Another short story written for a submission call. The task was Baba Yaga. Apparently I crossed too many genres. Will release in segments over the next month.
Before releasing the leash, the Baba Yaga cackled. So often her role got pushed aside as the stepping stone to the next adventure. This time she played center stage. She kissed fire and sent her companion aloft to watch the battle.
Theo thought it must have been an arrow dipped in pitch. It shot up from the center of the island and darted towards the fight. It didn’t stop, just grew and then hung in the air. A hazy flicker that pulsed like an oiled heartbeat. The flickers beat the air, like wings. That must be the beast. One of two prizes in sight.
Helmsman Theo yanked his cutlass out of a twice dead man’s chest. No time to let lights in the sky distract him. He side-stepped a wooden maul. The tool was for pounding pegs. Theo was not a peg.
He chucked his cutlass at another dead man rushing up from between the rotten bungalows. The blade caught the shambling corpse in his cheek, shearing grey flesh and a chunk of bone. The dead man grunted and kept on walking, but taking him down hadn’t been the point. When the deceased dug out of the grave, they didn’t bring much of their minds with them. The one with the hammer watched the cutlass fly. Theo stepped in, leading with his elbow. Hammer-boy’s nose snapped on its way up and into the brain. Theo pulled the trigger on his second of three flintlocks. The rest of the other dead man’s face blew apart spreading maggots and curled hairs across the beach.
“You still there, Buttons?” Theo shouted.
“Aye-aye!” The little man howled and stomped with both feet on a Loyalist’s rib cage. Loyalist was the proper term for the dead men. The term got started by a sorcerer thousands of years ago. He claimed they came back to life so they might serve even in death. Theo hadn’t been there. He was only forty, young for a goblin, and young for the World of Wonder. Maybe they rose to serve. In his experience, no one was that loyal. Maybe they returned hungry for lives worth living and taking.
These Loyalists weren't hungry, just confused bodies unsure why their souls raised their sails. The ones they first glimpsed on the beach hadn’t even thought to fight until the Baba Yaga shrieked at them from deep within the jungle. The Loyalists chiseled wood into cogs and wheels or braided thin ropes. One, the leader and the first to die (again) held the key to their activities; he carved a marionette. Dead men building clockwork children. Baba Yaga didn’t disappoint her reputation for strange horrors.
They came for a sword. There were other reasons, but the sword stood foremost, he thought. A sea serpent in the Atlantic took Theo’s crew to the depths. Vengeance required a mythic blade. Silvia, the harpy they met in Italy, claimed the Baba Yaga had such a sword. She thought the Baba Yaga might part with the blade if they played her game. A game that could kill them. The Baba Yaga’s powers were vast. They changed over the years she passed through like blades of grass. That’s what Silvia believed.
“You living large sailor?” Theo turned in a circle. Where were the rest of the Loyalists? Theo glared into the fog that covered the whole damned island. Where had the Harpy gone? She was their magic defense against the world’s first Sorceress.
“Like killing rats!” Buttons swung a hammer like a polo mallet, knocked the scalp off a Loyalist who ended at his knees. “This all of them? Thought the crone had more muscle.”
“This is piddling shit,” Theo said. “She’s an ancient. There’ll be tests.”
“So says the harpy. Where is the harpy?”
“She likes it when we use her name.”
“She’s a rancid, stuck up… Ooh!” Buttons pointed out a bean pole of a Loyalist, staring at the remains of his companions. “Come here, rat!”
The diminutive goblin, only ten years grown from a mere human cabin boy, tore off across the sand and rocks. He giggled as he whipped the maul over his head in a circle. “Ratty-ratty-ratty rat!”
The bean pole Loyalist’s eyebrows jumped up on his skull and fell. They fluttered to the ash-covered earth. He turned to run, but Buttons took his knees out from under him. He kept on crawling even as the hammer took his right shoulder, then his coccyx, then the fingers on each hand. Buttons severed and lifted the squawking head to eye level. “Hello little ratty rat. Bad day?”
The Loyalist frowned. “No.”
“Buttons! Hold!” Theo said. A talker. They could use that. Most Loyalists came back without their words. Chances were he wouldn’t be too helpful, but there was always a hope he’d reveal a thing or two about Baba Yaga’s defenses.
“Yes. Hold.” Silvia stepped out of the mists. “Present him.”
Theo gave the slim Harpy his best pirate grin. He couldn’t let her entrance steal the scene. Theo was a man built for the trade of charm and fear and conquest.
Theo learned to smile from the first goblin he’d met. Just another carpenter’s mate who hadn’t lived through that night. He’d ransacked Theo’s town with his crew for a laugh one evening in April thirty years hence. When he set fire to Theo’s hutch with his white mother and black-skinned father still inside he’d turned to little Theo and with one look taught the boy everything there was to learn about life. And that wasn’t much.
Since then Theo earned the sunburn that graced a goblin’s body, lost his humanity, and killed over a hundred men. He was tall, and svelte, and wore his tar-stained shirt open to make sure the world knew. He eyed the Harpy through tangled dreadlocks.
Silvia was too tall for a woman. Silvia was a harpy. What’s more she was an Augurist, a sorceress who could draw from the earth the Aqua Vitae that fueled the World of Wonder that lives in the cracks between what we know. She had the lady parts that men adore, but tucked beneath her shimmering skin that was almost blue grew something more and terrible. She bore the face of an aristocrat.
“Goodman,” she said as she approached Buttons and the Loyalist’s head. The little pirate held the head aloft. Silvia did not acknowledge the curly haired goblin’s respect. She liked neither of the pirates. She acknowledged their utility and admired their love of a good fight. That was as far as it went. “Where is your mistress? Tell me.”
A wisp of steam extended from Silvia’s fingers, liquid and air bound by her will and blood. Tendrils like a squid’s many limbs surrounded the Loyalist’s jaw and ears and his broken nose. The head twitched and shook, rocking back and forth in Buttons’s hand, shaking to escape the steam.
“She awaits, miss. Please don’t. Don’t witch me. I want to sleep, miss.”
Silvia licked her lips. She hated that language. Her quest sought to end those fears and hatreds and bring a time when men and dead didn’t hate the harpy people. Silvia understood the fear; she'd replace it with respect if it took centuries. Instead of reprimanding the head, she said, “Then lead the way, and your service will end in peace.”
“Can’t lead anything, now can he?” Buttons said. “He’s got no legs.”
Theo gathered his cutlass, tucked it into the sash around his waist. Baba Yaga had either ceased her ranting or lowered her voice below the heave of the tide. Theo peered again into the fog. “Think he’s lying?”
“He wouldn’t dare, would you my dear friend?” Silvia’s voice cut like a garrote drawn from silk.
“Then you take him.” Buttons swung the head by the pony tail and pitched it at Silvia’s feet. “Slimy little fucker.”
Silvia winced as the head bounced off gravel without complaint and rolled up to the hem of her blue and grey dress. She stepped back, forced calm in her delicate jawline. “Thank you, no. Are you not the cabin boy here? Theo, reign in your servant.”
“Buttons isn’t a servant, miss.” Theo leaned to look the Loyalist in the eye. “Now, I don't have the harpy’s water works, but I'll make dying last a long while. Give the lady directions.” He stood up and set to reloading his flintlock pistols. “Buttons? Be a dear. Carry the head.”
“It’d be a hell of a lot funnier if the lady carried him,” Buttons grumbled.
“None of that when we get to the house, neither. I do the talking.” Theo glanced at Silvia as he jammed black powder down the barrel of his favored pistol. “Me.”
The harpy rolled her eyes. She knew the plan. It was her plan. They lived in an age of exploration. An exciting age for a young sorceress. Her gambit was to bring harpies out of the shadows. For centuries they ensured nobles and knights didn’t overpower the World of Wonder. They pulled strings and watched men dance and laughed at their fumbled steps. Silvia admired her elders in the enclave. She was ready to take her place amongst them. She was not willing to wait her turn. Silvia had gone off alone on this crusade, and allied herself with the worst of men, and couldn’t return without absolute success.
Her goal was to bring back the most powerful allies the women of the World of Wonder ever possessed. The Dragons. She had only the slightest idea how, but it was as much knowledge as any Harpy had possessed since St. George, that thrice cursed bastard.
Silvia wasn’t used to operating on the ground, to seeing a plan through with her own eyes. She’d hoped for a lark. Instead it stunk. She only hoped that flame in the sky was the deathless bird. She said a silent prayer they’d come to the right place. That they’d make it in time. And that the Baba Yaga didn’t eat them whole.
“I will do my best to keep out from underfoot. You keep to your script and I see no need to correct your course.” Silvia sniffed. “Loyalist?”