Retrospective: The Seven Altars of Dusarra

Ask fantasy readers if they’ve heard of The Seven Altars of Dusarra and you might get a blank stare. Even in my day it was an obscurity, a sword-and-sorcery novel in the vein of the early pulps, the second in a four-volume series. The Lure of the Basilisk is the first (which I ended up reading last and considered a rather unimpressive prequel), The Sword of Bheleu the third, and The Book of Silence the fourth. The third and fourth volumes are good too, but neither fired my imagination like the second.

The story’s hero is Garth the Overman, who is sent to a faraway city to rob the temples of some nasty cults. Planning isn’t his forte. You wouldn’t hire this guy for secrecy or low profile. He stumbles blindly into situations and relies on hack-and-slash. He kills people and then regrets it. He calls forth a citywide manhunt and has to sleep in horse stalls to avoid arrest. He’s a morally ambiguous figure like Conan, and the world he inhabits is like those of the classic pulp fantasies — decadent and grim, full of shady rogues, evil priests, and self-serving wizards.

The city of Dusarra in particular reminds me of Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar, especially the Street of the Temples devoted to a variety of perverse deities. There’s Tema (goddess of the night), Andhur Regvos (god of darkness and blindness), Aghad (god of hate and treachery), Sai (goddess of torture and pain), P’hul (goddess of disease and decay), Bheleu (god of war and destruction), and finally, the one whose “name is not spoken” (god of death).

The cults are chilling if not outright ghastly. The priests of Andhur Regvos blind themselves, those of Sai practice torture and human sacrifice, those of P’hul have hideous skin diseases and enjoy spreading them.

Garth is supposed to steal whatever he finds on the seven altars. This is what he gets:

1. Tema, Goddess of Night. A huge diamond gemstone (a foot in diameter), that refracts moonlight into pure white light.

2. Andhur Regvos, God of Darkness and Blindness. A huge black obsidian stone (a foot in diameter).

3. Aghad, God of Hate and Treachery. Gold coins with blood on them.

4. Sai, Goddess of Pain and Suffering. A dagger, a whip, and a woman about to be sacrificed.

5. P’hul, Goddess of Disease and Decay. A mound of dust.

6. Bheleu, God of War and Destruction. A magic flaming sword (the Sword of Bheleu).

7. The Nameless God, Death. Nothing.

Garth gets into big trouble with the priests of Aghad, who plot an ugly revenge that carries into the third and fourth books. He makes a problem for himself in the temple of Sai; the woman he rescues wants to go free, but Garth has interpreted his instructions literally; he was sent to retrieve whatever he found on the seven altars, and while the dagger and the whip are what normally reside on the altar of Sai, he believes he must take the woman too. It’s an interesting twist that makes his job a pain in the ass, as he must now rely on his war beast to guard the woman from fleeing while he robs the remaining three temples.

The outcomes of those last three temples are varied in the extreme. The high priestess of P’hul actually allows Garth to take the dust from the altar — the only case in which he obtains his object without killing anyone or desecrating the temple; he even departs on friendly terms with the priestess. The temple of Death is the last one he enters, where there is nothing on the altar at all. (There’s supposed to be a book, the Book of Silence, which becomes Garth’s quest in the fourth novel, taking him to a city far from Dusarra.) In between those, his robbing of the sixth temple is the most pivotal encounter of the novel: at the altar of Bheleu he commits an appalling massacre (see the book cover at the top), and falls into his preordained role as the one who will usher in a new age of war:

The interior of the ruin was a single vast space; if there had ever been any internal walls, they were nothing now but part of the dust that served as the floor. The black stone walls and the tattered metal frame of the demolished dome were lit by a great bonfire that blazed in the center of the temple, and around this conflagration danced a score or more of red-robed priests, prancing about and chanting eerily, casting long black shadows that writhed across red-lit walls.

There was no sign of an altar, unless the bonfire could be considered that; it was certainly the focus of the worshippers’ attention. Garth blinked, and studied the leaping flames more carefully. Logs of all size were heaped crudely together; in the center, a single slim straight rod stood straight up, almost invisible through the flames. He blinked again. It was a sword. An immense two-handed broadsword; a truly magnificent weapon. He would take that sword, and wield the splendid blade among the worshipers until it shone as red as blood as it did now with heat.

Somewhere a part of him knew that was insane, this uncontrollable craving, but his rationality was drowned in a flood of unreasoning blood lust. An instant later, the reeling semi-hypnotized dancers were delighted to see him stride out of nowhere, roaring into their midst, red eyes ablaze; they knew at once, with the absolute conviction of the fanatic, that this was their god who confronted them. They screamed with ecstasy, the chant collapsing into chaotic raving; the earth rumbled beneath them, and lightning forked across the sky.

Garth wrenched the sacred sword from its place; his hands smoked with the heat of the hilt, but he paid it no heed, raising the blade above his head, and whirling it about so that it blazed in the firelight.

“I am Bheleu!” cried the monster in Garth’s body. “I am destruction!”

The blade swung up, and came down, hacking through a man’s neck, spraying blood into the scattered fire where it sizzled and stank. The worshipers cried hoarse approval; there was no trace of resistance. The eager warriors flung themselves in the weapon’s path as the earth shook and the sky raged, and the overman laughed. For a half an hour their god walked among his people, bringing the total destruction their creed proclaimed holy. The priests of Bheleu had been warriors, for their faith required it. None shrank from the dismembered and disemboweled corpses of their comrades. Instead they fought amongst themselves for the right to approach and be slain.

For me, this remains one of the most iconic passages in any fantasy novel. In 1981 it made me want more of the sword-and-sorcery genre, and it inspired plenty of ideas for my D&D campaigns. I had not yet read Michael Moorcock’s Elric books, but obviously the Sword of Bheleu owes a lot to Stormbringer.

In the post-Game of Thrones era we tend to think George Martin invented “brutal fantasy”, but as I see it, Martin essentially took the dark amoral elements of pulp fantasy (sword-and-sorcery fantasy) and brought them into high fantasy. Game of Thrones has the high epic sweep of Lord of the Rings, but it also has the cloak-and-dagger intrigue of pulps like The Seven Altars of Dusarra. There’s a lot I miss about those stripped down pulps that told straightforward stories, unencumbered by epic ambitions.

Tabletop RPGs of the 70s and Early 80s

As an old-school gamer, I seldom bother with any of the modern RPGs flooding the market. But last week, for the first time, I found myself making an exception when someone called my attention to a game called Tales from the Loop. It may not come from the ’80s, but it’s set in the ’80s, and made me an instant fan. Here’s a look-back on all the classic RPGs that I either played, or owned, or now wish that I had. Tales from the Loop ranks here as well. It may as well be a classic RPG.

1. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1977). 5 stars. Obviously, everything on my list is overshadowed by this one. 95% of my gaming career has been devoted to old-school D&D. The Golden Age, that is, which lasted between ’74-’83. I began playing at the end of the age, in ’81, and up through ’87, by which time the game had become hopelessly commercialized. The influences of the golden period were the pulp fantasies and morally shifty heroes: Conan, Elric, Fafhrd & Grey Mouser, characters from the Dying Earth, etc. Despite D&D’s repeated comebacks (especially with the 3rd and 5th editions), it’s never been what it was, and today’s players don’t necessarily esteem it as the ultimate RPG. A google search will turn up lists of “RPGs way better than D&D”, and the reason isn’t hard to see. Pulp fantasy is long out of vogue, and today’s teens don’t have the touchstones that made D&D so great and accessible. And not just pulp fantasy, even Lord of the Rings, which despite Gary Gygax’s protests, had at least some significant influence on his early design. It’s been almost a decade now since Peter Jackson’s films, and Tolkien doesn’t inspire the same levels of awe that it did in previous years. The pulps themselves are a distant memory, and are even deemed offensive in the politically correct era of woke culture. It’s a shame. The best gaming adventures are the old-school D&D modules, and my coming of age years would have been much less inspiring and imaginative without them.

2. Call of Cthulhu (1981). 5 stars. Of all the RPGs I regret never playing, this one looms large. If I could go back and redo my coming-of-age years in only one way, I would be sure to play Call of Cthulhu. And it says something that I feel comfortable ranking it with highest honors outside the top slot, when I’ve never seen it played, let alone play it myself. Back in the day I learned about it through Dragon articles more than anything, and only in the recent decade have I delved thoroughly into the rules and adventure modules. It’s well known that Cthulhu is a horror game that turned D&D’s heroic fantasy on its head, prioritizing investigation over combat, with PCs who are inherently weak: librarians, doctors, professors, amateur detectives, etc. You don’t play Cthulhu to become a powerful knight or wizard, but rather with the dismal expectation that your character will likely go insane, as your character learns about the horrors of the world and the complete irrelevance of humanity. Using the tools that are needed to defeat the horrors (knowledge and magic) will most likely plunge PCs into mental illness. The infamous sanity score has become the game’s hallmark. Horror reduces your sanity points like weapons reduce hit points. PCs acquire phobias, fetishes, obsessions, hallucinations, amnesia, schizophrenia, multiple personality disorder, and psychosomatic reactions that make them dysfunctional. They can learn magic, but this hardly amounts to a benefit, as magic just immerses them more in the horrors, and makes them panic more, drop things, go catatonic, or experience any number of mental problems. It’s a thoroughly nihilistic game, and the nice thing is that, unlike D&D and Gamma World, it has remained stable and consistent through all the seven editions. While I would surely use the 1st edition if I ever started playing, I have it on good authority that it really doesn’t matter which edition you play.

3. Gamma World (1982). 5 stars. Basically the Dark Ages of Our Future. Growing up in the Reagan era meant ongoing fears of an apocalypse that would turn our globe into a radioactive wasteland. But what raises Gamma World far above other post-apocalyptic fantasies is that its apocalypse takes place in the very far future — the 24th century (2322 AD) — which means that the pre-apocalyptic world is just as futuristic and alien. There are high-tech artifacts like blaster pistols and robots, and cars that fly. The world of the ancients is filled with mystery and wonder, which makes the game a lot like D&D. Most of the pulp fantasies that shaped first-edition D&D were post-apocalyptic (Conan’s Hyperboria, Dying Earth, etc). The worlds of D&D were “fallen” in some way, and Gamma World aligns with this, the only difference being that there are techno-gadgets instead of magic items, and mutant powers instead of spells. But the earth is a global sandbox — just like Greyhawk and Mystara — in which PCs move from one pocket of civilization to another, plundering lost wealth and artifacts. The default start date in this world is 2450 AD, about a century and a half after the nuclear wipe-out. The game is in its 7th edition now, but I won’t touch anything beyond 2nd. The 2nd edition (1982) is the best, perfecting on the first that came out in the ’70s. After these two classics, Gamma World became increasingly commercialized.

4. Tales from the Loop (2017). 4 ½ stars. The only entry on my list which post-dates the ’80s is set in an alternate ’80s world, and it deserves to stand proud in the surrounding company. Tales from the Loop followed the overnight success of Stranger Things and takes direct inspiration from it. In the game you play kids between ages 10 and 15, and solve science-fiction mysteries that involve the Loop, a massive particle accelerator that is nearby the town you live in. The Loop causes aberrations like corruption of the earth’s magnetic field, warping wildlife (even dinosaurs emerge around the Loop), and animating robots in dangerous ways. The rules come with two default locations: the Malaren islands of Sweden, and Boulder City Nevada. But the rules also emphasize that you can set the Loop anywhere you want. I’d use my old hometown of Lyndeborough NH, where I grew up in the late ’70s and early ’80s. A crucial aspect of this game is that adults are absolutely useless when it comes to helping out, so the kid PCs have to do all the leg-work and solve mysteries on their own. Around the mystery solving, there are the normal trials that kids suffer: bullies, school tests, crushes, and heartbreak. It’s such a terrific idea for an RPG, it’s a wonder it took so long for a TV-series inspiration. Best of all, the rules are easy to follow, and flexible enough to cover virtually any situation that comes up in the game. There are eight archetypes (“character classes”): Bookworm, Computer Geek, Hick, Jock, Popular Kid, Rocker, Troublemaker, and Weirdo. Seriously, who among us who came of age in the ’80s doesn’t want to play this? Tales from the Loop recreates an age I miss sorely as I turn 51 at the end of this month. It takes me back to my reckless attitudes and thinking as a kid, and, incredibly, it provides the mechanics for tapping into that heart and drive.

5. Traveller (1977). 4 stars. Even dinosaurs my age tend to forget Traveller. It wasn’t very user-friendly and assumed a significant amount of player knowledge of physics and astronomy. I remember trying to understand the ramifications of zero-g combat, and those weren’t defined anywhere; then also wanting to know what the hell a mass driver was. Without internet forums and google capabilities back then, you were pretty much left to make sense of the rules as you could. Oddly, there was much I loved about that open-ended aspect of the game and ended up playing it a lot with a cousin who preferred space travel to D&D’s wizards and warriors. One thing that struck me was the fact that PCs start out with loads of experience. In most RPGs the characters start at beginner levels, but in Traveller you come out of the military with years of skills under your belt. In most other ways, though, it shares plenty in common with D&D. Both games assume the characters are roguish adventurers “on the make”. The adventures involve shady activities in order to acquire money, and the characters are outsiders (“travellers”) without commitments to local planetary societies. (The Raza crew in the TV series Dark Matter remind me very much of Traveller.) The space world is a lawless frontier where authorities are distant and corrupt. That’s really the same basic framework of old-school D&D. My greatest Traveller memory is the point at which my cousin was finally able to design and purchase his own ship — and then all the mileage he got from it.

6. Middle-Earth Role-Playing (1984). 3 ½ stars. I never played the actual system, but I played the modules all the time by adapting them for D&D. So this one was hard for me to rank. Frankly I don’t like MERP as a gaming system (nor Rolemaster from which it derives), but the campaign modules and adventure modules are top-notch, and I wrote retrospectives of them all (starting with Rangers of the North). When I learned in the ’90s that Tolkien Enterprises finally revoked ICE’s license to produce gaming material for Middle-Earth, I went ape shit. The MERP modules were nothing less than scholarly, as fun to read as to play. They came to dominate my role-playing years in the late ’80s, and I even kept buying them in the ’90s when I wasn’t playing much anymore. I would check in at the local comic store religiously to grab every new release, and I’m glad I did: thanks to the Tolkien-Enterprise fascists, the modules are now collector’s items. It’s a shame, because they’re probably the most academic accessories ever written for any RPG. It’s as if Tolkien himself had taken up D&D and poured his linguistic and cultural scholarship into the hobby. The irony, of course, being that the high fantasy setting of Middle-Earth is on the face of it so at odds with D&D’s pulp fantasy roots. But I never saw a contradiction. Anyway, the MERP rules and gaming system would fall at the bottom of this list, while the adventure modules themselves would place very high; so a ranking of 6 feels about right.

7. Stormbringer (1981). 3 ½ stars. This one’s like Call of Cthulhu. I never played it, and like Cthulhu it’s a Chaosium publication. There are strong literary vibes in the Chaosium RPGs, and that’s part of the reason why I’ve been so turned on to them in recent years. Stormbringer is, as you might expect, set in the world of the Young Kingdoms, the realm from the Elric novels. It deals with a failing empire in conflict with the powers of chaos. The world is plunging into an apocalypse that has been foreseen, but which the PCs are utterly powerless to prevent. It’s a nihilistic game, again like Cthulhu, though in a more overarching abstract way. It does have its problems, and I can understand why it never became as popular as other RPGs, despite the fact that Moorcock’s novels were widely loved. The sorcery rules are very detailed, but it’s all a virtual waste, as PCs will rarely if ever have the chance to use sorcery. Magic in this world is brokered by demons, because humans can’t wield magic on their own. They have to bind and command demons to use power; so for example, to cast a fireball would require summoning a fire elemental and using its powers, or throwing its energy, at a target. And the ability to bind demons and other creatures is extremely rare, if not suicidal. On top of that, and in accordance with the predestination of Elric’s world, players have very little say in what their characters will be like. When they generate the characters, the dice determine their class and race as much as they determine their attributes. But there is a lot to admire in this game, and I wish I’d played it at least once.

8. Top Secret (1981). 3 stars. This is the most realistic RPG I ever played, though that’s perhaps not saying much. The early ’80s was the age of the Roger Moore James Bond films, and Top Secret plays on some of those extravagant plot lines. The PCs are field agents for a governmental agency, and they are assigned missions falling into one of three general categories: assassination (killing), confiscation (stealing), or investigation (spying). One might say loosely that it’s D&D in the modern world, for assassins, thieves, and rangers. The problem is that these character professions aren’t fleshed out too well; the professions mainly determine if the PC receives bonus experience points for succeeding in a mission that pertains to their profession. In other words, a field agent specializing in assassination would get bonus points for carrying out a kill, but that’s not to say that confiscators and investigators can’t assassinate. The game is purely percentile based: 2d10 for everything — attributes, skill checks, and combat. I have fond memories of skyjacking a 747 (I was a confiscation agent), though I botched the job by killing more innocent passengers than was necessary; it didn’t go well for me in the end. Alas, that was the only time I played Top Secret.

9. Star Frontiers (1982). 2 stars. This is the Star Wars of early RPGs, so it’s no surprise I never got around to playing it, given my constant dislike of George Lucas. I owned Star Frontiers, to be sure, and read through the Alpha Dawn rules many times. I even went through phases when I was inspired to play, but ultimately never did. Bubblegum space opera was never my thing. If I wanted outer space and star travel, I had the more solid and gritty approach of Traveller. (A reviewer in Dragon back in the day said that comparing Star Frontiers and Traveller is a bit like comparing Star Wars and 2001: A Space Odyssey; and yes, that comparison is bang-on.) Probably the most compelling thing about Star Frontiers is the Sathar, the worm-like race trying to conquer the galaxy. The Sathar are elusive and seldom appear. They aren’t good at military combat and rely on hypnotic powers to recruit from and corrupt the four player character races: humans (of course), dralasites (giant amoebas with a prankish sense of humor), vrusks (huge insectoids that are team-driven, though not quite hive mind), and yazirians (flying wookies, who are easily enraged and go berserk). They live in an area of the galaxy as part of a multicultural federation that works against the Sathar. There are plenty of old-school gamers who rhapsodize about Star Frontiers. I’m not one of them.

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 Jim 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

Endless Night will provide Mike’s full backstory — his breakup with El, his death and obscene resurrection, and his imprisonment in the Upside Down. As I said, it’s a dark story, narrating the final challenge faced by the Hawkins kids in their high school years, followed by Mike’s life of hell in the shadow world.

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 Sara. “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. 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 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 echoed 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, 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 raised all three statues up in the air, until they touched the ceiling. Baba Yaga skipped left, then right, indecisive. Dodge them all. 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 are 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 led 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 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)