Fantasy Horror

Salt Town

By R. K. Duncan
Aug 27, 2018 · 4,223 words · 16 minutes

Photo by Benjamin Voros via Unsplash.

From the author: A witch must cross into the city that hates witches to help the authorities deal with a greater evil.

Lavinia sighed as the guards began their work. They might be shivering with fear, but the cold was reason enough for her, and crossing into Salt Town was never quick, not even with a letter from the honorable magistrate, Janos Capek, commanding her urgent attendance. All that was good for was to make them examine her instead of denying her entry on general suspicion.

She proved she was a mortal by stepping through the arch, massive blocks of salt making an unbroken barrier to unhoused spirits and possessing demons. She shrugged off the indignity of a thorough pat-down to search for ordinary contraband. They wouldn’t find her knives, secreted safe under the skin of her belly. She would have stripped to make it quicker if that wouldn’t get her expelled for lewdness. She proved her flesh was uncorrupted by bearing the touch of the sergeant’s St. Radek medal without discomfort. It was cold in the winter air, but she wasn’t damned enough yet to burn at blessed silver. She proved there was no touch of sorcery on her skin or in her flesh by submitting to a sprinkle of blessed brine and drinking holy wine. The water did not steam, and she kept the wine down, though its taste brought back unpleasant memories of the vodka she’d had to bathe in before coming to the gate, to scrub the taint of sorcery away for an hour.

Including preparations, it took nearly two hours for a Blackside witch to cross into Salt Town. The whole time at the gate, she felt the guards’ eyes stabbing at her, pinning her like a cockroach under sudden light. That’s what they thought of her. They made signs against evil whenever their hands were free, not bothering to hide them behind their backs. She almost never bothered to make the crossing, not for the rich idiots who wanted a witch to come in by the alley door and give them youth or love or wealth for a drop of blood and purse of silver. This was something different. Salt Town magistrates hanged witches. Capek calling for her, under official seal, meant something truly important was happening, something that might be worth what real magic cost.

The view was a consolation for the inconvenience as well. The glow lit the sky even at the crossing, and as soon as she turned onto a main street, Lavinia slowed and stared at the Salt King’s palace, bright atop the hill. The torches burning inside and out lent a golden hue to the reflections in the white salt. The walls drank in light and redoubled it into a thousand thousand chips of bright fire until even the thickest blocks seemed translucent, crystal and honey and ethereal perfection. The edges cut the darkness with a glittering blade, so she could pick out every detail of the architecture, even at this distance. It was built in fear of her and every soul that lived, and didn’t quite live, below in Blackside, but Lavinia couldn’t help but love the palace every time she looked, especially on a clear winter night like this.

The Salt Town streets were quiet: none of the music and camaraderie she’d find back home, no vendors hawking wares at an impromptu night market, or cook-stalls spilling warmth and the scent of char and savor on the air. They were almost empty, with only a few lonely folk hurrying home late, bundled antisocially behind their scarves and hoods, and the guards. Their regular patrols were more frequent than ordinary residents, and each one stopped her with harsh questions, giving her leave to go only after a careful reading of the letter. With her Blackside hair like tar and her red-rouged lips, they knew exactly what she was.

Stopping for each new revelation of a different angle on the palace and for questioning by three different patrols, she took another half the hourglass to reach the Halls of Justice. Perhaps not what Magistrate Capek imagined when he sent his courier, but better than any other witch would have managed, if they dared to come at all. Most of the old ones needed more than vodka to scrub the magic off their skin.

The towering statue of blind Justice in front of the hall loomed offensively. Any witch knew justice couldn’t be blind. She demanded that everyone get just what they deserved, what they’d earned and what they’d bargained for. How could she reckon all of that if she were blind?

The place was lively after dark, though, with Nightwatch guards dragging in drunks and petty thieves, and lawyers standing by to bail out gentry who drank too much and punched the publicans that cut them off. All of them quailed away from Lavinia. Lawyers bustled to avoid crossing her path and made signs against evil where they thought she couldn’t see. A pair of watchmen blocked the doors, but they looked down, and didn’t dare to meet a witch’s eyes. That was worse than the guard’s stares. Fear belonged to the things from the other side, the things she was called to deal with. Wearing it was too much like crossing over, like being one of the old ones who couldn’t scrub the shadow off their skin. She shoved the letter in front of them, forcing them to focus.

“Magistrate Capek called for me. Where is his office?”

They mumbled sheepish directions, not to an office but to a dungeon room in the cellars of the hall, then shuffled out of her way, not daring to look up.

Inside, the fear was a little less pronounced. More hardened members of the Nightwatch knew that simply looking wouldn’t invite a curse. They were still ignorant enough to spit on the floor as she passed, though. If she really were the vicious hag they imagined, she would have collected it for enough connection to send all manner of unpleasantness back to them, even across the walls of salt.

Lavinia found the room at the end of a long, damp hall, past cells mercifully bare of occupants. The magistrate and a grim Nightwatch lieutenant were debating something, with occasional glances to a heavy wooden door at the back of the room. Its iron binding and double-bolted hatch indicated a cell for something truly dangerous. The magistrate wasn’t in his court robes, but she could hear every ounce of polished dignity when he upbraided her.

“Where have you been, witch? I said to come at once.”

“I came as quickly as guards and searches let me. If you wanted me sooner, you should have sent a token for free passage.”

“And let you bring whatever mischief you desired inside the wards? No, not even for this. I won’t let another monster loose to deal with this one.”

Lavinia shrugged and kept shrugging until she could roll the shoulders of her dress down to her waist. If she started to bristle at their rudeness, she’d waste the evening and be sent back to Blackside with nothing, or maybe with a beating. The men stared as if they hadn’t seen a nipple since they were suckling. They barely had eyes for the real show.  Under careful fingers, her skin peeled back and opened in a wet, red mouth in her belly. Lavinia pulled out her knives: black iron, dark with oil and the weight of sin; bright silver, edges insubstantial as they blurred into the spirit spaces; and cold stone, flint sharp enough to cut the silence into jagged threads of soundlessness.

“I wouldn’t be much use without this mischief, or didn’t you want a witch? What’s made good Salters like yourselves willing to stoop down to blood magic? It must be something dreadfully interesting.”

She pulled the dress up slowly, half considered leaving it down just to savor their discomfort, but it was cold in this dank cellar.

The watchman’s voice dripped bitterness. His eyes stared at something other than the blank stone wall. “The animal in there;” He jerked his head to the cell, “likes to cut children, after he’s done other things to them. He killed five before we took him. The oldest one was ten. There’s a boy missing, and he won’t tell where the little one is without a witnessed pledge that he won’t face death for what he’s done.”

The magistrate nodded sadly when Lavinia looked at him.

“What do you need me for?” She asked. “Why don’t you put him on the rack and stretch until he talks? Or are you really too squeamish for that?”

“Not for a moment, Witch.” The watchman glared reproach for her lack of solemnity.

“Pavel would enjoy trying, until he remembered the cost failure,” said the magistrate. “Regrettably, the murderer is too intelligent. He knows we won’t risk killing him while there’s a chance to save the child, and whatever we could make him suffer is nothing next to what he’d get if he’s found guilty without a guarantee of lenience. Please, Mistress Lavinia, time may be running short for the kidnapped child. What can you offer us?” Lavinia could hear him biting back the bile he wanted to spew. It must hurt to humble himself even as far as politeness to a brazen sorceress like her.

At least she could offer a solution. “Simple enough. I can open his veins and pierce his heart, call a demon with the blood to fill his corpse, and it will know all he ever did and be bound to answer truly.”

They both recoiled. The hard-eyed constable reached halfway to his cudgel before he stopped, as if she were some night-comer for him to arrest and brand for daring to pass salt with magic in her heart. The magistrate looked green, but he managed to stammer out an answer first.

“Blood magic? Demons? What do you take us for?”

“For men who hired a Blackside witch to get their answers. What were you expecting?” Are they just as ignorant of what magic costs as the rich men who want to be young again? Witch hunters should know their quarry. Why balk at one that only the man they name a child-killer would pay? They thought she was a storybook monster who could fish the answer from their killer’s head with magic fingers.

Capek controlled himself a little. “Magic clouds the mind and bewitches the tongue. Unloose his words and bedevil him until he speaks. Make him think his bones are filled with boiling lead until he gives it up. Tear it out of his mind. Or don’t you have any real power to offer us?”

Greedy, ignorant fools. She wouldn’t get this nonsense at home. They knew you couldn’t get something for nothing there, but they also didn’t pay in proofed gold that was sure to shake off glamour. Her fingers itched to show right now what her knives could do, in payment for their disrespect, but there was a child in danger. She could bite her tongue for that.

“I won’t sit through another insult like that, honorable Magistrate Capek. I have power, more than enough for what you’ve asked, but power costs, and I don’t intend to pay my own coin on your behalf. I offered you a way to pay for this with the guilty man’s blood and spirit. Would you prefer to offer some of your own?”

The magistrate blanched again, looking at the three hungry blades laid on the table between them. Pavel scoffed.

“Why not take her offer, sir? He’s for the noose or worse. Why not just kill him now, if it’s sure to save the boy?”

“No. Even knowing he is guilty, giving him up for a dark ritual without a trial would make us no better. What can you do that will leave him alive, witch?”

Lavinia blinked a moment. She expected the magistrate to bend under a unified front. He won’t be any happier with the other options. She stroked her knives as she explained, so he’d have to picture just what she intended. Hopefully he’d accept the easy road and let her practice anatomy and sorcery on a deserving subject.

“I could do more-or-less what you want, with blood. Bring me a true-hearted man, and I can cut him to compel truth telling, or bring me a king and I can prick his finger to make the murderer bow and scrape and follow every order. Or if you haven’t those to spare, I could provide a demon that would get the information, torn from the criminal or plucked out of the aether, but demons want payment in blood and soul, and it won’t be mine on offer.”

Capek should never have invited her. He was sweating just at the thought of bloodletting, or of the blasphemy that went with it. He stammered something incoherent while he choked back bile.

Pavel slammed the table with a heavy fist. “Alright, damn it. Cut me if that’s the way to get this done. Time’s getting on, and every minute could be the end for that boy. Cut me and call something that can tell me what I need to know.”

He thrust his wrist across the table with a conviction she never expected, and made her regret offering temptation just to shock them. This thief-taker didn’t deserve some demon’s hooks deep in his soul because he wanted to save a little boy, even if he and his boss called her here without understanding what it would cost. That would be blind, not justice, and a quick way to earn a taint that vodka wouldn’t wash out, to never cross the borders to look at the Salt King’s palace in the moonlight again. She didn’t want to deserve the fear she drew from everyone who’d seen her walking in. She dressed the part, and she made deals, but she wasn’t ready yet to be a Blackside temptress trapping upright Salters in a devil’s bargain.

“I don’t think you quite understand what you’re offering, Lieutenant. If you make that bargain, It will cost something you can’t get back, and whatever I call up will remember you. It and all its friends will find ways to offer you things you can’t get any other way. I’d deserve the looks I got walking in here if I let you start down this road so hastily. There may be another way for me to earn my fee tonight. If your monster’s as ignorant as you two, perhaps I can scare him into talking without needing to conjure anything.”

She stood up and slipped her knives into their loops on the front of her apron, displaying them to best effect. She’d checked herself before in mirrors to make sure it looked just like Czevalny’s famous painting of a witch prepared for work.

Pavel scowled. “You can try, but I’ll accompany you. Even chained, I don’t trust that thing alone with anyone, not even someone as dangerous as you.”

He unlocked two heavy locks and slid back half a dozen bolts, then stepped inside before Lavinia. The room was dark, no light except what spilled through the open door. Pavel rattled the prisoner’s chains to make sure of them before he fumbled out a tinderbox to light the lamp. Lavinia could make a better impression than that. She dragged a fingernail across her flint blade and kindled the flame to life. A tap on the silver one slammed the door with a dramatic gust.

In the warm light, she studied the prisoner, shackled spread-eagle to the wall. He was dirty, like he’d been sleeping out of doors a few days, but under the grime he looked like an aristocrat, smooth skin and sharp cheekbones under a halo of golden angel curls. His clothes were worn, but they were sewn for him. They never gave her a name, but a gentle brush against her silver blade drew out a single drop of blood and paid for it.

“Hello, Karl. Do you know what I am?”

He smiled like a child let loose on the vendors of a winter market. “You’re a witch, a Blackside witch. Have you come to keep me company while I wait for these mean men to understand that they can’t save that little boy unless they give me what I want?”

He wasn’t afraid. “They brought me here to make you talk, Karl. The magistrate told me to fill your bones with boiling lead.”

His giggle bubbled up like something obscene rising from a fetid swamp. “You won’t though, of course not, because you understand about the children. You do understand, don’t you? There’s no point doing it with grown-up folk. They’re already broken. You can only ruin something that’s perfect.”

She never had a chance to terrify him. He was too baked in Salt Town ignorance, thought her magic was about the same surrender to corruption he’d made without a demon’s honeyed words, thought she was a monster, too. That was what they all thought, more or less. The guards, the magistrate, even desperate Pavel, they didn’t see a difference between her and this piece of filth beyond utility. She wanted to show them, all of them, that she was better, show them the difference between walking on a knife-edge and diving into the abyss.

It hit her. He really was like a demon. Just as certain of his own perfection, just as eager to have the world agree with his assessment. She could catch him, damn him with his own words, without letting anything from the other side put hooks into Pavel or herself.

She made herself nod along with Karl, meet his eyes and share a secret smile. She’d have to pitch things perfectly, or someone would balk. She needed everyone’s compliance for things to come off. She pantomimed a scowl of fury, something Karl would see through but think a stupid person wouldn’t. She stood and raised a hand. He caught her play and flinched from the imagined blow, clumsily stifling a smile. She went to Pavel, glowering from the corner, and whispered to him.

“I can get it out of him without tainting either of you. Leave. Keep Capek out, and seal the outside of the door with salt.”

He hesitated for a moment, but he must have seen the pleading in her eyes and trusted it, or decided to stop caring. He nodded. One victory.

“Alright, witch. I suppose I don’t want to watch you do your worst. Call out if that thing gives you trouble.”

Pavel slammed the door with appropriate force, and Karl stopped failing to hide his eagerness. He was hooked. Good. She’d enjoy something other than viewing the palace tonight.

“Well then, Karl. I can see you’re just the sort of man I and my friends need out in the world.” He squirmed, thrilled to hear that demons approved of his addiction. “You must do exactly what I tell you. I can get you out of here tonight, right now, no need to bargain with the magistrate.”

She had to be careful not to lie outright about what she was offering. He might weasel out of it if he made the deal under false pretenses. She let him assume the other half, that he’d be out back in Salt Town, that he’d be free to go back to the child and pick up what we was doing when the Nightwatch took him.

“I’m going to call one of my friends. I’ll need a little of your blood for that, and he’ll get you out, if you agree to give him something. I’ll need payment as well, that’s how the magic works. I want to know where you left the child, so I can get something out of the magistrate before I go. He’ll be happy to pay me if I can tell him that.” Let him assume that meant she didn’t care if the child was really there by the time the watchmen came.

“Not until you do what you’ve said. You could be tricking me.”

As if she’d refrain from the summoning once she had the child safe. No, that’s what the magistrate and the watchman would have done. Lavinia had more experience with monsters.

“Alright. Fair enough. Do you agree to let me use your blood for this?” Willing or dead, those were the rules, and dead would be too kind.

“Yes. As long as it doesn’t hurt too much, ha.” That bubble of giggle again, but he agreed.

Lavinia drew the iron knife. Black metal pierced his skin, opening a long cut down from the wrist. Chained like that, he couldn’t flinch. A flick of her wrist and his blood painted a black line across the floor, a cut in the skin of things to match his arm. For a moment it was just a seam, an opening to nowhere in particular, then Lavinia spoke a name that burned like spirits and raw vinegar in her throat, and there was something on the other side. Nails lodged and tore the seam apart. Lavinia felt it, like she always did, clawed fingers digging their way out from deep inside her gut, tearing and tearing and never breaking through, excruciating and filthy and erotic and addicting. It ended with fire, not the rush of blood, and Maranganet flickered his wings to shake off soot, brushed his chest clean with the large pair of hands, while the others, the maggot-white baby arms, made ceaseless obscene gestures at them both. His scent of musk and ashes filled the little room. Without a circle, she held him by will alone. She needed to make this quick or he’d go free and do whatever evil he desired, not just what she called him for.

“Tell me where the boy is, Karl, and then I’ll get you out.”

He looked at the demon with a lolling tongue, he’d never seen something he lusted for like that monstrosity.

“Yes, yes. He’s tied to a little raft in the water tank at St. Libertus square.”

She kept her sigh of relief silent. Relaxing now could still be fatal.

“Karl of Salt Town, and Maranganet of the Pit, I propose a bargain: Your freedom, Maranganet, in exchange for his prison. If both of you consent and blood my blade in token, I will seal it so.”

The demon smiled and licked each pair of lips in turn. He understood the trick, or thought he did. He said nothing, but reached out a finger and pricked it on the point. Black blood boiled to steam but left a stain.

“Yes, yes.” Karl shouted, and Lavinia heard a scuffle outside. She hoped they wouldn’t scuff the salt. She slammed the knife deep in Karl’s chest and felt his soul, oily and cold and tatter-edged, flow out and suck straight into the jagged crack Maranganet tore coming from below. That was the bargain. The demon’s freedom in hellfire for Karl’s prison of mortal flesh. Just what each had bargained for, and nothing more.

Maranganet flowed in just as Karl departed and flexed his new limbs. The murderer’s shadow shaped itself into an echo of the demon’s real form and hung on the corpse’s shoulders like a cloak. He tore a shackle from the wall with casual ease and leered at Lavinia, leaving no doubt what fleshly pleasure he wanted first. She pounded on the door.

“Let me out, now!”

 The door swung open so fast she fell through, turning it into an awkward hop to make sure she didn’t scuff the line of salt. She landed in a heap at Pavel and Capek’s feet. They’d been disputing just outside the door. Maranganet in Karl’s skin ran after her, but he struck the ward like a fly against a glass window. His shout of fury at the betrayal shook the hall’s foundation.

The magistrate fumed, terror forgotten in his fury. She’d confirmed all his worst suspicions. He didn’t wait for Pavel. He lifted her by the throat and slammed her against the wall. “What have you done?”

Lavinia struggled to force words out past his fingers “What you paid for. The child is hidden in the water butt outside the St. Libertus church. Karl is in the hell he deserves, and the demon who took his body will grow tired of being penned and return there itself soon enough. Leave the door warded and don’t let anyone speak to it, and it will be gone by morning. There is no stain on any of you. It’s done, and you’ve gotten what you asked for. Be happy all it cost was making you feel uncomfortable.”

She held his eyes, and he looked away first. He crumpled and let her down, and Pavel pulled him away. Capek paid her, grudgingly, making sure his hands never touched hers while he counted out the coins. Pavel stayed silent, not willing to admit approval for her methods.

The watchmen eyed her suspiciously as she walked back down the hill, but the salt king’s palace was beautiful and cold under the moon, and tonight she had as much right to it as any. She had done justice, with both eyes open. What did it matter how the guards looked at her when she could look into the mirror without blinking?

This story originally appeared in Body Parts magazine.

R. K. Duncan

Fantasy with darkness and a sharp edge of hope.