Natasha Porter ★ Auror Trainee, American Bureau of Magical AffairsJune 1998. Middle of Nowhere Louisiana, USA.
Tasha pitched forward as a tree root grabbed her ankle, just barely grabbing hold of a tree to catch her fall. She swore under her breath as Jake steadied her and they paused in the oppressive heat of the bayou. Insects buzzed incessantly and a thick, damp mist obscured their vision beyond just a few feet in front of them and further drenched their clothes already dampened by hours of exertion in a hellish swamp too humid to let any sweat evaporate and provide cooling relief.
“Is this bitch really
going to help us figure out what Voss is playing at? Because at this point, if trudging through this goddamned swamp gets us nothing, I’m going to quit and go be a muggle cop in Chicago, where I’m less likely to spend three hours in a swamp dodging alligators, snakes, and mosquitos the size of swallows,” she grumbled, swatting at one of the aforementioned blood-suckers.
Jake smirked back at her. “You’d miss being able to stun your suspects. And me.” He reached into his magically-enhanced pocket and withdrew a canteen that had a thin layer of frost on it, unscrewed the top and took a long swig before offering it to Tasha, who quickly took it from his hands, took a drink, and held it against the back of her neck.
“You’re right,” she smirked. “I would miss stunning you.”
Jake flipped his partner the middle finger with a sarcastic smirk of his own. “But yes. She’s one of the best in the country. She’s just….old school. And she likes her privacy and solitude. Only wants to give guidance to those she thinks are worthy.”
Tasha grimaced and took another drink from the canteen. “Hence the riddles and the three hour trudge through this hellhole without much help from magic…yeah, yeah, yeah…”
“Look,” he sighed, grabbing the canteen back and taking another swig before sliding it back into his pocket, “we’re at a bit of a dead-end otherwise. And once we have our info, we can probably just apparate home. So we’re almost at the end here.”
Tasha stared off into the distance as her partner spoke, catching her breath and longing for a long, cold shower and a bed. She narrowed her eyes as a bit of flickering light caught her attention through the mist just a few hundred yards ahead of them, the vague outline of a clearing with a crude structure within peeking through the diminishing gloom.
“Closer than we think, maybe…” she said, starting to carefully clamber forward, gingerly testing the squelching mud to see if it would support her weight without drenching her to her mid-thighs again, her wand outstretched and aimed at the ground to illuminate any more hiding tree roots. Jake perked up and began following closely, scrambling through the muck and swampy undergrowth.
The pair stumbled unto suddenly dry ground and surprisingly clear air, almost as if they’d stepped through a physical veil that parted the mist. The smell of the swamp still lingered here but was mixed with the pungent scent of incense, herbs, and rotting meat. Tasha wrinkled her nose in disgust, but kept her mouth shut. In front of them stood a ramshackle hut made of bits of timber, mud, and a long-rusted sheet metal roof. A low campfire burned outside of the hut, illuminating the partially moonlit clearing.
“Not often old Marie gets visitors…welcome,” a thickly Cajun-accented voice spoke from inside the hut. A hunched shadow limped towards the doorway, supported by a withered cane. The light from the fire slowly revealed a truly ancient woman, her wrinkled, leathery, chocolate-colored skin hanging loosely from her frame, one eye clouded completely over and the other in a permanent squint, a few strands of long white hair dangled from beneath a red and white polka dot scarf long-faded by time. Her clothes looked nearly as ancient as she was—a long, faded gray dress not dissimilar to what a house servant from the 1800s would wear. “You…you de ones looking for the wolf who be wantin’ to eat de whole world…” her voice crackled. “You best be comin’ inside…”
Tasha flashed her partner an impressed look twinged with a bit discomfort. Maybe this crone was the real deal, but the woman’s squinty, one-eyed gaze was already giving her the creeps. She cautiously stepped forward towards the hut, and Jake followed directly behind as they entered the hovel. The damp smell of earth and rot was obscured more here by the overpowering, smoky haze of incense, magical herbs and pipe tobacco. Tasha, much to her chagrin, coughed heavily as the smells overpowered her. Marie let out a wet, gurgling chuckle as she looked back at Tasha, her one eye glaring back at her.
Jake and Tasha stood rather uncomfortably just inside the doorway of the hut, which was somehow far larger inside than it was outside, but in just as shabby condition. The old woman beckoned for them to follow her deeper inside towards what appeared to be a kitchen with a rickety little table and three chairs in the corner. Mice and rats scurried around the edge of the the structure, and every footstep was met with a disturbing crunch as cockroaches and beetles practically carpeted the floor. Marie, however, paid the critters no mind, and they actually seemed to part for her as she hobbled forward.
“You be wantin’ some tea…” Marie croaked. It wasn’t exactly clear if that was an offer, an order, or a question.
Tasha surveying her surroundings with a look of dismay responded, “No!” so quickly that Jake elbowed her sharply. “Thank, you,” she added, wincing a bit.
Another gurgling chuckle and sidelong glance from the old woman. Tasha shuddered.
“I’ll have some, please,” Jake said coolly as he sat down at the table and nodded at Tasha for her to do the same. She did as instructed, grudgingly, and watched as the woman finished preparing two cups of tea, and then floated them over to the table with a flick of her gnarled wrist, following slowly behind them and leaning heavily on her cane. She grunted with effort and sat down opposite the two aurors, taking a long, shaky drink of her tea before setting it down and staring at the leaves at the bottom of the cup.
“Two lovers working together to save de world,” her voice rattled, only looking up at them after a long, uncomfortable pause. Tasha looked around nervously, but Jake squeezed her knee under the table, simply nodding. “No sense hiding *that* part from you…” he said after swallowing a sip of his tea. He had a great poker face after the drink, but Tasha knew his tells, and he was trying extremely hard not to spit the drink out immediately.
“I seen you in my dreams…” Marie began, looking between both aurors. “Running. Hunting. Chasing the big, bad wolf…he don't wanna be found, but you gonna find him.” The old crone’s one-eyed gaze drifted up and stared at Tasha, who shivered uncontrollably. Jake gripped her knee under the table with his strong hand. “You got many questions, mon chéri…
Old Marie knows many tings…”
Tasha didn’t know why the old woman bothered her so much. She’d gone toe-to-toe with dementors that were less frightening to her. “W-what does he want? Where’s he going?” she stammered, trying to regain her composure.
“Why does he keep killing people chained up in his hideouts? Don’t most werewolves like the hunt? And why the hearts? Why does he only take the hearts?”
Marie stared at Tasha in silence before wordlessly letting her gaze drift back down to the tea leaves. “He ain’t like the other wolves, chile…I see a river of blood flowin’ ‘neath the port by the western sea… strange stars and a full moon be lightin’ the sky. An’ from that river be springin’ an army of beasts…” she hissed.
Jake looked on in silence, his face twisted in concentration. “He’s been slowly moving west…Boston…New York…Nashville…Chicago…Denver. We’ve never found the hearts…” he said quietly to Tasha.
“Maybe he’s saving them…for another ritual? Seems like each of the murders happened connected to a ritual where we found the bodies…” she pondered along with him.
Marie flashed a rotten-toothed smile to the dregs of tea left in the cup in front of her, nodding without looking at the aurors. “The wolf be lonely…always wantin’ more friends…”
Tasha looked at the old woman, and then back to her partner “…we should talk to the werewolf unit…have there been a spike in cases where the murders have been?”
Jake nodded in agreement. “We should…this is might be bigger than we thought…thank you, Marie,” he said politely to the old woman who continued to stare downward into her teacup, motionless. It wasn’t even clear that she was breathing.
Tasha and Jake exchanged looks, unsure of what exactly to do with the corpse-like woman, motionless and unbreathing. They rose quietly, both pondering just walking out the door. A slow, gurgling chuckle rose from the old woman, startling them both after her unnaturally long pause. “One’ve you gonna wind up howlin’ at the moon just like the wolf…” she chuckled darkly.