The old, dark forest shook as the great chicken-legged house burst through the trees, moving with hideous speed. Inside, crockery rattled thunderously and the shutters banged. The house’s mistress, used to the cacophony, paid no attention. Instead, she leaned across the kitchen and peered into the smoky depths of her mortar, murmuring to herself.
Her water reflection stared back at her – thin and ugly, with matted hair, and a face worn to a sharp edge by untold centuries of life and wickedness. Long had the witch known as Baba Yaga haunted the lands of black forests and frozen rivers. Longer even than she could recall. And longer still did she intend to do so.
If the world did not end first.
“This won’t do no this won’t do at all,” she muttered.
“Can’t have that one waking up. Bad for everyone. But especially for poor Baba Yaga..” She paused and turned, glaring at the shelves behind her. A line of skulls occupied each, their sockets alight with flickering flames. Their eerie light illuminated her shaking, shuddering hovel, casting strange shadows, but only when Baba Yaga wasn’t looking. They knew better nowadays.
“And what do you know about it, eh?” she chided them.
“You think I do not know? Baba Yaga knows, though who will listen to her? No one. Pfah. The gods do not listen. Even when it could save them much grief.”
She turned back to her mortar and continued to grind away at the ingredients within. “But mustn’t interfere, no.” She could neither help nor hinder unprovoked – such were the ancient laws which bound her. The chicken-legged house gave a lurch and she held out her hand. A clay pot slid across a nearby table and into her waiting palm. “Can’t tell them what’s good for them unless they ask.”
She used one long thumb nail to pop the pot open and pour the squirming, squealing contents into the mortar. More smoke erupted from the churning contents. Within its depths, an image formed.. a face. A familiar one – a goddess of green growing things and shadowed graves. A prideful goddess that one, and full of righteousness.
Or, rather, she had been, before she had been defeated by the Warder of the Bifrost and cast down into unfamiliar realms.
Baba Yaga chuckled to herself. “Soundly humbled, she was. Left broken and lost, until Baba Yaga found her. Got her back on her feet, I did, and sent her east.” East to find another. Baba Yaga pounded the mortar with her pestle, and one face faded, to be replaced by another – a young goddess, new to her divinity and unaware of what was coming.
But soon enough, she would be. As soon as Baba Yaga’s messenger found her and brought her to the chicken-legged house. A new goddess might listen where the old ones did not. A new goddess might succeed where the old ones would fail.
Baba Yaga thumped her foot against the floor. “East,” she bellowed. “East and east and east, until the ground stinks of jade.” As the chicken-legged house titled itself and sprinted east, bludgeoning aside trees in its haste. Baba Yaga looked back down at the image in the smoke and dispersed it with a finger. “They have to ask, so we must make them ask.” She grinned, showing sharp teeth.
“And won’t that be fun, eh?”
In another forest, far to the east, the sounds of hard labor echoed. Standing among the trees, Hua Mulan watched the villagers work to rebuild their homes and felt a pang of regret. It would take many days – weeks, even – to repair what the jade monsters had destroyed. If she had been quicker, or stronger, maybe more could have been saved.
Then, if Guan Yu was to be believed, perhaps not. According to him, the actions of one warrior would not be enough to stem the tide of destruction that she could feel approaching. Alone, neither of them could stand against it – but together, they might be able to stop it. Together, they might be able to save China and the world.
But helping him meant abandoning her duties here. It meant abandoning those who had followed her, and those who looked to her lead them through troubled times. And she did not know if she was strong enough to do so.
She needed to clear her head. She drove her spear into the ground and drew her sword. Then, slowly, gracefully, she began to put herself through the exercises her father had taught her so many years ago. It came easily, as always. She parried and countered the blows of imaginary foes, her movements becoming faster as she fell into the old rhythms.
As she moved, she thought back to what Guan Yu had showed her – how the other gods were divided, and fought among themselves, even as the world convulsed in agony. There had to be a better way. A house divided could not stand.
She felt a tingling warmth in her hand and looked down. A familiar glow radiated from her skin. She could feel the shimmering radiance spilling upwards and outwards from within her being. She lowered her sword and clutched at her head as the voices came again, louder and more fervent than before. The prayers of the faithful resounded through her skull like the clangor of bells. And not just prayers – there were please, curses and hymns, all tied to her name.
She forced her eyes open and saw again the eerie strands of light that connected her to her people. Her worshipers. She grimaced at the thought even as she reached out with her mind to touch the strands. It was an easy thing to do, and as instinctive as breathing had once been. She felt their need as strongly as her own – and something else as well. A gnawing sensation, sharp and brittle.. like a little shard of ice, nestled deep inside every living soul. She tried to focus on that sensation, to explore it, but it resisted her.
“It is fear,” someone said nearby.
Startled, Mulan spun, her sword rising sharply to ward off any potential attack. A woman, clad in a robe and a hood. Her features were obscured in shadow, and she stood with her hands folded before her. “I mean you no harm,” the newcomer said.
Mulan lowered her blade. “You startled me.”
“My apologies. I did not mean to do so.” The newcomer approached. “They are afraid,” she said. “Even as you were. They can sense the world reshaping itself into something hostile around them, the way animals sense an earthquake.”
“My people are not animals,” Mulan said.
“No. No, they are not. There are some gods who think that way, but I am not one of them.” The newcomer drew back her hood, exposing her pale features and mass of bedraggled hair. She was beautiful, but it was not a human beauty. Mulan stared at her, trying to understand why the woman looked so familiar.
“Who are you?” she asked, finally.
“Her name is Persephone,” Guan Yu said from behind her. Mulan turned to see the war god sitting on a fallen tree, his guandao laying across his knees. She wondered how long he had been sitting there. “She is a goddess, even as you are, my sister.”
“Persephone,” Mulan murmured. She shook her head. “I have never heard that name, and yet I – I feel that I know her.” She looked at Persephone. “I know you.”
“You are a god, and like recognizes like.” Guan Yu rose to his feet, a scowl on his face. “Why are you here, Greek? Surely you have done enough.”
Persephone reacted as if she’d been slapped. Her lips skinned back from her teeth and her eyes flashed with cold first. “I have not even begun,” she snapped. The trees shook to their roots, and Guan Yu raised his weapon in warning.
Mulan stepped between them. “Peace, both of you.” She looked at Persephone. She could see guilt writ on the other woman’s face. “Answer his question – why are you here?”
Persephone looked at her, her expression softening. “I – I wish to help.” She turned away. “I must help.”
“Because she is responsible,” Guan Yu said, but not kindly.
Mulan blinked. “The jade.. you did this to my people?” Her sword rose as if of its own volition. Persephone did not flinch.
“It was not my intent.”
“Intent matters little,” Guan Yu said, gently pushing Mulan’s sword away. “What has occurred threatens more than just China, or Greece – it endangers the world. If you wish to help, I will not deny you that opportunity.” He looked at Mulan. “Time grows short. Have you come to a decision?”
Mulan stared at Persephone for a moment longer, and then looked back towards the village. After a few seconds, she sheathed her sword and nodded. “Yes, I will help.”
Guan Yu grunted. “Then we go north. Yggdrasil awaits.”
“And what will you do there?” Persephone demanded. She glanced back and forth between them. “Two warriors – what will you do, chop the tree down to save it?”
“And what would you suggest?” Guan Yu asked.
“That we seek the guidance of one who knows about these matters,” Persephone said. “One whose wisdom, vile though it may be, is greater than that of any god.” She gestured at the forest. “The old witch awaits for us, even now.”
Guan Yu made a choking sound. “You cannot mean..”
Persephone nodded. “I do. She will know what must be done – and how best to do it.” She looked at Mulan.
“If we but have the courage to ask her.”
In her chicken-legged hut, Baba Yaga laughed in glee. They were coming to her even as she went to them – she had seen it in her mortar. Persephone had done as she’d promised. Now the rest was up to Baba Yaga herself.
The world was broken, and only the right soul could fix it. Whether that soul belonged to this new goddess remained to be seen, but Baba Yaga was not a believer in coincidences. That she had ascended even as the world groaned in pain was a sign. She had to be the one that was needed. Nothing else made sense.
“It must be,” she muttered as she hunched over the rim of her mortar, watching the gods journey west, following Persephone. “It has to be.” She turned to her skulls. “What do you think, my pretties?” As ever, the dead did not reply, but she heard them even so. Their murmurs had grown quieter of late, as if something had frightened them.
But what could frighten the dead?
She frowned and peered more closely at the skulls on the shelves. One of them had gone out without her noticing. “That.. should not happen.” She bared her teeth in consternation. “Time grows short.”
Her magics were not the staid rites of the Norse or the Greeks. They were older by far, and drawn from wilder sources, ground and sifted in her mortar, but even they had become more erratic than usual as the world tilted on its axis. Now, much like the magics of those others, her own spells were faltering and coming undone, one by one. Soon, even her chicken-legged house might dance its last. The thought sent a shudder through her.
The fabric of reality had grown too thin of late. Too much had happened, too many mistakes. Now something had to be done, and soon, else the world would be irrevocably changed and not in a way Baba Yaga cared for.
“Come to me,” she murmured. “Time is running out, but for you most of all.”
The ground shook and ruptured, venting super-heated gases as something large and leathery forced itself upwards into the clearing with a heaving, wrenching motion. Loose soil and bits of broken tree sloughed from the curved surface of the immense seedpod as it split with a wet crackle and allowed its passengers to step out of its fibrous interior.
“There, see?” Persephone said as she stepped down. “I told you I could get us there in no time at all. All you had to do was trust me.”
Mulan wiped a bit of plan matter from the sleeve of her uniform. “I prefer to travel by horseback – or failing that, by foot.”
“Gods do not walk,” Persephone said.
“I walk all the time,” Guan Yu said, stepping past her, his guandao over his shoulder. “Then, I wasn’t always a god.”
Persephone made as if to say something, but instead simply shook her head and looked around. Mulan followed her gaze. Great, black trees rose all around them, so thick that she could barely make out the horizon between the branches. The air was colder here, and she wondered how far they had traveled.
As if reading her mind, Guan Yu said, “These are the lands of the Slavs. We are far from home, sister.” He looked at Persephone. “And you are farther still. How did you come to be here in the first place?”
“I do not know. During my struggle with Heimdallr, I found myself falling through the realms.” She grimaced. “And then I was here. Battered, injured, but alive.”
“And the old witch helped you, did she?” Guan Yu frowned. “Why?”
Before Persephone could reply, the ground began to shudder and birds took frantic flight from the trees. Mulan swept her sword from its sheath, even as the trees before her began to bow and bend as if some great weight were pressing against them. All at once, those closest to her splintered and feel as a crooked hut, perched atop monstrous chicken legs, thrust itself into view. Mulan glanced at the others, but neither of them seemed surprised.
As she watched, the chicken legs bent and squatted, bringing the hut close to the ground. A moment later, the door of the hut slammed open, and an ugly light spilled forth. “Well? Are you going to come in or not?” a rusty voice called out from within.
“Come,” Persephone said. “She is not the most patient of creatures.”
Baba Yaga grinned as the gods crowded into her kitchen. “Look at you three. So brave. Would you like something to eat? You must be hungry, yes?”
“No,” Persephone said. “I brought them as you wished. Our debt is settled.”
“Debt? What debt?” Baba Yaga cackled at the look on the goddess’ face. “You owed no debt, Queen of the Underworld. You have troubles enough without me adding to them, eh?” She cackled again as Persephone flushed with anger. “But I thank you for the kindness!”
“You dare-!” Persephone began. Baba Yaga laughed all the louder. She turned away from the fuming goddess and fixed Guan Yu with a piercing stare.
“You. I didn’t want you. Why are you here?” She gestured dismissively before he could reply, and turned her gaze on Mulan. “There you are. Come, child. Let Baba Yaga get a good look at you.” She crooked a finger and beckoned Mulan close. “Come, come. Do not be afraid. I am not so terrible as all that, am I?”
“I am not afraid,” Mulan said, and Baba Yaga heard the truth in her words.
“No, you are not. But you should be. Oh yes, you should be.” Baba Yaga leaned close, studying Mulan’s face. “Things are so much worse than you can imagine.” She sniffed the air. “You smell like a hero. Are you a hero, child?”
“Some have called me that.”
“But you do not think of yourself that way?”
“So modest.” Baba Yaga looked past her, at Guan Yu and Persephone. “Are you sure she’s one of you?”
“Enough of your prattling,” Persephone said. “You told me you could help me fix Yggdrasil if I brought her. I have brought her, so help us.”
“No,” Baba Yaga said, turning back to her mortar. “Not unless you do something for me first. That is the way of it, as you well know, daughter of Demeter.”
“That wasn’t part of our deal, old witch,” Persephone said, taking a step towards her. Baba Yaga gestured dismissively.
“And I told you, we had no deal. I merely mentioned that I might be able to tell you something helpful. Add I will. But first you must do something for me.”
“What must we do?” Guan Yu asked.
“You? Nothing.” Baba Yaga looked at Mulan. “You, on the other hand..”
Mulan nodded without hesitation. “Name your price.”
Persephone caught her arm. “No, wait-!”
“Too late,” Baba Yaga cackled. “So sad, too bad.” She wrapped a long arm around Mulan and pulled her close, away from the other gods. Persephone made to grab the witch, but Guan Yu pulled her back. Mulan could not hear what he said to her, for Baba Yaga was already speaking.
“Come, look here my sweet, look at my pretties here – see them? Are they not handsome?” She gestured to the skulls on their shelves, eyes burning with inner fire. Mulan stared at them without incomprehension.
“You do not like them?” Baba Yaga asked, a hurt expression on her face. “Perhaps they frighten you, eh?”
“I have seen dead men before,” Mulan said, softly. Baba Yaga leaned close and Mulan nearly choked on the smell of rancid bear-fat and charnel earth.
“Yes, I expect you have. And you will see more, if you fail.” Baba Yaga stroked Mulan’s cheek with a talon and gestured to an empty spot on the shelf. “Look there – you see? One of my skulls went out. The fire inside him was snuffed. I require a replacement.”
“You want.. a skull?”
Baba Yaga grinned. “Yes. But not just any skull. Only the best for Baba Yaga.” She turned and gestured towards a window. “At the edge of the forest is a graveyard. In that graveyard is a hero. You will bring me his skull.”
“That is all?”
“That is all.”
Mulan nodded. “Then show me the way to this graveyard. I will get you your skull.”
“Easy enough,” Baba Yaga said. She gestured and a foul-smelling smoke boiled up from within her mortar. It swept out and enveloped Mulan before she could cry out, and when it cleared, she was standing somewhere else.
A cold wind whipped across a jumbled patch of stone and barren earth. Broken tree rose from the ground, their roots spreading everywhere in the moonlight. The edges of the forest seemed to lean away from this spot, as if the trees were frightened of whatever was buried here. Mulan could feel them – the dead – beneath her feet. They stirred uneasily at her treat, and she could hear the soft rustling of their bones.
Her eyes were drawn to the highest point of the burying ground, where a great chair of stone rose from within a pair of trees. The trees had grown up around the chair and its occupant – an ancient warrior, clad in rusty mail, with a sword lying flat across his knees. Mulan felt a wave of hatred emanating from the dead man. Not for her specifically, but for all that lived. Part of her wanted nothing more than to leave him to stew in his own loathing.
Instead, she took a step towards him, loosening her sword in its sheath as she did so. If the witch wanted his skull, then his skull she would have.
She stopped. “Who is there?”
Mulan turned, scanning the ground. She could feel something moving beneath her. A sensation like ice began to form in her gut. She drew her sword.
“Come out,” she said. As the echo of her words faded, she heard the crunch of splitting earth and the crack of brown bones. She took a step back as the threadbare shapes of the dead heaved themselves up into the moonlight. “No..”
They moaned as they rose from their forgotten graves. They were all around her, more of them than she had imagined this tiny burying ground could contain. Hundreds of them, of all shapes and sizes. Men and women, old and young – all dead.
Mulan turned as they closed in on her from all sides. Some of those rotten faces were familiar – terribly so. She had seen them only a day ago, in the village she had spared from attack. But that was impossible – how were they here now?
Their voices crashed against her, even as their prayers had done earlier. Only these were not prayers, but condemnations. Curses.
..where were you..
Broken fingers clawed at her, trying to drag her down. They surrounded her, swamped her. She wanted to fight them, but could not bring herself to strike them down. They were still her people, even dead. She reached out to them, trying to gather up the frayed strands of their faith, but there was nothing there. It was like trying to grab ashes.
She sank down beneath a tide of blows. She had failed them. A wave of black misery threatened to bowl her under. Then – a light. A hand, pushing through the black. Mulan took it and was drawn to her feet. Persephone pulled her away from the dead and raised her hand as the corpses turned. “Stop,” she said, and Mulan felt a gray thrum of power echo outwards from the other goddess. The dead hesitated, but only for a moment.
“They are not listening,” Persephone snarled. “Guan Yu!”
There was a roar like thunder as a heavy shape fell from on high, crashing into the ground like a bolt from heaven. The burying ground shook, and the dead were thrown in all directions. Guan Yu rose and swept his guandao out in a silvery arc. Dozens of corpses were shattered and cast back, but more pressed forward from all directions.
Persephone gestured, and serpentine roots burst from the ground, ensnaring the dead, dragging them back into their graves. “I am sorry,” she murmured. Mulan looked at her, noting her sorrowful expression. She pushed the thought aside as she moved to aid Guan Yu. He saw her coming and gestured towards the throne.
“Leave these to us, sister – get what she sent you here for!”
Even as he spoke, the ancient king rose from his chair, roots popping and tearing. He looked down at them and drew his sword. Mulan charged to meet him as he descended. Here was an opponent she could fight. She and the dead man met sword-to-sword and traded blows until his rust-riddled blade snapped. He lurched for her with flesh-less claws. She dropped low and swept his legs out from under him. As he fell, she leapt onto his thrashing form and drover her sword into what remained of his neck, shattering the wormy bones.
His skull rolled free of its tattered coif and she thrust her sword into an eye socket. She lifted it and turned back to the others. Before she could speak, the foul smelling smoke enveloped them once more and she found herself standing in Baba Yaga’s hut. Guan Yu and Persephone stood beside her, facing the old witch.
“You cheated,” Baba Yaga accused. “That is against the rules of the game.”
“You did not say that I could not ask for help,” Mulan said. She extended her sword, and the skull that hung from its tip. “Here is your prize.”
“It is a bit broken,” Baba Yaga said, querulously.
“You did not say it could not be broken.”
“It was implied!”
Persephone laughed. “Admit it, old witch – she got the better of you.”
Baba Yaga glared at her – and then grinned. “Yes. Of course she did.” She tossed the skull over her shoulder and stirred her mortar. “Fine. A deal is a deal.” She whispered something and the smoke within the mortar began to churn and rise, stretching upwards.
Mulan could make out strange images within it – a tree that stretched between sky and earth, and a dark sea, spreading beneath it; shapes wreathed in light, sinking into black depths; waves crashing against a great city, high atop a mountain; and strangest of all, a squirrel, fleeing into the high boughs of a sinking tree.
“Yggdrasil,” Persephone murmured.
“The beginning and the ending,” Baba Yaga said, stirring the steaming liquid. “The spoke of the great wheel, which turns forever – or did. But now, the spoke is cracked and the wheel tips. The dark sea rises, drowning the world. Without the tree, the sea will consume all.”
“Then how do we stop it?” Mulan asked.
Baba Yaga turned. “And why would I know that?” She grinned widely. “Some things are beyond even Baba Yaga’s sight.”
“Then what was the point of this foolishness?” Guan Yu growled.
Baba Yaga shrugged. “I was curious about the new goddess. Now I am not.” She extended a bony arm towards the door. “You may go.”
Guan Yu made to protest, but Persephone caught his arm. “Come. She said all that she was going to say.” She looked at Mulan. “Guan Yu was right. We must make for Yggdrasil. The answer is there, and we will find it.”
As she prepared to follow the other two out, Mulan hesitated. She looked back to see Baba Yaga watching her. The old witch smiled and picked up the skull Mulan had brought. “They are correct the answer is with the tree. But it is not in the branches or the bark, oh no. To find the solution, one must go to the root of the problem.” She stroked the skull as if it were a pet. “You understand, yes?”
Mulan nodded. “I believe so.” She bowed. “Thank you for your help, Baba Yaga.”
Baba Yaga snorted and turned away. “Don’t thank me yet. There is worse yet to come than a few unruly corpses.” She carefully placed the skull on her shelf and crackled.
“Worse even than Baba Yaga can imagine.”