Witches and Bitches and Fairies, Oh My!

February 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

Just in time means that, really. Just in time.

Do I have news? I do! I’ll likely be busy for the next week or two, which throws more of a wrench into my plan. I want to move to a more regular update schedule, preferably every day, but I’m running into a content problem. I just wrote around 2,200 words this afternoon, which isn’t all that much, all things considered.

It is, however, far more than I can write on a day where I work 8 hours and then need to attend to the rest of my life. This leads me to a content problem, wherein I need to produce more, but don’t have the time or the energy to do as much as I want.

Resolutions? I don’t know, but if you have any ideas of what you like to read or want to see more of, please let me know.

In any case, have the next part of Lovers. Oh, if you have a title for that too, I’d love to hear it. Please. I beg you.

XI.

 

The masked guards led her to a coach, pulled by “living” black horses this time, escorted her outside the grounds. Mr. Saturday was no-where to be seen, and Amira felt no need to check in with him. Her encounter beyond the door had left her giddy and feeling invincible. Let the scary Loa sputter if she was late! There are no slaves in Hell!

And besides, the Prince, rather, the Prime Minister of the Hellish Parliament, had kissed her hand and requested she refer to him by his first name! If that wasn’t a signal, then what was? Amira was so excited that she didn’t even bother to chastise her wayward thoughts.

But as the coach rattled aimlessly through the streets, Amira’s exultation faded. Where would she go? What would she do? She felt vague stirrings of hunger, mostly because she hadn’t eaten anything in around what felt like the time mortals wait before they feel hungry. She felt it was time to get something to eat.

The process of referring to time in Hell is complicated. It is, for example, incredibly difficult to suggest that it is “time” to do something. As Time is not allowed into the afterlife (there is a crude cardboard sign hung over the entrance to Hell which says “NO FUNDAMENTAL FORCES ALLOWED”), it is never time to do something. And Amira, who hungered because it felt like it had been several hours since she had last eaten, had absolutely no frame of reference at all. Instead of saying, as mortals would, that “Oh goodness, it’s been several hours and I feel absolutely peckish. What animal can we kill and throw over the fire?”, a demon, to be completely accurate, would be forced to say, “Oh goodness, it feels, insomuch as I have decided to feel this way, like, if time existed and we were able to perceive its passing, that several hours, based on a standard hour of sixty minutes, have passed, and nourishment should be obtained.”

Instead, the slang on the street is “Let’s eat.”

Amira leaned forward to address the driver. “Could you take me somewhere I can find something to eat?”

The guard nodded and did not speak. It (Amira was uncomfortable thinking of them as “he’s” or “she’s”) had made barely any sound at all. The horses were also impeccably behaved, but there was something queer about them. They acted like robots which were cleverly controlled by the driver’s whip. They didn’t make unnecessary movements or sounds, and moved with an efficiency that bordered on mechanical. Their tails didn’t even twitch when they idled in traffic. A horde of barbarians on horses thundered through the city, whooping and screaming and waving their swords, all the while the hellish horses just stared down their noses at the interlopers, as if to say “Well, if it isn’t those guys.” Traffic parted like a wave being cut by a boat, and formed up again behind them as though there were just another sight.

Amira was beginning to take such things in stride.

She leaned back, closed her eyes, and tried to will the coach to be more comfortable. It failed, of course, but, or especially so, there is no harm in trying in Hell. Regardless of her inability to modify her surroundings, she began to nod off.

They hit a particularly bad bump and the whole coach shook. Amira was knocked back into awareness. Irritation filled her as the coach shook again and she came close to shouting at the driver before shame overtook her. What was she thinking, shouting at the thing that was driving the coach for her? It was rude, it was, and despite her clothing and assumed importance, she was still just a girl from Toronto overwhelmed by the much bigger city she found herself in.

Her heart stopped in her chest. She hadn’t thought of that for a long time, nor of Patrick. Sudden longing emptied her out and left her hollow, like a bucket with a hole. The one advantage to being in Hell (aside from the weather, which is universally agreed upon to be “mild”) was that her memories were suddenly much clearer and more vivid than they had ever been before. In a flash, she was back in her wedding dress walking towards the altar. Her trembling hands shook and the delicate lilacs she carried danced about as though caught in a breeze and her stomach flipped and churned inside her. She tried to focus on the altar as a steady point to follow, and hoped her feet would do the rest. Left, right, left, right, and then through that magic that happens when you’re not ready for something, those simple steps would suddenly turn into “I do”, and then she’d turn into Amira Flanagan-Mehenni.

But she couldn’t focus on the altar because her eyes were drawn, like filings following a magnet, to Patrick’s eyes. He looked as nervous as she did and wore the unmistakable sheen of sweat on his forehead. He tried to give her her most sincere smile, but it came out as a goofy half-grin. That was alright, as all things are considered, because the one she returned to him was equally goofy.

In the memory, Patrick was reaching for her hand when, in Hell, Amira shook her head and thought of something else. It wouldn’t do to dwell on the past. Patrick was not here, and if by some chance, so small it was only noted by Probability, he actually was in Hell, he wasn’t here. In Earth, as in Hell, location mattered. So much so that two people could be in the same room and not notice each other unless Chance intervened, because they would not think to look. And having not looked, they would not see. You cannot “accidentally” stumbled upon something in Pandaemonium, but you can see something unexpected. Old friends, however, are always somewhat expected. Hell, as can be imagined, is kind of stuck-up about rules.

Chance is allowed in because he isn’t a fundamental force, and so he gets a pass. Probability nearly had a fit when that happened, but Time calmed him down. All things, really, in Time.

The coach halted outside of a rustic-looking cabin that was entirely out of place in a street modelled after 1920’s Chicago. Pin-striped demons and fedora-bearing souls walked the streets with purpose and the air was filled with the smell of gasoline, frying onions, and Brylcreem.

The coach door swung open of its own accord and Amira stepped out, grateful to be on her own feet again. The building, a comfortable-looking log cabin with smoke drifting out of the chimney, loomed over her like a friendly mountain. It felt inexplicably welcoming, so much so that Amira did not stop to carefully examine the surroundings. If she had, she would have seen that the fence that enclosed a wonderful vegetable garden was mounted with bleached skulls. Some were obviously daemonic. Not all.

Before that, however, she was struck by the fact that the building had no door. Amira took a hesitant step forward and faltered among the pumpkins. Was she just supposed to eat the vegetables straight from the ground? Her stomach, by now rumbling loud enough to scare the population of metropolitan Tokyo, briefly considered the idea. And then considering it a little more before the brain reasserted control and she halted, awkwardly, in the field.

Suddenly, the driver addressed her. “You’ll have to check around the back, luv.”

Amira spun, shocked. Not only was the driver talking, but he sounded like an English yokel. There was something too different between the image of the silent, gold-masked guards that towered over her and the careless, peasant voice on the driver, that Amira became suspicious.

Chance backed away discreetly, whistling while he stuck his hands in his pockets.

She looked closer, and Amira saw that her driver was, in fact, not at all the same thing that had driven her from the Hellish parliament. It was green creature, about as tall as a large dog, with a dumpy body and a face made out of leaves. It winked at her, and spun the golden crown it wore on its head.

Shocked, Amira stepped back. The longer she stared, the more the little monster looked like the Hellish driver, but when her eyes flickered across him and caught him at the edges, he again appeared as the tiny green man.

The man winked again through the foliage on his face and rode off with a snap of the reins. Amira’s eyes followed him as he trundled off and it was only when he disappeared around a corner that her brain started working again. Her gut told her that something important had happened, but her brain was quite unable to keep up with her small intestine.

Amira decided not to think too hard on something that she had no hope of understanding and walked around behind the house. A small door was cut in the wall, across from some tiny, but ancient-looking, pine trees. Amira hiked her dress again and pushed on the door.

Obviously, it creaked ominously as it opened.

“Get your bony ass in here, you whelp! You’re letting all the warmth out!”

A broom jumped out from behind the door and batted at Amira’s behind. Squawking in a most unladylike fashion, Amira ran into the house, and away from the broom, before she realized what she was doing. She stopped when she saw the deer bones, but by then it was too late. The door, obviously, slammed shut behind her.

The cabin was small, but cozy. A wood fire roared in the corner and smeared heat throughout the room like grease. Jars and bottles of powders, liquids, mysterious animal bits, and bones decorated the walls like a mad pharmacist’s laboratory, and an equally impressive, if equally arcane, library covered the other wall. A bubbling cauldron rested on hooks by the fire and was stirred by an irate-looking Russian woman seated in an easy chair the size of a throne.

In fairness, Baba Yaga belongs to many Slavic cultures and not just Russia, much like how Odin and Loki belong to a group of people who included more than just those historians would call the Norse. However, this must be balanced against the fact that when encountered by a wrinkled woman who looks like the Big Bang was the last time she had any action, wrapped in a blanket and marked by a permanent scowl, your guesses are usually limited to “Russian grandmother that I’ve somehow disappointed with every single one of my life choices.” Or witch, but those things are usually lumped in the same category.

The steaming plate of cabbage rolls also helped Amira make up her mind.

The woman, who Amira somehow knew was named Baba Yaga, gestured towards the plate. Another, equally massive and moth-bitten armchair stood empty before it. A tiny girl, maybe as tall as Amira’s arms were long, fluttered on equally tiny wings and poured cups of tea.

“Yes, yes, eat. You might be a bony whore that lets out other people’s warmth, but at least one of us needs to remember our manners. Ignore the samodiva, the little wench owes me a few favours.”

“Hey, I am not a whore!” Amira managed through a mouthful of the most bland cabbage rolls she’d ever eaten. The chair, despite looking older than the Victorian era, was as comfortable as a feather bed and it enveloped Amira in warm comfort. And she regarded the little fairy with interest, but as far as interesting things in Hell, the samodiva was relatively normal. Tiny, stunningly beautiful, and obviously flying, but more interesting that the flying octopus demon that flew by sneezing? Not a chance.

“Not a whore? Well then, why have you spread your legs so many damn times? And not even a child to show for it! A good woman makes the man work for it, not offers it up like a peach tree in the summer! When you died, it hadn’t even been a day since that…man put it in you! Shameful, that is. Good Slavic women go decades without such vileness before their death. Now that’s respect!” Baba Yaga, who was almost entirely absorbed by blankets, actually smiled at that image. The image terrified Amira. “Can’t expect much from you Arabs, though. I should be happy you didn’t circumcise him, at the very least.”

“That man is my husband!” Amira decided to ignore the “Arab” jibe. Getting into arguments about race with old Slavic witch-demons was still above her pay grade. What race was Baba Yaga anyways? Sour?

“Husband? Maybe if he had a better job and wasn’t such a hopeless layabout he’d be worthy of being called a husband! Us two without a ball between us are twice the man he ever was!”

Amira could not believe this was happening. She closed her gaping mouth (to chew), and scowled at Baba Yaga.

“What do you know about Patrick?”

“I now know his name.” She smiled and Hope shuddered, feeling as though someone had walked across its grave. “Now keep eating and keep that mouth shut. We’ve got lots to talk about.”

Amira scowled but listened. Her interest was piqued and the cabbage rolls seemed to be endless. Every time she took one, another appeared on the plate. As magical items go, it was something of a let down for most heroes but it suited Amira just fine, especially since the new rolls were much better than the ones before.

“You, little slut you, have got yourself into a fine bit of trouble. You’re in Hell alone, and your Patron is just itching to sway this war around his way.”

“Patron?”

“Shut up. The Baron has a vested interest in keeping his black ass away far away from the front lines, but no god of death can pass up the chance to start a big old war. Lucifer’s scared, Surtr’s raging, the Parliament’s in chaos, and Humbaba and the Old Gods just want to get their names in the books again. It’s a right pretty mess, that’s what it is.”

“You didn’t mention yourself.”

Baba Yaga’s eyes narrowed and her features disappeared into a swamp of wrinkles. “What’s that, girl?”

“I remember who was there at the Baron’s little meeting. Ala was there too, so don’t pretend you don’t have something to do with this as well.” Amira, who was still shocked at her outbursts but growing less so every time, shot the words across the table. “I’m realizing that I can’t trust anyone down here, least of all those who are so vocal about wanting to help me. What’s in it for you? Why do you want someone who isn’t in the Book of the Dead?”

Baba snorted, and a trickle of phlegm came out her nose. She dashed at it with a blanket edge that Amira realized, with horror, was crispy. “So you’re not just a dumb whore. Good. And you are right, girl, that I have a use for every bone in your body, every hair on your head, and every drop of blood that’s in you now. I’d gladly flay you alive and use you for a thousand potions if I thought I could get away with it.”

Amira forced her racing heart into line. It wasn’t the threat that scared her, it was the casual, off-hand nature of the threat, as though every grandmother occasionally thought of uses for the bodies of young women. Amira recalled that many European folktales featured old hags as the villains, probably for some reason.

“But you can’t get away with it. Because I’m valuable.”

Baba snorted again. “And there your wisdom runs out. You don’t even know why you’re valuable.”

“How are you so sure?”

“Because you wouldn’t have walked into such an obvious trap if you had.” A voice from behind her called out.

Amira, her fright turned to anger, stood up in fury and made to face the speaker. Or, she would have if her limbs hadn’t suddenly locked up and trapped her where she sat, motionless and impotent. Even her mouth was frozen shut and her jaw was more willing to break than follow her commands. Her brain, however, was free to scare herself.

“You think you’re so smart, don’t you, y’little brown whore?” Mr. Saturday, still in his best clothing, melted into being from the shadows and stood in front of the chair. His face still wore a placid smile but his voice quivered with barely-contained rage. He sat on the arm of Amira’s chair and the anger sang off him like radiation. Amira felt sick just sitting near it.

“I found you, when you fell like a star into that dark well, so dark you would have been lost wit’out me. It was me carried you across the trackless wastes of the faerie world with the hunting hounds right behind and Surtr’s fire giants right behind them, an’ it was me that let you sleep in my home, cher. It was me fed you, and it was me that even brought you to this rarin’ town. And here you go, jus’ like a whore, runnin’ to the next payin’ customer without giving me mine.”

He leaned in close and Amira was forced to look him right in the eye. Her paralysed body quivered but forced her eyelids up so that she could stare deep into those eyes, so filled with hate and rage that they shimmered. The cabin darkened and the skull on his chocolate face glowed fiercely, filling the room with a sick electric light.

His voice was soft as silk and his breath was as foul as the grave. “But now, cher, you mine. You all mine, and you ain’t gonna run no more. You ate my bread under my roof, so you as much mine as my own teeth.” He flashed them at her and turned to Baba Yaga.

“Thank ya mightily, sister,” he said it sistah, “but we’ll be takin’ our leave of you now.”

“Fair is fair, tamsa. The debt is paid.” Baba shot out, not the least bit intimidated.

Mr. Saturday’s eyes darkened. “The debt’s paid when I say it’s paid, bouzen, and my debts are always paid in blood.”

His cane flashed out. The samodiva, who had been hovering quietly by the table with a terrified look on her face, cried out and fell to the ground. A thin blade had severed her wings from her back and she rolled on the floor, screaming a high-pitched wail of pain, as silver blood spurted from the stumps. With a chuckle, Mr. Saturday stomped on the fairy. The screaming stopped with a sudden crack, and the pool of silver blood spread.

And Amira’s neck had painfully turned and twisted so that she could take it all in. The samodiva’s eyes hadn’t been looking at Baba Yaga or Mr. Saturday when she died. The tiny, panicked orbs had been staring right into Amira’s own, right until the boot came down. Amira didn’t know what a samodiva was, nor the conditions of its servitude. Perhaps it had led an unsuspecting hunter, distracted by her beauty, into the path of a hungry bear. Perhaps she had stolen something wonderful from Baba Yaga’s house, or spoken to the cloud spirits without permission. It meant nothing to Amira, but, still, she swore that Mr. Saturday would pay, and pay mightily for that.

Amira’s sense of justice screamed: You can’t do that!

The Baron chuckled and said something in French under his breath. He turned and walked to the door. With a snap of his fingers, Amira’s body clumsily rose to its feet and followed him. She simmered with rage as she was forced forward like a marionette on strings.

How dare he, she thought, how dare he do this to me? For a second, Amira forgot she was just a girl from Toronto, married to a lovable doofus and co-head of Over/Above Design. And she did not want to go out that door.

Her feet caught and she stumbled. She threw out her hands to catch herself and grabbed hold of the chair.

Mr. Saturday frowned and snapped again, but this time only her legs obeyed. Opening her mouth, she growled, in a growl so similar to a lion that would have terrified her Berber ancestors, one word.

“No.”

Her legs quickly obeyed their rightful master, and the Baron spun, shocked.

“You comin’ with me, cher, and you’re comin’ now. I ain’t got time for games, and least of all wit’ you.”

Shadows leached from the walls, flowing like oil from a drum, and encased her in cold, bitter cold, shackles of darkness. She cried out at they touched her, but they were merciless and covered her like clothing. They even filled her mouth, choking her screams in icy sludge. She was forced to frogmarch forward, even as she feebly resisted with her body. She panicked, and lost all control as she uselessly flailed. The cold filled her to the core, freezing and gnawing hungrily at her.

Mr. Saturday reached for the door but the stalwart broom leapt out and batted him away. Yowling, Mr. Saturday stepped away from the fearsome dusting implement. Instantly, his rage was back and he (and Amira) spun to face Baba Yaga.

“Now you jus-” But the rest of Mr. Saturday’s words died in his mouth. Amira too, if she could speak, would have also been unable to.

Baba Yaga stood up.

“No, tamsa, you listen to me.” Rage crackled in her eyes, fury quivered in the hairs of her moustache, and, peculiarly, sadness trembled in her milky eyes. She pointed at the crushed corpse, still leaking blood, of the samodiva. “That girl owed me. Me. Not you, tamsa, and she didn’t owe you her death. She wasn’t supposed to feel death. That wasn’t her nature, and you,” she flung out her finger like a spear, and Mr. Saturday flinched back, “tamsa, killed her.”

“Part of the debt, cher, nothin’ more.” But even to Amira’s ears that sounded weak, like he suddenly found the ground weak under him.

Here’s to your damn debt!” Baba Yaga drew a glass dagger from beneath the folds of her blanket and sliced open her palm. Thick blood seeped from the wound and dripped on the corpse. The body shivered where the blood touched it, and with an audible sigh, turned into a small pile of small, white flowers. Rue flowers, Amira realized.

“My debt is paid with you, Loa, paid with my own blood. But you killed a servant of mine, under my own roof, and that servant’s life wasn’t yours to take. That child, that blood was my own, and that death was abomination!” Even though she looked like she approached 2,000 years old, Baba Yaga’s voice barely quivered as she vented her rage. “That girl owed service to me, service now denied by you, but worse, worse!” Her voice fell to a whisper. “You have done my family wrong, Baron. I will have redress.”

Mr. Saturday’s face set as still as stone. “Y’damn witch, you planned this all along, din’t you? You knew, that…”

Baba Yaga cut him off. “Save your mewling, Loa. It was your greed that killed that girl. Now you owe me.”

“And you want Amira back, I can guess. You damn sòsyè.”

Baba grinned a little, but there was no mirth in it. “Are you surprised? Now give me what’s mine, and get you gone.”

“I won’t forget this, bouzen.

“Good, but I like my men like I like my teeth: gone. Now get out of here.”

The door swung open and Mr. Saturday changed. Darkness fell in the cabin, so deep that the walls lost dimension and disappeared into shadow. Swarms of skulls, chattering like bees, flew from nowhere and swarmed around Mr. Saturday. He was gobbled up, piece by piece, by the quaking bones who clung to him like maggots on a wound. In seconds, his skeleton was all that remained of him.

Je me souviens, chienne.”

And the skeleton walked out, still carrying the cane. The skulls flew around him, like bees following the queen, and the darkness flowed with him. Amira’s chains disappeared and she fell forward, gasping. The vicious cold clung to her for another second before the thick heat of the cabin wiped it away.

Another samodiva flew in from another room. She gathered the flowers and put them in a vase on the table before flying out again. Baba Yaga stroked them, gently, like they were made of glass. Her smile was, Amira thought, rather rueful.

“I am sorry dear, but I needed him to break the rules. I know it hurts, but I didn’t have any choice. I’ll plant you in Perun’s garden, you’ll like that.”

It took Amira a second to realize that Baba Yaga wasn’t talking to her, and when it did, the implications horrified her.

“You…you planned this? You knew he’d jump the gun and give you…cause? You planned for the fairy to die?”

Baba Yaga said nothing, but her face wrinkled in what looked like pain. “You don’t understand, Amira. This death, even though it was something beautiful, something that wasn’t ever meant to feel the pain of dying, was worth it. The stakes are too damn high for Mr. Saturday to walk out of here with you in hand.”

“What are the stakes?” Amira asked, as iron entered her voice. Her voice rose in anger and the light in the room quivered. The more time she spent here, the less she remembered: she was Amira Flanagan-Mehenni, not a dark lord of Hell. But there is one rule that even Hell, even Time, even Reality must obey: All. Things. Change. “What stakes are so high that you’d play us into our graves? So high that you’d give up your own damn child? Huh, Baba? What’s so important that you’d do that without a single tear? What’s this game about?”

“Why, young one, everythin’.”

A little spider descended from the ceiling on a single strand of silk.

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