John Grover

The September Featured Writer is John Grover

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john grover

by John Grover

“Decapitation is one. Probably the best way. They don’t usually survive that. Burning will get the job done, at the stake or otherwise. Then there’s drowning. Drawing and quartering, but that’s almost impossible. Can’t get the bitch to stay still long enough.” The robust man with salt and pepper hair chortled heartily and continued sharpening his axe. He recited the methods as if from memory.

A teenage boy sat in a chair before him, hanging on his every word, his heart in his throat. He was not looking forward to this journey. Not in the least.

“Crushing works, but try getting them beneath an avalanche or landslide. They’re not stupid, if they were they wouldn’t be so hard to kill, the black-hearted beasts. A slow hanging. The rope better be strong enough though. And finally, tearing the heart from the body. That has never been done. Not as long as I’ve been living.”

He finished sharpening his axe and set it down on the table next to him. “We won’t be taking any guns with us son. They’re useless. They just heal themselves and remove the bullets. And don’t think that you can put a knife into them. She’ll just laugh at you. You can stab her heart with one all you want and the damned thing will just keep on beating. It has to be totally removed and burned.”

“Father, are you sure we can—?"

“We have to. We’re out of time. We owe it to all the children in town she’s killed. We owe it to your sister Molly. We can’t let her skin and devour another child, not one. Baba Yaga has to die.”

“What if we can’t find her? No one has ever come out of that forest alive.”

“We’ll find her Sasha, don’t you worry. We have God on our side. He will lead us to her. Now go prepare the torches, make sure there is plenty of kerosene to set them ablaze. We’ll need to have an arsenal at our disposal. When you’re done, say your prayers and go to bed. We have an early start.”


Just as the dawn’s light poured onto the countryside, Sasha and his father made their way up the frozen road, the frosty air snatching the breath right out of them. Sasha carried the torches and rope. A bag of salt dangled from his belt and a rosary adorned his neck. His father carried his axe, the morning sun gleaming off its exquisitely sharpened blade.

“Why are we alone, Father? Why aren’t any of the neighbors coming with us?”

“Fear has made them cowards, Sasha. They hide and cringe in their homes, afraid to set foot outside the town, praying and hoping she won’t take one of their children instead of doing something about it.”

Sasha could tell he was disgusted with them, especially considering how many children were disappearing lately. He’d heard the stories about her since he was child. Legends that had become fact. The village knew her all too well. She had been a part of their lives for hundreds of years.

They walked for hours, finally reaching the primeval forest that supposedly housed the witch. The very sight of it filled them with foreboding. They paused and looked at each other, watching their breath form clouds in the air.

Uncertainty filled Sasha, but he trusted in his father’s smile and the strength of his conviction. Sasha nodded to him and the two stepped into forest. Darkness swallowed them.

A thick gloom permeated the forest, with its ancient lightning-scarred trees growing huge and twisted, reaching to the heavens like skeletal arms. Snow-capped pines swayed all around them.

Ahead, icy trails stretched out like a maze, burrowing into the hundreds of snow mounds left by recent storms. Calls and howls resounded in the distance, carried on the  chill  wind and whispers echoed. Sasha swore he heard them.

Branches snapped, brush twitched, clumps of pure snow fell from the treetops but there was nothing natural here. It was a shunned landscape, lonely and spectral, the snow glowing in contrast with the shadowy darkness cast by the trees.

Sasha and his father wrapped their scarves around their faces against the biting cold. Sasha felt his chest heave against it. His father nudged him on and they continued their journey down one of the many trails, a trail that seemed no different than any other.

They pressed onward, sloshing through heavy wet powder, thanking God they remembered their boots. For hours they battled the frigid climate and hostile forest. When they paused for a breath, Sasha looked up into the overcast sky, and gasped.

A form, a shadow, passed overhead. Across the sky and through the trees the silhouette of a mortar soared. Baba Yaga’s means of transport was her abnormally large mortar and pestle, the mortar the size of a giant cauldron. Enchanted with dark magic, it blazed through the countryside, always on the hunt, while she used a broom to sweep away her trail. It was said spirits of the netherworld often followed her. Sasha searched for them but saw nothing.

“Father, she was here!” he cried, legs quivering uncontrollably. “Baba Yaga flew over us. She knows we’re here. She knows we’re here!”

“Don’t worry. If she’d seen us she would already be sinking her teeth into us. We have far to go before we face the wretched beast. Come, we must keep moving. If she’s in flight she’s searching for food. We may catch her full from her meal, and vulnerable.”

The two pushed on through the arctic-like land, choosing new paths, cutting through overgrown thorn patches and crossing frozen rivers. Sasha continued to watch the sky through terror-filled eyes.

“I need to rest,” Sasha said, wheezing. “Father please, I need to rest. I can’t go on much longer.”

“All right, but only for a moment. We’re close, very close, I can smell it.”

They cleared the snow from a massive boulder and sat. Sasha missed his home already-- the roaring fire, the warm blankets of his bed, the wonderful books his father had given him for his birthday. He especially missed his sister Molly. She did nag him every chance she got and left her dolls all around the house but still he missed her freckled face and her auburn curls, the way she used to ask him to read to her from his books. It was going to be very lonely around the house now. Assuming he ever made it back.

“How do we know Baba Yaga took all those children, Father? What if it wasn’t her? No one has ever seen her do it. I mean what if—?"

“I’ve studied witches for a long time, Sasha,” his father grunted. “Especially Baba Yaga. Her hunger and cravings are insatiable. Everything about her revolves around eating and gluttony. Her home is built from the remains of her victims, inside and out. I know this witch like I know my soul. The book of the Witchfinder General taught me all, the means of detection, the signs of infestation and the seven ways to put an end to her foul soul. All those innocent children, and your sister Molly, were taken in the night. My dearest Molly. Thank the Lord your mother was not alive to witness such a tragedy, God rest her soul.”

Sasha was silent with grief. In the distance, dusk was beginning to creep in bringing gloom and shadow with it. Within the trees he thought he saw a little girl dancing, skipping in between the massive trunks. It looked like his sister. But of course it couldn’t be. Then, as the form vanished, he noticed something strange about the snow.

“Father,” he said, lifting himself from the boulder. “The snow…it’s red.” He pointed to a patch ahead of them and his father hurried toward it.

Sasha joined him and they stared at a blotch of ripe, dark crimson snow. His father bent low and a horrified look washed over his face. “It’s blood,” he said. “The snow is stained with her murders.”

Sasha took hold of the rosary around his neck and prayed.

Then something wet struck his face and spilled down his cheek.  Another drop struck his forehead. He looked up into the trees—

And screamed.

A flock of wild birds exploded into flight and Sasha fell to the ground, flat on his back, transfixed by the awful sight. His father jumped from his spot and looked up.

In the trees, dripping wet sheets of human skin hung from the branches. A recent kill, a succulent meal. The stench of death filled the air.

Sasha’s chest burned, his tongue felt coated with a thousand bristles and the tips of his fingers tingled. He wanted to vomit but he fought it back, not wanting to act like a child in front of his father. He needed no more convincing that Baba Yaga needed to die. His sister cried out for it, demanded it.

“We’re close, by God. We’re close. She would not be too far from the remains of her feast. Up Sasha, up! We must find her!” He put his hand out to his son, who took it and got to his feet.

The two charged deeper into the forest as the darkness bled into it and swallowed them whole.

The glowing snow illuminated their travel in a most unearthly way and they suddenly found themselves surrounded on all sides by birch trees. A bare trail, devoid of ice and snow, led through them to a faint, shimmering light.

“Gather yourself, my son. I believe we’ve found the beast.”

Sasha’s throat went dry, and his heart fluttered so much it felt like fingers clawing at the inside of his chest.

They followed the trail, a path into a darkness more horrible than hell, a path to a charnel house, to the bone mother. Danger hung thick in the air. They passed birch by birch until they came upon a clearing. This was what they’d been searching for, the den of the damned, the house of death. The snow dared not gather here, the trees made room for a rancid, toxic presence that knew no bounds. 

Sasha and his father stepped into the clearing and were dumbfounded and awestruck, by the hellish design of the house.

“Look at the tree that supports it,” Sasha said, filled with horrific wonder as they neared the ancient hut. “It’s like nothing I have ever seen.”

“That’s no tree my son,” his father said and Sasha realized his mistake. A huge, distorted leg stretched down into the ground like a massive tree root, but it was no tree. It was the great chicken leg fabled to support Baba’s hut.

The hut swayed in the air, creaking and screaming as it shifted from side to side. Sasha covered his ears against the terrible sounds but it did little good.

A high fence made of silvery bones surrounded her home. Atop of each fence post was a grinning empty-eyed human skull. The eyes glowed with green ungodly light. The gate was latched with a bony arm. The latch squeaked, the arm lifted and the gate swung open.

“She knows we’re here,” Sasha whispered through trembling lips. He stared at the skulls, unable to take his eyes off them. He noticed they were large, adult-sized. He didn’t think there were any children’s skulls on the fence.

“All the better,” his father answered. “I want my victory to be well fought.”

The hut, black windows like eyes, walls like wrinkled flesh, rocked and thundered and shifted as a voice, no, a hundred voices it seemed, whispered in an arcane language. The monstrous leg burrowed deep into the ground, setting the hut down. The door opened like a hungry mouth and silence seized the night.

The two said nothing. They stared at one another then at the hut. The doorway yawned before them, a host of foul, indescribable scents assaulting their senses. Sasha’s father braced his axe and nudged him. Sasha looked into his face, and saw strength there, the courage and trust he knew well.

They stepped through the door.

The sound of bubbling liquids filled the odd hut—a one room, impossibly shaped hovel with twisted walls, a dirt floor that reeked of the grave and a ceiling that sloped and climbed at different angles.

A huge black cauldron bubbled over a blazing cooking fire. Bottles of venomous liquids glowed every color of the rainbow. They lined the shelves, the floor, and crowded the wooden tables.

Tiny-legged things scurried in the corners; the darkness whispered to the men as if sentient, as if organic, reaching and taunting with spindly fingers and razor-edged fingernails.

They eased their way closer, searching, wondering why they could not see her in such a small, cramped home.  Suddenly, the door slammed shut behind them. They turned, Sasha grabbing hold of the rusted doorknob, but it would not budge.

A cackle pealed through the house.

A shape materialized at the far side of the room, as if the patches of darkness and shadows had just vomited her out of itself. They moved in closer. Sasha’s palms were damp with sweat.

“Light your torch son,” his father whispered.

Sasha grabbed the bottle of kerosene from his pack and, with a jittery hand, doused his torch. He ignited it and the amber brilliance chased away the shadows.

At last, the witch was revealed.

She stood with her back to them, busy working on something on one of her wooden tables. She was frail as a skeleton, long scraggly gray hair hung down her back. Her clothes were little more than soiled rags. Her wart-infested arms worked swiftly over the table.  The stench from her was utterly repugnant.

Sasha tried to block his nose. His father paid it no mind.

She cackled again and spoke, a voice that harkened back to a time of forbidden tongues and languages. “So you’ve finally come have ya? It’s about time. I’ve been expecting you for at least three days.”

They said nothing; waited for her to make a move. Sasha’s father positioned his axe even higher, a stream of spittle seeping from his lips. A crazed look filled his eyes; the veins in his neck bulged. Sasha had never seen anything like it.

A few more swishes of her hand, then a chopping sound and Baba Yaga finally turned around. Her face was sunken and  pale, her nose long and twitching  as if to smell the men, her eyes glittering in the firelight, gray hair matted to her face. A piece of stringy flesh dangled from her mouth and she promptly sucked it into her mouth, chewing it greedily before continuing.

“What’s wrong gentlemen?” she asked. “Cat got your tongues?”

Finally Sasha’s father stepped forward. “Your time has come, witch.”

“Oh really?” she replied. “I don’t think that is for you to decide. I bring balance to nature. I am the well of knowledge and the crone of fate. I only take what is mine.”

“You are an abomination. You eat and feed with a gluttony unmatched and never grow plump or fat. Your cravings are so deep you’ve turned to cannibalism, and now you take our children.”

There was no response from the witch, only a grin.

“For my daughter!” Sasha’s father screamed and charged toward her, his axe held high.

Baba Yaga leaped into the air like a marionette, dodging his charge. A moment later she came crashing down and swung her arm across his face, sending him reeling into the wall.

Bottles and jars smashed all around him as he fell to the floor, strange oils and powders covering him. Some of them itched, while others burned.

Horror washed over Sasha, his jaw dropping, eyes wide. “Father!”  He lunged toward the witch with his torch.

She turned and stretched out her hand, seizing the boy with her will, paralyzing him in mid-step. She lifted him into the air, grimacing and grunting as her fist tightened.  Behind him, Sasha’s father got to his feet, swung his axe hard, and took the witch’s head clean off. A black oily substance sputtered from her torn neck and splashed the walls, wriggling and snaking over it, shaping itself into dark maggot-like things.

Sasha fell to the floor and watched as Baba’s head rolled toward him. It stopped right side up and cracked a toothy grin. It winked at the boy before rolling back to Baba’s waiting hand. She picked it up by the hair and promptly placed it back on her neck. She chuckled.

Sasha and his father were too shocked for words. They stared in disbelief and terror as Baba waved her hands, weaving another of her spells.

“The torch Sasha! The torch!”

He jumped to his feet, fetched his torch and threw it to his father.

“Now, Sasha!”

The boy took the bottle of kerosene and squirted it all over the witch, dousing her rags, her hair, her warty skin. He stepped back and watched as his father struck her with the torch and set her aflame like a human candle.

The flames raged over her but she didn’t flinch. Instead she laughed. Her flesh did not turn black or shrivel; her hair did not burn and her clothes remained undamaged. With a single breath she sucked all of the flames into her mouth, then turned to the fireplace and spat the fire into it, engulfing her cauldron and sending its contents bubbling over into a pool of thick bile.

“Damn you!” Sasha’s father screamed, frustration and shock taking its toll. “I’ll rip your heart out with my bare hands.”

“I’m afraid that would be as futile as your other attempts, gentlemen.” She grinned, crooked yellow teeth poking from cracked lips. “Fools. All of you are such fools. You and all the others before you. You never learn, do you? Same beliefs, same fears, same stupidity.”

“I don’t understand,” he cried, taking his axe up again. “I studied the book from cover to cover. Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General’s book spelled out the seven ways. I learned them as a child. The Inquisitions, the tests, the seven ways...I memorized it all.”

“Ah, gentlemen. You should not believe everything you read. Those women who were tortured and killed were not true witches. They were victims, innocent victims preyed on by sex-crazed, paranoid and narrow-minded men who feared their women. True witches cannot be killed by such methods.”

Baba clapped her hands together and two pairs of white, disembodied hands appeared and grabbed hold of Sasha’s father. They threw his axe across the floor and restrained him by his arms and legs. He struggled, coiled, twisted, but it was no use. They were inhumanly strong.

“Let me introduce you to my soul friends,” Baba said, turning and eyeing Sasha as he slowly reached for the axe, his stomach churning, tears streaming his face. “What a fine young boy. So loyal and dedicated to family.”

Again Sasha saw Molly’s face in his mind’s eye. She called to him, begged him for vengeance. He hoisted the axe and stood. Suddenly he caught a glimpse of his sister’s face in the window behind his father. She was crying.

“Before you use that, my boy,” Baba began. “I think you should know I am not the only one with a black heart in this house.”

Sasha stopped.

“Deep down, you know the truth, don’t you? You’ve seen the skulls? Those were not children. True, there is a child killer among you, but it is not I.” She turned to Sasha’s father and grinned.

Sasha looked up and felt the blood drain from his face. His heart thumped so loud it was deafening. All he believed to be true shattered, all the trust in his father was tested to the limits. First the seven ways to kill a witch had proved utterly false, and now the ultimate lie had been exposed, the earth-shaking, soul-crushing truth that his own father was as evil, if not more so, than the foul witch.

“Father…” he whispered, stepping toward the helpless man. “Molly?”

“She’s lying, Sasha!” he protested, tears welling in his eyes. “Don’t believe her. I could never hurt your sister or any of the children. Baba is pure evil, she wants you to hate me. Don’t believe her!”

“My sister…my only sister.” Sasha saw Molly in the window again. Her face was gaunt and ghoulish. She demanded justice, begged for revenge. Darkness filled him, rage blinding him. He felt the heavy weight of the axe in his hand and looked back at his father.

“Liar!” The great man he thought he knew melted away before him. His father squirmed against the hands, appealing to his son, yelling, screaming, crying, and finally begging, but Sasha heard nothing.

“Molly wants her revenge,” Baba said, her voice like shattering glass. “All those poor innocent children. Look, your father’s hands are stained with their blood.

Sasha looked at his father’s hands and indeed crimson did cover his palms. Sasha’s grip tightened around the axe.

“How could he do such a terrible thing? What a black heart he has…it must be cut out before he kills again. It must be cut out.”

“Sasha, no!”

Sasha screamed and rushed toward the man he'd called father and tore into his chest with the axe. He chopped and chopped, blood spraying his face, flesh shredding like parchment. He whacked until his father’s chest was in ruins, the heart exposed.

Baba waved her hand. The heart ripped from the corpse and sailed into her hand. She crushed it in her palm before casting it into the fireplace, then laughed and cackled with thunderous joy and celebration. The door to her hut flew open and in soared her mortar and pestle. She hopped into it and turned to Sasha.

“Poor boy. Like the rest before you, you believe anything. Just as you should never believe everything you read, you shouldn't believe everything you hear either!” Shrieking laughter she flew out of the house, leaving a trail of soot and smoke behind her.

Sasha fell to his knees. He looked up at the window but Molly was not there. He stared at the broken body of his father, now lying still on the floor and screamed, holding his face in his hands. He crawled his way to the body and took his father’s hand into his own. The tears would not stop flowing, the madness of this day would scar him forever. He wondered, as he sat in the silent house, what the real way to kill a witch was.

And after that night, it was rumored throughout the village that on cold winter nights, when the snow seemed to glow, Sasha could be seen in the forbidding forest, carrying an axe and calling his sister’s name…forever searching for the one true way to kill a witch.

John Grover is a fiction author residing in Massachusetts. He completed a creative writing course at Boston’s Fisher College and is a member of the New England Horror Writers Association.

Some of his more recent credits include stories in The Heart of a Devil Anthology by Fantasia Divinity, The Ancient Ones II Anthology by Deadman’s Tome, Best New Zombie Tales by Books of the Dead Press, and The Epitaphs Anthology by The New England Horror Writers.

He is the author of the new Grimdark Fantasy series Knightshade and several collections, including his best of collection: Best of Shadow Tales—featuring reprinted works.

Please visit his website at