the best YA novels are often among the best novels, period.
By Stephen Windwalker
Editor, Kindle Nation Daily
©Kindle Nation Daily 2011
It’s not so much that there’s anything to fear about the years ahead as that there are so many things I would be so sad to let go of. And here is one: we have a wonderful Friday night ritual of reading aloud together. xBox 360 and all of that kind of thing is out of sight, out of mind, and we share the world of whatever we are reading. Right now it’s The Hunger Chronicles, and during the past couple of years there have been all kinds of things. He’s smart and cool at school, but as we’ve read The Little Prince and Alice in Wonderland and Percy Jackson and Lemony Snicket he’s just been Danny, my very good and very imaginative son.
Next up? I’m going to suggest Qi (Book of the Baba Yaga), because I’m enthralled by what Elizabeth Svigar has done here, and I think Danny will be, too.
Think “The Hunger Chronicles meets Percy Jackson“, and then — and I hope I don’t lose anyone here — throw in a little bit of The Firm, because I was reminded of the greatest accomplishment of that first big hit of Grisham’s, which was the way he created, twice in that novel, a totally alluring fictional world and then allowed a sense of doom and danger to overtake that world, both in Memphis and in the Cayman Islands.
But of course Qi (Book of the Baba Yaga) is no legal thriller. It’s just a chance to share Sam’s journey, and a thoroughly engaging, fully imagined, and often very funny “young adult” novel … for all ages.
Here’s the set-up:
Thirteen-year-old uber-archer Samantha is thrilled to qualify for Xenith, the most prestigious – and mysterious – Olympic training facility in the world. Much more than an athletic camp, it’s part fantasyland where living dolls and the Baba Yaga abound. Then there’s Dr. Nine, a master alchemist whose laboratory is very well guarded indeed. But not all that glitters is Olympic gold. When dangerous secrets begin to surface, Samantha must fight her way through Xenith’s sinister underworld to save her friends and family – if she survives herself.
Qi is a fast-paced young adult fantasy that will appeal to fans of strong but conflicted protagonists as well as fans of mythological adventure tales. It draws influence from Slavic mythology, Dante’s Inferno, and contemporary villains and heroes. Recently, it was selected for the second round in Amazon’s breakthrough young adult novel contest, and it continues to receive highly positive reviews from both readers and reviewers. It is currently on sale for 99 cents.
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled
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Chapter One – Winners
Honeybees buzzed in the summer clover and the crowd murmured behind her. She licked her lips, fingers straining against the bowstrings. Squinting down the sight, she aimed at the tiny golden circle in the middle of the target.
As always, her gut told her the exact moment to let go, and she released her grip. Over her pounding heart, she heard the arrow’s familiar whistling sound. A silver streak in the bright afternoon sun – then, as if drawn by a magnet, the arrow struck the bullseye with a satisfying thunk.
A girl’s voice rang out above the screams of the crowd. Sam turned to see her older sister, Abby, darting across the field. She was still wearing her white fencing uniform. The first place medal she’d won earlier bounced against her chest, flashing gold in the sun.
Sam ran to meet her. “We’re in.” She threw her arms around her sister.
“Yeah!” Abby jumped up and down, pulling Sam with her. “We get to be with Mum. We’re the best in Salem. We could be the best in the world!” She whipped her long, blonde hair behind her head. “Let’s find Dad.”
Sam and Abby pushed their way through the crowd, acknowledging good wishes on all sides. A judge slipped a medal just like Abby’s around Sam’s neck, and the weight of it felt wonderful – the weight of success. Sam’s teammates hugged her so tightly that even the three bands she’d wrapped around her dark curls weren’t enough to keep them under control. They popped out all around her face in a messy halo.
Sam laughed, fighting her way out of their embrace. “I can’t breathe.” She tried to gather her hair back but soon gave up. Who cared what she’d look like in the photos, anyway. She was going to Xenith, where the best athletes in the world prepared for the Olympics. And Mum would be there.
Finally, Sam spied their father standing alone at the edge of the field. “There he is.”
They scrambled over to him.
“We made it,” Abby crowed, grabbing his arm. “We’re following in your footsteps, Dad.”
“Congratulations, girls.” Their father smiled at them, but only with his lips. Behind his wire rimmed glasses, his gray eyes looked sad. Sam’s heart deflated. She knew why. Mum.
Abby must’ve caught on too, because she linked her arm through his and rested her head on his shoulder. “You’ll come too, right?”
He didn’t say anything for a moment, but then he smiled again and this time it looked genuine. “Of course. I’ll arrange a sabbatical. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.” He brightened. “I’m thirsty. And how do we celebrate after winning?”
Sam laughed. “Three fresh-squeezed lemonades coming on the double.” She hugged him, breathing in the clean scent of his aftershave. His jacket button pressed into her face. She’d been only five when her parents divorced, and she’d probably never know the details. But now that they were going back to Fletching, the town where Xenith was located and where their mother still lived… well, maybe her parents could put the past behind them and their lives back together again. After all, it had been eight years.
“Hurry back, the photographers are here.” Abby finger-combed her hair and adjusted her collar so her medal shone in the sun.
“Will do.” Sam ducked around folding chairs and small clusters of spectators, looking for Mr. Scott’s lemonade stand, which was always somewhere at these tournaments. The smell of popcorn drifted by and made her thirstier. She craned her neck. Where was it?
“Good work, Samantha,” said a deep voice behind her. She spun around. A tall, very thin man was standing there, smiling uncertainly. His closely cropped silver hair contrasted sharply with his unlined face. His hands holding the program trembled.
“Um, okay, thanks.” She was well known in the community. Surely, that must be how he knew her name. “Have we met?” He didn’t look familiar to her at all.
“Not since a long time ago.” The man studied her face, then took a step toward her and held out his hand. “I’m-”
“Sam, over here!” Her father thundered. “The stand’s over here!”
The man’s face twisted into a grimace, and he turned on his heel. He strode away so fast it seemed like he’d simply vanished. Sam blinked and looked around. Everyone was acting exactly as they had before, like nothing unusual had happened. She shook her head. He’d probably just seen her name in the program and wanted to talk to her. It happened all the time with fans.
“We got the lemonade!” Abby yelled. “Get over here, it’s photo time.”
Sam shook off her jitters and pushed her way back through the throngs of people. Her father and Abby were talking to a woman wearing a crisp blue suit and carrying a professional-looking digital camera.
“Ah,” she said when she spied Sam. “How wonderful. The Liffey sisters, winning again – what a headline for the Daily. Our own future Olympians. How about you stand in front of the high school sign?” She pointed.
Sam and Abby strutted over to the sign and put their arms around each other. Sam smiled into the camera, forgetting all about the strange man. She’d never felt so happy in all her life.
“So, when can we go?” Abby asked for the hundredth time, drumming her fingernails on the table and jiggling her knee up and down. Sam hoped her sister wasn’t going to get snitty with their father – it happened too often lately now that Abby was fourteen and thought she knew everything.
Their father took a long drink of soda and took his time swallowing it. “Soon,” he said vaguely.
Sam didn’t remember moving to Salem, and for the first six or so years of their parents’ divorce, Mum had visited them once a month. Her visits had been woven into the fabric of their lives, unquestioned, like how you get up, eat breakfast and head out to school every day. But then she came once every two months, then once every three. This year, she’d only visited them once, and here it was August. They’d never visited her.
“Would we have to go to school?” asked Abby. Sam could tell her sister was hoping the answer would be no.
Their father smiled. “Of course. You’d go to the local school, Fletching Academy. It’s right on the grounds. Most of the kids who go there are also in Xenith.”
“Oh,” said Abby, and she slouched back in her seat.
“How do we get there?” Sam asked. She had faint but happy memories of Fletching. She’d had two good friends there, identical twins named Eli and Jonah. She wondered if they were still there. Wherever “there” was – she’d never seen it on a map.
Their father tugged at one of his earlobes. “How do you get there… well, it’s complicated.”
“Why don’t we catch a plane like Mum?” Abby furrowed her brow.
Their father shook his head slowly, as though chasing away a thought. “That’s not how it’s done.”
“What does she do, teleport?” Sam fought a chuckle as she pictured her mum vanishing, bit by bit, like a Star Trek character.
“Not exactly,” replied their father, running his hands through his light brown, wavy hair. He took his glasses off and rubbed his thumb over his nose.
Abby dropped her glass on the table with a thud. “Why are you being so weird, Dad? Whenever she came you went and got her at the airport.”
Sam shot her sister a glare. She didn’t want to deal with an argument, not on their glorious day. She wished Abby wasn’t so impatient and that she held her tongue better when she was mad. But that was how her sister had always been.
Their father stared at the wall for a moment. “I suppose you girls are old enough to know some things.” He seemed to be choosing his words carefully, like someone picking through rotten fruit at the grocery store, trying to find something useful. “How much do you remember about Fletching?”
“Not much,” admitted Sam. “I remember those twins and going down to the beach in the summertime. Mum was always practicing archery so it was just us.” Sam had loved those days by the water with the twins. Once, her precious stuffed bunny Sunny had gotten caught in the tide and Eli dove in to rescue her, even though it was dangerous. His mother and father shouted up a storm, despite the fact they were champion swimmers and had taught Eli themselves. Once they stopped yelling, Sam had given Eli a hug. She hoped he was still there.
“Yeah, your mum really wanted that gold medal.” Their father jolted Sam back into the present. “Too bad she never got it. But she tried hard, that’s the important thing.”
“We’ll get it for her,” Abby said, touching her medal. “She’ll be proud of us.” She sat up straight in her chair. “It’s the best training in the world, isn’t it, Dad?”
Their father nodded. “It’s a pretty special place. Heck, it almost got me the world championship.” He took a deep breath. “I’m about to let you in on a secret, so listen carefully. You see, Dr. Benjamin Nine, the president, discovered how to make gold some years back. It’s how they fund Xenith.”
“Wow,” said Sam. She leaned forward. What a weird name. Plus, she’d never heard of such a thing, except in some magic books. “Really?”
Abby seemed skeptical. “Impossible, Dad. No one can do that.”
“It’s fantastical, but it’s true,” said their father. “And it’s pretty amazing. Dr. Nine’s a genius alchemist. He’d been working on it for years, and then he figured it out. But he doesn’t tell anyone the secret, mind you, so don’t go snooping around.”
Abby shook her head. “This makes no sense, Dad.” She played with her napkin, watching him like a hawk. Sam could tell that even though her sister was doubtful, she wanted to believe this fantastic story as much as Sam did.
“Dad wouldn’t lie to us, Abby,” she said.
“I don’t think I can explain this to you in a way you can understand,” their father said softly. He stood up, almost knocking his chair over in the process. He gripped the edge of the table, and Sam noticed his knuckles were white. “All I can do is show you. I can take you there tonight.”
Sam and Abby leaped to their feet.
“Seriously?” Abby squealed, grabbing Sam around the shoulders in a big hug. “Does Mum know?”
Their father shook his head. “No. But she’ll be happy for the surprise. Go upstairs and pack your things. Remember your sports gear. Meet me in my study when you’re ready.”
“Yay!” Abby shouted, pulling away from Sam. She pushed her chair into the table with a bang and her medal slipped away from Sam’s, falling to the floor in a whirl of gold and blue.
“Isn’t this exciting?” Abby danced around, her hair flying everywhere. “We’re finally going back, and this time to Xenith, too, just like Mum and Dad. I wonder what it looks like now.”
Sam could still smell the pine trees and the summer grass, and see the stone cabin where their parents had lived in the woods. It had been beautiful.
Abby waved her hand in front of Sam’s face. “Yoo-hoo. Anybody home?”
Sam laughed. “Sorry. I was thinking about the last time we were there.”
“I know.” Abby picked up her bag in one hand and her long, silvery foil in the other. “I can’t wait to get back.”
“Well, let’s go.” Sam ran down the stairs. She didn’t know how they were going to get there tonight, but she didn’t much care. One thing she did know: Xenith produced more Olympians than any other training facility in the world. And even that paled to having her whole family in one place for the first time in eight years. All thanks to archery. After checking to be sure Abby wasn’t looking, she kissed her bow.
A sliver of light from the partly open door to their father’s study lay on the wall of the hallway. They headed toward it, Sam’s bow and quiver bouncing as she walked. Her stomach tensed. The Xenith kids would be in a whole new league. They were the best in the world. Would she measure up? Or would she let her father down, embarrass him in front of their mother?
Inside his cavernous study, their father was sitting behind his mahogany desk. The messy stacks of books all around him made him seem oddly dwarfed, even powerless.
When he saw them, he smiled grimly and clicked off the lamp. “Well, this is it.” He pulled a chain from under his shirt. On it was a tiny silver key. He pushed himself up and walked across the room like an old man, wearily and slowly, as though life has pressed him down. Sam gripped Abby’s hand. It was damp, but she didn’t let go.
Their father twisted one of his old fencing trophies and Sam nearly fell backward as the bookcase slid open with a hiss to reveal a second, smaller room. It was like something out of a spy movie, but in her own house. She clutched Abby’s hand as if it could save her from drowning. Nothing was normal about this.
Their father reached inside the room and turned on a light. The room was tiny, more like a walk-in closet, and was nearly completely filled by an ancient, busted up black trunk.
“What is this?” Sam whispered to Abby, shuffling closer to her.
“I have no idea.” Abby’s voice trembled. “I’ve never been in here before.”
“Come here,” their father said in a solemn voice, gesturing toward the trunk. “I don’t want you to be too alarmed by what happens next, so stand behind me. Take a deep breath, and get ready.”
Slowly, he slid the key into the lock on the trunk. He shifted it back and forth a few times, and with a dull snap the lid parted with the bottom. Dust filled the air as he opened it all the way with a screech. Sam coughed as a vile scent like rotting leaves hit her nostrils. Whatever this was, it was disgusting for sure, and she couldn’t see what it had to do with Xenith. Maybe he was about to give her some kind of enchanted bow and arrow. Or a talisman. Something to prove they were good enough. But they’d shown that already, today at the match.
Their father turned, his glasses gray with dust, obscuring his eyes. “Come closer,” he whispered. For the first time in her life, Sam felt afraid of him. But she edged forward, still gripping Abby’s hand. When they reached him, their father stepped aside to let them see inside the trunk.
On a maroon velvet cloth, a skull with deep-cut, glowing red eyes and diamond-like teeth lay next to a golden necklace with a blood colored charm. Something was weird about them – they seemed alive, or like something was alive inside them. She shook her head. What a ridiculous thought. She stole a glance at her sister and saw Abby was transfixed, staring at the skull.
Their father reached into the trunk, and Sam bit back a protest – for a second, she’d imagined the skull would attack him. But nothing happened. He moved the skull and the charm out of the way and pulled up the cloth.
Underneath, a yellowed doll lay wrapped in a cloth of gold. Their father picked it up, unwrapped it, and winced. It had messy, black hair that fell to its waist. It wore monk’s robes, tied at the waist with a rope. Its round, black eyes were set above a nose so crumbled and misshapen it could hardly be called a nose at all. Instead of a mouth, it had a crude, red slash.
I know him.The thought came to her out of nowhere. Ridiculous. She’d never seen it before in her life, and anyway, how could she know a doll? That moldy smell… it was making her feel drugged.
The doll winked at her.
Her skin crawled as she stared at the doll. She ran her hand over her forehead and down her face. This doll was no Sunny, that was for sure.
It opened its gash of a mouth.
Abby screamed. Sam jumped to the side and her father steadied her.
Yellow teeth gleamed. “Hello, Samantha. Hi, Abigail. And Mr. Liffey, of course. My… you’ve kept me waiting for a long, long time.”
Chapter Two – A Living Doll
“Well, hello to you, too,” said the doll, standing up in a cloud of dust and peering over the edge of the trunk at Sam. “Where are your manners? Sure, I’m a bit rough looking – but I have been locked up for eight years. You wouldn’t look like a beauty queen either.”
“Wh-what are you?” Sam glanced at Abby’s pale, big-eyed face. If this was a hallucination, her sister was having one too.
“Wh-what are you?” mocked the doll. “Isn’t that kind of obvious? I’m a laughing, crying, moving, living doll. I can do everything you do… well, most of it anyway. I don’t, for example, use the bathroom. Thank goodness.” He tittered.
Sam frowned. Since when could dolls come to life? She thought of Sunny again. Maybe her bunny could be like the velveteen rabbit. She shook her head. Why was she thinking about such stupid things at a time like this?
The doll stretched his arms, his joints popping. “Ahh, that feels good. Too long in one position, you know?” He looked at Sam’s dad. “Mr. Liffey. Tut tut. Was keeping me under wraps part of the divorce agreement? Even so, you could’ve let me out every now and then.”
“What if the girls had found you?” their father retorted. “Given the circumstances…” His voice trailed off and he stared miserably at his feet.
Sam bit her lip. So, this had something to do with Mum and the divorce. But her mother had never said anything about a living doll either. Nice family secret: a wacko doll hidden in an old trunk in a secret room in her dad’s office. She sighed. Other people had barrels of money or famous ancestors. Not the Liffeys. They always had to be different.
The doll furrowed his tiny brow. “I suppose it was a sticky situation, to put it mildly.” His dark, beady eyes focused on Sam for a moment before turning back to her father.
Sam folded her arms across her chest defensively. “What’re you staring at me like that for?” Whenever people talked about her parents’ divorce, they always gave Sam the same odd look. Now she was getting it from this bizarre talking doll, too.
Abby put her hands on her hips. “Sam, not right now, for crying out loud. Dad, what exactly is this all about?”
The doll didn’t give their dad a chance to answer. “I’m William Poppet. But you can call me Will.” He grabbed the side of the trunk, lifted his body over it, and fell to the floor with a thump. Some of his dark hair came loose and floated about his head. “You wouldn’t remember me, naturally.”
Their father’s face turned ashen. “I’m sorry, Will. But that was part of the agreement. You knew that.”
“So you kept this doll a big secret. Why?” demanded Sam.
“I’d’ve thought you’d trust us a bit more than that,” Abby snapped. “Did you think we’d go blabbing to the neighbors? I mean, honestly. I can’t see them caring much about some freaky toy.”
The doll wagged his little index finger at Abby. “I’m no plaything, Missy. Do you see strings? Do you see batteries? Humans. Always limited. Everything has to fit into their little world.” Then his finger fell off and dropped to the ground with a clatter. Sam scrunched up her face. Gross. But at least he didn’t bleed.
“Ooooops.” Will picked up the finger with his other hand. “How embarrassing. You see what happens when you lock me up for so long? I’m falling apart here. You might want to grab the superglue if you don’t want my head to fall off next.”
Sam squirmed, her stomach twisting. This was too much. She darted over to her father and tugged on his arm. “What’s going on? Just tell us.”
Her dad wrapped his arm around her. “You know Xenith’s a special, secret place, right? Well, they have things like Will there. You’re too young to remember, but he brought you girls here when your mother and I ended our marriage. And he’s the only way to get back.”
Abby pushed between them. “I wouldn’t be too young to remember, Dad. But I don’t. And who could forget something as crazy as this? I’m not stupid.”
Sam wished her sister would be nicer, but she had to admit Abby was right. Sam might have been only five, but she was sure she’d have some recollection of something so weird. After all, more and more other details were coming back to her about Fletching, things she had previously thought were dreams. A storybook village at the top of a mountain. You rode a cable car down to the crystalline, jewel-like water as aqua as her sister’s eyes and as warm as a bath. It could change in an instant when a storm blew in, turning grey and angry and wild. She had loved it, even as a young child, for its moodiness and beauty. But she didn’t remember anything at all about magical, talking dolls.
Will chuckled. “Okay, you got us. We made the journey at three in the morning. You girls were passed out sleeping.”
Abby glared at him.
He raised his eyebrows. “What? Don’t you think if you saw me, you’d flip out at that age? It was for your own good.”
“True.” Their dad nodded. “We had to be careful. There are a lot of people in the world who would want to hurt us for the things that go on in Fletching. Like the gold making – everyone would want in on that. Having that technology creates danger. People will stop at nothing for the sake of greed.”
“Do you know anything about how they do it?” Sam asked.
Her father smiled. “They take just a tiny bit of your qi, your soul energy, when you’re initiated and at various other points during your time there. I don’t know how, but they make gold from it.”
“What?” Sam tore herself from her father’s grasp. She didn’t want anyone taking part of her soul. “No way I’m doing that!”
“It’s not a big deal, Sam,” her father responded. “I did it, so did your mum. Many times. They know how to use that energy, that pulse of your being, to make things happen. It’s sort of like electricity, but more special.”
Sam scowled. It sounded freakish to her, no matter what he said. Abby curled her lip.
Their dad seemed to notice their expressions. He smiled. “Don’t worry, girls. Qi gets replenished in forty-eight hours. It’s not like you get diminished by it or anything.”
“I thought it was blood that replenishes in forty-eight hours.” Abby studied his face skeptically.
“So does soul energy, according to Dr. Nine.” Will stretched. “Owww, every time I move a joint… well, anyway, I’m pleased to make your acquaintance again, misses Liffey, and while I’m loving hearing about my beautiful village and honorable school, we need to begin the work.” He headed over to where they stood, walking like an old person, stiff and with his arms out as though he might fall over. Bits of ragged clothing fell from his body. “Pick me up.”
Sam shrank back against her father. “Ewww, no.” She didn’t want to catch some horrible disease from this ancient doll. Who knew what kind of mold was growing on him?
Will scowled, holding his broken finger and tapping it on his chin. “Don’t be ridiculous. It’s the only way I can recover. Gold’s not the only thing that needs qi.”
Sam tucked her hands under her armpits. No way was she giving anyone any of her soul, no matter what they said about it being replenished.
“I’ll do it.” Their father reached down and picked the doll up. As he brought Will close to Sam, she caught a faint but powerful rancid stench, like rotting potatoes. She pinched her nose, revolted. But when she breathed through her mouth she could taste the smell. She gagged and put her finger under her nose instead. Her coconut lime lotion helped to block the horrible stink.
Her dad took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and waited. The seconds hung heavily in the air. Sam tried to stand completely still, not wanting to mess up whatever was going on. Her father scrunched up his face and seemed to be making a huge effort to do something.
But nothing happened.
“It’s not working,” Will said in a peevish tone. “I think you’re all tapped out.”
Abby clenched her fists. “What exactly is supposed to happen here, may I ask?”
“Will needs more than I have to give.” Their dad frowned. “Sam, you have to take him. If you don’t, we won’t get to Fletching. Abby, you too.”
Abby pressed her lips together in a thin line. But she reached for the doll. Sam winced. She really, really wanted to go to Fletching. Maybe giving up some of her qi wouldn’t be so bad. And if Abby was willing… slowly, Sam reached down and grasped one of the strange doll’s small arms with the tip of her thumb and forefinger.
He felt cold at first, but after a moment a warm sensation slipped from her heart down her arm. Her head grew heavy and she closed her eyes. A dim memory – or was it a dream – teased her. A large stone pyramid. A room of gold. The dead. The Olympics. Blood…
Abby’s shriek shattered Sam’s vision.
Sam opened her eyes; her sister’s face was stark white and she looked as though she might faint. Sam felt dizzy and weak herself. She took in several deep breaths, choking a little on the dust that still floated around the room. “What just happened?” she spluttered.
“I saw terrible things… blood…” Abby whispered. Then she shrieked again and pointed at the doll with her free hand.
Sam and Abby let go at the same time and Will fell to the floor with a grunt. But he smiled as he picked himself up. “Thank you, my misses. It is much appreciated.”
Sam shook her head. She had to be going crazy, having visions. Maybe they’d put her in a mental hospital. She took a few steps back, pulling Abby with her. “Dad, this is too freaky!”
“You’re not going crazy,” said Will with maddening calm. “You’re not seeing things at all. This is part of your heritage and history. It’s time you knew about it.”
Electricity ran up and down Sam’s spine. Had he read her mind? She was just thinking she was crazy, and then he said it. Maybe it was coincidence. It had to be coincidence. She needed it to be coincidence.
Their father pulled them into him. “Listen, I can explain this. But let’s just go to Fletching, now that Will’s strong enough. You’ll see your mother. It’ll make sense, I promise.”
The doll grinned. A mouthful of bright white teeth gleamed in the blinking florescent light. “The Baba Yaga has been waiting patiently these eight years.”
Sam moved as close to her father as possible. What kind of weird language was this? “What’s a Baba Yaga?”
Will hopped from foot to foot. “That’s Dr. Nine’s sister. She’s the chair of Fletching Academy. Get it? He runs the training camp, she runs the school. Lordy, how much your father has kept from you.”
“I did what I had to do. You know that.” Their father’s voice cracked and his arm sagged on Sam’s shoulder. A sharp pain cut through the confusion brewing in Sam’s heart; she hated to see her father sad. He’d never do anything to hurt her. He’d been there for everything – every lost match, every painful practice, every long drive. He’d held her hand when she was ill and put bandages on her bruises. She loved him with all her heart.
Will shrugged and said nothing.
“I don’t get what’s going on at all,” Abby said with a scowl. “Dad, you said Mum wanted to visit us here and we couldn’t go there. That we left Fletching for good, unless we got into Xenith.”
A muscle worked in her dad’s jaw. Sam knew she had to change the subject – and fast. “Mr. Poppet, can you get Mum and bring her here? We need to talk to her.”
“Will.” The doll chuckled. “Call me Will. I can’t bring her to you, but I can take you to her. You’ve been trained as well as possible here in Salem, but you’re not world class. There’s still so much to do! You can bring honor to your people and to your country with your talents. Dr. Nine will be most pleased with how far you’ve come and most interested in where you need to go.” He clapped his hands, the sound sharp in the small, dusty room. “We’re wasting time here. Tell them the deal.”
Their dad took a deep breath. When he spoke, his voice was steady. “Girls, you deserve this opportunity. I know it seems odd, but it’s truly the best training in the world. Just one thing: stay near me or your mum or another adult at all times and do not leave camp, town or school. Do not go wandering off by yourselves, ever. Is that clear?”
Sam hesitated. This sounded a bit dangerous. But then she pictured her bow and quiver, and her thoughts shifted as though a breeze had changed direction and taken them with it.
This was what she’d been training for her whole life. Up at 5 AM, then school, then more training. Never like the other kids, always working twice as hard, no time for video games or television. But she’d wanted it, wanted it like when you find something elemental in your being and know it belongs to you to shape and mold and let flourish. She was meant to be an Olympian. So what if this whole thing was a little, well, unusual? She trusted her father – trusted him completely. If he said this place was safe, then it was. And of course they would follow the rules.
Will suddenly leaped up and down in place. “Come on, already! Girls, it can’t be that bad if your mother’s there, right? You’ll be fine. And you girls’ll be good. Right?”
Sam nodded. Yes, overall, she was good. Sure, she’d snuck out of school a few times with her friends to get ice cream sodas at lunchtime, but that was nothing compared to what other eighth graders were doing. And her grades were all As. She even got an A+ in Honors Biology. She studied as hard as she practiced.
“Get your bags,” said their father, injecting a note of cheer into his voice. “You’re going to be thrilled. Remember, Xenith’s the gateway to the Olympics!”
“Come on, already!” Will jumped in place again. “I’ve been locked up way too long. I can’t take another five minutes in this place!” He rushed out the door and into the study.
“Go on,” said their dad, lifting his suitcase. “Follow him.”
Sam grabbed her bag and gear from the study. The doll was waiting for them at the end of the hallway, bouncing impatiently on his toes. He beckoned them out the back door and pointed toward the dark forest that stretched for miles past the gate at the end of their garden. The sun was setting beyond the trees and the evening was warm and humid. Somewhere, a lone robin sang a cheerful song that seemed like an affront to Sam’s apprehension.
“What’s back there?” she asked her father as Will scampered across their yard with surprising speed for his tiny size.
“You’ll see.” Her father shouldered his bag as they crossed the yard. Sam clutched her bow and quiver, her arm still aching from the match earlier that day. She’d been back in that forest thousands of times and had never seen anything unusual. Maybe they were going to have to walk all the way through it. She dreaded the thought – her feet ached, too.
The doll was waiting for them at the gate with a broad smile. “Watch and be amazed.” He pulled it open with a long, rusty squeal, and darted through.
Their dad paused, then stepped through the gate, leaves crunching under his feet. He gestured for Sam and Abby to follow. The temperature dropped a few degrees and Sam’s eyes took a moment to adjust to the dimmer light. A squirrel chattered at them from a nearby tree. Sam drew her bow closer. She didn’t like the woods in the evening. What seemed normal and cheerful during the day took on an eerie feel, like ghosts were hiding behind the trees, waiting to snatch her up and run away.
Will waved his arms in the air. With a rustling sound, the trees bent left and right as if pulled by ropes, forming a trail between them. Sam’s jaw dropped. What was this? She drew an arrow from her quiver and held it ready, just in case.
“Come on,” said the doll. Without looking back, he scampered down the newly formed trail.
“Dad, are you sure we should do this?” Abby asked, grasping her foil.
“Yes,” replied their father, his tone resolute. He straightened his back and held out his arms. “Just stay with me. Sam, put that arrow away.”
Sam did as he asked. She snuggled into his comforting grasp and together the three walked down the trail.
After a bit, Sam glanced over her shoulder. Behind them, the trees were springing back upright as though the invisible rope pulling them downward had been released. A great, howling wind stirred, causing leaves from the forest floor to whirl all around them. Sam’s hair came loose from her ponytail and whipped all around her face.
“Keep going,” said their dad, raising his voice to be heard above the wind. “It’s fine!”
Sam blinked as stirred-up dirt threatened to fly into her eyes. She hunched over and pressed against the wind, and it pushed back like a living thing. Through her narrowed gaze she could just make out the darkened form of the tiny doll ahead of them.
They went on, struggling to walk through tangled roots and slippery leaves. Sam wondered how this place had been there all these years, buried in the familiar forest of her childhood, never discovered.
Soon the trees vanished and a high, white fence bordered the trail instead. A jolt shot through Sam’s stomach: the fence was made of bones – human bones. Skulls with glowing eye sockets capped each post, casting eerie, reddish light onto the path. She huddled closer to her father, feeling his heart beating a rapid pulse. What kind of awful place was this?
“I don’t like this!” she shouted, the wind taking her voice so it was barely audible. Dust flew into her mouth and she spit it out.
“Just keep going!” Her dad yelled. “They won’t hurt you!”
Sam decided not to look at the fence. They stumbled along the path for what felt like miles, the relentless, roaring gale pounding more heavily on her body with every step she took. It seemed to be blowing right through her, wrapping around her insides like she had no skin. She wished she’d brought her down coat. Her already sore muscles ached even more as she fought to hold onto her bag and her equipment. She was certain the wind would blow her backward, right down the path, if it wasn’t for her father’s arm across her back. Then she’d be eaten by whatever demons lived in this wild place. She wondered how Will was moving so easily, tiny as he was.
Up ahead, Will came to an abrupt halt next to an old tree trunk in a small clearing. When they caught up with him the wind died out completely and stillness fell like a curtain. Sam held her breath.
The doll waved his hands in the air and sang a low, sweet melody.
Their dad pulled them closer. “Be brave. This is going to seem a bit strange.”
Sam barely had time to doubt anything would seem strange after what they’d just been through when a low rumbling broke the stillness. She clutched onto her father as the ground stirred beneath her feet. Under the grass, long lines like roots stretched away from the tree trunk, moving, shifting and shaking the ground.
Abby yelled as the tree trunk began to grow and widen. Will jumped back just in time. Higher and higher it grew until it was just about the height of a three-storey building. Branches sprang out all around the tree and stretched toward the sky. Leaves uncurled from the branches, covering them with a brilliant, emerald green. Sam squinted as the hazy outline of a cabin appeared among the leaves. Slowly, it became more solid until Sam could no longer see through it. With a popping sound, a chimney appeared among the leaves and a long line of smoke grew out of it.
Sam’s heart skipped a beat as Will went up to the tree. The doll lifted his hands, humming another capriccio, cheerful tune. A small, round door with a golden handle appeared in the tree’s bark.
Will turned to face them, the melody dying on his lips. “Welcome to the house of the Baba Yaga.”
“Well, come on,” said Will, opening the circular door in the tree. “No use dallying out here.”
Sam turned to her father. “Are we really going up there?
Will peered over his shoulder at her. “No, you’re just going to stand out here and Xenith’ll come to you.” He cackled. “Relax. You’re not gonna die.”
“It’ll be fine.” Sam’s father squeezed her hand, but his voice shook. The flames from the skulls cast shadows across his face, making his nose appear elongated and his eyes dark, incomprehensible. Sam swallowed. Maybe he was into some creepy cult. She’d heard of such things. But, no. She shook her head. She trusted him, though this was the most bizarre thing she’d ever experienced. He gave her a gentle push toward the door.
Sam stumbled over a root and her father caught her arm. “Careful,” he said, helping her pull her bag back on her shoulder. The root had a long, pointed toe on it, like that of a chicken.
Inside, an impossibly tight spiral staircase wound up the inside of the tree. Fiery torches on spikes stood every few feet along the handrail and smoke stung Sam’s eyes. Without a moment’s hesitation, Will clambered up the steps to a platform at the top. Then he hoisted himself onto the handrail and waved at them. “Hurry!” His voice echoed around the tree, as if a chorus of tiny dolls was yelling down at them.
“Go on,” encouraged her dad as Sam paused with her foot on the lowest step. “I’m right behind you.”
Sam let out the breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. Gripping the handrail, she climbed, hearing the soft footfalls of Abby and their father behind her. The staircase groaned as they went higher and higher. Sam fought to keep her head clear and willed herself not to look down. She’d never been a fan of heights. Three years ago they’d gone on holiday to Toronto, and up in the CN Tower Abby had jumped around on the glass floor, laughing, while Sam hovered in the corner trying not to puke.
When they finally reached the platform, Will hummed again. Another round door appeared and sprang open. He scampered inside, waving them to follow.
Sam forced her trembling legs to move, ducking to avoid the low overhang on the door, and entered a small room mostly filled by a large wooden table. A fire crackled merrily inside a stove, scenting the air with cedar. A pot bubbled and a wide assortment of dried herbs and flowers hung from the ceiling. Despite her nerves, Sam felt somewhat comforted. It was like a rustic cabin in the woods, not nearly as unfamiliar and scary as she had expected. As long as, of course, it didn’t fall out of the tree. Abby and their father crowded in behind her and she shifted to give them room. Abby’s hot breath hit the back of her neck.
“Who’s there? Declare yourself!” A man’s voice cut through the air.
Sam jumped, clutching her chest, and dropped her bag, bow and quiver. Her father stepped forward, pushing her behind him with Abby. His eyes were wide behind his glasses and he stared at a door on the opposite side of the room as if he could break it with his gaze.
The door burst open with a squeal. The metal tip of a pistol appeared, followed by a tall, silver-haired man. Sam yelped. He was the man she’d spoken to earlier at the competition. She ducked into Abby, trying to make herself as small and invisible as possible.
“Michael!” Their father put his arms out to the sides, shielding Sam and Abby. “Put down that gun. You idiot!”
Abby made a high-pitched mew like a kitten and pushed herself closer to their father. Sam peeked around him, her palms sweating.
The man’s gaze fell on Sam and his hand holding the gun fell to his side. He backed up against the wall. Sam dug her fingers into Abby’s arm, wanting to pull away from his stare, but was unable. Time hung, frozen and thick. Then the man dropped the gun to the ground with a clatter.
“You idiot!” Sam’s father yelled again, his skin mottled. “It could’ve gone off. What’s the matter with you? God, I could kill you… if you hurt my daughters… haven’t you done enough damage in your miserable life?” Sam and Abby stared at each other, astonished. Their father was always so gentle. He didn’t even kill insects; he sucked them up in a special bug wand and released them outside.
The man slid down the wall and grabbed the pistol with trembling fingers. His sleeve slipped back, revealing a white, jagged scar. Seeing Sam’s father’s gaze on it, he shook his sleeve down quickly and stood. “Believe me, if I knew you were coming tonight, I’d’ve left town.” He tucked the pistol into his belt and appeared to regain his composure. “Well, Daniel, you’re back. After the competition, I can’t say I wasn’t expecting it. But I thought you’d wait a bit. Or send notice.”
He and Sam’s father glared at each other with a dislike so intense it was palpable – foul, stagnant and heavy like the air in summer before a thunderstorm.
Will jumped out in front of their dad. “Michael, I brought the girls. As you know, they qualified for Xenith.” He raised a finger as if in warning.
The man cleared his throat. “Yes. I saw the competition. It’s Samantha… Liffey, is it?” His mouth opened and closed; he seemed to be fighting some internal force. “How – interesting – to finally meet you.”
Sam scowled. Anyone her dad hated, she hated too. “Who are you? Why’d you come to my match?” She knew she was being rude, but she noticed her father said nothing – usually he would upbraid her for being impolite to a stranger. But this man was clearly no stranger. He was an enemy.
“I’m Dr. Michael Erik Dante.” The man spoke slowly. “You can call me – Dr. Dante, I guess. Through I think-” He stopped talking as though someone had flipped a switch.
Sam felt small under his stare, so she pulled Abby out from behind her father. Safety in numbers. “This is my sister, Abby.”
Dr. Dante grunted, keeping his eyes on Sam. He seemed to be examining every feature on her face. “You look like your mother,” he said finally.
Sam squirmed, wishing he would look somewhere else or, even better, that he’d go away completely.
“They’re going to be champions, like their parents,” Will piped in. He seemed to be trying to dispel the tension. “If I’d known you two were going to act like teenagers, I’d’ve sent a warning, though.”
Dr. Dante heaved a sigh. “It’s not like they wouldn’t run into me eventually. Fletching’s not exactly New York City.” He laughed, but it sounded high and false.
Sam’s father put his arm around her shoulders, his nostrils flaring. “Don’t forget our deal. Don’t you ever approach her again. That was some trick, sneaking into the competition.”
Dr. Dante flinched. “You can’t deny me -”
“I can deny you anything I want.” Sam’s father snarled. His arm tightened on Sam’s shoulder, mashing her face into his coat. She had to fight to breathe. “Don’t push me on this. You know what I can do.”
Sam’s palms began to sweat again. Her dad never talked like this. He was always so gentle and kind. Even when their teenage neighbors back in Salem had sideswiped his car, he’d been calm. And he’d never yelled at her or Abby in their whole lives, no matter how bad they were.
Dr. Dante again seemed at a loss for words, and if Sam hadn’t decided to hate him she might have felt a little sorry for him. His hand moved to the pistol in his belt, tightened on the handle, and then released. “I know,” he said in a low voice. “God, do I know what you can do. But a devil’s bargain, when anyone can see -”
The door creaked open and Dr. Dante stopped speaking. A tiny, ancient looking woman with a hooked nose walked in. She wore a purple cloak that draped over her head and fell to her feet. It was clasped in front with a skull-shaped pin. She carried a wooden staff but didn’t seem to need it for her step was spry and lilting. Bangles and bracelets hung on her arms. She smiled and hurried across the room.
“Daniel,” she said warmly, hugging Sam’s father. “I’m so glad you’re here. I knew you’d put them first.” She touched Abby’s chin. “Ta, a beautiful young lady you are. You’re so like your father.” She reached out and embraced Sam. “And this is Samantha. Girls, I am the Baba Yaga.” She smiled again, revealing crooked yellow teeth, one missing from the front.
Sam thought she should be scared of this tiny, ugly old woman, but she wasn’t. She looked like the witches Sam had read about in fairy tales, but she didn’t seem wicked at all.
The old woman turned to Dr. Dante. “I shall expect better from you in the future. Drawing your weapon on a pair of young girls. And you’re an Elder.” She clicked her tongue.
Sam gaped. “How did you know he did that?”
The Baba Yaga’s eyes twinkled. “I have a helpful little friend. Who I am so very happy to see again.” At this, Will puffed with pride and grinned widely. Sam was amazed. Apparently, the doll and the Baba Yaga could communicate telepathically.
Dr. Dante folded his arms. “I had no idea who they were. All I heard were intruders. I was protecting your home, and Xenith.”
“Always so impulsive. That’s your downfall.” The Baba Yaga tapped her foot. “It’s gotten you into a peck of trouble and you’ve not learned a thing. At the very least, understand I do not need your protection.” She smiled ruefully at Sam and Abby. “I’m sorry you had such a poor welcome to my home. From here on out, I hope you will be comfortable.” She gestured toward the table. “Sit. Let me fix you a snack.”
Will bobbed over. The Baba Yaga picked him up and gave him a big hug. “It’s nice to have you back.” She glanced at Sam’s father. Her mouth twitched like she was going to say something, but she didn’t.
Dr. Dante dropped into a chair at the end of the table. He pulled a pipe from his pocket and lit it on the candle. Sam, Abby and their father took seats as far away from him as possible. Their dad adjusted his chair so it was facing away from the man, as if looking at him was distasteful. The Baba Yaga filled four bowls with stew and brought them over on a wooden tray along with tumblers of cider. She sat in the remaining chair and Will clambered into her lap.
Sam stirred her stew, inhaling the delicious smell of venison and potatoes. But she was too nervous to eat. She pictured Fletching again as she remembered it. It had definitely felt modern, unlike this cabin, which seemed like something from the frontier days. Like Laura Ingalls Wilder, but in a tree.
“When do we start training?” Abby demanded, also not touching her stew. “I don’t want to lose a minute.”
“As soon as you’re initiated, my dear,” replied the Baba Yaga. “Which will happen tonight. You can start your training tomorrow.”
“Great.” Abby leaned closer to the old woman, her blue eyes eager. “So where’s Mum? I want to see her, now.”
Sam dropped her spoon. Abby was being pushy, but Sam wanted to see their mother too. The question was, how to do it without upsetting their father – usually when their mother visited in Salem, he disappeared into his study so he wouldn’t have to see her. It used to hurt Sam when they acted like that, but she’d grown accustomed to it over the years.
The Baba Yaga took a drink of cider, her brow furrowed. “We’ll get her after you eat, how about that? Daniel, would you like to speak with her alone before she meets with the girls?” Her tone seemed laced with meaning, and Sam’s father nodded, seemingly catching the unspoken message.
He pushed away his bowl. “Honestly, I’m not hungry, Baba. Can we go get this over with?”
The Baba Yaga smiled sadly. “Yes, certainly, dear.” She stood.
Dr. Dante jumped to his feet. “I’ve got something to say to Emma, too.”
Sam’s father slammed his fist on the table, making Sam flinch. “No you don’t. Not now.”
“Michael, stay here.” The Baba Yaga’s voice was harsh, like sandpaper. “Control yourself.”
Dr. Dante fell back as if pushed.
Sam’s father hesitated, his hand on the back of Sam’s chair and his gaze fixed on Dr. Dante’s face. “Give me your pistol.”
“What?” Dr. Dante seemed stunned.
“I said, give me your pistol. I’ll not leave you armed with my girls.” Her father stretched out his hand.
“Give it to him.” The Baba Yaga tapped her cane on the ground. “He has that right.”
“I wouldn’t-” Dr. Dante began, clearly affronted, but Will cut in.
“Michael Dante, you’re a fool. A fool!” The doll hopped over to him. “You know he’s got a right, Mister Usurper.”
Dr. Dante passed a shaking hand over his eyes, then took the pistol from his belt and handed it to the doll. “Take it,” he said bitterly. “Why not, Daniel, you got everything else.”
“Liar.” Sam’s father spoke flatly. “You took more from me than I could ever take from you.”
Will gave Sam’s father the pistol. Sam caught her breath as he pointed it at Dr. Dante, closing one eye. But he didn’t take the safety off and after a minute he stuck it in his belt. “Will stays. And you remember our deal.”
Dr. Dante gave a curt nod. Sam’s father gave her a brief pat on the back and then headed out the door with the Baba Yaga at his heels.
Bewildered, Sam met Abby’s eyes. Never in a million years would she have imagined her father was capable of pointing a gun at someone. Abby shrugged, looking as stunned as Sam felt. Sam twisted her hair. She didn’t know if she wanted to figure out what was going on. Something about it made her deeply uneasy.
Dr. Dante took a long drag from his pipe and blew it out, filling the room with the scent of rum-flavored tobacco. He stared at Abby, one eyebrow raised and his eyes glittering with malevolence.
Sam adjusted her back in the hard wooden chair. More to avoid having to talk than for actual hunger, she took a bite of the rich stew and choked it down. She looked around the room. No television, no stereo, no computer in sight. Just a thatched rug and a tiny tabby cat curled up on a quilt-covered rocking chair. It stretched, yawned, then lightly kneaded the cushion and settled back down to sleep.
Curiosity overwhelmed Sam’s fear. “I thought you had electricity. I thought this place was modern.”
“Of course we are,” said Dr. Dante. “Baba wishes to live without it, close to the earth. Or something like that.”
“It keeps her connected to the natural and spiritual.” Will grinned. “Like me.”
Abby smirked. “Must be pretty boring.”
“Baba has more important ways to fill her time than by watching television or playing video games,” Dr. Dante said with a sneer. “You’re such a child of entertainment, coddled from the minute you’re born. You can’t even think of more important things.”
“I can think of plenty,” snapped Abby. “We don’t exactly come from the middle of nowhere.”
Dr. Dante glowered at her. “Just like your father.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Sam sat up straight in her chair. She wasn’t going to let this awful man insult her father and sister. No one got away with that.
“Your sister is like your father,” Dr. Dante spat. “Everything handed to her. Rich.”
“Ach, Michael.” Will groaned. “Hush, for once in your life. The girls did grow up in the same house. You recognize that, right?”
Sam’s fists clenched. “Our dad has money because he’s a great professor. He even has tenure.”
Dr. Dante sat back in his chair. “Rich is a state of mind. Your sister and your father’s state of mind, to be more precise. Privileged. You’re different.”
“What are you talking about?” Abby lost control and banged her tumbler down on the table. “You just met us!”
Dr. Dante rolled his eyes and said nothing.
Will cocked his head to the side. “Michael, give it a rest. Show us you’re a man, eh?”
Sam opened her mouth but before she could say anything the door creaked open again. Her heart quickened – her mother? But a boy was standing in the doorway. Tall and reedy, he wasn’t exactly handsome. But he had an incredibly interesting face, with the high cheekbones, dark skin and black eyes of his Kenyan ancestors.
Sam jumped to her feet and covered her mouth.
He was Eli – Elijah Fawke, her childhood friend, rescuer of Sunny the stuffed rabbit, grown now. But she’d know him no matter how many years separated their contact, know him in a way she could never explain. Just as she knew he was Eli and not his twin Jonah, despite them being identical. Would he remember her?
Her legs trembled and she forgot all about Dr. Dante, the pistol, and even Abby. “Eli.” Her voice came out in a croak.
He moved across the room and for a heart-stopping moment Sam thought he would hug her, but instead he held out his hand. She took it. It felt warm and soft.
“I ran into your father,” Eli said, gripping her hand. “He said you were here, so I came as quickly as I could. I can’t believe it, after all this time. Do you still have that rabbit?”
Sam’s heart thumped in her chest and with her free hand she pointed at her bag. “She’s over there.” She had missed him and hadn’t even realized it until now. He had been her earliest, dearest friend – the only person who seemed to get her, even when they were so young. And he remembered Sunny.
“And here I thought you might not recognize each other.” Will chortled. “Guess I was wrong on that count.”
“You can let go of her hand now,” said Abby in an amused tone. She came around the table and grinned at Eli. “Nice to see you again. Where’s Jonah?”
Eli dropped Sam’s hand like a hot potato and the color drained from his face.
“Jonah went out exploring on his own in places he was not authorized to go.” Dr. Dante stood and pushed his chair in with a scrape. “He was kidnapped two years ago and we haven’t seen hide nor tail of him since. So it would behoove you to keep in mind Fletching can be a very dangerous place.”
And with that, he stormed out of the room, leaving a cloud of acrid smoke in his wake.
… continued …
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by Elizabeth A. Svigar
Kindle Edition ~ Release Date: 2010-10-31
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And so it is, I think, with Elizabeth A. Svigar’s
Qi (Book of the Baba Yaga)