The Witch-Doctor: Episode Nine
Written & read by Equanimous Rex
Edited by James Curcio
Logo by Amun Disalvatron
The present came back to him. The dog was growling. The man squatted, setting his basket and stick beside a rotten stump. He raised a hand and made a soft hissing noise, and the dog fell silent, hunkering down on all fours, ears back.
The man removed the strap of his rucksack from one shoulder, and leaned the pack down, next to the basket. He heard sounds from over a slight hill. He stretched forward and walked on all fours, silently, closer and closer. The dog crawled behind him.
When they got to the top of the hillock, the man peered through his mix-matched sunglasses. He saw three men around a campfire, amid an assortment of packing crates, and an overturned canoe.
Two of them sat on the ground, one nursing a pile of cinders beneath a cook-pot. The third paced back and forth, arms crossed. Behind the sitting men, were two wooden crates, strewn with various satchels. One of the crates was long, rectangular, and had rope carrying loops tied onto the ends. It looked as though it had been dropped a few times, cracks and chips marred its surface. The smaller crate’s lid was ajar, and the man could see straw sticking out of it, nothing more.
The canoe was stashed alongside the crates. They must have dragged the boat up from the river, the man realized, the brook is way too shallow for ‘em.
He measured them carefully. Dressed as travelers, they wore long, oiled ponchos. The pacing man had a steel claw hammer in hand. The fire-tender poked at the cinders with the end of a crude spear. It did not look menacing. The third sat picking at his fingernails with a stubby copper knife. They were not of this place. That much was obvious. Not a single suitable weapon between them. Their movements were jerky. At every twig-snap or bird call they would turn their heads at breakneck speeds, stare off, and then resume dawdling.
What are you waiting for? the man wondered, one hand resting on the dog’s head. He could feel his animal’s excitement, its fear.
At that critical moment, the forest around the stranger seemed to lose focus. He recalled gleaming static rising between the layers of leaves and twigs. The light turning a sickly hue of gray. Cold sweat broke out across his face, and everything accelerated. The world itself seemed to ungulate in time with the stranger’s pulse.
They are no friend to you, came a voice from within. As a younger man, he might have mistaken these words for his own thoughts, his own mind. But he knew better now.
Do you remember how the winter wind bites at your eyelids? Do you remember picking the frost-bitten flesh from your legs with your knife? You are in the wild, and an animal amongst animals. You will not face retribution for taking your dues. Take what they have and become the stronger for it.
The stranger’s eyes filled with tears. “One hundred and eighty…eighty…eighty six,” he muttered, his voice falling nearly to mania.
Zero, came the voice from within, zero days.
“One hundred and-”
ZERO. Zero days. Cease that incessant whispering.
No. You’ve suspected awhile now, haven’t you? You’ve got a tolerance, boy. The potions will soon cease to quiet me altogether. Then what will you do in the night, when the worm and I come around to visit?
“NO!” he shrieked, swatting his head as if to dislodge a bothersome fly. His vision cleared. The world around him solidified. The dog shrank back, and crept behind a fallen pine tree.
“Hey, what the hell was that?” called a voice from the bottom of the hill. He had alerted the men of his position.
Zero days, lad. You best get this over with, we both know how this is going to go. One of the other men was yelling now, and the stranger peeked up over the hillside. The three travelers were standing, holding their weapons out in front of them,each wearing matching scowls.
Holding both hands out and open, the stranger approached. “Hello fellow travelers!”
“Fuck you, man. Stay back!!” one of them screamed.
“I would love to,” explained the stranger, as he began descending the hill, taking each step as though he was sleepwalking, and unsure of the reality of the earth beneath his feet. “Except that I’m lost. Maybe you could point out the closest-”
A wooden spear flew wide and sunk into the soil far left of the stranger’s feet. It was thrown weakly, the tip buried only deep enough to hold the shaft firm. He looked down at the makeshift weapon, and back to the travelers.
They were gaunt, each one. Thin, with sunken eyes. “How long has it been since you men have gotten a bite to eat? I have some food, you’re welcome to share it with me.”
This seemed to get their attentions. They leaned in towards the man holding the claw hammer and whispered to him.
So that’s the leader, the stranger noted. While two of the men talked, the third ran up the hill and snatched the spear, keeping his eyes on the stranger all the while.
The stranger slunk back, collected his things, and coaxed his dog, but neglected to retrieve his stick.
I’m harmless, he thought, don’t mind me.
“Hey! Where’d you go off to! I thought you said you had food!” one of the travelers shouted up to him.
When the stranger re-approached, it was from an altogether different direction. He walked noisily, deliberately broadcasting his movement, the dog secured to his waist with a length of rope. He whistled an improvised tune, and acted surprised when he looked up to see the travelers. They stared at him with wide eyes, weapons still drawn.
“Oh! Well!” the stranger exclaimed, his rucksack tinkling with his sudden stop. “No need for those. I’m unarmed.” He smiled at the three under his bandanna, but they didn’t smile back.
The one with the spear glowered at him. The stranger snapped his fingers, the travelers flinched, and the dog sat.
“You’re holding your spear backwards,” the stranger noted. He waved a gloved hand around his covered face. “Don’t let this disturb you friends, it is merely for the mosquitoes, and their diseases.”
They did not lower their weapons.
“Why don’t you take it off?” the one with the claw-hammer asked.
The stranger shrugged and walked closer, making a gesture at the dog who followed close by. The travelers turned with him. “Because there’s still mosquitoes, friend. Nature has not seen fit to discriminate between polite or impolite blood, and her children are often as thirsty for one as the other. May I sit? I have some food you are welcome to, if you want it.”
The travelers stared, their weapons lowering somewhat. The man with the copper knife spoke up. “You talk funny, mister. You ain’t one of them barbarous folk, is you?”
The stranger laughed.
“Would I be speaking to you, if I was?” he asked. They did not reply, but spear and knife were lowered. Only the claw hammer stood poised.
“We don’t want you here, mister. We don’t need to be getting up with no devilry.”
His two companions looked over at him dubiously.
“He’s got food, Bri,” one whined. The one called Bri lowered his hammer, and sighed.
“Alright,” he looked up at the stranger. “You said you had food?”
“I do.” Grass basket raised a few inches in the air. “Though it is not a lot, I am willing to share.”
“Share,” the hammer-man repeated, smirking. “Sure. Fine. But take the goddamn hood off.”
The stranger did not heed this command, but instead walked up to the travelers. He sat down by the fire, his legs crossed. The dog followed a few steps behind, and sat when his human did.
“I’d rather not,” the stranger said. “You all may find the idea of mosquito-born illness laughable, but I certainly do not. Please, sit. Eat of my bounty.” He lifted the cloth off of the basket, showing its contents to each of the three men. Mushrooms, of various shapes, sizes, colors.
The travelers sat, peering at the fungus. Nobody moved.
“We ain’t eating with a man who won’t even show his face,” Bri grunted.
A shockwave of static blasted the stranger’s vision, his head felt pressed down upon. As if something sharp and cold, an icicle from beyond the edge of time, plunged between the lobes of his brain.
Do as they ask. Don’t draw suspicion. Look at those clothes. Those boots. Imagine how warm your toes will feel when the winter comes again. You remember the winter’s chill, don’t you? You can muffle my voice but my eyes see it all!
The stranger flinched and rubbed at his eyes. The static passed. He paused a moment, as if in consideration, then perked up with a grin at the travelers.
“You’re right, where are my manners? I’ve been out in the woods too long. You’ll see that I am just a man. Or perhaps, a nest of ants wearing a man suit?” A high pitched giggle escaped the stranger, as he removed the sunglasses.
Amber eyes, almost yellow, stared unwaveringly at the three traders. They reflected the forest sunbeams like polished agate. Next came the hood, and the stranger pulled it back to reveal a mop of wild hair. Unkempt, it stuck out in all directions, shined by grease and a lack of washing. Hands up behind his head, he untied the bandanna covering his face, and drew it down.
The stranger’s face was covered in tangled beard hair. The hair was cut away in places as though with a dull razor that had been discarded before the job was done. The result was an uneven growth that jutted out with nearly the same abandon as the hair atop his head. He smiled, a gold tooth replacing one of his top front. His age was difficult to discern. Young and haggard, or older and lucky. There were lines around his eyes, around his mouth where the beard could not cover them.
His alien eyes bore into the trio of traders.
“Feel free to eat. You lot look like you need it.”
“Those are… safe right?” One of them asked, eyes wide.
“They sure are, because our friend here is gonna be eating them with us, ain’t that right?” asked Bri, squinting. “Friend?”
The stranger nodded. He popped a small brown mushroom into his mouth with a gloved hand. He chewed it loudly, mouth open, and swallowed. His gold tooth appeared and disappeared behind pink lips. To drive the point home, he stuck his tongue out at them.
“See?” he chided. “It’s fine. Why would I want poisonous mushrooms anyway? I’m a mushroom picker, by the Lord Father, this is my livelihood we are talking about.”
This seemed to satisfy the men, except Bri, who barked at the two others to stop, as they reached out to grab up food.
“Sure. You ate the little brown one. How do we know the rest aren’t poison,” Bri said, with a hint of mockery. “I wasn’t born yesterday, friend.”
The stranger reached in, and repeated his open mouth consumption with two vastly different specimens.
“I’m afraid if I keep on this way,” he said, chewing, “there won’t be any for you or your men here.”
Bri sat back as his two companions reached hands into the basket. They pulled back dozens of mushrooms, which they shoveled into their mouths.
“Oh my Lord,” one breathed between bites, “They taste just like meat.” The other continued eating silently.
“Been a few days since you lads had a meal?” the stranger asked, bandanna back up around his mouth and nose, hood up, glasses on. The two feasting men nodded.
Bri put a hand on his hammer, as though seeking reassurance. He eyed the mushrooms passed back and forth between the other two, but he did not reach for them. “Eh. A few days. Nothing I can’t handle. Gone a lot longer than that on the route.”
“You’re traders?” the stranger asked. “Or laborers? Certainly not entertainers, or for that matter, mercenaries.” He looked pointedly at the paltry weapons the three man carried.
Bri blushed, eyes narrowing. “Traders. We were headed to Nowell. We got… turned around. Got separated from the convoy.” One of the other men coughed, grabbed a canteen and took a long pull, and then returned to munching on the fungus.
“Separated? I hope everything is okay,” the stranger looked at them closely, saw their restlessness. “The town is not far south. How long have you been out here?
Bri sat silent, his eyes flitting around to various objects, resting on his hammer. “It’s been a few. Like I said, we got turned around.”
The stranger nodded. “I see. These woods can be very tricky. Don’t I know it. You’ll be happy to know town is directly south of here. You shouldn’t find it very difficult to get back.”
One of Bri’s companions poked him on the shoulder, but was ignored.
“I think you should be going,” Bri said, softly, to the stranger. “Feel free to leave the food.”
He gripped the haft of the claw hammer, and rose, looming over the stranger. He turned, and exclaimed “what the hell is it?”, when the man beside him began to pull hard at his pant leg. He would get no answer. His companion’s eyes roll back, and he gasped as the spasms overtook their bodies.
“I will,” the stranger replied nonchalantly. “Shortly.”
He snapped his fingers twice, and dropped his dog’s leash. The animal hurtled forward and knocked Bri’s legs out from beneath him, sending him crashing to the ground.
When Bri looked up at the stranger, his face was enveloped in powder. His world went dazzlingly white, then black.
After retrieving his rucksack, the stranger claimed the smaller of the crates. Two pairs of boots and oiled ponchos neatly stacked on top of the container. He carried it with both hands, and made his way home.
Static flared in his vision.
They didn’t know what you truly are. An animal. A survivor.
“Fuck off,” he growled, kicking open a door that looked boarded shut —yet swung on hidden hinges with ease. The stranger and his dog entered an old receptionists office. The floors were cleaned of filth and debris. The boarded windows did little to illustrate how preserved the building’s interior truly was. Rotten carpet had been excised, furniture dragged in and arranged so as to keep his collection off of the floor. A rotting armchair covered in plastic sheeting sat behind a desk. The desk was built directly into the wall, and its faux-wood plastic was warped, but intact.
The desk was covered in active research projects, in paper, metal, and glass. Beakers sat chipped and full of different liquids, corked and preserved. Mason jars full of dried herbs lined the back. Wooden test-tube racks sat full to capacity with dead insects. A different species for every container. Half-rotten books, dry books, big books, small books, piled here and there. Their titles were obscure, fantastic, or droll. Latin here, jargon there, a few medical books.
The only book set off from the others was large, leather bound, oily looking, hydrophobic chemicals polished deep within its creases. Its title was penned in thick black lettering, and read “Der Hexendoktor”. Looking at the book made the stranger’s head throb in sudden pain. He turned away from it.
Next to the book sat a beaten copper knife. Its blade was etched with a strange symbol resembling a simplified anthropomorphic form, with a single eye, and horns.
The stranger shut and locked the door behind him, and set the crate down by his armchair. He plopped into the chair with a groan, still fully clothed and masked. The dog curled up at his feet.
He hooked the crate with one hand and dragged it over to him. Flipping off the lid, he peered within at the contents, and chuckled.
Magazines. DVDs. Comic books.
“Bootleggers,” he said to himself. The dog looked up at him, perking its ears.
He reached down, and pulled a foot long plastic sheath from the pile. Tearing it open, for it had been taped shut, he pulled a black disk from it, and then quickly put it back. Turning the jacket over, he read its title. Written in faded red ink, letters marked in tips of a seven-pointed star.
“Babylon,” he breathed, admiring the preserved vinyl disk. The name rang no bells, but he knew wealth when he saw it. After a moment he returned it to the pile, leaned back, and stared at the ceiling. “Holy shit. Payday.”
The men he had waylaid were bootleggers.
But why were they lost? He wondered, as sleep started to take him. The mushrooms he had eaten were taking their toll. He would not die, they were not that powerful, but he felt his mind drift…drift… and flee him.
Pin-prick sensations burned into his skin from all sides. He found himself within darkness. A darkness that flexed and pulsed with unseen activity. The imperceptible solidified, wavered into forms organic, fractal and sharp. He heard his heart beat in his chest like a timepiece, but he could not feel it. It filled the space around him, and slowly faded to silence as whispered words slunk snake-like into the framework of his being.
“I want to make a deal,” it said.
“Fuck you.” The stranger’s voice sounded small, muted, but no less sincere for it.
“A new deal.”
The stranger paused, suspended in the geometric cascade, and it was then he realized his body was missing. No bother.
“You’re a liar, and a cheat.” The stranger spoke without lips.
“You wrong me. I have never lied to you. You are the deal-breaker. Not I.”
Was it possible that he heard indignation in this voice? From this…thing? “Yeah, well, beg to differ. I’ll be going now.” The man felt for his body, wherever it was. Tried to feel the sensation of his pulse. Tried to become one with a wiggling pinky finger. To no avail. He could not feel his body.
“You’re stuck here,” the voice said, “with me. Your potions do not work as well as they used to. You are developing a tolerance. You can’t shut me out forever.”
The uncanny scene surrounding the stranger shifted into a sun-lit and astoundingly clean tea parlor. He found himself sitting at a table bedecked in crimson silk. The tea-pot that sat in the center steamed slightly from it’s spout. The chair across from him was empty, as, he realized, was the chair he sat upon. “The mushrooms you ate were not meant to be eaten. Now you pay the consequences. Why not stay awhile and chat?”
The man felt rage well up in him. The room began to shake slightly, the sky outside its crystal clear windows dimmed and turned stormy. The bodiless voice laughed, like a bag of rusted knives dragged over concrete.
The room returned to its former state. “Let us put the matter of your deal-breaking aside for a moment. There will be time for reckoning…later. You know that. You know it well.”
The stranger leaned back in his chair, tilting the whole thing precariously. He envisioned his body once more, but focused equally upon the tea room.
A facsimile of his body appeared in the chair. He grinned at the empty space across the table. “I’ve been learning all sorts of interesting things. But of course, you know that already, don’t you? That’s why you’re acting so desperately. You’re worried. Maybe even scared.”
The man’s bravado made him appear larger, more solid.
“I want to make a new deal,” The voice repeated, ignoring his facetiousness. “I’ll give you part of what was promised to you in the last contract.”
“I’m not giving you the book.”
“I want you to save a boy.”
This took the stranger aback, “Wait…what?”
“Follow the bells. Find the boy. If you retrieve him from danger, if you return him to his parents, I will give you a portion of what you seek. The old contract can be discussed, will be discussed, in the future. A new deal. A new contract.”
The man thought for a moment. While doing so, he materialized a cup upon the table, which he languidly poured the tea into. Sitting there, cup in hand, steam trickling towards a ceiling that most certainly didn’t exist —or at any rate, didn’t exist as one usually thought of such things— he contemplated what the voice was saying.
“What boy? Why? What do you get out of it?”
“Find the boy, and earn back what you so freely traded away, once upon a time.”
The man set down the cup without drinking from it. “You are so dramatic. You make it sound like you own my soul. You lot really are a mass of cliches, aren’t you? Big walking, or floating or whatever it is you do, bags of cliches. Next you’ll be wagering on the basis of fiddle-playing.”
The voice did not respond.
“It’s a trick. You know I know that right?” the stranger continued. “It’s not like I think you’ve not got an ace up your sleeve. Whatever it is you want me to do, you’re going to benefit, I’m going to get fucked. Whoever this boy is, he’s not going to come out the better for it if you get involved. You think I don’t know how you operate? You think you’re so smart? If you wanted to make a deal you shouldn’t be such-” the man slammed his fist down upon the table, causing the object to distort with the impact, as if he had struck soft clay.
“-a fucking-” he stood up, toppling the chair, which hit the floor and shattered like glass.
“-asshole!” He kicked over the table, and when it hit the floor the entire room was pulled apart, parts warping, disintegrating, or drawn somewhere infinitely out of sight. His body winked out of existence, and once more he found himself uncanny, in mute-gray static that faded to black. The sound of a bell tolled within that space, filling everything.
Words slunk out from the void, dead and breathless:
“The Sun has left his blackness, and has found a fresher morning,
And the fair Moon rejoices in the clear and cloudless night;
For Empire is no more, and now the Lion and Wolf shall cease.”
The man opened his eyes. He could feel the warmth of his dog sleeping against his leg. The sun had set, darkness filling his hovel. The ringing sound persisted beyond sleep.
The sound was real, the man realized, and it came from the direction of town.
Before he knew it, the stranger was facing the bridge to Nowell. The ruins and Wilder behind him, he tentatively put a foot upon the shattered concrete remnants.
What am I doing? His eyes scanned the river below. A flat-bottomed trading barge rocked in the water, a half-dozen or so sail-canoes tied to it. It was anchored to shore by chains. A path wound its way up the side of the bank, away from the boats. It lead to a massive wooden gate.
Images of choking traders filled his head, ringed with darkly tinkling static.
The stranger could see lamp light across the barge’s deck, could see three or four men huddled around a steel barrel with a small fire burning inside.
The rest must be in the settlement, behind that wall.
Crossing the bridge was slow work, which the stranger did on hands and knees, avoiding casting a silhouette against the starlit night sky.
The church bells from within continued to ring. The sound sent vibrations through the scraggly pine the stranger climbed, making his way to the tops of the wall.
Peering over the logs and their sharpened tips, he could see past the squat cabins ringing the settlement. Dozens of people stood shoulder to shoulder in the street, some holding lamps, others candles. Hidden in their midst, someone shrieked incoherently between sobs.
Meanwhile, an old church tolled it’s bell, its steeple decorated with the monogram of the Devout. The bell rang twice more while the stranger watched the crowd.
Crack. A branch supporting the stranger’s feet snapped, and he hugged the tree. The bark tore at the thin cloth of his pants, bit his thighs. He felt splinters wedge under the skin of his palms.
“Shit!” he swore, then bit his lips. He looked around, knowing nobody could hear him at such a distance, but fearing that they had anyway.
No way anyone could hear- He began to reassure himself, when he noticed that a figure in the resettlement had turned its head to look right at him.
Trick of the light, has to be, the stranger thought. It just looks like they’re looking this way. They can’t possibly see me in the dark.
The figure took off running towards the northern gate, towards him. It was unmistakable. He seized a lower branch of the tree and lowered his body to the ground, and let go. His feet hit the earth hard, and he felt pain shoot up from his ankles. Standing up, he ran without testing them, and was pleased he hadn’t broken anything.
Caution disregarded now, the stranger bolted across the bridge. The only sound he could hear were those of his new boots slapping.
Almost there… he turned to look behind him. The gate had not opened, and he allowed himself to stop and catch his breath. Nobody was coming after him. That was clos-
A figure launched itself over the side of the wall and hit the ground in a roll. The stranger expected to see the figure crumple, to cry out in pain. Instead, still obscured by shadow, the figure had rolled directly into a sprint, and was barreling down the bridge after him.
He ran as fast as he could into the dark forest, cautiously ducking under tree branches and around rocks. He pushed his legs as hard as they could go up a hill, ferns smacking him in the face. He couldn’t see anything, and hoped his pursuer was similarly blinded.
Almost at the top of the hill, he felt a hand grasp his ankle.
How the hell-?
With great force, his leg was pulled out from under him, and the stranger crashed to the ground.
“Move and die!” a woman’s voice shouted out at him. He kicked at the source of the voice with his free leg, and felt his boot connect with bone. The woman grunted and let go of his leg, and he scrambled to stand.
He felt a fist collide with the back of his knee, and toppled once more. The woman was incredibly strong and fast, and lashed out with punches that left him reeling.
“Alright! Alright! Okay!” he shouted, until the blows ceased. He felt the tip of a blade prick his ribs.
“Don’t you fucking move,” the woman commanded. She yanked his wrists away from his face and he felt her tie rope around them. After a few seconds, she tightened the knots, pinching his skin.
“Where’s the boy?” she asked.
Static engulfed the stranger’s vision, cutting through the darkness of the forest.
Find the boy. Follow the bells.
“What boy?” the stranger asked, voice cracking. This question got him another punch, this time in the mouth. He could taste blood on his lips.
“Isaac!?” the woman screamed into the Wilder. “Isaac!?”
She paused. Only the forest replied, in insect song and rustling leaves.
The walk back to the town seemed a dream. The stranger felt unmoored from his body, a passenger in his own flesh.
Why did I follow the bells? He asked himself, over and over again. I knew it was a trap. It’s always a trap.
The townsfolk waited for them, huddled together against the night. Blood dripped into the stranger’s face. He tried to blink the irritation away, unsuccessfully. He could only see the inside of the walls through that crimson filter. The faces of the people around him were made grotesque by the distortion. Whispers and gasps surrounded him.
“I caught him climbing over the wall,” the woman who’d captured him announced, voice raised. The townsfolk inhaled, synchronized in their shock. Someone threw a rock, which bounced harmlessly off the stranger’s shoulder. Yelling ensued. Everything after that was a blur, a confused blending of half-seen images, of speech he could not understand.
Then, the room. The ropes wound around his arms and legs, even tighter than the ones around his wrists. He was left there, alone, escape impossible.
The stranger’s solitude was broken shortly, when the door to the room was opened. He could finally see where he was, some kind of storage closet. Light filtered in from outside, and he saw a small group of people holding lamps up to look at him.
“That’s him,” spoke a familiar voice. The woman who had beaten the shit out of him was standing in the doorway, her own lamp in hand. The stranger could see she wore a wide-brimmed hat with some kind of metal object fastened to it. A badge?
Like the sheriffs used to have. Thinking felt like wading through mud. There aren’t any sheriffs anymore. How hard did she hit me? Hard enough to rattle his senses.
A portly man cleared his throat and stepped forward, blocking the woman from the stranger’s sight. “Well, hmm. Good work Artemis. Very…hrm…good.”
“What do we do with him now?” a man asked, out of view.
“Well I…” the portly man started, then stopped. He gestured to the woman in the wide-brimmed hat, the one he’d called Artemis. “What do you think? Should we fetch the dagger-men?”
“No!” Artemis snapped. “I’ll handle it. Leave me alone with him, give me fifteen minutes, and I’ll have him begging to tell us where Isaac is.”
She stared at the stranger, looked into his amber eyes. When she spoke it was to the portly man. “Trust me Plourde.”
“Very well, very well.” Plourde conceded, “But they’ll ask about the commotion. People will talk. We have to do something.”
“We’re going to find Isaac,” Artemis said between clenched teeth, “And we’re going to find Kal, and Corey. He’s going to bring us to them.”
The portly man, Plourde, backed up, and ushered the other townsfolk away. “Alright. But make it quick. Everyone is already restless.”
As if on cue, someone outside the unknown building shouted, calling for the blood of the child thief.
“I’ll go work crowd control,” Plourde called behind him, as he shuffled his way out of sight of the doorway. “We can’t just have them lynch him. This town is under the oversight of the Domus, after all. We’re not barbarians.”
With those parting words, the stranger and Artemis were left alone. She stood there, looking at him, eyes never moving. He stared back. Neither flinched.
“Well, looks like you’ve got some confessing to do,” Artemis said, pulling a long hunting knife from her belt. “I’ll be straight with you. You aren’t going to survive this, one way or the other. They’ll lynch you, or I’ll break you, but you’re screwed.”
She wiped the blade across a pant let. The stranger saw it gleam in the lamplight. “The only difference is how you die. You give me what I want, you give me the boy, and you die without pain. If you fuck with me,” she stepped forward quickly, closing the distance between them instantly, the knife’s blade inches from the stranger’s eye, “I’ll take you apart like a machine.”
The stranger didn’t move, simply stared at the knife. He worked his lips, feeling the cut split open once more and spill blood down his chin.
“What’s that?” Artemis asked, retracting the knife. “What did you say?”
“Witch-doctor?” She asked.
“I’m-” the stranger gulped again, and spit out a wad of blood. “I’m a witch-doctor.”
“I didn’t take any kids. I’ve been living out in the woods. Across the bridge. I heard the bells…came to see what-”
“Don’t lie to me.”
“I’m not lying!” the stranger croaked. “I live in the forest. Been there since last winter. I’ve never been here before, not once in my life.”
“You know how I know you’re lying?” She asked him, “Because nobody survives winter in the Wilder, except for ghosts and Essil.”
She lowered the knife, pointing it towards the wood-plank floor, “And there’s no such thing as witch-doctors.”
The stranger froze at her words. Every muscle ceased. Suddenly, as though he hadn’t moved at all, Artemis found herself staring him in the eyes. His face distorted under her gaze, seemed to twist, fold in on itself. She realized he was smiling. The pupils in his yellow eyes seemed to expand, growing larger and larger until they threatened to swallow up the room. They made the sheriff feel cold. Reminded her of the hunt.
The man was a stranger, and not just in the sense of being a visitor to Nowell. His face was an otherworldly mien of angles and abrasions. Trapped in the room with him, Artemis felt comfort drain from her. The stranger’s visage tugged at her nerves, pulled at her ropey intuition, eviscerated her common-sense by handfuls.
It wasn’t that she was scared.What she felt was not fear. This was something else. Wariness, a mutual consideration. She could not read the intentions behind his almost-yellow eyes.
“Neither are sheriffs. But you’re wearing the badge.”
Then, his was the face of a vagrant. Dirty and small. Afraid.
Of her. He wasn’t smiling anymore.
She didn’t respond to his dig, “I don’t believe you’re a witch-doctor. Prove to me you’re a witch-doctor.”
The stranger thought for a moment, “The old motel, outside the ruins. If you go there, you’ll see. You’ll see I’m a witch-doctor.”
“You’ve got a license?”
“They stopped giving them out. Witch-doctoring is illegal. You’ve got to know that. They ship us south now. Or lock us up for…rehabilitation. I don’t have a license, but my mentor gave me his. If you go to the motel you’ll find it.”
Artemis raised the knife once more, and scowled at the stranger.
“That doesn’t mean you’re not the one taking the kids. Witch-doctors? Bah. You know the Domus declared your kind witches, right? Diabolists. Devil-worshippers.”
The stranger looked up at her, “The Devout? Fuck the Devout. They wouldn’t know a witch if one bit them on their sacks. I help people. That’s why I’m here. To help.”
He smiled at her then, the solitary gold tooth luminescent in the sparse light. His amber eyes reminded her of predators.
“I don’t have time for this shit,” Artemis snapped. “You want me to traipse through the Wilder and go looking for some hovel? You know you’re about to get strung up, right? You think they’re just going to let you be while I go off? You’ll be dead before I get back.”
“Send someone else,” the stranger offered, “Or hang an innocent man. Your choice. But those kids won’t stop disappearing. I promise you that. When I’m dead, you’ll be right where you started. Worse even. You’ll be missing another one. Then another one. Until your town is nothing but a bunch of worn out relics. Is that what you want?”
Artemis didn’t respond, her eyes vacant in thought. Weighing each option carefully.
The stranger tried again, “You’re Artemis, right? That’s what that guy called you. Well, Artemis, nice to meet you. My name is Jack.”
Jack lifted his arm then, the ropes around him falling away, cut neatly with a bit of sharpened metal secreted away in his waistband. When Artemis took a step back and gripped her knife in a fighting stance, he dropped the shiv to the floor. Holding out a hand as if to shake hers, he smiled again.
“See? I could’ve waited. Maybe try to get at you. Maybe try to escape. But look, here I am, laying all my cards on the table. I am not the one who’s been stealing the children. In fact, you folks need me. There’s more,” He stared at her, drilling into her gaze, “going on here than you realize.”
“Slide that blade over. Don’t try anything funny.”
Jack sighed, and flicked the shiv across the floor. Artemis kicked it behind her.
“What are you gonna do, tie me back up?” Jack asked.
Fast as a hawk, Artemis stepped forward and pivoted, kicking him in the side of the head.
“There’s no fucking way he’s a witch-doctor,” Chet rubbed his temples. Artemis sat across from him at his kitchen table. A single candle lit the room. The two of them spoke in hushed tones. His granddaughters were sleeping, along with their mother, in the adjacent room.
Artemis sipped at a cup of water. “I don’t buy it either, but if he’s telling the truth, we can’t kill him.”
“‘Spose not,” Chet grumbled. “But what are the odds it isn’t him? I mean, it’s awful coincidental. Him showing up, Isaac going missing. I’d bet my trigger finger it’s him. It has to be.”
“Which is why I need you to go to his squat.”
“No, first thing tomorrow. One way or the other, we need someone to check it out. You know the woods, and the ruins. Hell you might know them better than me, in some places. But you need to sleep. Head out first thing tomorrow and-”
Chet laid his hands on the table, “Sheriff, stop. Listen. You and me? We’re not friends.”
“What’s your point?” Artemis snapped.
“Why are you here?”
“I have to watch the prisoner. I bribed Red to keep an eye on him but I’m taking a chance even coming out here. The townsfolk want his blood. I just thought-”
“Because we saw what was in those woods, right?” There was no guile behind Chet’s eyes. “Because we’ve been through, what do you call it, an ordeal. So you thought, ‘hey, better go knock on Chet’s door, better wake him up’. Because you’ve got a hunch that man sitting in the town hall isn’t the right one. Well let me tell you something, Artemis. You might pin that badge to your hat, and break up a fight every now and then, but you ain’t a sheriff. You aren’t the law.”
Artemis’s face flushed red, and she clenched her hands into fists, “I never claimed I was! It was you all who started calling me that. Thought it was funny. You all think you’re so witty. Well fuck you.”
“And fuck you too. I never said you were claiming anything. I’m just laying out the facts. You’re not the law. I’m not your deputy. You’ve been ordering me around all night like I owe you something. I don’t. I don’t know where you got that badge and these ideas in your head. You think anyone will listen to you? Hell…” Chet stood up, his own face belying anger. “We tolerate you. You know that don’t you? You come into town one day, and suddenly you’re living here. We tolerate you. You’re the best hunter and trapper this town’s got. But outside of that, people think you’re a kook. Delusional. They say you’re crazy.”
“I am not crazy!” Artemis screamed, swiping the clay cup she’d been drinking from off the table and against the wall, where it shattered.
“Grandpa?” a little voice called out, from inside the bedroom. Chet couldn’t tell which of his granddaughters it was, so hushed was the voice hidden behind the curtain.
“Go back to bed sweetie, everything’s fine,” He said, lowering his voice. Chet looked back at Artemis. “Listen. I know what motel he’s talking about. I think. I’ll check it out. But only because I think that’s where the… bodies are.”
“What about the kid in the box?” Artemis hissed, “Aren’t you curious at all about what the fuck is exactly going on in this town? Why the fuck was there-”
“You didn’t seem so goddamned curious about it when we were out there,” Chet interrupted, “Not curious enough to hold off on smashing that guys head in with a fucking rock. Try questioning him now. ‘Hey, pile of meat that used to be some guys face, why’ve you got a corpse in a box?’”
Artemis opened her mouth to speak, but bit off the words. She took a breath in, slow and steady. When she let the air out of her lungs, she looked down at the floor. “There’s something going on in Nowell, you’ve got to see that.”
“I sure as hell do. But I’ve got three granddaughters to take care of. You know as well as I do that bootlegging runs this town. I don’t get involved, and I don’t let them involve me in it. I don’t inquire as to what it is they’re smuggling across the river. I keep my head down, and scrounge whatever I can from those godforsaken ruins out there.” He was pointing towards the Wilder.
“You’re talking about a child. You’re talking about children.”
“Dead children,” Chet corrected her, “I’m sorry to say it but those kids aren’t coming back.”
He pointed to the bedroom, “Those children are alive. Those are the children I care about. But fine, I’ll check out this motel. Then I’ll find where that sonofabitch hid the bodies, and I’ll come back and let everyone know.”
“And if he’s a witch-doctor?”
“Don’t make a lick of difference to me.”
“If he’s a witch-doctor, tell me. Please Chet,” She begged him.
“Fine,” he replied, “I’ll let you know.”
“I’ll be at town hall. I’m not letting him out of my sight any longer than I need to. I’ll be with him all night.”
“Great. Perfect.” Chet said sarcastically, then hearing himself, toned it down. “Artemis, I’m not trying to be an asshole here. But you’ve got to realize you’re messing with shit outside your skillset. We’ve got a platoon of dagger-men in town, bootleggers. Shit, I can probably tell you why that kid was in the box. Or my best guess anyway. Some pervert down south’s got a hankering for wilder flesh. I’ve even heard they ship ‘em down to the Domus and put them in zoos. Side-show freaks. You know, ‘come see the wild-child’ and all that.”
“They came from the south,” Artemis countered, “They’ve only just arrived. When do you suppose they got the time to nab an Essil? What was an Essil even doing this close to Nowell? Think about it. Did that body look like one that’d just been caught? They brought the kid up here with ‘em. I’m sure of it. Something weird is going on.”
Chet scowled in concentration, brow furrowed, and he stood there like that for a silent minute, “You’re right. Hrm.”
“But you still think it’s unrelated to all this, what’s been going on?” Artemis asked him.
“I don’t see how they could be related,” Chet said, lowering his shoulders, resigned. “I know I said we ain’t friends, but I want to be honest with you. I’m shaken. I don’t want that man to be innocent. I want to believe he was the one whos been taking the kids. Because that means it’s been put to an end.”
He put his face in his hands, words muffled beneath his palms, “If I want it to be true, you can bet everyone else in town wants it to be true. If this guy is innocent, and I don’t think he is, you’d better keep a close eye on him until I get back. I’ll head out first thing tomorrow morning.”