I, of course, found it decidedly unpleasant to flee my home, but Reila was more than understanding. She not only allowed me to take contracts out of her shop, but she actually welcomed it.
I spent a great deal of time working behind her desk while she was away on a contract. During one such time a rather large man with a physique that suggested a lifetime heavy lifting walked through the door with a distraught expression on his countenance. He took a staggered step as soon as he caught sight of me, “Where’s Reila?”
“She’s away on a contract, currently. If you had business to discuss with her, I am quite capable of handling it. If your interests are social, I’m sorry but I don’t know when she’ll return.”
The man paused and looked at the door, as if considering escape, “Well, it’s sort of… both. You see, my name is Drom and…”
When the man trailed off, I replied, “She’s spoken of you. It’s clear she cares for you very deeply.”
I very clearly interrupted the man’s thoughts, “Well yes and… I’m sorry, but who are you?”
“Forgive me, I don’t normally forget my courtesy in such a way. My name is Evit Merriman.”
He nodded in recognition, “Reila’s told me about you. She thinks very highly of you, at that. Thing is I—”
“—thought I’d be taller. Yes, I’m sure. What is troubling you, sir?”
The man took a brief moment to put his thoughts together before answering. “You see… my brother Rall and I run a nearby lumber mill, the finest wood in a couple hundred miles. Well, to keep it that way my brother does some… prospecting, I guess.”
“And he went missing on one such excursion,” I predicted, using my wealth of experience.
Despondent, he nodded.
I considered my response before answering, “I will help you, as a favour for Reila.
“Thank you so much! Uh… how much would that cost me, anyway?”
I let out a light chuckle. “I could hardly charge for such a contract. Your lady love wouldn’t be able to forgive me if I did, and I very much want to avoid provoking her wrath.”
A small smirk crossed Drom’s face, despite himself. “Thanks again, I mean it. We should go right now.” After he turned to leave, he quickly turned back as if he forgot something, “Oh, I should say, he shouldn’t be too hard to identify. He’s a half-man—an unworthy term for him.”
“Don’t worry, if it’s within my power I will find him.” I closed the curtains according to my friend’s custom and followed her lover outside. As we started walking through the idyllic town of Handervelt, a light snow fell over the hamlet, creating a scene of incredible beauty. It was a worthy distraction from the troubles I
left in my home in the city.
My client also made an attempt to distract his mind, although his chosen diversion was conversation. His tone made that tactic inescapably clear. “So… how do you know Reila?”
“I’m certain she once told you that she was once a trick shooter in a travelling carnival?”
“Yes, I could hardly believe she was an entertainer until I saw her shoot. It’s an incredible sight.”
“Did she also tell you how she obtained the scar on her neck?” I pulled down the collar on my coat, “The one that looks very much like this one?”
He studied it with a great deal of intensity, “No, she hasn’t. What leaves a mark like that?”
“It is rather distinctive, is it not? It, as well as Reila’s were the
work of vampires.”
The man’s eyes grew wide in absolute astonishment, “Vampires? Truly?”
“Indeed. She was attacked after one performance. Her troupe realised the danger to her, that she would become one of those foul creatures in death, and they pooled their funding to hire me.”
“And she was so impressed with you that she wanted to do what you do?”
I laughed in response, quite possibly harder than was appropriate, “It would be more accurate to say that the opposite is true. She was actually able to shoot the vampire without first catching it unaware, a feat I hadn’t seen before or since. She saved my life, so I offered to take her on as an apprentice of sorts.”
“Knowing her, I’m sure she jumped at the chance.”
“She was not yet the woman you know. Despite her frightening levels of competency, she was stricken with doubt. Even as her fellow entertainers left, she remained in Blackwatch for nearly a year before she decided to accept my offer.”
Drom shook his head in stunned disbelief, “I can’t picture that. It’s like… the sky being purple, or something.”
“That is why I said she was a far different woman.”
While I was speaking, we reached a sawmill on the edge of town. A series of carts bearing heavy loads of lumber came from a small trail consisting only of the tracks made by the wagon wheels. A company of laborers flanked the shipment.
Their boss called out to them in an awkward, uncomfortable voice. He was clearly a man unaccustomed to giving orders. “What… what are
None of the men stopped except one old, but muscular man with a thick white beard. He answered the much younger man in an authoritative voice with a northern accent, “What’s it look like we’re doing, lad? We’re getting work done, we are.”
“I told you that no one goes out there until my brother is found. I don’t want to lose anyone else.”
The foreman gestured widely and raised his voice in frustration. “In case you haven’t noticed, it’s winter out here. The boys need the work so they can afford to feed their families. Otherwise, babes’ll starve.”
My client sighed heavily, “I know that, but they’d be dead if whatever got to Rall gets them, too. Those families won’t be able to get by without them.”
“I thought you were getting that lass o’ yours on it. What happened to that?”
I took that invitation to interject myself into the conversation. “She was sadly unable to assist. I, however, am more than capable of handling the situation. I also agree with your employer’s assessment.”
The old man turned all his emotion towards me, “Oh, is that so? Who might you be, and why would I listen to you?”
I gave a short, courteous bow despite his anger, “Evit Merriman, expert witch hunter. Those are fine axes you’re carrying, steel if I’m not mistaken.”
The elderly man’s visage seemed to take on an aspect of confusion in addition to the frustration that was already present. “Aye… I don’t see what bearing that has, though.”
“Are you aware that a spriggan—a constant danger for loggers, as I’m sure a man of your experience would know—are only harmed by p
ure iron. I don’t suppose you have any suitable weapons?” If anything, the man’s anger only grew, “Now hold on a minute, lad! I’ve been cutting on trees for almost forty years and I’ve never seen a hint of a spriggan.”
“I’ve been practicing my profession for nearly eight years, and I have encountered nearly a dozen. This world is far larger than either of our meagre experiences.”
The man sighed heavily. “Maybe there’re spriggans out there, maybe not. It really doesn’t matter; we’ll be out there either way.”
My client spoke up once again, seemingly empowered by
my support, “I’ve told you to stay away from the forest while Rall is missing, and I’m in charge while he’s gone.”
The foreman simply said, “The lumber’ll be processed. We’ll be expecting a day’s payment when we’re done.” He didn’t wait for a response from his employer, but instead left the two of us standing at the edge of town.
Drom hesitantly told me, “If it’s not clear, my brother’s the one who runs the mill. I don’t just want you to find him. I need you to find him.”
“Find him I shall. Do you have a place to start my search?”
The man nodded in the other direction from the trail his men travelled, “He was performing a survey that way. It’s been three days now.”
“Does he often perform these surveys?”
“Yes, it helps ensure the quality of the lumber. He’s never been gone for days before, though.”
I nodded distantly, locked in careful consideration, “Is there anything you could tell me that would assist in picking up his trail?”
“He needs to strip a small section of bark to check on the wood. He does it every likely looking tree, every fifth or sixth or so.”
I nodded once again, that time in confirmation, “There’s no reason to delay, then. I will find you when I have word.”
He sighed as if a great weight were lifted off his shoulders. I deduced that he expected he would have to accompany me. “Yes sir. I’ll be at the mill when you get back. Good luck, sir.”
I chuckled, “Hopefully, I won’t need such desperate measures.”
The woodcutter’s expression changed to one of co
nfusion, disarmed by his lack of a response. I left my client in such a state and made my way in the indicated direction.
The conditions were simultaneously fortunate and unfortunate. The fresh snow rendered new tracks plainly visible, but buried older ones. The trail was, however rather easy to follow, owing to the bare patches on the trees.
During my search I looked diligently for signs of life, a task that proved rather easy. Even in the chill of early winter, the forest teemed with life. Birds of all types flew through the trees, rabbits crossed the trail, and a stag ran through the frozen undergrowth.
I was, however, searching for less benevolent forms of wildlife, natural or otherwise. The bears were already in the grips of their deep hibernation, but the wolves, spriggans, and tigers were still very much active. I did find a set of distinctly canine tracks in pursuit of a stag’s, all mostly covered by the snow. It wasn’t very threatening, but it was enough for me to draw my weapon. Luckily, I didn’t run afoul of the wolf pack that left those tracks.
Unfortunately, I was so focused on the trail that I didn’t take notice of what lurked behind me. A low growl turned my attention in that direction, where I saw a tiger prowling, ready to pounce. Its protruding fangs seemed to gleam menacingly, like daggers. A second growl revealed the rest of its teeth, which I imagined around my throat in spite of myself.
I backed away from the beast and took aim while it padded its way towards me. My finger had begun to pull the trigger when it suddenly let out a whimper and fled in the other direction. Even my typical presence of mi
nd faltered at such a development. I couldn’t determine why it would behave in such a manner. Surely, I reasoned, it wouldn’t know enough to be intimidated by my firearm.
I turned around to witness the source of my salvation but didn’t see anything readily apparent. I moved slowly forward with my weapon at the ready, very quickly catching an uncertain glimpse of a man-made structure. I bent down were I stood and brushed away the fresh snow. I saw the three-day-old boot prints, smaller even than my own going in that direction, but saw no other signs of human activity.
I continued on my way, even more carefully. In a matter of minutes, I stood within a decrepit white fence looking at a small shack, seemingly abandoned. It was a strange structure standing on uneven stilts that to me evok
ed the image of a bird’s legs.
I walked towards the door, feeling an ever-growing sense of disquiet. Carefully, as if the place would harm me, I climbed the weathered stairs and knocked on the door. A harsh, ragged voice rose up from the other side, “Such manners, even here! Asking permission to enter an old woman’s home. Come in, child. Come in.”
In response I hid my weapon behind my back and opened the rotten door. I fully expected it to come apart in my hands, but it held strong. That was far from the strangest thing I would experience on that day.
That seemingly one-room hut was somewhat larger than it appeared from the outside. A small dinner table stood in one corner with two chairs, dried herbs hung in every corner, and a cosy, if oversized hearth burned by one wall. A single door stood on the other side of the room.
The truly interesting feature was the home’s only inhabitant, a wizened crone with a long nose and a hunched posture. She smiled a black-toothed grin when she caught sight of me. “Such a handsome one… Tell me, who comes before old Baba Yaga?” I bowed politely, “My name is Evit Merriman, madam.”
The old woman laughed with a sense of excitement that seemed almost giddy. “So… ‘Evit Merriman’ with the silver tongue, were you sent here or did you come of your own accord?” “I don’t see how the circumstances of this visit matter any more than the purpose. I’ve come in search of a man named Rall.”
“Ah, so you’re another want-to-know. Everyone always wants to know something. ‘Sweet Baba Yaga I want to know this’ or ‘wise Baba Yaga I want to know that’. Now Baba Yaga wants to know; she wants to know what you have behind your back.”
I hesitated, unsure of how I would answer. While I struggled so, the crone reached behind her own back and retrieved a firearm. While she spoke, I noticed that my own weapon was gone, “Such a strange thing this is. You’re thinking to use it against old Baba Yaga, are you?”
I remained stunned to the point where I hardly realized I answered at all, “Evidently not…” Mere moments later, I regained enough composure to express my curiosity, “What are you?”
“The want-to-know wants to know more. Who is this woman? A goddess of magic? A dangerous creature? A mad old woman in an old hut?” Her
vile grin only widened, “That Baba Yaga won’t say. You want to find a certain half-man and mayhap she’ll help you with that and more. But… mayhap you’ll cook over her fire.”
I grabbed hold of my machete, but did not draw it. “You’re proposing some sort of game, aren’t you? A gamble: my life for Rall’s whereabouts?”
She laughed with a loud, cackling quality, “Not only handsome, but clever too! How brave, though, Baba Yaga wonders?
“A special game I have for you, then. Three choices will you make this day. For the first: you can go back the way you came and leave this place, or go on and see what old Baba Yaga has in store.”
“I am not leaving my task undone,” I answered resolutely. Without waiting for any further addled words, I opened the door across from me and walked through it, with no inclination of what I would find.
I entered a room identical to the one I had just left, save that every shelf, table, or chair was covered in human skulls. Each skull varied in size, from those that were certainly the skulls of infants to those nearly too large to be human. Inside each one was a coal, turning them into macabre lanterns that stared in my direction in a most disquieting fashion.
From beside me, I heard the crone’s voice, “Baba Yaga has a confession to make: she killed and ate that man you’re looking for. His skull is h
ere somewhere. You’ll be wanting to find it.” I took a few steps forward and turned back to the ol
d woman. “It would hardly be a proper ‘game’ if it were simple as that. It would be more properly called a ‘chore’.”
The creature once again forced her foul laughter upon me again, “The man is clever. Baba Yaga will give you four questions. Fail to find it after then and she’ll devour you too, and you’ll make her a pretty lantern.”
I nodded thoughtfully and carefully considered my first query. I felt the wording would be vitally important, lest a vague answer waste my question. “Relative to the doors and the direction of your facing, is Rall’s skull to the left or right?” She smiled, “The right.”
I walked to the centre of the indicated area. “Is Rall’s skull in front of or behind me?”
I inspected that quarter of the hut. The table was in that area, covered in skulls, as were two shelves, likewise full. “Is Rall’s skull on one of the shelves adjacent the wall?”
I stood in front of the both of them. “Relative to my position, is Rall’s skull on the left or right shelf?” The crone’s smile grew wider than I’d yet seen on that horrid countenance. “The left. You’re out of questions, clever man. Make your choice.”
I inspected the indicated shelf, only to find that all skulls on it were smaller than average. The obvious quality of size useless, I searched for on that lacked the delicate features of a child’s skull. Eventually, I found one that looked more worn than the others. I couldn’t determine with any certainty whether that weathering occurred before or after death. Still, I determined that I ha
d no other course. When I lifted it off of the shelf, the warmth of the coal within conspired with the uncertainty of my choice to make me incredibly uncomfortable. “I choose this one.”
The crone cackled again, “Try the door, if you’re
Hesitantly, I walked through that door and into a room that was identical to the first in every way. The maddened thing sat at the table, on which rested my revolver and a bowl of some putrid liquid. “Please handsome, clever man, sit. Sit with Baba Yaga.”
I sat across from her, widening that foul smile even further. The smell of the solution in the bowl was horrid enough to make my
head ache. I said nothing, allowing her to continue. “You have what you came for, but Baba Yaga said three choices you would have and Baba Yaga never lies.”
I indicated the objects on the table, “It would seem rather self-explanatory, don’t you agree?”
“Maybe to you, clever man. The choice is this: magic of the sort never seen in these lands or most others. Baba Yaga’s brew may not tickle the pallet, but it’ll change you in the best of ways. Your other choice is ‘self-explanatory’.”
It was no choice at all for me. I took the weapon and aimed at the addled crone. She laughed once again. “That’s the choice you made? Why, that’ll break an old woman’s heart.”
I fired without hesitation, sending her sprawling backwards. Weakly, she spoke up in a strange language, “Myslisz, ze mozesz zabic stara Babe Jage, ale sie myslisz.”
After she finished her last words, a lone ragged breath escaped her craggy lips and she seemed to evaporate, leaving nothing in her place. Satisfied, I took Rall’s skull and left through the door behind me. Strangely, that door took me back outside, as if I never went through two others.
I didn’t even look back before continuing on my way back to town. I only searched through the foliage for the tiger that drove me within the premises of the hovel. Fortunately, I didn’t see it, I assumed it fled for some time, terrified of Baba Yaga’s hut.
The way to the sawmill seemed almost too
peaceful, likely due to the grotesque trophy taken from the crone’s abode. Just holding the skull gave me a sense of the creature’s vile power. In a time that didn’t seem nearly fast enough, I arrived at my destination and knocked on the door. Drom admitted me with a decidedly anxious expression on his visage. “Did you find him?” he asked.
I was not looking forward to that particular query. Delivering news of a loved one’s passing never grew any easier. I entered the building and pulled out the grisly lantern, “Unfortunately yes. I’m sorry.”
The man took it from my hands gingerly, “Oh Rall… Wait, why are the eyes glowing?”
“A simple coal placed inside. Sadly, I couldn’t find a way to remove it.”
With a suddenness that startled me, the skull burst into flame. The woodcutter dropped it reflexively and I was able to kick it away. However, it caught the wooden walls and floor across the room on fire. I tried the door while the building’s owner stood stunned, but the portal held steadfast.
I called out to the man, “Axes! We need axes!” My urgency snapped the man out of his stupor. He ran off and swiftly returned with the implements I requested. We began striking the door with an intense determination while the conflagration grew with alarming, seemingly unnatural speed. The smoke had seared my eyes and my lungs, and the heat was growing dangerously close when we managed to cut the door open.
The two of us fled the flaming structure coughing intensely. Drom asked, with great difficulty, “What… happened in there?”
I similarly struggled in my answer, “An attack… I think.” Before I even recovered completely, I travelled back down the path I followed earlier. The woodcutter followed behind me even though is livelihood was rapidly becoming an inferno, “Where are you going?”
“There was a hut deep in the woods, with some sort of… creature residing within.” “And you just left it back there?!” I answered sternly while changing the cylinder in my firearm with one loaded with iron. “Of course not. I thought her dead, and she might very well be. I, however, need to be sure.”
“I’m coming with you! That thing killed my brother and ruined me!”
I growled in frustration, “Very well, but only because it would take excessive use of force to convince you otherwise.”
I retraced my steps exactly and
followed the trail precisely. However, when we reached our destination my heart sank. In place of the decrepit fence and strange stilted hovel, we found only snow and wind.