Vierra meets Scathachs oldest friend.
|It took Vierra all of five minutes to decide she hated the forest. It was cold, filled with pine trees, and their poky needles. The frosty air bit right through the wool clothes, chilling her to the bone. The snow had not yet begun to retreat, despite it being March. The only light came from the moon above. The fresh air was the only thing remotely likable about it.
Scathach didn't seem all that bothered by her surroundings. She trudged through the knee-deep powder like it didn't exist. Vierra followed her tracks, making the experience slightly more bearable. The pair kept their mouths shut as they fumbled around. For an hour, they wandered finding, no trace of the odd hut.
Vierra made a sign for them to stop and sat on a fallen log. "Your friend is difficult to find." Her legs ached, and she rubbed them to get some feeling back.
Scathach shrugged and stretched out like a great cat, "Baba Yaga was always a bit of a loner. As the world grew, she stayed the same. Of all the fair folk I have met, she is the most human."
"What do you mean?"
"The Other Realm is a black and white place. You are either good or evil. Baba Yaga believes in shades of grey. When the fair folk decided to stay at home, she chose to stay earthbound. Despite what you hear, the old crone likes humanity better than her people."
"I find that hard to believe."
"Like magic books that pull you into another realm?"
"Did you just make a joke?" Up until now, Vierra thought Scathach was incapable of it.
"Your race is far more likable than the fairy. I would explain, but we have better things to do." Scathach rose and pointing at something in the distance. "I think we stopped shy of a clue."
The depression in the snow was deep and was reminiscent of something one would see in a dinosaur movie. Scathach knelt next to it, "Looks like she passed through here recently. Keep your eyes open for a fence made of human bones."
Thirty more minutes of exploration lead to the fence line. Glowing skulls sat atop polished femur bones. The tiny hut looked ridiculous on the massive chicken legs.
Vierra factored in her and Scathachs size, "Are you sure the three of us are going to fit into that tiny space?"
"Magic makes the impossible possible, let go of your science when you enter. Baba Yaga hates it. She wanted humans to choose magic." Scathach said, straightening her curly red locks.
"I'll try, it is a reflex to disbelieve without proof."
"Said the woman with magic ability."
"To be fair, I just found out."
"I will wait out here. My friend needs to meet with privately first. She will explain everything once you enter. Do not forget to mention my name."
The hut seemed to respond to her presence. A ladder lowered to the ground, almost inviting her in. Vierra stared at the ladder, for a moment wondering what lay within the tiny hut.
Her boots clicked against the firm wooden planks. Golden strands of thatch made up the roof. Vierra imagined the inside of the hut to be very cold. Every step made her feel like the rotting boards were going to give way. The door was a simple cloth on a string.
A weathered voice called from behind it, "Who dares disturb my peace? Speak now or leave."
While the voice sounded weak, Vierra still hesitated to answer at first, "I am Vierra Culchain, a student of Scathachs..."
"Is that so? I don't recall her ever having a female student."
"It's a long story. Perhaps you would like to hear the tale?"
Thirty seconds of silence followed, along with some muttering and grumbling. "Enter, forgive the mess. I seldom entertain company."
The outside of the hut betrayed what lay within. She may as well have entered a castle. The main room had polished bone furniture, and more glowing skulls, and a thick layer of dust covering everything. Tables with pungent ingredients, labeled glass bottles so one could tell what they were holding.
Vierra jumped out of her skin at the sight of the old hag. Unsettling iron teeth, wrinkled green skin, patched cloak, and dress, and the cliched evil voice. A bulbous mud brown eye stared at her for a moment. "You don't like the look of me, do you?"
Vierra wanted to be diplomatic but realized the old fairy would see through it, "Your face could crack a mirror at a hundred paces."
Baba Yaga grinned, tapping a gnarled staff on the ground, "I appreciate your honesty. Now tell me your story."
Vierra recounted the tale of finding the book and her meeting with Scathach, and their encounter with the tiger. The old crone just listened, smiling.
"You know he couldn't tell you, right?"
"It still didn't hurt any less, and I hope what he does is worth the price he paid."
"I hate people, Vierra Culchain. Not as much as I hate the modern world mind you. I liked Matthew. He made me feel like a real person. I promise you Matthew is a good man."
Vierra heard muffled screams coming from below them. She looked over at Baba Yaga, "What was that? It sounded human."
The old hag cackled, "Ah yes, Pietro Grubov. Dear Pietro enjoys murdering young women. He strangles them, defiles their corpses, and sends the pieces to their families."
"How did he end up here?"
"I have a deal with the Russian government. I help out if and when needed, and they provide me with tasty morsels such as Pietro. He will never get better."
"You eat people?"
"Yes, remember, I am not human. My needs are unique. Are you going to shed a tear over a psychopath?" The bulbous eyes stared through Vierra's soul. Her next answer mattered.
Once more, Vierra thought of a diplomatic answer. She went with honest instead. "No, I am glad he can't hurt anyone anymore. It's even better that I don't have to do it. We won't be swapping recipes, though."
Baba Yaga clapped her hands, "To me, my servants." A multitude of spectral hands appeared, "Measure her and make it according to her needs. Make sure it can withstand an armor-piercing round. Use the Ethiopian bull hide, and make it practical."
Vierra shivered involuntarily at the sight of the hands, "What needs to be practical?" Her voice was a little shaky. Her first encounter with the spectral hands was less than pleasant. "They look like the ones that brought me to Scathach."
"They probably were, I enchanted the book myself all those years ago. There is no time for explanations. Please explain to me what is wrong with your power."
"I am an Epigone..."
"Say no more. I know what you need." The old hag rose from her seat and slowly made her way over to a jeweled box, her gnarled staff gently tapping the ground with each step.
Vierra stood and stretched herself out, "You don't need to hear more?"
"No, Epigones all share a similar weakness. You all will lose what you gain when the battle is over, or when you let go of the book. What you need is an Akashic ring. It stores knowledge and gives instant access to it."
"How does it work?"
Baba Yaga shouted triumphantly, "I found it." She set the gold ring topped with a peculiar pearl on the table, "Made with real dwarven gold, set with a pearl of wisdom and two flawless diamonds."
"How do I get one of those?"
"You find a celestial dragon and kill it...I wouldn't recommend doing, they talk endlessly about how futile it is to fight them. Never mind the composition of the ring. Forget its origins and the magic used to make it."
Baba Yaga looked at the clock, "The ring does three things. On command, it records fighting styles. You must watch for at least thirty seconds to use it. The longer you watch, the more effective it will be.
Vierra was already impressed, "Sounds useful."
"Call a style by name, and you can switch freely, which is the second function. Because the ring is in constant contact with your skin, your power should work."
Vierra was already over the moon, "I think it's about perfect."
Baba Yaga waved her hand, "It is almost perfect, which is why I have added a third function. I know not what you are doing with your newfound abilities, but I know anonymity will be your friend. A simple command changes your clothes with your armor."
As if on cue, the hands returned carrying a suit of leather armor dyed black, and an ornately decorated mask it looked like lace but was made from metal. It was armor fit for royalty, Vierra admired it touching the supple leather. "You have my thanks."
"Before I complete the enchantment, we must discuss my compensation." Baba Yaga said, holding the ring in her iron grip.
"Name your price."
"You owe me a favor. Be warned I will expect you to drop everything to complete the task I give you. Once you have paid for the trinkets in full, I hope you come to visit again. Not too often mind you. Can you do this?" Baba Yaga had crossed her arms and watched Vierra closely.
Vierra hugged the old hag, "Yes, I can. The kids are at an age where they can take care of themselves. I have lots of free time as it is."
Scathach gave Vierra a look of approval as she left the hut and rejoined her. "Things went well?"
"Yes, but I owe her a favor."
"I am not surprised. Baba Yaga can be a hard taskmaster. Let us hope she chooses something a mortal can accomplish."
Vierra was not sure what she was going to do with her abilities. However, her most pressing concern was Matthew. How was she going to handle the situation?