Baba Yaga in the Caribbean Part Five: Short Story

The final chapter in the Baba Yaga tale, hope you’ve enjoyed it. We launched Under the Shroud this week, so once you’ve finished the strange adventure of Helmsman Theo, Buttons the Dumb Pirate, and Silvia scoot on over to the podcast and have yourself a listen!

The year crawled. They subsisted off dolls who murdered themselves. Sometimes little suicides, leaping off shelves and breaking their porcelain necks only to bleed and expose flesh. Sometimes they’d rip each other’s limbs off and roast them over campfires as big as Buttons’s feet. Never enough food to satiate the trio’s hunger. Every few months Buttons broke and killed dolls in swathes. Then he grasped a cotton infant by the throat and bashed its head. He found straw in the cloth skull. 

They sang songs at night and played word games and then conversation slowed. Theo tried to romance Silvia once. She was too weak to respond. He did not press the point. He didn’t have the strength either. Theo needed to feel alive, to give their imprisonment a pleasure. He spent a lifetime rocking to the moon’s tides.

Silvia busied herself reciting poems in her head, reiterating her spells and research. She could not reach into the earth from which her power poured. At night she dreamed of dragons, from the Far East and the Artic North and Europe’s familiar monsters. She never gave up hope that one day she’d ride a dragon to return power to harpies, though they hadn’t possessed leadership of the world since the written word. She dreamed of the day dragons burned Baba Yaga’s island.

Buttons never gave up on jokes. Even when his voice cracked with the hints of madness, he rattled limericks and cracks. He and Theo sensed Silvia’s desperation. They relied on each other for the strength to leave her alone. Theo and Buttons were goblins, and by nature they feasted on prey. They did not allow themselves that indiscretion. The companions refused to go mad. 

They did. They lost their minds. Silvia sought to mark the days and nights. She couldn’t. She couldn’t see the sun rise and set. No one mentioned in an entire year that the sea serpent escaped. Their quest came to nothing. Their prison for no crime or purpose. 

When the locks clicked open, and the door swung wide, none of the three could tell if the sun through that red pulsing globe showed fact or fiction. Buttons sneezed and held his knees to his chest. Theo pointed his sword at the open door, his grip shaking. Silvia just shut her eyes and reached for the earth that did not respond. 

The Baba Yaga carried a platter of baked pastries. Fruits shone in buttered croissants and muffins. She set a tea plate before each quaking prisoner. “Eat,” the Baba Yaga said, and though her voice showered them with a thousand tones, the crone was still a comfort. The adventurers ate. Theo drank wine from her chalice carried by the last two surviving dolls, a mother and a father with a rough straw beard. They’d spawned and slain a thousand dolls since the trio’s prison closed. 

“Helmsman Theodore, what is your quest?”

“To stand above other goblin captains.”

The Baba Yaga nodded. “Harpy, what do you ask of the Baba Yaga?”

“The return of dragons.”

 “And Buttons, midshipman, what do you take from this endeavor?”

“The best god damn adventure on the seven seas.”

Baba Yaga sighed. “Well met, companions. Now look.”

The cauldron leaned. They looked in the child’s big mouth. Inside was a pane of water and mist, reflecting myriad images. Each companion saw themselves.

Theo stood on the snout of the sea serpent. He held a long, curved scimitar and cut the eyes from the beast. It screamed in pain. He knew his old cutlass disappeared from his hand in an instant replaced with The Sword that Knows. An ancient Arabian blade that seeks the weaknesses of man and monster. The sea serpent of the Mediterranean bled from its eyes. Theo climbed over the frills of its neck and hacked and chopped its neck to bone and threads of scales. The beast had no heart to reap. 

Silvia rode a dragon. She was older, much older, and sad. Silvia always thought that day brought joy. She flew across the sky over cities that poured smoke in greased skies. The dragon spoke to her in a language she didn’t know. It tore cities apart. From the cauldron she heard the screams of men and women dying. Why did the women have to die? “Centuries hence,” the Baba Yaga whispered in her ear. “Heaven and hell can’t help you.” The Baba Yaga touched Silvia’s shoulder. The young Augurist cried. She knew her path did not falter. Silvia slayed thousands to change the world one day, and nowhere in the waters did she see success. She heard and smelled and saw the price of her crusade. 

Buttons drank from a red plastic cup even though he didn’t know what plastic was. Whiskey and wine and blood splashed his face as he saw a thousand foes fall before him shot and slashed to death. He swung from the decks of the Dread Cock Galleon, reborn with mighty sails he helmed across the oceans and all the world. He smiled at a million whores and aristocrat’s daughters, baring cracked and blackened teeth. 

“Your year is yours again. You owe me, children.” The Baba Yaga cackled.

The cabin disappeared. They sat on the green lawn, luscious grass beneath their sore asses. Silvia touched the tender blades of grass. She sent her mind into the false soil and knew they’d traveled back to the time where they began. Had they left? She didn’t know. But she held a flaming feather that did not burn her flesh in a clenched fist. 

They climbed the thin tree, never happier to stand on soil. The sun shone. They traced their steps and paddled back to the Americas. Silvia parted their company in Florida. She knew the sea serpent wasn't her prize to take. Theo shook her hand. Buttons bowed. Silvia bowed in return.
Theo killed the sea serpent, with his friend’s help. They stole a warship from the British empire and christened her in honor of their lost crewmates. They never forgot their year in the cabin. How could they fear death after imprisonment amongst the Baba Yaga’s dolls? Silvia locked herself under the Tower of London. She stared for decades at the burning feather. 

Baba Yaga in the Caribbean Part Three: Short Story

The platform stretched as far across as a galleon. Framed underneath with wooden slats, the floor they crossed onto was grass. Green, luscious grass. It struck a frightening contrast to the sky. No longer cloudy or spitting queer colored rain, now there was a dense humidity and by all appearances they’d left the earth behind altogether. A finite red surrounded them. Like they’d climbed into sea foam. They couldn't tell where the bubble ended, and the world returned. 

The Baba Yaga's infamous cabin hopped on a single chicken leg as strong and tall as any mainmast. It had a veranda of its own, and a staircase with hoofs that chased the cabin around the lawn. Whenever the chicken stood still and tipped backwards to munch grass with its rear end, the stairs galloped over to offer entry. Moments later the house squawked from no discernible mouth and ran away. The hooved stairs settled with a sigh of exhaustion and followed. 

Buttons watched this routine twice and fell over laughing. 

“Stand up,” Silvia said. Then she saw Theo chuckling. The more enterprising of the two pirates wasn’t one for extreme shows of emotion, but he chortled hard. Silvia flapped her soggy arms in disgust. Then she allowed herself a quick snicker. It was a sight. 

“The last one angered Lucifer. They’re a trial to train.”

“Oh shit!” Buttons rolled over in the grass twice and leapt to his feet, fiddling with his knives. Theo did his best to disguise his shock at the Baba Yaga’s appearance over their shoulders. Silvia had seen her and kept it to herself. 

“Do you mean the house or the stairs?” Silvia said. 

“Don’t be clever,” the Baba Yaga snapped and her tongue rolled out a foot from her face and snapped with every vowel. Silvia winced when the leathered bird-skin tongue scratch her cheeks. Her cheeks and lips wrinkled. 

“Now. Let us progress.” The Baba Yaga cartwheeled to the house. Her ragged brown cotton skirts showed maggots oozing from her legs. The cabin stopped feeding and knelt on its claws, tipped sideways. The Baba Yaga turned and beckoned the adventurers with a single knobby finger. “Come. We’ll discuss the truth.” She walked into her home though the door was parallel to the lawn. 

Silvia took off her shoes. She felt the grass blades soft and soothing against the soles of her feet. She probed outwards with her will. The soil felt wrong but she couldn’t put her finger, or toe, on it. Silvia reached into it and pulled forth more strength than should have been. A serenity overcame her. She walked towards the house.

She’d found the pirates in Fells Point, a Baltimore port. They’d let their quest to kill the sea serpent spread wide. Seeing their joined purpose, she approached them with her plan; to win the Sword that Knows from the Baba Yaga, along with a phoenix feather. She informed them that the window for success was small. The sea serpent fed in the Mediterranean for four years, a time frame which ended in a week. Then it traveled south to the Cape of Good Hope and mated with a Humpback whale. Lust satiated, the sea serpent descended to the bottom of the ocean for a hundred years. The mating season began by the time they reached the Baba Yaga’s island retreat in the Caribbean. 

The only way Silvia won the trust of the two pirates was a display of her power. Aside from her Augurist capabilities and her extensive knowledge of the bestiary, she had a talent for growth. She sprouted a sunflower from Buttons’s boot. She promised this was only a start. It was time to prove herself. 

Theo, who’d reloaded his pistol while the Baba Yaga displayed her gymnastics, held it in his left hand and his cutlass in his right. He followed Silvia, with Buttons trailing. What was next, the pirates thought. 

The house sprung arms. Six clockwork limbs cranked out. Steam hissed out of the chimney. Blades and scissors extended from wood that whirred on unseen cogs. Along the limbs were translucent tubes. Tiny fish swam the tubes like a vicious, living blood. The house crowed with a rooster's bray and advanced on the adventurers one hop at a time. 

Silvia didn’t let the pirates see her hesitation. A lump grew in her throat as architecture threatened her life. She took two more steps, getting lower to the ground with each one until she knelt and thrust her fingers into the grass. Silvia activated the growth. Out of the ground sprung three saplings. They surrounded the house, growing ten feet in an instant. Silvia flashed her teeth. On the ground, drawing from the planet, she could have summoned a single willow. The boundless energy of this place filled her, and those saplings grew further with every moment. Was that why the Baba Yaga ignored her? Did she fear another Augurist in her realm? No, that couldn’t be it.

The arms of the house hacked at the growing willows, chopping them as they grew. Silvia could tell that her efforts were a distraction. She refocused her energy. Instead of trying to box the house in, she shot bolts of energy into the soil. The trees grew and then, once the shock of energy faded, they’d die of their own accord. The house didn’t know and met each sapling with total fury.

“I can’t do this forever,” Silvia said. She didn’t look back at the pirates’ shocked expressions. Theo thanked his stars they brought the harpy. He charged. Buttons followed, drawing twin long daggers. He fell behind but made up for it with bellows of rage. 

“Mast, madam,” Theo shouted. Silvia understood and angled a blast of focus just in front of the house. She let the influence simmer in her palm, slowing the onslaught to gather enough energy for an effective shot. The house bounded forward. Theo gritted his teeth but kept on loping forward. He flipped his weapons underhand, so they hooked. 

Silvia released the bolt. A sapling sprung tall and true. As it shot up, Theo leapt and hooked the barrel of his pistol and blade of his cutlass around branches as they propelled him upwards. The pumping arms and blades of the house hacked at the willow. The chimney snorted a frustrated cloud of steam. In seconds, the tree splintered. 

Theo kicked off the falling “mast,” shouted “Timber!” He landed on the shingled roof of the house, slipping before he found his feet. He danced across slate to the chimney and held fast. 

The house bucked. It hopped and shook. The chimney spat flame, not steam, and the house screamed. Theo gripped clay bricks. He hugged the chimney close. This part wasn’t going as planned. If the house kept this up, he’d fly off and might even hit that red bubble out there surrounding them.

Buttons wasn’t sure how to help. Acrobatics were not his forte. Five out of six arms kept up their assault on the saplings. The house kicked and leapt to free itself of Theo. One arm tracked Buttons’s every step. It had a hedge trimmer for fingers. It reached and snipped Buttons. He stayed out of reach but dodged saplings as much as the trimmer. A willow caught him in the crotch and he toppled. He veered from the trimmer, cursing the harpy's hide. 

“What the hell do I do?” The hedge trimmer got close, and he stabbed. He hit the tube through which flowed those big-lipped fish. He didn’t puncture the tube, but he put a dent in it. The house recoiled, giving Buttons an idea. “Theo, kill the fish!”

“Understood.” Theo was losing his grip. He caught sight of a lazy arm that wasn’t hacking as fast as the others. The next time the house bucked, he let the momentum throw him. Theo caught the lazy arm, with a spinning toothed blade at the end on a spindle. He held on with the crook of his right arm, his hand still grasping his cutlass. Theo kicked and swung his lower half to hold onto the arm with his legs. The cogs bit into his muscles but this gave him autonomy with his arms. He crossed his heels and hung upside-down. “Stairs.”

Buttons took his meaning and took off towards the hooved stairs. 

Throughout the battle, the staircase had been laughing at them. It whinnied and danced outside Silvia’s growing and dying forest. Buttons hadn’t seen it’s horsehair tail. He stuck one dagger in his belt, dropped the other, and dove for the long tail. He snagged it and wrapped a tuft of hair around his wrist.

Silvia was running out of steam. She drew most of the energy she needed from the ground, but she supplied the focus. The snake-pigeon bites, so light as to have scabbed, sprung open anew. She felt blood pouring from a dozen holes. “Finish it, gentlemen,” she said. A dozen willows and she’d be collapse. 

As loud as the cranks and steam of the house were, they weren’t black powder. Theo shot the tube, and the echo reverberated off the bubble. The tube opened and fishes fell to the grass, swimming upwards as they dropped as if to climb back. The chimney yelped, and the arm swung. Theo released with his legs, tumbling onto another arm. He’d ditched his pistol as soon as he fired leaving him a free hand. He gave up any semblance of panache and chopped at the newest tube as he would lumber. It took four cuts before the house’s vein popped open and more fishes poured out. 

The remaining four arms zoned in on Theo. He dropped to the ground. The trees had stopped altogether. Theo had a thought. As the other arms got close, he tucked his chin and rolled, taking a gamble they wouldn’t redirect to catch him. He came up underneath the house, next to the singular chicken leg. 

Rather than attack the only animal limb, he petted it. Stroked the leathery chicken skin. The arms, disconnected from the leg, stretched underneath but couldn’t reach Theo. He hummed a shanty to the leg, stroking, petting. The chimney purred. The chicken knee bent, and the house settled. Theo saw the floor of the house descending. He kept on petting and humming. With his spare hand, he pulled a cigarette from amongst his dreads. Then a match. Then a small, sticky ball of resin. He lit the smoke first and then held the match to the resin. The floor got closer and closer as the knee bent. The resin sparked.

Theo threw the ball, only as wide around as his thumb, up at the floor. It stuck. It was the pirate’s turn to exert his will. Goblin Ray Rocks have many properties, and they work best when a good goblin boy taps into their heat. This was the skill that made him the youngest helmsman in all the seven seas. The resin blasted and blew out the cabin floor. Theo pulled on the chicken knee and climbed into the Baba Yaga’s house. 

Baba Yaga in the Caribbean Part Two: Short Story

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?” 

“Tired, Buttons?”

“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. 

Baba Yaga in the Caribbean Part One: Short Story

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?”

“Yes, miss.”