WitchWood

WitchWood



Chapter 2 - Jonah


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  It’s one AM by the time we reach Norton.

  If I was exhausted at the start of the trip, five hours of driving has certainly not helped. The forested hills along I-81 were pretty enough in daylight, but nightfall and a lack of electric lighting quickly swallowed up the distraction of scenery. I suspect I have a higher tolerance than most for long periods spent staring at moving tarmac and little else. Still, staying awake at the wheel took more effort than I care to admit.

  To your credit, you did offer to drive. I supposed you meant it as a kindness, but I didn’t bother dignifying it with a response. You don’t have a license, and having experienced your driving before, I can confidently say you shouldn’t.

  At the parking lot’s entrance, the Archer Motel’s namesake stands proud. She is wrought of neon tube, elegantly poised, her bow drawn back to her shoulder, arrow ready to fly over oncoming traffic. As I pull in, her flickering turns potholed asphalt into gilded waves, into shadowed asteroid landscape, and back again. I’d appreciate the effect more if sleep deprivation wasn’t already blurring my vision, with the rapid change of lighting only worsening matters.

  Blearily, I rub my eyes. Then I kill the engine and smack your shoulder. You awaken with a start, a mumble, and a yawn before blinking at the building in front of us.

  You seem unimpressed by the sight, and appropriately so.

  “Don’t let me say you never take me to nice places,” you remark, drily.

  I leave the car without replying. You follow.

  In a room constructed mostly of plastic impersonating wood a flannel-clad teenager slouches over a reception desk. Her hair is an unruly and badly bleached bob, and her ears heavily pierced. The computer before her illuminates her more than does the light fixture overhead.

  “Can I help you?” the receptionist monotones as the door’s bell announces our arrival. She does not bother to stop scrolling through her phone, or look up.

  “Yes,” I respond, approaching her desk, “I’ll be needing a room for the next few nights.”

  Remi -- a homemade sign on the receptionist’s desk reads Ask Remi About Ghost Tours! -- finally puts down the phone and makes herself busy shuffling around the computer’s mouse. A few seconds of mouse-click punctuated silence passes, before she notices there are two of us.

  “He with you?” she asks.

  A fair enough question, we make an odd pair. Especially since, as you so kindly pointed out earlier, I look dreadful right now and you’re as pristine and put together as always. Your hair is just as pale as your skin, which is to say it is a shade of white people usually have to spend hundreds to achieve via bottle. It falls, light and feathery, around your ears and across your forehead in a manner that attests to a meticulous conditioning routine. Even I can appreciate the precision with which you’ve applied your eyeliner. The gauzy white shirt you’re wearing threatens to slip off your shoulders in a way I’m sure is quite fashionable. Most people wouldn’t guess we were only a couple of years apart in age; your delicate facial structure and smooth skin makes you plausibly several years younger than you actually are. Meanwhile, I’m regularly mistaken for older than I am. It's something about my “resting bitch face,” my proclivity for “boring conversation,” and general “haunting appearance,” I’m told. By you, at least. And it’s probably safe to assume my current state of dishevelment isn’t helping in that regard.

  “I’m not sure,” I answer, turning towards you, “is he?” I ask aloud, because you’re too busy fussing with a peeling corner of fake wood paneling to see the questioning look I’m directing towards you.

  “One room, two beds,” you reply without looking over, attention still fixed on the triangular section of exposed discolored drywall you’re slowly expanding.

  “Well there you have it,” I say, turning back to Remi.

  Remi raises her eyebrows, then wordlessly resumes her clicking.

  A minute later I have a key dangling from my fingers as we make our way down the walkway, passing a row of identical paint chipped doors.

  “Jonesy, we just passed our room,” you inform me.

  “Indeed,” I confirm, leaving room 102 behind.

  You continue following me in uncharacteristic silence, but I imagine your unasked question is answered when I stop in front of room 113. Police tape lies crossed over the door in an X, the ends fluttering where the adhesive has given up. One of the room’s windows has been shattered. What remains of it has become a maw lined in jagged glass teeth. If any shards had fallen under the window, they have since been cleared away.

  I remove a pair of gloves from my pockets. My lockpicks are about to follow, before I remember you’re here and may as well be useful. I turn to you instead, head tilted toward the doorknob.

  “So, do I get to know whose room we’re breaking into?” you ask, crouching until you’re eye level with the lock. Your fingertip begins tracing the outline of a circle, drawing out spellwork in lines of light. The glow of your magic paints your face in soft shades of pink, while the archer illuminates the back of your head in sporadic bursts of functionality. Your hair is so lacking in pigment it isn’t just white, it’s borderline translucent. The neon light doesn’t shine on your hair so much as it shines through it, haloing you in fine, luminous strands of gold. Places where neither light source reaches — the underside of your jaw, the space behind your ear, the edge following the tendon in your neck — are shadowed in a color too rich to be proper black but too dark to identify as blue or red or purple. Concentration forms a small crease between your eyebrows while you work.

  “Adriana Pendrid,” I respond, after a moment. “She’s a travel… photographer. Of sorts. Or was, as the case may be.” I wave toward the police tape as I say the last bit.

  “Travel photographer” may not be the right term for Pendrid. Unfortunately I struggle to understand her actual vocation, much less describe it. At the very least it is accurate to say she traveled a great deal and documented said travel. Her Instagram account mainly features intensely saturated and pleasingly blurred photographs of fanciful food items in absurdly small portions, sunsets over a variety of bodies of water, and self portraits in scenic locations that left little room for the landscape itself in the frame. The captions accompanying her pictures, that is, the small sections that weren’t hashtag, usually implied she was involved in some sort of business venture wherever her location was. The exact nature of said ventures were never clear. However, given the frequency and confidence with which she promoted her business video courses, one would assume they were quite productive.1

  “By your use of past tense and the lovely decor, I’ll assume she’s one of our missing persons?” you ask.

  “Possibly.”

  A few seconds pass before you pause your work, your hand tumbling in the rolling gesture you make to indicate you expect more information.

  “If she is indeed missing, she’s only been missing for about a day,” I elaborate. “A witness heard the window break and saw Pendrid run out shortly thereafter. That was the last time anyone saw her.”

  “Alright. What else?”

  “She came to participate in the festivities”. Her final Instagram post declared as much. The post’s photo was a fairly standard depiction of what I have come to recognize as Pendrid’s morning routine for those who love the grind, as she would put it. That is to say it was an image of her staring pensively out a window, dreadlocks gathered in a complicated bun arrangement, her dark skin a striking contrast to a blindingly white and minimalist kitchen while the blender before her liquified spinach. The text underneath invited her followers to find her booth at the upcoming convention in Hyde Park, Virginia. “Some sort of mundane gathering for those interested in witchcraft. There’s supposed to be seances, tarot readings, healing circles, that kind of nonsense. Pendrid intends to sell merchandise.”

  “Merchandise of the arcane variety?” you ask, the crease on your forehead deepening as you work out a particularly small bit of spellscript. I probably could have had the door open by now with lockpicks, but whatever spell you’ve chosen looks like a clever bit of magic. I presume it’s intended to work on far tricker locks than this, and I won’t pretend I don’t enjoy seeing a good spell cast well.

  “Indeed. It appears that in addition to being an ‘influencer,’ ‘lifestyle guru,’ ‘trendsetter,’ ‘business consultant,’ and ‘model,’” (her profile biography contained many evocative nouns), “Ms. Pendrick was also a self-declared dabbler in magic.”

  “Hmm. Mundane or the real deal?”

  I tilt my head to the side to muse. “Well, she guarantees the dyed quartz sold in her online store promotes financial success. So long as you can give them the positive energy they need to work, of course.”

  You laugh bright, sudden, and sharp as the lock finally clicks.

  By the glow of the pink witchlight you bring to life in your hands, and the beam of my flashlight, we discover a room as shabby as it is expectedly so. The furniture appears as though it was intended to look old and charming upon its creation, failed, and only worsened with genuine age. Whoever chose the carpet picked a color several shades too light to hide coffee stains. I’d probably find the bed a dismaying portent for our own sleeping arrangements. If I weren’t well accustomed to dismaying sleeping arrangements. Or if I weren’t weary enough to find even the unfortunate carpet a tempting surface to lie upon.

  Despite the police tape outside, Pendrid’s room bears little resemblance to a crime scene. The suitcase at the foot of her bed remains open and mostly unpacked, the clothes inside folded and tucked away, neatly enough that I doubt the police searched them. The row of boxes along the far wall -- Pendrid’s merchandise, presumably -- appear similarly undisturbed. Even the destroyed window has been covered up by a curtain. There aren’t any bits of glass on this side of the wall either, so someone must have gone through the trouble of clearing up the debris. All that, and the lack of any dust yet accumulated on her belongings, gives the feeling that Pendrid only just recently stepped out and may well return at any moment.

  “You know I can’t say I was expecting the world’s most exciting crime scene, but I feel like they could have thrown in a few of those little numbered white cards, or whatever. For atmosphere,” you remark, voicing a similar sort of disappointment to my own.

  “Evidence identification markers, you mean,” I say, proffering an extra set of gloves.

  “Oh of course you know what they’re called,” you snort, snatching the gloves out of my hand and stepping past me.

  The first ten minutes of searching turn up nothing. I’m prodding around underneath the bed, investigating several impressively sized dust clumps when you call for my attention.

  “Jonesy,” you say, “get over here.”

  I’m all too happy to oblige. I was running out of places to search that weren’t Pendrid’s suitcase. While it might be nice if we took turns from time to time, I’ve long since discovered if there’s something I loathe more than rifling through other people’s clothing, it’s being met with your stubborn argument of “I hate it more.

  You offer up a rock for my inspection as I crouch down next to you. It’s a rather unremarkable piece of quartz, easily lost among the rest of the stones in the cardboard box you’ve been rummaging through. At least, this is my first impression. When I take it from you I’m surprised to feel a faint but undeniable buzz of magic against my skin.

  “So is that something?” you ask as I tilt the stone around.

  “Definitely magic,” I confirm. I’m honestly impressed you found it; I have a far better feel for magic objects and I’m not sure I would have noticed without touching it. It must have been barely perceptible to you. “I couldn’t tell you the purpose, but whatever effect it has can’t be that strong.”

  “Wow, and you doubted poor Adriana. You accused her of peddling bullshit, Jonesy. Without any hard evidence. For shame.

  “Actually, I believe I only implied she peddled bullshit,” I correct, grabbing a handful of rocks as a test. “And I’ll admit I wasn’t expecting to find real magic items among her things, but I think I’ll hold onto some of my doubts for now.” I don’t feel any more magic buzz and, while the rocks are pretty enough, they are definitely not worth twenty five dollars each.

  “Still, whatever she’s selling to the mundies2 she’s definitely more interesting than just another victim now.”

  “What makes you so certain?” I ask. We’re both aware that if a mundane spends enough time trying to acquire magic items, even without any real idea of what they’re doing, they have a fair chance of happening upon a genuine article. Often without even realizing it. Pendrid may have simply gotten lucky.

  “For one, that,” you point at the crystal, “wasn’t just tossed in with the rest of this stuff, it was placed exactly in the corner of the box. Easily mistaken for part of the junk if you don’t know what you’re looking for, but easily recovered if you know what and where it is.”

  “So she knew it was magic and was trying to hide it,” I extrapolate. I frown. There’s no chance of my being able to identify the stone’s magic. Crystals tend to fall outside my speciality even when naturally formed, and this one has been tumbled. You might be able to figure it out given a week. While I admit I like the idea of keeping you thus occupied for a few days, I’m sure you would rip my head off for suggesting such a “boring” use of your time.

  “Correctamundo, Jonesy!” you affirm.

  “Hm,” I hum. “Interesting.”

  “Jonesy say what you’re thinking or I’m gonna scream.”

  “Nothing in the witness statement mentioned anything chasing Pendrid while she ran out,” I relay quickly, not wanting to test your threat; you’ve made good on them too many times.

  “Ohhhhhhh,” you ponder, squinting at me, “you think a monster got to her.”

  “It would explain why the witness didn’t see anything.” And if that were indeed the case, Pendrid’s awareness of real magic would explain why her corpse wasn’t to be found here. Mundanes usually can’t notice monsters until it’s too late. Unless, of course, they already have the ability to see them.

  “And she disappeared within the last day…” A smile tugs your mouth and eyes into sharp lines. “This is getting interesting.”

  Now you’re the one thinking something you’re not saying. “So is this where I get to know whatever Lilith told you?” I ask.

  Your smile starts showing teeth.“Why yes, I do believe it's about time I upheld my end of the deal, isn’t it?” you purr. You begin arranging yourself more suitably for dramatic reveal -- at least, that’s how I’ve learned to recognize the behavior. The accompanying pause goes on much longer than I care for before you finally speak:

  “Lilith said she felt something powerful move into the area. About three days ago.”

  I wait for more information, before I realize there’s none forthcoming. “That’s it?”

  You throw up your hands. “God, Jonesy does anything excite you-”

  “I was just hoping for more specificity considering I did provide taxi service for a hundred or so miles.” I retort, cutting you off.

  “Ughhhhhhh fine,” you answer, “she said whatever it was, it felt old. Not like, dawn of creation old but old. That’s all she got before it started isolating the section of ley line here.”

   “I’m sorry,” I reply, now thoroughly alarmed, “what the hell does isolating a ley line mean? And isn’t the Virginia line too far underground to access from the surface?”3

  “I don’t know, she just said it was isolating the ley line so she couldn’t feel it anymore. And apparently the Virginia line turns pretty sharply upward right by Norton. Not enough for most people to care, but enough for whatever’s here I guess.”

  I stare at you until you spread your hands out. No more information then.

  With that I stand and start toward the door. “Keep searching. I’ll be a moment,” I tell you.

  “Wait, what? Seriously? Where are you going? Jonah? I’m not looking in the damn suitcase Jonah!” you call out as the door swings shut behind me.

  Along the parking lot’s edge, where the archer’s sputtering yellow light gives out into night, lurks the tentative beginnings of forest. Years of beer cans and glass shard crunch underfoot as I shove past a pair of snarling bushes. I don’t bother with my flashlight. The waning moon overhead lines branches and leaves in thin, but sharp, lines of silver.

  Upon locating a relatively litter-free patch of ground, I pull out a folding knife and start digging. I only need a hole about six inches deep; it doesn’t take long. Before I finish I can tell you were right about the ley line. I was too tired and distracted to notice it earlier. Now that I’m paying attention, it’s unmistakable. There’s power buried in the earth here. Faint, but undeniably present, a slight pressure pushing against my feet.

  The hole complete, I arrange myself cross legged before it, rolling up my sleeve. By now the splotchy red hand imprint around my forearm is starting to deepen to purple. It looks ugly enough without the injury that’s about to join it. With some reluctance, I put my knife to skin, slicing my arm barely deep enough for blood to well. I hold my arm over the hole, close my eyes, recite a short incantation, and I wait for the blood to fall.

  I feel it once it does. Not the actual sensation of liquid dripping from my skin. I feel the mote of myself fall free of my body and plummet to the ground, sinking into dirt, past decomposing plant matter and tangled roots. It’s a slippery, demanding task, holding my attention to so miniscule a thing. And it only gets harder as I go deeper, the earth pressing heavier and the hum of magic growing steadily louder. As the volume and pressure becomes nigh unbearable I start bracing for impact with the line. In my experience, I only have a few seconds after submersion before the burn of raw magic becomes too intolerable to stay. It’s not a lot of time to gather information. So I grit my teeth and focus. And I wait, and I wait, and I wait until…

  Something yanks me down hard.

  Suddenly it’s silent, and the pressure vanishes. The relief is immediate, but annoyance soon follows. I don’t know how I lost hold of the spell but having done so I need to start over, and I’d been hoping not to bleed more today. I open my eyes and I lift my arm to cut it a second time, when I discover my arm is gone.

  That is to say, I have an arm, but it certainly is not mine. The limb before me appears loosely formed of black mist. I try to touch my face, but I can’t feel it, or my face doesn’t exist, or it does and I’m sticking my arm right through it.

  I scramble to my feet, relieved that I can despite the dubious substantiality of said feet. They are, upon inspection, just as incorporeal and smokey as my arms, legs, torso, and, presumably, my head.

  At this point I notice my surroundings are also wrong. These are not the young, thin trees bordering the motel, a teaser of real forest to come in the next hundred or so years. These trees are giants, their inky black trunks averaging the same width as my car and disappearing far up into mist before showing any signs of terminating. Dim twilight fumbles through gaps in foliage and spills out into towering, hazy shafts. Where the light falls it sets grass and fern blearily aglow in blue-green patches, bright against the surrounding shadowed undergrowth. Everything appears strangely blurred. On reflex I reach up to correct my glasses, before I remember it’s uncertain whether I have eyes, much less glasses. I wasn’t expecting to see it, but when I turn around I’m still dismayed to find no sign of the parking lot or its yellow glow.

  Well.

  I have no idea how the spell could have gone so spectacularly wrong.

  Nothing in the literature I found on the ritual even remotely hinted at this sort of outcome, although admittedly my magic specialty suffers from extremely poor documentation and thus unexpected side effects.4 This spell was no exception, though I did do everything I could to research it before trying it out5 because, unlike some wizards,6 I actually read beyond the instructions for any spell I intend to cast. But old magic is usually at least consistent in its peculiarities, and I’d performed the ritual several times before with no surprises.7 And when spells muck up they’re supposed to do so in some way relating to their function, it doesn’t make any sense that I’d managed to unwittingly set off a combination teleportation and auto-vaporization spell with baby’s first astral projection-8

  Something tickles my shin. I jump, discovering, with a combination of alarm and gratitude, that I cannot breathe by way of failing to yell. A fern unfurls and refurls around my leg, unable to grasp the incorporal limb but displacing curls of black smoke. I dance back. More ferns strain toward me. With what I assume is the closest approximation of unease my current body can manage, I realize they seem to be beckoning.

  I march in the opposite direction.

  Of course, just because the undergrowth looks like its gesturing doesn’t mean it actually is, but either way it's not going to help me think my way out of this if I’m distracted by the forest waving itself about in a way forests aren’t meant to. A particularly long frond reaches out toward my chest, as if to stop me. I try to smack it aside. I pass right through the frond without slowing, but I indulge myself in anthropomorphizing it enough to hope it’s annoyed. Unfortunately, my satisfaction is short-lived.

  Before me, roots begin prying their way free of the ground, showering dirt as they swing my way. I start running, ducking under roots as they reach toward me. I don’t know if they can touch me any more successfully than the ferns. I don’t care to find out. But there are more and more reaching for me, and they are getting harder and harder to dodge. Every moment I can see less around them. With a jolt I feel something grasp my shoulder, tugging it back and forth. So they can touch me after all. Fuck. I can’t let them catch me, but they’re choking off every exit, soon I won’t have a choice in the matter anyhow I brace hurtling toward the approaching wall of grasping roots and-

  “Jonesy.”

  And then my hand shoots up to grab your wrist, stopping your own hand from shaking my shoulder more.

  “God Jonesy why do you disappear to the most random…,” your voice trails as you get a closer look at me, eyes wandering over my face, the cut in my arm, the hole. “Hmmmm,” you hum, crouching until we’re eye level. “Vibe check?”

  “Yes,” I answer, slightly out of breath. With an effort I force myself to unclench my fingers so you can pull your arm back. I keep my hand up a moment longer than necessary to confirm it’s my normal, corporeal, flesh and blood limb.

  “Vibes bad?”

  “Yes,” I repeat, twisting around briefly to make sure the motel is once again behind me. Much to my relief, it is.

  When I turn back around you’re settling yourself down cross-legged, one hand rolling in prompt to go on, nose wrinkling as you flick a crushed beer can away from you with the other.

  I need a moment to gather my thoughts. “I think the ley line here has some sort of… defense against being analyzed. I couldn’t get much information on it otherwise.” That’s technically true. I think it’s fair to say I understand the ley line less than I had before attempting the ritual.

  “Oh. Like the line in Nevada?”

  “Yes,” I say a third time, lying.

  You stare at me expectantly. “Did you find anything else in the room?” I ask before you can prod for more information.

  Air huffs out your nose. “Yup, had plenty of time to look around since you took forever,” you say, pulling a handful of items from your pocket. The items turn out to be a purple crystal pendant hanging from a silver chain, a small folding knife with a bone handle, and a stack of business cards. All but the cards buzz with magic.

  “That’s everything?”

  “Oh don’t mention it, you’re so welcome Jonesy,” you say, pitching your voice higher. “And no, I couldn’t find a laptop or notes or whatever. They’re either with her or someone got to them before us.”

  “Hmmm,” I reply, thumbing through the business cards. Most of them I assume are for other vendors at the mundane witch convention, among them the receptionist Remi, who apparently does tarot readings in addition to ghost tours.

  The silence stretches before you speak again. “Can I ask a question now?”

  “Sure,” I answer, trying not to sound wary of what the question may be.

  “I’ve just been wondering. Why the hell do you look like an assault victim?”

  The change of topic is abrupt enough that I don’t immediately realize what you’re referring to, even with you pointing to the bruised handprint on my arm. I sigh. “I had an unpleasant encounter with a ghoul yesterday.” Not that I’ve ever had a pleasant encounter with one.

  “A ghoul? You got into a fist fight with a ghoul?”

  “A short range gun fight is probably a more accurate description, but more or less.”

  You stare at me again. I stare back and wait for whatever new question you’re chewing on.

  It comes eventually. “So you didn’t like, consider taking the week off after that? Instead of immediately romping across the state to conduct a missing persons investigation?” you inquire, in the smooth tone that usually indicates the question is less about gaining information then it is about pointing out my perceived idiocy. Or that’s how you explained it, at least.

  “Well. It was a gun fight in which I had the only gun. It could have been worse.”

  ‘You know, Jonesy,” you say, your words becoming more punctuated, “I was actually less concerned about gun distribution than the fact you were in arms reach of a monster who’s whooooooooole thing is necrotizing the flesh of its victims.”9

  It’s hard to argue with that. “I had wards prepared.” Not as many as I would have liked, given how things went, but enough.10

  “Ok!” you shout, “How about taking a day off?”

  “I assure you I’m fine.”

  “Jonesy. I don’t even wanna know how long you’ve been awake as of right now.”

  Wonderful. I don’t care to share. “I’ll go to bed once I’ve gone through Pendrid’s suitcase,” I inform you, “since I know you haven’t.”

  “Oh my god, do you ever think about anything but work? I promise the world will not end if you put something off for the morning,” you reply, rolling your eyes and distractedly looking off to the side.

  “You know Percy,” I snap, “if you were so concerned about the amount of sleep I was getting you could have actually searched the room thoroughly instead of leaving me with work.”

  Your jaw works. You continue staring at whatever has you so engrossed in the distance. Then you stand. “Forget it. I’m going to sleep. See you in the morning.”

  And with that you walk off, leaving me with your fading footsteps and the rustling of leaves.


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