This is a thing… it wants to be a whole thing, and my brain is mushing up backstory and such, but it hasn’t quite figured out what all if going on, and why.

I pushed the stroller through the aisles of the Barnes & Noble; the baby was dozing, so I was glad that for once I didn’t have to pay attention to small hands trying to grab at any paperback in reach- if I missed an acquisition, it meant paying for a gummed on, tattered volume of dubious authorship. At 9 months old “taste in books” involves a lot more saliva, and less literary discernment.

Pausing in the SF/F section, I started browsing the newest Urban Fantasy selections. The fact that there were so many to choose from amused me; I was old enough to remember when there was only one, maybe two of the genre, and wannabe-mages on Usenet complaining that those working in secret to protect humanity were being ‘outed’. How little they knew.

As I was bending to eye a lower shelf (Hey, look, there’s a new Toby Daye book…), I felt a slight wash of cold air up my back, like standing close to a marble wall, and the faint scent of myrrh hung in the air.  I stood and turned, wary. I was past sunset, so the presence of a vampire wasn’t entirely unexpected; the location was.

Julian stood there, his hands clasped behind his back, his dark eyes gazing down at Sophia in her stroller. She gazed back at him with eyes as dark as his own. Somehow, she always woke when he was near, and it unnerved me. He nodded his head respectfully at her, then turned that unnerving gaze at me, his eyes flicking to the book I held in my hand.

“Sizing up your competition, my dear?” His smooth voice made a grey-haired woman the next aisle over give him an appraising look. He glanced sideways at her and quirked an eyebrow, she blushed like a schoolgirl and hurried off. I let out a snorting laugh at that, and again at his comment.

“According to these, I should be tall, athletic, and have an in with the local authorities. Competence with auto mechanics a plus, but not required, however a kick ass trench coat is almost de rigueur.

“Athleticism and height are not requirements for the power you wield, and why would you need an auto mechanic when we have Hugo available, hmm? However…” He gave my five-foot-three-inch, 215 pound frame the sort of visual inspection one expects from the high-end fashion designer he once was. “I think a trench coat would be most appropriate and attractive.”

“Julian, I don’t need…” I trailed off knowing it was futile. Once Julian got a design in his head there was no arguing. By next week I would have at least one trench coat that could make the court of Louis XV weep. It was his revenge for my usual mom jeans and tshirts.

I sobered. “You didn’t come to talk about my taste in reading material, or my need for long coats.”

He sighed, a soft, cold sound that raised the hairs on my arms, and probably the arms of anyone within 15 feet. He clicked his heels formally together, and held his hands out, palms down, in a formal gesture. “Your presence is requested, Arbiter.”

I placed my hands, palm up, under his. “Your request is heard and answered, Child of Shame.” I hated saying that, but proper forms must be followed. A sensation like water rushing between our palms, and then he nodded and withdrew his hands.

“Let me finish here, and get Sophi home and settled.” I grabbed another couple books off the shelf, making token protest as Julian pushed the stroller towards the checkout.

“I will bring the car at 8 then.” he informed me. I was going to argue that I could drive, but the Arbiter bond had finally clued me into something I hadn’t noticed- Julian was…scared.

“Julian, what’s so important that you found me here, instead of waiting until I was at home?”

“There has been…an incident. A murder.”

Shit.

This is, fundamentally, a fanfic of Seanan McGuire’s InCryptid stories- specifically the Aeslin Mice.  If you don’t know the Mice, hie theyself over to your favorite book source and get the InCryptid books. Go on, this will wait…

This story, however, doesn’t take place in the established InCryptid world; these are not the same mice, not the Prices…this is, I guess, an alternate universe, where another colony of mice thrives with their own deities. The High Priest walked serenely through the halls of his upstairs closet village, basking in the hum of activity all around him. Here, a group of Acolytes were learning the Catechism of the Wet Dog and Can of Paint, another group was gleefully digging through a bag of scrap fabrics and sequins- an excursion had been made to the Garbage of the Costume Lady. He gave them a pleased nod, new additions to their robes and regalia were always a reason for joy.

He paused when a cluster of playing children spotted him, and all ran over to oooh and ahh at him. One of them tugged at his robe “Did you really bite the God on his nose??” the little squeaked. Oh, they’d been telling that story in the Nursery, had they? He chuckled and patted the child on the head. “I did, for lo, even as the Gods protect and shelter us, sometimes we are called upon to provide assistance to them. Had I not bit His nose, he would have missed the Hairy Predator With Many Teeth that was trying to sneak up upon Him in His repose.” The littles all gave a fascinated “Oooohhhhh”, and then scampered back to their play when he made shooing motions at them.

All was well in their domain, if a bit quieter than was usual. The God of Axle Grease and Assorted Lubricants and His son, the God Of Unpleasant Pocket Surprises were out in the field doing Great Works. The occasion of their leaving several days earlier (on the Feast of There Will Be Waffles!) had engendered an Argument with the hugely pregnant High Priestess of Unfinished Projects- said Argument resulting in several new Pronouncements including “You Can’t Be Stealthy In The Woods When You Are Waddling And As Big As A Whale” and “Did You Just Call Me A Whale, Don’t You Dare Come Back Here Without A Whale Load Of Chocolate”.

Fortunately for the congregation, Her mood had improved greatly after the Gods had left, even to an unexpected Celebration of Cheese and Cake *and* Cookies, because She had decided she needed to do some baking.

He stopped at that thought, and twitched his whiskers in suspicion. Baking was not, normally, one of the Priestess’ skills, and was usually reserved for special occasions like Birthdays. Even then She was not often the one doing the baking.  The suspicion growing deeper, he waved a paw to one of the nearby Acolytes, sending him on an errand, while he made his way downstairs.

He skittered down a pipe into the living room, made his way across the floor into the kitchen and sat upon the counter watching his Priestess at work. There were already several dozen cookies sitting out to cool, and his nose quavered in delight at the scent of oatmeal scotchies. He cleared his small throat. Loudly. Twice.

The Priestess turned (To be fair, he thought, She is rather ungainly now…), one hand pressed against the small of Her back. “One step ahead of you, your holiness” she grinned, pointing to a plate on the counter heaped with smaller cookies, and a saucer of milk next to it.

Giving out a quiet, but enthusiastic “HAIL!”, he came over and took a cookie in each hand. He felt a momentary twinge of guilt at not alerting his acolytes right away, but getting first dibs at a warm cookie was one of the perks of being the High Priest, was it not?

It also gave him an excuse to watch his High Priestess unobtrusively. She would stir batter, pause, stir again…sometimes the pause would come with a soft groan, or both hands in the small of Her back. He was certain it was close to Her time, and She wasn’t aware of it, yet. While he wrestled with the theological implications of bringing it to Her attention (nibbling on a third cookie for insight), he heard a watery sound, followed by a very loud curse from the Priestess.

“GOD DAMMIT! NOW? NOW?!?”

Well, that solved that theological question.

She had moved from the kitchen and was now sitting on the edge of the sofa, jabbing irritatedly at Her cel phone. He finished his cookie, and drank the milk (it wouldn’t do to leave an offering half-finished, after all), and made his way over to Her, and placed one small paw on the hand that was clutching the upholstery.

“Are the Gods on their way home to you?”

“No, dammit. They’re out of cel range. They’ve got the Jeep, and an ambulance would take over an hour to get here…and raise questions. Fuunnnngggghhhhhhhh!” She trailed off as her closing epithet became a groan.

Stroking Her hand with his paw, he waited until the pain had passed. “Do not fear. You are our Priestess, and we will care for You.” Before She could ask what in the world he meant, he patted Her hand, and climbed as fast as he could back up to the colony.

The acolyte he had entrusted with duty earlier waited, with work teams sorted and waiting for assignments. The High Priest beamed with pride.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Joan had a vague sense of intense activity around her. The mice were bustling around and part of her brain really, truly wanted to ask what the hell they were up to…but that part of her brain was shunted into the background in favor of the rest of her brain trying to remember to breathe while her midsection tied itself into a giant knot.

As the contraction eased, she opened her eyes to find that the mice had…rearranged? There were older blankets and pillows on the floor in front of the sofa. There was water boiling on the stove, and two mice were using a pulley system to ladle hot water into a mug. They’d managed to stoke the fire and lay out towels, a bowl, string, and two different knives near the sofa.

Four mice hurried forward carrying a paper cup with a straw. One carefully angled the straw near her lips, and she reflexively took a drink. Ice cold apple juice hydrated her just in time for another contraction to take over her body.

It went on like this for hours. Sips of juice or tea, nibbles of crackers, small voices encouraging, soothing. Small paws carefully pushing cool washcloths across her face and along the back of her neck. There was even a group of mice on the back of the sofa with drums and rattles keeping time with her breathing- it was surprisingly helpful, for being little tiny drums. The mice walked when she walked, rested when she rested, sang to her when she cried out. They were not afraid and somehow, neither was she.

And then she was on the ground, curled over her belly as she strained, pushed, guided a small, slippery body out into the world and lifted it to her chest. She leaned back against the sofa and panted with the sudden lack of effort. Her legs shook involuntarily, and her whole body felt like half-solidified gelatin. But the baby was here. She’d done it. She, and the mice.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The Priestess of Unfinished Projects was resting, Her newborn God wrapped snuggly in her arms. She was in good spirits, even after Her many hours of birthing. Most of the colony was upstairs celebrating with cookies and milk, and a growing pile of offerings decorated the end table.

The High Priest watched the scene from his perch on Her shoulder.  Several acolytes were bustling about the room, doing their best to clean up the bloodied towels. Two were preparing more tea. A team of mice were moving the bowl of discarded placenta to someplace out of the way.

He had expressed some concern that the Priestess did not intend to consume any of the placenta, given that it was full of nutrients, and that’s what the colony mothers did… but She’d just raised an eyebrow at him and said “No. Just…ugh…no. I’ll burn it later.” Well, sometimes the divine was inscrutable.

His eye was caught by one of the acolytes pausing in their work. They wrung their paws together, as if agonizing over something…then they squared their shoulders, and scampered up the side of the sofa. He expected them to come ask some urgent (to the acolyte, at least) theological conundrum. Instead, the small mouse crept up the baby blanket, and peered at the little face intently.

Tiny whiskers quivvered. Small beady dark eyes met rounded grey ones. A chubby fist uncurled, and a finger brushed soft brown fur. A tiny paw curled around the fingertip.

“Hail!” the acolyte breathed in awe “Hail the God of Gentlest Greetings!”

The Priestess chuckled as the newly anointed High Priest sat on his God’s blanket, and started reciting important catechisms. “Start ‘em early, huh?”

The elder High Priest nodded with a contented sigh. A new God had chosen a High Priest, there were cookies, and all was right in the universe. Hail.

This is part of a much larger story that’s slowly jelling in my brain.

——
Set recording, 127.893 Chela-Sei Karden, on my mark… 

Mark. 

We were betrayed from within. 

In the end, it matters little that we never discovered who, or how, or even truly why- other than the usual reasons for war; fear, jealousy and greed. What matters is that in one moment our people were going about the daily tasks of hearth and hive, and in the next there was fire and death and terror. 

They knew it must be betrayal, even as they scrambled to find system failures, even before they heard the first shots and screams.  How else would defense systems be overridden, weaponry fail, even the boundaries to the hive chambers fall throughout the colony, all at once? 

Karden was lucky, if you can call it that. While the other hives were being slaughtered, we had warning, and time to prepare. Our hive was new enough that we’d not been integrated into the full security database- we still ran independent, and our location wasn’t widely known.  So we had a chance to reconfigure shields and change codes, a chance to take in a few terrified refugees and fleeing battalions through the transfer chamber before we went into lockdown.  

They would find us soon enough, we knew…and from the few reports getting through to us, we knew we were now the last of the Alai-sehar and our two Queens and their eggs, the hope of the species…
——
Despite being deep within the mountain, the Transfer Center rocked with the force of the bombardment above. A lone figure bent over a console, fingers in frenetic motion over the controls, watching data fly over the floor-to-ceiling panels in front of him. Over and over the panels displayed start charts, a cursor identifying and then rejecting hundreds of potential planets in seconds. He muttered curses and imprecations each time there was a flash of red, and finally rested his head in his hands.

He may have dozed for a moment, exhaustion finally winning out over vigilance, when the console started chiming insistently. He jerked awake, the wings that had hung limply over his shoulders snapping upright and buzzing irritatedly

“Right, right, sorry, didn’t meant to startle you.”

The wings settled across his back, as he slapped a button on the console to stop the chiming. Then he stared at the screen, his tired brain not really comprehending what he was seeing- There, in the upper left of the current chart, the cursor flashed green.  He blinked, stared, and then gave a gasping inhale as his mind grasped the implications of that small green beacon.  A few taps brought up statistics, details, probabilities… He stared again, and then spun around in his chair and let out a whoop that set his wings to buzzing again.

“We did it! By the silk we did it! Tell Chela-Sei! Get them down here fast!”

When the door opened to let someone in, he realized the sounds of the battle were much closer, much more immediate than he’d assumed from the rumbles in the stone above, and he watched his hive partner, Chela, stagger through the door and slump against the wall. Hearing angry voices in the distance, he scrambled to shut the door and engage the emergency security protocol. Then he knelt by her side and took her hand.

She was battered and bloody, her breath coming in short gasps. As he brushed her hair from her face, he saw that one wing was ripped in two, the usual iridescent stained with blue ichor. She opened her eyes and irritatedly waved his hand away.  “I’m fine, Denet. Just tired. And there’s more of their blood than mine.” She let out a weak laugh that became a cough, blood trickling from her mouth putting the lie to her being ‘fine’.

“You’re not fine, and neither is Sei. Hold on, I’ve got some jelar here somewhere.”  Denet went into a side room to rummage around, when he came back, she was standing at the console, staring at the screen.

“Would you sit down? Torn silk you are stubborn.” He shoved a flask into her hand “Drink this.”

Chela drank, coughed, drank again, smirked at him. “Medical grade jelar. You’ve been raiding Hawla’s infirmary again, haven’t you?”

He sat next to her, angling so that his wings could caress her tattered ones. “I grabbed it from the supplies in the transfer chamber. I figured it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have some on hand before we left.”

She pointed at the blinking green icon on the screen. “You found us something. You finally found something.”

“I did! Now we just need to get the team in here, and we can start the transfers- the system’s already identified an appropriate hive chamber, and we can…”

Her hand rested on his shoulder, and his excited ramble trailed off. “There’s no team, Denet.” She struggled to meet his blank stare. “They hit the Great Hall with a plasma charge. They’re all gone. The Counselors, the Queens, the control teams. You’re the only systems tech left.”

Denet’s mouth opened to argue, tried to deny what he was hearing, but no sound came out. He sat in aching silence and then said “Why didn’t you tell me? You could have had Sei send to Buw, at least.”

“You were working. You were focused. The cocoons had already been moved, the supplies already loaded. You were the last chance we had…and you found it.”

“But without a team…how…” His brow furrowed and one wing started to twitch. “How much time do we have?”

Chela caressed one tattered wing, listening.  “Elloet-Alv says that they can hold them of for an hour, maybe a bit more. Not two.”

A brusque nod, and he turned back to the console. “What are you…” she started to ask, but he cut her off “Shh, let me work…no, wait, go grab a couple of beacons from storage, and slot them in one and two…”

Bemused, she did what he asked. Between the effects of the jelar, and watching him in one of his so very normal working moods, she could almost forget that she was broken inside, and that her Alai was dying.

As Denet plugged in calculations and coordinates, fiddled with statistics and settings, he explained the plan to her.

“Like I said, there’s a stable cavern we can form into a hatching chamber and core of a hive- that’s where you’ll be. I have to go and deal with the one hitch in the plan.”

“What’s that?”

“The orbital period of this planet is much faster than ours, so the lifespans of the sentients there are adapted to that. To them, it’ll be generations before the cocoons are ready to open. ”

“So you’ll need to prepare them for the process.”

“Right. I’ve identified a population center I can use as a base. My lifespan will seem functionally immortal to them. Hopefully I can keep them from making me a deity. That’s always so inconvenient when some group tries to worship us.”

Chela came up beside him and put a hand on his arm. “There’s another hitch, Denet…I’m…”

He took a deep breath and looked her in the eyes. “Dying. I know. Buw could tell.” He gathered her up in his arms and held her. “You can do this, I know you can. You know enough to set the beacon, and activate the chamber sequence. The automated systems will do everything else. Record me a message, so when I bring the candidates, I can see you one last time. You and Sei can rest with the cocoons.”

A quiet sob shook her shoulders, but she smiled at him and nodded. “You’ll go through after me, then?”

“Mmmhmmm… I’ll reset the coordinates, and activate a dest…”

An explosion outside the room buckled the door, and sent down a shower of debris from the ceiling.

“No more time! You’ve got to go!” Denet pushed her towards the door of the transfer chamber and she settled in among the boxes of gear, and the carefully wrapped Alai cocoons that were their future. Denet gave her a solemn salute, and activated the transfer. As the air around her thickened and glowed she saw the door start to give way, and a bolt of fire take Denet square in the shoulder. She cried out, tried to reach for him as he slumped forward- but she couldn’t see through the brightness, and then there was nothing.