As the stark, white sun sank beyond the horizon, Zed placed the burning torch into the Ptwarin in front of him. For a second nothing happened; the only sound, the wind whipping the flames, sending sparks flying in the air to dance briefly in a firefly waltz. Zella quietly intoned the requiem, as was her role in this passing of a mate and, in the next instant, flames flared brightly and the wood, stacked neatly in the sacred pattern of the cremation pyre, caught and quickly spread to envelop the tightly wrapped form of Zarn.
Zed stood back, placing the torch in the waiting holder. He turned to face west, and saw a flare, an after-image of coruscating green, where a shard of light from the setting sun reflected back from the clouds. He knew this was a sign of their mate’s soul reaching the Place of the Gods, and he felt a deep happiness that Zarn would be there, waiting patiently for them to join him, when their turn came.
Zella finished intoning the requiem, and then joined Zed. She stared at him for a second, and bowed.
‘You did well, Zed.’
Her thoughts came clearly to him, and Zed felt relief that she approved of his actions.
He bowed in return, feeling that deep, mutual sadness at their loss.
‘Your actions will speak well of you when Zarn reaches The Place of the Gods,’ Zella continued. ‘He will tell the Gods of our faith in them. It will mean much when it is our turn to journey there.’
‘I only did what I should to make his passing as quick, and painless, as possible.’ Zed responded. ‘It was as I should do for a mate, just as tradition demanded of me at this time of death-dealing.’
Zed remembered how he had used his paddle claw to quickly chop at the exposed section of Zarn’s neck, where the chitin was segmented for ease of movement. He had made sure that it was done at exactly the right moment, so that Zarn would know nothing of it. As he remembered, he felt the soft touch in his mind that indicated Zella’s sharing of his memory, and he was content. This death-dealing, when a mate became too crippled to continue in a traditional role, was the only way that made any sense to them, and they knew they had done as they should.
Now Zarn should be almost in the presence of the Gods, transfigured at his death back to the vigorous being he had once been; this, so he could serve the Gods in whichever capacity they chose. This comforted the two remaining mates. They knew the time might soon come when it was their turn to join him, especially with the present war against the strange, bipedal race, that were trying to take over their planet; a race that seemed to have a never-ending supply of soldiers to keep on fighting.
Zed found it hard to imagine that anything could be so aggressive as to annihilate his people, just to have the land that they lived on – a mistake they had quickly realised, and tried to rectify. But this bipedal race seemed determined to capture his planet, and kill every living triad it could find – even the young brood that were totally defenceless against this aggression! Zed was only grateful that there had been a break in the fighting, so that they could arrange for the correct death-dealing for Zarn.
They had fought hard, struggling to keep their sector free of the bipeds, but not having much success against the strange machines that the bipeds carried, which gave out great surges of light, that burnt to a cinder any organic matter that it touched. It had been one of these machines that had crippled Zarn. They knew that the struggle was nearly over, and they had both known it was the right time to do what was necessary to ease Zarn on his way.
As they watched, the pyre slowly burnt down, until only ashes remained. Zed and Zella waited patiently and, as soon as the ashes were cool enough to handle, gathered them into the beautifully carved wooden box waiting nearby in its special niche. With solemn steps, and respectful silence, they made their way along from the headlands, scrambling deftly down the steep cliff, until they reached the promontory that led out for a distance into the sea.
When they reached the furthest point, where there was nothing else but the water almost entirely circling them, they continued their task with all the solemnity it deserved.
‘Zed, would you start the scattering?’
Zella’s question came quietly, and Zed turned to her in some surprise, knowing that their tradition dictate that she start the ceremony.
‘Are you sure, Zella? Wouldn’t you prefer to do as is usual?’
‘I’m sure, Zed. This honour should be yours. After all, you were the one to ease Zarn’s passing.’
Zed responded with a bow to her, and took the first claw-full of ash from the box, scattering it into the sea. Zella took the next and, with each dispersal of ash, intoned the many deeds of Zarn, making sure his war deeds were recounted, so that the Gods would know how brave a servant they were getting. They sang the songs created for him, after his bravery in rescuing a young brood of larvae that had been attacked by a rogue trio of Larns, two seasons ago. It was an injury caused by this rescue that had slowed Zarn down, and so enabled the bipeds to catch him with their light beams the previous day.
Just as the last claw-full of ash was spread, they looked eastwards, and saw the sun beginning to rise once more. They had timed it perfectly. They looked at each other in the quickly growing light of the hot, white sun, and the nictating membranes that served to protect their eyes in this bright-lit world automatically slid down. With a last look out over the sea, they turned, their segmented bodies almost forming a circle as they did, then they stepped back along the promontory and upwards, using their powerful back legs to push up the steep cliff, and back to the headlands again.
Zella carried the emptied box in her central arms, using the front set to clamber over the rim of the cliff. She stood for a moment, staring back to the place where the ashes were now just part of the heaving green of the ocean, and then she turned once more, and walked back to the site of the pyre. With a dignity that Zed quietly admired, she set the box back in its place, ready for the next cremation. As one, they stepped back from the area, heads bowed, the rapid nictating of their eye screens showing the correct form of sorrow.
Quietly, they turned, and began to walk along the path that led away from the site. The light was swiftly becoming almost unbearable, with the eye movements necessary until they made their way to the living-cave. Without the warmth and humour of their mate, it would now seem a darker, and more solemn, place to be. But they arrived at last, grateful for the dim coolness it afforded them. They immediately started clearing out everything that had belonged to Zarn, carefully placing all of Zarn’s body trinkets outside the entrance to the cave, displaying them on a large, flat rock, so that all could see what was there. This was now the time that any passing Larn could look at what was offered and, if they liked a certain piece, could take it. None of these could be kept by his mates, as it might create a link that would draw him back away from the Gods, so close was their partnership. Zed and Zella watched from the mouth of the cave as his possessions were slowly but surely claimed by those living around them.
Night was once again nearing by the time the last object was taken from the stone, and Zed breathed a sigh of relief that everything had found acceptance with their neighbours. It would have been ill luck to have anything left behind. They retreated back into the cave, slowly cleaning any last vestige of Zarn’s occupancy, both still silent, as tradition demanded. With so little energy left, neither of them felt much like eating, but they did so quickly, knowing what was to come. They then settled into their respective nests, grabbing sleep while they had the chance.
Bright morning light flooded the mouth of the cave, and they woke with a sense of dread, knowing that the war against the bipeds was imminent once more.
‘Can you smell it?’
Zella’s though came slowly into Zed’s mind, and he turned to her, rubbing his mandibles against hers, in a reassuring manner.
‘Yes, but they are still far enough away that we can do what we must.’
Zed tried to keep his thought-tones light, despite his own doubts. A smell on the breeze came clearly into their cave; a sharp, actinic smell, which the biped’s light burners exuded. Zed knew that they were nearing the cave complex and Zella, realising just how near, quickly started to prepare their defences. She rapidly ate the store of fat-rich Klettl they had put aside for this very purpose and, within moments, she felt the spinning bulb beneath her abdomen start to swell. With no time to spare, she immediately went to the cave opening, turned around and, with a careful side-to-side movement, started to exude a fine spray of liquid from the bulb.
As it hit the air, the liquid started to solidify then, as it touched the ground and sides of the cave mouth, it formed a fine, breathable, mesh. Zella angled her body so that she covered all of the entrance, and then started once again from the base, until a thick, rigid wall had formed, creating a barrier as strong as the stone around them. As soon as she completed it, Zed came forward, and began to regurgitate a liquid from his second stomach, which he spread into the mesh using his paddle claw. Once covered, the liquid dried into an almost diamond-hard consistency and, having left a small section above uncoated for air-flow, they felt satisfaction in knowing that the entrance looked like part of the natural stone surroundings. Now it was time to wait.
Waiting was all that Zed and Zella could do, and they knew that their neighbours would be doing as they were. They didn’t question the instructions their leaders had given them two nights previously, but they did wonder why they had been told to prepare for metamorphosis at this time. Zed suspected that this was the only way they could ensure the survival of their species, and that, by hiding away in their chrysalis forms, and adjusting the chemical balance to slow down the process of change, their race might, just, survive this initial invasion, and be able to continue their eons-old cycle further along in time.
So Zed and Zella did as instructed, knowing they were doing as tradition dictated and, as soon as the entrance was hardened, they attached themselves to the extrusions on the ceiling that had been prepared when they first came to the cave.
Zed sent this anticipating thought to Zella, hoping it would raise her spirits at what they feared was ahead of them. Zella looked over at Zed, almost amused at the unusual sight of her mate hanging upside down.
‘Yes, I look forward to that day!’
With that thought, they immediately began to spin the threads necessary to form the chrysalis that would protect them through their long change.
Soon there was silence in the cave, with only a few intermittent movements of the chrysalides hanging from the ceiling to disturb the cool darkness.
Then all was still.
Written by Katy Board (2012)