elpsis time to adjust without embarrassing herself. Not to mention avoid outrunning her two companions.
Gently holding on to the bony protrusion, Elpsis petted the spider with her other hand, while her legs wrapped around Hunts-Silently, toes pointed forward. Her body moved with her mount, the wind whipping around her neck and arms. "This is fun. You sure you don't wanna try, Mel?"

"Yes, I am," Mel retorted. Glancing at Shikoba she added, "since this chat with queen spider isn't going to be a one-off, we're going to need people of our own who can meld with her. This is something any Force-User can learn?"
"Aye, with sufficient strength and skill in telepathy. You must be trained in communing with animals. This queen is very advanced, so it'll be easier. It may pass on to her daughters, or not. Your leaders are blessed by the spirits?"
The Mirialan had spent enough time among Tygarans to know that this was a flowery way to say Force-Sensitive. "Phoebe is, Zail isn't. If one Advocate is Force-Sensitive, the other can't be." This applied to all leadership positions, as the Unchained strove to apply co-leadership to as many levels of society as practical.
Shikoba's eyebrows furrowed. "Interesting. I can pass on what I know to those willing to undergo instruction."
Mel nodded. "Do you need the Force to ride them?"
"Nay, though it helps. Our riders are mixed."
"Great. Most of our units have both. Spread the talent around, keep Forcers from thinking everyone else's a peon."

"Any chance we could take some of them with us to Tephrike?" Elpsis wondered aloud. "Let them devour some Jedi or Sithies."
Seeing the Mirialan's curious look. Shikoba shook her head. "Nay. The drones cannot stray far from the queen."
"Shame. I know some bastards back home who'd deserve to get eaten," Mel remarked dryly. "They'll help free up manpowere here though."
"They will," Elpsis said quietly. "We'll be back on Tephrike soon, Mel. And we are, we'll burn the lot of them" And though this world, with devils filled, Should threaten to undo us...She knew what lay at the end of that road - pain, fire and blood. She would be ready for it.