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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

Text copyright © 2018 by Finn Blackwood

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, scanning, or any information storage and retrieval system without permission in writing from the author. Exceptions are made for brief excerpts used in published reviews. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted material.

 

 

1

A STORM SIMMERS

Russia

The residents of Kambarka panicked when the old hut sprinted through their town.

According to the old babushkas who still had an inkling of memory, such a thing hadn’t happened since before the death of Comrade Stalin. Most had never been eyewitnesses themselves but merely remembered bedside tales of their own grandmothers. So when the hut leapt the river to the east and cut a path along the old rail line straight through the heart of the city, chaos ensued.

It wasn’t merely the sight of the ramshackle structure galloping on giant chicken legs that caused more than a few heart attacks, nor was it the scattered shards of human bones that fell from the porch and littered the ground in its wake. The screams were the worst part. The hut wailed like a banshee funeral procession. It got louder the longer it ran, and once, when it turned onto a dead end street and had to backtrack, it squawked so harshly all the windows within a half kilometer cracked.

But the central square was not the hut’s destination. It continued right on through and out the other side of town, past the foundry and the chemical weapons disposal plant, and disappeared into the thick forest. It didn’t have time to dilly dally. It was late.

The hut followed no visible path, nor did it need one. It had traversed this countryside for hundreds of years and knew the area like the eaves of its own porch. No one watched as it bounded across lazy streams and meadows strewn with fallen leaves and rotting logs. No one would see the bizarre footprints it left in the thin patches of morning frost lingering in shadier areas of the forest. No one ever visited this area, not for over fifty years. It used to be tales of the hideous hag, the Arch Crone, Baba Yaga, that kept people out of these woods, but the passage of time and the coming of the modern age had dismissed such stories as silly superstitions and myths. What kept all visitors away now was fear of the pustosh. The Wasteland.

Comprising several square kilometers deep in the forest, the Wasteland came with no fences or warning signs. The locals knew not to venture where the green and brown tones of the earth turned to oily yellow, amber, and violet-black. Plants and trees still grew in that part of the forest, though marred and disfigured. A sickness grew upon the land there, a cancerous boil on the once fertile soil. Aircraft avoided flying directly over it due to perpetual turbulence in the air above. Rumor had it the area had been a dumping ground for stockpiles of chemical weapons following World War II. Any fool who tried to cross it developed trouble breathing, a severe nosebleed, and a stinging, itching rash that rapidly progressed into extremely painful, pus-filled blisters. If he lingered more than a few hours, he died a grisly death.

The Wasteland’s reputation amused Baba Yaga. In truth it was her magic that infected the land and kept intruders away, but ancient lullabies about a witch in the forest no longer conjured fear in a world of shock-and-awe news and reality television. So she left it to scientists and environmentalists and social media pundits to decry the sickening stain in the forest as the product of a bygone Soviet practice. As it turned out, fear of chemical weapons was even more effective at keeping people away than fear of a mythical witch.

Baba Yaga stood in the Wasteland now, her shriveled ears attuned to the far off wails of her approaching home, awaiting its return. Her moth-eaten robe fluttered in the breeze around her bony body. She had come back to her favorite spot, a small clearing surrounded by large trees and shrubs next to a stinking bog. Patches of long grass sprouted like random tufts of wiry hair in the clearing, but most of the ground here was covered with spectacular mushrooms. The fetid water of the bog was bright orange at its center and faded through yellows and greens and blues to a rim of brackish black. Every year the dark water crept farther and farther inward, slowly causing the bright center to shrink. To Baba Yaga the bog was a great metaphor. “Even the brightest candle eventually burns out,” she often muttered to herself, and she typically enjoyed observing the progress of darkness taking over and snuffing out the light, but she was in no mood to celebrate today.

She didn’t like altering plans. The designs she had in mind to finally take what she had started here in the Wasteland and infect the entire globe were vast and deep; it was incomprehensible that an errant relic heir —a mere boy!—could threaten the entire operation. She couldn’t remember ever being so furious.

She heard the familiar WHUMP WHUMP WHUMP of large, tri-taloned feet approaching. She turned as the hut jogged out of the trees and skirted the bog, coming to a halt in the clearing a few feet away from her. It twitched and trembled from roof to foundation like a hyped up dog at its master’s approach.

“I’ve work to do!”

The hut stumbled back, cowering under her withering glare. Then it reluctantly turned around and bent to the ground. Baba Yaga now faced a solid back wall. She gave it a brief inspection, noting a few loose nails on the sideboards. Her voice bubbled harshly out of her throat as she recited the phrase to give her entry: “Hut, O hut, turn your back to the forest and your front to me!”

The hut leapt up and spun around. It stooped to the ground again, and this time a door materialized behind the rickety rails on the front porch. Before she went inside, Baba Yaga poked at the nearest toadstools with her stubby feet, prodding around until she found a cap the size of a dinner plate. She pulled it off, leaving the stem in the ground, and went to a tall box on the porch beside the front door. A few flies buzzed out as she lifted the lid. She wiped away the strands of an old cobweb and took out a tightly wound line resembling an umbilical cord. It was attached to a long spike on one end and a small three-pronged hook on the other. She inserted the spike into the stem of the decapitated mushroom and drove it deep into the moist, dark earth below. Then she hobbled inside, unwinding the cord as she went.

If the outside of the hut was terrifying, the inside was even more so. The two-story structure had only one room with a high vaulted ceiling. A very large, hollowed out boulder floated near the ceiling like a mortar with invisible wings, and it was in this flying rock that the witch slept. The sparse furniture below was all constructed of human bones. Apart from a well worn chair that looked too frail for even the witch’s spindly frame and a small hutch near the single side window, the rest was entirely kitchen. A crumbling stone oven claimed the center space. Cauldrons, kettles and sharp instruments of various kinds fought for space on the counters and the tottery table in the corner. Bone fragments littered the floor, picked clean and discarded like broken peanut shells. The thin wooden walls were unevenly stained and in dire need of a fresh coat, but not of paint. Baba Yaga had specific tastes. She preferred to bathe her home in blood.

She invoked a spell and a small fire crackled to life in the oven. Long shadows stretched and danced on the dark red walls. Pangs of hunger squirmed deep in her belly. She hadn’t eaten for several days, not since the quick bite she’d taken beside a school swimming pool—and portly old principals were not her protein of choice—but she was too troubled now to trifle with something as petty as food. She dropped into the armchair. It shuddered but held her weight. With an angry sigh she attached the three-pronged hook to the soft flesh of the rounded mushroom cap. She stared for a moment at her wizened hands, the yellowish, translucent skin wrapped around the curled and callused fingers that had taken the lives of countless men, women, and mostly children over the centuries. These hands had never known defeat. She wasn’t about to let this little setback turn into something bigger.

She turned the cap over and hissed into its soft brown gills. “Anny! Anny, you old shrew. Pick up!”

She inclined her head to the underside of the cap, listening intently. Reception on the mycelium network was always reliable, but catching her sister at home was rare.

“Anniiiiiiiis!”

For a few seconds the only sound in the room was the popping of the fire. Then the gills began to stretch open and hum. A soft chant rose from the cap, playful and teasingly lyrical. “Who calls and shrieks, who yells and begs, could it be Yaga Bony Legs?”

Baba Yaga nearly hung up. If there was one thing she hated more than her sister’s nickname for her, it was her annoying habit of speaking in rhymes. She sank her teeth into her thin, peeling lips to keep from screaming into the fungal phone. The last thing she needed was a fight with the one person who might be able to help her.

“Of course it’s me, Anny, and I’m not begging. You know full well the last time we spoke it was you calling me, seeking my assistance. Do you deny it?”

A gurgling cackle erupted from the mushroom cap, making the gills quiver. “Nay, dear sister! I won’t deny. The last we spoke, you helped I . . . or would that be me?” She cackled again. “My horrible grammar! So what’ll it be?”

“There is a problem with one of my heirs,” Baba Yaga said through clenched teeth.

“What’s that? A problem with your hair? I have an old tonic, I’m sure I could spare—”

“Not my hair, you blathering fool! My heir! One of them has defied me and . . . and . . .” She couldn’t bring herself to say it.

“So smite it! Kill it! Mash it! Bite it! Turn the little bugger to goo, like you always do.” The speaker on the other end of the fungal phone yawned lazily. “This is hardly worth my bother, dear. Now you’ve wasted your turn, I fear.”

“No, Anny! You don’t understand. He . . .” She inhaled deeply, allowing the fury inside her to feed off the intake of air and ignite until it all came blasting out. “He is beyond my reach! He has broken the magical bond, and somehow—somehow!—he has connected with those I banished! HE—IS—NO—LONGER—MINE!”

These last words burst with such force from her mouth the mushroom cap split. Her cry echoed off the walls and toppled a stack of pewter canisters on the counter. The sound faded, leaving Baba Yaga seething in the tense silence.

“Untwist your knickers and put a kettle on,” her sister’s voice said, all traces of mirth gone. “I’ll come for tea.”

 

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