The great changer.
A great cat leapt out of trees, a cat blacker than midnight and covered in white flowers that looked like stars upon its pelt. It moved like liquid darkness and fell upon Baba Yaga so smoothly that to my eyes it was as though the witch had simply faded out of existence. Only her shrill scream rattled me out of the illusion.
Then, with a crash, the chicken-legged house tipped over backwards, flattening trees as fire whooshed up from one of the windows, sending sparks swirling into the night air. Baba Yaga and the beast were struggling beneath where the curved talons lay upended, just flashes of black and grey and green. I heard feral yowls and the witch’s horrible shrieks.
Someone grabbed my shoulder and I let loose a yell, but it was only Kezia, her face bloodlessly pale.
“Hurry!” she gasped. “Let us get away from here!”
That, truly, did not seem like such a terrible idea, and I nodded wordlessly, curling my aching toes in anticipation of another fruitless trek. Would the cat kill Baba Yaga or Baba Yaga kill the cat? I hoped for the former but believed more in the latter, which was a shame, as I was fairly certain that the cat was Noroc.
I think that Kezia had realized this too, for she seemed ashen as she took one last look back at the furious scuffle.
“We can’t help,” I hissed, grabbing her elbow.
“I know that,” said Kezia, in a way that made me sorry for speaking at all. “I know that.”
I tugged her forward, my lip between my teeth, but quickly stopped short. I’d almost entirely forgotten about the ring of skeletons fencing us in. Damn! They still had their arms linked, their menacing eyes swiveling towards us as we drew close. Kezia’s light skin was flushed with their red light.
I swallowed, eyeing their bony fingers, their broken teeth.
“Let us pass,” I said, or more suggested.
At my words, one of the skeletons rattled its jaw, and made as though it were going to move towards us, but the skeleton beside it caught it by the humerus with a creaking sound. The heads all swiveled around towards the two, and I got the sense a swift, silent argument was taking place.
Then the creaking skeleton let go of its neighbor and turned aside, giving us a gap to pass through.
“Oh, thank you!” said Kezia, putting her hands together, but I frowned and dragged her forward by the elbow before the small opening could close again. As I passed uncomfortably close to the skeleton, I caught a strong whiff of poppyseed oil.
Then we were blessedly free of the ring, though they kept watching us with their red searchlight eyes, as the struggle between witch and cat went loudly on. Kezia turned us up a hill, walking purposefully as though she had some sort of plan, and I swore when I realized it was to get to Vasilisa, who had fallen down there on the ground.
Kezia knelt down over her and gently shook her shoulders.
“Vasilisa? Are you all right?”
“Hurry up,” I said, gnawing on a fingernail; the red light still reached us here, and the skeletons weren’t going to be so friendly once the witch stopped being distracted.
Vasilisa seemed to be waking up, her pretty eyes fluttering beneath that unkempt fringe, and she reached out and grasped Kezia’s arm. I couldn’t help a displeased noise at this, which neither of them seemed to hear.
“Oh- you got away!”
“We’re not away at all, yet,” I burst out, “so if you would really like to join us, you’d better get on your feet this instant!”
“Gabi,” said Kezia, reprovingly, but Vasilisa was already struggling to her feet.
“Yes- I know.” She seemed breathless, her eyes red. “I think I’ve only bought us some time. But any chance is better than none…”
I wanted to laugh; was it really? Maybe it would be better for us to wait peacefully at the witch’s feet! But it was too late for that, the maiden was on her feet, limping along beside Kezia and I, holding her stomach and looking grim. The red light faded into the trees behind us, leaving us in utter darkness.
We had no choice but to move slowly in the dark, me blinking my eyes furiously to try to get them to adjust- they always used to, eventually- and holding Kezia’s wrist to keep track of her. She must have been holding on to Vasilisa, which I suppose was good since I certainly wouldn’t have let her touch me.
Somewhere in the distance, the earth gave a low rumble, rustling the treetops, and I froze.
“Adamina?” I asked the darkness.
“It must be her,” agreed Kezia. “I do not know what she has been doing all this time.”
I inhaled slowly, and caught the scent of sweet blood- it must have been Vasilisa’s wound, reopened by our flight. The most strigoi-ish part of me that remained wondered if it couldn’t get away with a brief nip in the darkness.
But the rest of me was busy thinking of something else, something that the blood had made me think of.
“Listen,” I said, squeezing Kezia’s wrist, “Baba Yaga can certainly find us anywhere in this forest, and I don’t think we’ll do any better leaving it.”
“You are right, but I do not think that we should give up even so,” said Kezia.
“I am not giving up. I have another idea. Let’s try to move towards the center of the forest again. Noroc was able to scotch up the witch- I think it was with the Treewitch’s power. Perhaps she can protect us!”
“Mother Forest?” came Kezia’s dubious voice. “You think that she would help us?”
“No- but I’d imagine she would defend herself if Baba Yaga came up close, and that’s good enough for me.”
Kezia took a moment to consider this. “How will we find the center of the forest again? I do not know where anything is anymore. Adamina moved it all around.”
“I can get us there,” I said. “I think. Anyway, I can try.”
“All right,” said Kezia. “Then let us try.”
I gripped her tighter again, feeling a strange, nervous sense of confidence. Somewhere on her other side, I heard Vasilisa cough.
“Are you all right?” Kezia asked her, as I scowled invisibly.
“Yes, I’m fine, don’t worry,” came the reply. “Please, let’s move further away from here, wherever it is you’re going to take us.”
I breathed thinly through my nose a moment, trying to wash out the scent of her. How irritating it was. Then I took a deeper breath, and another, trying to catch a particular scent- one I’d gotten intimately familiar with- a sickly-sweet, cloying stench, like flowers and, come to think of it, blood.
“It’s this way,” I said, tugging Kezia’s wrist.
Soon the screeches and yowls of the battle between cat and witch faded away behind us, as we moved in a ragtag chain through the darkness. Blessedly some of the cloud had moved away, giving us a bit of moonlight to filter down through the canopy, and I was able to see the nearest trees if I strained my eyes. It didn’t seem that Kezia and Vasilisa even had that limited amount of sight, the way they bumped around behind me like beads on a string.
At one point, as I kept my mind on my nose, straining for the elusive scent of the white trees, Kezia began to speak to Vasilisa, their conversation drifting over to my ears.
“Why did you help us like that? You could have run away.”
“I wouldn’t just leave you behind, Kezia,” said Vasilisa, and I turned my eyes skyward for a moment. “I just didn’t know what to do at first, and then the cat came out of nowhere. He told me if I swallowed one of his flowers, he would stop the witch for me.”
“Noroc spoke to you?!”
“Yes, and he sounded a little like an old man, which was very queer to hear coming from the mouth of a little cat- but I thought there couldn’t be much harm in doing so, or at least no more than I’d already inflicted on myself, so…” She paused to cough again, a bit too pointedly, I thought.
“Why would Noroc ask you to do that…?” Kezia wondered, and I found I had to jump in.
“Because the Treewitch has him again, of course. He shouldn’t have come back into this forest.”
“But-” Kezia hesitated. “If that is true, why would she have him…?”
“Oh, drat it all, because she must want us to do just what we’re doing, I suppose!” I growled, the dreadful thought coming upon me all at once. “She probably would like to eat us, as well.”
“Well,” said Vasilisa’s musical voice, “if I am to be eaten regardless, I would rather it not be by the Baba. It seems like losing if I let her get away with it.”
“I do not think that it would be good to be eaten by Mother Forest, though,” Kezia said. “It might mean you have to get a tree planted inside of you.”
“I would rather not be eaten by anybody at all,” I growled, giving her a light yank forward.
“This Mother Forest,” said Vasilisa, “is she the one that planted the, er, plant inside of the vampire?”
“An astute observation from the human,” I said.
“Ohhh,” said Vasilisa, drawing out the word. “And did that come from, er, something like swallowing one of her white flowers?”
“Ha!” I exclaimed, stopping short for a moment. “Regretting our noble actions, are we?”
“Of course not,” said Vasilisa, but there was a certain anxiety to her response. I snorted.
“It was a seed, not a flower, anyhow! You’ll survive to make pretty little blonde children, girl.”
“I shan’t have any at all if I can help it,” she muttered, much to my amusement.
“Wait,” said Kezia, tugging back on me as I started forward again. “Vasilisa- are you- feeling sick at all?”
“Only as much as one would expect,” said Vasilisa, and then more warily, “Why do you ask?”
“Not for any reason,” Kezia lied transparently, “but do let us know if you start feeling worse.”
Ah. That was why- she had remembered what I’d forgotten, that the flowers and roots of the Treewitch were toxic, enough to poison even Zakhar. Eh, best I did not drink the maiden’s blood, then.
Vasilisa was no fool and likely came to this conclusion herself as we walked, for she was very quiet. The whole situation did make me wonder what Noroc, or rather the Treewitch’s ultimate goal had been in making her eat the thing; furthermore, if she had been opposed to having Baba Yaga devour our souls, why wait for Vasilisa’s consent at all? For that matter why use Noroc when she had a golem available? I should have thought that sudden mountains and earthslides would disrupt the witch even better than a large feline would. There was something about the situation I was not quite grasping.
“Gabi,” murmured Kezia, moving closer to me along our daisy-chain so she could speak softly in my ear, “Do you still think that we could find the needle? If we did, I think that Baba Yaga really would have to do all those things we said…”
“Too ambitious, my dear,” I replied softly. “In any case, I suspect now it was always impossible for us. The witch seemed much too cavalier over losing something so important.”
“Hm,” said Kezia. “You did not see her when she first realized it.”
I had not, but it seemed to me that the witch must think she had some other way of finding it that didn’t involve either of us being alive. Or perhaps she really was that hungry. Either way…
“I’ve given up on completing any deal with the old crone,” I said aloud. “Now I think our best shot is letting the two larger forces batter away at each other and hope they batter so much that they both fall to pieces.”
“Maybe you are right,” said Kezia. She said it in a low voice, so I could not discern her emotions on the matter. My free hand crept over towards my throat, which still felt the sting of Baba Yaga’s knife- it was the closest I had ever come to true death. And the chances of it really happening that way were still quite high. Damn, but I hated that witch. It made me itch to set my teeth in Vasilisa’s throat, poison or no.
The woods were cold and deep. I felt Kezia’s hand shivering in mine. She was growing tired; we’d been walking for the entire night, hours and hours, her carrying me some of the way. I was tired, too; and the feeling was more intense, I thought, than what I would have normally felt as a strigoi, but I was more used to keeping myself awake in times of exhaustion than she. I sensed her weariness in each stumbling step I heard her take behind me. I wished that the real sun would rise. It had been a long time since I’d wished that.
Abruptly we came to an area where the trees grew tall and thin and sheltered us from the sky with their vast canopies, and where beneath them their slender white brethren grew untouched by the true sunlight. The sickly smell filled my nose- we were in the white grove. Very close to the Treewitch’s tree.
There was light here- the pale, gently fluorescent light coming from the white trees- and Kezia let go of my hand to slump forward and sigh.
“Are you alright, Kezia?” asked Vasilisa, before I could.
Kezia merely nodded, her eyes dark and hooded. She looked as though she would drop to the ground at any moment.
“We’re close,” I said. “When we get there, you can sleep.”
“Shouldn’t we stop and rest a moment?” asked Vasilisa. “I don’t think the witch is chasing us.”
“Then you’re even stupider than I thought you were,” I snapped. “Of course she is! Anyway, rest all you like, but we’ve got to keep going.”
Vasilisa frowned at me in a very pointed way, but Kezia levered herself up and nodded again. I took her hand, though it made me bristle to see that Vasilisa was still holding the other.
Kezia tilted her head upwards, as if by gravity she could knock the sleepiness out of her skull, and then her eyes widened.
“Ah- Gabi! Look!”
I looked up at once, tension ringing through all my muscles for fear of some new danger. But neither Baba Yaga’s flapping form nor the tendrils of the Treewitch were descending upon us. Instead, I saw a myriad of swift-flying dark things- little things- a colony of bats, streaming over our heads and between the trees.
“Where are they going?” said Kezia, her eyes round, her exhaustion seemingly forgotten for the moment.
I could not help but give a little smile; I had forgotten her odd fondness for the creatures. “If the night had just begun, I would say that they were coming out to feed- but no, they must be coming back in, back to sleep. Dawn must be coming soon!”
Elation crept up into my voice, and Kezia nodded, not taking her eyes off the bats, her mouth open and her expression wonderfully unguarded, even for her. I snuck a glance at Vasilisa, who was looking up as well: she had an expression on her face that was closer to the normal reaction most had at the sight of the things. At least she hadn’t voiced her feelings aloud- if she’d ruined Kezia’s wonderment, I might have socked her jaw.
The swirling river of bats did not last long; a few more moments, and only a few fluttering stragglers were still flying over us. I thought it curious that they were flying through the white grove, in the direction of the great tree, no less. Wasn’t the place too inhospitable for any beast to live in?
The earth suddenly shuddered under my feet, and I fell back into Kezia, who caught me.
“Ah,” she said, setting me back upright. “You were right. She cannot shift this part of the forest around like the rest.”
“How d’you have that figured?” I asked, rubbing my shoulder.
“You cannot tell?” She cocked her head to one side. “It feels very much different when she tries to move this part of the earth; she is moving everything around it, but this spot must stay whole.” She tilted her head the other way. “If her silver letters were hidden anywhere in this forest, I would bet that they are somewhere here.”
“Interesting,” I said, though I was noticing how wet and dark Kezia’s eyes were from her tiredness. It could have been her sleep-deprived mind talking for all I knew.
“You would win that bet, if you took it,” said another voice. At first I thought it was Vasilisa, for it was high and feminine. But no- it was too young, too childlike…
The ethereal white child, Crina’s form, emerged from the trunk of one of the white trees, her empty eyes turned towards us. Kezia’s hand clamped moistly onto mine.
I felt a fearsome anxiety too, seeing her, but I kept my hammering heart to myself. The Treewitch was dangerous, for sure, but unlike Baba Yaga she had never participated in any open aggression. At least outside of her tree.
“You again,” I said, by way of greeting.
“I might well say the same thing,” she replied. “Oh- but you have not come back alone. Kezia… is that Kezia? And…” She paused, tilted her head, mirroring what Kezia had done just a few moments ago.
“My name is Vasilisa,” said Vasilisa, looking to us as though she hoped we might explain this strange child to her. Kezia was too terse; I shrugged.
“Ah,” said the Treewitch. “Ah… yes. Noroc told me of you. It seems you have a powerful fate.”
Vasilisa frowned, but she did not question the statement, which I found quite odd.
“How strange,” said the Treewitch, her white, silken hair sliding down her shoulders as she inclined her head. “That the three of you should stand before me now. The three maidens Baba Yaga desires most. One for her fate, one for her will, and one for her love. I hear she risks even her own death to obtain you all.”
“How do you know all this?” Kezia burst out. “And what do you want with us? We are only trying to get away from her!”
“Noroc told me all,” said the Treewitch. “And I have felt the great Baba finally moving between my trees. It is you she hunts now, but once she has swallowed your souls, she will seek to purge me from this forest forever.”
She said it all with very little emotion, and it was nothing new to me, but the matter-of-factness of the statements somehow sickened me.
“And will you let her do all that?” I asked, leaning towards her. “What will you do to stop the witch?”
The Treewitch turned her empty sockets to me, smiling, and I recoiled back against Kezia.
“I heard you,” she said. “You wish for the Baba and I to battle, to create a distraction so that you might escape. But I am afraid that I cannot fight the witch at all. I have not even been able to stop her from sending her servants here to scorch through my trees.”
I thought I detected a note of falseness to her sorrowful tone, and pressed on it.
“You lie. Haven’t you got a great big golem at your command? You could crush the witch and her followers. I’ve seen what golems can do against them, you know.”
I didn’t look at Kezia as I said this, but felt her grip on my hand slacken.
“Adamina is not at my command,” said the Treewitch, “and never has been. In any case, the Baba is far too clever for brute force. There shan’t be any great battle. Neither shall she swallow your souls. I do not intend to permit it.”
I exchanged a look with Kezia at this, and another with Vasilisa- in that moment, the three of us were united both by confusion and hope. But almost immediately my suspicions returned. This was too good to be true.
“How?” I asked. “How do you plan to keep us all out of her claws? And why?”
The Treewitch took a long, slow breath into her ethereal lungs. In the distance, the ground rattled and rumbled again.
“I am the heart of this forest,” she said. “I am the soul of this forest. I am the spirit of this forest. I was here before the first man was born, and I wish to be here when the last man dies. Man is the great changer, the great shifter, like the bison that trample the mountains flat or the beaver who dams the swift river and turns it into a slow lake. The little humans were frightened of me at first and were too frail to survive my depths… But they now chew away at my edges and use my bones to build their houses. Like leeches, they draw out pieces of my soul. But Adamina has helped me to get them back.”
She put a hand over her empty eyes.
“But what returns to me is not unchanged… What is the strange wonder of a human soul? The delicacy and the complexity and the trembling memories of it? It is dangerous; it is an addiction for spectres. Especially those like witches, who have lost their own souls. Perhaps I have become a witch, truly, myself. It is not merely my own survival I seek any longer. It is- a taste of that wonderful, hazardous experience of being human.”
A long silence followed her words, broken only by a very faint squeak above our heads- a straggler bat, flying rapidly to rejoin its fellows.
“You didn’t answer my questions,” I said.
The Treewitch sighed, and took her hand away from her face. In her palm, falling like tears from her eyes, were two little white flowers.
“One of you has already made her choice,” she said. “Now you, Gabi, and you, Kezia- which do you choose? To be with me- or with Baba Yaga?”