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The Witch-Doctor: Episode Four
Written by Equanimous Rex
Edited by James Curcio
Logo by Amun Disalvatron
Nearly across the bridge, Artemis looked at the palisade walls. Civilization, or what passed for it, lay ahead. Her eyes flicked over the gate. Constructed of many upright tree trunks bound together, side by side, the logs were hewn of limbs, much like the palisade walls themselves. They loomed overhead, three times as tall as the tallest Nowellite. On the other side the gate was secured by several sturdy crossbeams running perpendicular, fastened securely, lending their durability to the outer membrane of the town. A massive door, hung on greased, makeshift hinges, the whole thing could be yanked open by a single person — provided it was not deadbolted.
She approached as the bridge merged with land once more, turning to old road.
I wonder who pulled the short straw on back door guard duty, she thought. She filled her lungs to call for entrance.
Before she could, the faded planks groaned, and began to shudder as they were drawn up by winch and chain. A hunched form sidled out. The scavver —who else wore rucksacks that big?— waved behind and thanked whoever manned the gate.
He turned and saw Artemis standing there, caked in blood and brains. When he registered what his eyes saw, he straightened. His eyes widened and a grin stretched over his face.
“Artie! I see the hunt went well,” Chet exclaimed, looking over the kill.
Artemis didn’t respond in kind. “What uh…is it? What kind of…meat?” he asked, each time his voice raising in pitch a half octave on the final word.
Artemis looked him over silently. The hunter in her did this compulsively, even when the intent wasn’t hostile. To weigh and quantify his being, much as she’d breathe along with quarry the moment before her strike.
Rust, and death, had been the marble of this place. People like Chet had carved it into a town. She knew he was one of the first-timers.
It was hard to believe this man, all gristle and gunpowder, had fought the Wilder. And won. Or, sort of won, she thought. Nobody really wins. Not against nature. They only stave it off.
But if that was the case, then Chet had helped stave off the Wilder longer than anyone she knew of. As long as he lived, he was victorious. It didn’t seem to weigh on him, the emptiness of that victory. It was a shame to see him fall into the role of mere scavver.
After the thing’s he’d done for the town…
Only then did she realize she never responded to his question. Without embarrassment she answered, “mutie.” She didn’t elucidate. Chet’s smile faded, and he nodded. His eyes drifted away from the carcass and across her face, into her eyes, and then quickly looked beyond her.
“I’ve got to be going,” he sighed, fingering the straps on his rucksack with a free hand. “Graves won’t rob themselves.” Before she could respond, he started across the bridge.
“Hey!” she yelled over the noise of the river below. Chet stopped, and he turned to face her.
“What?” he shouted back, cupping one hand around his mouth. Not that he needed to, Artemis could hear him just fine.
“The Wilder’s weird today. It’s…” She paused uncertainly, trying to translate her hacksaw sense of it into words. “Disturbed. Just keep your eyes open.”
Chet gave her a big thumbs up. He lowered his rifle, and crossed the logs to the other stretch of asphalt, never looking back.
Artemis made her way back to town. She walked along the palisades, away from main street commotion. She didn’t need gawkers.
Long yellowed grass grew between houses with missing windows, like rotten teeth. Glass was a rarity, and expensive. Most had boards nailed over the empty orifices. A few panes of glass stood intact, and they were spotted and streaked..
She knew each family. The Barkers lived on the corner, then the Galtons and Johnsons. Little lives, little families.
“And smaller every day,” she said to herself. She was half-surprised at her own voice. She needed to rest. This hunt had taken almost twenty-four hours, her last meal, a few white, wild carrots and a handful of acorns. Her stomach growled in response to her thoughts.
The sun beat down overhead and she could feel her sweat mingling with the ichor that continued to drip from the long-rigid carcass. It was starting to get to her. She left the back alleys along the wall, pushing through an overgrown lawn.
Artemis entered the town proper. The weeds she’d walked through seemed to give away with a membranous pop, as if she’d walked through a drum-skin.
She passed the town hall, a retrofit church that had been here before any of them. Across the building’s face was the outline of a cross, long removed. A century, maybe longer, of grime bordered the clean spot. Beneath it, the monogram of the Party of Devout Fellowship was painted, sharp and mean. The de facto symbol of the Domus. Lines of black ran from the now long-dry monogram, giving it the impression of being forever wet and seeping.
The church was slap-stitch, like everything in Nowell; a corpse sewn together by mad men. They used what they could find. Ropes, rusted nails and screws. The vast majority of fasteners, however, were trunnels, wooden binding pegs. The Administrator had commissioned the trunnels personally, Artemis recalled. Maybe read about them in one of his books. There weren’t many other options in the Territories.
That Nowell stood at all seemed like a perverse miracle to her now. She was glad to have no responsibility for its infrastructural nightmares.
Main street was mostly empty. A few older folks avoided the day’s heat on wicker chairs under the overhang of the Ratskeller. Half a dozen children played tag in the street. One of the boys moved awkwardly, she thought, then noticed his backwards feet. His left arm was shorter than the right, his eyes spread too far apart. His hands curled frog-like, with differently sized fingers. Every breath sounded like a challenge.
Touched by the Territories, as the old timers say. Poor kid.
Artemis was thinking of vodka as she turned down a side street. Looked like dirt, though she knew an invisible world lay inches under the soil. A forgotten world. The years had kicked so much grit atop it all, that you’d never guess. Only dandelions and other weeds grew here, now. The past had no voice it could use to make itself known.
The tree-lined path lead towards a three-floor house. Though still thirsty, she thought these trees seemed a mite healthier, a little greener. They covered the way in shade. The wind dappled shadow with light, casting swimming rays across her body.
Before reaching the front door, she turned off, and crossed the cut-grass lawn, flanking the house. Wild-rose bushes grew under the first floor windows. The glass, a rarity in the Territories, gleamed in the sunlight. She made her way to the back of the house, a great lawn with an intact —if moss and mold shrouded— security fence. Several fruit trees stood like guardians, bare of their succulent treats.
Three large canvas tents flapped lazily in the breeze. A back door, nearly identical to the front of the house, sat unmoved atop a short set of steps and porch. An old woman sat on the steps, smoking a pipe.
“I see you’ve brought us some meat,” she said, smoke flowing between her lips and out her nose. Artemis could smell the tang of mothsbane herb. “Good girl.”
“How you doing Kathryn?” Artemis asked without stopping or turning to face the woman. She headed towards one of the tents.
“Oh, can’t complain,” the old woman replied congenially, fishing a metal flask out from under her dress, secured to one leg in a stocking. She opened it, the cap scraping against the flask’s mouth, and took a pull.
Artemis entered the largest of the three tents. The interior was soft-lit, the sun filtering through the canvas. In the center, where the ceiling of the tent reached its highest point, a wooden pole stood erect. A second piece of wood shot out perpendicular to the pole, fastened to the top, overhanging it by a couple feet. Ropes dangled from the pole. They were stained brown with old blood.
Artemis walked past the post, to a table. She slung the carcass off her shoulders, and the table shook with its bulk. She took the bolt from her crossbow, placing it back in the strap sewn bandoleer. She hung the weapon up on a hook attached to one of the tent poles, and surveyed the work area. A bucket held a bonesaw by her feet. There were other tools hanging nearby, bits of rope and hemp strands in various states of weave. They were identical, except in their incompleteness, to the string of her crossbow. She shook her head, deciding to do the work later, snatched a waterskin from one of the hooks and walked outside, away from the reek.
Kathryn was still sitting on the back steps, smoking away. Artemis didn’t look at her. She took a moment to scratch the blood off her badge, then took off her campaign hat, and stripped off her shirt. She tossed them aside. Upturning the skin, she let the water wash what filth was left to the earth. Kathryn was reminded of just how many scars Artemis carried on her body. Artemis paid no mind. She dropped the skin and picked up the shirt, wiping away what moisture was left. Bare-chested, she bent over to retrieve her campaign hat, and entered the second tent.
A bedroll, a rucksack, a small wooden chest. Discarded clay jugs sat piled in the corner. Her vodka conquests. Several were full, beside the bedroll. The floor was swept dirt. But it was home.
Her muscles began to ache as she put her things away, the pain finally catching up with her consciousness. The pain-numbing adrenaline of the hunt now ghostly absent. She felt hollowed out. Groaning, Artemis bent over, seizing one of the large clay jugs of vodka. She flicked the plug to the ground, paying no mind to where it fell in the dirt. She threw back her head and took several large gulps, acrid liquor dripping down the sides of her mouth. She stopped, and set down the jug.
“Better?” Kathryn asked when Artemis rejoined her. She patted the steps next to her, and Artemis walked over stiffly, and took a seat. The old woman offered the pipe, a corn cob with smoky tendrils seeping skyward, ever-lit.
“No thanks,” she said, waving it away.
Kathryn shrugged and kept puffing.
“You know,” the old woman said, “you don’t have to live outside. There’s room for you in the house.”
Kathryn sighed. “Well, okay. I know you know, so it’s on me for asking.”
Artemis didn’t respond, sat looking at the open sky.
The old woman tapped the pipe out against the stairs, then set it down. She pulled a rolled piece of leather from a pocket of her dress. She let it fall open on the step, revealing partially dried herbs, and began repacking.
“How’s Abram doing?” Artemis asked.
“Well, he’s sober,” Kathryn replied, an edge to her voice, which she softened. “Not an easy thing to be these days, is it? No, he’ll make it. His liver working at all is a mystery. The girls, well, you know. They’re right mad at him. But they’re trying to keep it from the boy. He doesn’t need to see his family like this.”
Artemis picked at a fingernail. “Lucky to be living here at all.”
“Yes. Well. Things worked out the way they did.” Kathryn produced a small thumb-sized cylinder, flicked it, revealing that part of it sat on a hinge. A strip of solar paneling lined one side. She held it to her pipe and pressed her fingers against it. A small bolt of electricity shot out and ignited the herbs with a high-pitched whine.
Artemis admired it, staring and squinting. “You and your gadgets,” she remarked.
“Well,” Kathryn said, pausing a moment to suck on the end of the pipe, putting the electric lighter back in her pocket. “When you get to my age, you pick a few things up.”
“That’s putting it mildly.”
“Is it?” Kathryn blew a smoke ring.
“You’ve got a goddamned treasure trove in your apartment. You know it, I know it, everyone in Nowell knows it.”
“I’d hardly call it treasure. I can’t cash them in. I can’t trade them away.”
Artemis looked at Kathryn, studying the lines in her face for any sign of emotion. As usual, Kathryn was inscrutable. “You could, they’d be worth a fortune.”
“No. They aren’t. They’re worth absolutely nothing to me sold off. It would be like a starving man selling his last piece of bread for a shiny rock. Tell me,” Kathryn raised an eyebrow at Artemis. “What good is wealth when you’re dead?”
Artemis opened her mouth, but closed it again.
Kathryn continued, “I can’t sell most of what I have because the town relies on it. If I did, people would die. So I can’t. Therefor it may be invaluable, but a horde it must remain.”
She held the hand with the pipe up, and the other over her chest. “I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant. I will apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures that are required, avoiding those twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic nihilism. I shall not be ashamed to say ‘I know not’. I will tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given me to save a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life. This awesome responsibility must be faced with great humility and awareness of my own frailty. I will not play at God. I will help or do no harm. I won’t sell what little supplies and tech we have to the Domus for money worth less than the hemp it’s printed on, lest I be a donkey’s ass. So on and so forth.” She lowered her hand.
“I don’t remember ever hearing that last part,” Artemis pointed out.
“Yeah well, it’s sort of a living oath,” Kathryn coughed into her sleeve. “You’d know all about that, wouldn’t you Sheriff Kokinos?”
Chet gripped his gun in both hands, muzzle pointed at the sky. His knife’s sheath clapped against his thigh as he walked passed brick business fronts, built in the style of those who had come before, but overgrown as a stone temple lost to primeval jungle. He’d arrived at the plaza. At old Nowell.
While most of the buildings had collapsed, and some had sunk, a handful even remained upright. The winter frost heaves did their yearly work, tearing massive potholes in the road. In places there were pits as deep as he was tall, shot through with rusted pipes. Those weren’t from frost heaves. Dandelions and ferns grew through cracks in the asphalt, moss carpeting silenced his foot-falls.
Soon, the road would slip away from view entirely, like shore at high tide.
In the center of the plaza was a lichen-choked fountain. Knocked askew by a collision long ago, it now tilted precariously, perpetually fighting that final collapse. The cause was clearly apparent to all who visited Old Nowell. There were debates among the town scavvers about the date, but they all agreed the vehicle was a tank. Now blackened and pock-marked, more rust than metal, surely it would never run again, but still demonstrably a tank. Chet knew of them, from pictures in faded books, from his schoolboy days in the south. Seeing a tank for the first time had been different.
This was no rudimentary design, no early manufactured behemoth meant to trundle along awaiting its fiery death. Covered in time, he could see that this tank had been agile.
These tanks, the kind collapsed and rotting before him, were active in the last days. Their legs made them unmistakable. Dreams —nightmares really— long locked away in the past came back to him. He used to see them as he slept, as a boy, climbing towers of steel, decimating civilian life, powered by the heart of a star, and capable of so much destruction…
One time, he met a man who claimed he saw them in the Domus. Said that the Devout militias kept them locked up in warehouses, ready to roll —or march, or climb— out if need arise. Chet remembered living in the south, but never recalled seeing any tanks.
Truthfully, the tank had scared the hell out of him and the other scavvers. Nobody had wanted to check it out, and for years, nobody did.
Now, they wouldn’t even speak of it. None of them. Not since Bill.
“Never say I didn’t give ya nothing, asshole,” had been his rather undignified final words. He drowned on thick gouts of his own blood shortly thereafter.
Still don’t know what in hell you were talking about, you dumb fuck, Chet thought. But he didn’t need to know. It was proof the tank was dangerous even in its death, that it was not scav. It would kill you in ways even the physician didn’t understand.
Chet gave it a wide berth. He hated the thing. The way dirt had collected on it seemed unnatural, stair-step patterns like a ziggurat built by cannibals, the rust, red and black like charred flesh. Even the ferns that covered it seemed cursed. He hated the sharp angles, the spider-looking legs that extruded from its sides, the auxiliary treads worn down and enveloped by the earth.
One of the other scavvers had erected a stake made from cut sapling. Placed Bill’s cowboy hat atop it. It still stood sentinel at the southern entrance to the plaza, in the middle of the road. You can’t miss it. Painted across the brim was a warning, “DEATH”.
Yet Chet found himself visiting the plaza more and more often. He could only stand to be around the tank for an hour or so at a time. But it called to him. The machine seemed to hum —he could hear it now, actually— like an insect swarm just out of sight.
He heard the noise stop. Like every other time, his attention seemed to stifle the drone.
It’s in my head, Chet thought, forcefully, trying to drive the idea home. It was somehow more comforting than the alternative. Seeking distraction, he counted the buildings to his left, taking a tally of past scavs.
Chet had already looted the cosmetics shop, which fetched him decent trade. One of the women in town, a Benton, had put word around she was looking for pigments. Pigments were a good haul. She was more than happy to pay for the ancient make-up.
The boutique was bunk. He found a couple of pieces of jewelry there, but tapped the building out on first investigation. He left the electric shop mostly full. A lot of it was junk, useful camouflage. There were quite a lot of salvageable parts in there, but he couldn’t carry it all back to town in one trip. He decided to leave it until he needed a piece. The ruins would be the safest places to keep it all. When he needed something in town, or the tax men came around, he’d sneak out and grab something, barter it or give away. The cycle would last him another year or two, he imagined, before forcing him to delve further.
Less, if the goddamn Domus has its way. Chet thought about the increase in tax collections. The Devout had never kept to a schedule in the past, but their appearances had become more frequent as of late. On occasion they’d even dropped all pretense of official business and had just taken whatever it was they desired from Nowell. Food, drink, supplies.
When the Dags had first started showing up in droves, outside the normal visits, Chet had wanted to believe it was because of the town’s petitions. That their requests for help in dealing with the missing children were being taken seriously. That someone in power cared. But of course, he’d been optimistic.
“Fuck off,” had been the only reply Chet could get out of the dagger-men the first and only time he’d asked them for help. He remembered a time they would have torn the town apart looking for a deviant of any stripe or sort. Just as an excuse to burn. Chet wasn’t sure which of the Devout’s two faces he hated the most. The indifferent, or the attentive.
He entered the electronics store now, and climbed over the fallen metal aisles and trash. The storefront window was long ago broken or scavenged, and earth now filled the front of the store. Grass grew in that dirt. Chet thought it looked like a deer, or some other animal, had made its nest there. He never saw anything when he came to the plaza, but the grass was bent over every time he visited, and he found the tell-tale pellets of herbivores in the overgrown alley behind the shop. As far as it could be true, Chet thought it a safe place.
Except the tank, he mused, shaking his head slightly. Chet buddy, you might be just a bit desensitized. Isn’t that what Natalie’s always saying? De-sen-si-tized. One of his granddaughter’s school words.
He made his way to the back of the store, stopping in front of a sturdy, abnormally intact door. Time had not weakened it, instead rusting the thing in place. There were no windows leading into the room beyond, he knew. It was the last remaining room in the shop for him to explore.
Chet grumbled, loosing his rucksack and lowering it to the floor. His rifle never left his hands. He unfastened the ties on the pack’s top and fished around. He pulled out a glass bottle.
The bottle was unmarked, clear, with a thin plastic tube on its end.
“Kathryn, you are a saint, but you ain’t cheap.” He stuck the tube end between the door and its frame, and tapped the bottle until liquid started to drip out. When the last of the liquid was gone, he put the container away, and crouched, bouncing on his heels. Fifteen minutes, that’s what she said. Patience Chester. Patience.
The seconds stretched, he counted his breaths, and when he was sure, Chet stood to face the door. Without warning, he stepped forward, and kicked at the door as hard as he could. The force of the strike met solid resistance, reverberated up his leg and into his back.
“Fuck!” he cursed, and settled on his feet, leaning over. He righted himself after more cursing, and kicked at it again. This time the door swung open with a screech, hit something unseen, and stopped. He heard the sounds of rattling plastics, waited, but heard nothing else. The room beyond was dark. Chet pulled a small round object from his pack, and twisted it in the middle. The orb burst into white light, leading the way.
It was a storage closet of some kind. Bare walls, no shelves. It was full of cobwebs, and he swatted them back. Dust rose, highlighted by the orb, as he sweeped the floor with light. Rectangular black-mirrors glittered back at him, reflecting hundreds of eyes in their dead faces.
Smartphones. He couldn’t help but grin. Easily transportable, they practically went as de-facto currency in some places. Folks in the Domus liked to set them on fire, melt them down, harvest the innards.
Chet’s gaze flicked around the room, and rested on an especially webby corner. It took a moment to realize he was looking at a mummified corpse, as its clothes were indistinguishable from the webs. It curled in fetal position forever asleep atop another pile of smartphones. Its jaw hung askew, one clawed hand clutched a phone. The light caught the device in a strange way, so Chet brought the orb closer.
Words were scratched into the plastic backs of the smartphone. He leaned forward deliberately, not wanting to disturb the corpse.
It read, I DID NOT KNOW.
“No, I suppose you didn’t,” Chet muttered. He started to scoop up handfuls of the phones, when he noticed something. They all bore similar scratched messages. Short “I” phrases, like the thoughts of a disturbed child.
I LOVE YOU I’M DEAD I’M SORRY
I’M SCARED I’M DEAD I’M SCARED
Half of them tumbled from his hands.
I’M HUNGRY I’M HURT I’M BORED.
I’M HORNY I’M BORED I’M SCARED
I AM DEAD
His words came back to him then. Graves don’t rob themselves. Chet gathered up as many of the phones he could carry, and left the room, closing the door with a slam behind him.
Walking by Bill’s cowboy hat, Chet stopped a moment to look back at the plaza. The smartphones felt like bricks in his pack. Felt heavier than their dimensions allowed. These little miracles were fabled to have allowed instantaneous communication all across the world, but then they were the vector for some sort of inexplicable sickness. They were harmless now, he reminded himself. Harmless and valuable.
As he turned to leave, something caught his ear, and he paused, listening. Must be in heat, he thought, anxiety pinching his face. The cries sounded almost human. Chet checked the rifle he carried, making sure it was ready to fire, and double-timed it back to Nowell.
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