The men carried on deeper through the woods. Another mile and Jerocobish spotted the old hut, made of splintered logs carved with symbols with a branch-covered roof. There were wooden chimes and beastly totems. Animal hides and more wooden webs.
Grotknot lifted an ear, "you hear that?"
Jerocobish leaned against a tree and heard the sound of singing wind; a high and smooth song that whistled with the chimes.
"I hear it too," Jostice cocked the hammer back, "a flute?"
"He knows we're here," Jeroco looked sharply from one tree to the other. "And he won't be happy."
"Why?" Grotknot asked.
"Because those were his wives that we left to hang…"
Jostice glared at the old man.
"Don't be fools," Jerocobish said, proceeding cautiously "the music is to mask his movement."
The men spread out, ten paces between each other, working their way up from tree to tree. Bush to bush. Down and low.
Grotknot looked to his fur-covered boot. "Just a twig," he snickered.
Jostice eyes glanced over then followed a tree to its point. "Wait!"
Grotknot took another step; there came three knocks from above; a chime spun as hollow wood collided.
Jerocobish saw the movement in the trees,
The man turned towards him; something wooshed by him and smacked the tree. Grotknot twisted at his hips, finding Jostice's arm slung downward, one knee on the ground.
Grotknot then searched the dirt and his eyes found what hit the tree; a log prodded with small wooden spikes.
Jeroco and Jostice kept their eyes on the tree as they moved to his position. Once there, the old man picked up the log and yanked out a dart.
"Poison…" He said spinning the wood in his fingertips, the tip covered in greenish-sap.
Jeroco recalled where it was found; the forest was crawling with creatures and critters. And one he'd known to stay away from since he was a boy....The willowweed spider, he recalled.
"It's been drawn from the willoweed's sack."
"Willowweed?" Grotknot hadn't grown up in their woods and knew little of their dangers.
Jostice shook his head, "shit," and pulled out three smokes.
Jerocobish examined the needle closer. "A grown willoweed is no threat," he told Grotknot. "Big, with large fangs, but not poisonous." He knew what the Boarman was going to ask next so he saved him the trouble. "Though the spiderlings are lethal."
Jostice blew smoke. "Find your face in a freshly hatched nest and you'll be on the ground, eyes white and foaming before you even knew you were hit." He handed them each a smoke.
Groknot raised an eyebrow, "what's this fer?" He took the burning, rolled tobacci.
"Spiderlings don't much like smoke." Jostice said. "Keep the smoke in front of you and you'll be just fine." He winked.
Grotknot chuckled and punched Ace square in the arm.
Jostice rubbed away the pain, "what was that for?"
Grotknot pointed to the log riddled with darts.
"Much thanks," he grinned. "How'd you learn to throw like that?"
"Learned," Jostice laughed, "I got lucky…"
The men moved up to the hut, each one watching the corners and the trees closely. Jerocobish recalled battling the Noki during the War of Nations. They were the most elusive of the natives in southern Texionya. They called themselves The Ones of the Trees...the soldiers called them The Nightmares of the Forest. Most were wiped out, but the few that remained stayed in the forest and worked as merchants and tradesmen after the proclamation of peace had been signed.
Jerocobish slid into the hut. Gun raised and eyes forward; the smell of sage and wild mint tickled his nostrils. The place was familiar to him, one he'd gone to many times, and much larger than it appeared from the outside; with many rooms and no doors, all connected together like a puzzle.
They followed the sound of the flute, going from room to room, clearing the place swiftly until they found themselves in a large open space at the center of the hut; Hundreds of wooden webs hung while smoke raised from clay bowls positioned throughout the room. There were hides for beds, and a webbed wooden throne that sat on a platform towards the back.
Grotknot sneezed, "should we be breathing this crap in?"
Jostice looked around suspiciously. "Shit…a trap!"
Jeroco blinked twice; the room began to move like a morning's mist sweeping through the city. "Wilder powder," he coughed. "Used to muddle one's head."
He blinked again...
A large blur appeared from the eastern wall, swiped at the men and vanished.
Jerocobish groaned. He felt his arm dripping, "the walls." They were made of limbs packed tightly together. "He's in the walls—"
There was a click, a woosh, and a groan from the bearded man. "He got me…"
Jostice tucked his nose into his bandana, "He got me too…" He held pressure on his bloody leg.
Jerocobish could hear the flute; it's whistle moving from one side of the room to the next, whistling all around him.
Jeroco pivoted right as a giant, black spider-like shadow ran left; he fired and the creature swung; the old man's knee bent inward and he fell. He groaned loudly.
Jostice fired as the shadow ducked, and spun around, slicing him twice, and the bearded man once. He disappeared.
"He's playing with us…" Jostice said.
Jeroco kneeled to the floor, placing his hand down to balance himself; He felt his head spin, the room twirling like it'd been caught in a tornado.
The flute whistled to his left. A click and three swipes came after...the men were all on their knees, groaning in pain.
Jeroco closed his eyes and the flute grew louder. Right side of the room. Left side of the room. Right side. Left side. That's it… He thought, taking a shallow breath. The spider moves with the wind.
The old man turned towards his left; there was a click and he fired three times...thud. A half naked body covered in leaves and beads besides him.
"Put out that smoke…" He coughed, waving to the men.
Jeroco looked at the witch doctor. He wore a great black mask, painted with white webs. Long, spider-leg spears attached to his back, curling above his head. Jeroco removed the mask and a face white as a skull, with eyes red as fire, looked at him.
"I'm sorry, Jerocobish," He coughed. "They threatened my family—" His eyes glossed over and he exhaled his last breath.
That means… Jeroco turned towards the men, eyes wide. "It's confirmed," he coughed. "The Silent Shepherds have returned…"
There was a rush of energy to his head; the room spun and Jeroco collapsed.
He came to a few hours later, lying in a bed he didn't recognize; in a room that smelt of stale air and swamp grass. Jeroco looked around, there wasn't much to the room. A few lizard skulls and an oil lamp that hung on the wall while a man draped in shadows rocked in a chair.
"Who's there?" Jeroco asked, an eyebrow raised. "Where's Jostice...and Grotknot?"
"They've gone to retrieve your things," the voice was harsh and hissed.
"Is that you Rodge?"
The man looked from behind the brim of his hat; the scaly-skin flickery black and silver. "It is…" He said. "So it's true, then...the Shepherds have returned."
"And the Brother of the Bastyouns," Jerocobish said, sitting up in bed. "Is Zachariah safe?"
The man rubbed his sprouted chin and nodded.
"And you sent Boone to Sundown City?"
"In the protection of the Sheriff."
Scaleface snickered. "You know that won't work…"
He stood up from the chair and walked towards the bed, a whip dangling from his hip. "There's word Earldarlie will be in the city for the tournament...We'll need his help."
Help? His lip lowered. "That man can't even help himself—"
"I understand you two don't particularly like each other...but if we're to draw them out, we'll need a man who can do it—and that's not you."
He's right, damnit...Earld did it before, he can do it again.
"So you and your...outlaws ... you'll join the Bastyouns?"
The man looked down upon him shaking his head. "The Bastyouns died a long time ago. And we're not outlaws, we're gamblers." He smirked. "We'll help, for old times sake...but there's a price." He laughed. "There's always a price."