From College to Black Rose: Reflections, and What Lies Ahead

I’m grateful for all the reader feedback to my Stranger Things series. In the Upside Down Trilogy I told the tragedy of Mike Wheeler and his son, as I imagine them, and how Eleven survives the traumas of these events. The Hopper Stories are supplementary prequels in which I explored the relationship between Eleven and her father, as they team up against threats completely unrelated to the Upside Down. There is one more story to come, per reader request: the (first) death of Mike Wheeler. It will be the capstone to my series, the prequel to end all prequels, and a very dark tale.

One reader asked me to rank the five stories to date, but I can’t possibly be objective about my own work. I can say that World’s End is my favorite of the five, and I really like the whole Upside Down trilogy for its soul. Here’s generally how I feel about them. (Spoilers follow. If you want to read the stories before any commentary, click on the links.)

 

The Upside Down Trilogy

The College Years was the most personal and emotional story for me to write, since Mike Wheeler is my favorite character from the TV series. Killing him off twice did a number on me.

The New Generation contains the most difficult chapter in the entire series: El’s battle with the Llaza. It’s a very abstract clash, inner as much outer, and it went through a lot of revisions until I was happy with it. It’s my favorite El-battle in the five stories. And Mike Hopper’s aging backwards is almost as emotional as the death of his father in the first story.

World’s End plays for high stakes, and is my favorite overall. It has everything — suspense, emotion, time travel, personal sacrifice, all in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

 

The Hopper Stories

The Witch of Yamhill County was a gratifying jerk-off. It’s a brutal dungeon crawl that allowed me to bring a killer D&D module to life in a way I’ve always wanted to.

The Black Rose of Newberg is a murder mystery exploring Eleven’s vulnerabilities. Being ultra-powerful makes her dysfunctional, and I wanted to examine that in a serious way. The story also finally gave me the opportunity to use her Void-surfing powers (when she visits people or spies on them in the black ether). In the other four stories, she uses her telekinetic abilities to kick ass, but a murder mystery calls for more spying and subterfuge.

 

The Fall of Mike Wheeler (forthcoming)

Readers have told me they want to know Mike’s full story — his breakup with El, his death and obscene resurrection, and his imprisonment in the Upside Down. As I said, that’s a dark story, and I hope to tell it sometime within the next year, probably in the fall or winter. It will narrate the final challenge faced by the Hawkins kids in their pre-adult years, followed by Mike’s life of hell in the Upside Down. The novel will (tentatively) be titled Endless Night.

The Witch of Yamhill County (Chapter 9)

This nine-chapter novella is the first of two stories set in between the periods of Stranger Things: The College Years and Stranger Things: The New Generation. I advise reading those stories, as well as the third in that trilogy, Stranger Things: World’s End, before reading this one, which is supplementary and does not involve the Upside Down. Like the Upside Down trilogy, it’s a work of fan fiction based on the Stranger Things TV series. I do not profit from these stories and they are not canon. There is plenty of Stranger Things fiction to be found online (see here), but if I learn that the Duffer Brothers do not appreciate fan fiction of their work, or if they order a cease-and-desist, I will gladly pull the stories down.

                                The Witch of Yamhill County — Chapter Nine

                            The Fruit that Heals

“Come on, kid, stay with me. Jane.” Her father almost never used her name. “Wake up.”

She opened her eyes. It was like lifting Mount Hood. Every movement was an agony, and it hurt to breathe. Her arm that wasn’t there shouted at her, demanding redress. She looked around.

They were outside, under a night sky. By the circle of skulls glowing their filthy decay. Her father was holding an orange in front of her. “Dad,” she croaked, barely audible. “I’m done. Just save Sara. And make sure Mike is taken care of.”

“You are not done, do you hear me? Sara’s already better, thanks to one of these. So am I. Now it’s your turn. I got us outside, but you need to eat this before we go on.” He put the fruit to her mouth. It was an apple, she realized, not an orange; but it looked like no apple she’d ever seen. She humored her father and took a weak bite.

She was wide awake at once. It was a massive adrenaline shot without the kick. The juices hit her tongue, and her mouth felt electric. She couldn’t believe what she was tasting. Fruit this refreshing and sweet didn’t exist. She sat up straighter and took the apple from her father’s hand, needing no more coaxing. She ate greedily, biting off more than she could chew. It was so good she was crying — literally the best thing she had ever eaten. Her exhaustion had vaporized. The pain was still there, but it was pushed to the periphery. Life itself raced through her system and took control.

“Slow down,” said her father, stroking her head. “Chew it up good. It’s amazing, isn’t it?”

Jane paused to catch up, her mouth so full she could only nod. She was down to the core in no time; except there was no core. The center of the apple was no different from the rest of it. She shoved the remainder into her mouth, savoring it while it lasted. She wanted another one; hell, she wanted ten more of these apples. She moved to stand up.

“Hold on,” said her father.

“Let me up, Dad.”

“Just wait. Something should happen now.”

Something should happen? It had happened all right. Jane Hopper wanted to live again. Then something did happen: her shoulder flared painfully, and there was movement inside the wound. Jane cried out, revolted. Her father told her to watch.

A stub of bone and flesh crawled out of Jane’s shoulder — a gross appendage that resembled a huge worm. Then it expanded and took on form. Jane gasped and watched it grow. It shot out, winding, and bent at a new elbow. It protracted further into the length of an arm. A hand materialized at the end, blooming like a star. The fingers wiggled, testing their new livelihood, and Jane realized she was the one moving them. She had a new arm working at full capacity.

“Jesus,” her father breathed. “It really worked.”

Her arm was completely indistinguishable from the old. Jane wondered if she had really woken up. Limbs didn’t regenerate.

“She’s all well again?” It was a girl, speaking behind her.

“Yeah,” said Hopper. “She’s going to be fine.”

Jane turned and saw Sara Schwartz. The girl was standing calmly, with no sign of madness or hysteria. A sadness weighed on her, but she seemed strangely at peace, which was impossible; her family had just been murdered.

“I’m sorry, Sara,” said Jane.

“So am I,” said Sara. “I loved them. Well, I loved Abby. Mom was mean. But the sheriff is going to take care of me now.” Of course he was. This girl would be Sara Hopper by the beginning of fall.

“It was a horrible thing for you to go through,” said Jane. “I wish I could have saved them.”

“I wanted to die,” said Sara. “But I ate an apple too.”

“Hers was indigo,” said Hopper. “There was a tree inside the hut, with special apples. Each color has its own healing power. Orange grows back missing limbs. Indigo cures madness and mental stress. It calms the mind.”

“It was good,” said Sara. “Your dad ate an apple too.”

Jane looked at him. “You ate one?”

“I ate two. Now listen to me.” He took another apple from the pack. It was the bright yellow of the sun. “This is the last one. It’s for Mike.” She stared. Mike? “It heals blindness. I mean, I don’t know. I don’t know if it will work on someone who doesn’t have eyes anymore. But it’s worth a shot. I know I’m not supposed to talk about him to you –”

“Dad –”

“Just listen. The blue apple was for him too. Blue is the cure for fear — for anxiety and terror. But I had to eat that one. Whatever the witch did to me, I would have been screaming for the rest of my life. I’m sorry. I wanted Mike to have it. So his nightmares would stop. So he’d start feeling safe again.” He looked miserable.

She reached out and hugged him. “I’m glad you ate it.”

They held each other under the night sky, at peace with each other — a peace they hadn’t had in years. Sara came over and embraced them both. Jane remembered this from long ago: at the quarry, Dustin embosoming her and Mike.

“I was going to try saving the kid,” said Jane, letting go.

“What?”

“The kid you said she stole tonight. I was going to send you and Sara home, while I went to the kitchen. Then the throne room happened.”

“I don’t think there was another kid tonight,” he said.

“Why not?”

“Because Baba Yaga took Sara’s family instead. When she took Sara on Thursday, no other kid went missing that night.”

“Well, that’s something, at least,” said Jane.

“But I’m only guessing,” said her father. “For all I know she did take another kid. I have to go back and make sure. You and Sara are safe now. Take her in your car and get out of here.”

“No! You are not going back inside that Hut!”

“The witch is dead, and I’m only going as far as the kitchen.”

“No way,” said Jane. “I’ll do this. You take Sara and get out of here.”

“Look, I don’t care if you’re the powerful one. This is my job, and I screwed up my job so royally tonight that I can’t even stomach the sight of my badge. I’m going to have to tell three different parents that I let their kids die. I’m going to do this –”

A loud crash made them jump. It came from the circle’s center. They all stood and looked out at the Hut.

“No!” shouted Jane. “That’s impossible! You fucking bitch!”

A hundred feet away, the Hut’s door was open. A figure stumbled in the doorway and stepped out. It was Baba Yaga. She had her head on backwards, and staggered about as if dazed. Then she saw the unholy trio at the edge of her circle: the little dove; the rescuing pig; the vicious cunt. She let out a caterwaul so piercing they had to cover their ears. Then she wobbled, turned around, and lurched back inside the Hut.

“This nightmare isn’t over,” said Hopper.

“The Mama’s still alive,” said Sarah. “What’s going to happen now?”

The Hut answered her question. When the door shut, it leaped up on its legs, spinning and stamping a different dance than the one either Jane or her father had seen. Suddenly the air shimmered, and the Hut appeared hazy and out of focus. The skulls flickered, their ghost light wavering. There was a hum that got louder and louder. It hit a crescendo; and the Circle of Death vanished. The clearing was empty. The Hut had taken its dance elsewhere.

Jane was shaking. That’s right, you bitch. And don’t you dare come back.

Baba Yaga had staked a claim on Yamhill County and failed. The witch knew terror now, thanks to Jane. She had come close to being killed; the closest in centuries.

The nightmare was over after all. For Yamhill County at least.

 

But her father had guessed wrong. On Sunday morning, the parents of Amy Olson reported their daughter missing. Bellevue was an uproar. On top of little Amy gone, the Schwartz family had vanished, along with three teenagers. The Schwartz car was in the driveway, but no one could find Betty or her daughters. It was opined loudly that Betty Schwartz, loved by no one, was behind the kidnappings. Her reputation preceded her: she was a penny-pinching shrew, and had probably colluded with a sleazy ex boyfriend to extort money by the foulest means. Abigail, no doubt, had been forced to participate in her mother’s rapacious schemes. Those schemes had gone awry somehow; Betty and Abigail and the sleazy ex were on their way to the east coast. The ex had killed the kids; it was known that Betty dated psychopaths. Poor Sara had been abandoned; it was rumored that the sheriff’s office was taking care of her.

The gossip mills carried more truth than usual. Betty Schwartz was indeed a greedy bitch who had partaken in juvenile harm, though in the opposite way supposed: by selling her own daughter. She had nothing to do with the other kids, who had — each and every one by now — been shat out the ass of a terrible witch. But fairy tales wouldn’t sell in Yamhill County. Sheriff Hopper gave the gossip whores what they craved: easy answers. Their story became the official one. Betty and Abigail were the villains. The sheriff and two other people were the only ones who knew they were actually dead.

As for the three teenagers — Travis Mitchell, Leigh Davis, and Dashiell Nyberg — they were presumed dead. Somehow these close friends had witnessed the abduction of Amy Olson, and become liabilities. Betty and her ex had disposed of them accordingly.

Up in Portland, Jane Hopper rose that morning, feeling brighter and better than the residents of southern Yamhill. This surprised her for a few reasons. First was the time she rose. It was a little before seven o’clock. She had slept for only four hours and wasn’t tired at all. Last night’s ordeal should have left her a zombie.

She had returned home a little after 2:30 AM. Nicki had been snoring on the couch, and Jane didn’t wake her. Mike was trying to sleep in their bedroom, and he shot up the instant Jane came in. He pummeled her with questions; she parried with lies. The people of Yamhill had been spinning tales, she said. The only witch of Yamhill County was a grasping shrew who had fled to the east coast. Jane would never tell Mike the truth about Baba Yaga and the Dancing Hut. His own horrors were debilitating enough, and in recent months he had shown suicidal tendencies. Thank God he was blind; her face still had blood on it. She fed him the lies, showered, and fell into bed with him. Her took her furiously as he always did, and then they both fell asleep.

Now she was cooking breakfast for them. The yellow apple would be part of his. She felt good — for the first time in a long time; for herself and for Mike. She was wide awake on minimal sleep, probably because of the orange apple. The yellow one lay on the kitchen counter. She kept looking at it, and almost cut herself dicing tomatoes for Mike’s omelette. He was finishing his shower. Jane thought of her father, and wished he could have picked another blue apple. Sight would go a long way to restoring Mike as a person, but it was the fear that was ruining him.

He came in from the bathroom, in a t-shirt and shorts. Barefoot of course. She could smell the apple fragrance from his shampoo. A fitting omen.

“Is that bitch gone yet?” he asked, sitting down at their kitchen table.

She put a mug of coffee in front of him. “Thankfully yes, since you can only call her names.” Nicki had left before they got up.

“She was a pain in the ass last night,” he said. “I don’t know why you like her.”

The subject of Nicki Racine was wasted conversation on Mike. Jane eyed the apple next to her on the counter. It was impossibly bright: the purest yellow she had ever seen. “I brought you back something,” she said. “From Bernards.”

“They’re open at night?” he asked, sipping his coffee.

Shit. Of course not. “No, they were apples that… I mean, Dad had a bag of them in his car.”

“I eat my Honeycrisps, El.” His tone was plain: he wouldn’t eat anything that came from her father.

She took the yellow apple and put it in front of him. “Eat it, while your omelette is cooking.”

“I eat my apple after breakfast.”

“Eat it now,” she said. “I want to see your reaction.”

“No. I’ll wait.”

“Humor me, or you’re not getting your omelette.”

“Bitch.” He picked up the apple and bit into it.

She watched him carefully, her heart pounding.

His reaction copied hers from the night before. He was bowled over. “Wow! What kind is it?”

“What kind does it taste like?” she asked.

“It’s good!” he said with his mouth full. “It’s not a Honeycrisp. Or Pink Lady.” Those were his favorites, and the kind she bought for him. There was a bag of Honeycrisps in their fridge right now.

“It’s a yellow apple,” she said. “I don’t know what kind. Like I said, Dad got them from Bernards.”

“Well, you have to find out what kind!” He kept taking bites before he could finish swallowing. “Its not Golden Delicious, that’s for sure. Jesus, it’s good.”

“Glad you like it.” She came over and ran her fingers through his hair. Please. See again.

“Shit,” he muttered. He was already at the core and upset. “That was really good. Like, the best apple I ever had.”

“I think you can eat the core too. I don’t see any seeds.”

He crammed the rest into his mouth. “You’re right!” he sprayed juice with his mouth full. “I want another one, El!”

Jane wanted to shout: Do you feel any different? Can you see?

“Give me another!” he repeated.

“It’s the only one,” she said. “If you want another apple, it’ll have to be a Honeycrisp.”

“I don’t want a Honeycrisp!”

“Calm down, Mike.” It should be working by now. By this point her new arm had begun growing. She sat on his knees. “How do you feel?”

His craters stared back. “I feel like another one of those apples. Why didn’t you bring more?”

Her heart sank. If that apple could heal blindness, it apparently needed a pair of eyes to work the healing on. Oh, Mike. She hugged him.

“El,” he said, prying her off him. “You need to go to Bernards today, and buy a few bags of those.”

She got up and went to the stove, brushing tears from her eyes. She added whipped eggs to the pan of frying vegetables.

Mike shouted at her: “Did you hear me, El?”

“Jesus, yes!” She slammed the spatula down. “Yes, Your Majesty Michael!”

“Don’t give me attitude, El.” He stood and came over to her, putting his arms around her. “You’re too big for your britches.”

“Shut up and sit down while — what are you doing?”

He was feeling her up and down, is what he was doing. He had stopped his bitching and clearly wanted something else. He spun her around to face him and began kissing her roughly. She felt the hardness in his pants. Are you kidding me? We just fucked after 3:00 this morning. Mike had a wildly unrestrained libido, and she liked that; their savage tumbles — in bed, on the bedroom floor, on the living room floor, even on the outside balcony — slaked a deep thirst inside her. But she was making breakfast. And he was far too stimulated after spending himself a few hours ago.

“Mike, seriously?” He kneaded her breasts and pushed his tongue into her mouth. Then, abruptly, he spun her again, and shoved her onto the kitchen floor face down. He started yanking her pants off. “Jesus! Will you lay off, your omelette is going to burn — HEY!!!” She turned her head sideways to yell up at him. He was about to ass-fuck her. “What have we talked about? Get the lube if you’re going to do it that way!”

“It’s in the bedroom, El,” he panted in her ear. “Come on, you can take it without the lube.”

She had taken it without the lube once, and screamed so that the next-door neighbors could hear. Mike had gotten wildly off on it. She enjoyed anal sex, but lube was rather essential. “No,” she said, shifting beneath him, and looking sideways and upwards at her desk over in the living room. “There’s an unopened box in my top drawer.”

Mike had no intentions of getting said box. He was not about to be inconvenienced, and certainly not cheated from his sex.

For Christ’s sake. If Mike Wheeler’s girlfriend had been anyone other than Jane Hopper, he would have been a certified rapist by now. Years of torture in the Upside Down had made him primitive in some ways. From her position on the kitchen floor, she pointed her arm into the living room, at the desk drawer. It popped open; a small rectangular box drifted into the air and then flew straight into her outreached hand. “Here!” she said, reaching backwards to hand him the lube. “Use it!”

She heard him tear open the box impatiently, and pop the tube cap. He lathered himself up, and then he was deep inside her before she registered the force of his entry. She gasped as he proceeded to sodomize her right under his burning omelette. Oh my great fucking God. She was seeing stars. The pain was a piercing ecstasy, and it felt like heaven. She loved being pounded like this; loved the animal that was Mike Wheeler. Was the apple responsible for his sexual explosion? Her apple had given her an adrenaline surge last night, but nothing like this.

Ten minutes later he was still going strong. “Mike,” she moaned, though she really didn’t want him to stop. She looked up at the stove, and used her power to turn the burner off. The omelette would be blackening by now. “I’ll have to make you a new omelette,” she said feebly. Oh, fuck breakfast.

Mike agreed: his girlfriend was his breakfast right now. He took her for ten minutes more.

 

“I’m sorry, kid,” said her father. “Without eyes, I guess there was nothing to cure.”

“Yeah.” She was on the phone with him. It was much later in the day, and Mike was taking his afternoon nap.

“I failed everyone last night.”

“Stop it, Dad. You didn’t fail me. Or Sara.” She didn’t want to ask him about the families of those kids he was with last night. His visits to their parents must have demolished him. “Please tell me you didn’t turn in your badge.”

“I almost did.”

“Dad.”

“Don’t worry, I’m going to hang on. For Sara.” She knew his job paid well, and as sheriff he could pull strings for a quick adoption.

“Good. But about those apples. Do they do anything besides heal?”

There was a long pause. “Oh. Yeah. The side benefits.”

“Side benefits?” she asked.

“I forgot about those,” said her father. “There’s a special benefit for each apple color, besides the way it heals.”

“What are these ‘benefits’?”

“Oh, they’re like… I think the red apple I ate is supposed to make me resistant to heat. Hold on, let me get the list.”

She waited. Resistant to heat. Where the hell did these apples come from?

He was back. “Here we go. So yeah, the red apple makes me heat resistant. ‘Temps up to 110 degrees feel like room temperature.’ It’s true. I was wondering why it felt so cool in my hot office today.”

“What about the orange?” she asked.

“It provides energy. Wow. You’re supposed to need only half the normal amount of sleep. Is that true?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact. I slept only four hours last night.”

“From now on, your days are longer than the rest of ours. You have more life to enjoy.”

It was true. She would have tons of extra time on her hands now. “And the yellow?”

“That one… Oh. Well.”

“What?” Just say it.

“Has Mike been any different?”

“Dad.”

“He’s supposed to be extra virile. It says ‘tireless sexual performance every four hours’.”

Every four hours?

Her father sounded amused. “Good thing you’ll be sleeping less.”

“So instead of Mike getting his sight back, he’s a sex machine.”

“I hope I didn’t make things worse.”

“No, I mean… It’s great.” And it was. But if Mike thought he was fucking her every four hours, every day, he was in for some serious disappointment. Jane Hopper was a horn dog, but not always, and not quite that often.

“I’m also resistant to cold,” he said. “Thanks to the blue apple. ‘Temps down to minus 10 degrees feel like room temperature’.”

“You can live outside all year round,” she said.

“Holy shit.”

“What is it?” she asked.

“I’m looking at the indigo. Sara’s apple. It says ESP ability.”

“What’s ESP?” she asked.

“It’s means reading people’s thoughts. Sara’s already done that to me a couple of times. Last night and this morning. I thought it was just a weird coincidence.”

“You’re going to have to watch what you think around her.”

“No kidding. Jesus. She’s going to be a psychic, like you.”

“I’m glad I can’t read thoughts.” Jane didn’t want to know anyone’s innermost feelings. If they were like hers, they could be embarrassing. And ugly.

“Yeah. I’m not sure I want a little girl inside my head.”

“I’ve got to go now. Mike’s getting up.”

“Okay, well… have fun.” He sounded amused.

“Shut up,” she said, hanging up.

 

That night, Mike woke screaming. It was a bad episode. Jane held him until he settled down.

“He was inside our home, El.” Shaking, crying.

“Shh.” She stroked his head. “I’ll never let anything hurt you.”

“He was opening my chest, and filling it with… stuff. Living stuff. From the Upside Down.”

She rested her cheek against his. “He can’t get you anymore. I killed him.”

“But he’s there.”

She would have given her left arm all over again, if Mike could eat a blue apple.

It took him half an hour to quiet and start drifting. Jane was getting back to sleep too, and then Mike spoke unexpectedly:

“El?”

“Yes, honey.”

“I want to start treating you better.”

Here we go. “Yeah, I think we’ve been here before.”

“I know, I say it all the time. But I want to get better. And stop yelling at you all the time. You take so much shit from me.” He was terrified of losing her.

She kissed him. “I’m not going anywhere.”

He kissed her back. “Can we do it now?”

“Since when do you bother asking?”

“Well… I’m asking.”

That won’t last. The only reason for his courtesy was the nightmare he was getting over.

“You pick this time,” he said, assuming her consent after all. “Front or back?”

She sighed. “Front.” She had come to bed only an hour ago, at 2:00 AM. Her new sleep schedule. This would be their fifth fuck since Mike ate the yellow apple that morning. Twice she had taken it up the ass, and that was enough sodomy for one day, thank you. Jane had been very accommodating, feeling awful about Mike’s blindness not being cured. Not that he knew anything about that; nor did he seem surprised about his ultra-inflamed libido. He was a walking hormone anyway. But he would have to work on disciplining these new urges. She had sleepless nights and sore days ahead of her.

He got on top of her, spread her legs, settled himself inside — and was off like a jackrabbit. And as he fucked her brains out for twenty minutes straight, Jane thought of Baba Yaga and the Dancing Hut; and the tree of colored apples. And wondered where they were now.

 

Follow Hopper and Eleven’s next outing in The Black Rose of Newberg.

(Previous Chapter: The Witch of Yamhill County)

The Witch of Yamhill County (Chapter 8)

This nine-chapter novella is the first of two stories set in between the periods of Stranger Things: The College Years and Stranger Things: The New Generation. I advise reading those stories, as well as the third in that trilogy, Stranger Things: World’s End, before reading this one, which is supplementary and does not involve the Upside Down. Like the Upside Down trilogy, it’s a work of fan fiction based on the Stranger Things TV series. I do not profit from these stories and they are not canon. There is plenty of Stranger Things fiction to be found online (see here), but if I learn that the Duffer Brothers do not appreciate fan fiction of their work, or if they order a cease-and-desist, I will gladly pull the stories down.

                               The Witch of Yamhill County — Chapter Eight

                     The Witch of Yamhill County

Jane Hopper looked down at her father from mountain tops of pain. In some ways she resembled the avenging daemon she had just slain. Her face promised murder, and she bled from all places vulnerable: her nose, her ears, her soul. It was a miracle she was inside the Hut; that she had found this prison. It had cost her more than her worst battles in Hawkins.

“Dad?” she repeated. He was having trouble seeing her. The light in these cells was torturous. But then he recognized her, and cried her name like a desperate prayer. She sat down and took him in her arms. “I’m here, Dad.”

He was alive but crushed. She had never seen him this diminished. Through his anguish he was trying to make her understand. They had to find Sara. There was a bedroom. There was this, there was that. Most of it she didn’t make sense of, but the gist was that he blamed himself for everything, and for too many kids who were dead.

She interrupted him: “Okay, Dad; calm down. We’ll find Sara. We’ll get out of here. But where’s Baba Yaga?” Jane had expected to find the witch torturing her father, not some lackey. She was relieved to be wrong about that. Jane Hopper did not want to meet Baba Yaga under any circumstances. According to Mike and Lucas, psychic powers would be useless against the witch. Their D&D game knowledge had proven accurate so far.

Her father struggled to get up. “She’s due back any time. At midnight.” She checked her watch: 11:54. “I know where Sara’s room is. We have to go now.”

Jane had questions but let them go for now. “Can you walk?”

“I’ll walk,” he rasped. Her father would walk with broken legs if he had to.

“You need a doctor,” she said, helping him up.

“A red apple is what I need, and I’m shit out of luck there. Listen, did you see any rooms out there that might be storage for prisoners’ belongings? And what about other prisoners?”

“There are five more cells,” she said, “but they’re empty.”

“Good. I need my gun. And the backpack I had.”

“There was a door across from the one I came in; that might be where your things are kept. We’ll check on the way out. Come on.”

They stepped over glass and went through the cell door that was no longer a door, thanks to her. She had shattered it before shattering the daemon’s brain. That had cost too. Her head felt like a road tire. She was breathing heavily. Jane Hopper had almost killed herself getting inside this damned Hut.

“Jesus,” said her father, looking at her face. “What the hell happened to you?”

What had happened had pushed her far beyond her limits. She had arrived in Bellevue at around quarter after nine, and from that point had used her psychic radar to track her father’s location. The bandana and radio had been unnecessary. The Void showed her father on a ladder with another girl in a huge library. The path to her father had taken her off the road and into woods where she had to walk a long way before finding his sheriff’s car. From there it was minutes to the forest clearing. Mike had warned her about the skulls that shot fire. Two had been destroyed; her father’s handiwork no doubt. She passed safely between those two.

Then she had run towards the Hut — not really believing that it pranced around on chicken legs — until it sprang up at her approach. She had no idea how her father had gotten inside, only that he must have; her psychic tracking never misled her. Forcing the Hut to settle on the ground had been the worst strain she had ever put on her mind. The Hut was small on the outside, and on the outside it weighed just as it looked. But it was a multidimensional artifact, and its magic went deep; it resisted coercion with a vengeance. Her ears had gushed blood along with her nose, and her head felt like it would rupture. She was on the verge of passing out when the Hut finally bowed to her will. Then she blasted the door open — and did pass out then, collapsing on the floor of the entry hovel. When she woke, her watch said 11:09. She had been unconscious for over an hour.

From that point, she had tracked her father from the entry hovel to the prison, using the fastest route inside the Hut. She went into a huge throne room, then a domed room with planets on the walls, then a meeting hall, and then the work rooms. It had taken repeated searches of the cleaning room to find the secret door to the prison. Without her powers she couldn’t have done it. The door was magically sealed into the wall and completely invisible. She had probed mentally against every square foot of the walls, until the door’s framework finally showed.

“Long story,” she said.

“Well, how did you find me? Oh, yeah… I mean, how did you know I would need you?”

“When I mentioned Baba Yaga to Mike, he went crazy. You know the game he played with his friends? Dungeons & Dragons. There was this adventure called The Dancing Hut, and they played it. I called Lucas. Between him and Mike, they described Baba Yaga according to the game rules. I got worried about you. That game is usually accurate.”

“Yeah, well, praise fucking D&D,” said her father.

They walked down a corridor, passed between a pair of glass doors, and then came between two wooden doors. The one on the left led back to the work rooms. She pointed to the door on the right, and her father opened it. Like she had suggested, it was a store room for personal belongings; the shelves were mostly vacant. Her father’s gun was there, along with the backpack he had mentioned. He went in and grabbed his gun, and stuffed it in his belt holster. Then he tore open the pack. He took out and handled another gun, and then what looked to Jane like colorful balls, all very bright. Her father seemed satisfied, and then zipped the pack, saying that he was ready.

They left the prison through the door she had come through. It put them back in the cleaning room her father didn’t recognize. He would have been unconscious when he was carried though. It was full of mops, buckets, scrub brushes, rags, powdered soaps, and jars of polish. They closed the secret door behind them, and it was invisible again. They went out into the nexus chamber connecting the four work rooms. A stairwell descended below; Jane didn’t know where it went.

Her father did. “Sara’s down there. It’s her bedroom. Wait here, I’ll go alone. She sleeps under her bed because she’s scared of her stuffed toys. And all the other morbid shit in her room. If I’m not back in two or three minutes, come get us.” Then he looked at his watch. “Oh shit. It’s midnight.”

Her watch said the same. “How do you know Baba Yaga comes back at midnight?”

“The kids I was working with knew the girl who served Baba Yaga before Sara. It’s a long story, and those kids are dead because I was so damn useless. But you’re not. You give that bitch everything you’ve got if she shows up.”

“Dad –”

“From now on, we have to assume Baba Yaga is somewhere in the hut.”

“Dad.”

“What?”

“I think I’m useless against Baba Yaga.”

“What do you mean?”

“In the D&D game, psychic power doesn’t have any effect on her. She’s immune to mental forces.”

He looked appalled. “Maybe the game is wrong.”

“Everything Mike and Lucas told me has been right so far.”

He took off the backpack and tore it open. He took out the second gun. “It’s not hard to use,” he said. “Let me show you.”

“That won’t work either.”

“Excuse me?”

“Baba Yaga can’t be harmed by normal weapons. You need magic to hurt her.”

Her father was aghast. “You’re saying that if I pump her full of six bullets, she won’t feel a thing?”

Jane nodded, feeling sick. If Baba Yaga found them, there was no way they were leaving this place alive. The way to survive Baba Yaga was by avoiding her. “Go get Sara. We’ll leave the way I came to get you, unless you know a faster way out.”

He shook his head. “From here, your way is faster.” He ran down the stairs.

While she waited, Jane looked into the two rooms she hadn’t seen. The first was a laundry room. There were two tubs, a few lines for hanging laundry, and a pile of dirty linen. No one was working here currently. The other room was teeming with noise, and Jane was amazed to see mice running everywhere. It was a rodent sewing room, like the food room with the sparrows.

She closed the door as her father returned up the stairs. He was carrying a pretty black-haired girl. Jane smiled. One look at Sara Schwartz, and she knew her father was in love.

Sara looked scared at the sight of Jane. “That’s her?” she asked Hopper. Jane didn’t want to see a mirror. Her face was blood-streaked and she felt like a wraith, as if she had lost twenty pounds in the last two hours.

“That’s my daughter,” her father said. “She went through a lot to come rescue us. Now we need to be quiet, okay?” Sara nodded, staring at Jane.

Jane turned and led them into the food sorting room. It was the way she had come; it connected to the meeting hall. The room contained baskets of grain, sunflower seeds, and all sorts of berries. Tiny sparrows swooped from one basket to the next, picking pebbles out of grain, shells out of seeds, and twigs out of berries. Sara was at once delighted and called to one of the birds. The sheriff hushed her, and they went into the meeting hall.

It was an auditorium that looked rarely used. A seventy-foot long table spanned the area, surrounded by at least thirty chairs. The walls were engraved with detailed pictures: battles between demons and devils; torture parlors, where hags and witches worked obscenities on helpless victims; vampire blood baths.

“I cleaned this room yesterday,” piped Sara. “The table and the walls.”

Jane saw her father’s jaw tighten. These were horrible images for a seven-year old girl to scrub.

Jane continued retracing her steps, taking them around the head of the table to the door at the other head. “The planet room is next,” she said. “We’ll be coming out of a globe.”

The planet room was a wonder. They stepped out of a huge globe of the earth: a relief map of the world six feet in diameter. The globe stood in a corner of a vast room over eighty feet wide. Each of the side walls were studded with four glowing spheres depicting the eight planets of the solar system, minus the earth. The detail was remarkable, and Jane suspected they explained more about Mars, Jupiter, and Neptune than any scientist could. The planets provided minimal light. The room was meant to be mostly dark.

Jane saw the alcove leading into a smaller room. She had already been in there; it was a library of star maps and solar charters. At the far end of the room was a round dais two feet high. It held a reclining easy chair decorated with silver stars. Over the dais was a domed ceiling that was higher than even the rest of the room.

“Jesus,” said her father. “This is an astronomer’s wet dream.”

“Where is it wet?” asked Sara, still in his arms.

Jane looked across to the other corner at their end. When she had first come here from the throne room, it wasn’t through a door. She had floated down a pit in the middle of a stairwell, and landed in a ring of balloons. She could see the balloons over there now. The only doors in the room were the one in the globe, and a black door on one of the side walls, between two planets. She had tried the black door before, and it was locked.

Her father saw the black door and reacted. “We really need to be quiet,” he said. “I think that door leads to Baba Yaga’s bedroom. There were black doors just like it in the library and the baths.”

“Do you know where it goes, Sara?” asked Jane.

Sara shook her head. “I’m not allowed in this room on my own. I was in here the first night, with the Mama. She sat on the stage, in the star chair, and she said something to make the ceiling open up. You could look up and see stars everywhere. And they looked close.”

“So how do we get to the throne room?” asked her father.

“The balloons,” said Sara.

“What balloons?” he asked.

“Over there,” said Jane. “It’s where I landed, when I floated down a magic pit.”

“You have to grab a balloon,” said Sara, “and it pulls you up to the throne room. But I’m not allowed to do it.”

“You’re doing it,” said the sheriff, kissing her head. “And so are we.”

They started walking across the colossal room. Her father was agitated about something, and she asked him what was wrong.

“What’s wrong,” he said, “is that someone gets screwed no matter what. It’s good that we’re taking the faster way out, and not just because it’s faster. I think when Baba Yaga comes back from her nightly prowls, she eats right away. So she’s probably in the kitchen right now. On the other side of the hut.”

“Then that’s good.”

“Not for some kid,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“The kid she abducted tonight. She gets one every night. That kid is probably hanging on her meat hooks now. Maybe already dead. Another fucking kid I failed.” He explained to her his original plan, which he had modified when he had reached the kitchen. Once Dash had found the buckets of little skeletons, her father had realized that Baba Yaga was a cannibal who was slaughtering the missing kids. “I wanted to find Sara, get her out, and then come back with reinforcements before midnight and ambush the witch. But I got trapped here a lot longer.”

“Your plan was crazy,” said Jane. He and all the cops in Oregon couldn’t take on Baba Yaga. Besides that, it was impossible to surprise or “ambush” the witch. What had Mike said? That she could smell anyone thirty feet away. She told her father this. “You can’t be everyone’s savior, Dad.”

“Jesus, kid, don’t you talk to me like that after the night I just had. I’m a cop. I’m supposed to save people. Especially kids. And I let three kids under my protection die tonight. Can’t I at least save one child from ending up in a crock pot?”

“You’re saving Sara.” Jane already knew what she would try, for her father. And that she would die for it. She was powerless against Baba Yaga.

Sara had been following their discussion and was very upset. “The Mama eats kids?”

Hopper hugged her tight. “You’re going to be safe. Don’t worry.”

They were at the ring of balloons now. There were nine of them, all tied to a ring set in the floor. The balloons were maps of the earth, like the huge globe they had come from.

“I’ll go first,” said Jane, picking a balloon. As soon as she removed the string from the floor, she was jerked into the air. She rose fast. She looked up and could see a giant hole in the ceiling. It was the pit she had floated down.

“We’re right behind you,” called her father softly. Jane could see him working with Sara and making her go next. Soon they were all rising, surrounded by a stairwell that winded up almost two hundred stairs. After a full minute Jane saw the stairtop. She noticed a bar set into the wall — presumably for balloon riders to grab onto and pull themselves onto the stairtop before their balloons hit the ceiling. She reached for the bar with hand, and swung onto the stairtop; when she was safe she let go of the balloon with her other hand. Sara drifted up beside her, and Jane pulled the girl to safety. Then her father landed. The three balloons continued floating up twenty more feet, and popped loudly when they hit the ceiling. Her father swore at the noise they made.

“That was fun!” said Sara.

Hopper hushed her. Jane looked and saw the door she had come through less than an hour ago. She opened it and they passed into another huge hall. And gasped in shock.

It was the throne room as she remembered it: about the same size as the observatory; over eighty feet long and wide. The floor was solid gold. Four iron statues stood in each corner: grotesque representations of what Lucas had called “daemons”. Eighty feet away, at the far end, was the throne. Jane had gotten a good look at it before; it was priceless beyond imagination, studded with hundreds of gems — rubies, emeralds, diamonds, and pearls. A golden brazier sat on each side of the throne, making the gems sparkle in their hissing light. Elsewhere in the room, light came from torches hung on the wall. It was the throne room as she remembered it.

Except that it wasn’t. Because now there were people present. And the throne was occupied.

The people were two. One lay broken on the floor, her arms and legs torn from their sockets. She was on her stomach, and her head was twisted one hundred and eighty degrees, as if to plead mercy from gods above. There were no gods here tonight. The woman was in her thirties, or had been; she was now certainly dead. The other person stood up straight, facing the throne. She looked like a teenager, but it was difficult to tell with her back facing them.

The throne’s occupant was hard to see, but there was no mistaking the terror she radiated from even that far away. It was Baba Yaga.

Hopper set Sara down and drew his gun. Jane moved to preempt him. She knew that whatever was about to happen would end terribly for them all. She summoned her power and threw it at the witch on the throne. Her psychic blast may as well have been a cough on the Great Wall of China. Eighty feet away, the throne’s occupant sat unmoved, glaring at the intruders.

We have to run. If we stay, we die. But she knew that her father would never do that, and Jane somehow doubted they would get ten feet before the witch obliterated them with death magic. Jane went after her father.

He had reached the teenager standing in the center of the hall, and now got in front of her. Immediately he began firing his gun at the throne. Except it wasn’t his gun; not his revolver, which was still at his belt. Nor did it sound like it. It was the other gun Jane had seen in the backpack when they left the prison. Ear-splitting bangs went off as Jim Hopper shot Baba Yaga, and kept shooting her over and over. Far more than six bullets went into the witch; to Jane it sounded like sixteen. It must have been what her father had once described as a “semi-automatic” pistol. When it ran empty, everyone stared at the throne.

Baba Yaga still sat unmoved. Then, with a slow menacing theater, she stood. The bullets hadn’t harmed her at all.

“Fucking bitch!” Her father threw the gun aside and drew his own, which Jane knew had six bullets. Not that it mattered; all guns were toys in this room. He fired it anyway, as the witch hobbled toward them. Every shot was a bullseye, nailing her chest, neck, and head. She neither bled nor flinched.

Then Sara screamed. She had run up to the immobile teenager, whom she clearly recognized:

“Abby!”

They must have been sisters. Abby was rigid and apparently unable to speak. Sara hugged Abby’s waist and kept wailing her name. Then Sara saw the dead woman on the floor, and went hysterical. It was obviously her mother. Hopper reached for Sara and clasped her as she cried in his arms.

The witch stopped fifteen feet away, hunched over a walking stick. Her face was the ugliest Jane had ever seen: the eyes were spiteful and yellow; the skin a battleground of sores. She addressed the girl whose world she had just shattered:

“Let go of the pig, little dove.” It was the voice of disease and a million blades.

The pig had plenty to say. Hopper’s face was a tornado of protective fury.”She’s leaving with us, you bitch! Just let us all go!”

“And Abby!” cried Sara. “Let Abby go too, Mama! Don’t hurt her!”

The witch didn’t suffer intrusions or defiance. Nor betrayal, for that matter. Sara’s family must have been brought here because Baba Yaga had known they called the police. Witches knew everything. And they were unforgiving when contracts were broken. The mother lay dead for her treachery, and Abby was next. Baba Yaga barked a string of incantations, and waved her hand impatiently. A gelatinous beam shot forth and slapped wetly over Abigail Schwartz. With hardly a transition, Abby’s skin turned to blue ice. Baba Yaga spoke again, and the girl’s body cracked… and cracked….

“Abby!”

… and exploded into a hundred fragments.

Sara went mad on the spot. Hopper cried in rage. The witch turned her gaze on him. Jane’s bowels turned to water. Her father was clearly next.

He saw that he was about to die and let go of Sara, so that she wouldn’t be collateral. No. Her father was doing it wrong. According to what Lucas had told her, Baba Yaga would never kill a child servant of the Hut. Jane yelled to her father: “Dad! Pick up Sara! Pick her up now!”

Jane supposed her father had done many questionable things that evening, but she could see that he was not, under any circumstances, about to use a seven-year old girl as a human shield. He looked at her as if she’d lost her mind. She cursed him, knowing what she would have to do.

She summoned her power and threw it at him. His body spasmed, as if invaded by a demon. She twisted her forces around him, and manipulated his arms to pick up Sara and clutch her to his chest.

“Stop that!” he yelled at Jane, his face a wall of outrage. “What the hell is wrong with you?!”

What she was doing was obscene. She was possessing him; robbing him of his free will. And if she were wrong — if what Lucas had read from the module was just a game fantasy — then she had just killed him and Sara together.

Baba Yaga made a noise at Jane. It sounded like a snarl, but Jane thought the witch was laughing at her. Then Baba Yaga turned back to Hopper and began growling — but a different, deeper, and more insidious spell than the one she had cast on Abby. Apparently there was no danger of collateral with this spell; Sara was now a useless shield. Helplessly, Jane threw another psychic blast against the witch; another sneeze into the gale of a hurricane. Baba Yaga laughed. Then her spell took effect.

A web of blackness appeared on her father’s face, and spread over him like varicose veins. He was seized by a black terror and let go of Sara. He began screaming, and couldn’t stop. It was a fear spell of mammoth power. Jane had never seen anyone this terrified, except for Mike Wheeler. Mike woke up at nights screaming exactly like her father was doing now. It was a fear that nested in every cell of the body.

Hopper fell cowering to the floor. Sara was crying over her mother’s corpse, begging her to wake up. The witch turned and faced Jane. Jane knew it was over.

“Please,” she begged the witch. “Let us go.”

Baba Yaga limped towards her.

Why does she hobble? She could win the Boston Marathon.

The witch got closer. She was sniffing something.

I’m sorry, Mike. I had to try. He’s my father. She couldn’t imagine Mike Wheeler surviving without her.

The witch was up in Jane’s face now. “Please,” Jane cried. “We just want to live.” The witch sniffed her up and down. Jane’s skin crawled. Please.

Jane then suffered what could only be described as a rape. The witch nuzzled Jane’s neck and inhaled sharply. Jane tried pushing away. Baba Yaga held her, and began breathing rapidly, as if approaching orgasm. Jane wanted to smash her face but knew that physical assaults were useless. The witch ran her tongue around Jane’s neck. It was the foulest thing Jane had ever endured. Her father and Sara were still on the floor — one screaming in fear, the other in trauma — but Jane would have traded places with either of them. Being tongued by Baba Yaga was an overwhelming violation. She felt filth inside her, flowing like rot. Waves of self-loathing swamped her. She hated herself and wished she were dead.

The witch’s tongue smeared Jane’s lips and slithered into her mouth. Jane gagged and pulled her head away, crying in revulsion. She promised the witch anything, if her father and Sara could be spared. She would be Baba Yaga’s slave; she would serve the Hut forever. The witch drank her anguish and seemed pleased. Gently, she rested a hand on Jane’s arm, stroking her. Then, with a savage pull, she tore Jane’s arm completely off.

The shock was so great that it took time for Jane to register the loss. Her left arm was gone, that was clear; a fountain of red sprayed from her shoulder. She would die losing blood that fast. Then the pain kicked in, and she fell to the floor howling. Above her, the witch bit chunks off her arm like Thanksgiving turkey.

Jane used her mental forces to staunch the blood spray. She was dimly aware of Baba Yaga hobbling back to the throne. The witch had served justice upon her audience: traitors were dead, and intruders had paid steep prices. They would pay more — probably in the witch’s prison — before dying like Betty and Abigail. Sara would go on serving the Hut. Jane should have allowed herself the mercy of a quick death. Instead she probed and plugged her shoulder socket, giving herself reprieve.

Baba Yaga sat back on her throne and ate her snack. Even from forty feet, Jane could hear her mouth smacking wetly. Munching noises echoes across the throne room. Jane was on fire with pain, and drowning in self-hatred.

As if reading her mind, the witch called to her: “Does it hurt, little cunt?”

Don’t talk with your stupid mouth full, thought Jane. She was starting to giggle and go delirious.

“Funny is it?” asked Baba Yaga. “Hah! After I finish this –” she waved the arm she was eating — “I’m going to have my four golems rape you. We’ll see you laugh then.” She drooled Jane’s blood over her shawl.

Jane’s giggles grew more hysteric. She didn’t know what golems were, but getting raped by them couldn’t be worse than getting tongued by the witch. Her father howled at the ceiling, and Sara cried over the floor of her family’s grave. Jane joined their madness, giggling louder. Surrendering made it easier.

I’m going to have my four golems rape you.

Then get it over with, thought Jane. Rape away. But something cracked her delirium and gave pause. Something in the witch’s threat.

My four golems rape you.

Four? Was Baba Yaga talking about the four statues in the throne room? They were vile looking, twelve feet tall each, and made of iron. Jane looked over at one of them. Its eyes seemed to gleam in the torch light. Jane had sensed the statues watching her when she was in the throne room before. It had only been a feeling, but…

My four golems rape you.

It occurred to Jane that golems might be magical: enchanted statues that were either alive, or became alive when given a special command. She made herself think and forced herself to blot out the screams of her father and Sara. She looked into each corner of the throne room, at each statue. Magic. Yes, Mike. Thank you.

Jane could not harm Baba Yaga directly with her powers. But she could try this.

From her lateral position on the floor, she focused on the statue/golem she was closest to, and loosed her power at it. The statue rocked a bit, and she gauged its weight. It was heavy as sin, just as she’d hoped. Holding out her only arm, she strained and lifted the statue into the air. She heard Baba Yaga snarl something, but Jane kept focused on the statue. She let her power build; and build. Then, with a scream to call avalanches, she hurled the golem straight at the witch.

Five thousand pounds of magic iron slammed into Baba Yaga at the speed of a race car. Any human being would have died instantly. The witch was smashed in the seat of her throne, and fell to the floor like a rag doll. The statue crashed down next to her. Jane watched as the witch’s body twitched, trying to get up. Unbelievably, she was doing just that. She had been seriously wounded and slowed, but Baba Yaga wasn’t dead by a long shot.

Jane wasted no time. She sat up on the floor, ignoring the agony that was her phantom left arm. She went for a second golem with her real arm. Letting her power build again, she raised the statue and let it hurtle like a missile, straight at the witch’s face this time. The golem went straight through Baba Yaga’s head, tearing it off. Jane screamed triumphantly as the ugliest face in the world bounced off the wall behind the throne, rolled onto the floor, and came to rest only a few feet away from Jane. She cursed the head, and immediately threw her power at it — to make it explode. Nothing happened. Of course, stupid. You just wasted time.

In front of the throne, the headless Baba Yaga sprang to her feet. Jane recalled Lucas’ words: If one of her limbs or her head is severed, she is not slain; she can fight on and reattach the severed parts during or after the battle. Dustin chopped off Baba Yaga’s head with a vorpal sword — that’s one of the most powerful swords in D&D — but the bitch kept throwing spells at us. Mike was incredible that day, role-playing Baba Yaga like you wouldn’t believe. He even had a witch’s mask that he used to dramatize the way she held her own decapitated head while flaming us with curses and death magic. Jane was playing no game. There was no role-playing in this throne room. Baba Yaga wasn’t a figment being dramatized by her boyfriend. She was real: the deadliest witch who had ever lived. That witch now waved her arms, evoking some hideous spell. The head rolled closer to Jane, and Baba Yaga’s eyes burned with hate, as her mouth spat the words of a familiar incantation.

Without thinking, Jane rolled across the floor just as the gelatinous beam that would have turned her into blue ice smacked against the floor. As she stopped her roll, she seized a third statue. She stabilized herself and concentrated, then sent the golem flying. The witch pulled her own evasive maneuver by dropping at the last moment, dodging the statue as Jane had dodged her spell. It crashed into the wall like a cannon. As it did so, a flying object sailed into Baba Yaga’s arms. It was her head, returning to the body it craved. The witch dropped the head for now, at her feet, too engaged with Jane to reassemble it.

Jane and Baba Yaga were frantic now, each fearing the others power. Jane readied for the fourth statue, as the witch began murmuring another spell. As soon as Jane raised the golem in the air, it vanished; Baba Yaga had caused it to disappear.

“You hag!” Jane was almost at her end. She had been killing herself since making the Hut open. Her head was swimming again. She fought to stay conscious. I’m going to kill you, bitch, you understand? I’m going to pound you into the ground until you don’t get up again.

She proceeded to do just that. With a rupturing effort she poured everything she had into the three statues on the floor by the throne. Her nose ran riot. She could hardly survive this. She raised all three statues up in the air, until they touched the ceiling. Baba Yaga skipped left, then right, indecisive. Dodge them all, bitch. Jane released the golems one by one, raining them down on the witch in sequence, smashing her again and again — and then up and down again, repeatedly, like pistons. And again. And over again. Baba Yaga’s body and head were crushed and flattened and squashed, until her very life’s essence was flattened; obliterated by enchantments wielded at devastating strength. Jane yelled like hell’s angels, willing the witch to stay dead. She released the statues and let them crash on the floor. The throne room went utterly silent for a few seconds.

Then her father and Sara were wailing again.

Jane sank into herself. Baba Yaga was dead, but so was she. Her shoulder was cascading; her insides were torn; her face had no place among the living. She wheezed, hardly able to inhale. Time to let go. She was vaguely aware of her father trying to eat something that looked blue (eating?? now??), and of Sara clinging to her mother’s mangled corpse. Jane had nothing more for either of them. Nor herself. I’m sorry, Mike. She realized how much she loved him then. You did everything for me, and I hurt you. 

Let go.

She faded to a place where pain had no say, and memory couldn’t touch her.

 

Next Chapter: The Fruit that Heals

(Previous Chapter: Little Dove)

The Witch of Yamhill County (Chapter 7)

This nine-chapter novella is the first of two stories set in between the periods of Stranger Things: The College Years and Stranger Things: The New Generation. I advise reading those stories, as well as the third in that trilogy, Stranger Things: World’s End, before reading this one, which is supplementary and does not involve the Upside Down. Like the Upside Down trilogy, it’s a work of fan fiction based on the Stranger Things TV series. I do not profit from these stories and they are not canon. There is plenty of Stranger Things fiction to be found online (see here), but if I learn that the Duffer Brothers do not appreciate fan fiction of their work, or if they order a cease-and-desist, I will gladly pull the stories down.

                                The Witch of Yamhill County — Chapter Seven

                                   Little Dove

It was a nightmare bedroom for a seven-year old girl. And utterly silent.

Baba Yaga certainly didn’t stint on space. There was over ten thousand square feet of room to enjoy. Nor on amenities. The bed against the far wall looked more rich and inviting than anything Hopper’s daughters had ever slept in. It was plush and made perfectly, with pink sheets and blankets. A child’s writing desk and stool were close by, painted white with pink trim. On top of the desk were a pitcher of milk, a bowl of nuts, and a plate of chocolates. A washbasin and towels had been provided underneath. A deep cushioned couch worth thousands of dollars stood against the left wall.

The problem was the supplementary decor. Shelves were filled with stuffed animals — but not the expected teddy bears and puppies. There was a dragon, a tarantula, a gremlin, a harpy, and at least a dozen more frightening creatures Hopper couldn’t put a name to. Light came from wall lanterns made of pink skulls. The eyes radiated a soft light and reminded Hopper of the circle outside that had nearly killed him. The couch was crawling with huge locusts — mutated locusts with mean human-looking faces and scorpion tails. Worst of all was the bed’s headboard: the demonic face of a witch glowing green; the face of a child’s worst nightmare.

Sara Schwartz had spent two full nights in this stew of horrors, and tonight was the third. She was probably scarred for life. But where was she now?

Over on the right wall, Hopper noticed stairs going up. It looked like the only way out of the room, aside from the door he had just come through. He refused to think anymore about the baths. He had failed Dash miserably, just as he’d failed Travis and Leigh. He would rescue Sara, but he allowed himself no thoughts of self-redemption. Tomorrow he would turn in his badge and gun.

He called out softly: “Sara?”

No answer. The pink skulls shimmered, as if containing a wicked secret.

He called her name again. As a servant she was probably kept busy doing chores in other rooms of the hut. But at 10:50 PM? What kind of sleeping schedule did the witch have her on?

He surveyed the stuffed animals. The dragon was fearsome. He picked it up, and smoke came out the dragon’s nostrils. Hopper put it down in disgust. He tried a black tiger sort of creature with rabid eyes. As soon as he touched it, he heard a savage growling inside his head. He dropped the toy and backed away, appalled.

When he got to the couch he smacked a locust. His hand went through it, and the human-faced insect kept crawling. He grabbed at more locusts and seized only air. It was an illusion. An extremely revolting one.

On the desk he examined the treats. The pitcher was cold; the girl’s milk was kept fresh by magic. The nuts looked chewy, and the chocolates divine. Hopper realized how hungry he was, but he didn’t give in.

His next move was the stairs. They could lead to an upper level of the bedroom. Halfway across the room he heard a noise and stopped. He turned around holding his gun. His mind wasn’t playing tricks; he had definitely heard a thudding somewhere. But there was no one in sight, and nowhere in the room to hide. Except…

Stepping closer to the far wall, he lowered himself to the floor, and checked under the bed.

A pair of frightened eyes looked back at him.

Little dove.

As soon as she was spotted, Sara Schwartz backed further under the bed and screamed: “Mama!”

Hopper grabbed for her, piling on protestations. It was okay, he was a sheriff, he had come to get her and bring her home. The girl screeched and tried pulling from his grip. She kept crying for “mama”, obviously referring to the witch as Marya had. Hopper dragged her out screaming. If the witch had shown up right then, Hopper would have raped her with a broomstick. After everything tonight and now this, he had seen more crimes against children than horrors from the Upside Down. Sara Schwartz might be the rare favorite who avoided being served on a dinner plate, but she was terrorized out of her mind. And he didn’t forget Marya. If the “little doves” enjoyed special status, that status could be revoked on a whim. The witch wouldn’t kill them outright, but she was happy to turn them into retarded animals.

He lifted the girl up and held her in his arms, trying his best to calm her down. Finally she hushed.

“Are you Sara Schwartz?” He knew she was, from Abby’s photo.

“Yes.”

“Well, I’m Jim Hopper. The Sheriff of Yamhill County. I’m here to take you back to Bellevue. To your home.”

“I can’t,” said Sara. “I have to serve the Mama for a year.”

“The Mama’s a bad person who had no right to take you.”

“She takes care of me,” said Sara. “And gives me nuts and sweets.”

Hopper looked over at the shelves. “She gives you toys too. How do you like those?”

Sara wouldn’t look at them. “I don’t like the toys.”

“Is that why you sleep under the bed?”

She nodded.

“Well, you shouldn’t have to sleep under your own bed.”

“This room scares me.”

No shit. Toys that smoked and growled. Nightlights of skulls. Illusions of insects with ugly heads and poison tails. And the most hideous face in the world looming over the bed. Mike and his friends would have loved this shit, maybe even at age seven. But not a little girl all alone.

“What does the Mama make you do here?” he asked.

“I cook the meals, and weave, and do laundry. I have to polish the silver, and beat the carpets, and scrub the floors. And then –”

“She makes you do all of that?”

“Yeah. It’s a lot of work.”

“What kind of meals do you cook?” Bread and cabbage soup was one thing. Seven and eight-year old human beings was quite another.

“Different things.”

“Did you cook a pot of cabbage soup earlier this evening?”

“Yes.” She looked bashful and proud.

“Who was it for?”

“The guests, if they want any. And for the Mama, when she gets home. She comes back at midnight. I’m supposed to let the soup simmer. And I baked bread too.”

“I saw that,” he said. “You did a great job.”

She beamed and looked down, embarrassed.

“But you didn’t have to cook any… meat?”

“Not so far. The Mama cooks her own meat. She likes her meat done just right.”

I’ll bet she does. At least Sara wasn’t made to participate in killing her own kind. “You miss your mom and sister, right?”

“I miss Abby, but not mom so much. She doesn’t really like me.”

Wasn’t that the truth. But still: “She’s got to be better than your new mama.”

“Well… I like the Mama, even though she scares me. She takes care of me. And calls me ‘little dove’.”

Hopper would have loved nothing more than to “take care” of Baba Yaga — by beating the shit out of her for all she had done to the kids of his county. He didn’t give a damn about his own life anymore. He would have to come back to the hut anyway, as Baba Yaga would surely be returning with another kidnapped child. But first he had to get Sara out of here.

“If I take you home with me now, will you agree to come?”

She chewed her fingernail. “I guess. I like the Mama, but she gives me too much work. And my room scares me.”

“I should think. Now where do those stairs go?”

“To the work rooms. That’s where I work, most of the time.”

He pulled out the map. From Sara’s room it looked like the quickest way to leave the hut was through areas he had not been to: the work rooms, meeting hall, observatory, and throne room. The throne room connected with the dining hall where he and the kids had started. On the other hand, he had no idea what lurked inside all these rooms. Backtracking through the rooms he had already been through might be the safer plan, though not as fast. He made a decision.

“Okay,” he said, putting the map away. “You stay next to me, and get behind me whenever I say. We’re going to these work rooms of yours.”

They went up the stairwell to a small square room with four doors. Hopper asked Sara what was behind them.

“That room is the loom,” she said. “That one is food sorting. That one’s laundry. And that one has the cleaning material I use to clean other places in the hut.”

“Which of these rooms leads to the prison?”

“Prison?” she asked.

“Yeah. According to this map I have, the work rooms connect to the prison.”

“I don’t know anything about a prison. I’m not allowed to go everywhere.”

Hopper wasn’t going to waste time looking for the prison if it was too well hidden. It would have to wait for his return trip with reinforcements. He looked at his watch: 10:58.

He chose a random door and opened it. Mechanical sounds rumbled as they went inside. Hopper saw two looms and a spinning wheel, all madly at work. Bags of uncarded wool were stacked in a corner heap. Hopper’s jaw dropped. The looms and wheel were being operated by dozens of mice. The rodents were dashing about with brightly colored threads in their mouths, weaving them in and out.

A few of the mice paused at the intrusion, and one of them came up to greet Sara.

“Hi Isaak,” she said, delighted.

“Hello mistress,” said the mouse in a Russian accent. “We weren’t expecting you until tomorrow.”

“I have a guest,” said Sara. “And I couldn’t sleep. This is Sheriff Hopper.”

The mouse nodded but didn’t speak to Hopper. “The coat will be ready tomorrow, mistress. You shouldn’t worry.”

“Oh, I’m not,” said Sara. “I’m just showing my friend around.”

The mouse inclined his head, and then raced back to work with the others.

Hopper was amused by the talking animals, but also confused. “I thought you did the sewing.”

Sara smiled as if she were supremely clever. “The mice offered to help with the workload if I bring them fresh bread and jam. The Mama only feeds them stale crusts. It was the same deal they had with the girl before me. The Mama gives me too much work. I have to hire help.”

“What does the Mama think about this little arrangement?” asked Hopper.

“I don’t think she cares. She just wants the work done. They’re making a coat at this loom, and a sweater at that one. The Mama wants them for guests she’s having next week.”

“Are mice doing the work in the other rooms too?”

“Oh, no. Sparrows help me in the food sorting room. The birds pick the pebbles out of the grain, and twigs out of the berries. And I give them wool for their nests. But all the laundry and cleaning I have to do myself.”

“You’re good, kid.” Hopper didn’t see a door in this room. The work rooms were supposed to connect to the meeting hall as well as the prison. Sara didn’t know about the prison. There was probably a secret door to it that was hard to find. He asked her about the meeting hall.

That she knew. “You get there from the food sorting room.”

“Let’s go,” he said, and then paused. The looms and spinning wheel had come to an abrupt halt. The mice had stopped their work, and were looking past Hopper and Sara at the doorway. Hopper turned. And Sara screamed.

Standing in the doorway was a rotting daemon whose gaze had a dreadful effect on Hopper. His body felt petrified and could barely move. The entity was dark and eldritch and thoroughly evil. The mice bolted and vanished into the walls. Sara stood behind Hopper, clutching his waist. And then Hopper froze completely, in thrall to some hideous spell. The creature intoned something and glided towards him, with its arm outstretched.

No. Jesus, no. He had no idea what this thing was, only that if it touched him, he was over and done.

When the touch came, it was an arctic indictment. Hopper’s life flashed before him in a snapshot of failures: his ex-wife Diane; his daughter Sara; his son-in-law equivalent Mike Wheeler; his wards Travis Mitchell, Leigh Davis, Dashiell Nyberg, and Sara Schwartz. He deserved to suffer worse than all of them combined.

Fine, you bastard. Do your worst.

He prayed for torment as he fell into a cold blackness.

 

He woke thirsty and feeble, unable to remember his name. Bright light assaulted him from everywhere. The walls, the floor, and the ceiling projected a radiance too strong to focus on anything. Where was he, and who was he?

The answer to the first question came by squinting and blinking to minimize the radiant onslaught. He saw that he was on the floor of a cell. There was a plain wooden bed with straw ticking close by. His captor had ignored it and dumped him on the floor — or he had fallen off the bed while unconscious. Close to the bed was a font of water; near that a metal slop bucket for bodily waste. It was a prison cell, no question.

The word prison brought him back, answering his second question. He was Jim Hopper: a policeman on a hopeless mission to save kids who couldn’t be saved. He was in a hut that couldn’t exist but did, and that couldn’t possibly be so dangerous and yet was. His gun was gone, and so was Dash’s; Leigh’s pack was gone, and with it four precious apples.

But he still had his watch. It read 11:42. He had been out for about a half hour. The creature’s spell had paralyzed him, flooded him with despair, and then made him sleep long enough to get him jailed securely. All he felt now was weakness and an insatiable thirst; his muscles had been sapped of half their strength; his body too dehydrated. Defying his enfeeblement, he forced himself to stand, holding the edges of the font. The water in it was dirty. He put his face in and drank anyway. It helped, but the creature’s spell cut too deep; his thirst needed more than water to be quenched. He wondered how the foul being had found him.

It was the baths. He and Dash had made it a war zone and left enough gore to fill the pool. If the creature had found the frog slaughter, it would have begun searching for intruders around the bath area.

The light gave him a blinding headache but he made himself focus. A glass door taunted him a few feet away. He knew right away the glass was unbreakable; it probably had magic woven into every fiber. He pounded against it anyway. It had the texture of steel. He tried seeing through the glass. The tint was smoky, bur he could make out a corridor with other glass doors lining the hall: more prison cells. He pounded on the glass again, hurting his hands and not caring, screaming Baba Yaga’s name and useless threats. She would be back very soon now. He was going to die, and that was just. But he would defy that stinking witch until the moment he expired.

After minutes of his pounding and screaming, a face appeared on the other side of the glass. It was the horrid face of his captor. Hopper’s bladder let go. He knew this creature could kill him just by touch, if it wanted to. The glass door slid open. Hopper jumped back as the entity stepped into the cell. It smiled and raised its arms.

Hopper protested: “No! I just want to see Baba Yaga! Let me see that fucking bitch when she gets back! Can you do that for me, you ugly worthless shit-face?”

The creature’s smile widened. A bolt of blue shot from its fingertips, engulfing Hopper in electric agony. He went flying against the cell wall and crashed to the floor, encased in azure lightning. He howled and begged for mercy. The creature reined in the lightning, and waited as Hopper threw up bile.

Hopper looked up at his tormentor. He was sweating and drooled spit, numb from electric shock. “That wasn’t nice.” He spoke like a drunkard; his tongue felt hardly there. “You joyless motherfucker. Do you shoot bolts of lightning up Baba Yaga to make her cum? Or do you just fire them up your own ass?” He started laughing maniacally at his stupid crude joke.

Blue lightning blasted him again, and Hopper curled up on the floor wailing. His screams became piteous until the creature relented.

There were no further insults from Hopper. He was reduced to pure submission and pleaded like a child. The creature listened, and then smiled a third time. The electric blue came again; Hopper was dying under his captor’s pleasure.

At his next reprieve he inched towards the slop bucket. He grabbed it, intending to hurl it, knowing it was futile. He couldn’t lift it anyway; he was that weak. He heard the breaking of glass, and knew the creature was preparing to escalate his torments with something worse than lightning. He pushed the bucket away and cried, ready to beg for clemency. He turned to look up at his captor — and then froze in outrage. It was the ultimate cruelty, a knife through his heart, a mockery of what was most precious to him. A glamor to taunt him before the final blow.

Then the glamor touched him, and spoke: “Dad?”

He looked again. His captor lay against the cell wall, dead. The glass of the prison door was strewn across the floor in a million pieces. She who was standing over him was not the creature draped in some teasing illusion. She was real.

Except that was impossible. There was no way she could be real; no way she could be here. He accepted the fictions, unable to shoulder reality. She was here; he willed it to be so. She was bruised, battered, and her face swamped with blood — but by God, she was leaning over him, to help him. To save him. His daughter. Jane.

 

Next Chapter: The Witch of Yamhill County

(Previous Chapter: Lost Souls)

The Witch of Yamhill County (Chapter 6)

This nine-chapter novella is the first of two stories set in between the periods of Stranger Things: The College Years and Stranger Things: The New Generation. I advise reading those stories, as well as the third in that trilogy, Stranger Things: World’s End, before reading this one, which is supplementary and does not involve the Upside Down. Like the Upside Down trilogy, it’s a work of fan fiction based on the Stranger Things TV series. I do not profit from these stories and they are not canon. There is plenty of Stranger Things fiction to be found online (see here), but if I learn that the Duffer Brothers do not appreciate fan fiction of their work, or if they order a cease-and-desist, I will gladly pull the stories down.

                                The Witch of Yamhill County — Chapter Six

                                  Lost Souls

It was a wrap-around winter scene, extending for more than two hundred feet along four walls making a square. People in fur hats and heavy coats. A Russian landscape of cruel seasons. The murals made Hopper glad he lived where he did. He prayed that he’d still be living in Oregon by tomorrow morning. This hut was a death trap, and the walls were closing in. There could be no more endings like Travis and Marya.

“I don’t know, these souls don’t seem lost to me. Just cold. What do you think?” He was trying to make her laugh.

Leigh ignored him. She hadn’t spoken since they left Marya at the tree. He understood. Leigh Davis was a great kid who wanted to fix pain where she saw it. Aunt Ingrid would remain in the shell of multiple sclerosis, but only because her niece couldn’t stand by and do nothing for those suffering in front of her. Leigh would be a terrific doctor someday. For now she was a frustrated fourteen-year old who craved justice on all sides of the equation.

She was sitting on a bench against the wall of the gallery’s interior. They were in the exterior corridor, looking at the murals without really seeing them. Their failures is what they saw. They had passed through another vortex on the far side of the orchard; the one Marya said led to the room of lost souls, which was an art gallery. There was another vortex close to it, but Marya had told them to avoid that one at all costs: it lead to the stasis chambers, which contained beasts so deadly that even Baba Yaga feared to unleash them. Hopper didn’t need to be told twice. The stasis chambers weren’t the way to Sara anyway.

Dash came out of the inner gallery. He was ahead as usual. “It’s more interesting in here,” he said. “Creepier too.” He went back in.

Hopper called after him: “Be careful!” He looked at Leigh. “I better get in there and watch over Dash the Rash.”

Leigh said nothing.

“Look, kid, I’m sorry about Marya.” And for your aunt. “But it was her choice. Making the other choice for her wouldn’t have done her good. Believe me, I know how things go for kids like that.” He was stupid to preach like this. She would just keep hating him for it. He turned to follow Dash into the inner gallery.

“I know.”

He turned back. She was still sitting on the corridor bench, looking at the murals and not him. But she had given him something, at least.

“Still friends?” he asked.

She nodded.

At that moment he wanted more than anything to adopt her. He had taken in Jane at the same age. Jane who was an adult now, and who treated him like the kid in their relationship. Here he was, on a quest to save a girl named after his first daughter, and falling for a girl whose passion reminded him of his second. He was a cliche.

“Okay,” he said. “Wait here if you want. I’m going to check this room and make sure we’re not missing anything important. Then we’ll move on. As soon as we find Sara, I’m getting you guys out of here.” Leigh had found what she came for, only to give it up. And she had lost a good friend.

He walked into the inner section and main room of the art gallery. Like the outer corridor it displayed life-sized artwork around the walls. These were paintings, however, not murals, and there was something at once sinister about them. They all looked the same. And they added up to what could only be described as a virtual mausoleum. Each painting showed someone pale as chalk and lying down, eyes closed and arms folded. They’re corpses, thought Hopper. Seven of them. Three other paintings were black: empty portraits, as if the artist had never got around to finishing the collection.

“See what I mean?” asked Dash. “Creepy.”

The statues in the middle of the room were even creepier: nine of them standing in three rows of three. These at least showed variety. One statue was a daemon, which Hopper recognized from the library book he had browsed (a “yagno-daemon”, if he remembered right). Another was a night hag; then a swamp hag; a giant troll; a beautiful woman who looked like an elf; an angry-looking dwarf; another daemon (he forgot which kind); a young girl; and a figure in an executioner’s hood.

“So who are the lost souls?” He was asking himself more than Dash. “The paintings or the statues?”

“Neither,” said Dash. “Baba Yaga’s the lost soul. She’s fucking dead when she comes back.”

I’ll have you out of here by then. Hopper examined the yagno-daemon. It was a horrible lopsided creature with two unequal arms, one man sized, the other so big it reached the floor. Its teeth were long and sharp enough to shred metal. The figure in the executioner’s hood looked somehow even more frightening.

He was jolted by a shout from Dash. He was running up to one of the paintings. Only a few minutes ago it had been a portrait of empty blackness. Now there was someone painted. Hopper hurried up next to him, and his testicles froze. No. Dear God, no.

The painting showed Leigh Davis. But she wasn’t pale, nor dead or asleep. Her eyes were wide open in stark terror. Her mouth blasted a silent scream. It was the portrait of a girl being brutally terrorized.

Hopper and Dash screamed Leigh’s name and raced into the outside corridor, with their guns drawn. The mural hall was vacant. Leigh wasn’t on the resting bench anymore.

“Leigh!” they shouted again, looking up and down the hall. Hopper ran one way around the square corridor, and Dash the other way, until they met again. Leigh was gone.

“Back to the doors,” said Hopper.

They returned to the doors along one of the mural walls. There were two plus a pair of double doors in an alcove between them. They had come through one of the singular doors out of the vortex from the orchard. The other one presumably led to the baths. The double doors in the alcove had been wide open when they arrived, and it had seemed to show another room that was part of the art gallery.

Those double doors had now vanished. They weren’t closed; they were just gone. The back of the alcove was a smooth wall that showed no sign of any doors having been there.

Hopper pounded on the wall and shouted Leigh’s name, while Dash tried the other door. Hopper looked for any crack or crevice where the double doors had been. Leigh must have gone through the open doors, and then something terrible must have occurred.

Dash came out of the door to the baths, furious. “She’s not in there,” he said. “It’s just a pool with some giant frogs. Where is she, sheriff? What do we do?”

Hopper knew right then this would be the worst day of his life since Mike Wheeler died. God, don’t take her from me. Don’t you take her from me. He had been the stupidest fool, allowing himself to be muscled by these kids.

He ran back into the inner gallery, and to the painting of Leigh. The portrait had changed: the terror on Leigh’s face had increased dramatically. Wherever she really was, she was being hurt and violated in some unspeakable way.

Hopper tried tearing the painting off the wall. It wouldn’t budge; it was welded in, probably with magic. He brandished his gun and told Dash to step way back. Dash had his own pistol drawn. Hopper aimed at another painting and pulled the trigger. The bullet embedded itself in the portrait which otherwise remained intact. The depiction of the corpse didn’t change. Triggered by the gunshot, Dash went wild and fired his Glock, stupidly, at a statue. The bullet ricocheted dangerously.

Hopper hardly noticed. He let his gun fall to the floor and clasped his hands around the portrait of Leigh. He ran his hands over her and cried her name, asking her to speak. It was a repeat of Travis. She was somewhere else, but dying right in front of him; and there was nothing he could do.

Dash ran out into the corridor again, shouting madly for Leigh. Hopper kept pleading at the painting. Then her portrait shifted, and changed again. And Hopper felt a part of himself die.

Leigh Davis now lay with her eyes closed and arms folded. She was white as chalk like the others, in an indescribable damnation.

Hopper fell to his knees and wept. He barely registered Dash’s reentry. The kid screamed in denial when he saw the painting of Leigh. He ran up to Hopper and shoved the Glock in his face, demanding the sheriff do something to save his friend.

Go ahead and shoot me, kid. Do it.

Dash’s hands shook as they held the gun to Hopper’s head. He came close to pulling the trigger. Then he screamed Baba Yaga’s name and bolted from the inner gallery.

Hopper picked his Smith & Wesson off the floor. He would have shot himself then, if not for Dashiell Nyberg and Sara Schwartz. They still needed saving.

He was jolted by distant gunfire. Dash’s Glock.

No.

He ran back to the doors, hearing more gunfire, and opened the one to the baths. He leaped through ready to fire, and swore at what greeted him.

The room was indeed a bath, and currently a bloodbath. And the blood ran green.

The green spattered the walls and a floor that went a hundred feet long and wide. The walls formed a mosaic depicting sea creatures too awful to contemplate. The pool was sixty feet long. Streams of water arched into it from the floor at both ends, rippling the surface. Clusters of spheres hovered towards the ceiling, filling the room with pale green light, and illuminating the carnage within.

The carnage came from Dash. He was shooting frogs with vindictive fury: giant frogs the size of dogs. Four of them lay dead around the pool. Six others were closing in on the kid. They looked intent and unafraid, but Hopper wasn’t sure how they attacked. Their feet weren’t clawed, so they probably relied on biting. However aggressive they were, he was sure that Dash had initiated the conflict. Enraged over Leigh and Travis, he had burst into the room and indiscriminately opened fire. He wanted blood for his friends, and didn’t care who paid the price.

The Glock went off again, and a fifth frog went down. Its brains flew into the pool, and separated on the water’s surface. The five remaining frogs jumped sideways and back, reflexively trying to confuse Dash. The kid swore F-bombs and promised they would all die.

Hopper fired his Smith & Wesson, bringing down another one. The frogs jumped again, registering Hopper as a new threat. They re-positioned themselves to face both him and Dash as best they could.

Dash fired again. And missed. One of the frogs pounced at him with frightening swiftness. Hopper shot and killed the frog mid-air.

Down to three, Dash was feeling his oats. He waved the Glock, taunting the trio. Hopper saw that was a mistake. The frogs were down and desperate. One of them bounded high into the air. Dash raised his gun high, but too late. Hopper fired at it and missed. The frog came straight down on Dash, smashing him to the ground. The Glock spun across the floor, near the edge of the pool. Dash screamed as the frog squatted on top of him and leaned into his face.

Hopper didn’t dare shoot the frog for fear of hitting Dash. He shot a frog that was coming for him instead. It fell and died in its own mess. The frog that was not on Dash looked indecisive, and then turned and leaped into the pool. It vanished to the bottom. That left the one frog, on Dash.

“Get off me!” screamed Dash. The frog’s mouth was almost touching his face now. Hopper’s bowels nearly unloaded. From the frog’s lips dripped a glistening saliva that looked like poison.

“Turn your face away!” yelled Hopper, running towards Dash.

Turning would have done Dash no good. The frog’s saliva fell in a huge glob, covering his forehead and eyes. Immediately, Dash began convulsing. The skin of his face and neck turned green as Hopper reached him, put his gun against the frog’s head, and pulled the trigger. The frog’s brains blew everywhere. He kicked the corpse over and knelt over Dash. Green apple. The kid needs a green apple. Hopper had picked a yellow and blue apple, both for Mike. Dash had chosen orange and indigo, for people he knew. None of those colors would do anything against poison. Jesus God, what have I done tonight?

Dash’s color was going from green to grey. His throat was the size of a chimney; he was wheezing, and blood was seeping out his eyes. For the third time that night, Hopper could only watch as a kid under his protection died in agony.

He held Dash’s hand, but avoided touching anywhere near his face. Dash’s body thrashed against the floor as he stopped taking in air. In less than another minute, he was dead. I failed them all. My badge is a farce.

He held Dash’s corpse for another minute, and then opened the kid’s pack. He removed the orange and indigo apples and transferred them to Leigh’s pack, as well as a sixteen-round clip the kid had been packing as a spare for the Glock. Then he picked the Glock up off the floor and put that into Leigh’s pack as well. When he called on Dash’s parents to tell them how he failed their child, he would give them the orange and indigo apples and tell them who Dash wanted to have them. It was the pitifully least he could do.

His own six-shooter was empty. He had fired a bullet in the art gallery, and then five more in this room. He reloaded it, taking six rounds from the magazine at his belt. He went over to the pool and peered into it, pointing the gun down. There was no sign of the frog that had jumped in. The water was pale green and bubbly, and gave off warmth. Hopper didn’t want to know what kind of beings bathed in the pool. He guessed it was toxic to humans.

There was a noise behind him, and he spun around, expecting the frog. Nothing was there — except for an archway he had missed at the end of the room. He got closer, holding his gun tightly. It looked like there was a room with a smaller bath inside; he could hear water bubbling furiously. He got up close and looked inside.

It was a jacuzzi giving off plenty of steam. There were shelves of towels and bathing suits against the wall, for the convenience of anyone using either the jacuzzi or the pool in the main room. The tub was fifteen feet long; the water was supplied by underwater jets that shot up greenish water that looked foul. Sitting in the pool was a swamp hag. Her side was to the entrance and her eyes were closed, but Hopper knew she was aware of his presence. He stepped inside the room.

The hag’s eyes opened and she turned slowly to face him. Hopper almost pulled the trigger. She reminded him of the bathtub ghost in The Shining. He would have traded this night for a full week’s stay in the Overlook. The most dreadful hotel in cinematic history had nothing on Baba Yaga’s Hut. And the hag looking at him now was no ghost.

“Smells,” she croaked, smiling. “Smells of death in there. Did the whelp die in your arms?”

Hopper stood motionless, ready to fire.

The hag stood up; a thoroughly nauseating nude. “Did he chew the pain well?”

Hopper tightened his grip on the Smith & Wesson.

Her voice rose. “Did he swallow it whole? Did he ask for more? Did he say how useless you are? Did he –“

Hopper put two bullets in the hag’s face. As she fell dead under the bubbling water, he shot her again. Just for good measure. And because it made him feel good. Then he went back out into the main bath area.

It was getting too close to midnight. He had to find Sara and get out of here. There were two other doors besides the one he and Dash had come through. One of them was black, like the black door in the library: Baba Yaga’s rooms. The other was pink; it was on the the other side of the pool.

Little Dove. Sara.

He crossed to the pink door, and went through.

 

Next Chapter: Little Dove

(Previous Chapter: The Prismatic Tree)

The Witch of Yamhill County (Chapter 5)

This nine-chapter novella is the first of two stories set in between the periods of Stranger Things: The College Years and Stranger Things: The New Generation. I advise reading those stories, as well as the third in that trilogy, Stranger Things: World’s End, before reading this one, which is supplementary and does not involve the Upside Down. Like the Upside Down trilogy, it’s a work of fan fiction based on the Stranger Things TV series. I do not profit from these stories and they are not canon. There is plenty of Stranger Things fiction to be found online (see here), but if I learn that the Duffer Brothers do not appreciate fan fiction of their work, or if they order a cease-and-desist, I will gladly pull the stories down.

                               The Witch of Yamhill County — Chapter Five

                            The Prismatic Tree

The library was watching. Hopper was sure of it. He sensed the books eyeing their every move, and he wanted to move on. But he’d do this for Leigh.

There were thousands of books in the main room, extending to a ceiling twenty feet high. An immense chandelier worth a fortune bathed the room in soft light. It was a vast room, about ninety feet long and wide. Two ladders rolled around the perimeter on floor tracks, providing access to the books out of reach. Most were written in Russian or English, but there were other languages too, even alien tongues from other worlds. Topics ran the gamut of science and witchcraft: books on nuclear physics, biochemistry, astronomy, cybernetics, alien ecology, alchemy, conjuration, necromancy, illusions, phantasms, and more. Most of the material was in cloth-bound books, but there were also papyrus scrolls and clay tablets.

It was the Ninth Wonder of the World, in Hopper’s eyes. The public libraries in McMinville and Newberg were garage sales by comparison. You could lose yourself in this room, and he could tell that Leigh Davis wanted to, more than anything.

She and Hopper were on the ladders, while Dash explored the map room to their left. Straight ahead was a third room of richly bound books; Leigh was anxious to get in there. Three doors were spaced evenly along the wall behind them. The middle door they had come through, from the kitchen. The door on the right was painted black and locked; Hopper had tried it right away. There were tables all over the room, with books piled on them. Hopper wondered who shelved the material; it was like the cabbage soup and bread in the kitchen. Were they part of Sara’s duties?

Hopper was doing his best to put the kitchen behind him. He had laid that requirement on Leigh and Dash, after almost dragging them back outside after Travis’ death. They were traumatized; no one their age should have to see a friend die, let alone turned inside out. All of them still wore Travis’ gore, though they had sponged most of it off in the kitchen washbasins. Hopper replayed their defiance:

“Let go of me!” Leigh had yelled, still in tears. She jerked herself away from Hopper. “I’m not leaving. I came to find the Prismatic Tree, and I’m going to find it.” She sat down, a few feet away from Travis’ unspeakable corpse, crying hysterically.

This won’t do, he had thought. If Leigh insisted on plowing on, she would have to man up. Hopper had leaned down next to her, and gently but firmly held her face in front of him. “Listen to me,” he said. “If you want to stay and go through with this, I’m not going to stop you.” I should, but I won’t. He remembered the passion of other kids: Mike, Lucas, Dustin, Will; and Jane of course. “But you have to suspend your grief. You understand me? Mourn for Travis later, not now. That’s how this works. You either get it together, or I’m getting you out. This hut has no sympathy.” He let that sink in. “You understand? This hut has no sympathy.”

She finally nodded, wiping her eyes.

He stood up and looked at Dash. “That goes for you too.”

“I’ll tell you what goes,” retorted Dash, still in tears. “And I’m not leaving either, no matter what you say. I’m staying in this hut until the witch comes back, and I’m going to shoot her fucking face off — even if you don’t have the balls to.”

Hopper had said nothing. He wouldn’t waste time on Dash’s stupidities. They would cross the bridge of midnight when they came to it.

Now it was only 9:18. They had been inside the hut for about an hour, mostly in that thrice-damned kitchen. It had taken them a while to find the real door, leading out of the kitchen to the library: it was in the mouth of the dragon-head stove, way in the back, blocked by the fire. Hopper had then figured out what the metal pole was for. The hook reached inside the stove to pull a lever that stopped the fire. That allowed anyone to crawl through the mouth and reach the door.

The other door they had gone through had been an obscene trap that went nowhere, except into the belly of the person who opened it. The winding hall and vomit-smelling cavern had been Travis’ intestinal tract and stomach. As soon as he opened it, the door had formed a dimensional link to his body. The spongy “corridor” (his intestine) had twisted along to his actual stomach, and the closer Hopper and Leigh got to the “cavern”, the more Travis’s cramps had pained him. They had all believed that his cramps were caused by a spell in the kitchen, and that the kitchen was somehow trying to prevent Travis from leaving. But the invisible barrier wasn’t a spell; it was a natural barrier that stopped anyone from trying to get inside his own body. When Dash finally forced Travis to do that, the rupturing paradox caused Travis’ horrible death — and ejected them outside his body, back into the kitchen. Right now there was nothing on the other side of that door, and there wouldn’t be… until someone opened it again, and it created a link to that poor fool’s intestine…

Or at least, that’s how Hopper made sense of what happened. He didn’t share his ugly theory with either Leigh or Dash. He certainly didn’t want Dash knowing that he killed Travis precisely by trying to help him across the barrier. Let them go on thinking that Travis’ cramps and body contortions were caused by some kitchen spell that had just kept building until he burst.

“Find anything?” asked Leigh, high up on one of the ladders. She had told him to look for any book that had a tree on the cover, or the words “prismatic tree” in the title. Intent on finding a cure for her aunt, she was already coping better.

“Yeah,” he said. “A book on these evil beings called daemons: dergho-daemons, pisco-daemons, ultro-daemons, yagno-daemons. They all look worse than anything from the Upside Down.”

“The what?”

“Nothing.” He wished he were in the Upside Down right now. He threw the book aside and looked at her. “What about you?”

“Lot of books on how to make potions,” she said. “Pretty nasty ones.”

“Hey, I found something!” said Dash, poking his head out of the map room. “Come here, check it out.”

Hopper and Leigh followed him inside the room lit by a much smaller chandelier. There were maps of various places scattered across small tables, especially Russia and Oregon. On the center table was a triangled map labelled “The Dancing Hut”. It seemed to show all the rooms inside Baba Yaga’s evil home.

“This is what we’re inside,” said Dash.

 

 

“Wow,” said Leigh. “So we’re here now?” She pointed at the triangle labelled “Library”.

“Seems so,” said Hopper. “If these rooms are adjacent as they look, the entry hovel leads to the dining hall, which leads to the kitchen, and now the library. So yeah, that’s our path so far.”

“If we had taken that other door in the small chamber of the dining hall,” said Dash, “we’d have gone to the throne room instead of the kitchen. I wonder what’s in there. Does Baba Yaga sit on a throne like some queen?”

“She’s a bitch-queen from hell,” said Leigh ferociously.

Hopper didn’t care about the throne room. He was trying to figure out from this map where Sara Schwartz was. The guest rooms? Doubtful; guests weren’t usually servants. Stasis chambers? What were those? Lost souls? He didn’t like the sound of that room.

He liked even less the “B.Y.” adjacent to the library they were in now. Surely that stood for Baba Yaga. Was that where the locked black door led? The witch’s bed chambers? Did Sara reside in there?

The “prison” label alarmed him. It was the furthest area from their current location. Did the witch currently have prisoners? She seemed to eat kids right away, and no adults from Yamhill County had been reported missing. He was a sheriff. He’d have to see who was being kept there.

Leigh pointed excitedly at the room labelled “Orchard”. “That has to be be where the Prismatic Tree is, right?”

“Maybe,” said Hopper.

“And we’re almost there. After the guest rooms.”

Hopper didn’t want to think about who Baga Yaga’s guests were. Who the hell kept company with a witch who ate kids, and set traps in her home that turned people inside out? “We’ll find out soon enough,” he said, answering both himself and Leigh. He stood up from the table.

“I don’t get it,” said Dash. “The hut’s not a triangle. The rooms we’ve been in aren’t triangles. And they’re not the same size.”

“This isn’t drawn to shape or scale,” said Hopper. “You probably couldn’t map this hut in a way that would make sense on paper.”

“Why not?” asked Leigh.

“I don’t know, I’m just guessing. But if all these rooms are inter-dimensional — which they obviously are, to fit inside a small hut — they don’t connect in a way that makes sense in 3D. I mean, look” — he pointed at where they were now — “the library leads to the kitchen, the guest rooms, and ‘B.Y.’, which probably means Baba Yaga’s bedroom or something. So there should be three doors in the library leading to those rooms, and we saw them out there in the main room. But they’re all along the same wall, close together. In our world that’s impossible. The kitchen, the guest rooms, and the witch’s room would all be on top of each other, in the same space. The triangles on this map aren’t literal, they’re just a way of showing how the rooms of the hut connect.”

“Marya said there are twenty rooms in the hut,” said Leigh.

Hopper looked at her. “So?”

“I only count sixteen.”

“Me too,” said Dash.

“Marya doesn’t know how to count,” said Hopper. They were lingering too long.

“I don’t know,” sad Dash. “Where’s the meat locker on this map? Maybe that’s one of the four rooms not accounted for.”

“No, I don’t think so,” said Hopper. “The meat locker is part of the kitchen, just like that small connecting chamber was part of the dining room.”

“And like this map room is part of the library,” said Leigh.

“Exactly,” said Hopper. “These sixteen ‘rooms’ represented by the triangles may have smaller rooms inside them. Maybe Marya thinks there are twenty because she confuses them with single rooms like the meat locker or this map room. Anyway, it’s time to go.” He peeled the map off the table. It came off easily. It was 20″ x 20″, and he folded it, and then handed it to Leigh. “Put it in your pack.”

Leigh did as he said. “Let’s go into that expensive looking room. Maybe there’s a book about the tree in there.”

“Browse fast,” said Hopper.

 

He found it before she did. The book was shelved face out, and on the cover was a tree filled with multicolored apples. He picked it up: The Prismatic Tree of Nadežda Chilik. It was worth a fortune. Strands of real gold were woven into the cover.

“Leigh,” he said. He waved the book at her. She stepped off the stool and ran to him.

“Oh my God, this is it,” she said taking the book from him. Her hands were shaking as she set it on a nearby reading podium, and opened to the first page. Hopper and Dash looked over her shoulder.

Her enthusiasm cooled right away. “Oh, come one!” she wailed.

“Russian,” said Dash contemptuously.

“Hold on,” said Hopper. The book was written in Russian, but the text had begun blurring as soon as he tried to read it. He leaned over Leigh and kept looking. The text was completely out of focus now, as if he needed reading glasses. Then, seconds later, he was reading English. “Jesus,” he breathed. He would never scoff at magic again.

It was happening to Leigh and Dash too. Leigh was delighted, but Dash was unimpressed. Bored, he walked away and browsed another alcove.

Hopper moved Leigh aside and took charge of skimming through the pages. They were full of history about a witch named Nadežda Chilik who lived centuries ago. It was information they had no time for, but the gist was that Nadežda had made some evil pact with the gods in order to create the Prismatic Tree. Hopper didn’t see anything explaining how Baba Yaga acquired this tree, but he assumed that the bitch probably stole it. He stopped about a third of the way through the book, when a chart caught his eye. He went back a couple of pages before the chart and started reading carefully. “Here we go,” he said, picking up the book now. “This section explains the healing benefits of the different apples.”

“Which color cures multiple sclerosis?” she asked.

Hopper read a few paragraphs. “Green, it looks like. It says the green apples cure all diseases and poisons.”

“What about the others?”

“The red ones cure physical injuries. The orange ones — Jesus, this can’t be for real — regenerate lost limbs. The yellow –” He stopped short at the description of the yellow apples. Mike, he thought, hardly daring to hope.

“Let me see, sheriff.” She put her hands on the book, and he lowered it so she could read too.

She got excited as she read the chart. Hopper was taking all of this with a ton of salt. He’d seen impossible things in this hut, but the Prismatic Tree was miraculous. Not only did the apples have extraordinary healing power, they carried permanent side benefits. There was a catch, however. The tree was intolerant of greed. It allowed any person to pick two of its apples. If someone ever picked a third apple (or more), the mere touch of the apple would inflict the person with its toxic power — the reverse of its healing power. The chart explained everything:

 

Apple Color Healing Power (from eating)
Side Benefit (also from eating)
Toxic Power (from touching)
Red Cures all physical injuries Provides heat resistance (temps up to 110 degrees feel like room temp) Causes bleeding and scars
Orange Regenerates lost limbs Provides energy (only 1/2 the normal amount of sleep required) Causes the loss of an arm or leg
Yellow Cures blindness/deafness Provides virility (tireless sexual performance every 4 hours) Causes blindness or deafness
Green Cures all diseases/poisons Provides nourishment (only 1/3 the normal amount of food required) Causes smallpox
Blue Removes fear/panic/anxiety Provides cold resistance (temps down to -10 degrees feel like room temp) Causes relentless fear and anxiety
Indigo Cures insanity/hysteria Gives ESP (ability to read people’s thoughts) Causes homicidal or suicidal mania
Violet Removes curses Fluency in all Slavic tongues, and the ability to understand any language Causes shapechange

 

“This is… incredible,” said Leigh. “So a green apple would give my aunt ‘nourishment’ too?”

“Yeah,” said Hopper. “She could save a ton of money on food.”

Dash had come back and was also looking at the chart. “The orange apples regenerate lost limbs?”

Leigh looked at him. “Your grandfather.”

“What about his grandfather?” asked Hopper.

“None of your business,” said Dash.

Leigh punched Dash’s arm. “Don’t be an ass.” She turned to Hopper. “His granddad lost a leg in the Korean war.”

“So when we see this tree,” said Dash, “each of us can take two apples of any color?”

“I think so,” said Leigh. “I mean, that’s right, isn’t it, sheriff?”

“That’s what it says,” said Hopper. He wasn’t getting his hopes up. If this tree actually existed, he already knew which two apples he’d pick. There was another color besides yellow that Mike Wheeler needed.

“It’s good that we found this book,” said Dash. “I pity the fool who takes more than two apples.”

“We knew that from Marya,” said Leigh. “But she was vague. She just said that if you pick too many apples, the tree would hurt you in some way. Now we know how many, and how.”

“And now we’re getting the hell out of this library,” said Hopper. He tore the page from the book and handed it to Leigh.

“Ooooh,” winced Leigh, taking it. “Maybe you shouldn’t have done that. Marya said something about Baba Yaga being worse than a public librarian –”

There was a sudden explosion from the book’s pages, and Hopper flew backwards onto the floor. Leigh screamed and Dash pulled out his Glock. The book fell to the floor with its pages facing up, and then, with a hideous cackle, it snapped shut on its own. A faint gurgling noise came from between the binding.

“Holy shit!” yelled Dash, keeping his gun on the book.

Leigh’s attention was on Hopper. She was kneeling over him. “Are you okay, sheriff?”

Hopper was not okay. The explosion from the book (which hadn’t harmed the book at all) had blasted into his chest and left arm. If he hadn’t been holding the book at waist level when he ripped the page, the explosion would have seared his face. His shirt around the wounded areas was shredded; his chest and upper left arm had lost skin. They were worse than third-degree burns, and he felt on fire. He imagined Baba Yaga laughing at him for daring to swipe a page from one of her precious books.

“Oh my God,” said Leigh, helping him sit up. “You need to be in a hospital.”

“Yeah well, that’s not happening,” said Hopper. He wanted to scream.

“What do we do?” asked Dash, aghast at the sight of the sheriff’s chest.

Leigh took action. There was a small table in the room with an ornate looking cloth over it. She removed the cloth (half-expecting it to explode in her face) and brought it to Hopper. She gently pressed the cloth over his chest and arm, absorbing droplets of blood. Hopper took out his knife and cut the cloth into pieces, tying one around his arm, and wrapping another around most of the region of his chest. It was makeshift as hell, but at least it protected the exposed flesh.

He stood up, trying not to show pain. The kids needed leadership. “Okay, let’s go back to the three doors. We want the one to the guest rooms. That should take us to the orchard.” He looked at his watch. It was 9:43.

They went back to the main room, and to the three doors lined on the same wall. They had come from the middle one. Hopper pulled out his Smith & Wesson, and tried the black door again; it wouldn’t budge. That one must have led to Baba Yaga’s chambers. Which meant the other door was the one they wanted. He went to it and grabbed the door handle. “Have your gun ready,” he told Dash. “There could be nasty company in here.”

Dash nodded fiercely, holding the Glock in front of him. Hopper had to admit he handled it professionally. He wondered what the kid’s story was. His own story wasn’t going well. His chest was a wall of fire; he had let a kid die. Please, he prayed. Let me protect these two and get Sara. He cracked open the door and peeked in.

It opened into a cross-shaped room. There was a rug at the center of the cross, and four doors along the walls. At the other end of the cross was the door that presumably led to the orchard. The doors near the rug probably accessed the guest rooms. It looked like there was no one present in the cross-shaped hallway.

Hopper opened the door all the way, and turned to them. “Listen,” he said. “We’re walking straight and fast to that door at the very end.” It was about sixty feet away. “No noise, no stopping on the way. Move quietly past those other doors. You got it?”

Leigh and Dash nodded, and they all began walking. They passed the first two doors on their right and left, crossed the rug, and then came to the next two doors. Something was making a horrible noise behind the left one. Hopper realized it was a voice — the voice of some creature from a world he’d never want to visit. They kept walking until they reached the door at the end. He was sweating from the pain of his burns, and knew he was scarred for life. The explosion from that book had been of magic and pure evil.

They reached the door without alerting any guests, and went through. Hopper turned to close it behind him. There was no door to close. Where the door should have been was a vortex of air. He and the kids had emerged through a wind tunnel. They looked around.

And stared wonderstruck.

It was the orchard: inviting, refreshing, and wholly out of place in a home as vile as Baba Yaga’s. There were about a dozen apple trees filling the “room” of the orchard, which extended for well over a hundred feet in all directions, probably closer to a hundred fifty. The “walls” appeared to be an enclosure of hurricane-force winds, which also formed a “ceiling” fifty feet high. The air was perfectly still inside the orchard, but the wind-walls prevented anyone from leaving the place, unless it was through a vortex like the one they came through. They couldn’t see any more vortexes from where they were now, but there had to be two more somewhere: one leading to the “Stasis Chambers” and the other to “Lost Souls”.

The apples on the trees looked delicious, and the kids wanted to pick some, but Hopper told them not to. He had paid a dear price by stealing from this hut. They would pick only from the Prismatic Tree, which allowed every picker two apples before retaliating in punishment.

They walked through the trees, savoring the apple smell. When they had gone about sixty feet and passed five trees, they came to a stream of white fatty liquid, banked by incredibly soft brown earth. The stream divided the orchard in half, running about a hundred thirty feet. They gasped at what stood on the other side.

“I knew it was real,” said Leigh softly.

The Prismatic Tree towered forty feet into the air, dwarfing the other apples trees before and behind. There were at least a hundred apples on it, perhaps about fifteen or sixteen of each of the seven colors.

Dash fingered the Glock in his pants, looking around. He didn’t trust unguarded miracles.

Hopper didn’t trust miracles period. Even after all he’d seen this evening, he suspected these rainbow apples were probably about as magical as the fruit he bought at Bernards Farm. Then he swore. The kids were already starting across.

Dash yelped as he sank ankle-deep into the brown bank. Then he looked curious and scooped up a bit of what he was standing in. He tasted it and his face brightened. “Holy shit! This is pudding!”

“What the hell is wrong with you?” said Hopper, stepping into the bank after him. Dash gave him the finger and kept eating. Hopper reached down and picked up some of the brownness, which indeed looked exactly like chocolate pudding.

Leigh was in the stream, which went halfway up to her knees. She said she thought the liquid was pure cream. Hopper waded in after her, and Dash followed. A river of cream banked by pudding. They were in a fairly tale.

They reached the other side and stared up at the Prismatic Tree. “Who wants to go first?” asked Hopper. He was suddenly scared of the tree.

There was a rustling noise on the ground a few feet away, and they all jumped, yelling. Hopper and Dash pulled out their guns and aimed down. A fat ugly thing crawled towards them.

“I’m shooting it!” said Dash.

“No, don’t!” said Leigh. “It’s only a hedgehog.”

They looked closely at the spiny thing. Sure enough, it was. A really fat one.

For all Hopper knew, this hedgehog had rabies and could spit poison. “I’m shooting it too, if it comes any closer,” he said.

The hedgehog astounded them by speaking: “Oh, please. You don’t need to hurt me. I don’t bite or anything.”

“Oh!” said Leigh. “It talks.”

The hedgehog looked up at her. “Oh. Hello. You’re the nice girl. From the farm.”

“Marya?”

“Marya?” said the hedgehog. “Well, I used to be Marya. Then I did a bad thing, so the Mama cursed me and put me in this place.”

Leigh was shaken and appalled. “Baba Yaga turned you into a hedgehog?”

A very fat hedgehog that can speak, thought Hopper. The witch had a cruel sense of humor to go along with her punishments. “This is the girl you kids met at Bernards?” He holstered his gun and motioned for Dash to do the same.

“I… I guess,” said Leigh. “She called me the ‘nice girl’ there too.”

Hopper addressed the animal. “Aren’t you supposed to be the witch’s granddaughter? And she did this to you?”

“I was really bad,” said the hedgehog. “And she only called me her granddaughter. I wasn’t really related to her.”

“Must suck being a hedgehog,” said Dash.

“It’s not so bad,” said the hedgehog. “I like it better this way. I get to stay in the orchard all the time and eat cream and pudding.”

“And apples,” said Dash.

“Oh, I can’t reach the apples. The Mama made me so I can’t climb trees. I’m too fat, and she didn’t give me claws.”

“That’s mean,” said Leigh.

“But the cream and pudding never goes away. I have everything I need.”

She’ll be dead in a month on that diet. Maybe sooner. Hopper had to ask her about Sara. “Listen Marya, we’re going to get you out of here. I mean the whole hut, not just the orchard. But have you seen a girl named Sara Schwartz? Baba Yaga brought her to the hut two nights ago.”

“I know,” said the hedgehog. “She replaced me.”

“She what?”

“I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone about the hut. But I told the nice girl and her boyfriends at the farm. When Mama Yaga found out, she cursed me. Now she has another dove.”

Dove. Why did that sound familiar? “So Sara is, what, the witch’s new ‘granddaughter’ now?”

“Yes. She has my old room. Next to the work rooms.”

Hopper told Leigh to get the map of the hut. She took it out of her pack. He knew right away where Sara was. Little Dove. They had to go through the room of “lost souls” (whatever that was) and then the baths, and then they would be at Sara’s room. Next to the work rooms, as Marya said.

“All right,” he said, folding up the map and giving it to Leigh again. “You’re coming with us, Marya.”

“Oh, no!” said the hedgehog, sounding distressed. “That’s not allowed! I’ll be –”

“Don’t worry,” said Leigh. “We’re going to protect you.”

“But first,” said Hopper, “the three of us are each going to pick two apples from this tree. That’s safe for us to do, right?”

“I’m not sure,” said the hedgehog. “I know you can’t pick too many, or something bad happens.”

Hopper put his faith in the information from the library book. “Well, here goes everything,” he said, looking up at the Prismatic Tree. “Who wants to pick first?”

“Me,” said Dash. He knew what he wanted. Reaching up to a low-hanging branch, he plucked an orange apple. For his grandfather who lost a leg in Korea. Then he looked around for his next color. He had to shimmy up a branch to get it: an indigo. He jumped back down, and put the apples in his backpack.

Leigh came up to him. “Who’s the indigo for?”

“Jeanie.”

She nodded and hugged him. “Good for you,” she said.

She turned to Hopper. “His cousin on the east coast has psychosis and multiple personality disorder. She’s a real mess.”

Dash looked annoyed. “My family’s none of his business.”

No, thought Hopper. But my family is mine. He knew the colors he needed. Reaching up with his right hand, he yanked off a yellow apple. So Mike can see again. Then he circled the tree until he found a blue one within reach, and snagged it. So Mike will stop screaming at night, and be at peace again.

Leigh protested. “Sheriff, you need a red one. For yourself.”

“I’m fine, kid.” He was anything but fine; he was in horrendous pain. But his pain would eventually pass, and he could live with his chest looking scarred and ugly. Mike Wheeler’s scars went deeper. Mike had been caged in three and half years of hell, if hell ever existed. Mike needed healing more than anyone.

“Carry them in your pack for me?” asked Hopper. Leigh took off her pack and put the yellow and blue apples away.

“Your turn, Leigh,” said Dash.

She walked up to the tree and paused, as if weighing alternatives. And Hopper swore, suddenly knowing what she would do. Before he could protest, she reached up and picked a red apple. She clutched the fruit in her hand and brought it to him.

“Jesus, kid, why?” Because you need it, you fool. You’re in agony and that skin probably won’t heal otherwise. And she can still pick a green apple for her aunt. She gets two, just like you and Dash.

Leigh didn’t say anything. She took Hopper’s hand and made him take the apple. It was like no red apple he’d ever seen. The redness was so red that it reset the bar, making the brightest of all reds seem dim and faded. He took the fruit and forced a smile. “I guess I’ll be the test, huh?”

“Do it,” said Dash. “Let’s see if these things really work.”

“It’ll be hard to miss,” said Hopper. He bit into the apple — and was thoroughly unprepared for the effect. The fruit tasted so good that it felt like a gustatory assault. Mortal tongues weren’t made to handle such purity. It was a taste beyond sweet and refreshing; whole new adjectives were needed. Maybe those words existed in Russian, but Hopper knew nothing in English that could convey what he was experiencing. He wanted fifty more of these red apples; they had put him on a plane of sensation unreachable by even LSD. He chewed non-stop and wept for joy. There were no seeds at the core; he chomped every last bit.

As he ate, his skin transmogrified. The burns that might have followed him to the grave were erased in seconds. And Hopper felt elevated, as if the apple had given him full lease on life. He was cured and felt majestic. He was ready to take on ten incarnations of Baba Yaga.

The kids were awed by the miracle. Dash looked humbled for the first time since Hopper met him. Leigh was so happy she gave Hopper a hug, and then kept hugging him. He held her and kissed her cheek, caught in her emotions. “Thanks, kid,” he said. “Thanks so much.” They stayed like that for a while. “Now,” he said finally, “go pick your second apple.”

“I guess I will,” she said, letting go of him. She went back to the tree and looked up at a branch. She hesitated, and then picked. A violet apple.

“Whoa!” said Dash. “Leigh, you need a green!”

Hopper swore again. What was she doing now? A violet wouldn’t help her aunt’s affliction.

Leigh walked over to the hedgehog that was Marya, and knelt beside her. “Here, Marya. Eat this. You’ll change back.”

Oh, Leigh. She had just sacrificed her aunt for a little girl she had met two days ago.

“Change back?” asked the hedgehog.

“The violet apples remove curses,” said Leigh. “You’ll be yourself again.”

“Well,” said the hedgehog, “you’re a nice girl. But I already forget what it’s like to be a person. I remember not being happy — that I remember. Everyone was mean. Except you. I’m happy now. I have this pretty orchard, and cream and pudding to eat, and I don’t have to do anything. It’s nice here.”

Leigh was very upset. “Marya, please. You need to eat this apple. We’ll help you.”

“Maybe Marya’s right,” said Hopper. He hated to say it.

“What do you mean, she’s right?” asked Leigh, furious.

“Look, if she was an abused kid, what does she have to go back to?” Social Services would just ship her back to any abusive parents still willing to take her, or put her in a foster home.

“She can stay with us!” yelled Leigh. “She can stay with me.” She began to cry. Dash looked uncomfortable.

Hopper put his hand on Leigh’s shoulder. “You sure about this, Marya?” he asked the hedgehog.

“Yes. The nice girl doesn’t have to cry. This place is very nice. You can all visit me any time… if the Mama allows it.”

The Mama has a lot to answer for. Leigh was crying hard now, and Hopper held her. He took the violet apple from her, and laid it on the ground before the hedgehog. “If you change your mind, that apple is for you.”

Leigh went on crying.

 

Next Chapter: Lost Souls

(Previous Chapter: The Kitchen)

The Witch of Yamhill County (Chapter 4)

This nine-chapter novella is the first of two stories set in between the periods of Stranger Things: The College Years and Stranger Things: The New Generation. I advise reading those stories, as well as the third in that trilogy, Stranger Things: World’s End, before reading this one, which is supplementary and does not involve the Upside Down. Like the Upside Down trilogy, it’s a work of fan fiction based on the Stranger Things TV series. I do not profit from these stories and they are not canon. There is plenty of Stranger Things fiction to be found online (see here), but if I learn that the Duffer Brothers do not appreciate fan fiction of their work, or if they order a cease-and-desist, I will gladly pull the stories down.

                               The Witch of Yamhill County — Chapter Four

                                The Kitchen

“DON’T ANYONE MOVE!” shouted Hopper.

He burst into the hut and fanned his gun in an arc. The kids were outside waiting for his okay, trying to see in. They were about to be disappointed. There was hardly anything in this shitty hovel, and not a living soul.

Hopper lowered his gun. “All right,” he said. Leigh, Travis, and Dash rushed into the hut of their dreams.

The interior mocked those dreams. It was small and windowless, the exact same hexagonal shape and dimensions as on the outside: fifteen feet high and wide. A rickety table stood in a corner of the room, with a single chair. There was a bowl of fruit on the table, and a washbasin underneath. In the opposite corner a wood-burning stove with a chimney rose to the ceiling. Next to the stove was a straw-filled mattress with a worn quilt over it. The rest of the room was littered with garbage: dirty clothes, rotting shelves, bread boxes, combs with half their teeth gone, unwashed eating utensils, and sewing supplies. It was the home of a dirt-poor peasant woman, and nothing suggested a multidimensional structure.

Except the door on the opposite wall.

“This is shit,” said Dash.

“No shit,” said Travis. “What a pigsty.”

“Hold on,” said Hopper. “There’s a door over there. Any of you see that on the outside?”

“Of course not,” said Leigh. “That door must lead to all the other rooms Marya told us about — to the real inside of the hut.”

“It better,” said Dash. “Or I’m gonna thrash that little liar.”

“Shut up,” said Leigh. “She’s a little girl.”

“Let me check around here first,” said Hopper, rummaging through the clothes and filth on the floor. There was no sign of anything a seven-year old would wear.

Travis grabbed a pear from the table. It had bruises and a worm. He put it back in the bowl.

“Okay,” said Hopper. “We’re going through that door. Same as before.”

They got behind him. He checked his watch: 8:14. If Marya could be believed, they had less than four hours until the witch returned. The little girl had told the kids that Baba Yaga left the hut every evening at sunset and returned at midnight. Hopper was shuddering from what he’d just seen.

He and the kids had returned to the circle and hunkered at the edge of the woods. When darkness fell at 7:55, the sixty-four skulls had lit up in a ghostly phosphorescence, and the cabin’s door crashed open. Out flew Baba Yaga in (sure enough) the flying cauldron of Travis’s Russian legend. She had circled the skull perimeter, screeching some nameless fury, and a fist of blackness had closed over Hopper’s heart. The kids had clung to him in terror. Finally the cauldron sailed off in the direction of Bellevue. The spell passed and the fear trickled away. Hopper would have aborted the plan right then and sent the kids back, except they had him by the balls. He couldn’t get inside without them. He couldn’t believe they still wanted to go in. Kids were crazy. So was he.

The crazy bunch of them had emerged from the forest and walked between the safe pair of skulls. Marya had told Leigh the secret: it was the twelfth and thirteenth skull posts clockwise from north. The other sixty-two were the death traps that had flamed Hopper. He had used the compass on his knife to figure out the right skulls, and they passed into the circle unmolested. They could have probably gone between the two posts with no skulls anymore, thanks to Hopper, but decided not to risk it. When they got halfway to the hut, it leaped up as before, spinning and stamping its extraterrestrial dance. Travis and Dash gaped, but Leigh marched straight toward it. She held a piece of cloth that had a “poem of command” written on it; the key to the hut, from Marya’s pouch. Leigh had shouted:

“Little shack, plant your crack,
Face your door to me;
Squat down in the ground,
And open sesame!”

At once the hut had collapsed, its door facing Leigh. The legs folded underneath and the door banged open. Hopper had grabbed Leigh then, and shoved her behind him with the boys. His Smith & Wesson was pointed at the doorway, and he was ready to pull the trigger if anything other than a child stepped out.

Nothing had, and now here they were. In a dingy hovel that wasn’t what it seemed. Here I am. Working with kids again. When he left Hawkins he had closed the door on that chapter of his life. He’d caused kids more than enough pain. You don’t ever talk about him to me. Ever. Do you understand? He had deserved Jane’s scolding that afternoon. I’m sorry, Mike. For everything. You’ve got the best woman in the world. And I’ve been losing her since I adopted her.

“Sheriff?” It was Travis. “You want me to open it? While you aim the gun?”

Hopper snapped out of it. “No, stay back.” He put his hand on the door handle, and threw it open — fully expecting to see the outside circle and be made a fool of.

They all gasped. The door led to another room. Hopper went in slowly and motioned for the kids to follow.

“Wow,” said Leigh, when they all got in. They were in an immaculately clean area nearly twice the size of the room they had left. It was some kind of connecting chamber, with a door on the left and another one on the opposite wall. The latter was wide open.

“Fucking unreal,” said Travis.

“It’s like that wardrobe story,” said Dash. “The kids go into the closet and find another world –”

“No, more like Doctor Who,” said Travis.

“What do you mean, ‘who’?” said Dash.

“Doctor Who, you idiot. The TV show that ran from the sixties to the eighties. The Doctor traveled in a space capsule called the TARDIS. It was really small on the outside, but on the inside it had rooms that went on forever.”

“Look at this,” said Hopper. He was standing in the open doorway. The kids got closer and saw what he saw. It was a dining hall made for kings. They went inside. The hall ran eighty feet long and the dining table was half that length. Light came from an enormous chandelier glittering with yellow gems. To Hopper it looked like it was worth ten times his pension.

But it was the walls that held their attention. Murals filled every inch, and the drawings were vile. They were demons straight out of hell.

“Oh my God,” said Leigh, her voice shaking. “They look alive.” The artistry was so vivid and penetrating it could hardly have been done by human hand. If you looked long enough, the faces of the demons seemed to change slightly, and magnify.

Leigh turned away.

“Your worst nightmares, girl,” said Dash. He sat himself at the head of the table. “So what’s the deal here? Is someone supposed to come serve us?”

“You really want to eat in this room?” asked Travis.

“I want a full-course meal,” said Dash, banging on the table.

Hopper was looking at Dash. The kid’s shirt had come loose when he sat down at the table; there was a handgun in the back of his pants. Rage suddenly filled him. What was the kid doing with a gun? He walked over and ripped the pistol out of Dash’s pants.

“Hey!” Dash stood up, furious. “Give it back!”

“What are you doing with this?” yelled Hopper. It was an old Glock 17, probably the kid’s father’s. Unless he’d stolen it somewhere.

“Give it back, I said!”

“Sit back down in that chair!” Hopper shouted. He felt a sudden anger he couldn’t control.

Dash lost control too. He swung his fist upwards. It connected squarely on Hopper’s jaw, and the sheriff roared. For a not-even fifteen-year old, Dash had muscle. Hopper stepped back, and Dash lunged for his hand with the gun. Hopper threw the kid off him easily with his free hand, and sent him sprawling near the dining table.

“Dash, quit being a shit!” shouted Leigh, as Travis stepped in front of Dash to ward him off Hopper.

Dash was livid. “Out of my way, Travis!”

“Cool off! You just assaulted an officer.”

“Listen to your friend,” said Hopper. “Unless you want a bullet up your ass.” Hopper didn’t understand why he was acting like this, only that he couldn’t help it. Wrath was placing irrefutable demands on him.

“And you,” said Travis, turning on Hopper, “give him his gun back.”

Hopper looked at Travis as if a lizard had crawled from his mouth. “Excuse me?”

“You heard me,” said Travis. “It’s his, and he knows how to use it properly.”

Hopper couldn’t believe the impudence of kids these days. With his free hand he grabbed Travis’s shirt and yanked him up close. “Listen to me, you full-of-yourself piece of shit. You and your friends are going to do what I tell you. Exactly what I tell you –”

Leigh came over and kicked Hopper in the thigh. “Put him down!”

Hopper didn’t know these kids well, but he was sure that Leigh Davis wasn’t the sort who kicked police officers. Something bad was going on here. They were all becoming hostage to a mindless fury.

But that fury felt good; it was pure and raced through Hopper’s veins. He threw Travis aside, grabbed Leigh by the throat, and lifted her in high the air before slamming her down on the table. The breath rushed out of her, and Hopper cocked the Glock and jammed it beneath her chin. “You want to try me again, you lousy little bitch?”

Dash swore at Hopper and jumped him. Hopper turned from Leigh and smacked Dash in the side of the head, knocking him down again on his back. Leigh was on her own back trying to breathe. Travis was coming for Hopper, then saw Dash lying on the floor in his way. With sudden venom he leaned down and yanked Dash’s head up, holding it inches from his face. He screamed at Dash for starting the whole fight, for his ever-obnoxious attitude, and for making fun of Travis in recent weeks because he wanted to hold other boys’ hands. Dash punched Travis in the gut and deluged him with homophobic slurs: “fag-hag”, “ass-bandit”, “sea queen”, and others Hopper had never heard.

On some level Hopper was aghast by what they were doing to each other, but that feeling was smothered by a nasty joy. He raised Dash’s gun, and leveled it at the kid’s face. “One less shithead in the world.”

“No!” yelled Dash, diving.

That dive, and Hopper’s inner voice, saved Dash’s life. At the last moment Hopper jerked his hand sideways, mortified that he was trying to murder a kid. The bullet missed and slammed into the floor.

Dash got up, ready for more.

“Stop,” coughed Leigh. She was sitting up on the table and pointing at one of the murals. Hopper and the boys looked. It was a salivating creature with fangs and crimson eyes, and the part of the wall it was on seemed to pulsate as if it were organic. Hopper could feel the demon’s eyes raking his soul.

With every ounce of his inner will, Hopper fought the ugly impulses trying to claim him. Leigh was already shaking it off. She got off the table, trying to keep her head clear. “We need to leave this room right now. It’s dividing us.”

“She’s right,” said Travis. His voice and body trembled as he too resisted the demon’s will. “These murals aren’t just pictures. They’re making us fight each other.”

Making us fight? Was this how Baba Yaga entertained herself? By turning her dinner parties into massacres? Hopper imagined dinner guests slaughtering each other with their eating utensils. They would have to return to the connecting chamber; there was another door in that room that went somewhere.

Then Travis saw something. “There,” he said, pointing between two murals. “Is that a door?”

They looked and saw a door that blended with the murals. It was hard to spot.

“You kids follow me,” said Hopper. “Now.” He walked to the door and opened it. It led to a corridor which looked safe. He got the kids through and shut the door tight. The rage left all of them at once.

“What was that?” said Dash.

“Something I never want to feel again,” said Hopper. He looked at Leigh and put his arm around her. “You okay?”

She rubbed her throat. “God, you’re a psycho.” She was hesitant, but then hugged him back. He had been ready to shoot her head off with Dash’s gun.

He released Leigh and held the gun in front of Dash. “Whose is this?”

“None of your business,” said Dash. “I want it back.”

“I’m a sheriff,” said Hopper. “You better believe it’s my business. And I won’t ask again.”

“Sheriff,” said Travis, “it’s a long story where that gun came from. But Dash knows how to use it and handle it responsibly. For now — I mean, all things considered — can you cut him some slack? I’d say we need all the firepower we can get while we’re in this hut.”

Dash nodded. “I can back you up as a shooter. Give me a chance and you’ll see.”

Now I’m deputizing kids. Hopper relented and put the Glock in Dash’s hands. “You mess up with that thing and I’m taking it away. For good.” He looked at them all. “Stay behind me, like before.”

They went down the corridor, which went for about fifty feet and ended at another door. They went through — and were blasted by freezing air.

Travis cursed, shivering. He hated the cold. Then he screamed at what he saw. So did Leigh. And at that moment Hopper knew this hut was more than he had bargained for.

They were in a meat locker. Animal carcasses of all kinds — sheep, cow, pig, chicken — hung from large hooks in the ceiling. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was that they themselves were also hanging from the hooks. Travis was upside down, butchered; Leigh was hooked by her throat, torn and gashed; Dash swung like a pendulum; and Hopper hung from his groin. Their corpses were pale and blood streaked.

“This is… oh my God, this is so sick,” said Leigh, looking away.

“You don’t scare us, bitch!” shouted Dash, who sounded very scared.

Hopper stared at himself hanging bent backwards. His arms and legs reached toward the floor, and his face looked up, as his body turned slowly, hooked on the pivot point of his mutilated groin. His penis was gone and his scrotum had been savaged. This had to be some kind of an illusion. He got close to his corpse and looked it over.

“Be careful, sheriff,” warned Travis.

“I’m not touching it,” said Hopper. The carcass looked exactly like him. It was the grossest corpse he’d ever seen.

“Let’s just move on,” said Leigh.

Hopper nodded. There was a door on the other side of the room, and they hurried through. They passed from a freezer to an oven.

They were in a huge kitchen about sixty feet wide, and the heat was blasting from a stove on their right. It was cast iron with a front shaped like a dragon’s face. They could see a roaring fire behind the glass window set into the dragon’s mouth. A pot simmered on top of the stove; it smelled like vegetable soup. Giant buckets lay a few feet away from the stove, against the wall. There was a cupboard with glass doors, filled with bowls, plates, glasses, and silverware. Pots and pans rested on two large tables. Loaves of bread were cooling on the tables, and wooden stools surrounded them. On one of the tables was a long metal pole with a hook in one end. Close to the tables were washbasins, half full of sudsy water.

Hopper saw two doors: one to their left, on the wall opposite the stove; and another across from them, on the far wall, opposite the one they had come through.

“Bread smells good,” said Dash, heading for the tables.

“Don’t eat anything,” snapped Hopper.

“You’re not my mother.”

“Dash,” said Leigh, with a look that told him to grow up.

“Don’t get your panties in a knot,” said Dash. “I’m just looking.” He sniffed the loaves and mumbled approvingly.

Hopper went up to the stove. It was cabbage soup simmering in the pot. But where was the chef? Or did the food cook by itself in this place? He looked at the dragon face of the stove. Flames roared behind the glass mouth; it looked like a real fire-breathing dragon.

“What’s this pole for?” asked Travis. He had picked it off the table and was inspecting the hook on the end.

Hopper walked over to him and took it. “No idea. Maybe for reaching into the stove.”

“Hey,” said Leigh. “It’s a fridge.” She had opened the door on the far wall. Hopper could see the food inside, stacked on shelves.

He hurried over and lashed out at her. “What did I tell you? Let me open the doors.” He felt cool air pour out as he looked inside.

“It’s like the freezer we came through,” said Leigh, letting him go in first.

“Are we hanging on hooks again?” asked Travis, joining them.

“No hooks,” said Hopper, entering the fridge with Travis and Leigh behind him. There was a food supply to last months, or even more than a year: shelves of produce, sacks of grain and rice, tons of butter and jam, rows of wine bottles and porter beer. There was an entire shelf for Absolut vodka in all fruit flavors. Travis took a mini-bottle of lemon vodka. Hopper swiped it out of his hand and put it back. He saw no other doors in the room, and they returned to the kitchen.

“Wow,” said Leigh, as they shut the door. “The witch has everything.”

“My parents love Absolut,” said Travis. “They should come as dinner guests.”

“Oh shit,” said Dash. He hadn’t followed them into the fridge. He was standing over the buckets by the stove, his face white as tapeworms. “Oh, this is evil shit.”

They rushed over and looked in.

Dear God.

Leigh turned and threw up on the floor. Travis backed away, looking like he might do the same. Dash kept staring into the buckets, mortified. Hopper was going to break every bone in Baba Yaga’s hag-shit body.

The buckets were filled with small human skeletons. They had to be the kids who had gone missing: Krissa Monroe; Paul and Julie Gallagher; Michelle Chase; Jordan Wood. The witch had cooked and eaten them. She was a bloody cannibal.

But not Sara. Hopper insisted to himself that this was true. Sara Schwartz hadn’t been abducted, but sold into servitude. There were only five skeletons here, not six. He could still save Sara. But it also meant something else: there was another kid’s life on the line tonight. When Baba Yaga returned at midnight, she would be coming with another child. She evidently ate these children right away. Hopper had to find Sara, get her out, call for reinforcements, and then return inside the hut by using the poem he now knew from Leigh. He and other officers could then ambush Baba Yaga. That left the question of these kids, and whether or not to continue with them.

Travis was helping Leigh stand up. Dash was fingering the Glock in his pants. Hopper realized that he should never have agreed to their plan. They belonged safe at home with their parents.

“I’m taking you guys out of here,” he said. “This is too dangerous.”

They howled protests, especially Leigh. “I’m okay, sheriff, really.” She was really not; she was holding back tears as best she could.

“A deal’s a deal, sheriff,” said Travis. “We got you inside; you get us through. That’s what we agreed.”

“I think this is a bad idea,” said Hopper. But he wouldn’t go back on his word if they persisted.

“I want to find the tree that can save my aunt,”  said Leigh, wiping her eyes. “But I want to find Marya now, too. We have to take her away, sheriff. This is no place for anyone to live, especially a little girl. I want to find her myself. Please.”

Everything in him said no. This was Hawkins all over again. But kids had shown him a thing or two. And they were stronger than most adults gave them credit for. “You sure?” he asked.

Leigh nodded.

“We’re in this, man,” said Dash. “We’re gonna help you take this bitch-witch down.”

Dash the Rash. Hopper knew the kid was itching to use his gun. He would have to watch him. And Leigh too. He was already feeling paternal about her, but he didn’t care.

“All right then,” he said. “Next door.” They walked over to the only door remaining, which was opposite the stove. Travis opened it for the sheriff, allowing him to lead. Hopper passed through — and stopped right away at what he saw. A twisting hallway snaked before him, with walls of soft red material, and a floor full of putrid sludge. The hallway went for about thirty feet before turning. Hopper stepped in the sludge, testing it. It was knee deep. He hoped there was nothing alive in it, slithering around.

“Okay, listen up.” He looked over his shoulder. “If you guys really want to go on with this, you’ll have to get your feet wet.” He started wading through the sludge. Leigh came after him, making faces. Dash started following too, and then turned around. Travis was having some kind of problem.

“What’s going on?” asked Hopper.

“Travis can’t get through!” said Dash.

“What do you mean, he can’t get through?”

“I can’t cross, sheriff,” said Travis. “It’s like there’s some kind of invisible barrier, blocking just me.”

Hopper waded back to the door, pushing Leigh and Dash aside. Travis was still in the kitchen, with his arms held out in front of him. He was trying to push himself through the doorway, but not even his hands could cross the threshold. The kid jumped at the invisible barrier to prove his point, and was knocked backwards onto the kitchen floor.

Hopper stepped back into the kitchen. “What’s doing this?”

Travis got off the floor. “No idea. But it’s only affecting me for some reason.”

Hopper walked through the doorway again, back into the weird hall with spongy walls. He encountered no resistance at all. Leigh and Dash returned to the kitchen, and they too had no problems getting back into the hallway. Travis tried again, and was still blocked. Whatever enchantment was on this door, it was targeting him alone.

“All right,” said Hopper, making a decision. “Dash, you stay with him, while Leigh and I see where this hallway goes.”

“Is that smart?” asked Dash. “Splitting up?”

“Of course not,” said Hopper. “But I need to see where this goes, and I don’t want Travis here alone. We’ll be back in a few minutes. Maybe something at the end will tell us why Travis can’t get through.”

“Oh fuck,” said Travis.

“What’s wrong?” asked Leigh.

“Cramps,” he said, holding his stomach. “Just the time to start getting sick.”

“What is it, food poisoning?” asked Hopper.

“We packed lunches from home before coming here,” said Leigh. “We ate pretty light.”

“Well, it’s something,” said Travis. He sat down on the kitchen floor, clearly uncomfortable.

“You didn’t eat anything in here, did you?” asked Hopper.

“No way, man. Not a thing. Not even back in that first room, with the bowl of fruit.”

“All right, just rest here for a few minutes. Dash is going to stay with you. Leigh, follow me. And keep this door open at all times, you guys.”

He and Leigh began wading down the hall through the sludge. The floor felt as spongy as the walls looked. When they turned the corner, they saw darkness ahead. Hopper took out his flashlight. Unlike the previous rooms and hallways, this one had no source of light anywhere. Once they turned the corner, the light from the kitchen vanished. He played the beam down the weird hall and saw that it went another forty feet before turning again. He asked Leigh if she was okay.

“Yeah.” Her voice was shaking. “But I can’t stop thinking of snakes. I hope there are no snakes in this shit we’re wading through.”

They turned the next corner and saw that it was a switchback tunnel, going up about fifty feet in the same direction they had just come down. They kept going and twisted around another switchback, to a corridor that looked about sixty feet long.

“Does it go on forever?” asked Leigh.

“We’re not,” said Hopper. “If this doesn’t lead somewhere after the next turn, we’re going back.” He had a bad feeling about this hallway. The red walls and ceiling reminded him of flesh for some reason.

At the next switchback, the hallway finally ended, and Hopper and Leigh gagged. They were in a huge dark cavern that smelled of vomit. Like the switchback hallway it was unlit, and hard to make out details with only Hopper’s flashlight to go by. He played the beam over the cavern walls, searching for a door or some passage leading from this foul place. The putrid sludge was everywhere, and even deeper here.

“Oh, that stinks,” said Leigh, covering her nose.

“All right, I don’t see any doors or passages here. Let’s get back to your friends.” Leigh agreed.

They retraced their steps through the twisting hallway, anxious to get out the sludge. About halfway back they heard yelling ahead. It must have been the boys. Hopper swore, and told Leigh to start running. They splashed their way around the next two corners and then saw the boys at the kitchen doorway. It looked like Dash was trying to pull Travis across the doorway — to force him into the weird hall.

“Hey!” shouted Hopper, trying to run towards them. The spongy floor didn’t accommodate running, and he tripped and fell into the sludge. Leigh helped him up, and they both kept going as fast as they could.

Right ahead, Travis was groaning in terrible agony; his cramps had apparently gotten worse. Dash was straining to pull him out of the kitchen, which he must have concluded was the source of Travis’s pain.

“I got you, man!” shouted Dash. “I can feel it about to snap!”

Travis moaned louder as Dash pulled his arms. To Hopper it looked like the invisible barrier blocking Travis was about to snap, like a rubber band reaching its elastic limit. Travis suddenly howled; he was suffering a monstrous torment. Dash paused, releasing Travis’s arms; he grabbed Travis in a bear hug — and with all his might heaved him across the doorway.

Hopper and Leigh reached the boys just as the invisible barrier gave way. Dash sprawled backwards into the sludge, holding Travis on top of him. Hopper fell down next to them both. What he saw next would punish him for the rest of his life.

Travis was convulsing violently. His flesh surged, as if insects were under his skin trying to break out. He was trying to say something, but spasms in his throat choked the sound. He was contorting everywhere: the skin of his face bubbled into convex pockets; he was about to explode. Hopper was furious, unable to do anything; Leigh was hysterical; Dash kept yelling Travis’ name.

In the space of their impotence, Travis Mitchell’s body turned literally inside out.

He died as his guts splayed over them. They heard a banging noise and were suddenly in the kitchen again, with Dash cradling the mess that was Travis’ inside-out corpse. The room shook, and a deep guttural rumbling came from the doorway. Then, with a deafening clash, the door slammed shut.

And Hopper wept: for his utter uselessness, and his terrible underestimation of the nature of this place. He held Leigh and Dash who cried just as helplessly, against a night that had brought horror, pain, and rage to them all.

 

Next Chapter: The Prismatic Tree

(Previous Chapter: The Dancing Hut)