TITLE: Book of the Baba Yaga
GENRE: Middle reader fantasy/adventure
Samantha Liffey jumped back, barely avoiding the gaggle of elves, goblins, witches and sprites that tumbled out of the alehouse and into the crisp autumn evening.
“Toadspawn!” cursed a petite, rather plump witch. She steadied her tall, black pointed hat and aimed her wand at Sam. “Look out, young sorceress, lest danger befall you!”
Sam rolled her eyes and pushed past the witch. Oh, how she loathed the Salem Halloween Festival. Grown people dressed as warlocks, wizards, fairies…come on. Next year, her older sister was just going to have to find someone else to drag with her.
And of course Abby had vanished just after they’d gotten through the gates. She’d probably gone off to the fortune-teller’s hut to hear her love forecast, or to the apothecary for some beauty-enhancing potion. Lately her sister’s mind ran on one track: boys. Not that she ever had a date, though. No one talked to the Liffey girls if they could avoid it.
Sam jammed her hands into the pockets of her jacket and shook her coppery, corkscrew hair out of her eyes. Enough of that. And make the best of it. That’s what Mom would have said. Sam pulled a golden necklace hung with a ruby spider charm out from under her sweater - the last gift Mom had ever given her. It was kinda goth. Maybe it would help her get into the spirit.
“Hi there, little girl, want to look at some toys?” A teenager with purple-streaked black hair waved a doll at her. Sam shook her head and walked on. Little girl? Give me a break. I’m twelve years old. I don’t play with dolls. She stopped at a stall selling witchy clothes and pulled a white, lacy gown off the rack. Now, this was more like it. She twirled, the dress fanning out in front of her.
“How lovely,” said an old woman with a toothless grin. “That color really brings out your dark eyes. Get some cream for those freckles, dearie, and you could look almost pretty!”
Almost pretty? Sam gave the old woman the meanest glare she could muster and stuffed the dress back on the rack. She ducked around the stand as the buzz of voices swirled around her.
Turning the corner, she spotted a bright purple tent at the very back of the festival. Shimmering in the fading sunlight, it stood in sharp contrast to the busy, open stalls surrounding it.
Sam frowned, squinting. It looked abandoned. No one was going in or out. Interesting. Maybe it was some relic of last year's festival. She headed down the row, moving this way and that to avoid the jostling, talkative, mirthful crowd. Her feet kicked up clouds of dust and the scents of kettle corn and mulled mead washed over her in waves.
As she neared the tent, an abrupt stillness fell, just as if someone had hit “mute” on a TV remote. No one laughed, talked, shouted or cried, and no one walked near the tent. In fact, no one even looked at it. It was like the tent wasn’t even really there.
Sam stood in front of the entrance and studied it. Should she go in?
Suddenly, the ground seemed to jerk under her feet, and she stumbled forward, catching herself on the tent flap. An earthquake? In Massachusetts? The pendant around her neck felt warm. Looking down, she saw that it glowed scarlet.
Get out of here. The words came to Sam's mind as clearly as if someone had spoken. Her legs felt like rubber, but she forced them to move back toward the pathway. Turning, she tried to run, but the tent materialized like magic in front of her. Her head began to pound. She moved to the left and then to the right, but the tent moved with her. She twisted this way and that, but everywhere she turned, the tent blocked her path.
"Help! Someone help me!" she yelled around her heart, which seemed to have moved up through her neck and lodged into her throat. She waved her arms, but everyone just kept on walking by. Had she become invisible? "Help! I need help!" she shrieked.
The pendant on her neck grew warmer until it felt hot enough to be on fire, but it didn’t burn her skin. She felt it tug gently against her throat, pulling toward the tent’s entrance.
“Help!” Sam shouted again, twisting inside the chain as the necklace began to pull harder.
“Sam!” Abby called in the distance.
“Abby!” Sam screamed, her voice strangled by the necklace. “Hurry!” She saw her sister dart toward her through the crowd, her long, dark blonde hair streaming behind her. She reached Sam in large strides that were more like leaps. Grabbing Sam around the shoulders, she tried to pull her away from the tent.
“Help!” Sam and Abby screamed together, but the crowd didn’t take any notice of them. The necklace pulled harder and harder at Sam’s neck until the force broke Abby’s grip. Sam fell through the tent flap and into the darkness inside. The pendant dropped back against her chest with a small thud.
“Ouch!” Sam slammed into a table. A candle flickered to life, casting eerie shadows against the walls of the tent. The air felt cold and damp, like the inside of a cave.
“S-Sam?” Abby asked from outside. “A-are you okay?”
“I think so,” said Sam, rubbing her hip. Turning toward the entrance, she yanked at the tent flap but it didn’t budge. “It won’t open, Abby!” What was going on? She heard her sister shouting for help outside.
Sam pounded on the tent flap. “Get me out of here!”
“Sam - no one's answering me, and I can't seem to move away from this tent. It's like I hit a solid wall of air. I’m going to try to pull you out,” said Abby, her voice sounding breathless. “Take my hand, okay?” She reached in through the doorway and Sam grabbed her hand.
Instantly, the pendant came to life, tugging at Sam’s neck until she fell backward, wrenching Abby through the entrance and into the tent. Sam hit the table again and Abby landed on top of her. Pain shot up Sam’s back and the pendant fell, lifeless, against her chest.
“Oh, no,” Abby whispered, standing up and pulling Sam after her.
Sam squinted into the dim light. Now what?
“Hello?” she asked. No answer. She swallowed hard against the dryness of her throat. What was this place?
Abby squeezed her hand as the two girls looked around. Sam’s eyes found a glimmering crystal skull sitting on the table. She bent closer. Inside each of its deep eye sockets sat a brilliant red ruby. Pulling her hand from Abby’s, Sam tapped the skull between its eyes. It felt smooth and cold.
Her breathing slowed. This didn’t seem so scary. In fact it seemed…homelike, familiar. She shook her head from side to side. It felt like it had been stuffed with cotton balls. She hummed a little under her breath, feeling her shoulders relax. Nothing in this tent could hurt her. She was too powerful, too cunning, too brave…
“I think you’d better leave that alone,” said Abby. Her voice sounded as though it came from far away. Sam looked up. Her sister had her hands clasped in front of her stomach.
Abby has always been a little bit chicken, Sam thought as she ran her finger down the skull’s cheekbone. She’s always liked her magic best faked. But I like my magic to be real.
“I said, stop touching that,” hissed Abby.
Sam pulled her hand away from the skull. No need to make Abby pitch a fit and spoil the mood. She picked up a small blue book that lay next to the skull. Silver spirals covered its surface, and they appeared to be moving. The book began to vibrate. Sam tilted the book toward the candlelight.
“Stop it!” Abby begged. “Don’t be stupid. You don’t know what any of it is!”
Oh, bother. Abby had no spine.
Sam did, though. She opened the book.
"I just want to take a quick look," she said. A brilliant white glow emanated from the pages, causing the shadows on the wall to grow.
Sam’s mouth fell open as words began to form in golden letters on the first page. Book of the Baba Yaga, they read. She leaned closer - smaller letters were forming under the title. By Samantha Liffey.
"What does it say?" asked Abby, her voice sounding fearful. Sam looked up. Just then, a large, hairy red spider dropped from the ceiling onto Abby’s arm. She yelled and brushed it off as Sam dropped the book. The spider scuttled away in the darkness.
Sam heard a rushing sound, like that of a strong wave hitting the beach, and her mind cleared as though a fog had lifted. She pressed a hand to her forehead. What had come over her? Her heart, which had been beating a slow, steady rhythm, began to pick up its pace until it pounded in her ears.
“Let’s get out of this place, now!” Abby clutched Sam’s hand convulsively and pulled her toward the tent flap, but Sam’s foot caught the table leg; she fell and the table overturned. Abby leaped out of the way as the skull crashed to the floor and its eye sockets lit up, flooding the tent with light.
Pushing herself to her knees, Sam crammed her hand over her mouth to block the ferocious scream that threatened to fill the air. She had landed right on a yellowed doll with brown hair that fell to his waist. He had thin, black lines for eyes, a misshapen, crumbling nose and a flattened, crooked mouth. A leather shirt and pants decorated with beads and jewels covered his body. Sam almost stopped breathing as she studied the doll. She caught a faint moldy, musty smell like that of an attic. I know this doll, she thought. But how? With trembling hands she lifted him from the floor.
The doll’s eyes snapped open. He grinned at her.
“Hello, Samantha,” he said. “How good to see you. You’ve kept us waiting for a long, long time.”