Bound to the Seeker
“You’re the one looking to break a curse?” the man asked, a pillow of foul-smelling tobacco following along with his words.
John Clarke wished he would keep it down. The mentioning of a curse wasn’t just something you casually dropped around strangers. And to the people of this town in the west, there were many strangers. Much like John, the people in Wren Peak came and went as they pleased. Most of them belonged to a place long dead. The mined-out mountains, the ghost towns of Arizona, and almost every coastal city that had been washed away. John himself belonged to a cattle farm east, though he would never say such a thing out loud.
“And who might you be?” John asked. He kept his best face around these folk. Not only did he need to look tougher, he needed to look older.
“Allen Underwood,” the man said. “And I’m asking the questions here.” His hands folded onto the wooden saloon table. The gray-and-black hairs on his arm poked up in curls.
Underwood was too close to John for his own comfort. He could feel the patches in Underwood’s scruffy hair, the gray whiskers on his chin. John tried to focus on the sounds of the saloon instead. A ragtag song was playing from the musician in the corner, with notes being mashed incoherently. Most people were too drunk or loud to notice. Good thing, too. John liked the drunk and loud. It meant they were too busy to pay him any mind.
“What’s your name, kid?” Underwood asked. “And what’s your business with the lady?”
“It’s James Smith. I can show you my business, but it’s not pretty,” John squealed out, struggling to breathe near the man’s rancid tongue.
Underwood chuckled, casually taking a swing out of a flask as he did so. “I’ve seen worse,” Underwood said. “After so many years working for Madame Seeker, you’ve seen it all.”
John refused to believe that. He had been desperately searching for a cure and had heard many names along the way. Of course, he had come across scams, more evil than back at home, and even a few flings of good luck. Even then, no one wanted to work with a kid, they didn’t think he had the money or strength for these ordeals. They weren’t wrong about the money. John was drained of every penny he had.
Still, he untied his shawl. The red wool fell off his left shoulder without a fight, brushing by what was left of him.
Still, he untied his shawl. The red wool fell off his left shoulder without a fight, brushing by what was left of him.
“Huh,” was all Underwood had the brains to say. John had expected worse of a reaction. His hand was long gone, and from there his skin had gone from alive to ash. A strong breeze could cause flakes to fly. If touched, a pile would crack off and turn to dust. It hurt more than it looked, though, and soon it would spread farther. It was crawling past his forearm now, and by the day it increased. It wouldn’t be long until he was gone, the day his beating heart would turn into a pile of dust.
“Think that Madame Seeker of yours could fix this?” John asked. His tone was snarky, giving a bitter taste in his throat.
Underwood scratched his gray chin hairs. His eyebrow lifted, as if he were seriously considering the possibility. “Yeah,” he finally said. “She can fix you up. Just follow me, try not to make a scene.”
Past the back alley of the saloon and past the underbush was a small ditch. Hidden by the plants and decline, John was met with a carriage. Its size was bigger than most, the top covered in black instead of the normal woolen white. Two horses were tied to the carriage in red and golden reigns with strange symbols etched into their saddles. They didn’t pay John or Underwood any mind as the men approached.
Underwood gestured to the steps up the carriage. John couldn’t see anything inside. He wasn’t sure if he should trust it, but he also didn’t have much of a choice.
Underwood stopped him before he ascended. “Are you sure about this, kid? I mean — that thing’s nasty for certain. But Madame Seeker, she can be nastier. I’ve seen things, men get twisted. It’s sick in there, I tell you. Her price is steeper than you think.” His face stayed strong, and his breath rancid, but worry settled in his eyes.
John didn’t need to think about it. He did not have the time for warnings from someone such as Underwood. He was an old man, a dying man who spent his days working and drinking. Unlike John, who was desperate because he had family back home. Above all else, he needed to clear his family’s name of this disease. John pushed Underwood’s hand off him with more strength than people expected from a boy such as himself. It was all his work in the cattle farm after all, it had given him strength. Though he wouldn’t dare admit that.
“I’ve heard it all before,” John told Underwood. “But it doesn’t matter. I’m willing to do anything to break this… this curse.”
Underwood stepped out of John’s way, opening the entrance to the carriage for him. It was abnormally large and dark. Compared with the outside, the interior seemed to be doubled in both width and length.
“Good luck,” Underwood told John. “You’re going to need it, kid.”
It was as if John Clarke found himself in another dimension. The air seemed to clear, and the light that was outside vanished. It would have been completely dark except for the paper lights that hung from the ceiling. They made the carriage glow a faint purple, their light flickering against the walls.
The room — or the carriage — was decorated with an abundance of items strewn about. Stacks of leather-bound books covered every side, plants of dark shapes grew within hanging pots, miniature marble statues were thrown about, and star symbols were etched onto the wooden ground. On a cage to his right, something squealed at John, throwing itself back and forth against the small golden bars to try to get to him. A bird squawked, its wings fluttering aggressively. John heard more sounds, including the whimper of a hurt hound that synchronized itself with growls and hisses. John could not pinpoint it all, not in such a dark room.
“Oh my,” a voice came. It was old, a voice with cracks and holes in it. So old, in fact, it sounded like a struggle to even speak.
“Madame Seeker?” John guessed. He could not see the woman, but he could tell her voice came from farther within the room.
“My name in the west,” she said. “And one of many here, just in this country.” A cat startled John, prompting him to jump away from where he stood. The thing twirled between John’s legs and looked up at him with that catlike curiosity. The yellow eyes expanded then blinked from its sides like a reptilian. John backed away from the cat, moving slowly so as not to anger it.
A cat startled John, prompting him to jump away from where he stood. The thing twirled between John’s legs and looked up at him with that catlike curiosity. The yellow eyes expanded then blinked from its sides like a reptilian.
The old woman laughed, a cackling sound that was raspy and thin. “I see Mamba likes you. Good.”
With a whoosh John was almost blown back. A heavy wind came from inside the room, setting off many candles he had not noticed before. The sudden burst of light blinded him, forcing John to blink tears out of his eyes.
His sight came back quickly, and he saw the room in its full complexity. It looked all too similar to a witch’s room. Symbols of stars and magic hung from the wall, incense was bound together with tough string, herbs grew in every pot, restless animals were confined in tight cages, and almost every jar held some sort of unnameable ingredient. The walls were a dark wooden color, and the stone ceiling was cracked with moss.
Madame Seeker sat against the wall of the room, a large red headdress poking out above everything else. With all the books and ingredients thrown about, John could not get a good look at her.
“Come closer,” she instructed. “And try not to step on anything.”
John hesitated at first, as if his body were shutting down the idea of seeing it through. It took all his strength to lift his leg, to put one foot in front of the other. His steps glued with every inch of movement, and his eyes darted around the room.
His surroundings became darker as he approached Madame Seeker, the air thicker. John was suddenly wrapped in fog, dense and cloudy. He brushed it away, trying to get a good look at the old woman who sat still on the black cushion.
“Sit,” Madame instructed. With no complaint, John sat on the floor. For a moment the two let the fog further envelope them. It moved as if it were a being of its own. The gray, white, and brown mixing together, pulling at one another in a never-ending cycle. A teapot steeped to life. The lid popped up and down, the bright paint seeming to glow from the heat. The pot depicted a painting of men beneath a pink tree, all bowing to a woman wearing silk robes.
“A gift from a land you have never been to,” Madame explained. “As you have never left the country, John Clarke.”
“Never even left the west,” John added. He didn’t find himself surprised that she knew all this. He never used his real name in the west anymore. Nor did he tell people where he had been and where he hadn’t. In fact, John wouldn’t have been surprised if this seeker knew everything about him.
The cat called Mamba came pouncing back. On its back, perfectly balanced, were two cups of steaming red tea. Two hands extended out from the fog, grabbing for the cup. The hands, and the arms that followed, were a dark gray. They were incredibly thin, in fact nothing but skeletal outlines of what was once a human. Golden bracelets loosely hung from the wrists, and the bony fingers shook as they grabbed the cup.
John could not hide his surprise, as he had never seen anything like it. Madame seemed to notice his widened eyes and sudden stillness of breath. The hands shot back into the fog with such sudden speed John had never seen human hands accomplish, let alone dead ones.
“Would you like some tea?” Madame offered, as Mamba approached him. Finding it rude to refuse, John took the brightly painted tea cup from the cat’s back. It meowed at John, politely nudging him to drink. The tea went down his throat smoothly, tasting like the liquid of a peanut. It was thick, too, thick like the milk on John’s old cattle farm. He didn’t tell this to Madame.
“Bush tea,” Madame said. “From Africa.”
“You’re well traveled,” John commented.
“It is good for the brain.” With a clink, Madame set down her cup of tea. “You can learn so much.”
John needed to hurry up the small talk. He did not have time for this, and an odd feeling had been following him ever since he had stepped into the town of Wren Peak. It had only gotten worse in the presence of this seeker.
“I heard you can help me with my… problem,” John said. He didn’t like saying words such as curse or demons out loud, believing the same as many that it brought about problems.
Madame laughed again, which was nothing but a rattle followed by a raspy hiss. “Humans. So quick and to the point. Especially here, I’ve found everyone moves very fast here. Then again, I suppose none of you have much time. Most of you live such short lives.” Madame cleared her throat, and John heard a hacking sound. She began to throw a coughing fit. The rattling sound came back, and her body seemed to shake the whole room. “My apologies,” Madame said as she calmed down. “But yes, I can help you. Let me see it.”
John once again untied the red woolen shawl. His rotting arm didn’t like the pillow of thick smoke around him, seeming to burn under its pressure. The seeker’s skeleton hands came back. They did not touch his arm at first but instead slowly hovered over it, her fingers glancing by. Then, with the same speed as before, she clutched John’s dead arm.
It burned, worse than anything had ever burned in John’s life. He thought he was on fire, or in the pits of a fiery hell. He let out a scream of pain, of deep agony and regret. Madame did not let go yet, and her long, sharp fingernails cut into his skin. It felt as though venom was entering John’s bloodstream. He’d rather be dead than experience such things.
Then, just like that, Madame released. The burning withdrew as well, and the pain receded. John withered to the floor, the same as any dying snake would do, and tried to rack his brain back into full consciousness.
“Just as I thought,” Madame said. “It’s a demon. Or an evil spirit, an angry demigod or a million other things. They’re all the same. They’re evil, they work for somebody of unyielding power.”
“Wh-why did you do that?” John asked. He felt fine now, but his throat was dry and tears streamed down his puffy face.
“It is a demon that knows of me,” Madame told John. “One that is afraid of me. They have warded your body not just against good, but against me.”
“Does that mean you can’t get rid of this?” John asked. His breathing was sparse, the heavy fog seemed to clear from him as he struggled.
“I can get rid of it,” Madame rasped. “The price is the only thing you should worry about.”
John sat himself upright again. He was prepared, he reminded himself. He was prepared for death or torture or anything this Madame had in store. Getting rid of this curse wasn’t for him, after all.
“I’ll do anything,” John said. “Anything to kill this thing.”
“Those children are lucky to have you. Especially that sister of yours.”
“I’m just doing my duty,” John said, winding up his red shawl.
Madame disagreed. “You are working with me, that is more than just duty. The men that crawl in here, most do it for themselves.”
John tried to set Madame back on track. “And what of the price? I’m prepared for anything.”
“Servitude to me,” Madame said. “You shall be my puppet, my servant, my dutiful collector. Whatever it is I need from you, you shall do.”
John had been prepared for this answer. Everyone wanted free labor these days, in the coal mines or on the railroad tracks. It definitely hadn’t been the worst thing Madame could come up with. That didn’t mean he would blindly agree.
“How do I know you aren’t lying? How do I know you really are going to help me?” John asked.
“I know your name, I know your family. I know that you had a cattle farm before the cows all disappeared. John Clarke, I know everything about you. I am a being unlike any other you have come across. You have no reason to doubt my powers.”
“I don’t,” John agreed. “But I know many things, too. This room I walked into was once a carriage, but now its ceiling is made of stone. Your hands are long dead, and this place is warded with symbols that a witch would have. I wouldn’t be surprised if you are a demon just like the others. With this room of yours being your own pocket of hell to control.”
“So you know of such things.” the seeker said, sounding almost amused as she spoke. “I reassure you I am no demon. Or an evil spirit of sorts. I am much older than you, much older than this country. I am from a time where power was not just possessed by the evil, it was possessed by the good and many in-between. Though I cannot claim to be the good I speak of. I am just a woman who would be bored by the death of humans. A woman who finds it most entertaining to help them and most helpful to have them in my pocket. It is impossible for me to live without them, just as it is impossible to get somebody like you to trust me.”
It was true, John did not trust easily. In fact, he did not trust anyone dealing in witchcraft or magic. What other options did he have, though? He had searched the west in vain so far. This was his last chance. John did not need to think about it any longer, nor did he need to ask anything else. It had long since been settled in his mind.
“You have a deal,” John said. “I’ll serve you for life if I have to.”
Madame cackled, and the fog around them became much denser. John could no longer see his hand in front of him, just the hazy purple suffocating him. Wind whistled around him in all directions. Where he looked didn’t matter, he could not see a thing. The room had evaporated, and instead he only found the purple smoke.
Only in front of him did the haze clear. He stood still for a moment, and the wind stopped for him. It was quiet, too quiet. Hands shot out of the fog, the dark gray skeleton hands. They grasped John’s face. They were cold and stronger than he had imagined. Madame Seeker appeared now in her full self. Her body was the same as her hands. A rotted corpse, with her ribs and torso nothing but dark bones. Covering her body were golden bracelets, too big for the living dead. The face was no different, and the Madame’s eyes were gone, all that was left were hollow sockets. Her white hair was long and ran down to the floor, encircling them. She wore a red headdress, which poked out above her like a fan. Madame’s body was not made for standing, just as it wasn’t made for living. It shook about as it stood, grasping with mighty strength onto John.
Madame Seeker appeared now in her full self. Her body was the same as her hands. A rotted corpse, with her ribs and torso nothing but dark bones. Covering her body were golden bracelets, too big for the living dead. The face was no different, and the Madame’s eyes were gone, all that was left were hollow sockets.
Her body suddenly came to life, with golden symbols etched all about her. They ran out to her arms, and onto her hands and fingers. The glow appeared on her nails and slowly her pointer fingers let go of John’s face. Her fingers lifted and then descended for his eyes. He felt the piercing, the squish of his eyes popping into his brain. He felt liquid pouring out of his face, liquid that may have been tears or blood.
Suddenly, his mind was flushed with memories. Of his life on a cattle farm not so west. The disappearance of the cows, which brought about the demons. Of the harshness of winters, the death of family. The isolation of an empty farmland, of a desolated church.
Then his memories flashed forward to that night in fall. He could hear the incoming storm, though the morning hadn’t shown a cloud in sight. His sister had cried that night, and it had woken him. She was a frail thing, her bones clutched to her skin. She wept of a tale of demons. A demon that had plagued their family of death, one that talked to her in dreams.
He had not believed her, not until it came for revenge. His sister was not to speak out, but she had. Now her family would pay the price. John would suffer, as would the rest of them. She would be last, she should see it all. John had heard the demon then. It was a quiet voice, so quiet a whistle of the wind could silence it. That did not take away from the power it held, the commanding tone and sinister hiss in its words.
“Selah,” Madame’s voice called out from his memory. “I know of her. A silent one, an evil one. She prays on children. An easy hunt for someone of her esteem.”
John tried to reply, but when his mouth opened, thick blood came oozing out, running down his chin and staining his clothes.
Madame began to chant, in a language John did not speak. The voices of many followed her in pursuit. They all merged together, making the chant sound incomprehensible.
Once again John felt the burning in his arm. It was harsh, and Madame’s venom pierced his skin. This time, though, he could not scream. He could not drop to the ground in pain. He stood, and he accepted what felt harsher than any death could be.
He must have blacked out, for when John Clarke came to, he was on the ground of a messy carriage. There was no more fog, and he could see Madame Seeker, her twisted legs propping her on the pillow. He watched as her thin gray lips, chapped and cracking, sipped slowly from the ceramic tea cup.
“You are alive,” Madame noted. “I am impressed.”
John tried to sit up, but an aggressive hiss stopped him. A lump of black lay on top of him. Mamba looked at him threateningly with their yellow eyes.
“You are strong for just a boy. Your strength impresses even me.”
“Does that mean something to me?” John asked. He tried to move both his arms, tried to get his face off the ground.
“You are a bit dense though,” Madame said. “But, why yes, he shall do. Don’t you agree, Mamba?”
The cat meowed, jumping off John’s back and pouncing into Madame’s lap of bones.
John sat himself up. His body ached, as if every inch of him had been bruised. He stretched his arms along with the rest of his body. Madame looked at him patiently. Slowly, he realized what was wrong or, more so, what was right with him. He looked back at both of his arms and found that he did, in fact, have two of them. What was once rotting away was now whole. He inspected the arm, close and far. He could see a faint purple glow moving through his skin, seemingly replacing his nerves. That may not have been good, but when he wanted to move it close, it moved close, and if he wanted it far, it went far. That was good enough for John.
He looked back at both of his arms and found that he did, in fact, have two of them. What was once rotting away was now whole. He inspected the arm, close and far. He could see a faint purple glow moving through his skin, seemingly replacing his nerves.
“Is it… real?” he asked.
“As much as it can be,” Madame said. “It is as real as your debt for me. One I would not try to outrun.”
“I won’t,” John promised. It wasn’t a lie either. His arm was back to normal, and his body did not burn. Madame had cured him, and she surely had power far above that which he could escape.
“You should get your rest now,” Madame said. “As you have many years of hunting ahead of you.”
“Hunting?” John asked. “What do you mean, hunting?”
Mamba looked up at Madame, their head moving side to side. Madame craned her neck down, and a loud snap followed. The two looked at each other, as if silently conversing. Finally, Madame brought her head up.
“Business is always changing, and I am looking to expand. People don’t just want to be cured anymore, they want revenge. I need a bounty hunter with a strong head for that, of course. Not a frail woman such as myself.”
John had only ever been a farmhand. Training under his father to one day take over the business. When the cows left, he was just a survivor, escaping the wrath of angry men who did not know who to blame. Then he was a man, at seventeen years old, when the demon had cursed his family. It was the same as today. He would become a bounty hunter because it was what he had to be.
“All right then,” John said. “I’m ready to fulfill my debt.”
Sam Heiden is a current high school junior. She recently started publishing work and appreciates any time her work gets evaluated as time is valuable.