A bit of danse macabre and le petit mort from my high school novel. Written at 18 – the battle of me and my muse. Self-insert as fuck. I still am impressed by my creativity, if not artistry, back then. Beware of demon sex and gore and banging the Grim Reaper and, of course, Mister Crowley. Allister, my name, is just Aleister spelled better.
“Decay tastes like honey.”
One-shot written in college about Samael and Shannon, whose story has not stopped since I first started writing their story a dozen years ago at twelve.
The rain fell like a bridal veil, so soft, onto the sidewalk, mixing with spilled gasoline to form oil rainbows in the gutter. A willow bent over the country street, skirting a peeling white picket fence, branches dancing in the wind. The quaint houses sprung like flowers from the ground, paint fading around screen doors left open in the summer heat. One door flapped open. A young, willowy woman in a red and white plaid sundress and combat boots stepped out, her smile illuminating the drizzle. Her dark, rosy hair spilled like snakes down her shoulders, loose curls like Titian red seen through sunglasses. She yawned, stretched, and ran a hand through her hair, watching the rain pool on her stoop.
“Bloody dreary morning. I’ve seen days in Hell less gloomy than this,” came a deep, rich voice from behind her. A skeleton dressed in a black bathrobe and shades stepped into the door frame, towering over her. He glowered, clutching a cup of coffee in his bony hands, and grumpily sipped it.
The girl sat on the step under the eaves, sheltered from the rain. She laughed, watching a bus barrel by. “I think it’s beautiful. Maybe you need contacts. Or eyeballs, for the matter.
He scoffed. “My vision has nothing to do with it. I loathe tame rain. Where are the wild gales? The clashing thunder? The spears of lightning? Storms should either be tempests or not exist at all. This drizzle is putting me to sleep.”
“Mmm,” the girl said dreamily, dangling her legs over the step’s side and watching a snail inch up the concrete. She plucked it from the steps and cradled the mollusc in her palm. Its radula scraped her hand, tickling her skin, and she laughed. “Someone woke up on the wrong side of the coffin.”
The skeleton growled. “Just because I’m Death doesn’t mean I sleep in coffins like a common leech.”
“Leech. Vampire. The scum I wipe from my shoes after my morning walks with Cerberus in Hell.”
The girl quirked her brow. “Oh really.” Gently, she placed the snail onto the rose bush bordering the steps. “And what, pray tell, sets you apart from the bloodsuckers?”
“The fact that I actually pose a threat.” The towering skeleton set his coffee mug down on the table chest beside the doorway and pulled a Cuban cigar from his bathrobe pocket. He lit it with a silver lighter and miraculously smoked it. “Anyways, I’m a barrel of laughter compared to those pallid mosquitoes.”
The girl smoothed her skirts. “Really? Because I could have sworn your attitude kills all pleasantness.”
He took a drag from his cigar. “Kills all pleasantness, eh?” The skull grinned. “I am terminal, I suppose.”
“Only the Grim Reaper would be proud of being a pain.” She rolled her eyes, plucked a rose and crushed its petals between her fingers, bringing the rich scent to her nose. “Tell me, Samael. Can you even smell in that form?”
“What I’m lacking in senses I make up for in sheer charm.”
“That didn’t even answer my question.”
“I don’t need smell to appreciate the beauty of a rose.”
“Or touch, or sight, either, apparently,” the girl muttered. She set to lacing her combat boots tight as he puffed smoke into a ring. The smoke writhed and curled into the shape of a serpent. Samael tapped his slippered foot, as if impatient to start the day. He eyed the clock beside the door.
“Come in for breakfast, Shannon” he urged, placing a gentle hand on her shoulder. She wrinkled her lip in disgust.
“Get your corpse hands off me. I’m trying to enjoy the storm.” But her stomach rumbled tellingly. She sighed, relented, and came in, shutting the door. “God, Sam. Why do you insist on prancing around the house as a skeleton? If the neighbors saw you…”
“But they don’t,” he smiled, gleeful. “To them, I look like a perfectly normal human being.”
“In a bathrobe. Only losers appear in public in bathrobes.”
“I’d hardly call a door frame public.”
“Drivers and passerby can see you.” Shannon made her way up the stairs, Samael gazing intently at her derriere. She caught his gaze and glared. “Aren’t you coming up, death in the morning?”
“Appreciating the view. Don’t mind me.” He tilted his shades down and grinned.
Shannon proceeded to walk up the stairs backwards to spite him. “I will not be checked out by a pile of bones. Change your aspect, now, or I’m feeding you to the local dogs.”
Samael stubbed his cigar on his robes. “And you said I kill all pleasantness. Pot calling the kettle black much, dear?”
She was about to reply but, off-balance, tripped on the final step and landed squarely on the derriere Death so admired. She cursed, wincing. “The only thing black about me is going to be my behind. I think I bruised it.”
“I’ll check for you.”
“I’ll pass.” He helped her up. “Stop grinning, damn it. This isn’t funny.”
“I can’t stop grinning. I’m a skull.”
“Well then don’t be a skeleton.”
He remained decidedly calcified. A loud peal of thunder shook the foundations of the house. Shannon massaged her rear end, leering. “I give up,” she said, marching off to her room in the small two-story house she rented for college. She slammed the door closed.
Samael was hot on her heels. He may have smirked (it was hard to tell) and began to dissipate, becoming a fine black mist that wafted under the door’s crack and into her inner sanctum. Shannon found herself caught in a thicket of darkness, the cheery light of her room drowned out by his demonic presence. She sighed, staying firmly rooted in her spot instead of stumbling about.
Now we’re both black, came his disembodied voice. The darkness swirled round her in a disorienting manner. It pressed against her skin, feeling as the ocean might, rubbing against her in a calming manner. She felt her eyes grow heavy-lidded as the blackness bore her up off the ground, onto the softness of her bed. The pain in her tailbone receded at its silky touch.
“Is this supposed to mimic conditions in the womb? Because I’m claustrophobic, and it’s creeping me out.”
This is a world without sight. Isn’t it soothing?
The rain picked up outside, beating a staccato rhythm on the roof.
“I guess,” she admitted, closing her eyes and breathing deeply. The blackness filled her lungs, moving through her like the tide. Samael stretched inside of her, settling into her neurons and rooting himself in her brain. She squirmed beneath the weight of it all. “But aren’t you the least bit squicked out by what we’re doing?”
Possession? he hummed.
She flinched. “I hate it when you call it that. Like it’s something demonic.”
He cackled. It is.
“Fine, yes, possession. It seems unholy. Unnatural.”
But you enjoy it.
She shifted uncomfortably. “Maybe,” she muttered.
Then why should it be a sin? I’m just trying to ease your pain.
“All I did was fall on my ass.”
The darkness, somehow, snorted. You know there are deeper pains within you than that.
Shannon shuddered. “You had to remind me.”
Suppressing them does nothing for you, girl. We can find comfort in each other. I can help you face your fears, if you’ll only allow me.
“Are you trying to put me off breakfast?”
Suffering goes well with coffee.
Shannon relented. “Fine, hit me with your best shot.” She burrowed under her covers, letting the blackness take her away. Samael riffed through her mind- she felt him like a pressure on her temple. Images flashed behind her closed eyes: the war in Heaven. The carnage of battle. A desolate Eden left to waste… Samael chose a moment and settled on it.
Shannon watched Samael fall, limbs mangled, from a battle on high. She ran, screaming, through the Fields of Asphodel, as Azazel laughed on high, victorious. Throngs of Grigori pursued her.
“Damn you bastards!” she screamed, firing shots from her blessed Colt revolver. Bursts of ether hit the Grigori pursuants. The ones hit stumbled and fell, but there were too many. They were closing in.
“Samael!” she called, desperate. He lay broken, bleeding ichor onto the plain white flowers beneath him. “We need to escape. Now.” She holstered her gun and unlatched Samael’s scythe from where it was held at her back. Swinging it in a mad arc, she summoned a portal to Pandemonium, Hell’s capital. Samael groaned, in pieces.
“My head,” he choked. “Take my head. I’ll regenerate the rest.”
Shannon took the severed head and cradled it in her arms, staining her battle tunic in black blood. She rushed through the portal, scythe in hand. Samael choked out a word in angelic to seal it. The cries of the Grigori army echoed after its closure. Shannon collapsed, in some cobblestoned street in Pandemonium’s, the capital of Hell’s, lethal streets. Cries of pleasure and pain indicated they were in the market district, where every service imaginable was sold. The night hung heavy with jasmine and spice as Shannon leaned against a wall in the slim alley, breath ragged. She held the severed head to her chest, traumatized. Grisly bits of ribboned flesh hung from his neck and snapped spine.
“Blood. I need to feed,” Samael rasped.
Shannon obliged, jaded to the process. She was Samael’s lifeline in this state. The blood of Eve flowed through her, mother of mankind and keeper of the Fruit of Life. The Fruit was a metaphor for her blood, she the stout trunk of the Tree of Life, for what better place to hide immortality but in a woman? Eve was the Tree given life, and Shannon, as her reincarnation, possessed her powers.
She held Samael to her neck- he sunk his viper fangs into the soft skin beneath her jaw line, sucking at the providence of the blood. Shannon cried out at the pain as the liquid beneath her skin welled up, flowing between his lips. Samael sighed, pain abated. In a flash he was whole again, sated by her rejuvenating blood.
“Blood is the life,” he murmured, sagging against her.
“Stop quoting Dracula, idiot,” she breathed, exhausted. They clung to each other, Shannon shuddering. “I hate this. This half-existence we’re eking out. Neither one of us whole. I had to carry your head, Samael. It’s disgusting.”
“War requires sacrifice. And we are two parts of a whole. Live with it.”
The vision ended.
“Why are you showing me this?” Shannon demanded. She beat against the blackness, forcing it out of her. She coughed as it left her lungs. The darkness swirled like a storm cloud, condensing into a severe black robe. Samael appeared, fully human, save for a pair of majestic raven wings, his pale skin shining in the morning light that poured through the window. He fixed the collar of his robe and looked at her intently.
“Because you’ve been repulsed by me ever since that happened.”
She looked away from him. “I knew, in theory, what I had to do. I just never… never thought it would be so gory. So horrible.”
Samael softened. “It doesn’t have to be. We are two parts of a whole, the snake and the maiden, the serpent and its tree. I bite your heel and you bruise my head, but the curse that’s between us is sweeter still.”
“You know I hate it when you quote cryptic Biblical verses.”
Samael glanced out the window. “Sometimes old, tired words are the best ones. But truly, Shannon. You are weary. So weary. I could feel it in your soul. Yet you hide it so well. Sometimes I forget how fragile you are…” He glided over to her, sitting at the edge of the bed.
Shannon frowned. “I’m anything but fragile, Sam.”
He stroked the bit of her leg that poked out from under the quilt. “All humans are fragile. Even you. If I could, I would swaddle you like a newborn and protect you from the world. But I can’t…” His eyes lingered on the faint scars on her neck that would be gone in a week’s time. He hung his head in shame. “I wish there was another way.”
“Don’t, Sam. I’m glad I can help you, that I can serve some purpose in this godforsaken war. It’s just trying at times. It feels so unnatural, like everything we do. Like I’m being preyed upon.”
Samael’s face looked pained. He sighed, lying down beside Shannon. She shifted to allow him space, curling up beside him. “It doesn’t have to be that way,” he breathed, threading his arms around her waist. “I can be gentle, girl. God knows I want to be.” He was intoxicated by her scent, like vanilla mingled with roses. Samael inhaled sharply, inches from her neck.
“You do?” she whispered.
“Yes,” Samael murmured, parting his lips. Lust bubbled up in his core and he ran his hands over her midriff, pulling her closer. Fangs instinctively slid down from his gums, the temptation too much. Shannon watched, intrigued.
“Won’t you spoil your breakfast, Vlad?” she teased, bringing her mouth to his and sucking on his lower lip. Samael moaned.
Death bristled. “I am not a vampire, worm.”
“All evidence points to the contrary.” Shannon laughed, running her fingers through his thick coal hair. She sighed, pressing against him. “I’ll admit, it would feel good, if I were relaxed. The god damn drugs your venom injects into me gives me a high better than, well, anything. It’s euphoric. I’ve never felt so blissful in my life. But it’s always at the wrong time, when we’re in dire straits. I’ve never gotten to enjoy it…” Thunder roiled outside and a true downpour began, darkening the room. Shannon grinned, weariness forgotten, a devilish glint in her eye. “Is it gloomy enough for you now, Sam?”
He glanced out the window. “Decidedly so.”
“Good.” She smiled, and with sudden force pushed him onto his back. His wings spread out beneath them.
“Ho, worm. What’s gotten into you?”
Lightning flashed, illuminating Shannon’s sleek body. She rose to her knees, straddling Samael. Her breasts hung like globes from her small frame, hidden by the demure collar of her dress.
“The storm,” she replied, bending down to kiss his brow.
Samael ran his hands over the ripe curve of her hips, smiling crookedly. He stroked her back with his wingtips, gently pushing her down with his feathers. Shannon trailed kisses down his sharp nose to his lips, sucking at his fangs so the sweet venom escaped and entered her mouth. She swallowed, letting out a soft moan at the taste.
“God, Sam. I’m literally addicted to you. Our relationship isn’t healthy.”
“It was never healthy to begin with.”
“True,” she whispered, licking the venom that wept from his hollow fang. “Mmm. You taste like summer and oases. Can I market this shit?”
“What? Demon spit?”
Shannon laughed. “I’d label it something more appealing. Devil’s Kiss. We could sell it on the black market and make a fortune.”
“You know it’s lethal to anyone but you, don’t you?”
Shannon paused. “What?”
“That’s right. It’s poison. I use it to separate souls from the body. My name means ‘gall of God’ for a reason.”
“Like what the Internet said about the angel of death dripping gall into dead men’s mouths…” Shannon said, her mouth opened in an O of realization. “I’VE BEEN DRINKING DEATH SHIT!?!”
Samael grinned like a shark. “You’ve swallowed worse.”
“Bastard!” She slapped him. Her hand ached from impact upon his adamantine flesh. Samael roared with laughter, shaking between her legs. His quaking lurched her forward, onto his chest, and he wrapped his arms around her with vise-like strength, crushing her to him so she couldn’t escape. “Let me go, you sick shit!” Shannon screamed.
“If I’m sick, you’ve been infected as well. You are what you eat, worm.”
“Shrivel up and die, you walking corpse.”
Shannon shrieked, in the clutches of a mummy. “I DIDN’T MEAN THAT LITERALLY!”
The corpse laughed, voice dry and unused. Shannon tore herself free of it’s embrace. “FUCK YOU, AND FUCK YOUR GROSS NECROPHILIA.” She attempted to bolt from the room. The corpse rasped a word in angelic, locking the door. Trapped, she turned, back against the wall, balling her hands into fists.
Samael laughed like the Crypt Keeper, rising from the bed like a zombie and trudging towards her on dead knees. He held out his arms, performing an over-dramatic, stumbling corpse walk. An ax materialized in his hands. “HEEERRREEEE’S JOHNNY!” he declared, referencing The Shining. Shannon, not a fan of Stephen King, and especially not a fan of ax-wielding corpses, dived toward her desk and grabbed the most likely weapon from it- a perfume bottle. She doused Samael with it.
He dropped the ax, rubbing at his eyes and hissing. “That burns! You know, as a corpse, I have no tear ducts, so it’s ten times worse. How inconsiderate of you.”
Shannon looked upon him grimly, arms crossed. “You’re calling me inconsiderate? You turned into a cadaver when we were making out, you freak!”
Samael sniffed, an awkward sound for a corpse to make, as they didn’t normally breathe. “I was just doing exactly what you told me to. I consider that very considerate.”
Shannon opened the perfume bottle, hurling its contents at him. She screamed. Samael, drenched, shook himself off, glowering.
“You have no sense of humor,” he muttered, shifting back into his fully fleshed, definitively alive form. He smelled overpoweringly of vanilla.
“And you have no sense of decency!” She kicked the ax out of her way, furious. “God, sometimes I just want to bury you out in the backyard where you belong,” she said coldly. “Six feet under where you can’t hurt a soul.”
Samael’s eyes widened. “You don’t mean that, Shannon.”
“Yes, I do!”
Pain flashed in his face. “I was only trying to make you laugh…” He licked his fangs self-consciously, wishing they would retract. He hated to admit it to himself, but seeing Shannon in such a state of passion elicited certain… reactions in him. That was partially the reason he terrorized her. He became aware of his groin straining against his robes and blushed.
Shannon glared at him. “Great. Boniface has a boner. The world’s sense of humor is cruel indeed. God damn you, you get turned on by this! You’re a creature of filth, Samael. Absolutely revolting.”
He winced. Samael shifted, trying to hide his erection. “Dirty talk so early in the morning, Shannon?” he muttered, eyes downcast in shame.
She snorted. “You wish.”
He dared not meet her eyes. Samael cursed himself. His blood flow was still heading southward as he watched the rise and fall of Shannon’s breasts. He couldn’t tear his gaze away…
“Stop staring at my chest.”
“Your face is too intimidating at the moment. I’d rather not bask in its vitriol,” he said, glum.
She sighed. “My god, Samael. You know I didn’t mean what I said. You’re not revolting, at least, not like this. Human.”
He shrugged, slipping his hands into his pockets. “You don’t accept me in all my aspects, though. I’m Death, Shannon, lord of decay. I have sides of me that are gruesome. And you shy away from them constantly-”
“Whoa! You expect me to hook up with a cadaver?”
“NO. But you don’t need to act so repulsed. You couldn’t leave my arms faster.”
“You were a CORPSE!”
“But they were still my arms. Just like it was still my head you cradled in the streets of Pandemonium. I may come to you broken, in pieces, but it will still always be me.” He shifted into his skeletal form, looking forlornly at her with hollows for eyes. “You recoil at my touch. How do you think that makes me feel?”
“Fuck, Sam. Yes, I’m highly uncomfortable around anything that looks like remains. I’m living. It’s natural. As for how you feel, don’t you realize that?”
“I do,” he said quietly. “But it doesn’t pain me any less.”
“I love you, idiot! Even when you’re a sack of bones!”
He glided over to her, dark tendrils of his robe reaching out to taste her skin. “You do?” he murmured. Samael loomed over her.
She took his bony hands in his. “Yes, Samael,” she said, lacing her fingers through his. “But that doesn’t mean I’m going to hook up with the Grim Reaper.”
He laughed, shifting back into his human form. “Fair enough.” Blush still tinged his pale cheeks. “I’m sorry I upset you.”
Shannon pulled him close. “Don’t be. But really. Here’s Johnny?”
Samael smirked. He enveloped her in a hug, erection pressing against her stomach. She looked down. “We should do something about that,” she said, grinning wickedly.
Samael’s core tightened at the suggestion. He let Shannon take control as she led him to the bed. She sashayed, smiling wildly, and tangoed with him to the mattress. Her eyes burned like cigarettes.
“Mmm…” Samael said in approval, following her down onto the bed. They met in a tangle of limbs, lips heated as their mouths joined. He groaned, grinding into her against the flimsy fabric of her dress. Shannon sighed in pleasure as he left smoldering kisses along her collarbone, trailing up to the softness of her neck.
“Now,” Shannon breathed.
Samael slipped his fangs into her flesh painlessly. Drunk off endorphins, Shannon cried out, closing her eyes as waves of bliss carried her away. She clutched him to her, breathing in the airy scent of his downy wings. Gently, Samael eased her out of her panties and slid inside her, pumping slowly as he drank her in. He moaned, letting the crimson drench his tongue. They made love softly, to the sound of the rain.
It was like casting stars. Sending your fishing line out to snag on the brightest one. Thunder boomed like the cries of the gods. The minutes spilled out like jewels between them, one after another until they seemed ceaseless. Finally, the line snagged, and the diamonds blossomed forth. Their moans mingled together like ribbons.
Spent, Samael collapsed in her arms, seeking her breasts as a pillow. Shannon sighed, cuddling against him.
“Breakfast?” she asked.
There’s a blackness that coats Snake’s Hollow, like night left her shawl over the entire town. It is thick, it is alive, and to breathe it in is to choke down smoke and the ripe red cayenne peppers left in rum at the peristyle.
Call the blackness an omen, call it sin. Out of all the humans in my small Louisiana home, only I can see it.
The night is full of haints, the church bells toll on their own, and sometimes, you gotta feed the crossroads. That’s what the blackness brings – loup garou, zombies, the Petro Nation – and they stay away because of Raff and Papa Leggie, always on the town’s edge, but someday, they’ll come marching right on in. That I know for sure, that it’s only a matter of time before your shadows catch up with you
Tonight I’m gonna meet them.
The blackness snakes across the woods like Spanish moss then enter people’s dreams every night, and my God-fearing granmamma makes a sound in her sleep that could curdle milk. When I was younger, barely in elementary school, Raff would cover me with his old white wings and sing me to sleep in the tongue of angels, and the next day in church Papa Leggie would have ten more lines on his bark whorl face. Leggie and God, they’re poker buddies, so Raff tells me.
I wonder if they gamble over which town’s turn it is to vanish into the blackness next.
Winter down here is chill and muggy, and maybe I’m riled up on Maya Angelou’s poetry that sweet momma loves to read to me before our dinner prayers, but I’m brave, and Raff is asleep on the roof, and not a soul is awake in this silly town. They’re all tired out from church where they tried to get slices of salvation just like apple pie, and they’re clearly ain’t enough to go around like at church picnics, or the damn shadows wouldn’t be here watching me.
At the end of Still I Rise tonight, momma said “Be brave May Octavie Laveau, be strong, ‘cause this world will beat stubborn women down, and you ain’t worth anything if you ain’t stubborn as a mule.” I wish I was like Storm in X-Men and could clear this place of the darkness, but it’s more than weather.
The blackness is in the bones of this town, fabled for Calf Springs that will heal and Snakes Springs that will curse. There are so many heroes in my comics and movies – Leia, Nubia, Black Panther, Vixen – and I got a cape and light-up plastic light saber from a few years ago from when I still used to play make believe. I put them on as a shield of sorts, full of sweet childhood memories, then crawl out the window, onto the gutter, and down the widow’s walk –
Wings in my face, strong hands at my waist. I’m hauled from the widow’s walk back into my room like a lil girl picking flowers.
Raff just popped up like a daisy from a grave. Jack’s rabbit if he ain’t fast as a hare. I could have sworn I lulled him to sleep with momma’s chocolate chip cookies. No one can see Raff ‘cept me, and he’s been with me since birth. Love him but he’s a pain in my tush sometimes.
His scarred face is all stern, and he sits me down on my bed and dang it am I in for a talking.
“May! What did I tell you about going out at night? It’s too dangerous for you to even fathom! I didn’t raise you to lose you, girl.” His voice gets all gentle in the end, and he scratches his shaved curls.
I squint at Raff in the darkness of my room. He’s got skin brown as me, and I used to not believe that he was an angel when I was younger. I would say angels were only blonde women that played harps flying round the manger of baby Jesus, but Raff has a flaming sword and ain’t very good with babies. He thinks they’re cute and all, but he’s been a bachelor since Literal Day 1.
“You didn’t raise me to be a scaredy cat either, Raff. I’ve seen the Baron come down at fetes and watched my uncle get ridden by Ogou and swallow fire. There’s a magic to my town, a curse of some kind that only I can see, and I’m going to save it. I won’t let Snake’s Hollow be another of Leggie’s bets.”
“Legba isn’t trying to gamble Snake’s Hollow away, May,” Raff sighs, sitting down next to me. “He’s trying to protect it. We all are.”
The blackness exhales outside my window – it always comes at the stroke of 3:00 AM, the witching hour, then leaves by dawn, and the sun is coming up. The howls of the loup garou on the bayou kept me awake all night. When it breathes, it sounds like the whistle of a ghost train, and when it leaves, it’s like a tea kettle burning.
Raff makes the sign of the cross, only his fingers draw holy fire on the air, and the cross floats to me where it kisses my heart. Blessings from angels never hurt, but I ain’t in needof his protection. I need his answers.
“You’re funny, Raff, you ain’t a proper man, and you ain’t a good angel. Angels don’t lie, after all.”
Raff narrows his sunny yellow eyes, the irises an unearthly amber. “What am I lying about?”
“Bets. The lwa make bets all the time. Leggie’s a trickster, after all.”
“Legba loves you, May. He’s keeping the blackness away. We all are. Now go to bed. You got school tomorrow.” He hugs me then takes off my cape and tries to tuck me in.
“I don’t need you pulling the blankets up Raff, I’m eleven, not seven.”
Raff smiles like river pearls are in his mouth, then laughs. “’Night, May-flower.” He climbs up onto the roof and soon I can hear him snoring like a foghorn.
I watch the blackness until dawn drives it out.
The night is alive in Snake’s Hollow.
In the dark, the Dead have names.
Baba Yaga had seen many chubby cheeked babies with skin like milk and eyes like blueberries in her time. Humans loved their babies, and Baba Yaga loved to eat them, perched atop the food chain like a hoary owl knobbed with age.
There were many predatory birds in Russia, from the mournful Gamayun to the songstress Sirin. Baba Yaga was more woman than bird, and her chicken-legged hut squawked almost as loud as she. Eat like a bird she did not, as her paunch showed, but her eyes were avian, deep and endless. They saw every thread of Russian fate as she flew on her pestle and mortar over hill and harrow, gleaming threads she would spin upon her loom of tendons and bone in due time.
Babies’ soft skin was perfect for basting to brown perfection, their eyes succulent as appetizers. The cheeks were lovely to pinch hard enough to elicit a satisfying cry or angry wail. The single sight of one always made her ancient stomach quiver, great maw that it was.
This baby, however, was different. She was as quiet and perfect as a blooming rose, and her mother was no human, but a goddess. Clearly not designated as the main course for dinner, but a much grander purpose indeed.
The baby girl had a scruff of hair dark as wet ebony, just like Morena, the Slavic goddess of night and death, and latest Russian expat to leave the Soviet Union. Of the immortals, only Baba Yaga remained.
The Revolution had driven out Russian royalty, and atheism had taken root across the Slavic lands. A godless country was no home for any god, old or new, and certainly not for Morena, the queen of witches, where her covens were sent to death camps and her village wise women were starved of supper and secrets. The old ones had stopped telling stories of bogatyrs and Prince Ivan to the children, the land spirits were forgotten, and many a domovoi went hungry.
Baba Yaga had stayed behind because she liked blood, and there was much blood to be had in the Soviet Union. Indeed, Baba Yaga adored chaos, and she was Russian through and through, comrade to peasant or oligarch or KGB be damned.
Morena cradled Anastasia, her only daughter, as if she were a basket of pearls. Baba Yaga and the goddess sat in Morena’s herb garden on the new shores of the land of the free, America, where so many Slavs had come: Poles and Serbians, Russians and Bulgarians. They carried their old Orthodox beliefs and superstitions with them, alongside the dvoeverie double faith, making room for the old gods in their icons and church hymns. The Poles remembered Morena in their spring festivities, drowning her icon in rivers to rejuvenate her for the warming earth. Not many gods were as lucky in this day and age, where man had forgotten who had made them.
For every healing recipe or potion passed down from mother to daughter, for every love spell cast in the bathhouse, Morena was there. She watched the Soviet Union from afar, waiting to return when belief once again seeped from the ground like mist. And Baba Yaga? She was Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, the night terrors of children, and shadows that swallowed everything on All Soul’s Eve.
Morena was just another immigrant in the vast melting pot of America, her curiosity and fickle love for a mortal Russian expat the biggest draw to these shining but tarnished shores of liberty. Gods were mercurial in choosing their lovers, and they took human wives and husbands from time to time. That, in fact, was how demigods like Rasputin were born, and Anya was no exception.
“She is beautiful, isn’t she?” Morena cooed, tossing her baby girl Anastasia’s hair. “Eyes like her father, and hair like her mother. I cannot bear to part with her, but I must for the sake of Buyan.”
Morena’s eyes steeled. “The Black God rides, growing stronger as the old beliefs rot and peasants starve, and he will be our doom if Anya cannot master her witch fire.”
Morena rocked her child and stared up at the cratered moon. “She is the light of my brother Jarilo, nothing at all like my darkness. To have birthed the sun is strange indeed.”
Baba Yaga puffed on her pipe and blew smoke snakes that slithered up to the sky. “Dear Morena, was it not I that taught you that all magic has a cost? To birth the light of the gods, you must pay in a million tears. Give Anya to me and I promise she will be protected until the time comes for her reunion with you, along with her intended.”
Morena laughed, and Anya burbled, toying with a lock of Morena’s curls. “This bastard prince of Father Frost seems too immature to love even himself. I wonder how you will work your magic on him to make him see Anya’s light.”
Baba Yaga chuckled. “I have my ways. Frost and fire are the primal elements of the world after all, enough to purify the rot of Chernobog himself. We will be the ones to end this cycle of war between the immortals and Chernobog’s deathless lands. All it takes, in every fairytale, is true love, and I know a prince whose icy heart may yet be melted by Anya’s fire. In the end, it will have all been for him. No daughter of yours would not be selfless, Morena. That has always been your flaw.”
A sapphire of a tear formed in Morena’s dark eyes. She held Anya closed, sang her to sleep, then handed her to Baba Yaga. “Take her then, my witch-mother. May the Zoryas be with you, and deliver my daughter to a life of peace I cannot give her in this, or any, world.”
Baba Yaga’s grin was a crevasse deep as the Marianna Trench. “My dear Morena, so it shall come to pass that Anya will know the best peace Buyan can provide, with the best family beyond you I can give her. My wings will be over her at all times, anyhow. Nothing I do is not without reason.”
Morena bit her ruby red lips. “I know.”
Anya cooed a word like salvation in her sleep, but it was so quiet even a goddess could not hear. Morena’s eternal heart was filled with sadness, but her ineffable will stood strong. She kissed her babe’s forehead and bid her and Baba Yaga goodbye.
Morena watched the chicken hut gateway between worlds spin on its axis and vanish: “Return to me, dear Anastasia. I would wish upon a thousand firebirds that we shall meet again.”
BUYAN, KIEVAN RUS
And in my dreams I see myself on a wolf’s back
Riding along a forest path
To do battle with Kashchei
In that land where a princess sits under lock and key,
Pining behind massive walls.
There gardens surround a palace all of glass;
There Firebirds sing by night
And peck at golden fruit.
– Yakov Polonsky, “A Winter’s Journey”
In a little dale in the heart of Buyan, where Baba Yaga made her home, was an inn for misfits and magicians. It was three stories tall and majestic as a merchant’s house. Tsar Dmitri, its leshy lord, was known for his bookish habits and gentleness. But above all he was famed for his love of his forests, which he tended with utter care.
He was close to the first eldritch witch to enchant Buyan, and Baba Yaga was taking afternoon tea on his porch as they watched the flowers grow. There was no today or tomorrow in Buyan, just seasons to grow, harvest, and lay fields fallow. They had all the time in the world in their wolfskin rocking chairs.
There were snowdrops and daffodils, goldenrod and hibiscus. Leshys had a magic for plants and animals, and whatever flora and fauna Dmitri desired, his kingdom had in abundance. His pampered squirrels darted about as the kitchen maid Elizaveta watered the plants by wringing her wet rusalka hair.
Baba Yaga stirred her tea with her dusty pinky. “So your bannik died. The old dotard drank himself to death. We all love our vodka, but your bannik made the milk of potatoes his wife. Wives always kill their husbands in the end,” Baba Yaga chuckled. “I’ve murdered many a husband in my time, after all. Perhaps I should consider myself through a shot glass, addictive and deadly in large doses.” She picked her teeth with a sparrow spine.
Dmitri was peeling an apple round and round as the rind came off. It fell in spirals onto his porch and he bit into the yellow-white flesh. “Gods curse the man who marries you.” Dmitri gave a forlorn look at his empty bathhouse. “Yes, I am in need of a bannik, but they are often lecherous drunkards and lazy to boot. Where can I find one that is as industrious as I?”
A bit of baby meat dislodged from Baba Yaga’s canines. She chewed it thoughtfully. “I may have an inkling. I will do you a favor, Dima – I will find you the best bannik in all of Buyan. Take it as a token of appreciation for your wonderful willow bark tea. It eases the pains of my eternal old age.”
Dmitri narrowed his emerald eyes. “Your gifts always have a price, dear babushka.”
Baba Yaga chuckled darkly. “Oh dear Dima, let go of your apprehension and revel in my favor. You are a king among tsars, dearest leshy, and it is partially due to my blessing that your lands flourish.”
“Lands that many are jealous of,” Dmitri said slowly, finishing his tea and then picking up a volume of Old Russian epics concerning Prince Vladimir Bright-Sun and his fearless bogatyrs. “They have brought me many enemies, enough to need the largest vila army in all of Buyan.”
“Then let us hope my favor does not falter, bookish nechist! Either that or marry that vila general you’ve been lusting after for centuries, maybe then you will not need my protection much longer. Love fortifies armies, I am told.” Baba Yaga squawked.
Dmitri blushed blue. “I have no interest in a consort, or Liliya. I am married to my land.”
“Pssht. Married to your romantic novels, you are! Yes, you have my favor indeed, enough to read as much as you do and still have your lands flourish. Find you a bannik I will.”
“Yes, but sometimes I wonder at your tastes in company.”
Baba Yaga watched the kitchen maid water a patch of sunflowers with her riverine hair. “Is not Elizaveta a lovely employee? I brought her to you a century ago and she has been nothing but sunshine, pah!”
Dmitri nodded. “I suppose so, though she is a bit… airheaded.”
The rusalka danced and sang then tripped over a squirrel and screamed as the vicious squirrels exacted their revenge, nibbling her scales.
“As rusalka are. You cannot expect a bannik not to love his vodka or a vodyanoi not to smoke his pipe. Nechist rarely go against their natures.”
That night, at home on her loom of past present and future, Baba Yaga wove a tale. Gold for a princess, blue for a prince, red for love, and black for death. The human tendons wove taut and true. Baba Yaga examined the tapestry.
“So that is why the winds told me to settle in dear Dmitri’s realm. Father Mountain and Mother River, that is not at all what I expected – fairytales are rarely practical, and seldom true. But you so often choose the unexpected, Father and Mother, and that shall do, that shall do, that shall do…”
For every princess, a prince. That is how fairytales go.
The lovers can span ages between meeting, many are enchanted, locked in towers, or enchantress’s children, and seldom is their union sweet. There are talking wolves, long arduous quests, arrows and swords, robbers and bandits, witches and black steeds that are the Devil’s own demons.
True love often ends in insults and tears, and many an empty bed, but Russian songs were never sweet, and firebirds do not make their roosts in anything but a king’s garden. Most firebirds in Buyan made their homes in Tsar Dmitri’s royal garden in fact, in a dale just perfect for a couple that might wish for an impossible union on the flames of a fiery tail.
The prince Baba Yaga foresaw was born at the beginning of recorded history, in the northernmost kingdom with the aurora borealis for his bower. His mother was Snegurochka, the Snow Maiden, who once long ago had lost her heart to a village boy. This time she had lost it to a bannik. Perhaps it was the curve of the bathhouse spirit’s strong arms as he chopped wood for the banya that had done Snegurochka in. Perhaps it was his rascal smile. Whatever it was, it had worked. Taking unattainable lovers was a snow maiden habit, after all.
Time tended to move in cycles in Buyan, home to the Slavic spirits. Buyan was a land a bit west of the morning and evening star Zorya goddesses and a bit to the north of dreams. Its residents’ actions were no exception to the mythic circles of their fairytale land. Snegurochka’s heart was notorious for wandering and it too fell victim to Buyan’s ebb and flow.
Just like his mother’s heart the prince, a strange mix of steam and snow, was born a traveler. After birth, he toddled his first steps out of his mother’s womb into the wilds. Snegurochka had to catch him in her snowflake-spun arms before he disappeared for good.
He was named Morozko after Snegurochka’s Father Frost, or Ded Moroz’s present-giving ways. Ded Moroz was the Winter King that wanted little to do with a bastard prince and much less to do with the rabble-rousing bannik that had sired him. Snegurochka melted with bliss at the sight of her newborn boy and in doing so scared away her lover. Banniks were never good fathers anyways. They were too concerned with steaming saunas and overseeing the rituals of the banya to make attentive parents. Banyas were the heart of Russian communities and banniks, overseers of the rituals of the bathhouse, had little care for their offspring. They considered the banya their only children.
So Morozko grew up fatherless save for Ded Moroz’s stern gaze. He was half of frost, half of fire, and nothing at all like his family.
“Mother, why does dedushka hate me?” Morozko asked before Russia was little more than a land fought over by pagans erecting poles the to snakeskin Veles the chthonic god in the underworld below and thundering Perun the king of the gods above. The people still swore on the Earth Mother Mokosh in those days. They still spilled blood on the death goddess Morena’s altar. And Baba Yaga, fabled witch of the mountains, devourer of wandering children, was watching. The hag of the iron teeth was young, though she never remotely looked it.
After asking about his grandfather, Snegurochka had enfolded the sparks in her son’s hands and molded them into a rose of fire encased in ice. “You are a treasure, Kolya. That is why Ded Moroz does not understand you. My father showers treasure down upon girls in need like ice crystals from clouds but never keeps them for himself. He gave me away once to the people and only took me back when I was on Morena’s doorstep. Ded Moroz is known for winter’s barrenness, not summer’s warmth, and you are your father, all heat. My father does not know what to make of such a rare jewel as you, my dearest prince.”
Tsar Vladimirs came and conquered, ambitious princes of Kievan Rus uniting Russia. The capital city was rechristened St. Petersburg in the Eastern Orthodox faith. The rulers burned the wooden idols of the old gods and erected crosses for the new. The kings and magistrates dunked the pagan Slavs in the capital’s river to baptize them in impromptu fashion.
Baba Yaga watched from her chicken hut all the while stroking her chin hairs, smoking her pipe, waiting. The pagans, now Christians, still paid tribute to the old gods as saints and renamed them. The peasants of dvoeverie double faith renamed the gods but never forgot them. Veles and Perun retreated, the Zoryas abandoned their shining star thrones, and Mokosh slept deep below the mountains at the base of the Tree of Life.
And one god with a rotting black heart took another name. He watched, coveting, always waiting. He had a thousand princesses kept under lock and key in his palace of ice and glass. It was lit only by flitting firebirds and jewel fresh diamond fruit. Still, it was missing a crucial light in all the dead magnificence. It was something that would haunt Morozko in due time.
Morozko paid little attention to the rise and fall of immortals. He was too busy growing. He watched cranes fly across the northern wastes and shot arrows of steam at elk to be dried and cured in the smokehouse. His grandfather barely tolerated him, Snegurochka loved him, and that was enough to churn butter for a small while.
Morozko gave little heed to the passage of the gods into history.
One day he would remember his mother’s stories of Chernobog the Black.
Nechist – what the farmers in fields called land spirits – continued life in Buyan unaffected by Christianity, like Snegurochka and Morozko. Peasants still left out kasha for house elf domovois. Humans continued avoiding the rivers in the evening lest they stray upon the drowned human suicides. The dead girls, now siren rusalka, would sing and seduce them to a freezing watery death. The peasants prayed that the Amazonian vila, guardians of the weather, would not drench crops in rain. Once in a blue moon, a wild girl would wander back to her village covered in moss and half-mad having escaped from an ill-fortuned marriage as a wood wife to a forest king leshy.
Thanks to shifting belief, Ded Moroz became something like Santa and rebranded the family business to deliver presents to children across Russia at New Years. Father Frost was nothing if not good at giving away gifts like blizzards. He and Snegurochka worked with the efficiency of a snowstorm.
Still Morozko couldn’t summon a single snowflake, much less command the winds to carry him to merchant’s homes and give their daughters baubles. So he set out with his mother’s blessing and grandfather’s disgrace. He sought his fortune in cities and the wilds when nechist still walked Russia and beyond alongside humanity. Morozko threw his icy crown off the ends of Buyan’s glaciers and renounced Ded Moroz’s heritage. He was fully content to be a bannik, not a prince.
“To hell with princehood,” he muttered, “I’m a bastard through and through, and I would rather have nothing to my name and be free than be bound by convention and a court.”
So Morozko set off past the glaciers, to the land of evergreen and birch, and Snegurochka wept tears of ice.
Baba Yaga was aback her mortar and pestle with her witch-daughter Morena, the wind-wild goddess with a body like a birch. Morena flew aback a broom in a red velvet cloak and black rags of a dress. They were flying as fast as an eagle over the Caucasus Mountains, sending their flocks of crows and owls to harvest ingredients: poisonous herbs and dwarven treasures, alongside a fair amount of children’s first breaths and mother’s last words.
This spell would be one in a long line against Chernobog, the Black God, who longed to unseat Morena and her consort Jarilo from the heavens and spread sterile, cold perfection with the infection of his cursed deathless lands upon Buyan. Nature abhors a vacuum, but vacuums abhor nature, and Chernobog was the void that ate all he drained of blood and left his victims cold and lifeless.
Russia was both light and dark, poison and honey, and black Morena was the queen of immortals. Passionate but feral, she carried madness with her like a worm in her brain. Watching her bare milky-breasted, nipples like pink daggers as she beat at her chest with venik branches to guide the winds, Baba Yaga was proud of Morena’s ferocity. Her witch-daughter was all wolf, all wild, and the best hope at destroying Chernobog for good.
If Morena was a wolf, then Chernobog was a vulture, circling in the sky waiting for a feast. Would this spell or the next seal the coffin in his box? The Zorya’s whispered in their prophetic trills that Morena would birth Bilobog, the remedy to Chernobog’s destruction, but so far her union with the sunlit god Jarilo had proven tempestuous and fruitless.
Baba Yaga had tried spell after spell to make Morena’s inhospitable womb of ice and night a planting ground for Jarilo’s seed, but stillborn embryo after bloody abortion followed. It drove Morena deeper into her madness and desperation, and it drove Jarilo farther from Morena. They failed again and again, Chernobog’s blackness spread, and Buyan was growing darker. The crops failed more, the spirits thirsted, and the deathless maidens haunted the outer boundaries, hunting for ungiven comfort.
It was time for Baba Yaga to tell Morena, her dearest godchild, a heartbreaking truth. They had sent a fetch in the form of a giant to Chernobog’s deathless lands with the fruit of that night’s labor, enchanted to wreak havoc on his palace of glass and ice and tear the oak tree of his heart from its roots. Each egregore and familiar that died at Chernobog’s hands infuriated him more, and drew him further into no man’s land, where they might strike him in earnest with spells and curses, but Chernobog was wily, and deathless to boot. It would take a mortal to kill him, and a mortal man to bring life to the goddess of death, as only humanity tasted of the black cup of destruction and passed on into the great unknown no god or nechist knew.
Baba Yaga told this to Morena, that her marriage to Jarilo would prove fruitless, and that she should seek a mortal’s bed. There were rats on Morena’s shoulders and crows in her black black hair. She gave a ragged sigh, moths leaving her mouth as she exhaled.
“I suppose it is true, witch-mother. Burning day and dark night are never on earth at the same time, and for Bilobog to walk the earth, my child must have mortal blood. All the heroes, from Ilya Muromets to Dobryna Nikitich, were partially human after all. They were the ones to slay dragons, not insipid Jarilo or my stubborn father Perun.” Morena looked out the window of Baba Yaga’s chicken hut and the darkness of the night shuddered under the death goddess’s gaze. “I will travel Russia for however long it takes to find the father of Buyan’s avenger, though my trek may span centuries.”
Baba Yaga gave a weak smile. “This war is tiring for us both, and you have a heavy cross to bear, dear Marzanna.”
Morena plaited her tangled hair. “If I could but have one child, one witch-babe to suckle at my breasts and coddle under the starlight and winds, it will have been worth it.”
Baba Yaga did not want to tell the daydreaming Morena that to keep a half-mortal child in a house of immortals at war would be a death sentence, but for once in her long long life, she kept quiet. Baba Yaga would ensure any child of Morena’s was like a second limb to her, the mistress of the chicken legged hut, and would want for nothing.
But those nothings could not be fed by Bilobog’s birth mother, and so it would come to pass as Baba Yaga had seen during that summer at Tsar Dmitri’s: that a bastard prince and motherless princess would somehow save Buyan.
Morozko became famed for his treatment of guests at banyas and his divination prowess. Word traveled of the tenderness with which he beat bushels of green peeled venik against patron’s backs. He could steam and ice the different pools just so, and his reputation began to precede him. Morozko worked for different leshys in different kingdoms who had carved Buyan up between them in a patchwork thanks to games of chess and war. Leshy tsars sometimes lost half a forest to an ill-thought bet. Winners led their pampered squirrels in great migrations to their new lands.
First Morozko traveled on foot, then on horseback when he had saved enough money. He possessed his mother’s wandering heart, always searching for a place to belong but never finding it. He was camping by the Volga River one night when he heard the click-clack creak of a hut on chicken legs. A hag with iron teeth and a fence of bones sat smoking her pipe in a rocking chair. Her wood-dark eyes were like kindling.
She smiled like a shark.
“You are lost, Prince Morozko,” Baba Yaga observed.
Morozko stood up and dusted off his trousers of snow. “I have no compass to guide me, babushka. Every day that I wander farther into the wilds I find that I am losing my way. I do not know what I am looking for still! After all these godforsaken years, I am alone.”
“Family, a home, a father, love – I can give it all to you if you give me something precious.”
Morozko peered up at the famous witch who Snegurochka had sometimes entertained in his grandfather’s kingdom. “I have nothing of value – I threw my inheritance away, I travel with only a quiver full of cheap arrows and a doddering broken horse. What could you possibly want?”
Baba Yaga took a gigantic pestle from beside her rocking chair, set down her pipe, and pointed the pestle in Morozko’s direction: “Your word, half-blood bannik. One day I will ask you to do me a favor. If you value your life, you will not refuse me. If you accept my offer, I will give your wandering heart a home.”
“Where? I have searched nearly every inch of Buyan and I have found nothing but petty leshys. I know warring vila and seductress rusalka and absolutely nothing that suits me. I have had my heart broken by a vampir with hair like autumn leaves. My money was stolen by leshy tsars that shortchanged me and my services. My name has been lost to the wind. All I know is that a bastard belongs nowhere!”
“Pah, soap shavings! Everyone belongs somewhere, even a down-on-his-luck half-breed. Come, sit on my porch, drink my vodka, eat a pierogi, and stop wallowing in your misery. I will take you to Tsar Dmitri’s emerald forests where I make my home. There is no place kinder or sweet as baby’s bubbling marrow in Buyan.”
Morozko’s eyes widened. “I thought Dmitri was a myth. He is the famous leshy that won his woods from Saint Vladimir the Great when Russia was first formed. The one with an army of a thousand vila and an inn famed for its beauty. Its banya must be splendid…”
“Hah!” Baba Yaga laughed like a crow. “A banya that needs tending. The old bannik died. Climb up my steps, I promise the snakes do not bite.”
“Hut, hut, turn your back from this wintry waste and your face to Dima’s realm!” Baba Yaga commanded, smacking her pestle on the porch.
The chicken-legged hut spun like a drunk duck; their surroundings blurred. Morozko steadied himself on the femur railing. When they landed, they were in a hollow tucked away into autumn woods. Ferns bordered the fence next to an herb garden raked with spines.
Baba Yaga ambled along the porch using her pestle as a cane. “Come come soap shavings! I told Dima he would have a visitor. His staff are excited to meet you – that or scared of what I may bring. They never do like my presents very much, especially the squealing children.”
Morozko followed Baba Yaga – the crone moved faster than her hobbled appearance let on. She mounted her hovering mortar, churned the air with her pestle, and was off. Morozko ran to keep up.
“Hah! The wind in my hair makes me feel young again. Being chased by a pretty boy, why, it’s just as in my youth!”
Morozko frowned. “I cannot imagine you were ever much to look at,” he muttered between breaths.
They came to a wooden three-story inn fronted by a millpond with the most perfect banya Morozko had ever seen. He quaked at the sight of it. His smoky magic reached out and sensed the power and enchantment of the bathhouse. He measured the potency within its wall and suddenly knew how it would bend to his will. It would be his work, bread, and soul.
Tsar Dmitri and his staff waited in the meadow fronting the inn. The smile on the leshy’s face was like sunlight on water:
“Welcome home, my son,” Dmitri said.
“Tsar Dmitri, it is an honor,” Morozko said, kneeling before the forest king.
Dmitri’s blue face crinkled in a smile. The bells on his antlers chimed as he extended his hand to help Morozko up: “No use bowing, dear lad. Here we are all just keepers of the woods, wayward souls in the haven that is my forest. Here you will find lecherous vodyanoi mermen that can outdrink you by ten gallons of vodka. There are witches who will steal your heart away if you are not careful. Here, come, Liliya, help Morozko to his quarters.”
Morozko found himself inside a banya that was built for him. The fire in his belly simmered to a gentle steam. He stretched on his wolfskin bed and looked up at the ceiling, which would look just so studded with trespassing human’s souls. Dmitri’s wolves called to salute the rising moon.
He got up and settled at a rickety desk, dipped a quill into an inkpot, and began a letter to Snegurochka:
“Mother, I am finally home. My wandering heart is now, despite all my dreams, content.”
Centuries passed, but Buyan stayed the same. Morozko settled into tending the banya and thought of Dmitri as his father and the staff as his brothers and sisters. He delighted in Dmitri’s annual councils with his leshy noblemen and the celebrations in the village that followed. He would chase after vila warrior women and flirtatious, dangerous rusalka on St. John’s Eve, searching for fern flowers that would lead to an evening of lovemaking. Many times he sat with Dmitri in the kitchen by the woodstove on rainy evenings and read from Dmitri’s collection of human literature.
Baba Yaga watched, waited, and smoked her perpetual pipe. She took Morozko under her hoary wing to become the babushka he never had.
It could have been today or tomorrow when Morozko got the letter of a present to deliver. Perhaps a package just like Ded Moroz and Snegurochka carried on the winter holidays. He had not forgotten his word, and it was in his blood to fulfill letters requesting parcel delivery.
After so many years and so many moons Morozko had lost track it had come time for Morozko to make good on his promise to Baba Yaga. She summoned him in the dead of night. He was hoping to get some cigarettes from her storage.
What he got was nothing what he expected.
Night played like a worn balalaika, strumming stars across the sky. Firs bent like widows in the wind. It was a familiar scene in Buyan, minus the human visitor.
Morozko unwrapped the so-called present, unfolding bits of tissue paper to reveal swaddling. He was surprised to see that he held an infant in his arms. “A baby?” he asked, thinking it one of babushka’s pranks. “Smells tender. I bet she tastes like chicken. Is this your afternoon palate cleanser?”
“You wish! Hungry for baby soul sashimi, eh?” Baba Yaga’s iron teeth flashed. “Spill a drop of her blood and I’ll cook you in my pot.”
“Yeah right.” Morozko pulled back her swaddling and examined the child’s face. “Her soul is too appetizing to be anything but a snack.”
“Her name is Anya. That is all you need to know.” Baba Yaga laughed. The wrinkles on her skin were like furrows in brown earth. “Take her home to your tsar courtesy of your babushka. Bathe her in the banya and ruddy her flesh with birch bark. Make her a child of the woods. When she has ripened like fruit from the love of your inn, send her to me.”
Morozko looked at Baba Yaga in confusion. “What? Dima will never stand for this. The borders to Earth are all closed save your world-hopping house. It’s unheard of for mortals to come to Buyan anymore.”
“Pfft. Your tsar will see my way, even if I have to pluck his eyes out and wear them so he sees my point of view.” She cackled like a crow as she rested on her hovering mortar.
“No buts! Go, Kolya: back to the banya with you.” Baba Yaga took her pestle, ground it into the air, and flew away.
Morozko looked down at the infant.
“Well, mooncalf. Looks like you won’t end up in my stomach after all.”
“You think this is a joke?” Morozko brought his face close to Anya’s. “I could swallow you in one gulp. Your soul would be all mine to play with. A trinket I could use to light the banya, hung from the rafters with my other meals.”
Anya reached out and touched Morozko’s nose.
“Get your grubby hands off me,” Morozko said, clutching the infant close as snow crunched under his boots. “Forget babushka’s dried up hide. That hag has gone senile.”
He walked through pillars of birch. Scant clouds brought snow. Patches in cirrus allowed the moon to shine through. Morozko’s fur coat sheltered him from the falling white. Snowflakes steamed as they hit his exposed skin.
As a bathhouse spirit Morozko carried the sauna with him. Anya nestled close to his skin and babbled. “Eee?”
“Yes Anya, I see your point.” Morozko softened, peering into her eyes. “So where exactly did you come from? Or is that a secret too?”
Anya cried out in hunger.
Morozko thumbed her lips, and she sucked his finger. Anya nipped the soft flesh under his nail with wet gums.
“I am guessing Baba Yaga did not give you dinner,” Morozko sighed, accidentally jostling the girl as he plucked his finger away. “She does not have a very good track record with children. Neither do most nechist. We either steal them as thralls, eat or drown them – sometimes both – or abduct them to be our brides. I can’t imagine Dmitri would want a wood wife not yet out of diapers.”
Morozko frowned. “I cannot give you milk, but I might just have something better.”
He reached for a flask at his waist, unscrewed the top, and offered her nectar pressed from fern flowers that bloomed on Ivan Kupalo, or St. John’s Eve, the summer festival of love, beauty, and magic. The flowers the fern flower bore were rarer than a five-leaf clover.
“So that is how I get you to shut up, eh?” He rocked Anya as she nursed. “Witch’s brew. There is nothing sweeter, except perhaps your soul,” he teased.
Anya squirmed, burrowed into his coat. Morozko smoothed her coal-dark curls.
“Eating you would be like killing myself. You have drunk half my mixer anyways. Good thing Baba Yaga did not see me steal it from her fridge. How is that for an introduction, mooncalf? Alcoholic baby food, Mother Mokosh have mercy.” Morozko adjusted his collar. He peered into the future, as banniks are wont to do, and got hints of what was to come. This ability did not often work. When it did, his visions were clear as crystal lattice icicles.
“You will call me many things: ‘Bannik,’ ‘bastard,’ ‘terror.’ But however cruel you think me, remember it was I that carried you through the darkness. The banya now runs through your veins. Let it cleanse you of human weakness. I will raise you in the strength of the nechist. I have taken a liking to the girl who survived Baba Yaga’s hut.”
She burbled. Morozko clutched her close.
“Anya, you are mine. I promise to forever protect you, especially from Baba Yaga’s cauldron.”
The hall beyond was a mess of flame and smoke. My skin tingled as if mint had been slathered on it, but the fire had no other effect. The centipede’s blood seemed to have fortified me against it. Anunnaki corpses littered the ground alongside centipede’s mangled bodies. Panic rose in my chest, but I beat it back with calm resolve, thinking back to the high school scrapes I’d gotten into. Back then, having a clear head had been the most important thing about winning – that, and fighting dirty. The flesh traders’ weaknesses were their eyes – all I had to do was puncture those to have the advantage.
I could see how the flesh traders had overtaken the ship. Their sheer numbers, according to their carcasses, were overwhelming. A discarded stun gun lay on the ground by a slender centipede. I picked it up for an extra measure of defense. I came to the heartwood hall and hid behind the entrance, listening for the presence of flesh traders. Screeching voices came from inside:
“Where is the human? Ajirin should have found her by now. She’s the reason we boarded the ship. Without her, the market value of our flesh is nothing. We’ll be in debt to our supplier.”
One of them overturned something – a table? – in anger.
“Ajirin is unresponsive. We should send more Brood into the photosynthesis chamber at once. Brood stronger than Ajirin and his men.”
“Ajirin was the strongest we have.”
“Rot Father damn you, I’ll have to do this myself, won’t I? Fine. I will go there to capture her and the royalty. Then we must leave. This ship’s life support will run out soon.”
“Yes, Queen Mother. I will prepare our craft for departure.”
The flurry of footsteps drew close. I braced myself, clinging to the shadows of a burnt leaf. In stepped what could best be described as the worst parts of a praying mantis and a wasp. The creature towered over me, eight-limbed, with mighty pincers, a slender thorax, probing antennae, and a cruel stinger. I held my breath, praying not to be noticed.
Its antennae flicked my way, and its orb-like eyes zeroed in on me. I cursed under my breath, trying to disappear into the wall. No such luck. My heart ricocheted off my chest as it gnashed its mandible.
“You’re a rare thing, aren’t you?” the commander said. “Warm-blooded, four-limbed, with a calcareous skeleton and barely any height about you. How exquisite.”
I backed away, holding my balled fists up in a blocking position. The commander was at least ten feet tall, over twice my height.
The commander pushed a proboscis through its mandible and tasted my neck. I fired my stun gun at it, but its exoskeleton simply dented. The commander was too heavy for the impact to have any greater effect. The commander rubbed its back legs together like a fiddle, creating a cricket sound that resembled laughter.
“You’re amusing. Now put the gun down. I want no harm to come to you.”
I fired another ineffective shot.
The commander easily overpowered me, wrestling me into a headlock and wrenching the stun gun from me. She – at least the voice sounded like a she, high-pitched and feminine, but I couldn’t really tell – was careful not to bruise me. I flailed to no avail. The commander chirped and forced me into the heartwood hall, where a host of centipede Brood were gathered. One was feasting on what looked like Gishkim’s corpse. I flinched.
The centipedes shrieked at the sight of me, rattling their pincers on the floor. A pair of them entered after us, carrying the limp bodies of Enki and Ishtar.
Before I could react, the commander lowered her stinger against my back. She pierced me with the needle tip, and I felt something cold slide into my veins. My vision grew hazy, my limbs weakened, and soon, everything was black.
Sleep-grit glued my eyes shut. I blinked slow, prying my eyelids open. A cold ocean sloshed inside me. I groaned, bruises on my limbs smarting as I attempted to collect my bearings: as far as I knew, I’d been abducted by aliens from a B-horror movie, turned into the xenolinguist from Star Trek, and propositioned for kinky alien sex by my roommate. My life was turning into something from Stranger in a Strange Land meets space pirates. I wasn’t even scared. Just angry.
My vision focused, revealing a dim, metallic room where I was strapped to the wall by cold chains. Ishtar was shackled beside me, her head wound covered by a gauzy substance that looked like spider webs. Other sheath class Anunnaki hung beside us in the darkness of the circular room.
I struggled to move.
“Ishtar, are you okay?”
Her single eye opened to a slit. “Ziggi,” she murmured. Her shoulder tentacles threaded through the air. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t expecting the Brood. I only had enough venom to take out one. And now we’re here on this godforsaken ship because of my father’s folly. Sending us on this mission with an indefensible ship was a death wish.”
I balled my hands into fists. “It’s not your fault. I couldn’t beat them either. There was one that must have been ten feet tall. She overpowered me in an instant.”
“Ten feet tall?” Ishtar’s skin fluoresced. “Must have been Ajaxas. She’s the Queen Mother of the Brood. Sterile and cold as a gun. The Brood’s females die in childbirth, all except their Queens, who rule over the Brood with iron claws.”
“What a bitch”
“Ziggi? You smell different.”
I sniffed hard, detecting nothing but my sweat and the odor of moist Anunnaki flesh.
Ishtar’s muscles rippled under her skin as she struggled against her fetters. “Did you put Brood hemolymph into your biogauge?”
My eyes widened. “If that was its blood, then yeah – I couldn’t interrogate the wounded one without speaking his language.”
Ishtar sighed. “The improper dosage of hemolymph could have killed you – but I suppose you had no choice.”
I peered into the darkness of the room, not seeing my roommate. “Where’s Enki?”
“The Brood separated us by gender to take inventory of our organs. Those of us with the most unique physiologies – you, me, my brother, and Ratatosk – will be sold at the highest price to god knows whom or what. Into a harem, into fighting rings, into labs – there’s no telling where we’ll go.”
Ishtar spat venom onto the floor. “If only I had a biomorph that was useful – I could change into something more machine than flesh. But all I have is this form – DNA access to other species is highly restricted, and Enki had to jump through a plethora of hoops to get approved to morph into a human. That form will be useless against the Brood.”
“So basically, we’re screwed.”
“In a word, yes. The Brood are good at covering their tracks, and my father’s resources are already spread thin trying to suppress the axonal class. What little military he can spare for our rescue will be few and far between.”
A cold light flared on at the center of the sloping ceiling. A metallic buzzing like a horde of robotic bees grew as the light illuminated the room. The room was vast, with the entire female population of the Anunnaki ship suspended from the walls.
All except one. At the center of the room was a shining table where a sheath class Anunnaki had been painstakingly taken apart, her strange organs pinned to a dissection board like a butterfly collector arranging his prizes.
Silvery filaments – the mutilated Anunnaki’s neural matter – writhed like boiling spaghetti, and a single large, black eye twitched in a kind of vat. Her severed antennae perked towards us, and her transparent skin struggled below its pins.
A scream died in my throat.
“I thought they were selling us into slavery,” I said. “Why would they do that?”
Ishtar gave a rough laugh. “To see how much the sheath class will fetch at market. Most will be sold for food – we’re considered an aphrodisiac. The outlaws of the Milky Way have translated their hatred of Anunnaki into a taste for our flesh.”
I turned my head away.
The buzzing grew louder.
Ishtar narrowed her eye. “Someone’s coming.”
A door on the far wall opened. In stepped Ajaxas. She clacked her scissor pincers together and opened her mandible, revealing that disgustingly long proboscis. It flicked out to taste the air.
“I trust that you’re comfortable, your highness,” said Ajaxas. “The Brood offer only the best to Anunnaki royalty.”
“Spare me your sarcasm,” Ishtar said. “What will it take for you to free us? Precious minerals? More mercenaries than could fill a planet? Ships? Weapons? On my honor as Abzu’s daughter, I can promise you that and more. Keep the sheath class. It’s my brother, me, and the girl that walk free in exchange for untold wealth.”
Ajaxas fiddled her hind legs together to produce a cricket-like sound – laughter. “Abzu has no honor. You expect me to believe that you or your father will keep your words, after your race ran my kind off our planet under the false pretenses? I still remember the flames of the Burrow when I was a girl. Your father’s fury rained down on my sweet Worm Mother’s earth. The liberation of our prey destroyed our planet and made us refugees.”
Ishtar bared her sharp teeth. “You can’t blame me for my father’s misdeeds.”
Ajaxas fiddled her legs together. “We are our parent’s failings. Anunnaki especially so. You’re no more protectors of the weak than you are preservers of order. If your kind had any understanding of balance, you would have let the Brood be. You pride yourselves on your knowledge, but the truth is Anunnaki are only good for fucking and eating. No, I will not make a bargain with you. Not when you will fetch such a handsome price. I have Brood to feed.”
“You’re throwing away a ripe opportunity. At least think on it,” Ishtar said, nictating membrane drawing halfway shut across her eye.
Ajaxas drew closer, idly stroking the Anunnaki eyeball in its vat. “Stubborn, aren’t you? Spoiled too. No, I think I will sell you to the highest bidder, who, evidently, is on the ship now. Come in, Seere.”
Ishtar shouted, struggling against her chains.
Her protests were useless. In strode a red-skinned, towering alien, who I could only imagine as male. Seere had horns on his sloping head, with a thick mane of black hair cascading down his back. He was shaped like a centaur, with four legs, two arms, and a pronged tail. A trio of eyes shone like flecks of obsidian on his brow. His upper half was practically human, and downright demonic. I felt like I had stumbled into a Hieronymus Bosch painting. I half-expected Seere to be holding a pitchfork full of hot coals.
Instead of being scared witless, a kind of cool fascination numbed my mind. So this was my new captor. Something off the cover of a death metal album cover. At least he wasn’t Jabba the Hut.
Seere nodded at me, silent, and Ajaxas came to my side. She pressed her pincers to my chains and they unlocked. I fell to the floor, red marks on my skin where my bonds had held me. I didn’t dare look up.
“Touch her and I’ll end you,” Ishtar hissed.
Ajaxas fiddled her hind legs, laughing. She guided me to my feet. I rose, my eyes downcast. Ajaxas twirled me around as if I were a jewel on an auction block.
“You can smell the Anunnaki prince’s imprint on her. She is his intended mate,” Ajaxas said. “Look at her exquisite limbs, appreciate her delicate physiology. This girl is a human at her physical peak. You will find no other like her for light years.”
Seere ran a hand through his mane and stepped closer, his hooves clacking on the cold metallic floor. He squinted with charcoal eyes, then tilted his head like a bird.
Ajaxas continued: “My asking price is a hundred neurobytes.”
Seere cantered over. I stared intently at his legs. His skin shimmered with scales, like a dragon. As Spike would say, Seere was metal as fuck.
Seere cupped my face gently in his hot hands and lifted my gaze to his. His eyes narrowed. I felt like a fish on a hook.
Seere made a guttural sound, then looked to the Brood’s Queen Mother. Ajaxas flicked her proboscis to my lower back. Seere followed Ajaxas’ motions, clasping the back of my shirt and lifting it ever so slightly to inspect my biogauge. He leaned over and let out a soft sound when his eyes met the socket in my back. He gingerly prodded it with a strangely muscled finger, and I shuddered.
Seere smiled. He released my face from his grip and I stood still, pinned like a butterfly by his gaze.
Seere lifted his hand to his mouth and bit his finger. Black blood welled up from his wound. I moved back in disgust, but he stilled me, pressing the bloody finger to my biogauge. Just as it had absorbed Ajirin’s blood, the socket in my back made a sucking sound, lapping up the blood like a vampire.
“No!” Ishtar said. She struggled against the chains, but Ajaxas stung her. Ishtar fell limp as Ajaxas’s poison spread through her, turning her flesh purple. Her frills fell limp.
I doubled over as my stomach knotted. A fire spread through my skin, like a million bee stings. I puked up the worms I had eaten for breakfast.
Seere hoisted me up and wiped the vomit from my lip. After the brutal transfusion, I understood his language, half-purr, half-roar that it was: “You drive a hard bargain, Ajaxas. I will take the Anunnaki royalty, doubtless, but this human – she seems to have a weak constitution. What are her talents? How can I possibly use her? She will break like a stick at the slightest mishandling.”
Ajaxas blinked her compound eyes hard. “Without her, the Anunnaki prince will die.”
Seere stomped his hoof on the floor. “Fair enough. Perhaps she has abilities that are not yet apparent. The Anunnaki prince would have been drawn to her for a reason.”
“Exactly,” Ajaxas said.
Seere placed his hand on my shoulder and ran his oddly formed fingers down my arm. He closed his three burning eyes and inhaled deeply. “You have a fighting spirit, don’t you? I can smell it on your skin – the sweat, the blood. Ajaxas tells me you killed her best scout. My question is, how could a creature as fragile as you pose a threat to the Brood?”
His grip on my arm was like a vise. I automatically flexed, which prompted him to smile. “I could snap you in two with the slightest effort. And yet, you would struggle to the last minute. I admire that.”
“Let go of me,” I said, shrugging Seere’s hand from my arm. “You’re right. I took out Ajirin. But what do you know about humans? I could be lethal. I know tai chi. Bet you don’t know what that is.”
Seere gave a rough laugh. “You’re right, I don’t. You may be lethal, but your skills are untested. Which is why I’ll only buy her at half-price, Ajaxas.”
Ajaxas clicked her mandible.
Seere looked at me. “I hope you are lethal. You’ll expire quickly if you’re not.”
It was like his eyes were stakes. I crossed my arms and wished for more substantial clothes than the gossamer skirt and shirt the Anunnaki had given me.
Seere motioned for someone behind him to step forth. Another centuarine alien, this one a head and shoulders shorter than my newest captor, trotted forward. She – I assumed by the swell of her breasts – was slenderer than Seere, and seemed to have duller scales than him, the way female cardinals are brown compared to their mate’s red.
The attendant held a coral metallic disc that seemed to have been etched in curling patterns with a laser. Ajaxas’s compound eyes widened at the sight of it. The Queen Mother extended her pincers to hold the pink circle gingerly.
“The neurobytes have the requested information on Nibiru’s capital?” Ajaxas said.
Seere rumbled with laughter. “Hell-bent on revenge as always, aren’t you? Yes, they do. That information was costly, so keep it well-guarded.” He appraised me. “What is your name?”
“You wouldn’t be able to pronounce it.”
Seere stomped a hoof, seemingly entertained. It was like he liked to watch me squirm. “I’ll call you Worm.” He motioned to my barfed-up breakfast of annelids, then smirked with his muzzle. “It appears Anunnaki food does not agree with you. I promise you will dine much better on Gehenna. My servants feast on only the finest minerals, the most purified sunlight.”
Sunshine? Rocks? “Sounds appetizing.”
Seere smiled. “You will need to keep up your strength, Worm, for I intend to test the mettle of the human who slayed Ajirin.”
“You have made a wise purchase,” said Ajaxas. “Look at her hair. It is the color of neurobytes. She will bring you untold wealth.”
Seere smirked. “You always knew how to oversell a product.”
Ajaxas looked down at the neurobyte disc in her pincers. Her compound eyes shone like a green bottle fly’s back. “We should not linger. I must take the rest of the Anunnaki to market,” Ajaxas said.
Seere motioned for his silent attendant, who took Ishtar’s limp body down from her shackles. Ishtar looked desiccated, like a starfish out of water. Her tentacles were a ghostly lavender, sign of Ajaxas’ spreading poison. Though the attendant was thin and lacked Seere’s muscle, she carried Ishtar with ease.
Seere smiled, showing fangs that ringed his mouth like a lamprey. “Be careful, Vassago. She’s a princess, after all.” His gentle purr was mocking. “Come, Worm. Don’t make me carry you too.”
“Ishtar?” I said. I rubbed sleep-grit from my eyes.
She leaned over my bed, her skin bioluminescent, like blacklight tattoos at a rave. “Come on, get up, we don’t have much time until Gishkim’s guards come back from their rounds. They’ll smell my scent in your room and know something is up.”
I slipped out of bed and fixed the sagging shoulder of my gown. “Um, alright. Does this have something to do with earlier?”
Ishtar caressed the bark whorl on the wall. The tree opened and she poked her head out to take a furtive glance around. “I’ll explain everything in the records room. It’s a dead zone this time of night.” She motioned for me to follow.
I crept outside after Ishtar and the door sealed shut. The atmosphere of the green planet below the glass floor was flashing with what looked like lightning. Something chirped in the foliage like cicadas, and mist was a mirror in the air. I swiped my hand through it and left ghostly trails in the white.
Ishtar took my hand in hers, careful not to spear me with her claws, and led me onward. “Be as quiet as you can,” she said.
We turned down a narrow hallway draped with green vines that hung from the ceiling like rope. It was a constant nuisance to sweep the vines out of my face. The floor was as spongy as damp, beetle-chewed bark. It smelled sweet, like cedar wood. The hallway was door-less, and I could barely see past the vegetation. Ishtar glowed blue, her head-frill standing on end. Finally, we reached a waterfall at the end of the hall with muddy banks and a warm pool from which heat rose in waves.
“Can you swim?” Ishtar said.
“Good.” Ishtar slipped into the shoulder-deep pool and swam under the waterfall to whatever lay beyond. I hesitated at the lip of the pool, my toes squelching mud.
I dipped a foot in and was surprised by how much like a hot tub it was. Maybe I could just stay here and get a good soak. All I needed was a margarita.
The thought of relaxation was fleeting. Curiosity itched at my brain – I wanted to know what lay beyond. I sunk into the water and swam under, my back scraping against a cavernous ceiling.
I was submerged for all of ten seconds: there was a muddy slide at the end of the rocky channel. I slipped down it and landed in a wet pile at the bottom of a room that looked like a brochure for the tropics. The floor was sandy, and at the edges of the circular vastness were waves lapping at the ground. Palm tree-like pillars supported the ceiling, and a large glass window encapsulated the room. Ishtar stood by a huge flower that bloomed dark as a merlot stain. She caressed one of the petals, and a hovering screen bloomed from the flower’s center.
“This is where we keep our information on humanity,” Ishtar said.
I ran a hand through my pink pixie cut and squeezed moisture from it. My gown quickly dried, as if it was water-resistant, and the heat of the room evaporated the liquid from my skin.
I walked over to Ishtar. She touched a pulsing button on the screen in the shape of an Anunnaki handprint. It glowed white-hot and the window fencing the room grew fuzzy, settling into a full body scan of Enki with what appeared to be vital stats monitoring his anatomy. Two organs pumped on the screen like hearts – one in his abdomen and one in his head – as his body rotated on a loop. A red mass was under the skin of his head and neck-frills, concentrated at the crown of his skull.
“Enki is approaching his final molt,” Ishtar said. “He needs to mix his genetic material with a human in order to sexually mature. Only then will he be able to grow into his final form and absorb our collected knowledge on mankind. He will become a vessel for humanity’s transformation.”
“I knew this was a bad SyFy movie.”
Ishtar manipulated the screen, zooming in on Enki’s head. “Once he exchanges DNA with a human, he will be able to broadcast genetic information into your species’ bodies. It will be like your biogauge, but on a massive scale, with Enki holding the master switch on humanity’s gene expression. He’ll be able to manipulate humans’ phenotypic plasticity so that they can, for example, withstand interstellar travel, or understand the Milky Way’s languages.”
I reeled. “Like mind control? That sounds way more sinister than Cyrus – er, Enki – is capable of.”
Ishtar shrugged. “Not exactly mind control. But Enki is fully capable of changing humanity. In fact, he intends to. It’s the way we’ve dealt with primitive species for millenia.”
I knitted my brows together. “Hey, only some humans are primitive, mostly just my ratchet friends.”
Ishtar laughed like there were rocks in her throat. “I’m not saying I agree with the way my species operates. But it’s what we do to survive. We diversify our gene pool by exchanging DNA with other species, otherwise royalty would experience a decline in gene quality and our children would wither, prone to abnormalities and autosomal disorders. Anunnaki genes are frail because they are so malleable. We need constant outside inputs of genetic material to survive.”
I leaned against a palm tree-pillar, my mind spinning. “So your race is just being selfish, and even though Enki claims he’s helping us, his crowning process is really just about his survival?”
Ishtar pressed a button and the window screen shut down. “It’s an exchange. It’s beneficial for both sides, and it’s what Anunnaki do to flourish. That doesn’t mean I like it.”
I thought back to what Ishtar had said about Enki imprinting on me. “So basically, I’m screwed. Your brother is going to do god knows what to me to get my genetic information, and if I refuse, he’ll just find another hapless human to experiment on.”
Ishtar sighed. “Enki likes you. He wouldn’t have brought you abroad if he didn’t. He wants you to be the one to undergo wussuru with him.”
I stroked the bark of the palm tree, hesitant. “I pressed the launch button accidentally.”
Ishtar gave a slight, mirthless smile. “Why would he have allowed you into his spaceship in the first place if he didn’t want you to press it? That’s just an unnecessary risk, especially if he didn’t intend to take you to the mothership all along. Enki can deny it all he wants, but the fact is he healed you, forming a genetic bond that’s marked you as his own. That’s why Hashur outfitted you with a biogauge. So wussuru could occur between you and Enki.”
I felt blood drain from my face. “Oh god, this is like Earth Girls are Easy.”
Splotches of Ishtar’s skin flashed mauve. “Calm down. I can get you off this ship without anyone noticing.”
I stepped away from the palm tree, staring up at its fronds, unable to meet Ishtar’s eye. “But if I leave, Enki will just use another human as his guinea pig.”
Ishtar moved closer to me. “It won’t be that easy. He’s already imprinted on you. He needs you for his molting process to be complete.”
Amber liquid dripped from the leaves above onto my hair. “What happens if he doesn’t mix his genes with me or whatever?”
Ishtar paused, biting her lower lip.
“Well?” I said.
“It’s not important.”
I examined her black, black eye, trying to read emotion on her alien face. “It seems pretty important to me.”
Ishtar turned from me and broke a bit of the wine-dark flower off to smell. “Whatever Enki told you about Anunnaki creating intergalactic peace is a lie. Nibiru is in turmoil. My parents are ruthless. They have to be. If Enki were to rule with his head in the clouds, it would bring ruin to my people. I’m better suited for the throne. Sometimes sacrifices have to be made for the good of the galaxy, even though the necessary changes harm those we hold dearest.”
I instinctively curled my hands into fists. “Sacrifices? So you’re willing to let your brother get hurt, as long as you get to rule in his stead?”
“My brother’s death wouldn’t be in vain. It’s the only way.”
“Death?” I said. “No way! I won’t let him die, even if he hasn’t told me the truth.”
“Then I can’t help you.”
Ishtar stayed in the records room, pouring over the details of Enki’s physiology, and left me to find my own way back. I was in a state of shock. When I had threatened to tell Enki about her lust for the throne, Ishtar had just laughed, saying it was to be expected, as royalty competed for the crown, leading to assassinations and the ever-popular exiles. Assassinations, though illegal, succeeded if no one caught you, and exiles were only official if a sibling found damning evidence that another Anunnaki royal had broken intergalactic law on their way to the throne. Ishtar’s attempts at trying to convince me not to undergo wussuru weren’t even offenses in the eyes of the law.
I returned to my room within the tree just as the lights of the room turned back on, indicating it was morning. I settled into bed, determined to get some shuteye. I had my eyes closed for all of five minutes when something chirruped above me. I looked up to see a six-limbed thing that looked like a cross between a sugar glider and a lemur, with a bushy tail and beady eyes. Webbing extended between its legs, fanning out as it sailed down to the miniature creek that cut through my room. It dipped its head into the water and pulled out one of the ciliated fruits. With a wet crunch, it stuffed its face, and the fruit was gone.
“Aww,” I said, bending down to pet it. “How cute.”
The creature drew away, its cheeks near bursting with food. “Do not touch me! I am Ratatosk, and I have been assigned to you as your guardian for the duration of your trip. Really, do you have no manners? I am a skilled warrior. Gishkim didn’t tell me you were so rude.” Its speech was a high squeak, muffled by the fruit in its mouth.
“Uh, sorry little guy.”
Ratatosk ran its paw through its neck scruff as it swallowed. Jelly coated its lips. “I am asexual. I do not possess a gender. Really, it’s quite obvious. Humans really are primitive. The way you treat rodents, like pests. We are forces to be reckoned with, not creatures to feed peanuts or to lure away with cheese.”
I frowned. “Well, I’ve never trapped a mouse, so I don’t think I really deserve to be attacked. Did Enki send you?”
“Yes,” said Ratatosk. “Get dressed. Your clothes are in the walls.”
To demonstrate, Ratatosk scurried over to the tree trunk, scaled it halfway, and scratched at a knob in the bark. The knob expanded, revealing white clothes – a kind of silky, long-sleeved shirt, a bell-like skirt, boots, and undergarments. I changed out of my gown into the new outfit, thinking all I’d need was paint spatters on the fabric to be Cyrus’ clone.
Ratatosk led me to the heartwood hall where Enki was waiting, stirring a bowl of what looked like green worms. He speared one and brought it to his Joker-split mouth. Ratatosk scurried up the table and was soon perched on Enki’s shoulder. It licked the moisture off his skin, like a mother squirrel cleaning her young.
Enki scritched behind the creature’s ear. “Ratatosk, thank you.”
Ratatosk cleaned its muzzle with its paws. “You taste on edge, prince. Your skin proteins indicate that you are close to molting.”
Enki frowned. “Really? So soon?”
“This shouldn’t be a surprise.” Ratatosk looked pointedly at me. “If you weren’t so distracted on Earth, you would have come to the mothership for a checkup.”
“Don’t blame me,” I said. “I didn’t keep him chained to our apartment.” I sat down across from Enki, not sure how to broach the subject of Ishtar’s ill wishes and Enki’s true intentions.
Ratatosk continued licking Enki’s slime. He took no notice of it, as if it were a commonplace occurrence. I was reminded of ants suckling fluids from aphids. But ants drank the anal secretions of aphids, and, thank god, the squirrel-lemur was nowhere near Enki’s ass. Not that Enki really had a butt. His backside was smooth, crack-less, and blue. How the hell we were supposed to have kinky alien sex, or whatever wussuru was, I hadn’t a clue.
Enki’s ear-fins straightened as he leaned in closer, pushing his food to the side. “You look tired,” he said. “Was your room not to your liking?”
“It’s not that,” I said. A sheath class Anunnaki walked over and placed a bowl of green worms before me. The food smelled like dirt. I didn’t want to talk about wussuru with Enki, so I kept my mouth shut.
“Ziggi?” Enki said.
I poked a worm with my skewer. “Um, well, I guess the weirdness of everything is just wearing me down. Not that it’s not cool. It’s just a lot to take in.”
Enki’s skin lightened, his fins and frills retracted, and within moments he had transformed back into his human form. “Is this better?” he asked, smiling his lazy smile. “It’s no trouble for me to appear human if it’s familiar.”
“Um, yeah, I guess, but you’re, well…”
“What?” he asked. He stood up and reached across the table, putting his hand on my shoulder. “What’s troubling you?”
Enki jumped back like he’d been burned. Ratatosk fell from his shoulder. Enki whipped away from me, his junk bouncing. “Damn it!” He raced out of the room.
“Um, well then,” I said, trying a green worm.
“You upset my prince! For shame,” Ratatosk hissed.
“You really are annoying, aren’t you?”
Ratatosk’s chest puffed. “Well I never. Forget guarding you. You’re insufferable.” It thrashed its tail and scurried out of the room.
Laughter came from behind me. I turned, mid-bite into a worm, to see Gishkim and Hashur. I automatically swallowed the wriggling food, which caught in my throat, and I choked. The mutilated worm rocketed out of my mouth and landed at Hashur’s feet.
“I see Enki was being absent-minded again,” Hashur said, stepping around the worm.
“Maybe he’s just an exhibitionist,” Gishkim said. “That’s a thing humans do, right?”
“I hope he didn’t offend you,” said Hashur as she and Gishkim sat down across from me. A sheath class Anunnaki served them breakfast.
“He’s not the first dude I’ve seen naked,” I said. I successfully ate my second worm, making sure to sever its head first this time and kill it properly. It fell limp on my tongue. It tasted like earth, in a strangely pleasing way.
“Our monitors have been picking up some strange wormhole activity, Hashur,” said Gishkim. “I’m afraid of what that might mean.”
Hashur narrowed her eye. “Are our shields stable?”
“Nothing on this ship is stable. It’s an old clunker,” came a voice from behind us. I turned to see Ishtar. She smiled at me, as if in pity, but only for a moment. I looked away and focused on my worms.
“Ishtar. You’re up early,” said Gishkim.
“I had a lot on my mind,” said Ishtar. She sat down beside me, barely giving me breathing room. Her moist leg skimmed mine.
Something jolted the ship. Our bowls of worms spilled, and I fell to the floor.
“The hell?” I said, rubbing my now-bruised leg. I tried to stand, but it was like an earthquake had begun. The ship rumbled, and the heartwood hall’s vegetation began to writhe.
Gishkim cursed with a metaphor that really only made sense if you were the Swamp Thing. “We’re under attack. Quick, Ishtar, take Ziggi to the photosynthesis chamber.”
Ishtar scooped me up and raced out of the room on her doubled-back legs. She ran down a flurry of halls and stopped at a crystalline chamber filled with sheets that held grass-colored liquid. They were like the folds of a chloroplast, and they shuddered with each rumble of the ship. Ishtar deposited me on a raised surface at the center where a gel-like floor stuck to me, holding me in place.
“Gishkim doesn’t seem too worried,” I said, my casual tone belying my tension.
Ishtar glanced up at the translucent ceiling. Glimmering rays obscured the stars, supposedly the defensive shields. “He’s an experienced captain. We’ve dealt with outlaws before. Gishkim’s used to suppressing riots among the axonal Anunnaki class. He’s my father’s henchman.”
The mossy door unfurled. In stepped Enki, no longer naked, morphed back into his Anunnaki form.
“Ziggi, are you alright?” Enki said, his eye twitching.
Enki gave a weak smile. “These aliens are dangerous. Flesh traders. I came as fast as I could. Ishtar, thank you. For taking care of Ziggi.”
Ishtar blew air through her teeth. “Like they pose a threat. I’m more worried about your intentions for her.”
Enki rubbed his temple. “I don’t know what you’re saying.” The ship gave a violent shake.
Ishtar narrowed her eye. “You still haven’t told her about wussuru. You’re about to molt and there are no other humans for millions of miles.”
Enki’s temple throbbed. “Not her. I’ll find another way.”
I finally managed to unstick my butt from the floor. I stood on shaking legs. “We’re sitting ducks here,” I said, letting a rumble pass below. “It’s not really a martial art, but I know tai chi.” I demonstrated a pose, extending one leg and moving my arms in wave-like motions. “I can distract the space pirates with my sick moves.”
“That won’t be necessary,” said Enki. “Ishtar and I will defend you”
I practiced forming an energy ball. “I don’t need protection, thanks. I’ve been in enough scrapes to know how to take care of myself. And I was kidding about the tai chi.”
We stayed that way for god knew how long, me practicing tai chi to calm my nerves, Enki and Ishtar arguing over wussuru while ignoring me. The rumbling came at less frequent intervals, until there was dead silence in the photosynthesis chamber.
“The communication system is shot. What a junk of a ship,” Ishtar said, banging one of the green panels. “We should open the door. Take a look around. Gishkim’s probably fought off the invaders by now.”
“No, don’t. For once be cautious,” said Enki. “We should wait until the communication system is operating and we’re able to contact the rest of the crew.”
Ishtar ignored Enki and walked on taloned feet to the door, which was sealed shut with thick mats of what looked like Spanish moss. She ran her hand over the greenery and it swelled open.
The hall beyond was on fire, jungle steam swirling round the flames. The heat blasted us, wrenching sweat from my pores. Where there had been silence, there were high-pitched ululations, like alien war cries, interspersed with what could only be Anunnaki screams.
Ishtar drew back as if she had touched a brand. She tried to close the heavy moss, but the heat from beyond sucked the moisture from the vegetation, making it brown and curl up like dried seaweed. The stink of charred flesh pervaded the air.
“No,” Ishtar said. “My trip on this clunker wasn’t supposed to end in an inferno. Enki, protect Ziggi. I’ll get this filth off our ship.”
Before Ishtar could set out on her quest for vengeance, a blue laser of light focused on her chest. Her mouth formed an O of surprise as a pulse of brightness hit her. She blasted back through the room and landed on all fours.
“Shit,” she grunted.
In stormed a trio of aliens, red as poppies and covered in compound eyes. They reared up on their many pincers and stank like moldy fruit, gaping circles of mouths covered in needle-like teeth. They looked like centipedes from Hell. I covered my face at their stench. Translucent flesh and silvery blood clung to their bodies, evidence of Anunnaki slaughter.
“My god, they look like the reject children of Lovecraft,” I choked.
One of the mutant centipedes held what could best be described as a minimalist’s conception of a gun. It used its pincers to pull the trigger and blasted Ishtar with another laser pulse. She dodged it and opened her split mouth wide, unleashing a jet of foul-smelling slime at the gun-wielding centipede. The slime coated its eyes and it shrieked. Steam rose from the wounded centipede’s eye sockets, and it called out in a high-pitched language to its brethren. The centipede to its left took the gun from the wounded one and aimed a blast at me.
Enki blocked it. He was throttled backwards. We fell in a tangle of limbs.
Ishtar tackled the weapon-holding entomologist’s wet dream. She tore out the pincers that held its gun and bit into the centipede’s neck. Its gun fell to the floor, and with another chomp she had severed its head. It fell squirming to the floor, neon ooze spilling from its neck stump. The centipede whose eyes were wounded crawled around in circles, knocking into the green panels. One centipede was left intact and angry. It was the biggest of the three, and it scuttled towards Ishtar while she was distracted. Flashing its needle teeth, it suctioned Ishtar’s head with its mouth.
“Ishtar!” Enki said, picking himself off the sticky gel floor and rushing towards the centipede. He used his claws to shred the centipede down its center. It lost its grip on Ishtar, leaving behind a purple welt on her that exposed skull, and focused its attentions on Enki. The centipede and Enki wrestled. It took bites out of Enki’s shoulders while Enki sliced and diced it. Soon the monster and Enki were breathless, both stumbling over each other. Ishtar lay stunned on the floor, clutching her head wound and moaning.
I dove for the strange-looking gun and picked it up. The metal was soft in my hands. I squeezed shut one eye, aimed, and pulled the trigger. The laser pulse landed in the middle of the mutant centipede’s segmented body. It rolled like a rock off Enki, hit a green panel, and let out a high-pitched whine. Enki sucked in air, running his hands over the tears in his skin. His shoulder tentacles writhed, one torn half off.
With both Ishtar and Enki too wounded to fight, it was down to me and the last bulky centipede, which was quickly regaining its footing. It left a trail of neon ooze as it approached. I fired off another shot, and it rolled back, only to scuttle forward again. I continued to shoot. The gun began to feel cold. I wondered if some kind of reaction that fueled it was petering out. Finally, I pulled the trigger to find it was out of juice. The centipede seemed to smirk, its eyes shuttering rapidly. It snaked forward, savoring its attack.
I lobbed the gun down its gaping mouth. It choked, the metal caught in its throat, and ran its pincers down its abdomen, trying to coax the weapon out of its gullet. I used the centipede’s momentary stillness to attack, dZigging my hands into the shallow wounds Enki had created.
I tore it apart with a berserk fury worthy of the Vikings, or at least the Viking metal bands in those music videos Spike liked, which was really my only basis of comparison. My opponent thrashed under my grip. The scent of rotting fruit grew stronger the further I dug into the choking centipede, until I reached deep within and felt something pulse between my hands. I tore out a two-chambered organ the size of a Thanksgiving turkey. The centipede fell lifeless to the floor.
I lobbed the organ to the floor, wiped sweat from my brow with a grimy hand, then glanced over at the last remaining centipede with acid-burned eyes It lay on its back, its pincers twitching. Enki and Ishtar were out cold, but their chests rose and fell in a semblance of breathing.
I couldn’t leave the photosynthesis chamber without knowing the situation beyond the door. I couldn’t leave it weaponless, leaping blind from the frying pan into the literal fire. But how could I know what was out there if I couldn’t even interrogate our attackers?
The eyeless centipede crooned like a demented harp. Its neon blood – was it blood? – was jarring to my sight. If only I could understand what it was saying.
I scooped up some of the neon gore and dribbled it into my biogauge. My vision flared, and a metallic taste sieged my throat. My surroundings sharpened, and the smell of rotting fruit made me gag.
The centipede’s whining crystallized into a language I could understand: “…Worm Mother, grant me safe passage into the dark matter. Rot Father, bless my seed and home; that they may live on as I fade…”
I spoke, and a high screech came from my throat: “You’re not dead yet, but I’ll make your death much more painful if you don’t answer my questions.” I nudged its side with my boot. Its pincers stilled.
The centipede spoke, voice weak: “I’m listening. If I answer your questions, will you end me quickly, like you did Ajirin?”
I knelt down beside it. “Yes. Is the rest of the ship destroyed?”
The centipede shuddered. “We sabotaged the heartwood hall. It’s as good as dead. You have an hour left of life support, maybe less. We’ve killed the captain and taken the crew hostage – the sheath class will fetch a good price, and the Ratatosk is a rare beauty. Her we’ll keep to dissect; the Anunnaki royals guard their pets so well they’re hard to come by.”
Gishkim dead? I felt like vomiting. “How do I get out of here alive?”
The centipede rasped its teeth together, as if laughing. “You don’t, unless you come with the Burrow, Rot Father and Worm Mother bless us. You are a pretty thing. I saw that before the Anunnaki burned my eyes. We will treat you well. We will sell you to someone who will treasure you. Please, enough questions.” Its long chest deflated. “Kill me.”
“No. I’m not going to end up on some alien’s table with probes shoved up my ass! Tell me how to save myself.”
The centipede didn’t respond.
I kicked it.
It finally replied: “Worm Mother dies so that Her children may live. Her brood crawl forth from Her ruined belly into the Burrow. My wife did the same for our spawn. A part of you must die to survive in space. The Burrow is not kind. But the Burrow knows worth when it sees it. You are like the finest of rot. You may bargain with us. We will treat you well if you are agreeable. You may yet save your friends. That is all I can tell you.”
Enki stood, and as he did, bluish and silvery-white patterns appeared on his skin. His nose sank into his face and skin covered his eyelids. His flesh became fish-metallic, and his legs bent backward into another joint below the knee.
He removed his jumpsuit, revealing sexless, smooth features beneath. Parallel ridges covered with fins ran down his chest, and his shoulders sprouted feathery tentacles the color of sea foam. His fingers elongated, nails hardening into talons, and his pinkies reabsorbed into his hands. His feet swallowed their toes and hardened into something like claws. Finally, his ears and hair disappeared, replaced by fins and frills
A single, slanted eye blinked open in the center of his face, over lips stretched to where his ears had been. He smiled, and sharp rows of teeth greeted me.
“Put those fangs away! You look like a sewer mutant.”
His shoulder tentacles stood on end, and he frowned, his solitary brow arching downwards over an inky-black eye. “Do I really?”
“Yeah. Like the Leviathan or something.”
Enki examined his four-fingered hands. “Anunnaki are about as close to humans as you’ll get in our galaxy. Bipedal, male-female sexual dynamics, a highly social species. Now, if we went to the Andromeda galaxy, there’s a warm-blooded species closer to your physiology, but even that’s a stretch. They’re more marsupial than ape-like.”
“Stop being so academic about this. You’re freaking me out.” I looked at the ground. “I don’t think I can do this. I can’t go upstairs and see more Swamp Things. Take me home. Please.”
Enki’s skin flushed cyan. He frowned like a Cyclops. “I’d like to, but the next ship to Earth doesn’t leave for a week. We’re in the Perseus Arm of the Milky Way, about 6,400 light years from your solar system. The crew wasn’t expecting our arrival, and it takes planning to create a wormhole. Look, I already spoke to the ship’s captain, Gishkim. He’s slated our departure for as soon as is feasible.”
I gawked, so overwhelmed by the foreignness of the being before me. Enki was like something that had climbed out of Earth’s primordial seas, a fluorescent Cyclops sea slug that walked.
“But I can’t stay here,” I said. I looked around the vegetated room and shivered despite the rainforest heat. “What about my job? I’ll lose it if I’m gone. What about Carlos and Spike? They’ll freak.”
Enki’s ear-fins fanned out, like he was distressed, and the translucent frills on his neck stood up. “It’s alright. We’ve already used our ship’s communication systems to access your email and phone. I’ve contacted your family and friends to tell them you have the flu. Please, try to understand that we mean you no harm. I may look frightening, but we’re a peaceful species. You can’t stay in this ward forever. You have to eat. To move.”
I looked at the rotating walls. “Ward? That’s what this is? Some place where your friends can plug vines into my back and watch me?”
“It’s not like that. This room is like a hospital: the plants are genetically sculpted to administer medicine to patients and maintain their homeostasis. Hashur constructed it specifically for you.”
I touched the leaf-like staircase and looked Enki in his obsidian eye. “I want to blend in as much as possible.”
Enki nodded. “Alright then. Are you ready to go upstairs?”
I braced myself. “Okay.”
The ship was like a forest – woody halls, genetically-engineered vegetation creeping everywhere, with dozen-petalled flowers that looked like a cross between orchids and roses. A fine mist clung to the ceiling and amber liquid coated the floor, sticking to my feet. It was humid and warm. An occasional window would appear, and I would stop to stare at the velvety expanse of space. Enki would pause, wait, and then nudge me along to our destination.
“Hashur and Gishkim are in the heartwood hall – it’s time for our evening meal. I’m sure you’re hungry.”
I took note of the hollowness in my stomach and dully agreed.
Enki flashed his serrated-tooth smile. “Have you noticed you’re speaking my language?”
I stopped. “What?” The question exited my throat, and my tongue didn’t shape it like an English word. Instead, it was clear and bell-like, sweeter than human language. I repeated myself in wonder, then deliberately switched to English. I had been speaking a different language and hadn’t even processed it.
“Whoa,” I said. “Rad.”
Enki grinned. “It’s the neurodrip Hashur administered through your biogauge. It altered your brain chemistry so that you can speak our tongue.”
“Neat. I’ve always wanted to by a polyglot.”
I rounded a corner and ran straight into another Anunnaki. Their moist fins made contact with my skin, just like a fish plucked from water.
“Excuse me,” I said, frazzled.
The Anunnaki blocked my exit. It drew its tentacles down my arm.
“Is this the human?” a feminine voice purred. “I’ve never seen one up close before.”
I wiped her tentacles off me. They left behind a shining film. “Your skin is really cold,” I said.
“Sorry,” she said. Her skin flashed purple. “I was just curious.”
“Ishtar, give Ziggi her space,” Enki said. “She’s adjusting to the ship. Everything’s a bit frightening.”
“You don’t need to protect me,” I said. “It’s not so frightening now that I’m getting used to it.”
Ishtar’s ear-fins pressed close to her skull. “Are all humans this spry, brother?”
I looked to Enki. “I didn’t know you had a family.”
They both flinched, nictating membranes drawing down across their eyes.
Enki spoke: “Ziggi, my sister didn’t mean to invade your personal space. She has no manners to speak of. You’ll have to forgive her.”
Ishtar’s blue tongue rattled in her mouth. “At least I’m not the family idiot. Really, bringing a human aboard? You’ll never finish your crowning process with the speck of neural matter you possess.”
Enki’s skin turned whitish. “Don’t dredge up old arguments. Completing our maturation cycles isn’t a competition. Just because mother sent you on this mission with me doesn’t mean you have to hate me for it. I didn’t force you onto this ship.”
Ishtar flashed her fangs. “I wouldn’t be aboard this ship if you hadn’t taken so long to mature. The clock’s still ticking, and how much have you progressed? Did becoming addicted to drugs further your understanding of the human race? How much more of my time are you going to waste on this asinine, dead-end mission?”
Enki clenched his lips. “I don’t have to justify myself to you. Don’t be so aggressive. It’s unbecoming.”
Ishtar laughed, a throaty sound. “I could feel your imprint on her. You directly interfered with her genome on Earth – what, while she was sleeping?” Her cold gaze fixated on Enki. “Meddling with an uninitiated species’ biology is in direct violation of our laws. Or have you forgotten the fiasco that happened the last time you studied humanity? Your precious humans wrote religious books about us. Even thousands of years couldn’t erase your mistake from their memories.”
“I always thought the Bible was fishy,” I said.
Ishtar’s smile was thin. “Be careful, Ziggi. Enki loses himself in the subjects he studies. He’s a fool.”
“I think I can take care of myself,” I said.
Ishtar gave a hoarse laugh. “How long until she learns what the crowning process entails? What you’re grooming her for?”
Enki sighed, a wet sound. “Not her. Ziggi’s just my roommate. It’s an accident that she’s here.”
“What’s going on?” I said. “You guys are freaking me out.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Enki said, turning to me. “My sister’s conjecturing.” He glanced over his shoulder at Ishtar. “We’re leaving now. I suggest you do the same.”
Ishtar narrowed her eye. “Stop lying to yourself. No wonder you’re so addle-brained. You swallow your own venom instead of spitting it out.” She focused on me. “He’s imprinted on you – it’s only a matter of time.”
With that, Ishtar turned the corner, claws clacking on the damp floor.
Enki took my hand in his, trying to be reassuring. “Sorry about that. Ishtar’s usually unpleasant. Come. I’ll take you to the heartwood hall.”
I didn’t budge. “Is this some kinda alien porno like Earth Girls are Easy?”
Enki’s skin grayed, like brine. “What? No! It’s complicated, but completely untrue, and my sister is just mocking me. Her comments were crass. She likes to get a rise out of people.”
“What do I have to do with your crowning process?”
Enki looked over his shoulder, as if expecting his sister to return. “Nothing. Absolutely nothing.”
I poked what looked like a bowl of fried arachnids with a single-pronged eating utensil and flinched.
“Is this stuff, um, edible?” I said.
The Anunnaki laughed.
I sat at a leafy table with Gishkim, Hashur, and Enki. Gishkim and Hashur were both two heads shorter than Enki and lacked his shoulder tentacles, marking them as the sheath class of Anunnaki, who ran communications and performed everyday duties that supported their species’ overall function. Their skin, instead of Enki’s default blue, was clear like glass, revealing strange organs beneath. Silver flashed beneath their skin, which Enki said was something like neurons.
Unlike Enki and Ishtar’s head- and neck-frills, Gishkim and Hashur had two fleshy stalks on each side of their brow. I was reminded of the translucent sea slugs I’d seen on Animal Planet once, in a documentary about Antarctica. They’d been called sea angels, as if they were otherworldly messengers from the depths. That’s what the Anunnaki were, anyways – visitors from the ocean of space.
“She’s funny,” said Gishkim, the ship’s captain. He smiled at me. “You eat the imperva like this.” He took his eating utensil and pressed it against a ridge on one of the arachnid’s backs. The imperva’s exoskeleton split open, revealing something that smelled like crab meat. The white, steaming flesh was split into different sections, and he stabbed his utensil through a portion of it and dipped it in a black sauce at the bottom of the bowl.
“What are imperva?” I asked, curious. I watched Gishkim chew. “Can I even digest it? Are you sure you don’t have like a hamburger or something?”
“Imperva are a kind of filter feeder from our home planet, Nibiru,” said Hashur. I absently touched the hole in my lower back. “They’re a delicacy. The sauce is made from their ink – it has a high salt content, but a savory taste. I think you’ll find them a pleasing combination and fully digestible.”
I skewered the imperva meat, dipped it in the ink, and took a tentative bite. The food nearly melted in my mouth. I chewed and swallowed.
“It does taste good. Like fish. But it looks like a spider. I thought it would be crap,” I said.
Enki laughed. “I’m glad that you’re adjusting.”
Gishkim took a triangular device from the middle of the table and shook it over his food. The shaker deposited a red, spicy-smelling substance over the imperva. He offered the shaker to me. “This gives it a kick. It’s crushed goudra petal.”
“Like a flower?” I asked.
“Heck if I know,” said Gishkim, looking to Hashur for an answer.
“They’re a bit like flowers,” Hashur, resident scientist, answered. “Goudras are chemotrophs. They degrade minerals. I’m sure you’ve seen them on the walls of our ship.”
“Oh,” I said, thinking of the dozen-petalled flowers. “You mean the ones that look like roses?”
I took the spice shaker and sniffed it. It smelled good, kind of tangy. I sprinkled some on one of the imperva’s legs and tried it. It tasted even better with the spice.
Gishkim took a last bite of his food. “Ishtar’s more aggressive than usual,” he said. “She’s molting. Try to avoid her.”
“That would explain her confrontation with us earlier,” Enki said. “I’m sorry she’s so difficult. I know it’s hard to keep her occupied aboard the ship. I don’t understand why my mother has kept her here so long. One would think Ishtar had learned enough about my crowning process already. She should have been assigned her own planet by now.”
Gishkim rubbed his temple. His head stalks stood on end. “She’s already mastered the crowning procedures and memorized every report sent back from Earth. She’s growing antsy. I’m running out of things to teach her. I think your mother hesitates because of Ishtar’s impulsiveness.”
“Tiamat has always been a cautious queen,” Hashur agreed.
“Only to counteract my father’s hotheaded tendencies,” Enki said. “I swear, Ishtar may well be his clone.”
“Abzu is a fiery ruler,” Gishkim agreed. “Your mother is his complement in every way.”
“Is your sister always moody?” I asked.
Gishkim smirked. “That’s one way to put it.”
Enki sighed. “Yes, she is, but she’s especially aggressive when molting. Anunnaki personalities are polarized during the molting process.”
I finished the last of my imperva and chased it down with a gulp of water. “So do you just turn into a total hippy-dippy druggie when you molt?”
Enki wiped his lips with a furry leaf that he plucked from the vegetated table. “Uh, well, I suppose I become calmer and indulge in, well, I indulge in more substances, yes. I find that cannabis soothes the painful process. It helped me cope on Earth.”
“Thank the waters of Nibiru we don’t have to molt, right Hashur?” Gishkim said. “It’s like being dried out and squeezed into a skin three sizes too small. At least, that’s what Abzu says.”
“That sounds uncomfortable,” I said.
Enki nodded. “It’s a part of the royal maturation cycle. We shed accumulated knowledge and cement neural pathway,” he said. “It occurs in the years before sexual maturation.”
I thought back to Ishtar’s mention of ‘imprinting.’ “Um, uh, I didn’t need to know that.”
Gishkim did something like snort, but it sounded more like a gurgle. “In a word, you could say Ishtar’s sexually frustrated. Another emotion Hashur and I will never experience. When the sheath class wants to spawn, all we need to do is touch antennae and-”
“Gishkim, stop being vulgar,” Hashur said.
Gishkim’s head stalks hung limp. “I wouldn’t be royal if you paid me. You’re the only reasonable member of your family, Enki, and even you’re an idiot.”
“He means that in the most affectionate way possible,” said Hashur. “Don’t you, Gishkim?”
“Bite me,” Gishkim said. “I had to rearrange an entire vortex schedule because our addict prince messed up.” Gishkim laughed. “Just kidding. It was no problem. Only as painful as plucking my claws out one by one.”
Enki flushed purple. “Sorry.”
Dinner passed, and I watched in fascination as Hashur caressed a bump at the center of the table. A pore opened with the sound of rushing liquid and something like sap filled the basin. The aliens put their wooden plates, dining implements, and bamboo-like cups into the pore. I did the same. Steam rose from the pore as the digested the materials. Dinner gone, the pore sealed shut.
“You guys are the most crunchy granola aliens I’ve ever met.”
Enki showed me to my room. We walked down a central hall with a clear floor, allowing one to see the expanse of space underfoot. Anunnaki trod over a gaseous, green planet with several rings and a single, crescent moon that hovered miles below. Enki said the planet was a kind of intergalactic trading post that Gishkim’s ship had landed on yesterday to refuel and restock on supplies. I was blown away by the planet’s beauty, atwitter from the idea that I could step out of the ship and fall into teal clouds.
“Here are your quarters,” Enki said, standing beside a tree as thick as three elephants. I gazed up at the branches that threatened to swallow the ceiling and disappeared into mist.
He pressed his hand to a whorl in the bark and the tree opened, just like the table’s pore had. Enki entered and I followed. The interior was the size of a studio apartment, with the same grassy floor as the ward I had been in and a bed made of moss. Red goudra flowers hung from the ceiling, spicing the air with their scent. A thin stream, lined with mossy slate, cut across the room, flowing in a miniature waterfall from what looked to be a sink. The ceiling was clear glass, allowing me to see the stars above.
Something splashed in the stream. I looked down to see ciliated, translucent jewels floating about – a bit like the diatoms on the microscope slides of my high school biology class. They glimmered every color of the rainbow.
“Snacks, in case you get hungry,” Enki said, bending over on his double-jointed legs to scoop one of the pear-sized creatures from the water. Its strands retracted as he bit in. There was a delicate crunch, and he showed me the interior of the organism, which looked a bit like red bean paste.
I sat down on the mossy bed. “I don’t know if I can eat something with tentacles.”
Enki finished the supposed snack. “They’re not really alive. They’re the fruiting bodies of our plants – like seedpods. Think of them as swimming apples. They drop into the waters of Nibiru and swim until they find ground to grow on. That’s what the tentacles are for: roots.”
“Maybe I’ll try one later.” I laid down on the bed and stared up at space.
Enki sat on a prominent rock. “I’m trying to make you feel comfortable. Please forgive me if you’re not.”
I rolled over onto my stomach. “It’s fine – well, as fine as being abducted can be. I can hack out a week here.”
Enki smiled, baring his shark teeth. “Do you want to watch TV? We save every program broadcast on Earth for research.”
I met his black eye. “Crap. Do you guys have Metalocalypse?”
“You mean that cartoon about the death metal band your band watches after practice? Yes, we do. I quite enjoy that.”
And so an alien and I watched a black comedy that peaked in the late 2000s, broadcast on the ceiling. Enki produced a joint and lighter from god knew where – did he have a kangaroo pouch or something? If so, I didn’t want to know.
The room smelled of goudra petals and weed, and the diatom-fruit drifted happily in the stream. The scent of Enki’s joint lingered after he left, just like the sheen his ass left on the rock. I couldn’t get over how sticky Anunnaki were.
My blanket was, predictably, a leaf. The natural light the walls exuded faded, and I took that as my signal to sleep. The moss beneath me was strangely comforting, and I found it as springy as a new mattress. I drifted off to sleep with thoughts of a green planet above and sweet arachnids on my tongue-
Slimy hands on my shoulders.
So much for sleep.