Muted yellow light floods the doorway, shriveling back as soon as it touches the night. In the middle of the doorway stands a small child, her dusky hair carefully swept back into a tight bun and her small, dark eyes carefully scrutinizing us. In her arms wriggles an obese white cat, desperate to be free.
Callum sniggers and steps around me to face her, somehow becoming less afraid in the process.
"Who're you?" He demands, managing to appear patronizing.
Her eyes widen in surprise, and her attention strays from my face to settle on his. Her lips thin in annoyance, but she drops the cat onto the ground as steps back into the house, gesturing for us to come inside.
"State your business, please," she says simply, turning her back to us. We step in after her, and I'm relieved I don't have to stoop to walk in, since she's shorter than even Callum. The house is one large room, and is lit completely by lanterns. Tapestries line the walls, leaving no space between them. The depictions on them squirm and move as the light flickers and progresses over them, as if they are alive and reenacting past scenes.
"You don't look like a witch," Callum says slowly, ignoring the warning look I send him. I'm thinking the same thing at first until I notice the smooth and casual way she dismisses his comment. Her steps are light and fluid, barely sinking into the plush Turkish carpets as she moves to the other side of the room. She pours a rich and dark liquid out of what looks like an antique teakettle into four chipped cups, smiling as she does so.
I shudder, wondering how a little girl could look like she was about to eat us.
She slides herself onto the table, still smiling benignly as she motions for us to drink.
"It's not poisoned, you know."
"I don't mean to be rude, but I've been warned against drinking anything Babba Yaga makes." My words come out in a rush, I'm so nervous. If she takes offence, the least of our worries would be if she decides not to help me. But her grin spreads wider, and I notice for the first time that she has yellowed, sharp little teeth. I can't help but feel nauseous.
"How did you know I was Babba Yaga? Drink. It's only coffee, you know." She giggles at the end of her sentence and squats down to set the fourth cup on the floor, clucking slightly as the cat greedily downs it. Callum watches the cat in disgust, not even bothering to hide his expression.
"You shouldn't give cats coffee." He declares, making a face at her proffered cup to him.
"You shouldn't come looking for witches."
"I don't even think you are a witch. You're just a little-."
"The way you walk, and your eyes," I cut him off and send him another warning glare as I answer her earlier question. "I'm not sure how to explain it… But I thought you were… older." My answer earns another wide grin from her. I feel vaguely uncomfortable with the knowledge that she's amused so easily.
"Call it a curse. Although I have to say it grants me certain… favors. I suppose you want yours consumed?" She says the last part casually, but her eyes are watchful for my reaction as she hovers her cup near her lips. I'm so surprised and anxious that she knows that I forget her formal statement.
"Yes. I was told you would know? I don't know how it affects me, but… I thought…" I shrug helplessly, suddenly realizing I didn't know what I thought would happen after this point.
"A moment," she murmurs, disappearing behind a door I hadn't noticed was there.
"That door wasn't there before," Callum whispers shakily, still staring at the wooden door she'd exited through. I take another sip of my coffee, suddenly feeling dizzy and slow. One of the caricatures in a nearby tapestry smiles and leans out of it, reaching out her arms to me. She looks incredibly real, as does the man next to her that holds a clean sword at his waist. I take a step, and then another, and then another, until I can finally reach out to touch her fingertips.
"Lucca?" Callum's frightened voice shatters the illusion, and I recoil backwards immediately, shocked. The woman and the man have disappeared, but the images on the tapestry are squirming even more than before, as if they were angry. There are too many people worked into the pattern to know if the woman is actually in it.
"It's the coffee. She's managed to drug me, I think. You didn't drink any, did you?" I say tiredly, and feel relief when he shakes his in silent horror. He's very pale, and I'm beginning to feel the first real twinges of shame. I shouldn't have ever brought him here, especially not for such a selfish reason.
Babba Yaga struts back through the door, hiding one fist behind her slightly. Annoyance flashes in her eyes, but it's there and gone so fast that I have to wonder if I'd imagined it. The door behind her fades back into the wall, and I smile wryly. She seems to like a lot of pomp for her theatrics, enough so that it almost becomes a cliché.
"So you're still here, I take it," she announces, and pops whatever is in her hand into her mouth, chewing obnoxiously. I wince, disgusted, but Callum is still staring at her like she's the devil incarnate.
"You drugged me," I say flatly. She waves her hand nonchalantly, as if to say, no big deal.
"You would deny an old woman her amusements? A lifetime and forever in one of my tapestries wouldn't be so bad. I hear there are some handsome princes in there." She manages to say this while still chewing loudly, and then winks salaciously as an added effect.
"Come here," She beckons, suddenly standing perfectly still and silent, her giant smile still in place. I hesitate, unsure, but then I feel my feet begin trudge towards her anyway, and I almost trip several times in the process. My head is beginning to ache, and the dizziness is returning.
I was stupid for trusting her, and drinking the coffee. It was so obvious that she'd try to drug us, and yet I still drank it. Why?
"Still closer, dear," she whispers, grasping my arms and jerking me down to her level, so that I'm on my knees on the ground. My mind goes blank, to the point where I'm not surprised that such a small body would have so much strength, so that I can only vaguely make out Callum's faint, terrified voice calling out to me.
And somehow, I don't care.
She smiles and tilts my head, and it feels so fast that I see a blur of two smiles instead of the only realistic one.
She presses her lips to my ear and spits. I'm so shocked and disgusted that my mind swims out of the fog it's trapped in, and I hear myself gasp for a moment, until I'm being dragged down again. She repeats the same thing to my other ear, but this time it's like looking out a veil, and I don't care, or notice. Another moment later and my head gently touches the floor as she lets go and lets me slide to the floor. I close my eyes and wait.
"Your curse was done through sound, so I purged it through sound. I'll take my price, and you and your secrets are now no longer welcome."
I can barely make sense of her words, content to lie there and try to breathe. Something sharp grips my leg and begins to drag my body out of her hut, out the door and down the steps.
I don't feel it, but I can see my spinning view of the stars outside, and I can faintly hear the sounds of desperate screaming.
I feel like I'm forgetting something, but give up when I can't keep the thought.
When I wake up there's dust in my mouth, my clothes are filthy and my jeans are sporting a gaping hole by my ankle, and it's nearly sunset. I sit up quickly, reeling slightly from my overwhelming headache, and glance around wildly.
I'm in town, miles away from the beach and my house and surrounded by cheap restaurants and tourist traps. It's hot and humid, and there's almost no one around with the exception of a few older women in brightly colored sundresses.
I lean back and stretch, my back protesting against the steps I'd woken up on. I'm in front of a cheap Chinese restaurant, complete with faded red paint and cheap stone lions on either side of myself. I'm surprised at first that no one's come out to yell at me for loitering, until I notice that it looks closed and broken down.
I'm forgetting something.
The thought hits me hard, along with a dozen or so blurred memories from earlier this morning.
I put my face in hands, wondering how I could've been so stupid. I thought I could protect him from the Fae at least, but I hadn't counted on meeting the infamous witch. I'd lost the curse, I could feel it's loss like an old skin, but I'd lost my brother in return. He'd trusted me, and I'd taken him along. And for what? For some dense idea to prove that I'm not having hallucinations when I see creatures right out of fairy tales?
I want to cry out of pure frustration and loss, but my eyes are dry and instead I feel bone-weary. I don't know how to get back, and I don't know how I'm going to explain my missing brother. Standing up shakily, I lean against one of the lions in an attempt to steady myself and think, but instead I'm examining both lions and trying to understand why they look so… wrong.
The first thing I notice are their eyes. I can't remember the details, but I've bought enough Chinese food to know that one of them is supposed to have their eyes closed, to represent death. Instead, both of them have their eyes open, which is meant to mean the opposite, life.
Or maybe it's the other way around.
I shrug it off, but then notice the piece of material clamped in between the teeth of the one I'm leaning against. I tear it out carefully, cradling it in my hands as I study it. It's a piece of denim, and matches the ripped hole in my pants perfectly, like a missing puzzle piece. A memory of being dragged out of the witch's hut by something sharp resurfaces.
I glance back at the lion's teeth and shudder, slowly stepping away from the restaurant. I don't turn my back, nearly stumbling as I attempt to walk backwards, but I'm too afraid to take my eyes off of the still lions. They appear frozen in the warm sunshine, but I don't take any chances and don't turn my back until I'm far enough away, and I can walk quickly enough. My spine is tingling, and I can't help but continuously look back at the unmoving statues until I've put enough distance between the restaurant and myself.
A short, squat woman bumps into me, her beady dark eyes narrowing as she spits out vicious words that I ignore. My head is beginning to spin, and alarm is beginning to build rapidly as I walk faster. I needed to get home, needed to explain…
I don't look back.