The Indigo Mantis by E. Catherine Tobler
Published 05/24/2016 | 5,726 Words
A crime-fighting praying mantis avenges her father’s murder in E. Catherine Tobler’s The Indigo Mantis
Since witnessing her father’s murder, revenge has been on Indi’s mind. A mantid with a vendetta, Indi has searched her tree high and low for the murderer. In the hunt for her father’s killer, Indi has unleashed her own brand of justice as the notorious “Indigo Mantis”–a vigilante blue-winged mantid, killing lawbreakers with impunity.
When Indi follows the first solid lead in her father’s case, however, she uncovers a frightening, terrible possibility. Indi must confront the harsh truth about her own dark nature, and choose what kind of hero–or villain–she wishes to become.
Indi walked into the bar, seeds crunching under tarsus. The bar was her usual hangout, but tonight a trio of mountain pine beetles occupied the worn corner of the long pine counter. She hadn’t seen their kind here before and her antennae twitched. She cast a glance to the tree’s thick trunk, but there was no sign the beetles had started their terrible work; no pitch tubes, no bark dust sprinkling the orange conk floor. As she watched them, a trio of aspen bark beetles waddled in and joined the mountain pines. There were high legs all around and excited chitters.
It was clear to her they were up to no good—borers didn’t meet without cause. The beetles were small and she could have eaten all six in two bites, but she stayed clear. Technically, they hadn’t done anything wrong; she supposed beetles liked a night out as much as any bug. But they were a threat, and she would be damned before this grand old pine fell to their machinations. The Crimson Waste stretched to the west as far as the eye could see, trees consumed from the inside-out by the insidious beetles. Aspens remained plentiful, but the boys were looking to move ever east, through richer stands of pine and fir.
Her eyes flicked to the black carpenter ant who spoke her name, and she joined him on the opposite side of the bar. She hadn’t come for beetles, after all. She sank onto a leaf going dry around the edges and looked at Joe. He was handsome, dark and gleaming under the twilight that filtered through the branches, despite the scar that rippled over his left eye; he’d taken a bad hit from a wood wasp’s ovipositor some weeks before. He flicked one leg out, brushing her chin.
Indi shook her head, leaning away from his touch. “You said you had a lead,” she said.
She rested a green forearm on the pine bar, studying him. He looked no different than he had at their prior meetings, always a cop and never just a friend. The way he held himself, he was ready for anything; she didn’t think the beetles stood a chance if they leapt for the pine’s trunk. This part of the tree wasn’t Joe’s regular beat; he’d come up from the understory two days before because he wanted to help her, said he had a lead and—
“You said you knew who killed my father.”
Joe leaned back in his leaf, mandibles working as he regarded her. Indi didn’t wonder what he saw; she knew. She was just a mantid, tracking the soulless creature that killed her father. She was emphatically not The Indigo Mantis, the crime fighter who swung from overstory to understory and back again to save those less fortunate because she couldn’t yet avenge her murdered father. Word had gotten around that she was good at crime-fighting, too, so she stayed with it, not ready to devote her life to a city department the way Joe had. She waited for him to speak, her distinct indigo wings tucked carefully away, beneath the frill of a simple brown cape.
“Well.” Joe lifted a piece of scrap paper from the bar, turning it over so Indi could see the scribble there.
Her cheeks flared with warmth and she came off her leaf quickly enough that the beetles at the other end of the bar startled. At four inches long, Indi was the biggest thing in the room; compared to her, the beetles were grains of rice, small and barely worth a bite; they scattered off their leaves, one beetle almost plunging off the edge of the shelf fungi upon which the bar perched. His comrades grabbed him by the legs to haul him upright.
“We have been over this,” Indi said. She pushed the page toward Joe, who caught her around the tibia.
He leaned in, snapping his mandibles at her. “Indi.” He growled her name, giving off a cloud of pheromones. It made her quiver because he smelled like prey, but he was too nice and she wanted very much not to eat him. “I’m tryin’ to save you some grief, yeah? If you won’t listen… ain’t no one in this tree can help you.”
He pushed the scrap of paper at her, until she closed it between her hook and tarsus and took it. Only then did he move back. The beetles settled back down, rubbing legs over their blank faces in relieved despair.
Indi looked down at the scrap she held, the image of her mother looking back up at her. Her jaw worked and an angry chitter escaped her.
“Ain’t no shame in it,” Joe said. “It happens, right? I mean, even you—”
Her head came up sharply. “Even I what, Joe? Eat my own kind?” She crumpled the scrap in her claw. “That isn’t how it went down.”
Fragmented memories skipped through her mind: a darkened tree hollow, her father pressed to the bark, the wet sound his head made as it came away from his neck. Indi hadn’t seen more, staggering away in revulsion as the killer… As the killer finished his awful work.
Joe said nothing and when he made no move, Indi stepped away. She wanted to get off this conk, wanted to drop down a few branches and just breathe without looking into Joe’s dark eyes. She only saw herself reflected when she did that and she didn’t want to look at her face.
“There’s a guy,” Joe said as she moved to the edge of the shelf.
Indi turned back to look at him despite herself. “A guy?”
“There’s always a guy, right?” Joe came out of his leaf and moved toward her. “He’s in the Reds though, see?” He lifted a claw and spat into it; another scrap of paper unfolded from the glob of spit. “Ain’t no one goes out there, what with the woodpeckers, and I wouldn’t send you if I could help it.”
His tone told her he could help it, if only she would listen to him. But the idea that her mother ate her father after mating with him was ridiculous. It was the oldest mantid scam in the tree; Indi knew it as well as anyone, mantids wishing to appear more fierce than they might otherwise be, and others of their kind taking advantage of that very notion. The idea of women eating men to get to a higher branch in the tree made Indi sick. And the idea that her mother had done it—No. It didn’t happen the way they said it did; it just didn’t.
“And this guy knows what?” Indi took the scrap of paper. Under the spittle, she could read a name, Ashmead. A nest was drawn around the name, part wasp, part bird.
“He lives in an abandoned nest that’s impossible to miss—least he did last time I was out there, and granted… that’s been a while, not being able to fly like you.” He pronounced it youse, his thick accent drawn out.
A feeler brushed the edge of Indi’s cape and this time she didn’t step back.
“This guy deals in all manner of… parts. Your dad, he had those… ” Joe trailed off, antennae flicking.
Indigo wings, she thought.
“Listen, Indi, you hear anything about what’s been going down lately?” Joe’s eyes sought her own. “There’s talk that there’s a new mantid on the branches. Doesn’t have to sleep with them to kill them, just… kills them. Leaves them strewn all about and&emdash;” he paused, shook his head. “There were a pair of girls, right?”
“Those ground mantid girls?” Indi asked, but she already knew.
Joe didn’t have to tell her the story, but as he related it, she pictured the small girls, ground mantids both, brought up into the branches by a night flyer who was just looking to show them the sights and a good time. They couldn’t resist, seeing as they couldn’t fly up on their own, but once he’d gotten them up to the branch… that’s when everything went south.
“This other mantid,” Joe said, “just tore into this guy. Ripped his head clean off and left him jacking into the branch, right? The two girls were still screeching when we got there. Said there was an indigo mantis who saved them from the night flyer, huge blue wings like nothing they’ve ever seen in the understory. “
“We don’t much go down there, after all,” Indi said carefully. “Rumor is he was attacking those girls. They weren’t night flyers, so they couldn’t escape him and he knew it. You think that kind of thing is okay, Joe?”
He drew his leg back from her cape even as an antenna dipped toward her own. “Never, Indi. Just wondered if you’d heard anything. You’re a—”
“A mantid, so I know all the others?” She wanted to touch his antenna, but drew back before she could. “That’s not how it works, Joe. Maybe you ants crawl on top of each other, but we’re—” She shook her head. “I work alone.”
“You live alone,” Joe bit out. “You do everything the hell alone. Indi—”
“Thanks for the lead, Joe.” She moved toward the edge of the conk and without looking back, stepped off.
The night air rushed around her as she fell; she caught the air in her cape and guided herself carefully to the trunk; if Joe meant to look over the edge of the fungi and see where she’d gone, she wasn’t going to let him. Once she hit the trunk, she was running, up the other side of the tree in a rush of other night traffic. She would blend in, would be lost, and she wouldn’t have to look into those eyes of his.
The trunk was busy for a Tuesday night. Everywhere she went, Indi felt eyes on her, as if someone were watching her from a distance. But in the rush of other insects, she couldn’t discern anyone unusual. Indi slowed and picked her way over smaller bugs with her long, slender legs; she moved over the creepers and past the ladybugs who eventually spread their wings and took to the air when the boys wouldn’t back off. She paid careful attention to the trunk as she went, still looking for pitch tubes that would give away a beetle incursion, but despite dead branches and needles here and there, she saw nothing suspicious.
As she made her way higher, the crowds thinned out, so the sound of voices from even higher up surprised her. The sibilant sounds could only be from a spider, but there was a second voice, foreign and unknown to Indi. She crawled carefully up, to find a fat-bodied spider encasing a gleaming blue-green scarab in lengths of sticky silk.
“Release me!” the scarab cried.
“They ssay they will not fusss,” the spider crooned, “but they alwayss fusss.” He spiraled another band of webbing around the scarab and stepped back to survey his work. The scarab wriggled, but could not free herself, and the spider chuckled. “Won’t it be beautiful, my lovely? My ssquirming young in your ssquirming womb.”
Indi didn’t have to hear more before she moved—this spider wasn’t just getting dinner, he had mayhem on his mind. She was on the spider in a blink, digging her femur hooks into his soft belly, his soft cheeks. The spider shrieked and threw her off, lashing out with more lengths of sticky webbing. But Indi had fought spiders before and was expecting the webbing. She pushed herself into the air with wings that had been freed by her cape falling loose and the scarab gasped at the sight of her.
“The Indigo Mantis!”
The spider flinched and made to run. Indi fell upon him before he got far, his furred body writhing beneath her own. She jabbed her hooks back into him, peering down into his panicked eyes.
“You don’t like that much, do you?” she snarled to the spider as he screamed for release. “Fortunately for us both… ” And here, Indi twisted her arms, causing her hooks to slide deeper, tear more. “There will be no squirming young.”
With that, Indi bent and unhinged her jaw, to take his head into her mouth and rip it clean from the stalk of his neck. It was strangely satisfying, but she did not consume it. She spat the head off the edge of the branch, letting it tumble down and down to the understory. When she had dislodged her hooks from the still-spasming body, she kicked that down, too.
“The… t-the… Indigo… ” The scarab couldn’t get the words out.
Indi moved slowly to the scarab’s side, slicing through the webbing that held her fast. Indi’s hooks made short work of it, but still the scarab didn’t move. Indi had never seen her like here, and asked her where she had come from.
Egypt, was the unsurprising answer, but whether true or tale, Indi couldn’t say. Every beetle she met tried to pass as sacred and holy, revered. The scarab brushed the remains of the web from her iridescent shell. “T-they left my cage open and the window was nearby and I… I saw no reason to stay. But this tree… ” She shuddered.
“Fucking spiders,” Indi said. “Keep to the populated branches down low, right? Don’t eat anything unfamiliar. You’ll find more beetles, but… Never seen one like you, before. That spider probably hadn’t, either.” Indi grabbed her fallen cloak from the branch and tucked her indigo wings back under its camouflage.
“I was never here,” Indi said, and scampered upward. She went up two more levels, to the point where nests scattered the branches. Some were occupied by first time owners, while others had been reclaimed. She carefully picked her way around an explosion of needles that hadn’t been neatly woven into one nest, and moved toward the branch’s tip. Here, the pine overlooked the Crimson Waste, the endless pines that spread in a red and sepia smear without a blog of green among them.
Sure, pine beetles had to eat, but why’d it have to be her forest? At least scarabs only ate dung.
Tired and growing hungry, Indi folded her cape to the side and lifted into the night air, moving toward the waste. It gave her a chill just looking at it; the dead trees were haunted by woodpeckers in search of beetles, but night saw fewer birds in the air and Indi was hopeful her timing was fortuitous. The whole journey through, she still felt as if she were being watched; she prickled with a strange awareness.
The branch she settled on crackled under even her slight weight. Here, the trunks of the dead pines were splattered with the resin of pitch tubes, bark and wood dust piling up on the branches. Even now, wood motes floated in the air, assuring Indi that the foul destruction continued inside each and every tree before her. She walked slowly, circling a sticky trunk, and moving toward the next tree.
Joe had said Ashmead’s nest was impossible to miss and in this he was not mistaken. Once, it had been a wasp nest, but Ashmead had transformed it into something else; where the original nest sprawled within a deep groin between trunk and branch, smaller nests had been added on, encased in tent caterpillar webs that kept them stable. These nests expanded in every direction with the trees branches, giving the whole thing the appearance of a huge spider, legs expanding from a fat central body. Just looking at it gave Indi a start, given what she’d just done to a spider.
“Ashmead!” she called.
The entire place was still, looking abandoned. Dead needles had been tied beneath the branches and they swayed as the wind passed through. Indi walked with caution, seeing no obvious door to the nest. She lifted into the air and circled the entire nest, discovering it encompassed the whole trunk. She couldn’t help but be impressed, even as it disturbed her.
She landed on the rear branch just as a sharp beak jabbed into the wood. Indi reeled backwards as two woodpeckers lunged from her left side. She couldn’t keep her balance and tumbled backwards off the branch, staring as the birds followed after her. They lunged again, sharp daggers of terror as Indi unfurled her wings and spiraled away. She angled toward the trunk, but the birds only followed, having no fear of the tree. Terror drove Indi to run when she hit the branch, toward the sprawling nest. Once there, she dug her legs into the soft and rotting wall and pulled.
She bulleted into the space she’d made, pulling a section of nest behind her as the birds closed in. Their sharp beaks punched through the papery walls, and Indi crawled backward, finding herself inside a yawning space cluttered with insect parts. Indi found an ox beetle carapace and she hefted it before she could reconsider, slamming it into the beak that intruded into the nest. The woodpecker erupted in a furious chatter, beak snapping twice more. Indi hit it again, fracturing the carapace, and the beak finally withdrew.
“Tell me you did not use the ox beetle… tell me you did not—Oh, you did. How could you—Of all the things—”
The ox beetle carapace was pulled from Indi’s grip and she, more tired than ever, let it go. She stared at the wood wasp that entered her field of vision, watching as he pulled off the goggles that had obscured his eyes and circled closer. He lifted the carapace as a weapon of his own, until he came closer.
“Oh—you,” he said. He lowered the carapace and set it carefully aside. “Joe said you would come. Get in here, girl. I’ve got some nectar left.” With that, the wasp turned, and shuffled away.
Indi picked herself up and followed cautiously. The nest smelled musty, but it wasn’t entirely unpleasant. She wasn’t used to being inside structures like this, empty cells peering at her from every wall. Once, Ashmead’s own people had probably filled the nest to overflowing and now there was just him. Him and dozens upon dozens of body parts. Every hall and room was cluttered with them, spilled in piles that seemed to have no order. Indi saw piles of round wasp bodies and spider heads, stacks of striped beetle and ladybug shells, gossamer fly wings pinned to paper walls, and more mantid legs than she could count. Some of the parts had even been reproduced in wood. She brushed her feelers over a length of pine branch that had been worked into a hinged pair of dragonfly wings.
“Joe said you might know something,” she said as she stepped into a chamber filled with preserved foodstuffs. “About my father.” Indi took the cup of nectar she was offered but didn’t drink, even as Ashmead unfurled his mouth and swallowed his.
Ashmead looked at her for a long while. “And Joe thinks you want to hear this story?”
Still unnerved by the experience with the woodpeckers, it took all Indi’s efforts to not throw the cup of nectar at the wasp. “I want to hear this story,” she said. “Doesn’t matter what Joe wants. Did you—” She took a swallow of the nectar now, finding it too sweet. “Did you sell his wings?”
“First thing you got to understand is this: those wings were priceless, and any bug—I mean any bug—would have been crazy to ignore such an opportunity, should it fall into their mandibles.”
“Just… tell me what happened.”
“It was a dame bug, right?” Ashmead finished his nectar and tossed the cup toward the counter. “She looked like you, lean and green, and she had those indigo wings in her claws, and I just couldn’t say no. Everyone noticed your dad flitting around, girl. He was serious shit, knew how to turn himself out with those wings. Now we got that idiot running around calling themselves the Indigo Mantis—probably sporting those beetle-damned wings after all—Is that was this is about? You looking to shut The Mantis down?”
Indi took a step backwards, finding reassurance in the weight of her cape hiding her own wings. “A woman brought you his wings?”
Ashmead fluttered into the air, then settled back to the nest floor. “A lady mantid, kid. This is the part Joe said you wouldn’t—”
Indi dropped her nectar and rushed toward the wood wasp. She was on him before he could protest, pressing him against a stack of pinecones. “Joe doesn’t matter in this. All I asked you was what happened.”
Ashmead fidgeted, but couldn’t escape her hold. When he stopped trying and settled back down, wings sticking in the pinecones, he nodded. “Right. Was raining that night, she was drenched, the wings was drenched, but they… In the water, they looked like gems. She wanted to know what they was worth, said they was all she had left of her mate, but she had to sell them so she could move on.”
Indi withdrew, abruptly letting Ashmead go. The wood wasp tumbled to the floor where he picked himself up, and shook his own wings out.
“I would have been stupid to not buy them, considering,” Ashmead went on. “She didn’t give me a name, but she really didn’t have to, kid.”
She felt the curl of air against her wing and turned out of Ashmead’s hand, which had lifted the corner of her cape. Ashmead fluttered out of her reach.
“It’s the thing about mantids, right?” he asked. “In the middle of the moment, you just—” The wasp made a snapping sound with his mouth. “What else did she have left but those wings? I’m glad to see you got your own there, kid. S’no wonder it stings to hear about someone else running around in similar like wings. But if you’re looking for that lady bug… I can’t help you there. Surely she’s dead by now?”
Indi moved out of the room, back into the cluttered corridors. She tried to shake off Ashmead’s words, but couldn’t quite. They burrowed like beetles into her flesh and she shuddered. The corridor swam around her and she couldn’t focus, couldn’t calm the sick feeling inside. It’s the thing about mantids, right?
A female mantid, Ashmead said—and it could have been anyone, but she knew then and there that it hadn’t been just anyone. Indi had never believed it could be her mother because she didn’t want to believe she was capable of the same thing, that such a destructive instinct rested within her own body. She stared at her long forelegs and wondered, not for the first time, if she could do it—wondered if it was the only thing she could do. She thought of Joe, of Joe falling dead from her embrace, and she pressed herself to the wall, trying to breathe. Joe dead by her hand—no, she couldn’t. Or could she? Would she?
“Was a couple of beetles who came in and bought the damned things,” Ashmead said, shuffling into the hall behind her. “Couldn’t tell you what kind—they had currency, was all I cared about. Enough suet to see me into old age, girl.”
Indi didn’t care about the wings, though she supposed she should have. Pieces of her father, ripped from his dead body and twice sold. She just wanted to know who killed him—who ripped him to pieces—and every clue was pointing her in a direction she didn’t want to go. Which meant she had to, as some part of her had always known she would.
She returned to the pine cautiously, mindful of woodpeckers, but full night had fallen and the skies were free of birds. The pine was quieter than it had been, the nocturnal crowd a little more subdued than the dayshifters. A trio of ladybugs loitered outside the conk tavern, their speckled crimson shells gleaming under the moonlight that filtered through the pine branches.
Indi couldn’t remember ever being so tired. She made the long climb to her hole, praying that she would not cross paths with Joe as she did. The odds of him being right were good; she didn’t want to see his gloating ant face—not that he ever had, she reminded herself. He had always been kind, that cop.
The first severed head, a male wood wasp, was suspended from the twig near Indi’s hole, tied with twine that was still wet with spit. Indi stilled and stared at the face, for a moment worried that it was somehow Ashmead. But when she drew closer, she saw it was not, and she looked at the myriad other branches that spread out from her home. Every single path was strewn with severed heads, each blowing in the low night wind. It didn’t seem to matter what kind of bug—Indi saw no pattern before her. Mantids, beetles, spiders, crickets, weevils.
The sick feeling she’d known at Ashmead’s returned, wave after wave of nausea and certainty threatening to pull her down. Certainty and not doubt; she knew now, didn’t she, what her mother had done, what her mother had done all these months.
She walked past her hole, hearing no one inside, and following what appeared to be bait for her—what else could the heads be? Further on, silk worms had been gutted on the branch’s path, sticky and fragrant; beyond that, a group of termites were skewered on a sharpened stick.
“Talk about overkill,” Indi said.
At her name, she stopped. Here, the branches were dappled with moonlight, sinking much of the tree into shadows. She turned her head until she saw him, Joe tied up and dangling from a branch. He looked like he’d been bound up by a spider, gossamer silk cocooning him, but Indi wasn’t taking that evidence as solid. It might be a spider, it might be—
“She’s close,” Joe said.
Indi said nothing, and didn’t move any closer to Joe. She listened to the night around them, tuning out the crickets and the flit of moths through branches, until she heard the prick of mantid claws on a branch above them.
“Mother,” she said.
Her mother unfolded herself from the high branch, an inch longer than Indi herself. Tanis was all the colors of the forest, warm green cloaked in brown, and Indi ached a little to see her. Her arms unfolded with a strange, slow grace before she lobbed a stick toward Indi; it rolled to a stop against Indi’s tarsal claws, two still-thrashing ticks impaled on its length.
“Tick, tick, Indi,” Tanis said. “So stubborn. You get that from your father.”
Indi pulled the tie on her cape, dropping it on the nearby outcropping of green shelf fungi. Her mother was not going to be convinced by dialogue alone, given what she had set up here. Indi tried not to think about her mother assembling this grim tableau while she had been talking to Ashmead, but failed. The idea that this was how her mother spent her evenings was boggling and terrifying.
“What have you done?” Indi asked. “How could y—”
“How could I, oh Indi.” Tanis curled her forelegs against her slim chest. “They make presumptions, don’t they? About our natures, about what we do and why we do it. Even this one.” She pointed to Joe, wriggling helplessly in the sticky silk cocoon. “Says it’s our nature to rip them apart after we mate. It’s just what we do, we can’t help ourselves, because oh, ladies.”
Tanis took a step forward, and Indi grabbed the tick stick before stepping backwards. The branch was narrow, too narrow to effectively grapple with anyone if Tanis charged. Indi hopped down to the conks, never looking away from her mother.
“The thing no one considers is,” Tanis continued, “that we can rip them apart whenever we like.”
“And Dad?” Indi hated the way her voice trembled. She wanted her mother to deny it. They were well past denials, but Indi wanted it so badly. She felt small, dwindled to the hatchling she had once been, wishing on windblown moths as they scattered the sky.
“And Dad!” Tanis chittered. “You saw what you wanted to see that night, didn’t you? He was always showing off those beetle-damned wings to anyone who would look, wasn’t he?” Her head dipped, jaw working furiously. “Wasn’t he the most beautiful thing anyone had seen, until… ” Her head moved back up, gaze narrowed on Indi. “The Indigo Mantis.”
Tanis lunged and Indi parried with the tick stick. Tanis grasped the stick instead of Indi and hurled it aside as Indi’s legs came up. She unfurled her distinctive indigo wings, and heard Joe’s started gasp, the way he called her name. She didn’t look from her mother, from her mother’s gaping mouth and tearing claws.
“We can rip whenever we like,” Tanis spat. “Whyever we like!”
Growing up, her mother didn’t seem insane, but something had changed. She wanted to believe her mother had gone over an edge, had lost her sanity, but Indi saw from her mother’s wide brown eyes that Tanis knew exactly what she was doing. She was demonstrating the ability every mantid had every moment of every day. An ability Indi still wanted to deny—but knew then she could not. It was part of them, for better or worse.
Indi lifted into the air, somersaulting over Tanis’s head to land on the conk behind her. Tanis spun, but Indi was already rushing toward her, slamming her legs into her mother’s slim body. Tanis went down in a tangle of limbs, writhing on her back and wings.
“That’s my girl,” Tanis cried.
Indi was, she could not deny it. Anger surged through her, propelling her in for another strike before Tanis could move. But Tanis fluttered up in a rush of legs and wings—Indi remembered the first time she had seen them, wings pierced by sunlight, the colors of autumn thrown across the walls of their home.
Indi took a leg to the face.
“Think of all we could do! My bright, clever girl!”
Indi leapt onto her mother before Tanis could land another strike. She lunged down, jaws snapping in the night air as she enclosed her mother’s neck within tarsus and hook. She thought of the spider she had killed earlier that evening, and of the grim death that hung around them now; death was a part of life, but this?
“Think what we could do,” Tanis whispered. “Together.”
And Indi did think on it. She thought of the path of heads she had walked, of the skewered worms, of her dearest Joe bound like prey. She thought how those heads might come to trace every limb of the tree, the bodies of their enemies bound into silk and leaf. Not even the woodpeckers would trespass into their tree because they were so terrible and fierce, Indi and Tanis, so magnificent and consuming in their terror that they would truly stand alone. For one terrible moment, Indi allowed herself to imagine what that would be, how it would feel to rip the head off anyone who displeased her, anyone who dared defy what she wanted. Looking into her mother’s eyes, she saw not herself reflected, but what she would become given the time, and she shuddered.
“And nature denied does what?” The whisper turned into a snarl. “Be what you are, Indi! Join me! We can show this forest what we—”
Indi closed her hands around her mother’s thin neck and pulled.
It was over in an instant, the head coming away from the body easier than Indi imagined possible. The body spasmed beneath her, spewing green fluid across the conk ledge, then went perfectly still. Indi threw the head into the moonlit shadows, and bowed her head. Her legs wouldn’t stop shaking and neither would her wings, and deep down, she couldn’t believe it was over. Over after so long, over, and her mother was—Was—Dead. Indi shook the muck from her claws and watched a moth stir from a distant branch, fluttering like a leaf into the night.
Joe repeating her name brought her back from the exhausted haze that enveloped her. She pushed herself away from her mother’s dead body and picked her way up the branches, reaching for the cocoon that contained Joe. Her indigo wings rippled as she worked and she waited for Joe to say something, to upbraid her for fighting crime in the pine, for killing her mother, for something. But he didn’t. As they extracted his legs from the sticky casing, he only touched her mandible.
“Thought she was going to eat me,” Joe said, a warble in his voice betraying his utter lack of cool.
“Nah,” Indi said, low and thick as she eased another band of cocoon from his torso. She plucked a strand of web from the scar across his eye and her jaw snapped in a laugh. “She would have ripped your head off and left you to rot.”
Together, they worked to cut the severed heads from the branches and when finished, Indi thought she might pass out. But then Joe reached over, the way he so often did. He draped her cape over her wings, to hide them away from anyone else.
“Want to get a drink?” she found herself asking.
Joe blinked, eyes dark in the gloom of the night. “Your usual?”
Indi drew her tarsus under his jaw, deliberate and slow. “Not my usual,” she decided.
She was what she was, her nature crouched within her as surely as it had crouched within her own mother. Only time would tell how she would handle it—better than Tanis had, she hoped.
“You going to ask me about the Indigo Mantis, Joe?” she asked as they walked down the trunk and toward the bar. Even now, Joe’s eyes lingered on her concealing cape.
Joe chittered softly, a low laugh. “I am, Indi, but not tonight.”
At the conk bar, more mountain pine beetles had gathered and continued to plot, she allowed herself a soft smile. Her antennae twitched.
“Looks like we got some beetles to thwart, Joe. You in?”
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