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The Witch-Doctor: Episode Seven
Written & read by Equanimous Rex
Edited by James Curcio
Logo by Amun Disalvatron
You are reading an episode of The Witch-Doctor, a serial fiction podcast based in the Fallen Cycle universe.
The Witch-Doctor contains adult themes, violence, strong-language, and occasional invasions of existential dread.
“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.
The smell reached them first. It reminded Artemis of the underside of summer trash heaps, overturned. She could smell shit, and piss, and rot. Her eyes glanced over a bare, spoiled foot. A child’s foot. The other was shod, wylrose blue.
“Oh my god,” Chet breathed.
Artemis turned away from the box, almost casually, and dropped her crossbow to the ground. She walked over to the delirious trio, and crouched down to look the broken-nosed man in the eyes.
“Why.” A statement, not a question. “Tell me why.”
The broken-nosed man looked through her. “The snake. The egg. The—”
She slapped him, hard, and he collapsed on his side. The two other men didn’t react.
Artemis stood. She was shaking. The muscles in her arms and neck pulsed as though massive worms coiled just beneath her skin. She bared her teeth.
“Why were you transporting a child?” she yelled at them, to no avail.
It took three movements for her to seize a stone and brain the giggling man. Blood mist sprayed across her face. The orb-light fell to the ground, sending shadows whirring around them.
“Wait,” Chet rose, trying to get to her, but she sprang forward. Rock discarded, she pounced one of the remaining bootleggers. She raised a fist and brought it down against his windpipe with a crunch. She did it again. The man’s blood-shattered eyes bulged. She raised her hand a third time, but Chet grabbed her wrist. She pulled away from him easily, and punched the fallen bootlegger a final time.
Artemis turned to look for the third bootlegger, and saw he was scrambling away.
A twanging noise filled the air. Her crossbow. The bootlegger toppled mid-stride and writhed in the brush, falling in among softly glowing bioluminescent mushrooms. They circled the leaking corpse’s head like a halo, beautifying him in his expiration. This corpse would never rise again. Chet held the crossbow, motionless. Finally, he lowered it.
Artemis staggered away from the man beneath her. Chet tried to put a hand on her shoulder, but she shoved him away, hard. He was shocked at her strength, and struggled to keep his balance.
“Sheriff!” he protested, “Wait a second!”
She stopped, drawing shuddering breaths.
“They were smuggling that kid,” she whispered, “Kept them in there to die. Monsters.” Standing there, covered in blood, teeth bared, Chet thought she looked like a monster herself.
“We…” he started, and sighed deeply. “If the dags find out about this…”
Artemis finally looked at him. “That’s what you’re concerned about?”
He held up his hands, rifle slung across his back. “Listen-”
“No.” She replied, and walked over to the box. The coffin.
“If the dags find out about this they’ll know there’s contraband. They’ll search the town. They’ll find…things. You know they will. They always do. Even if there’s nothing to find, they’ll ‘find’ it. They could…they could burn Nowell to the ground looking for this shit. People could die, and that’s if they’re lucky. They might just decide to cart us all off to Jerusalem-in-the-south. Slavery. That’s what we’re talking about. Are you hearing anything I’m saying?”
Artemis stood over the box, looking down at the corpse. She fished something out of her pocket. Chet saw it was a shoe, a child’s shoe.
“Who is it?” Chet asked blandly, as if to no one in particular. “That’s not the Smith’s kid is it? Kal?”
Artemis shook her head. “No.”
“Then who the fuck-”
“Essil. Wilder-folk. She’s one of them.”
“How you figure?”
Artemis pointed to a rope and stone pendant resting on the corpse’s chest.
“I recognize the style. The shoes are dyed with wylrose. And here,” she pointed to small tattoos in the still recognizable flesh of the corpse’s neck. “Essil pictograms.”
“But why?” Chet asked.
Artemis set the missing shoe gently into the box, and looked at Chet.
“Does it matter?” she asked flatly.
They stood there in silence for a stretched minute, until Chet broke the quiet.
“This… place. These woods. We know them, you and me. We’ve both got this land etched into us. Embedded. Like a splinter you can’t dig out.”
He held his hands out, examined them. “The Territories… it’s like a drunken step-uncle. Sour. Sweet. Random. A real sonofabitch. Bringing presents, odd and beautiful, and then hitting you so hard you see stars. Tight-fisted, violent, and then sometimes you find yourself appreciating it all the same, and hating it. Hating yourself for putting up with it. For not killing the bastard. But you can’t. Too strong, too old. You take your lumps and move on. But you never forget.”
Artemis spoke through gritted teeth, “what’s your point?”
Chet shook his head, turned his orb-light back towards where they had come, and started his long trek back towards Nowell.
“I don’t know,” he called behind him, “but I think it fucking matters.”
Edmond Plourde sat at his desk. The room was humid, the day’s heat lingering long past sundown. He dabbed at his sweating face with a handkerchief. Opposite sat the robed Devout agent, who had requested this meeting about the earlier “incident” with the dagger-men, and a certain overzealous woman. Candles lit the room, but barely.
“How long do you plan on staying? If I may ask?” Edmond’s voice wavered.
“As long as it takes.”
“As long as it takes,” Edmond repeated, “Until what?”
The cloaked man reached one hand out and tapped the desk lightly. His skin was as wrinkled and cracked as the bark of an old birch tree.
“As long as it takes.”
Edmond gulped, and pulled a bottle of wine and a glass cup from beneath his desk. He poured himself a drink, and then realizing, moved to offer some to his guest.
“We of the Brotherhood do not partake,” came his reply.
“I didn’t realize,” Edmond stammered, taking a copious sip of wine. “That you were a Brother. My apologies. I assumed you were a deacon.”
The robed man did not respond at first. He sat without moving, a cane across his lap, rough hewn, but weathered. The ascetic fingered it softly, as if inspecting it. “Does the name Salvatore mean anything to you?” he asked.
Plourde’s face scrunched up in concentration. “I, uh, that is-”
“Never mind. So you haven’t heard of me. I suppose the missives don’t make it out this far, eh Plourde?”
Edmond took another sip of wine, and cleared his throat. “Not so much these days. They used to, back when-”
“The convoy men are bootleggers.”
Edmond gaped. “Boot-”
“We know they’re bootleggers. That much is obvious. But whatever it is they were transporting is…missing. My men have been unable to find any contraband items, and they are very thorough.”
“Shut up, Plourde. Listen. The fact they are bootleggers is not important to me right now. Your town is a hotbed of such activities, and yet is this the face of someone who gives a shit?” Salvatore pulled back the hood of his robe. His wizened face and pale eyes seemed monstrous in the candle-light.
Plourde tried, and failed, to mask his momentary shock.
“I am going to ask you for your help, Plourde. And you know what to do, do you not?” The silent threat hung heavy in the room. Everyone knew about Jerusalem-in-the-south, even though so few returned. Plourde hid any distaste he may have felt behind a grin, “anything you ask, Brother.”
The Brother smiled for the first time in reply, and then gave a quick gesture of dismissal. His shadow, stretched out on the floor beneath him, writhed and twitched.
Artemis washed in the river, pollutants be damned. Stiff winds dried her skin as she walked across the bridge. The sky was dark. Sunrise would not come for hours, and the scent of summer flowers was still on the air.
When she approached the gate, she heard a whistle, and looked up at Chet, who had taken a seat upon the crow’s nest. He opened the gate for her quickly, and she slipped in as it closed behind her, and the wooden draw-bar was put back in place, sealing it shut. A faint breeze filtered through the cracks in the log palisades, where the mud and clay had fallen out.
“I…” Chet began, but his words, much like his will, faltered. Artemis studied him, like a disinterested botanist examining a common shrub.
“It’s taken care of,” she said. “Don’t worry.”
“It’s for the best,” he said, studying his feet.
“You think so?”
“I do,” he replied, “I really do.”
“Well, maybe. Maybe not.”
Artemis spat on the ground. She could still taste blood-iron. “Best be getting home to your family, I imagine.”
“Sure.” His eyes were still glued to the ground.
“We did what we could.”
“Yeah,” he agreed, sounding tired. “And a lot more.”
“They deserved it.”
“I never say they didn’t.”
“Well-” Artemis began, but stopped. “Wait, do you hear that?”
A terrible noise bellowed from nearby. Artemis recognized it immediately.
The town-hall, being a retrofit church, was equipped with a bell. It was only to be used in emergencies of an extreme nature. It had only been rung twice in recent memory, and not at all for years before that.
Artemis could recognize it from miles away, and now it swept over the town. Over commotion, the overlapping sounds of voices, screaming and shouting on the wind, doors slamming shut and flying open, it rang out now, and without hesitation, Artemis turned towards the center of town and took off running. Chet followed behind her with a curse.
She heard a voice wailing as she closed the distance between them,“he’s gone!” A gaggle of folks surrounded this figure, who knelt beneath them, wracked by sobbing.
Artemis pushed through the mob, and when she drew closer, the man looked up at her.
Abram was half-naked, on his knees. The circle of townsfolk turned towards her, but she was too intent on Abram, his look of destitution and grief, though all he said was, “Isaac. He’s gone.”
The church bell continued to ring.
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