by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Typewriter Emergencies, November 2020
Alia heard water dripping all through the city. Every surface was damp, cold and slick. She smelled mold in the air. It came in great huffs as the wind moved. The summoning circle would open around her, and suddenly, mold would be all she smelled. She hated it. She loved water, but not like this. She longed for the open ocean of her home realm, but she’d been called here. To Dornsair, the city beneath the hanging roots of the worldtree. The rotten bottom of the world.
Her home in the open ocean was an entire world away in a dimension where the sky stretched out like a sandy beach, glittering with stars. Here the closest thing to stars were the roving colonies of lightning bugs who lived high in the world tree’s branches. Exhibitionists. Showing off their civilization as if it were something to envy. Though they had never seen the phosphorescence of the fire dancing eels in the depths of the sea.
And yet… it wouldn’t be as moldy up there.
Down here, among the hanging tendrils of roots, burrowing creatures had made their homes. Moles and worms and whole competing monarchies of ants. Someday, when the queen of the Red Empire called Alia here through her summoning circle, surrounded by drones standing at every point of the pentagram and worker sisters standing in a circle around them, the Felotter would turn tail, run from her calling, and climb up to meet the butterflies and squirrels in the branches high above. She’d waste weeks among them, infuriating the demanding queen.
But today was not that day. Alia wanted to return home and see the Felotter pups in her enclave graduate from their first swimming classes. She wanted to eat the feast of rock shrimp and mollusks in celebration while her younger sister shook her thick tail and twisted her long spine in the goofy dance of triumph she always did when she was proud. And the fastest way home was to do what Queen Seltyne wanted. Then she would be sent home through the summoning circle, instead of slowly collecting enough life-leaves to summon her own portal, high in the world tree’s branches.
Alia bowed down before Queen Seltyne. The red queen, who stood only as tall as Alia’s knees, folded several pairs of her arms across the burnished maroon of her exoskeletal breast.
“Why have you summoned me?” Alia asked.
“A monster is terrorizing my people.”
“Again?” Alia tried not to let her weariness show in her voice, but she feared the word came out dry and disinterested.
“This is a new one, and it keeps eating my people.”
Alia could sympathize with wanting to eat Queen Seltyne’s people. They looked a little like lobsters, and Alia imagined they might be quite tasty. Yet, Queen Seltyne and her retinue of wizards-in-training had her on a short leash. They could summon the felotter from her own realm any time they wished, and if they were unhappy with her, they could most likely bind her in the space between realms, unable to step out of the summoning circle into the realm of the world tree and also unable to return to the oceans of her own world.
Alia sighed and said, “Tell me what you know.”
In sequence, Queen Seltyne’s royal advisors told Alia the stories of their workers and drones being stolen from shadowy corners, disappearing without a trace, except for the crumpled, empty exoskeletons they left behind. Queen Seltyne feared for the safety of her youngling chrysalids, hanging in the central pupal chambers. “You must find the culprit.”
Alia nodded solemnly. She might dislike the way that the Red Empire summoned her without warning, but she had grown fond of them anyway. She had spent many seasons protecting them from fears, both real and imagined. They were an annoying infestation in the roots of this world tree. But they were hers to protect, and it made her feel powerful and important to protect them.
“I will find it.”
The felotter left the royal summoning party behind and took to the cavernous passageways of their hive. She sniffed the mildewed air and squinched her nose. She ruffled her whiskers, scenting for the traces of magic. The Red Empire’s battle drones were powerful enough warriors that they could usually fight their own physical battles. When the queen summoned Alia, it usually meant their foe was of a magical disposition.
So, she followed the tingle in her whiskers, down one corridor and into another, until she found herself at a crumpled pile of red armor. An empty exoskeleton. She was too late to save this warrior. Something had sucked the poor creature out through the joints of its own armored body, slurping up the organs inside.
Alia pressed her nose close to the armor, letting her whiskers feel its hollowness. Except, it wasn’t totally hollow. She nosed at the armor, and the dried, desiccated pile shifted. Inside, she found a newly pupated youngling, quivering, frightened. Alia had never seen one of the members of the Red Empire so young before — it had wooly tufts of chrysalis silk clumped around all of its joints. Its eye stalks were as large as those of an adult, even though the rest of it was tiny. The eye stalks waggled in their tufts of silk, and its relatively huge eyes blinked. It looked like a sheep crossed with some army ant.
“Are you lost?” Alia asked.
“Are you going to eat me?”
Alia was tempted, but the tiny creature’s voice was such an adorable squeak that she didn’t think she could live with herself if she harmed it. “No, but I think someone did eat the warrior whose armor you’re hiding in. I’m looking for them. Do you know where they went?”
The youngling waggled its eyestalks again and also the pair of antennae behind them, in a gesture that Alia understood to mean yes. “Climb up behind my ear,” the felotter said, “and whisper to me the right way.” The youngling would be safe enough, hidden behind her round ear.
The youngling’s many feet tickled as it climbed over Alia’s fur. Once settled behind her ear, it guided her down the corridors, deeper and deeper into the shadowy corners of the hive, until finally she was staring at a shadow too dark to be a mere shadow.
Alia glared at the shadow. Her whiskers felt aflame with the magic roiling, boiling, and pouring out of the darkness. “I know you’re in there,” the felotter said.
A burst of darkness shot out at her, but it bounced off of her fur. Felotters’ hearts were too full of the sunlight in their ocean world to be susceptible to attacks of dark magic. Another burst of darkness bounced off of her, and another. Alia sighed. She reached into the puddle of gloom and groped with her paws until she felt something bumpy, slick, and porous. Some kind of skin. She squeezed down, and once she had a good grip, she pulled hard, yanking the bumpy-skinned creature out of its nest of gloom.
A flippered foot pulled out of the shadows first, followed by a squishy tank of a body — no neck, no separate head; just a big bumpy lump, split by a frowning pair of bulbous lips, and with four limbs sticking out, each ending in flippered feet or hands.
The frowning mouth opened, and a long tongue shot out at Alia, but it bounced off of her fur, just like it had when cloaked in shadows. She held the shadow toad up by its hind foot and watched it dangle.
Tiny feet behind Alia’s round ear tickled her, and the youngling squeaked.
“Does it look as scary when it’s pulled out of the shadows?” Alia asked.
Alia laughed at the youngling’s answer, but the shadow toad’s eyes bulged. “What’s that?” it gallumphed.
“One of the babies of the people you’ve been eating,” Alia answered, squeezing the toad’s ankle brutally. “And it’s under my protection.”
The shadow toad smacked its wide lips. “Young. Tender. A delicacy…”
Alia could feel the youngling shivering behind her ear. It had looked tasty. Tiny and delectable. She could just imagine the fresh carapace snapping between her teeth. Would the tufts of chrysalis silk be sweet? Like the flesh of fruit? Or savory like strands of kelp. Alia could feel her mouth watering.
“We can share,” the toad said. “More than enough for both!”
Alia was tempted.
But there were rock shrimp and mollusks waiting for her at home. Sometimes the line between food and friend could be so thin. She swung the toad by its stretched out leg, and its thick body thwacked against the wall. She thwacked it again and again, until the moaning stopped. Then she dragged its body back to the summoning hall, stood in the center of the summoning circle, and held the shadow toad up high.
“I’ve defeated your monster,” she said. “Now send me home.”
Queen Seltyne and her royal advisors clacked their mandibles in admiration and waved their eyestalks and antennae gratefully. Alia took the youngling from behind her ear, and placed the adorable little bundle of silk tufts and stick-like red limbs at the queen’s many feet.
Alia enjoyed her moment of being worshipped as a hero.
But as she felt the magic of the summoning circle course through her, replacing the vision of dark tree roots with wide, open, sun-sparkling oceans, she knew that she’d had her fill of protecting the Red Empire. The next time they dared summon her, she’d get her fill a different way, and she would finally feel their delectable-looking limbs between her teeth.