Author’s Note: This story was written live on stream with the audience bidding tokens (earned while watching) to determine the path of the story. The underlined phrases in the choice of three were the winning pathways. Stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade if you’d ever like to participate in our interactive fiction.
Missing Water Missing Timber Missing Silver
It was a small pious town on the edge of truly brutal territory. One mile further west and it wouldn’t have stood a chance. They had to stay right where they were; if they’d gone any further they never could’ve accessed the river and dug their own channels and wells. The biggest building by far was the church, though they didn’t make a show of it. There was no stained glass and there was no cross atop it. Though they worshiped Jesus there, all were welcome and all were blessed under their roof.
They might’ve rethought that policy if Walter had arrived sooner. He was not the sort to accept blessings. He thought everybody had to make their own; he usually made his with bullets or a few precise slices with his hunting knife. He came up on the church one Sunday, during service, hoping to stay at their inn. The inn was unoccupied, because every bottom was in a pew.
He approached the church, already feeling like the devil even though he hadn’t interrupted yet, and stopped thirty feet in front of it. Strange. There were plenty of trees in town, plenty of shade on this hot day, but he still felt the sun and grit in his mouth. He was suddenly very thirsty, but it shouldn’t be a problem for long.
They’d built the church barely fifty feet in front of the river. That had to be foolish, these lands did flood on occasion, giving their desert neighbor a skirt of ephemeral flowers, yet there it was just past a few graves with clean headstones. Walter moseyed past the church, he wouldn’t drink through a whole sermon, and to the river’s edge.
Down on his knees, he reached in and made a scoop of his palms. He got nothing but air. He nearly fell forward into the dry riverbed. Walter hopped back to his feet, as if he’d seen it all snatched up right in front of him. It wasn’t exactly dry; there was still mud on the bottom. A crayfish, limping along like its armor was made of lead, plowed through it towards a dead catfish.
“What in the name of god’s little lamb…” he scratched his sweating forehead under the brim of his black hat. He toed the edge of the bank and watched pebbles drop down into the mud and sink. “That complicates things…” Walter turned around and headed back to the church. There were only two signs on either side of the front door. One of them read All are welcome and the other was not something he’d ever seen on a church before.
A missing poster. Very well drawn too. It could’ve been an illustration in a children’s book, and those children were the kind born sucking on silver spoons and shaking pearls in their rattles. It wasn’t for a kidnapped child. It wasn’t for a prize-winning pig or calf that someone was particularly fond of. It wasn’t a dog or cat or parakeet. It was the river. He wondered how accurate the recreation was. Had they looked at a photograph? Was there always one or two waves that looked like locks of disobedient hair?
Walter snorted. What was he doing? He was in town for a bed and nothing else. If these folks had misplaced their river, that was between them and the land. He pushed the doors open and strolled inside. All eyes turned to him.
Water Witches A Block of Ice Sand Baptism
He didn’t say anything. He always let others speak first, just like shooting, and just like flirting. He was a rock, and you had to push him down a steep hill to get him going. For the moment there was plenty to take in. There was a preacher, as he expected, but he was flanked by some very strange figures: three women on each side all holding thick smooth sticks that branched once.
They wore necklaces of small animal bones and dry flowers behind their ears and in their hair. Every step they took caused another petal or two to break loose and drift to the creaky wood floor. All the parishioners looked normal enough, except for the fact that they found Walter stranger than the women around the pulpit. They expected him to say something. Nope. They’d have to explain themselves first. He could stand there until his spurs rusted and they put a plaque on him thinking he was a statue.
“Welcome stranger,” one of the stick-holding women said. She didn’t lower it, and she didn’t step forward. “If you’ll give us a minute, we’re in the midst of something mighty important.” Walter nodded. He took a seat in the pew furthest back and crossed his arms. A free show was a free show, and he was a man who would see discarded stale popcorn as free food.
The eyes turned forward. The women resumed. The weren’t quite dancing, but they moved with grace and curiosity. They pointed their branches at every corner of the place and had them drift over three open books on the pulpit. All the while the preacher stood there, sweating. He looked especially nervous when the ends of a stick or two passed over his body.
The women hummed while they worked, some of them transitioning into wordless song. They moved out over the pews, their branches passing over everyone’s heads. Eventually one of them got to Walter. The branch danced over his head longer than many of the others, and it started to annoy him. If it had lingered a moment longer he would’ve swatted it like a fly. The ceremony went on like that for more than ten minutes, but eventually the women gathered near the pulpit once more, with concern chiseled on their faces.
“I gather you had no luck,” the preacher said. In response, the women set their branches down on the table behind him. They bowed their heads and, in unison, apologized to the congregation. Their disappointment was nearly tangible. Walter could taste it in his dry mouth. “Well, we appreciate you ladies trying. That leaves us with no recourse. We will have to abandon the town for wetter pastures.”
“I’d rather you didn’t,” Walter said. All eyes turned his way again. It was fine to speak now. They’d already addressed him first. Things were rolling. “I need a place to stay for the night, and I’d like someone there to cook me breakfast in the morning. It could be any of you really, anyone who can handle a griddle and five eggs. You don’t need to juggle them or nothing.”
“I trust you saw the sign out front?” the preacher said. He wiped his forehead with a handkerchief, but didn’t seem frightened. He was more worn out, like a bird with wing tips dragging across the ground. “Our river has gone missing. We have no water, and with no water we’ll soon have nothing else. These ladies and their water witching were our last hope. We wanted to pick up the river’s trail, but it’s gone cold. We were going to leave tonight and follow whatever stars the lord set out for us.”
“There are other trails to follow,” Walter offered. “I know how to follow them. Spent most of my life tracking something. I can help you. In exhange of course. I want free lodging, and all I can eat tonight and tomorrow. I can eat the fatter end of the hog by the way, just preparing you.”
“If you can find our water, you can have whatever you want,” the preacher assured. “Where do we start?”
Call the Dog A Bigger Stick Follow the Riverbed
“We start in the bed,” Walter said plainly. “It couldn’t have gone far.” With that he stood and strolled out of the church. The population of the town streamed out behind him, the water witches bringing their branches just in case he actually could pick up the trail. The women held up their dresses and followed him right down into the mud. That poor heavy crayfish had to burrow for its life to avoid all the worried feet and boots.
Walter wasn’t overly fond of being followed, but he just tried to think about the size of the omelet he could get the next morning. He saw himself wrapped in a warm steamy blanket of egg and hash-browns. The preacher was right behind him, along with the woman who had spoken to him. He glanced over his shoulder. She wasn’t bad looking. Maybe if he saved the town something else could keep him warm that night. He was a little afraid that if he went another fortnight without a woman he’d wake up pricklier than a cactus.
His finger dragged through the mud. He rubbed it against his thumb and smelled it. There wasn’t much to go by. It was mud, of a normal composition for the region. There was algae. There was one thing he expected that he didn’t find. Fish scales. If a river disappears, it does so quickly. The water had to move fast, fast enough to make the fish flake, yet there was no sparkle in the mud and only one dead fish. There were plenty of fearsome critters in the west, but none that could drink a whole river. Something had simply taken it, with enough care to keep most of the fish intact.
“Come on,” he told the whole of the anxiou town. He marched in the direction of the river’s source, based on the patterns in the mud, and they followed. It wasn’t a short trip. They walked for an hour, until the women got too tired to hold up their dresses. Some gave up one side, and others both. By the end of the next hour, every hem was heavy and brown.
The sun got low. As it descended the water witch walked closer and closer behind him. Eventually, when everything was cast in orange, she was right by Walter’s side. For a while she pretended to hold her divining rod out in front of her and search. Walter waited. He knew she’d drop the pretext. Everybody else spoke first with Walter.
“Where do you come from stranger?” she asked.
“Land,” he answered simply.
“I didn’t accuse you of being a dolphin. What state? What territory?”
“Why do you ask?”
“I want to know where I can go to get the skills to find a missing river. I can find a good well spot faster than you can stomp a grape, but whatever’s causing all this has eluded me and the other girls.”
Not her Business The Coast Complete Lie
“The coast,” he answered. He glanced over. He wasn’t stupid. She wanted to know which coast, and she was getting irritated. Better not to irritate any sort of witch, even if she was just the sort who found water and brewed infatuation concoctions. “The west coast. A beach called Searhead.”
“Never heard of it.”
“We had a city… whole thing burned down.”
“Outlaws. They didn’t like so many people coming out of Searhead who could track so well. Thought we had too much power, were too good at snooping and finding their stolen goods. So they torched it all and moved on to places with more vulnerable treasure. Never understood why they didn’t just leave. Must’ve been bitter. So bitter they had no soul left.”
“So why was the training in Searhead so good?” she asked. She inched closer. Walter let her. She could make whatever moves she wanted. He was on the trail and she couldn’t get him off it. Her branch bumped into a large rock and cracked up the middle, but she paid no attention. With another glance he gleaned the look in her eye. Greed? Lust? Impossible to tell in the waning light.
“They trained us to sniff things out from across the sea,” he explained. “We tracked scents from other continents that drifted our way like dying rafts. We got better than bloodhounds. Soon we were seeing things on the horizon, just above the waves. The future. The likely. It’s not even tracking that we do; it’s just the magic of seeing the curve of the world and knowing how things go.”
“What god let you do all that?”
“Wasn’t a god. I’m not a follower of Jesus or whoever you witchy ladies are praying to. I’m surprised by the way; I’ve rarely seen the preachers and the witches getting along, especially this far out from the cities.”
“Jesus loves all his children,” the preacher said, finding his way to Walter’s other side. Walter pushed back the feeling he was stuck in the middle of saloon doors. They all stepped over rocks. The ones buried in the riverbed were getting much larger. “I thought we could all work together to find the water. Jesus also hates a man wasting his talents.”
“He’s using them right now,” the witch defended. “Why don’t you back up preacher and give him some space.”
“I don’t need space,” Walter told them both. “We’re here. There’s your lost river.” The town crowded around behind him. They gasped and pointed, but they did not rejoice. They couldn’t have it yet. The powers that stole it wouldn’t release it, and they weren’t scared of Jesus, pagan gods, or even Walter.
River Knotted Stone Dam Reverse Rain
The river stood before them. Walter had seen much in his life, he’d seen dogs elected mayor, fish with golden scales, and a town that could never stop square dancing, but he’d never seen a knotted river before. That was the only way to interpret what they saw. The river curled out of the bed and wound around itself tightly, creating a giant knot of stopped-up water and fish. The poor animals seemed even more confused. They leapt out of the tightest parts of the river’s flow only to fall back into another loop of the knot. They couldn’t even find an escape in death.
“How… how on Earth did this happen?” the preacher asked nobody in particular. Rather than ask questions, the water witches slowly walked around the edges of the giant knot. They probed it with their divining rods, and the rods shook mightily. A few even escaped from their hands and vibrated their way across numerous rocks like dancing crickets.
“Any theories from Searhead?” the witch at Walter’s side asked. The concentrated water of the knot made her cracked divining rod split in two. She let the halves drop. Walter stared at the knot, eventually approaching it. The townsfolk moved forward, but always stayed behind him. He was their rock. Not the preacher. Not the witches.
“It’s tangled,” he said when his face was inches from the knot. He reached up and put a finger into it. The current was strong, strong enough to blast all of them away. The knot was storing all the river’s energy. He knew that, eventually, it would bust open on its own, and the resulting flood would wash away their entire town and all the trees. The desert flowers would look quite lovely for half a season though.
These are the things he saw with his horizon-sight. In the knot, swimming between the fish, between the trout and the bluegills, he also saw some other possibilities. He saw the town blaming him for their eventual doom. He saw that flirtatious witch capturing him and ordering him to train her cohorts in Searhead-tracking. He saw the preacher giving up his vocation and following Walter around, because the man in the black hat could do more for their problems than Jesus ever had.
He didn’t want any of those to come to pass. Walter did what he could to keep people from resting on him, but it was difficult when you were such a solid rock. He was knotted now, tangled up in their affairs, and even if he solved the problem there was no escaping without hangers-on. There was even one possibility, after the captivity, where that witch insisted he marry her. He wouldn’t have minded a good woman, but he wanted someone with the same abilities of foresight. That way all their arguments could end before they started.
People whispered behind him when he didn’t immediately offer a solution. They got bored enough to approach the knot. Children tapped its edge and used the resulting spray to drench each other. They started to giggle and play in its shadow. Eventually the preacher saw an opportunity to burst into sermon. He was already staking his claim around the idea of punishment. They’d sinned, and the water was being withheld, but there was hope, because it was still there. They just needed to untie the knot with their faith and good deeds and it would return. Walter doubted that. What he saw was nature being stubborn, and perhaps a little broken. The west was big, there was a lot of water and land smashing into each other, and sometimes it just went wrong.
Tell the Truth Break the Knot Blame the Witches
“If you speak, they’ll listen,” the witch said. She picked up one half of her divining rod and shook it back and forth uselessly. “We need what your family had. I love my craft, but we can’t undo this knot.”
“I can’t undo it either,” he told her. Her eyes widened.
“What do you mean?”
“I found your water, like I said. I don’t know what I would do about this knot though. I haven’t the hands or magic to untangle such a thing. I don’t solve messes, I weather them.”
“Don’t tell everybody else that. They expect the world of you by now,” she warned.
“I’m not afraid of your expectations,” he said. “Watch.” Walter put himself in front of the knot, in front of everyone, and cleared his throat. They all looked to him. “Your town doesn’t have long,” he told them in his loudest voice since they’d met. “That knot’ll burst and flood you out. You’ll die if you don’t leave.” There were protests. They called him a liar. The words didn’t even hit him as hard as rain. They didn’t hit as hard as fog. Only nature could wear him down.
“The lord would not do that without a chance at redemption,” the preacher assured them. “This man can find problems, but he is not our solution.”
“No, I am not,” Walter admitted. “You should get going though. I don’t know how long this thing’ll hold. It’s a shame I couldn’t get that breakfast.” Walter sat in the mud beneath the knot. He lowered his hat. Was he giving up? Did he want to be drowned in the bursting of the knot? The witch who’d spoken with him rushed over and pulled off the hat, but there was no longer a man there.
In his place sat a large rock. The witch snorted a bitter laugh. It was no wonder he could see the future. He’d probably seen most of the past. They had expectations of nature, of people, but no matter what form Walter took, he was immune. He would sleep with the river instead of in one of their beds. He would wait it out, because he could always fall back on his stony soul.
“Let’s go everyone,” the witch told them. “There’s nothing here that’s for us. It’s just water and rocks. Sometimes you have to make like the wind, rather than something with roots.” They cast their heads down. “Don’t worry. We only have to pretend we’re not alive for a little while.” The pious town marched back the way they came, in search of calmer waters.