Once upon a time in the Kingdom of Eld, an alien menace appeared in ships of chrome and jade. They burst through the cloud cover billowing furious smoke, and when the invaders jumped free their parachutes blocked the sun.
“I was there that day,” Callisto said. “When they lowered their sarcophagi to the ground and unleashed the ravening teeth. I fought them off. Like so!”
She danced around the fire pit, striking the dirt with her wood-carved sword. She performed for an audience of one: her protector, the great bear Babo, who was currently slumped against a tree with his great shaggy head lolled against his chest. Snoring.
“Oh, Babo,” Callisto sighed. Even in the concealing flicker of firelight, his age was painfully apparent. Patchy fur stuck out at odd angles from his muzzle to his belly. One ear hung limp against his head; the other was long gone.
He stirred at the sound of his name, ungumming eyes that were shiny and black. “I am listening,” he rumbled. “I was with you that day.”
“Yes, but I like to tell it.” Callisto climbed onto his lap, wriggling into her usual spot beneath his left arm. She listened to the crackle of old flintwood, idly tracing her fingers over the gnarls and puckers of the scar that ran up Babo’s side, hip to armpit. A history of trauma and sloppy stitches.
“Babo,” she said softly.
“If we’re caught tomorrow…”
His chest swelled abruptly beneath her cheek. “I will see you through, never fear.”
“Yes, yes, of course.” She paused, till the fire began to gutter, and the stars grew sharp and luminous overhead, and the bear’s breath shallowed out once more. Then she whispered, “If we’re caught tomorrow, I want you to know that I love you, and none of this was your fault.”
Callisto crouched in the shadow of a hilltop brindlecat tree, looking out over the remains of her kingdom with a cracked spyglass. The skeleton of the place was intact: rolling hills and winding rivers and castle towers surrounded by rich meadows. But the hills were rolling with slimy fronds, the rivers were more ruby than sapphire, and the flowers in the meadows were, to put it mildly, not worth stopping to smell.
In the distance, alien teeth chewed their way toward the horizon, churning toxins into the soil and depositing the seeds of their own world. Callisto’s attention was on the middle ground, on land already lost, on a deep crater cupping several tons of extraterrestrial shipbuilding materials, shattered like an egg-man fallen off his perch.
Callisto hesitated, her bluster evaporating in the face of open terrain. At night she was a warrior, a noble princess on a quest to reclaim her throne. In the cold light of day, she was an eight-year-old girl with a wooden sword and a pet bear.
“We don’t have to do this,” Babo reminded her. “We can go directly to the rendezvous point.”
“I swore I would find the means of their destruction,” Callisto said. She sighed. “And I’ve tried everything else.”
For weeks they had traveled far and wide, petitioning witches and wizards and fairy queens and goblins, commissioning enchantments from frog-women and curses from rat-kings. Every one a failure. Wherever a bent-backed grandmother hid in a hovel on the lee side of a hill, there Callisto had completed some act of charity and been rewarded with an item of protection.
A leopard-skin hat. A wolfskin belt. An amulet containing soils from all four corners of the kingdom. The buttons on her boots were carved from a unicorn’s horn (shed, not stolen), and her shirt was piped with threads of troll-spun gold. There was nothing left to armor herself with, not unless she discovered a weakness to exploit.
She needed more information. She needed to know why they were here.
The alien ship was curved like a dragon’s back, glittering and beautiful even in death. Its collision had rocked the land for leagues in every direction, and though the fire burned for days it never escaped the crater. The tough wet fronds of the altered landscape were impervious to fire, to scythe, to poison, to fairy dust. They crunched beneath Callisto’s steps and sprang back stubbornly in her wake.
She slid down the crater with care, hanging tight to Babo’s leg where the scorched dirt turned steep. The only sounds were breath and dust and rock sliding against rock.
Up close, the ship was no dragon, but a slain giant with wires and tubing spilled from its belly. Callisto paused at a crack in the hull, trembling at the realization that it was scarcely wide enough for her, much less a nine-foot-tall brown bear.
“I will wait for you,” Babo promised. He always had. He always would.
She squeezed through before her nerve could fail. The hull was thicker than she’d expected, and she emerged, scraped and soot-stained, in a long hallway. Wherever she stepped, a faint light guttered up from the floor, illustrating the ship in a narrow band. Darkness ahead, darkness behind.
Callisto inched forward, tugging shadows at her back. The walls pressed in like gloved hands, and her breath grew ragged.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The bogwitch had been quite clear: on Callisto’s birthday she would prick her finger on a spindle and fall into a deep slumber. Painless, temporary, hardly even a curse in the grand scheme of things. Every princess knew these interludes ended in a loving embrace.
But then the ships hurtled molten through the sky, and Callisto’s mother hid her away in the trunk of a world-tree, tight and terrifying and secret. “Do not be afraid,” the Queen said. “Babo will be with you. I will see you soon, I swear it, and we will continue to the rendezvous.”
But she never came back. She never came back. Callisto crept out of the tree with only Babo by her side. Her distress, though potent, was short-lived. Whatever had waylaid the Queen was serious, but she was the most powerful person in the world. Callisto had one more week to reach the rendezvous point just beyond the Dark Woods, and there wasn’t a doubt in her mind: her mother would be there, waiting.
She used this thought to steel her spine and ventured farther into the ship with sword in hand. Gape-mouthed doorways opened onto scenes of devastation: broken sarcophagi and shattered glass, rotten liquids dried to scum, all of it visible in glimmers and glances, the light system struggling valiantly and failing to catch.
A stuttering sound drew her forward, into the final chamber at the end of the hall. Callisto was so frightened she could only absorb the scene in fragments: gutted chairs, glossy surfaces smeared red, humanoid shapes on the floor, tangled limbs.
She focused on the source of the sound: a small podium nearly wrenched from the wall, swaying at the end of a fistful of wires. Images swirled on the surface, fractured into nonsense by a dozen cracks, and a tinny voice stuttered in an alien language, “—melco faridai melco faridai c-c-corio lympha vary nuncular—”
The images flashed and the voice deepened, delivering a message with the same cadence but using complex, guttural words, like dogs rending flesh. And then a third flash, and this time it was a language she knew. This time it declared, “—we need blood w-we need blood, lymph core collapsed bodies dying d-d-dying—”
Callisto staggered back. Shadows swelled and contracted around the edges of her vision, and the room itself seemed to breathe, a dragon after all and preparing to close its teeth.
A shadow rustled on the floor. Callisto froze, breathless, as the shape elongated and rose, rose, it was impossibly tall, wreathed in robes and darkness. A hand emerged, crooked and grasping, and Callisto bolted down the hallway, screaming, “Babo! Babo! Help!”
The floor lights couldn’t keep pace. They trailed behind her, illuminating the alien in snatches of black fabric, sharp claws, a gleaming hint of eyes. Ahead was darkness, but also escape, also Babo bellowing her name and tearing at the cracked hull to reach her.
Daylight cut a narrow line across the hall. Fifteen paces away. Ten. Five.
An arm snaked around her waist. She was hauled back, shrieking, into a writhing mass of shadows. Callisto twisted in the creature’s grasp and struck with her sword, but the impossible fabric melted away from her blows, and she cleaved only air.
The alien hugged her tight. Dark mesh slipped and slid over its face, and in a reverberating translation of a voice it said, “Don’t struggle. This will be quick.” The veil stretched forward. It slid across Callisto’s jaw, overwhelmingly scented of flowers, and she turned her face, gasping for clean air. The creature’s hand came up, the palms flat, the fingers incredibly long and thin, tapering to sharp points like needles, like—
Callisto screamed again, “Babo!” and this time metal sheared from metal and the great bear pushed his shaggy head into the hallway. He snatched her up with one bloody paw and the alien dragged at her legs, howled, “Come back! Come back!”
But then she was clinging to Babo’s neck, cradled snug in the crook of his arm, and he was running from the wreckage of the ship, running up the lip of the crater, running through fronds like open flesh, and she bounced against him for some time, tears drying against warm fur, before she realized she’d lost more than her nerve.
She’d also lost her sword.
The ship was dead but not defenseless. Signal flares erupted upward, purple and red, calling here, they’re here, calling get them, get them!
Callisto and Babo fled across the kingdom with a kernel of resistance clutched to their breasts. They would reach the Dark Woods, and find the Queen, and spread the news: the aliens were dying and must be denied the means to repair themselves.
She prayed it was true.
Every evening she tucked in close to Babo’s side and watched a firepit flicker to life in the hills behind them. The alien had her scent now. No matter their pace, no matter their route, there it was, pursuing but not yet closing in, tugged along behind them by an invisible tether.
Sometimes she glimpsed it during the day: a slender figure in wind-whipped fabric, standing vigil in a field of bitter poppies, or perched atop a skeleton tree. Patient. Relentless.
When Callisto shut her eyes, she plunged into fretful dreams. Dreams of a whispering voice and arms like tree roots. Dreams of a thousand spindles pricking her fingers, her shoulders, her temples, dreams of a veil of thick black mesh climbing across her face, dreams of a figure with binocular eyes and breathing tubes begging her to sleep, sleep, sleep, don’t struggle, this will be quick.
Each time she awoke, feverish and frightened, it was to Babo’s weary face, the poor bear stretched thin by long days of walking and long nights keeping guard. But he continued without complaint, lifting her when she faltered and refusing to acknowledge the toll it took.
She recalled what her mother had done for her, whenever she was frightened, whenever their lives took a sudden and overwhelming turn. The Queen would sit on her bed, and break down what was happening clearly and simply, in the format Callisto knew best: a story.
So Callisto told Babo the story of their quest, and if it was for her benefit as much as his, where was the harm in that?
“Once upon a time, there was a girl,” she whispered on his shoulder. “A girl who lost her home to an alien menace. She traveled far and wide, with only her trusted Babo by her side, seeking the key to revive the world.”
Babo grunted, too tired to speak.
On the fifth night Babo succumbed to exhaustion. They crept into the dusty remains of a woodcarver’s cabin and rested on beds of hay. Babo immediately began to snore, and Callisto did her best to keep watch but the threat of danger had grown commonplace in its constancy, and she was, despite all of her royal responsibility, only eight years old.
She awoke, disoriented, to the sound of the door unlatching. Before she could shout, the alien with spindle-fingers appeared and thrust a veil over her face, and then Callisto was flailing, she was smothering, the oil-slick mesh was flexing against her lips and seeking purchase.
A second alien stood over Babo with a breathing tube in one hand. It wrenched the bear’s jaw open and shoved the tube past his teeth, and only then did the bear jerk to life, bellowing and choking around the blockage.
Callisto kicked and scratched and fought, and Spindles wailed, “Hold still, hold still, this won’t hurt if you hold still.”
“We’re running out of time,” the second alien said, and he was grim, so grim. “We’re going to die. Don’t you understand?”
Spindles shouted, “You’re frightening her!”
The aliens bickered and screamed, their voices sharp with mechanical distortion. Callisto was tired, and the veil was warm, soft, scented like flowers. But beneath the sweetness lurked the tang of something sharper, heavier…
“Breathe,” the alien said, and fright brought Callisto back to life. She struck the alien and it flinched back, just long enough for her to claw the veil from her face. She groped blindly for Babo’s paw, yelling, “Once upon a time there was a girl! A girl who lost her home! She traveled far and wide, with only her trusty bear by her side!”
Babo surged upward, throwing his attacker clear. He scooped Callisto from her tangle of hay and staggered through the cabin, crushing rickety chairs and a workbench, out the door and into the cold of night, where he paused only to pull the tube from his throat—long, impossibly long and glistening in the moonlight, gruesome and gagging—before they rushed on.
Callisto looked back only once. The alien filled the open doorway, spindle-fingers crushing the jamb, cloth snapping like a swarm of snakes, and in a voice of ruin and rot, it yelled, “I am coming for you! I will never give up!”
Dawn broke, and with it the last shreds of normalcy. Clouds gathered swiftly, purple with the exhaust pouring from ailing ships. Rain fell through the acrid fog, and wherever it landed all color washed away. Trees lost their green and bricks lost their red. Wolves lost their brown and pigs lost their pink, and all of them scattered in panic, shaking their skins, snapping and whining at the sizzle on their tongues.
Babo was patchy with grey. Callisto ran with her leopard-skin hat pulled tight over her ears and her shirt pulled up against her neck, but droplets snuck through the gaps, sucking at her skin like leeches.
The Dark Woods waited for them, just across a corrupted poppy field. That was the border of the aliens’ influence, that was where the ravening teeth had stopped, that was where Callisto was going to find her mother.
But she kept looking back, at broken towers and pale grey geese honking in distress. Out of sight were the frog-men and the trolls, the billy goats and pumpkin patches and field mice disguised as soldiers. All of her kingdom was falling to ruin, and they were running away.
Callisto dug in her heels, dragging at Babo’s paw. “I’ll go to the swordsmith,” she said.
“No,” said Babo.
“I’ll answer his riddles three, and in return he’ll forge a sword of light—”
“You are terrible at riddles,” said Babo.
“Then I’ll go to the land of dark fae! I will make a meal of startling richness, and they will place a blessing on my brow—”
“You cannot cook,” said Babo.
Desperately, Callisto said, “The woodcarver! Or the beast on Rose Hill, or—”
“Callisto,” he snapped, and there was temper in it, there was a suggestion of fangs. “I am old and I am worn. Every hour my stitches come closer to unraveling. Don’t you think you are getting old for this game? There is nothing you can do!”
Callisto drew back, breathless. He had never spoken to her like that before. Her vision blurred, and for a moment Babo was transformed in a prism of tears, not nine feet tall but seven or six and still shrinking, and the fur beneath his chin—
“Oh, Babo, no,” she said, and he snapped back to his usual height. She reached up (as though she could possibly get there without his cooperation), and raindrops sizzled on her bare hand. A thin sliver of black mesh was growing from the flesh of his neck. It was a veil, creeping up the underside of his muzzle. An infection.
Babo sighed, but his response was cut by the roar of a small engine. An escape pod plummeted through the clouds, sleek and silver and bubbling with heat. Three aliens leaped from the pod just before it crashed, snapping out parachutes like wings. They hit the ground harder than any animal could have survived, and then they stood, and lifted megaphones like crossbows, and screamed.
“Go!” Babo pushed her, rough, unyielding. “Go, now, I will stand here, go now!”
Callisto ran for the woods, fronds slapping at her legs. There was an ocean of open terrain before the safety of the tree line, a muck-meadow pulling at every panicked step, and Babo was roaring louder than she’d ever heard him roar, and the aliens were babbling in sharp and conflicting frequencies through their amplifiers: “We’re out of time! We have to go!”
Callisto looked back once, and saw Babo towering over them, rain-slick and fierce, batting down their equipment with lazy force. Grim tried to throw a net over his head and was whapped to the ground—and then Spindles surged up behind him and placed one long-needled finger into his neck.
Babo roared as he fell, catching Spindles under his bulk, but he was spasming, shrinking, the veil sliding over his face, and Callisto ran harder, ran forward, stopped looking back.
She skidded into the woods, onto shockingly familiar moss and twigs. There was light here, dappled through thick leaves and purple clouds and acid rain, but the calm was swiftly shattered.
Branches cracked under the weight of approaching pods, and a tree collapsed, only thirty feet distant, felled by the descent of an enormous stone sarcophagus. It hit the forest floor like death, glowing all around the edges with tubes of light, and there were more incoming ahead and behind. A trap.
Callisto darted through a hail of freshly-greyed debris, blank with fright, and then she spotted it: a ghost light, pale and green and flickering in the rain, beckoning her onto a secret path, a route to safety, just like her mother said.
The woods unfurled for her like rose petals. Callisto wended and wove, trusting wholeheartedly that the light would guide her true, and yes, the sounds of pursuit dulled behind her, and yes, a structure rose before her like it had grown from the very earth: the Heart of the Woods, the Hall of Heroes. The rendezvous point.
She rushed through the old oaken doors shouting, “I’m here! I’ve come! I have news!”
But the hall was dark.
Callisto stood on cold flagstone. Long tables stretched before her, thick with dust. The candles in the wall sconces were cracked, and worse: they were blue wax, winter wax, the same half-burned tapers they had left behind after the yuletide feast.
Nobody had been here since before the invasion. The Queen hadn’t come. Her knights hadn’t come. Callisto was alone.
It was only when her heart began to riot like a hummingbird caught in a nest of ribs that she remembered to breathe. She sucked in one breath after another, lightheaded with panic, and when the bloody roar in her ears died down a new sound took its place: mechanical footsteps crushing twigs and rocks.
They’d found her.
She didn’t think. She only ran, and as she reached the miniature doorway at the back of the hall—a little entrance for the dogs to come and go—she heard them burst into the Heart of the Woods, crying, “Callisto!”
But then she was through, back to the mud and rain. She scrambled to her feet, casting about for a route, a weapon, a hiding place, anything. She was nearly overwhelmed by a desire to surrender, to curl into a ball and let the aliens harvest her blood, but if her mother was truly gone then she was a Queen, and a Queen never gave up.
There. The blackened husk of a lightning-struck world-tree, ten feet around and gripping the forest floor with a mountain of tentacle-roots. Callisto scrabbled at the dirt until she found a brittle point, and the dead root broke away, revealing a hollow space beneath the tree.
She climbed down, down, into the shadows and wet, into earth that hugged like a womb and pulsed like a heart. She breathed shallow against the scent of dirt and under-life and tried not to think about the last time, when her mother sealed her up and strode away.
Rain dripped steadily into the root-tomb, and she could only hope the signs of her passage had been sloughed away. Crunching steps announced that the search party had come around the longhouse, and Callisto knew without peeking that Spindles was in the lead.
She stood in cold water up to her ankles, clenching her teeth to keep them from chattering. Her meager slice of light flickered with the pacing of Spindles. Back and forth the alien swished, its breath ragged with tubing and despair.
A second body landed wetly on the earth, and Grim said, “Are you finished? You are dragging this out.”
Spindles continued to pace, taking tighter turns and tighter turns. It stopped abruptly, casting the tree in shadow. “Did you hear that?” it demanded. It pressed close, and Callisto held her breath.
“I heard something, I swear it.”
“She’s not in there. Why are you doing this to yourself?”
Spindles’ wheezing breath changed pitch, fast and frantic. “We’ve come so far. I’m not leaving without her.”
“If you won’t do it then I will.”
An impact shook the tree, thick like an axe strike, and then Spindles was screaming and screaming, and there was a sound like shattering glass, and gale-force winds battered the forest, buffeting Callisto’s ears in her cramped space, a hurricane summoned by alien rage.
She gasped and clung to a crumble of roots and shut her eyes against dirt falling from above, and when the world quieted again it was different. Hollow. Spindles was alone.
The alien slumped, a delicate sound of sodden leaves giving way. When it spoke again, it was tired, almost pleading. “Callisto,” it said. “I know you’re in there.”
Callisto held her breath, but the alien did not advance. It sighed. “The journey was only supposed to take a month, I know. Thirty days at speed, and then we’d walk onto clean ground, pre-primed for seed, all of us together…” A pause, a patter of rain like tears. “The attack was worse than we realized, but they’re gone now. We’re the only ones left.”
Faintness stole over Callisto. She could almost see it: the explosion, a chain reaction from engine to engine, laughter ringing out over ship-wide speakers as the dream of colonizing a new world was destroyed.
“We were dead in the vacuum,” the alien said. “No provisions, low power. We sent out a distress call and we went to sleep.”
Callisto pressed her hands to her ears, blocking the creature’s probing voice, its thoughts like burrowing ants, its sadness. She pictured them, sliding into the tight cold space of a sarcophagus, not knowing when or where or whether they’d emerge.
“Can you hear me? Do you understand?” the alien asked. “There wasn’t any other choice. Please. Don’t blame me.”
Cruel sorcery summoned the images to Callisto’s mind: her mother’s face, creased with fear, her mother’s hands pressing her into the world-tree, the sky darkening above her, cracked all over like broken lights. Except it wasn’t a tree. A tree didn’t have four walls. A tree didn’t have a lid.
“I have Babo,” Spindles said. “Babo is here. Don’t you want to see your Babo?”
Callisto inched forward against her best intentions, to the rain-slick crack in the roots. There, framed in mud, Spindles stood with its back to the tree, slowly turning, unsure whether its prey was within hearing range, and in its arms—
Babo. Two feet tall, eyes wide and black and shiny as glass, fur matted, lifeless—a toy. A stuffed animal with one ear missing and thick, sloppy stitches holding together the seam on his side.
Callisto cried out. She clapped a hand to her mouth but too late. Spindles dropped Babo and darted to the opening in the ground. The alien’s arm was long and snakebite-fast, and Callisto thrust herself down as far as she could go, kicking wildly, only to find her ankle in its grasp.
“No!” She twisted to her belly in the mud. She held on to anything she could grasp.
Spindles yelled, “Listen to me, listen to me!” and thunder rolled over them both, a tempest touching down.
Callisto couldn’t cover her ears, so she shouted, “Once upon a time there was a girl—!”
But Spindles was louder and wouldn’t be drowned out. “Once upon a time there was a girl!” it howled. “A girl who lost her home to an alien menace. She traveled across the stars, with her mother and her father and her precious Babo, seeking a new world to revive. They were injured, stranded, so she went to sleep, she went to sleep and waited for help to arrive, but the regulator on her cryochamber broke and she wouldn’t wake up, and I’m so sorry baby girl, I said I’d be here and I am, but you have to wake up, are you still in there, can you hear me, oh god give me a sign—”
Callisto dug her hands into darkness and filth. Water lapped at her chin, reminding her of tanks, of chambers like coffins, of hydration veils and breathing tubes and endless cold and long needles full of sleep. The alien dragged her out by the feet, a breech birth, kicking and full of pain, hands around her ankles and then her calves and then her hips, strong arms wrapped around her waist and turning her into a familiar embrace.
The alien clutched her tight, and the veil began to slide from its face, her face, revealing dark brown eyes like the bark of a world-tree, and they were wet, she was crying, “I don’t know the end of our story, I don’t know where we’ll stop, I just know I’ll be here until you wake up, you’ve got to wake up, please wake up, PLEASE WAKE UP—”
Callisto opened her eyes.
The Queen was waiting, as promised.
|Samantha Mills lives in Southern California, in a house on a hill that is hopefully not a haunted hill house. Her short fiction has also appeared in Uncanny Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Strange Horizons, among others. You can find her at samtasticbooks.com or on Twitter @samtasticbooks.|