By Darius Jones
The myths, rumors, and speculation surrounding the Zakir ritual on Kaldar are well attested, but they remain only that, myth and speculation. Now, as I have witnessed the thing itself, I feel responsible to share the truth, no matter how loathsome, with the rest of the civilized galaxy. For those of you who remain ignorant of this notorious ritual, I have written this story so that the facts may be plainly known. To the best of my ability, I have tried to reserve my judgment and offer this only as a work of reportage, a relation of true events.
After several years of residence on Kaldar, in which I learned their language, their customs, and something of their primal prejudices and obscurantist rituals, I was, at last, invited to a “celebration” of the Zakir. I, of course, accepted. How could I not? It was an event which no Off-worlders had ever been invited to, let alone witnessed. To refuse would have been dishonorable, to decline, an insult. I asked few questions and begged no explanations. I knew the invitation was unprecedented, and I realized that too much curiosity might reveal my true intent, my determination to share what I saw.
My only guide during the entirety of the ritual was a Kaldarian by the name of Mudarak, who graciously agreed to be my sponsor. It was he who not only procured an invitation from the Synod of the Holy Mothers, but agreed to provide a real-time commentary on the ritual. He was also gracious enough to share the ancient responsorial which concludes the ritual, the words of which provided scant insight. I memorized the responsorial and the requisite motions which accompany them until I performed them “like a native,” according to my sponsor. The rest of my knowledge concerning the ritual was gleaned from the usual sources: faded tomes in the Kaldarian archives and miscellaneous third-hand accounts in the popular literature. Third-hand because all Kaldarians are under strict interdict to never speak a word about the details of the ritual to any Off-worlders or risk becoming the next subject of the ritual.
Not only are Kaldarians forbidden to speak of the ritual, no recordings of any kind are allowed. This is due to the origins of the ritual. For most Kaldarians the Zakir still has the residue of a hoary, numinous past associated with the hardy ancestors who first colonized their planet. It is said that in the year 473,545 A.Q., that is, almost at the dawn of Kaldarian history, the first victim — or should I say subject — of the Zakir, a certain Nebnam Haqal, met his fate at the hand of the Arakh. At the time, it was strictly forbidden to record the event, as it would diminish its mystical flavor. Of course, Kaldarian culture has, in certain respects, evolved since then. It has secularized, modernized, and shed many of the more bizarre and brutish cult customs of its first settlers, but the ceremony of the Zakir has remained virtually untouched since the time of Nebnam. But I dwell on the past, on what once was.
I approached the entrance to the coliseum in the company of my good friend, Mudarak. We paused briefly before a gargantuan white marble statue in front of the gate leading into the arena. It depicted Qarmara, the supreme goddess of Kaldar. How many times had I wandered past this statue? Had I wondered at the hidden clues that her pose, dress, and features might hold? I had seen the crowds streaming in through the Mashkal gate — men, women, and children — in their tunics of white linen and wondered what they would shortly witness just behind the high walls of the coliseum. How many times had I tried in vain to decipher the amplified announcements in proto-Kaldarian that emanated from within? How often had I tried to decipher the crowd’s shouts and gasps to no avail? How many times had I altered my daily schedule to observe the look in their faces when they came out? But if any shock or horror was there, it was well concealed, for the spectators passed by chatting of trivia. Their U-Droid’s battery pack had malfunctioned and needed replacing; the dust storms had been so bad this year they would have to replace all the filters on the Solarium; the Mother Omarrahku would not be standing trial on embezzlement after all, and the charges against her were to be dropped. They would speak of everything but the Zakir.
There was one clue, however. The statue of the goddess Qarmara, as I said, was immense, six times the height of a man. She was dressed in the same white tunic of all the attendants of the Zakir. She was a normal human woman, except for one detail. On her head she wore a crown of small orbs. They rose up to a great height on her skull as if she were wearing an elongated crown. Having entered the shrines of numerous deities and cult heroes on many worlds, I assumed that it was a metaphor of some kind, connoting the fecundity of a mother goddess, whether literally or metaphorically. I would soon learn how wrong, how naïve, I had been.
“Shall we?” Mudarak asked, after some moments of gazing up at the statue in admiration.
“Of course,” I said with a small, resolute nod. “Lead the way.”
The guards at the entrance had been notified that an Off-worlder would be attending. My sponsor presented a paper with a special seal bearing an encrypted message with the requisite authorization from the Synod. The guards scanned it and waved us on.
Before us stood a vast oval large enough to house, by my estimate, some 60,000 spectators. From our seats, I could see the arena below was full of sand — from the Great Western Desert of Kaldar no doubt — and covered in a reinforced Glassite dome strong enough to keep a Golgoth within it. Several portals under the glass opened onto the arena. A large video screen hung above the enclosed dome counting down the last minutes before the Zakir was scheduled to begin. Every single spectator, from the oldest man to the youngest child, wore the same white tunic. A relic of the ancient past of Kaldar, it must be wrapped around the body four times and is impossible to put on unassisted. My companion, as always, helped me to drape mine across my body in true Kaldarian fashion. No decoration of the cloth is permitted and no accessories are to be worn, another faithful detail of the ancient ritual preserved from time immemorial.
The last of the spectators were seated as the clock counted down the final seconds. My companion turned to me and whispered quietly.
“The Zakir is conducted in the ancient tongue of Kaldar. Most of the ritual will be plain enough, but I will try to provide some context.”
I must have given some sign of apprehension for he asked me, “Are you sure you wish to witness the ritual? We must run for the gates now, or stay to witness it in its entirety. It is forbidden to leave once it has begun.”
“Run?” I said. “Don’t be ridiculous, Mudarak; this is what I came to Kaldar for.”
My companion looked at me askance. Perhaps, I thought, my answer had given away too much?
“As you wish,” he answered.
All the seats in the arena had been filled save for two rows on a raised dais overlooking the arena opposite our seats. The timer on the suspended video screen ran down to zero and stopped. The crowd began to applaud quietly and politely. The noise grew louder and suddenly stopped. Slowly, a group of men dressed in white tunics walked into the arena carrying trumpets. They silently filled the lower row on the dais. They raised their trumpets and played a melancholy hymn, no doubt unchanged from ancient times. As the song wore on, the trumpets fell silent one after the other until only one played on. Its plaintive tune rose and fell, echoing through the hushed arena.
“The Lament of the Desert,” Mudarak said.
The final note died away and the trumpet player placed his trumpet at his side. He began to speak, almost shouting the words. The language was clearly Kaldarian in nature, with its trademark ululating vowels and harsh consonants, but I could not make out a single word.
“The Entrance of the Dignitaries,” Mudarak commented.
In a silent, shuffling line the local Kaldarian leaders marched in, occupying the final empty row of seats above the trumpeters. The last three were Procurator Mizar, the Chief Gendarme Kochab, and one of the Holy Mothers, Zirlana. Despite their high station, they all wore the same white tunics as the rest of us.
The trumpeter blew a single, sharp note. He removed the trumpet from his lips and began to speak again, his voice loud and hoarse. When he had finished, an elderly woman entered to join the dignitaries on the dais. The old woman was followed by an old man, a middle-aged couple, and children ranging from those ready to assume the Hokhatar to those barely old enough to enroll in the Synod’s chapterhouse. Every member of this family was dressed in black tunics.
“The Offended Party,” Mudarak said.
The crowd applauded again politely; a few people yelled out something, but I did not catch it.
Mother Zirlana came forward to speak, addressing the crowd. It was succinct and concise. I glanced at my companion.
“The Requisite Benediction,” he whispered.
She finished and resumed her seat. The crowd grew silent.
I turned my gaze to the middle of the arena. A trap door slid open and up rose a young man on a pedestal, his hands bound behind him around a black metal mast. He wore only black pants that reached down to his knees; his chest was bare, and he wore no shoes. The Mother Zirlana said something again from her seat and raised her hand above her head in a fist. Then she opened it so that her palm faced the sky. She spoke as if reciting something.
“The verdict, once more,” Mudarak said.
The young man was hyperventilating uncontrollably and looking around wild-eyed. He attempted to move, to break free of his restraints, but seeing it was useless, he stopped. His head had been shaved and smeared with some type of viscous purple substance. His ears at first appeared to have had their tips cut off. But looking closer I saw they had been taped down with the greatest care so that they would not protrude over the purple skullcap.
Mother Zirlana let her hand fall.
Another trap door opened up right in front of the man. Two small towers with nozzles attached to them rose up out of the ground. They opened their valves and a fine mist came out, covering the man from head to foot.
“Pheromones,” Mudarak explained.
The mist stopped and the nozzles retracted. The two towers disappeared back under the arena floor, and the trap door slammed shut. Even from a distance I could see the man breathing violently, strapped to the mast.
A portal in a side of the arena, safely under the dome, opened up. I knew what would emerge and yet did not. I clasped my hands together briefly and noticed they had grown moist. I wiped them clumsily on my tunic and forced them to hang at my side.
Something moved in the darkness, and a whispery commotion rose from the crowd. A black, hairy limb with two hooked claws at its tip emerged out of the portal. The limb probed the arena sand and retracted slowly, almost coyly, disappearing into the darkness. Nothing happened for a moment. Another dark, hairy limb probed the sand, and suddenly the Arakh charged out of its hole into the middle of the arena. The crowd shrieked and cheered with delight.
Stopping almost in the middle of the arena, the Arakh froze, waving its two front legs. I exhaled in relief, for it was much smaller than I had imagined. Legend had insinuated that the female Arakh was twice the size of a man, but I found it was just the opposite, for it only came up to the man’s waist. Perhaps, I thought, it will be not as gruesome as they have said. Perhaps it will be quick!
Despite a modicum of relief, I still found the creature repulsive. It was completely black save for a small red orb at the center of its abdomen. From the end of its hooked legs to the tops of its head it was covered in thick rough hairs. It had dual fangs the size of a Krall knife. Ten soulless, unblinking eyes kept watch for both predator and prey. Eight legs served various purposes — four to capture and bind its prey, two hind legs for leaping, two more for feeding and delicate work. Only the radioactive harshness of Kaldar’s Great Western Desert could have produced such a monstrosity.
I glanced at my companion, and he sensed my uncertainty.
“What is it?” he asked.
“The Arakh. It is smaller than I thought,” I said. “The man must be too large for her.”
“The male Arakh is twice as large as the female,” Mudarak explained. “It is not uncommon for Kaldarian arachnids. Besides, she is more nimble, and the male’s bulk serves an evolutionary purpose.”
The Arakh crept toward the man tentatively with a seemingly unbalanced arachnid gait. Suddenly, it froze as if stunned. Its two front arms opened as if in surprise and gratitude.
“Already her caretakers have impregnated her chemically as she slept,” Mudarak explained. “She is ready to birth, but the instinct to mate remains unfulfilled.”
The young man began to scream. He stopped and plead hysterically with the whole arena, panting as he yelled for mercy. I turned and looked at my companion. He, like the rest of the arena, was transfixed on the scene.
The Arakh continued to flick its front legs, but did not move from its spot.
“She is picking them up now,” Mudarak said, staring at the Arakh.
“What?” I asked, absentmindedly.
“Of course,” I answered.
The Arakh had fallen into a trance of lust. Its four front legs rose and fell with the velvety viscosity peculiar to arachnids. It was not meant for locomotion, but to charm and entice. If it had been human the word “dance” might have captured it. As the Arakh continued, the man’s screaming stopped, and his head fell on his chest. The crowd began to applaud.
I could not. I turned to my companion and saw him applauding lustily. He shot a glance at me and then down at my hands. Perhaps sensing his perturbation, I halfheartedly clapped, joining the rest of the arena.
The crowd’s applause died as the Arakh’s dance continued. The spider rose up briefly on its two hind legs, all six legs whipping around in a frenzy for a moment. Suddenly, its four front legs froze. A shiver passed through its body and the Arakh became still.
Without warning, the beast leapt. It scampered forward and lunged at the man, binding itself to his torso. The crowd cheered. The man’s head went up again and he held it stiff against the metal mast. For an instant, the spider was face to face with its prey. I imagined ten lifeless eyes peering into the man.
“Is that it? Is it over?” I said in a hurried whisper, glancing at my companion.
“It has only just begun,” Mudarak said, without tearing his eyes away from the scene.
I watched as the Arakh bound the man tightly, almost tenderly. The hooks on its legs did not break the skin, but merely stretched and held it when necessary. Without letting go, the Arakh spun on his torso until its abdomen with its livid red spot was inches from the man’s face. The spider’s head was now just below his belly. The man began to scream, but it was inhuman, a desperate aural gesticulation.
The Arakh’s head reared back and buried its fangs in the man’s belly.
“The mating bite of the Arakh,” Mudarak said. “It does not kill, but only paralyzes temporarily.”
The man let out a gasp and grew silent. The Arakh held its fangs in place and began to press its abdomen into his chest in a strange rhythm. It continued for a few moments and then, apparently satisfied, stopped and removed its jaws from his belly. Deftly and meticulously, the Arakh changed position again, so that it was face-to-face with the man once more. As the Arakh repositioned itself, the man’s head slammed back against his headrest and stayed there as if frozen stiff. His eyelids fluttered slightly and then closed. The Arakh turned its attention to the man’s head. Its fangs found the boundary created by the purple residue on the man’s skull cap. It bit down. The man’s body shivered at the first cut, but remained motionless as the Arakh chewed its way around his skullcap.
The Arakh finished the circular cut around the man’s skull and seemed to look at the man with a sort of curiosity. It paused as if thinking. Then, with a quick flick of one of its front arms, it popped off his skullcap, which fell, wet with blood, to the sandy floor below.
The Arakh, as careful as ever, changed its position. It again placed its head near the man’s stomach, with its abdomen towards his head. The Arakh’s body froze. The crowd applauded again.
“What?” I began nervously. “What now?”
“The Hatchlings,” Mudarak said.
The Arakh’s entire being quaked. Without a sound, an egg came out of its abdomen and was deposited on the exposed brain tissue of the man. It was a yellowish egg, smaller than a man’s fist. The Arakh repeated the procedure again and again, shuddering with each new egg.
“How she suffers!” my companion gasped. “The eggs are preternaturally large. Fertilization has been done unnaturally, too soon.”
“She?” I asked in disbelief, turning to my companion.
I wanted to look away from the spectacle, but I could not. I, too, was under the trance of the Arakh. It shuddered and quaked as it filled up the man’s head with egg after egg. When it was almost done, I noticed the eggs stacked to a point on top of the man’s head as if he were wearing a crown.
“Just like the goddess,” I whispered sullenly.
“What?” asked my companion.
“Nothing,” I answered. “Nothing, I just …”
I felt a wave of heat rise through my body, things started to grow yellow and white. I swallowed and told myself to stay focused. In a moment, the feeling passed and my vision was restored.
The Arakh laid its last egg. Its job was done. It scampered down from the mast. The Arakh was halfway back to the portal through which it had entered when the stadium broke into a wild cheer. I looked at my companion. He was doing the same. And then I did the one thing I truly regret from my whole time on Kaldar. I cheered. I applauded. I yelled as loudly as I could. Not because I felt it, but because of the oldest instinct of all — self-preservation.
The Arakh must have heard the muffled drone of cheers and applause through the dome, or felt the vibrations rising up through the sand. It took a few cautious steps back toward the man and waved its front legs as if trying to defend itself. In that moment, I pitied her, as horrible as she was. It looked so desperate there in the middle of the arena, cringing before a host of enemies it could not see, yet another victim of the Kaldarian’s age-old lust for vengeance.
I was to be rudely awakened from my musings. The Arakh lunged forward and, in a few quick leaps, landed with a loud thud on the Glassite dome above our seats. Our entire section gasped. Without thinking, Mudarak and I fell to the ground and hid behind our seats. The two rows in front and behind us did the same. The rest of the crowd erupted in ecstasy, cheering and clapping riotously. Just above our heads the Arakh’s fangs tried hopelessly to puncture the dome. The rest of the crowd began to laugh. And though they meant to mock us, I have never been so relieved at the sound of laughter.
The Glassite dome flickered on and off. The Arakh instantly let go and fell back onto the arena floor.
My companion gripped my arm as we came to our feet.
“The Glassite is electrified,” he explained.
The Arakh spun around and scampered back into its dark chamber. The thick door closed firmly behind it.
My heart was racing and I breathed quickly, but I began to calm down as soon as the Arakh had disappeared. The crowd tittered excitedly for a moment more, but began to grow quiet as well. The man in the ring was waking up.
He opened his eyes wide, blinked a few times, and sighed groggily. At first, his eyes held a sort of relief. The Arakh was gone. He was still alive. Then, he looked at the floor of the arena. He saw it there, something bloody in the sand. His eyes grew wide, he had understood. That bloody waste had once been part of him.
Perhaps sensing something, he gazed upward. He saw the eggs piled on his head and screamed in a way I have never heard before or since. He tried to move and shake his head, but his body would no longer obey him. The venom had made his body uniformly rigid, stiff.
The eggs began to shiver and crack. One near the top popped open and a miniature Arakh emerged, a red livid spot on its belly. One after another the yellow eggs hatched. In a few moments, a thousand baby Arakhs — each the size of a thumbnail — fumbled and crawled over one another in a seething mass that began to spill over the man’s face.
That is when the sound started, that sound which haunts me still. One of the little Arakhs lifted its legs to the sky and began to shriek. As soon as one started the cry, it was taken up by the entire brood, and the cry of a thousand famished arachnids filled the arena.
“They hunger,” my friend said.
The man bound to the mast looked up at the hatchlings seething on his exposed brain. He continued to scream, but whenever he paused to breathe, all one could hear was the high-pitched screeches of the little Arakhs.
“It’s not the brain of the male Arakh,” my companion noted. “But they have no choice.”
The Arakhs grew quiet. They began to burrow down, around, and through one another to reach the bloody, exposed tissue. They consumed in blind hunger.
“They say in the wild the young Arakhs will consume some fifty percent of their brethren in the first few minutes of life,” my companion said. “In this case, the nutritional value is lower. Only ten percent of the Arakhs will survive their first hour.”
“Fascinating,” I muttered with derision.
The weakest and smallest Arakhs were forced aside or consumed. They began to trickle over the man’s face and eyes as he looked on helplessly. He screamed a final time, his eyes dull and half-closed. The Arakhs continued their feast, spilling down his face or burrowing deeper into his brain. A few of the Arakhs, already sated, began to crawl down his body to the floor of the arena.
There was a loud alarm, a single tone. Everyone in the arena grew silent and stood up straight. The spectators, the Offended Party, and the dignitaries on the dais all bowed their heads and cupped their hands over their foreheads. I did the same. I knew it was time for the recitation.
“Life has been taken,” we said as one.
We moved our hands, clasping them over our hearts.
“Life has been given,” we said.
In unison, we unclasped our hands and lifted them up, our palms facing the sky.
“You are just, oh Qarmara!”
We held our hands aloft for a moment and brought them down to our sides.
The little Arakhs began to jump down from the remains of the man and spread out across the floor of the arena, exploring their new world.
The trumpeters signaled once again, and the arena bulb darkened out. The house lights came up, and the crowd began to file out of the arena.
“Well?” Mudarak asked as we passed by the statue of Qarmara.
“What was his crime?” I asked idly.
“What was his crime?” I said, louder this time.
“His crime?” he repeated.
“I’m not really sure.”
“Not sure?” I asked.
“No,” he said, puzzled. “It happens so often, I …”
He paused, sensing my unease.
“You can find the record, in the archives of the Council of the Holy —,” he offered.
“I don’t care about the archives!” I said.
A few of the departing spectators paused and shot glances in our direction. I stepped closer to Mudarak.
“I want to know what he did!” I said in an urgent whisper.
“I don’t know. The Zakir takes place every other Alemat; it is hardly uncommon.”
“Yes, yes, of course,” I said. “‘Hardly uncommon.’ Is that it, Mudarak? Does that make it all better, that euphemism, ‘hardly uncommon’? Does that drown out the screams of the hatchlings for you?”
“Pharos, you are unwell,” Mudarak looked at me with mock concern, “Come let us retire to the —,”
“Unwell?” I spat out. “Unwell?”
Suddenly, his words struck me as absurd, as mad.
I began to laugh at what he had said. “Unwell? And are you well, Mudarak? You, or any Kaldarian?”
I walked away laughing derisively to myself. My companion dared not pursue me.
To this day, I remain unwell. And though I write this story a thousand times, unwell I will remain. There are things that should remain secret, things that no man should ever witness, lest he risk becoming irredeemably broken, unhinged, like a ruined airlock latch.
I know that it is so for me. For ever since that day, I have not been the same. I sleep, it is true, but it never nourishes me, never gives me what I need to become whole and healthy again. For every night in my dreams, I return to the arena. But this time I am not the spectator, but the victim. I am chained to the mast on arena’s floor and hear the muffled commotion of the crowds above, the trumpets, and the pronouncements of the Holy Mother. I relive the victim’s torments: the seductive dance of the Arakh, its paralyzing bite puncturing my stomach with intense pain followed by a strange numbing sensation. I nod into semi-consciousness as it goes about its work. And all this would be bearable, all this I could endure. But soon, I hear the soft sound of cracking eggs, the mass of Arakhs coming to life. And I hear that sound, the shrieks of the hatchlings. I feel the tissue give way with each prick of their innumerable jaws as they burrow into my flesh. And suddenly I jump up, fully awake, screaming.
“Get them off! Get them off! Get them off!”
Darius Jones writes literary fiction that falls into the fantasy, historical and science fiction genres. He has done time in various professional writing gigs including ad writer, proofreader, editor, PR guy and journalist. “The Hatchlings” is his first story to be published by someone other than himself. Darius has self-published speculative and historical fiction for the Kindle, including the novel, The Library of Lost Books. You can learn more at his blog or his Twitter page. Darius lives in the United States and writes fiction whenever he gets a free moment.