“I dreamt I was fighting aliens again last night.” The tall black figure had his hood covering his head from the late afternoon Sun. He walked at a steady pace at a distance behind his leader and mentor.
“Really? What were they?” asked Theothelm.
“What race? How should I know? It’s not like they had name tags or anything,” replied Dallas. He was sorry he brought it up now as it would lead to another one of Theo’s philosophical discussions.
“Were they big, small, grey skin?”
“You mean grey, like your beard?” Theo chuckled. “It was all very blurry but they sure were from somewhere else.”
“Makes a change from vampires,” the young feminine voice from the back of the pack was eager to join in the conversation.
“Infected, Cressida. Hollywood does vampires, we do poor souls that have become afflicted with a disease that makes them do terrible things, and we stop them.” It was always necessary to remind them the difference between fantasy and reality.
“It’s hard not to label them as such acting the way they do,” added Dallas.
“That’s right, but Cressida doesn’t always remember that. And as junior of the team we need impart the lessons we have learned.” The white of her hooded cloak contrasted with the darker colours of the males.
“To ensure that we are prepared to meet the evils that we must face in order to survive the encounter…” Dallas knew the rules.
“With mind and body intact.” Cressida picked up and finished the line.
“Understanding the meaning of the words is just as important as memorising them. They have been around for a long time for good reason, and are invaluable,” added Theo.
“So, Theo,” Dallas still had reservations about the mission and felt it was time to raise them. “Tell me again about the contact?”
“I told you already. She’s a witch and she goes by the name of Baba Yaga.”
“I thought we didn’t do witches or magic?” Dallas was trying to comprehend the change in policy.
“That’s true and you know why, Cressida?”
“Because they are all frauds, and that magic doesn’t exist. It’s not magic; only that we don’t understand how stuff works.”
“And that begs the question of why are we here? You’ll be telling us next that aliens are real,” added Dallas. Theo turned and walked backwards to face his student. “It’s bad enough doing what we do, but we know that “vampires” are real. They only act the way they do because they are infected with the disease.”
“You think we are alone in the universe? That’s a bit pretentious, isn’t it?”
“No, but we have no proof that life exists anywhere else.” Theo turned round facing forwards again leaving Dallas even more confused.
“To quote a favourite anti-hero of mine ‘You’ve got to be some kind of fool to think we are all alone in this Universe.’”
“Fiction, that’s all it is. Where’s the proof?”
“Next campfire topic; Life. Do we have sole ownership or do other civilisations exist? And have they been here?”
“You know more than you are letting on. I know that tone.” Theo glanced at him over his shoulder.
“It would surprise you at what I know, my friend.” Theo turned away from Dallas chuckling to himself. The campfire discussions were an important part of the learning process.
“Why this witch then? What’s different about her?” asked Cressida.
“She got in touch with us through a local priest. He’s been a part of our network that we’ve been building since the fall of the Soviet Union. It’s been producing some great intel. We’ve been getting leads about all sorts from sources that have been inaccessible to us for a long time. We have been doing great up till now so the last thing we need is a new wave of infections coming in from the east. So… We investigate.”
“Where are we supposed to meet this ‘witch’?” asked Cressida.
“Her cottage is on this path but I’m pretty sure she has been watching us for some time now. Don’t you agree Dallas?”
“Yeah, I’ve had that impression for a while now. Wasn’t sure what to make of it.”
“They do exist you know. Witches, that is, but we tend to steer clear because they will have their own best interests at heart. Trust is not something you can expect. Be wary of any encounter. If they request a meet, then you can be sure it will be to their advantage and not yours.”
“What’s so special about this one?”
“Once in a while their goals may align with ours. They have been known, in the past, get in touch besides that her description was enough to pique the interest of head office. Marcus also pointed out that the message stated that if we did not deal with the problem with all haste, then they would.”
“Sounds a bit ominous.”
“Yes, it does, so we meet with her, glean as much info as we can and act accordingly.” Theo spotted the smoke drifting up from the top of the trees at the edge of the path a hundred yards ahead of them. The dry dust hung in the air with the lack of wind. “Looks like we are here. Let me do the talking and take nothing for granted. What you see is what she wants you to see, remember that.” His underlings nodded in agreement.
Theo led the way and with caution approached the cottage. It was an organic simple stone and wood construction. It had a look about it that gave a casual visitor the notion that it might fall over in a stiff breeze. At the same time, it gave the impression that it had been there longer than the trees that surrounded it. An organic aura enveloped the whole scene making it at one with nature. Theo didn't think for a moment that Dallas would be able to get inside without demolishing it. The were two visible windows about the size of a shoe box. and the small wooden leaf green door was the only visible entrance. Theo reached the gate that only came up as far as his thigh. It was obvious that it would take little effort on his part to step over the fragile looking construction, but he stayed on the path. There was an audible creak as the door of the cottage opened and an old woman appeared. The clothes she wore gave the first impression of being nothing more than old rags. On closer inspection the tucks and folds showed where the adjustments had been made. She had a shawl over her shoulders and carried a gnarled wooden staff that she used to add to her balance. Her thin silver hair draped a warm intelligent face. She stared at Theo strong and unwavering. Dallas got a Yoda thing about her almost immediately. If backwards she spoke, then lose it he would. The cottage was surrounded by a small stone dyke that came up past her waist. It was not much of a physical barrier and breached in a moment by anyone… if they dared. Taking small slow steps, she approached Theo at the small picket gate that breached the gap in the wall. She moved slowly forward so she was standing directly behind it facing Theo. She didn’t give them the appearance that she was about to open it and invite them in. This was where business would be conducted. Her voice was soft but the strength in her words were unmistakable. No-one would doubt her sincerity.
“You are dhampir?” she asked. Her accent gave her voice and eerie quality. Theo nodded as a reply.
“We are.” He kept his distance but made every effort to show respect. This was her house – it would be her rules. “And you are Baba Yaga.” It was not a question - he knew the answer. There was commotion behind him, but he ignored it.
“Did she just call us…” Cressida was ready to confront the old woman, but Dallas stopped her before she could say any more. The old woman glanced at Cressida before returning to Theo. Dallas pulled her back away from the meeting. “Why did you…” He cut her short. It could be interpreted as a sign of disrespect from the team. Dallas pushed her back and away from the conversation. She was young and determined and as a result… impulsive.
“Dhampir is the old word from these parts,” he explained in a hushed tone. “It doesn’t mean what you think it does.”
“Pretty much sounds like she just asked if we were vampires.”
“You’re right, and that is probably where the word comes from but that’s not what she asked. Dhampir were the original hunters, not the hunted.” She scanned his face looking for signs that he was lying to her, but found none. “The story is that Dhampir was a real person and the first hunter, but you will have to ask Theo about that.” They moved back to where they could hear what was being said.
“It is a small castle not far from here,” Baba Yaga explained. “They are inside, and they cannot be allowed to escape. They will sweep the World with what they are. They will cause a great deal of suffering. The inhabitants have been changed by them.”
“We know about the infected ones - we have spent many years as an order tracking down the evil that this represents,” explained Theo.
“We know of your kind and what you do but you must understand this. We have managed to contain these creatures for a long time, but they are growing stronger while we grow weaker. If there is any chance of their escape, then we will do what is necessary to prevent that.” Theo did not like the sound of that.
“Is that a threat?”
“No, it is a necessity. We will cleanse the building if you fail, if they evade you, or if the child dies.”
“They hold a hostage, a young child; you must save her.”
“We will take care of this evil.”
“Be sure you do, young warrior.” It had been a long time since anyone had called him “a young” anything, but he took it as a compliment. “Beware the Soul Eaters.”
“Beware of the Soul Eaters, for they are the hounds of Hell, and they will take your soul before they take your life.” Theo felt a chill run down his spine.
“What do they do? If I may ask?”
“They guard the castle.” Her face was old and wrinkled but Theo found it hard to put a precise age on her. The pendant that she was wearing had become conspicuous and it drew his attention. It was an oval shape with shades of pink and orange with a hint of deep red. He would describe it as if someone had taken a sphere and tried to turn it inside out. That having failed, then they tried to turn it back with similar success. It also appeared to move as he watched it. He had never seen anything like it. He turned his attention back to the woman. There was the merest hint of a wry smile on her face.
“Farewell, Dhampir. Be successful.” It didn’t come across to Theo as a blessing, more like a warning that if they failed there would be consequences. She dismissed them with a wave of her cane as you would an errant child.
“Thank you, for your warning and your advice. We will attend to this as quick as we can.” He bowed his head with respect as he took a step back. He then turned to the others and indicating they should leave. He stepped up the pace as he led the way with Dallas and Cressida crowded next to him. He glanced over his shoulder, but the old woman had already disappeared in her cottage.
"What the hell was that all about?” asked Cressida.
“We have a job to do otherwise I’m pretty sure Baba Yoda and her pals will get extreme,” offered Dallas.
“You are correct, and I don’t know about you two, but I have no desire to meet any Hell Hounds today or any other day.”
“You think they are real?”
“Witches are a strange breed to be sure, but they do not make idle threats.”
“You think she was threatening us?”
“No, I don’t think so. It was more like she was letting us know that we have a job to do and, that these infected have guard dogs that bite.” Theo again picked up the pace. “We must hurry.”