The Witch-Doctor: Episode One
Written by Equanimous Rex
Edited by James Curcio
Logo by Amun Disalvatron
Every beat of their hearts was like a hammer strike to a coffin-nail.
The Lord Father, in his heavenly abode, might govern all things worldly in their home of Nowell, but not here. The Wilder disregarded the truths of the nearby resettlement, of the southern lands. Perhaps of God entire.
The Wilder was dangerous throughout the day. At night, and especially on this night, it was more terrible than any normal forest: a sea of bark, a kingdom of lichen, uncanny and cunning. Two people passed through, all the same, feeling a pulse of animal instinct bidding them to flee. Safety seemed a half-forgotten dream. They longed for the warm light of hearth and home. This place was not made for them.
Reality ran ragged as they walked, fraying further with each skulking step. The last bridge they crossed seemed the final place-marker before the ends of the earth. The forest stood imposing, silent, a harbinger—but of what? An orb-light swayed in the darkness, clutched in a hand; buzzing mechanically. Rather than illuminating a clear path, through the underbrush it cast shadows tangled and thick.
The two companions clutched at their weapons in free hands, and felt watched.
The woods seemed to whisper back to them, “your home will be a part of us.” The trees looked like incomplete reflections of true trees. The years had left them drawn and sickly, leaves too big, roots almost intentional in their foot-snagging. The air smelled of verdant rot. Sweet-sick decay erupted with fireworks of fungi and mold. Moss grew in thick carpets over bark and stone alike. Ferns as tall as men bent lazily as a troupe of seven-legged squirrels fled their oncoming footsteps.
Within, even the rules of nature seemed suspended. Time passed, but how could they tell time? Here, even the heavens were rejected. The canopy above served enough as surrogate sky, encircling everything.
When their feet finally touched old asphalt, the stars could be seen, turning ever so slowly in their cradles. How easy it was to suspect they had finally become unanchored, that they had lost access to the world outside. Seeing the heavens fixed in place above brought them both relief. The twinkling light soothed the creeping madness back to its hole.
They came to a cluster of gutted buildings. A motley built of rebar and roots, of flowers and broken glass. Corpses half-digested by the Wilder. The ruins echoed their steps, and their whispers.
The man warned the woman to slow down, that he heard voices. She didn’t reply, but she had heard them as well. They pressed on.
She could hear her companion praying —for safety, for comfort, for strength. The concrete and steel amplified his whispers.
When they finally arrived at the plaza, he’d insisted they go the long way. She didn’t argue.
“Over there, Sheriff.” He pointed into the darkness, into the forest, the ruins behind them. “That’s where I heard it.”
A pile of glowing embers drew them closer. She could see that someone had tended it for hours. The piles reached almost to her waist. Deadwood and brush littered the area around the site. They stood still, lights shining into the brush. A cooking pot, kicked to the ground, meager grains and seeds cast to the soil.
“Hey Sheriff, there’s something you might wanna see.” He held a leather satchel, and shined the orb-light into it.
When she approached, the orb cast shadows at strange angles on her face. No longer the face of a woman, she appeared to wear a mask of the primeval madness that permeated this place. She moved lithely in the darkness, stepping between leaves and over roots without mind. I’m happy she’s on my side, her companion thought. A prey-instinct surged inside him, urging him to escape. For a split second, he could have sworn he’d seen pits of emptiness, sockets bereft of eyes, and he wondered if she might be possessed by a force ancient and terrible as the old world. But he shook that off as a flight of fancy, brought on by the Wilder. This was Artie, flesh and blood as he was. He handed her the orb-light, and she took a look at the contents, her face now entirely hidden in the gloom.
“Books?” she said. “‘Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution’, ‘The Open Society and Its Enemies’.”
She looked up at him. “They look old. Well preserved. What the hell are they doing out here?”
Artemis walked over to her companion and held her hand out for the orb. He handed it off, after a moment’s hesitation.
She examined the contents of the tipped cook pot. “Amaranth, wild oats.”
She turned back to the man, and returned his light. “They were foraging. Didn’t have food.”
When she didn’t get a response, she poked at his shoulder. “Chet?”
“What are we looking for, Artemis?” Chet asked, looking her over, his voice strained. “Who cares what they ate?”
She could see the stress on his face, how his eyes darted into the darkness that surrounded them. His black-powder rifle leaned on one shoulder, his fingers were ghost-white from the force of his grip. His face, push-broom mustache included, dripped with sweat.
“I didn’t take you for a coward. Chin up,” she goaded him.
Chet stood up straight, shining his orb-light in her face. “You’ve got some fucking nerve. I’ve been coming out here since before you were b-”
“I’m just messing with you,” she cut him off, not unkindly, waving away the beams of clinical white. “Get your head in the game.”
Artemis ignored his groan, and looked off into the forest. “If they were running low on food, they aren’t from around here, most likely, and they aren’t Wilder-folk either. The Essil don’t come down this close to the Domus, not unless they have a very good reason. Locals would know what it takes. They wouldn’t be relying on this seed-water.”
Chet didn’t reply. She walked around the edges of the campsite, circling it a few times.
“There were at least three people here. Maybe four. Adults. Probably men, but hard to tell.” Artemis pointed at tracks in the dirt. “And a dog.”
“Okay,” started Chet, “and?”
Artemis ignored him, and walked into the tree-line, leaving him to follow her hasty steps.
“Vomit.” She waved a hand towards a tree, it’s roots glistening wet. Half-digested amaranth covered the ground, congealing among other, incomprehensible shapes. She kept walking deeper into the forest.
Chet caught up to her, “Wait a second, would’ya?”
Artemis slowed, but did not look back.
“You said there’s four guys, one dog? Just making sure my maths-”
His words were cut short by shrieking. High-pitched. Bestial. Chet dropped to one knee, orb-light falling to the pine-needle carpet of the forest with a soft thud. He raised his rifle. Artemis didn’t react.
“Devils and spooks. This place is evil, Artie,” Chet was breathing haggardly.
The screams grew even more frequent as they approached. Chet stuck the orb-light in his pocket. This dampened its glow, but allowed them to make out rough forms in the gloom. They held their weapons shouldered, crossbow and rifle, moving deliberately like hunters, their eyes sharp. Chet shot the sheriff a look, surprised at the intensity he saw upon her face.
Artemis had cocked her crossbow earlier, a broad-head bolt sat secured and ready. Her pinched wide-brimmed campaign hat sat atop her head. Chet could see her six-pointed badge; scuffed and oxidized in places, but portions still gleamed in the artificial light. It held some meaning for her, but what? She held her crossbow in her left hand, her dominant hand. Rows of scratch marks, tallied her hunts across the weapon’s wooden stock.
“There,” Artemis whispered, ducking behind a tree. Chet was close behind. For the moment, the shrieking had stopped, but they could hear the sounds of rustling bushes, of cracking branches. Footsteps, and then, they could make out muttered voices.
“Now what?” asked Chet.
“Give me your light,” she replied, and held out one hand. “I’ll approach with the light, you stay in the dark. If they try anything, blast ‘em.”
Chet shook his head, “No. We-”
But she’d already stuck snatched the orb-light, and was walking briskly towards the sounds. She activated it, and bathed the area in white light.
Two forms huddled around a long wooden box. They looked like pallbearers mourning a dropped casket, though they gibbered as if in fervent debate. None of the noises sounded like any language she knew. Not ‘Glish, not Essil.
A lone man stumbled as if drunk, off to her left, and then, she saw him walk face-first into a tree. The blood stained the bark a dark crimson. He backed up, and did it again with the same force. WHACK. The wet noise it made reminded Artemis of field-dressing an animal carcass.
She held her crossbow up, pointed towards the crouching men, “Don’t move! I’m armed!” They did not respond. The man with the broken nose continued his toy soldier march into the tree. The others persisted with their garbled speech.
Artemis took a few steps, this time directing her shout toward the broken-nosed man. “Stop! I’ll fucking shoot you. You better do what I say-”
Then they did stop, and fell silent. Their eyes were strange, pupils large. Spit and snot covered their faces. They did not move to rise.
“The king.” A voice in her ear, soft. She shoved at the broken-nosed man, who had slid in beside her without making a noise.
He stumbled back, giggling, and hit the ground hard. The two other men rose, and she turned her crossbow towards them.
You better have a good shot, Chester, she thought.
“You boys from the boat? Had some to drink and got lost?”
“Yeah, well, I’m the law around here.” Artemis felt a sensation wriggling its way up her back. She imagined eyes in the dark, innumerable, fixed on nothing but her.
Fear and anger intermixed, she raised her voice.
“You drunk? Been huffing? Well?” Her voice cracked, her attempt at bravado failing to her own ears.
The broken-nosed man spoke up. “The king. The egg. The snake. Oh how! Oh well!” He giggled, and coughed, spitting out a tooth. The two crouched men started vocalizing again, making a ‘wuh, wuh’ noise in unison.
Artemis backpedaled, nearer Chet’s hiding spot. She could feel his presence, and it helped… a little.
“Who the fuck are you?!” she yelled at them.
The man with the broken nose walked back to his tree, the duo continued chanting. They didn’t reply.
“Sheriff,” Chet’s voice came from behind the tree, “I think…I think they might’ve been poisoned.”
He left his spot in the shadows and walked up to her. The three men didn’t appear to register this second, sudden stranger.
“I know,” Artemis answered, tersely. “Mushrooms. I saw some in the vomit. Wasn’t sure what they were before, but now…”
“It makes sense,” he replied. “You said they were foraging to eat. There’s a lot of nasty stuff out here. I think I’ve even seen this before. You know… with the snot and all the crazy shit.”
She shot him a look.
“The person I’m talking about died right after they went off the handle. All sorts of people getting sick from shit they ate from the woods, back then. The guidebooks were useless. You know how the Wilder is.”
“I know,” Artemis said.
“Of course you do, but I’m saying-”
“I get it. I get what you’re saying. ” She felt sweat drip down from her armpits and against her ribs. “Fuck. They are a freaky bunch.”
“Yep.” Chet lowered his rifle, and walked over to the broken-nosed man. He waved a hand in front of the man’s face. The man smiled dully, showing his meat-grinder mouth. “They’re not a threat. They probably don’t even know we’re here. Not really.”
Artemis walked over to the crouching ones. After a moment, she raised her crossbow to point into the canopy above. “Yeah. I think you’re right. Their eyes aren’t tracking me.”
She looked them over, then the box, and then back at Chet. “Notice their clothes?” she continued, “They look like the traders that came to town.”
“Bootleggers, you mean,” Chet said. “Probably took off when the dagger-men got on the barge.”
He turned to look at her. “Did they ever say why they were traveling together? It’s strange, isn’t it? Traders and dags? Most convoys I know wouldn’t want a dag within five miles of ‘em. Not if they could help it.”
“Unless they don’t have any choice. Scares away the customers. Yeah. It’s weird.” Artemis said, “Maybe they’re trying to crack down on Benton. My bet is these guys ran off with the goods, tried to hide it from the dags. Keep everything looking prim and proper.”
“They never mentioned any missing men. The dags didn’t either.” Chet replied.
“Well, they wouldn’t, would they? They have to know that we know this area better than they do.” Artemis held the orb-light in front of one of the crouched men’s face. He did not react. “Couldn’t have us looking and finding them. Dags don’t remember scum’s faces, unless you’ve gotten on their shit-list. That’s all we are to them. Scum. They probably had no idea these three took off.” She focused the light on the long box, illuminating it’s rope handles. It was banged up, had cracks and…
“Chet,” she whispered. “Come here.”
She pointed to the lid of the box. They were rough cut, but-
“Holes,” Chet said from beside her. “Why would a box need holes?” But he already knew.
They nudged the crouched men away from the box with their boots, and the two bootleggers scurried away. They rested on all fours behind their broken-nosed companion, whispering solicitations to the earth.
“Help me get this open,” Artemis told Chet, and they examined the box. Cordage had been bound through metal loops, securing it. They pulled out their knives and cut them away.
Each took a hold of opposite ends of the box, lifted the lid off of it, and peered inside.
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