They passed through the dilapidated cabins and stilted homes of a Caribbean Village. The island once housed a trading post, or a corsair’s hideout, or maybe just settlers. From the rot, Theo guessed no one drew breath here in a hundred years. He saw crosses painted on walls in a brown red that might have been blood. Whatever plague took those men back there to their first graves must have driven them mad. Or else the Baba Yaga enjoyed the symbols of the fallen Christ. There was no telling what entertained that mightiest of crones.
It wasn’t a large island, but the grove at its center made up for its size with foliage, more verdant for the stench of death that lurked outside the tree line. Theo hacked through vines, leading their party at the behest of Harpy and head. He followed the disembodied directions to the letter, avoiding quick sand that begged them aloud to step and be food, “So soft, so tender,” the sands pleaded. Buttons took up the rear, keeping track of every passing mosquito and killing as many as he could. He kept count.
Most folks underestimated Buttons. He seemed another drunk, and a loud one making up for his fat belly and short stature with crude language and boasts of flatulence. His curly hair came from his Scottish heritage though he grew up on the Chesapeake Bay. One of the few who chose the goblin life. He’d taken ship with a smuggler and traded up crews till he’d joined Theo and the others of the Dread Cock Galleon. No aspirations of leadership in Buttons. He only sought blood and drink and a woman’s nectar. A perfect pirate’s mate. As soon as he earned the title of Captain, Theo would appoint the little man his Quartermaster.
Before the sea serpent attacked, Theo trained Buttons in the arcane practice of helmsman, a profession that required mastery of Ray Rocks and Ray Tar. Theo earned a reputation as the youngest goblin to master the art. A helmsman focused and ignited the tar that coated goblin sails, heating them to bring wind in dead seas. Too cold and the coal soured. Too hot and the sails ignited. Buttons worshipped Theo's bravado and skill.
They were the only survivors of a sea serpent’s attack. Pure luck saved them. The battle went down in legend, but another legend. This one is about the Baba Yaga.
Theo and Buttons struck their agreement on that beach in Spain. Theo swore to kill the beast. He told Buttons that revenge was only a selling point for the story. The point of the quest was earning infamy, so Theo could take his own ship with a reputation in place. He offered Buttons an easy, cushioned spot at his side as long as they sailed if the fat little man helped. Buttons knew a good deal when he saw one. He’d have followed the swashbuckler anywhere, regardless. They met Silvia later, in the Chesapeake.
The mosquitoes did not bite their Harpy companion. Instead they hovered a hand’s length from her head, a buzzing halo. It was not so foul as you’d think. They payed their respects. For a moment, Theo respected her, too. She was strong, underneath the arrogance. And they’d need all the strength they could get.
The head directed them into a clearing. In the center grew an unbelievable tree. It was as thick as Theo’s trigger finger. The roots stretched like snakes tumbling over each other and Theo saw they were, in fact, snakes. The serpents’ heads sucked at the earth, gobbling the life from soil and choking it down their throats to feed the thin trunk that extended skyward. No matter the slenderness of the tree; it grew a thousand feet. Following the height, Theo wondered where that burning flash in the sky had gone. Had it flown back to its mistress, he wondered.
Pop! and a branch sprung out from the trunk. Pop! Pop! Pop-pop-pop, like pines cracking under the weight of rain and wind, they slid out at foot-and-a-half intervals. An invitation to climb into the fog, to ascend to Baba Yaga’s hut. All three companions looked at each other and for the first time since they’d met in a Baltimore tavern, since their voyage down the coast and around the Florida archipelago, down to this island secreted away from prying eyes, for the first time fear brought them together.
“What fresh hell is this,” Buttons said.
“This is the Lady’s Castle. Or you know. That’s her house up there.” The head broke out in goose bumps, terrifying by itself. “I don’t suppose you’ll need me?”
“Servant, you have done well,” Silvia said. “We-”
Theo pulled the trigger, and the head erupted into a scalp and bits. Silvia gulped. Theo chuckled and reloaded.
“What would you have done, Miss? Leave his head a doorstop for eternity?”
The Baba Yaga cackled and screamed again from the mists. Buttons ducked then tried to look casual. Theo grimaced. He wasn’t a coward, he reminded himself.
“Now let’s climb.” He tucked the pistol and stretched and cracked his neck as Buttons giggled and tossed the scalp over his shoulder.
They climbed, Theo once again in the lead. Silvia shed her petticoats and with fancy twine work tied back her skirts to mount the tree. She gave Buttons a look, clarifying that while she might not see him, he would suffer for taking advantage of his viewpoint. Buttons’s return grin assured her he’d look anywhere he damn pleased. The mists chilled to the bone, and the sweat on their flesh went cold and their wet clothes grew slimy. It wasn’t just water in the air; a substance like the slick on the backs of tree frogs floated around and clung to the adventurers.
Silvia peered around for the Phoenix. Her plan rested on the deathless bird. The sword stood at the top of the list, but once the sea serpent fell, she’d need a feather. Or tears. The precise nature of the Phoenix’s healing powers wasn’t evident. One of many holes in her plan. As it stood after they left the island the pirates would slay the monster from the deep. She’d cut out its heart, with her own hands, and then keep it beating with the power of the Phoenix. Sea serpents and dragons must be kin. At the least the heart of such a creature possessed a power worth harnessing. So long as she kept it alive. Which relied, again, on the singular flaming bird.
Higher. Higher. The thin tree and even thinner branches swayed and bent underneath though the trunk anchored at both ends. As if whatever waited above pulled the tree straight. The ground disappeared from sight into the fog.
“You want a break, Theo?”
“Not a chance.” The self-proclaimed Dumb Pirate looked downwards. “Are we sure she’s up there? Air’s getting thin.”
A vine reached from above and in moldering parody of Titania’s nest she descended. Moss, mushrooms, and slugs. They held no comparison to the magnificent horror of the Baba Yaga’s face. Her nose dipped low. The sockets of her eyes hollowed deep into her face while still sporting bulbous irises. She wore a skull top hat. Her mouth writhed like the denizens of her nest. She tapped a beat with a knotted finger and beetles whispered a lullaby.
“Welcome guests,” the Baba Yaga said. Her voice harmonized with itself, sounding like every woman’s ancestors screamed for release from somewhere inside the sorceress. In amongst those voices was a mother cooing to her child, an Irish lass shedding her maidenhead, and the old crone boiling children. “You’ve bested my Loyalists. Shame, shame.”
Theo perched on a branch, balancing on the balls of feet with only one hand gripping the trunk. He bowed, daring balance. “Madam Baba Yaga. Your slave, Helmsman Theo of the Caribbean.”
“But you’re not of this place, are you young Theodore? You are a child of the future.” She cackled and Buttons pissed down his leg. Silvia thought the crone's talk of the future applied to her as well as the corsair. The Baba Yaga glanced at her. “All men are my slaves. Do not give what is mine. Who are your companions?”
Buttons jumped his turn in the introductions. Still clinging to the trunk, now with both legs tucked around, he said: “Buttons the Dumb Pirate. I suppose if I’ll serve anybody you’re not so bad.” He spat. “You’re the most bad and that’s just fine by old Buttons.”
The Baba Yaga nodded. “Be careful little man. I’ll add you to my collection. My harem. Would you enjoy that, little man?” The vine suspending her nest struck forward like a copperhead and she leered inches from Buttons’s face.
He considered. “I’ve had worse.”
“He’s not kidding,” Theo said.
“You would taste… vicious.”
“Ahem!” Silvia dipped her brow to the Baba Yaga. “Silvia of Fair-corn. I accompany these adventurers for study. The world possesses no greater wonder than the Baba…”
“Three tests. That is traditional, is it not, Theodore?” Her nest pulled back into the fog, spinning like flower petals in a creek.
“As you say.”
Silvia didn’t like this one bit. They were kin, both harpies however distant the family tree, and she expected an ounce of respect. She coughed again, but no one paid her any mind.
“And what would you earn for your tests? Do you seek my bed, Theodore? Have your human, Harpy, and titanic whores grown dull?” She winked and Buttons's pulse raced. No matter her age and shifting skin, ready to fall off her bones, there was an indescribable allure to the old crone. Her heaving, pasty bosom, her confidence.
“A sword. I seek the Blade that Knows.”
The nest twisted farther out.
“What if I don’t have it?”
“The Baba Yaga hordes whatsoever she desires.”
“You’re good at this, Theo!”
“Thank you, Buttons.”
“What if I keep it? If I won't release the blade? Not for any test?”
“Then I master your challenges for my pride.”
Silvia wished they conferred atop the tree. She felt ignored.
“And what if you pass my tests, and I gift you this blade? What then?”
Theo raised his chin. “That’s my business, mighty Baba Yaga.”
“Um!” Buttons said. “Didn’t we pass a test? The dead fellas in the village, killed them again. That counted for something, right?”
The Baba Yaga howled with joy. “Well met, Theodore. I hope to see you soon.” She vanished as the vine retracted skyward.
Theo waited. The fog didn’t change. The branches held steady.
“Nice!” Buttons said. “The tree’s the first one! This is a damn breeze!”
Silvia couldn’t help but agree with him. “Let’s go.”
Lightning cracked without thunder. In the flash, they saw wings. Pairs of wings fluttered and swooped out there. Rain fell. The wings circled on all sides. Theo leaned out and the trunk bent. The wind picked up; the wings thrived in the gale.
“Can we finish this?” Silvia said. Even with her garments strapped into place for movement, they weighed a great deal when soaked. With the rain pelting she grew more frightened by the moment.
Theo drew his pistol and kept climbing one-handed, hopping up the branches as any skilled seamen can. Silvia and Buttons followed and kept an eye on the wings.
Ten rungs up, when Buttons passed the point where Theo greeted the Baba Yaga, they struck. Theo was waiting. He got off a good shot, which the wings ducked. That gave Theo pause. He’d seen beasts take a bullet and keep moving, never seen one fly aside easy as a loose rope. Buttons and Silvia could only stare at the assailants.
They weren’t wings, and they weren't birds. Snakes. Snakes that could fly. Buttons thought, how do they land? before they struck. Quick bites and then they swooped away.
“Ow!” Buttons said. “What in the hell, wasn’t climbing the test?”
Theo jammed his pistol in his belt. Firearms wouldn’t help. He pulled a short knife. Sharpened daily for cutting cords in an emergency on deck. His cutlass only hindered up here. If he swung anything that heavy, it’d take him right off the branches. He smiled. It wasn’t worth climbing a second time.
“Come on,” he said.
“But those… things!” Silvia searched for a name for the bird-snakes. They bore a pigeon’s plumage. This was her expertise, knowledge of creatures far and wide, their weaknesses. She’d seen nothing like these. She wondered if the Baba Yaga had sensed or divined or just plain read their damned minds. Was this a coy joke? “Kill them, Theo.”
“I doubt it.” The bites weren’t deep. They stung in the rain. Whatever was in the weather, the sorceress had added her own cocktail, sea water only worse. Theo recalled, as he often did, the face that murdered his family. There wasn't room there for weakness. He often saw that dead man when he shut out pain. He kept climbing.
Silvia took a small piece of linen, as soaked as the rest of her, and wrapped it around the bite on her elbow. Buttons fidgeted. He wasn’t eager to continue, but he didn’t favor getting stuck underneath the weakest link in their chain.
Two rungs higher on the tree, another snake-pigeon bit Theo. It got him before he even saw it. Another two rungs higher, it struck again. This time he swung with his knife. He came nowhere close. His blood mixed with yellow-green rain drops. He rubbed his shoulder blade. “We’re not taking these things out.” He felt the branches where they sprung out from the trunk. They were going soft. “I don’t think we want to stay here. These won’t last forever.”
“Oh hell no. Lady, move it.” Buttons shoved one of Silvia’s heels. It slipped and Silvia squeaked. “I will throw your pretty ass off of here. Move! Ow, God damn it!” Another snake-pigeon nipped him.
Silvia reached up and had just grasped the next rung when the one under her left foot snapped and bounced off Buttons’s head. A snake-pigeon bit through her chemise. They didn’t pierce far into the skin, but clothing provided no deterrent. She winced but pushed through, finding her own place of solace. Where Theo imagined the face of his parents’ killer, Silvia went within to her breath. The source to which she drew water.
Buttons bitched and whined. He enjoyed the bites. Made him feel alive. A big part of that mentality was shouting, “Owie!” and “Shit!” with each bite.
Thirty feet up, growing exhausted from the climb, the rungs fell with alarming frequency. Buttons had it the worst since he had his own weakening branches to contend with and those his fellows tore free. The snake-pigeons took no pleasure in their torture, but they kept up at a regular rate.
A platform appeared. The fog broke and something like sunshine shone through a hole. A trap door. They quickened the pace. The snake-pigeons gave up their attacks, flew up to the platform. The companions wondered if they waited at the top to renew the challenge. Or if they’d be back for a later test. None spoke the concern.