I let go as long claws tore at the thin layer of blubber-treated gear I wore. The sharp tips pierced through, tearing skin. My knife whipped out but fell short of scaring the creature away. Its eyes were wide and teeth misshapen. The thing’s huge ass shook, sending that spiked tail flying toward me. I fell back, holding up the knife with my right hand. Thick tips like wicked knitting needles pierced flesh, causing more damage.
“Young Chase!” Harold’s voice rumbled deeply, grating on my jaw.
I screamed. Pain cracked my voice for the first time in months. The creature flipped again, yanking those sharp points out of my hand with a twist. A few needles snapped as I tried to keep the weapon but failed. I grabbed a handful of dirt with the other hand then threw it. It splashed into the beast’s eyes, making it hiss angrily.
A dirt-encrusted shovel smacked its noggin, sending the creature sprawling. Harold leaned over with his knife then jabbed it through its eye socket, exactly how I’d imagined it to be done. My chest muscles shook as one hand fumbled for the blade. I found it a few feet away, then I dove for all the other beasts and slid my weapon in one eye socket after another.
“Young Chase.” Harold whispered.
I barely heard him through the frantic screaming I couldn’t control. It poured out of me as if a dam had burst. The weapon’s point descended again and again. None of the beasts moved. Once they were all confirmed dead, twice over, I fell onto my rear. My feet kicked as I pulled off the glove.
Trace amounts of blood oozed underneath. The pain was sharp but bearable. I yanked out cloth and dabbed the wound while inspecting for signs of rot. Poison from a mine-spawned creature could lace through the veins faster than any rattlesnake bite. I’d seen it before.
“They’re not poisonous,” Harold said. “The beasts up here aren’t fresh. These have been left over from the prior full moon. Maybe older.”
They’re not clean neither, I thought, but only a tired glare made it out. My knife were set down within easy reach. Out came a small dab of alcohol that I drizzled over the wound, and I hissed, managing to keep my cursing internal. A clean edge of cloth rubbed away dirt as I bound the wound. The cloth and alcohol would only do so much, but Harold was right. It didn’t look poisoned.
“I am sorry, young Chase. That should not have happened. We tested them already, but perhaps a fresh one snuck in.” Harold looked at the colored drop-off where half the dead bodies were piled. “We need to dump them quickly, then close the hole.”
I nodded while staring at the damaged hand. My wrapping was terrible. The mesh cloth circled around my wrist and between two fingers before knotting awkwardly. Luckily, that creature had done more damage to the gloves than me. Once topside, I could clean it out properly then get a stitching.
“Toss that mean one in for us, will you? Return that spawn of nightmare to its home. Carefully. Get it out as far as you can.” Harold grunted then worked on heaving the next body over.
My head lowered in a nod. The action made me feel like a damn dipping bird, but there were no better way to agree. Talking didn’t suit me. It weren’t a vow but a choice I’d made after Daddy died. Occasionally events shook me enough to make me speak.
The beast in my hands had made me break that choice of silence for a moment. Even dead, it looked ugly and weighed more than Harold. It weighed more than my momma too, but not more than a cart. I hefted the giant mockery of a rodent as far as I could. I remembered doing the same thing with my father. He too had gone back to The Mountain, though humans were kindly lowered on a platform from the top.
My head jerked rapidly to get the image out. I moved toward the next body, and it too sailed down the slanted hole, skipping past the edge and flopping out. The third made me tired, and the fourth almost didn’t get past the wall. Neither Harold nor I wanted them to touch the sides as they were tossed in.
I bent over, palms pressed to kneecaps, and struggled to slow my breathing. I picked up the glove lying to one side and used it to wipe off my forehead. The gauge still showed a sweet blue glow. Sweat came off my face in droves, and the glove’s greasy outer lining didn’t help. They were saturated with fats to keep the fur slick. This one would need to be mended while I bought a replacement.
The glove went down on the ground, and I grabbed the next large creature. Its gouged-out eye sockets gazed in my direction. Their black depths mocked me as pulses of red illumination bounced into the holes. I imagined, feverish as I were after working so many days, that a malevolent pulse of red echoed back.
I tossed this one and missed the ledge. The creature’s hind quarters and tail spun wildly. Black and brown flicked around, scraping against the well’s side. It slammed into the rainbow-colored walls and sent flecks flying.
My arms went up to defend my face from droplets of raw ink. Harold’s wide eyes turned more bug-like because he saw what I didn’t notice in time—I had taken the glove off to dress a wound from the giant rat. A solid chunk of color smacked into my open palm, between the bandages, where it burned. White images flashed through my mind, followed by a curl of a dozen other colors. The spiral of rainbows claimed my vision, and I dropped to my knees.
Of all the…, I thought, then pain mixed with every other sensation possible.
My flesh felt as though it boiled where the drop sat. Shivers raced through me, rattling every limb. My breath stilled as I worked hard to focus on keeping steady and imagined a blank canvas. Nose drippings of blood hit the mine floor. I stared out the slanted pit, straight toward The Mountain’s heart—and all the way across to its far side. The swirl of colors danced as I trembled. That one drop of rainbow ink upon my palm burned, tickled, and made me excited enough to hump a hole into solid iron—all in the same heartbeat.
Something damp pressed against my palm. Harold’s large eyes loomed as I grit my teeth.
Flashes of my first few days’ training hit me. Other miners had taught me that raw and unpurified ink were dangerous. The only way to avoid corruption lay in making sure the ink stayed formless and unattached. Uncontrolled emotions or strong mental images could cause it to warp then spider across the skin into crude formations. Those weren’t proper creations laid out by a tattooist. Droplets like this were wild, and I refused let my future become broken. I refused to become a beast. I would die a man.
“I will die a man,” an unfamiliar voice repeated.
“Young Chase?” Harold spoke softly in my ear. His giant hand pressed upon my shoulder and shook slightly. Gloved fingers encircled my own, trying to pry them open.
“I will die a man,” the voice said again.
“Chase, you will be okay.”
“I will die a man!” My hands shook and my stomach heaved.
The weight pulling at fingers got shoved away. Harold flew back into a wall, where he lost what little breath his body held. I turned toward him and shook from unease. He had been so tall, and now his body sat crumpled from pain. With slow, shallow breaths, I uncurled my fingers so I could stare at the spot that had been splashed.
No sign of the ink were left, but my palm was sweating and my emotions were still a mess. The glove went back on over shaky fingers. My fresh bandages made the fit tight. If the ink had vanished, then maybe that had been me simply breaking down. Six days of work under The Mountain’s gaze could have sent me over the edge as I’d always feared.
One stupid moment of weakness. What if I had slipped? I’d be with Daddy sooner than later. Who’d watch over Momma then?
Slow footsteps crept up behind me. A large hand landed softly on my shoulder again. “Does the mountain call you?” A dim wheeze lingered in Harold’s breathing.
My head shook in rapid jerking motions as I fought off the lingering waves of emotion and tried to rationalize the problem away. It were only a dream, a feverish one spawned by fear and near death. Even if it weren’t a dream, there were no surface markings from the rainbow drop. It didn’t take hold, so everything I felt should have been an after-echo.
Colors were more dangerous than the common black. Those who had been tattooed with The Mountain’s ink told me that being worked on came with all sorts of sensations. I could feel them now, a wild rush of all things that made tears crawl down my face from sorrow even as my groin tingled with angry lust.
“I tried to remove the rainbow drop, young Chase,” Harold said.
I nodded rapidly then curled my toes tightly to pull blood away from the rest of me. My knees locked, and the throbbing that threatened to overwhelm my senses died down. It sat out of sight then faded to a memory. Anger fueled my tossing of the next two rats. They banged into the sides while I stood farther back.
Then there were no more to throw. Harold studied me with a slight frown and tightness around his eyes. I extended my fingers on the wounded hand. The pain there could have been from the creature’s barbed tail or the unrefined ink.
“We are done here,” he said.
I clenched both hands into fists then stomped off. Harold followed me, much lighter and more subdued. The path back confused me at first. There were signs of recent digging, and only some of the narrow passages made sense. Three turns later, I found the tracks and anchored myself accordingly.
The Delvers were all sorted out. Three were slowly carving away at the hole around their purple prize. Another watched the ceiling and surrounding rocks with a weapon ready. A fifth had both hands on the thick noodle thread and unwound the cheaper black. Once they cleared it away, they could get to the purple.
They worked hard. I pointed at the barrel and wiggled both gloved forefingers slowly in question. Aches hit my damaged hand, making me wince. The one with their weapon at the ready nodded but stayed quiet.
“We’ll have a black and purple ready after the moon settles. Tell that to the foreman. He’ll be happy enough,” Harold said behind me. He stepped around then took over the watch while the others dug at the wall in search of more treasure.
I nodded then clenched my undamaged hand tightly. My other one itched like mad, and I wanted to tear off my glove to check the wound. The sensation passed as I took slow breaths. The Mountain had taken its toll before and would again. Pushing the cart with a damaged hand weren’t anything new.
“You will be okay. We have survived our damage. You will survive yours.”
I smiled only a moment before it faltered. The good hand’s fingers bunched and I tapped my head twice then chest once. The fingers spread apart, and I sighed. They may not understand what the gesture meant, but I had no good way to explain the idea. My brain may understand that pain would pass, but my heart worried.
“You worry despite knowing it’ll be all right. We too worry, but remember to dream.” He looked at my hand then frowned and brought his hands together. His glove-covered hands rubbed together. “Young Chase, thank you for your assistance. But it’s best if you escape the depths while you yet may. Only trouble exists down here unless you can sing it away, and your voice is a broken thing.”
I tried again to reassure Harold with a smile, but it died before even reaching my cheeks. Instead, one part of my lip pulled back and both eyes tightened under my wrinkling forehead. The red pulsing glow gave the stout man a more sinister aura than I remembered. Exhaustion from working so many shifts wore me down to the bone.
“Go quickly. Let our voices provide the safety yours cannot. Carry us in your mind. Maybe that will be enough to scatter the monsters from your back until day’s light greets you. Maybe if we protect you, The Mountain won’t call.”
I nodded then went for the cart. Harold waved at his crew, and they complained softly. Their position changed a bit as they explored other walls instead of fighting over the one twisted mass of dark colors.
“Break’s over, lads. As I said, we’ll sing our young Chase a thanks for the food,” he whispered. “And for helping return those filth where they belong.”
The other five nodded, picked up their axes in unison, and hammered out the tune again, as if they had never stopped in the first place.
Harold glanced at my hands once more then hid his own large ones behind him. I exhaled and checked the blue again. Harold felt guilt, and he should have. He would have known exactly where the pit’s core was and could have avoided it, but they chased the colors.
With every passing week, I grew to hate working here. Being so near the pit scared me, and had since my daddy were lowered into its depths a year ago.
“Way down we’ll go,” their voices rumbled and echoed, managing to be both soft and thick. I knew no better way to explain how their tone carried. It carried all the way down to where the worn path rejoined the tracks.
I pushed the cart back onto its track as their words lingered.
“Until we don’t owe, owe, owe…” it went on. “And how deep it go, go, go, go, go…”
The wheels rattled as they shook loose dirt from the off-track detour. My eyes refused to glance down the shaft where we’d tossed the bodies as I passed. Harold should be smart enough to collapse it soon, or use that location to dump displaced dirt from around their find.
“Ain’t nobody know,” came the last of their song.
The tune haunted me on my lonely trip back up to the mine’s entrance. There, around the bend from daylight, was a man ready with my next delivery. That was part of the trick—Wellbrook Mine’s owners kept us inside the entrance as long as possible. We worked our shifts without leaving, and the deep teams of Delvers often stayed below for weeks at a time. I only got to go outside when it was quitting time. Seeing the sun before shift’s end would have made coming back in that much harder.
I made three more trips down, delivering supplies and bringing up barrels from other camps. When they were low on manpower to finish the day’s barrel, I helped by cleaning the crew’s area. Swinging a pickax would’ve been hard with a damaged hand, but cleaning were an easier chore. That was how it worked. Take a barrel down and deliver supplies, take back anything discarded so it could be repaired or thrown away in the right spots.
There weren’t many of us runners. Only a handful were needed to supply all twenty-five crews. Most were in larger batches than the Jeffs or Harold’s Delvers. The mine paid us based on productivity, and job openings were steady.
By the third trip’s end, I felt exhausted. Both eyes threatened to mutiny and sail my eyelids downward. One leg had a slight limp. The bandaged hand had bled through twice but only lightly. On the fourth and last trip of the night, I should have earned enough to make my goal. I wanted to push through and earn the extra money. Two hundred dollars for a day’s work would let me survive the weekend, pay down our taxes, and afford more supplies to fix the fences around our chicken coop.
At this rate, I’d soon have enough saved up for my first actual tattoo placed by someone who knew how to work ink into its proper shape. That one should take hold, unlike the rainbow drop. I daydreamed of getting one of the leg patterns to help me in the mines until this year’s Ranger recruitment—which were two months away.
My cart bumped into another, making me gasp in surprise. The red glow had dimmed, but the outline of another cart could be seen, butted against my own. I checked for a sign explaining which track I were on in case I’d gotten turned around.
“What you doing, mute?”
The words barely pierced my awareness. I pulled the cart back then slid it forward again. The obstruction still blocked me from going forward.
“Where you headed, you brown-nosing mute?” the other man spoke again, and I focused on his face. Ducky glared at me with a hand resting on his weapon, a large hammer used to bust up rocks.
I pointed down the existing track, hopeful exhaustion hadn’t made it imaginary. The barrel in my cart would net me another eighteen in delivery rewards for a black. The mine would sell it for close to five thousand, but we’d never get the ball rolling while Ducky’s cart stood in my way. I needed to get to the depot, where all the other barrels for the day were kept. Then a collections deputy would let me mark my initials down with the color and a foreman would tally everything up.
A fourth trip might be pushing it, I thought while willing Ducky and his cart to vanish. The exit were only a few twists away.
“You stupid son of a bitch. You only get barrels ‘cus Kindle assigns you the choice crews. Me, I get stuck with shits who can’t finish a job—”
Quack, quack, the murky thought passed through. Dealing with whiners should always be done in the same way—by ignoring them. I didn’t have anything against those who tried to change their lot, but Ducky didn’t give two shits about putting in the work. He were a bundle of useless want.
I stepped around my cart, checked the straps holding down the barrel, then eyed Ducky’s empty cart. He spoke, but I tuned it out. The same dry evaluation of his words passed through.
Quack, quack, quack.
He were in my way and a turnoff sat thirty feet away around the corner. I pushed his cart back four steps before Ducky stopped me. I took a breath then let it out slowly while shaking my head. Both hands turned up in exasperation.
His eyes narrowed to dark slits barely lit by a red glow. “I checked the logs. You got two back today. You ain’t need a third, so give me your barrel. Weren’t one of the crews I was assigned to that’s completed their work yet.”
My head shook. Our job meant if the crews weren’t done but were close enough, we needed to stick around to help. I’d done that twice today, assisting by cleaning the area quietly or hauling away dirt to be dumped in a dead-end shaft or down one of the bottomless caverns. Work crews both hated and loved having their things straightened out. It saved them time, but after a day in the mines with silence and the sound of picks swinging, sometimes items being shuffled around disturbed them.
“So? Just hand it over,” he said, ignorant of the fact that I were capable of independent thought that ran contrary to his lazy want.
My hands waved him to the side.
The other man ignored me. “You’re above quota, you little brown-noser. Give me your barrel so I can make some money.”
I shook my head while rolling tired eyes. He’d have to pay me enough to make it worth my while. Four fingers rubbed against my thumb to make the response clear. We all needed money down here.
“Fuck you, you greedy bastard,” Ducky said.
I waved again for him to move out of my way. Instead of listening, Ducky pushed me aside and went straight for the barrel. Today’s events irked me beyond belief, and having my income hijacked made it much worse. I spun and jabbed my arm out like Daddy had taught me to do so many years ago. Ducky weren’t the first person in need of a beating. Too bad we were both cut from the same cloth, and I were exhausted.
My fist hit his shoulder instead of his face like I wanted. He fell to a knee but grabbed the cart’s edge. It jostled around, and my heart skipped a beat in fear of the payload. I stepped over, and he pushed himself off the ground. A return punch to my gut knocked the air out of me. I doubled over then banged my head against his in a mixture of stupidity and cleverness. More sloppy punches were exchanged.
The cart rocked even more until it tipped to the side. The ruckus made someone yell down the tunnel toward us. Ducky’s head turned, and I managed to connect a weak fist with his face. The jolt hurt and I almost laughed aloud, but instead my eyes rolled back and left me staring at the ceiling that refused to stay in focus. My knees hit the ground, followed by my face.
“Hey!” The sound of metal and feet pounded closer. “What are you boys doing?”
I pulled myself up using the fallen cart and eyed the barrel. It’d tipped over and cracked. Black ink roots matted in layers spilled everywhere. I checked my gloves twice while Ducky stood, wiping off his chin. He straightened up while I struggled to recover the payload. My new gloves were tight but helped protect me while I shoveled ink strands back into the barrel.
“Explain this. What happened? Who let this barrel get knocked over?” Foreman Kindle walked over to the cargo while scowling and shaking his head.
Ducky continued to preen. I gave two shits about how he looked as he answered for us. “Nothin’, nothin’ at all. Me and Chase were just having a talk about sharing the workload, that’s all. He looked tired and slipped. I think he’s been working too hard.”
Others were approaching. Some of them were ending their shifts for the day and wandered along the main exit. Another batch were returning to work a bit more. The squad of Jeffs arrived with a shared expression of confusion. I tried to remember how much time had passed. Maybe they too were trying to work an extra shift for money.
Foreman Kindle glanced at me and raised an eyebrow. I got the barrel upright and shook my head at the mess. Some had slipped away, so now the barrel wouldn’t be worth as much. He might as well have stolen from me directly.
“Is what he says true?” Kindle asked, staring at me.
“Of course it is,” Ducky responded.
Like hell, I thought. I huffed two quick breaths as the idea of losing money registered. I gulped down air to keep myself from feeling sick.
“We’re all friends down here,” the barrel thief insisted.
When ignoring a fellow ain’t an option, there were another good way to handle them. I dove then slugged Ducky again. The sucker punch caught him off guard. He flopped back then landed on his ass. My body swayed and I struggled to keep myself upright. Jeffs got involved. One pushed me back while the other two stood in the middle. Foreman Kindle didn’t move, a puckered expression on his face.
Ducky’s finger stuck out. “He struck me. You saw him!” he quacked.
I stopped swaying and glared at him. My eyes felt wider than ever, as though they’d gone past tired into some hyper-awareness state filled with self-delusions. Even without me speaking, he should be smart enough to know that if he got up, I’d figure out a way to hit him again.
“Which one of you damaged the barrel? Was it you, Chase?”
“He’s the one who fell and knocked it over!” Ducky exclaimed. He’d made it upright, but the young man’s arms were held back by other miners. I attempted to punch him again, but more stable arms than mine kept us apart. “Dock his pay for bein’ wasteful!”
I flipped him off through the tangle of limbs.
“You don’t want this, boy. Think of Widow Craig, yeah? Think of your momma,” Jeff said in my face. He looked the same as when I’d seen him earlier. All I could see was the dirt color and mocking red light bouncing around. The lot of us smelled sour, the kind of foul stench that threatened to live in a fellow’s nose forever.
“Did you knock it over, Chase?” Foreman Kindle asked me again.
I looked around, tightened both eyes, then nodded. Momma didn’t raise a liar. My arms jerked to give more explication.
“Chase, wasting any o’ a barrel hurts our bottom line. This wouldn’t have happened if you’d sealed the top tight ear-nough. I gotta dock you today’s pay. Sorry, boy. Your pap woulda been punished the same,” Foreman Kindle said. “He also wouldn’ta gotten into this mess.”
My teeth ground. I struggled to get past the Jeffs and break Ducky’s quacking face. His cheeks were high in a wicked grin. The smile faltered when Foreman Kindle rapped the other teen on his helmet, harder than any time before.
“We told you when you first started, selfishness will get us all in trouble,” Jeff frantically whispered to me while the others looked away. “It’s us against the mountain, not us against each other.”
He kept bobbing his face in front of mine so I couldn’t get a clear line of sight on Ducky. My nose tensed at him and I fought to get free of their grasp. They pushed back. My free arm beat at my chest then pointed toward Ducky.
“He’ll get his,” Jeff said.
Foreman Kindle laid into the other teen, “And you, Ducky, this’ll be the last warnin’ you ever get. The next time you screw up, I’ll issue a pink slip with your name on it. I’ll shove it so far up your ass you’ll shit the word firah’d a week straight.”
“What for?” Ducky shouted.
“Instigatin’ disorder and poor conduct unbefitting a Wellbrook employee! Don’t think I’m ignorant of your dumb ass being on the wrong track. Maybe you ain’t broke the barrel, but you sure picked this fight.”
“Fuck you,” Ducky said. Two of the Jeffs held him back from switching to the foreman.
The balding man shook his head. He didn’t wear red light like the rest of us since he rarely ventured far into the mines. “Chase, you go now. Git out of here and get that looked at.” Kindle nodded at where my hand had bled through again.
I’d hit Ducky with my bad fist and torn the wounds even further. The Jeffs let go but stayed between me and the asshole that’d gotten in my way. They shuffled like a moving screen as I walked to my cart.
Cradling my hand, I nodded once while my lips pressed tightly. My cheeks tried to frown and mouth wanted to open in a yell. Both eyes watered from suppressed anger at the shitty timing of a pay cut. I took a breath and reminded myself that keeping the job meant more than causing further strife. I’d have to work my ass off for the next two weeks to reach my goal.
“And you”—Foreman Kindle pointed at Ducky and wrinkled his nose—“we’re gonna sit down here, you and I, and have us a talk. And if you try to walk away now, I’ll settle for shoving my foot up your ass instead of a pink slip.”
Kindle lashed out worse at Ducky. In that, Foreman Kindle were a fair man. He couldn’t punish what he hadn’t seen. To him, I had taken my pound of flesh out of Ducky’s face during an explosion of ire but had cost the mine money. That couldn’t be overlooked and my ire needed punishing. I understood—but didn’t like it.
I grabbed my cart and the nearly full barrel that one of the Jeffs had reseated. The same Jeff moved Ducky’s cart out of my way while the other four stood around Foreman Kindle and the source of today’s aggravation. They were talking, but it grew fuzzy. My head felt heavy and each step took hard effort. A damaged hand slowed me down, and my sides hurt from punches that hadn’t registered.
“Wait! Chase. Chase!” Someone repeated my name when I didn’t turn around. “You’re in no shape—”
Pain coursed through my leg and it slipped. My shoulders slackened and face slammed into the handle. The cart lost momentum a few feet away. I curled into a ball and lay there as someone ran up to me for the second time in a few short minutes. The hint of fading sun touched the ground just past the station where we deposited barrels or ordered more supplies. I stared at the light while my eyesight blurred.
A hand grabbed mine and I tightened on it reflexively. The other figure hauled me to my feet. One leg hurt to stand on.
My benefactor said, “Come on, boy. You look to ‘ave had a rough day.”
I squinted at the other figure. Foreman Kindle had chased after me to help. I didn’t even know he’d been calling me or foregone the lecture with Ducky. I nodded then lifted my hand, where blood seeped through my third glove of the day.
The foreman shook his head then helped me hobble forward. The cart stayed behind. Turning it in didn’t matter anyway since my pay was being docked. Had I known how this would end, I would have handed Ducky the barrel. Some money were better than no money and intact pride. Pride were for the rich, those with no sense, and the recklessly arrogant.
And I let pride cost me, I thought. My feet shuffled faster. I wanted nothing more than to be done—and the rest of my wages, which shouldn’t have been hurt by today’s ill-timed scuffle.
“Calm down. Don’t rush. We’re almost out. It’ll be okay,” Foreman Kindle said in a tone that sounded gruff and reassuring. He were another one of my daddy’s friends. Another soul enslaved to the mine who tried to look out for me.
We broke into daylight and I stumbled rapidly to get distance between that pit and me. My knees buckled and hands sprawled to catch me as I knelt on all fours. Pain rippled up the damaged hand once more, but I held straight. My face bent to kiss the ground in reverence. I peeked behind me to see The Mountain’s maw open in a wide grin, welcoming the next shift of desperate souls.
“Go see Delilah, get yourself stitched. I’ve got to go back and see if Ducky still wants to work here or if I’ve gotta find a new runner. I swear you kids will be the death of me.” Foreman Kindle turned then stomped off, his angry footsteps drowning out the remaining portion of his rant.
I looked around carefully. A few other folks were packing up for the day. I stood and, with much less urgency, stumbled to one of the shacks set aside for medical treatment.