For Erinthesails, who wanted witchy stuff. After thinking about it for a couple years, I've decided that by now everything should be free game, so I'm rolling with it.
~ten years after
As Daumantas dropped his stack of firewood beside the pit, Worth picked up Conrad's discarded rag and swung it around his head, pinning it underneath his chin like a kerchief. "Heh," he said, "guess who I am."
Conrad reached back and snatched it off him, his hands black with the same grease that stained the rag. "For fuck's sake, that's filthy."
Hanna leaned back on the grass, warming the soles of his ratty sneakers by the tiny fire. "You'rrreeeee," he said, "the lady from Turchany, with the angry dog."
Worth bumped a hip against the side of the RV, whose hood was pulled back to reveal the non-Euclidean geometries of the warlock engine. Hanna had tried reaching out to the spirit who made it for them a while earlier in the night, but all he'd gotten in the scrying glass was the sound of screaming crows and bones clicking together. It had kind of freaked him out, to be honest? Like, normally he just did or didn't manage to reach the person he was calling. He wasn't sure what to make of interference like this.
"They were nice people," Conrad said, a note of warning in his voice. "Just because they dress differently than you—"
"Everybody's dressing weird these days," Hanna piped in, lowkey hoping to avoid another pitched row while they were potentially stranded in the rural backwater of Oregon, America's weirdest jungle. "I can't wait until people start having to spin their own wool again, we're gonna get the most star trek-looking craziness in this country."
"People will most likely just revert to ancient styles," Daumantas remarked, from the other side of the firepit. "For simplicity's sake. A simple tunic is difficult to get wrong."
"Ain't nobody gonna be caught dead wearin' a toga in this country," Worth said. He passed a wrench to Conrad, who took it without looking up. "I'm wearing jeans till the denim stops comin', then I'm goin' bare ass naked."
"Oh dear god," Conrad muttered. "I'm not spending my undeath watching your bare ass."
"Too bad, I already committed to it."
"We're getting a divorce."
Hanna hid a grin in his shoulder. Daumantas looked at him across the pale licks of stripling fire. His green-gay lips twitched up in a smile. Thank goodness those early years of hissing and spitting were over, for his mental health if nothing else. He had been about to run out of patience there at the end. It was only a shame they had wasted so much time… well it was fine for them, he guessed, they had forever to catch up on lost time.
His smile faltered for a moment, but there was no one to see it happen so it didn't really count. Not everyone had their kind of time.
The RV park was as quiet as it was dark, even the night birds fluttered away to somewhere less busy with people. Hanna loved being around people, especially nowadays when they spent so much time on the road between settlements, but the quiet of the forest was alright too when he had a chance to stretch out. Turchany had been loud with old folks talking fast in Russian and ringing church bells, children speaking in a pidgin language that pitched and fell in and out of Hanna's understanding. By the time they left, he'd been worn out from trying to keep up with all of it, and he had tried to keep up with all of it.
More and more lately, he was finding himself exhausted from trying to keep up with everything happening around him. Conrad just reminded him that he wasn't as young as he used to be, but Hanna knew that wasn't it. Every day he was trying to wring a drop more out of the world, to make the sunlight last a little longer.
Hanna didn't realize he'd been vaguely listening to the chatter of Worth and Conrad going back and forth until the sound suddenly stopped. He glanced over to the RV and found them both paused, heads in the air like dogs listening for the sound of a car door slamming. They moved more and more in tandem these days, which was probably natural considering they were the same species now, but still Hanna found it kind of funny.
"What's that Lassie?" he said. "You hear something?"
"Fuck off, Hanna," Worth said, shaking it off first.
"I thought I heard something," Conrad muttered, still watching the depth of forest before him. "Like a car. But there's no road. I don't see where it could be…"
Worth frowned, and so did Hanna. It was never a good sign when Conrad didn't rise to a little good-natured baiting.
"I'm going to check it out," Conrad said. He set down his tools and wiped off his hands absently.
"The fuck you are," Worth said.
"Just stay with Hanna, okay? I'm only going scouting." Conrad started to methodically unbutton his shirt, starting with the cuffs.
"Put your shirt back on, sweetheart. I'll do it if you're so goddamn set on recon."
Conrad flicked his shirt over the doctor's head and shucked off his pants in the ensuing sputter. "You're a bad flyer and everybody knows it," he said. "Don't be such a control freak. I'll be right back."
"Control freak?" Worth said, livid now. He ripped the shirt off his face.
"Shh!" Conrad said. He glared into the woods, far past anything Hanna could make out with regular human day vision. There might have been a flicker in the depth of black, something grey or white between the branches. Could have been an owl. But it probably wasn't.
In a puff of red smoke, there was the tiny adorable version of Conrad. It flapped a couple times, gaining altitude, and then swooped into the darkness.
Worth swore and ripped off his own shirt, throwing it to the ground with a stomp. His scarred back and arms flashed pearlescent in the firelight. "D'you see where it went?" he said, throwing his shoes across the grass.
Hanna squinted into the night. He pushed his glasses down his nose, trying to get his far vision to work on his side for once. In the darkness, in the crowd of foliage, he thought he saw—was it a flash of firelight reflected back at him? Red metal?
"Ten o'clock," he said, sharply.
In a puff of flaxen smoke, Worth was gone all at once.
Hanna bit his lip. "What do you think, Daumantas?" he said. "Should we get armed?"
"Better safe than sorry," the zombie said, already walking briskly towards the camper. "Do you want something?"
Hanna shot the darkness a look. "Nah," he said, digging a sharpie out of his pocket. "I got it."
Across the back of his hand, Hanna marked out a complex interlocking combination of wards. One line slid cleanly into the next, creating a sigil that he'd slowly perfected over a decade of working in the bumping-and-thumping industry. After a moment of consideration, he switched hands and drew down the three barred Russian orthodox cross, just in case. It always pays to speak the local language.
Daumantas settled onto the grass next to him after a moment, Worth's shotgun hooked over his shoulder, the barrel broken open for easy loading. Daumantas was a stickler for gun safety. He was cool like that.
"I don't hear anything," Hanna said. "Could be a good thing?"
"Could be," the zombie allowed.
They sat in silence for a moment.
"So," Hanna said, "was I in the middle of the Titanomachy, or…?"
"I believe we had just gotten into the division of heaven," Daumantas said. "Zeus gets Olympus, I presume."
But before Hanna could pick up the story again (they had already finished Norse mythology during last month's stakeout, and somehow Daumantas already knew everything about Irish myths), there was a distinct metallic rumble from the darkness.
"What was—" Hanna started to say.
The motorcycle that crashed through the underbrush was black, glinting and old fashioned, disappearing and then reappearing as it wove through the underbrush. Hanna was on his feet before Daumantas, but he was too fast for his own good. He stumbled, tripping over Worth's haphazardly discarded shoes, and in the urgency of the moment his friend kept running forward, not realizing that he was running alone. Hanna scrabbled at the grass, furious with himself, as the zombie ducked into the trees and even the gold glint of the shotgun was lost among them. Hanna smashed his palm into the ground, hissing. His hand hit Conrad's grease cloth, and with a sigh, he pocketed it.
God damn it, god damn it, how was he going to find any of them now?
He picked himself up and clapped the dirt from his hands, and started walking. The RV park was located past the edge of the old suburbs, not too far from some abandoned rural neighborhoods. As far as he knew, everyone was headed in the opposite direction from those, but there was still the possibility of an odd house out, something up ahead that they could all rally at. Maybe he could catch up…
It felt like an awfully long time that he hiked forward, but there was no sign of anyone but himself in the dark. The rumble of motorbike was completely silent now, and the night birds were either avoiding him or had decided to take a break for the night. Hanna grimaced. He was about to pour a little energy into a light spell when a pair of spots in the darkness ahead of him caught his eye. They were about the color and dimness of an ember, but the closer he got, the more they seemed to be up off the ground.
Hanna ducked out from under the trees and found himself in a yard knotted with roots, too heavy and gnarled to be the hemlock pines he had just left. He carefully picked his way over them to the sagging wooden fence, where two red embers burned out at him through the skull of a jackolantern. It was carved with heavy, rough strokes, more geometric than artful. Definitely not one of the fun zany ones like he'd used to see in the craft stores. There was something ominous about its wide sockets, about its heavy handed geometry. Hanna rocked back nervously on his toes. It was barely the end of September. While he was all about getting into the holiday spirit, somehow this didn't feel very… spirit-y. Spiritual, maybe.
"Hello?" he called. "Anybody home? Sorry to bother you, I was just wondering if my friends passed by here-?"
He pushed the gate open with a deep, mournful creak, and snatched his hand back. Yikes. "You need some oil, my friend," he said. On a whim, he pulled Conrad's grease cloth out of his back pocket. "Well, it's not much," he said, rubbing at the hinges with the blackest part of the rag, "but I guess it's better than nothing, huh buddy?"
The gate swung shut behind him, maybe a whisper quieter.
The house was propped up on cinderblock pillars like a trailer, and the steps seemed to shudder under his feet. He climbed them in a quick leap—Daumantas would absolutely kill him if he got his foot stuck in somebody's porch step in the middle of all this—and stumbled forward to knock on the door. The windows were all black, hollow and warped with age. Maybe the jackolantern was a fluke? Maybe nobody lived here. Hanna coughed, awkwardly, and knocked again.
"Hello?" he called. "If it's not too much trouble—has anyone seen my friends pass by?"
The gate creaked open behind him like a shot, and Hanna whirled to find an old woman on the path, watching him narrowly from beneath a kerchief. The stiff style of the dress Hanna recognized from Turchany, where all the women over thirty and some of the younger ones too had dressed like that, but not even the older ones had worn aprons like that.
"I smell American," she said, in a heavy rumbling accent.
Hanna raised his hand. "Me, sorry," he said. "I don't smell that bad do I? I swear I just took a shower in Turchany."
The old woman's hands were full of firewood. "Oh," Hanna said, "um, can I help you with that?"
She regarded him narrowly for a minute more, and then she nodded. "Here," she said, "take half. I keep other half."
Hanna took his half of the stack and followed her inside, marveling at the strangeness of the décor. For what had looked an awful lot like a hovel from the outside, the inside was weirdly beautiful. The wood of the wall itself was carved with patterns of what he thought might be flowers and birds, or maybe skulls and insects. The old woman dropped her stack of wood at the edge of the fireplace-oven.
"Call me Baba," she said. Her teeth glinted strangely as she almost-smiled, brushing her hands on her apron.
"Um," Hanna said, wracking his brain for what he'd learned in the last couple of days, "like grandmother?"
But she was already walking away. "Make fire," she told him, over her shoulder. "Easy for strong boy like you."
"I'm thirty," Hanna said, feeling depressed all over again. He bent over the fireplace.
"You are," Baba said, "and you are not."
Hanna paused, tinder grasped in his hands. He finished making the fire slowly, goosebumps running up and down his arms. "What do you mean?" he said, striking a match against the brick oven.
"You were sixteen," Baba said, "when you died."
Hanna whirled, and in the blossoming firelight he saw the old woman standing among a swarm of pale hands, each of them emerging disembodied from the darkness. Her shadow flickered against the wall, changing the shapes of flowers to skulls, birds to bugs. In the warp of her shadow, specks of light reflected the crescent of her teeth.
"Put back together with curse," Baba said, holding her palm open in the air, as a green-glinting hand deposited a heavy looking bowl there. "Baba Yaga knows curses. You were child, then you walk into coffin between worlds, and then you return."
Hanna pressed a hand to the floor and carefully levered himself up. "Far be it from me to argue with evidence," he said, "but I gotta point out, you're not supposed to be a thing."
Baba Yaga reached up and plucked a pestle from another waiting hand. "I will keep in mind, eh?"
Hanna moved, mostly sideways, across the floor. At the far end of the hall, the heavy carved door was bleeding green light from underneath its threshold. Glossy enameled plates hung from the bottoms of the cupboards. The cups in the cupboards were uncomfortably cranial in shape.
"So is this the part where you try to eat me?" Hanna asked, laying a hand on the dining table.
"You are not my usual house guests," Baba said. "You are different. One thing is like another, yes?"
Hanna considered the table for a moment, and then sat down in a chair. "That's a no then? I just want to be sure."
"I do not eat dead things."
Hanna screwed up his face, taking a little offense at that despite his best efforts. He got this all the time from vampires, but that didn't mean he liked it. "I'm not dead," he said. "Daumantas is dead. Doc and Connie are dead. I'm the living one."
"You rot. You do not grow up. Is this living?"
Hanna swallowed. "What's behind the spooky door?"
Baba Yaga finally turned back to him. The hands all around her continued passing items to each other, a flurry of busy movement, each with their own task, but she was still. "One foot in grave," she said, "that is what Americans call it. My house is grave and foot. "
"I don't think that's how the idiom is supposed to work."
"I tell it to you in Russian, next time," she said, in a way that implied just enough warning.
Hanna pressed a hand to his chest, where the ache of his staples had grown old enough that even he forgot about it a lot of the time. He didn't like to think about what he'd done to himself, all those years ago. He hadn't had a choice.
"Boys who go down into grave come back wiser," Baba Yaga said. There was a frown on her wrinkled face that seemed softer, almost knowing. "Is necessary. Fire from gods. Life from underworld."
Necessary for fairy tales, maybe. "Can you…" Hanna said, digging fingers into his chest, "fix me?"
Baba Yaga limped towards him. For the first time, he noticed the dull thump of her left leg hitting the floor, polished porcelain or something worse peaking from under her skirts. He didn't understand how he could have missed it. She bent down over him, eyes glinting darkly in their sunken sockets, and laid her hands over his chest.
"It's not that I'm complaining," he babbled, clutching at the edge of the table with trembling fingers, "it's just that I kind of like being alive and it would be a lot easier to stay that way if my entire body wasn't slowly putrefying from the inside out? I mean lots of people have it worse than me, no doubt about it, but still I don't think it's asking too much for maybe like a normal amount of weird hormonal shit and pulled muscles and if I stay like this I don't think I'll make it to forty and all my friends are immortal and it's not fair—"
Baba Yaga clapped a hand over his mouth, and it was only then that he realized he was crying. After a moment, she pulled her hand away again.
"I just really," he whispered, "want to spend a little more time with them."
She pulled back. Up close he could see that all her teeth were the color of iron in her mouth, and they flashed when she spoke. "Is worth a year of your life? Your soul? How badly you want this?"
Hanna thumbed water out of his eye. Gosh, that was embarrassing. He hadn't cried in front of a stranger in years. "Pretty badly," he admitted.
"I cannot solve problem," the old woman said. "I patch. Like clothes. Maybe more years than you have otherwise."
"Anything," Hanna said. "Anything you can do, ma'am."
She reached up, and from a hand that unfurled out of the darkness, she plucked a needle and thread.
"I need open these up," she said, tapping one of her talon fingers against his staples. "Lie on table."
Hanna took a deep breath, and then pulled his shirt over his head. Seemed like everybody was getting shirtless tonight. Maybe he could talk Daumantas into doing it too, when he found him. He felt a twinge of guilt for getting so wrapped up in his own stuff, while everyone else was out there chasing specters, but then—didn't he remember something like that from the fairy tales?
"What's it gonna cost?" he said, folding his shirt over the back of the table.
Baba Yaga threaded her twine through the eye of the needle, closing one eye as she did it. "I will take truth from you," she said. "Once you tell me, you will not ever speak it again. Think carefully."
Hanna lay down on the table. He thought about secrets—about his mother's face twisted into something hateful and inhuman, about the color of the picnic blanket they used to spread under the tree in the backyard, about the box he'd lived in for months before Worth found him in that alley, delirious and bleeding out. He thought about fevers and postcards, about promises and pills.
"It has to be something important, right?" he said. "Or it's not fair."
The old woman took her sewing scissors from her pocket, the blades shaped like a heron's beak, and cut away the flesh from the staples. Hanna buried his teeth in his lip and his nails in the wood, thinking—I've survived worse than this, this is nothing.
Her blunt fingers were surprisingly gentle as she peeled him open, sucking her teeth as she surveyed the damage. Hanna stared hard at the ceiling. He knew what she would find there.
Worth had never talked about what he'd seen in Daumantas' stomach, when Ples ripped it open and left the clean up for the rest of them. Sometimes he wanted to ask. He wanted to know if what was inside his friend was like the thing inside of him. Maybe they'd have this in common. But he was too afraid, and it was too ugly—every time he even thought about it, he tasted blood. The truth was, he'd been alone for so long… even after these years, and they were great years, the best years…
"Do you want that secret now or later?"
The old woman drew a length of twine through her teeth and bit it in half. "When you are ready."
Looking up at the firelight on the wooden ceiling, Hanna had the terrible feeling that he was staring at the lid of his coffin.
"When the plague was coming through," he said, "back when it all started, I stopped and helped a hitchhiker in the Midwest. I knew it was contagious, I mean, who didn't? And Daumantas had made me promise I wouldn't get near any other humans until we'd figured out what it was all about. He was, like, adamant about it. But then I saw this guy on the side of the road, and…"
The red sand had been climbing into angry dust devils down the shoulder of the road; Hanna remembered the white sun and the black asphalt, the red dust devils. It seemed like such an awful place to be stuck, one dying man in the dust and the sun and the asphalt.
"I know I caught it from him," Hanna said. "When I came down with it, I knew I got it from him. He didn't make it, and I did. Part of me wanted—it didn't seem fair that I—"
Hanna sighed and turned his head. White and red and black, the shadows against the fire. He knew that they were symbolically dense colors, the first three color words ever invented by human language, the catholic triad. To him, somewhere between now and then, they had become death colors.
"I was always sorta trying to die, I guess," he said. "Like, I thought I deserved it? And now that it seems like I'm really going to, all I want to do is live."
"Big change," Baba Yaga observed, neutrally.
"Yeah well," he said, with a grim smile, "that's the power of friendship. I'm being corny but I mean it too."
He felt the thump as her hand closed over his rib cage, but everything else was silent. "No one survives coffin alone," Baba Yaga said. "Always there is doll, or mouse, or gate."
"They're the best thing that's ever happened to me," Hanna said. "I don't know what I did to get so lucky."
Once the witch had sewn up his chest again, Hanna sat at the table sipping soup from a bowl that almost certainly had been a human skull at some point.
"So Baba Yaga is real," he said. "Man, have I got egg on my face. I can't believe I walked right into that one. What are you doing in America anyways?"
She shrugged, sipping on her own soup. "Where there are Russian children lost in woods, there is Baba Yaga."
"Soooo you're like the Baba Yaga, or a Baba Yaga?"
"I see no difference."
"Hmmm," Hanna said. "That's a language barrier thing I guess. Are you like a species?"
"Like…. an occupation?"
Hanna opened his mouth, but there was a knock at the door before he could go any further.
"Your friends," Baba Yaga said.
Hanna sat bolt upright. "Oh shit!" he said, "I can't wait to show them this place. If you like me you're gonna love them, I promise, they're all spectacularly undead."
He pushed away his chair and trotted over to the door, but he faltered as his hand touched the wood, just short of the handle. He turned back to the table. "I know what you did for me is worth more than some depressing memory," he said. "At the risk of looking a gift horse in the mouth, I gotta ask. How come?"
The old woman sipped her soup, somehow managing to look derisive and regal as she did it. "You put grease on squeaky gate. You are good boy."
The knocking came at the door again, more impatient now. "Hanna!" a muffled voice shouted. And then, indistinctly, "I swear I smell him—no—it's that or a carcass somebody hid under these stairs—"
Hanna threw the door open. "Guys!" he said. "You're not gonna fucking believe whose house this is."
Conrad, first at the door, wrinkled his nose. "Was, I hope you mean," he said. "Hard to imagine anyone living in that."
Hanna froze. He turned, already knowing what he was about to see—the inside of the cabin was speckled with moonlight from the sooty, broken windows, and the table was empty. Everything was fuzzy and vague with a layer of grime that was at least ten years in the making, cold and decaying.
"Aw man," he said, "she Nickelodeon Halloween Special'd me."
Conrad sniffed him. "You smell off," he said. "Did you eat a bowl of potpourri or something?"
Hanna smiled nervously. "It's kind of complicated," he said.
He'd never talked to the guys about his condition, except for Worth, who had heard a little bit of it that first night in the alley when Hanna had been feverish and certain that he was dying at last. He knew that they all talked about it behind his back, but it had always been… too hard to look directly at. It had been a decade since they all first came together. Maybe it was time to bite the bullet.
Anyways, things were going to be different now, weren't they? And all it had cost him was… was…
He leaned his head against the door jamb, frowning. When he reached for it, he caught flashes of red and white and black, but they were gone like dust devils through his fingers. "I traded a—well I think it was—a memory?"
"Is a memory something you can trade?" Daumantas asked, tilting his head.
"Apparently. Not sure how it would work for you—we should look into that, there might be a central mechanic that we can leverage somehow, if it goes one way it ought to go the other way too—Worth, what have you got over there?"
Worth dangled a red motorcycle helmet from his finger, smug as the cat that got the canary. "Ya missed all the fun," he said.
"He's never going to shut up about it," Conrad sighed.
"I'm the fastest," Worth said, grinning at Hanna.
Boy, he loved these jerks. He nudged Conrad's side and dug in his pocket for the rag. "You dropped this," he said.
"Oh," Conrad said. "I guess I did."
Hanna closed the door behind him and followed the guys down the stairs, out into the yard. The weight of the lost memory stilled weighed on him, but the shape of it remained indistinct, no matter how hard he tried to pry the colors apart. Truth, she had said. She had wanted truth. Well, he remembered something about taboos from the fairy tales, about truths that one dared not speak.
Hanna fell back in step beside Daumantas, watching the ember red eyes of the jackolantern flicker and die as they passed. "I don't tell the truth a lot, do I?" he said.
"You mean well," Daumantas replied.
"I feel like I owe you guys more than that, though."
Daumantas reached out and, without hesitation, looped his elbow through Hanna's. They walked arm in arm through the yard, into the darkness of the woods. "I have the upmost faith in you," he said. "Always. I wouldn't be here now if I didn't."
Although the woods were close and the ground was rough, Hanna closed his eyes. It was alright not to see everything, just for a minute. He had enough time. If he wanted to just listen to the sound of his friend's footsteps in the soft darkness, that was alright too.
One thing at a time.