In half a dozen buildings that amounted to little more than wooden walls, we had overnight bunks and outhouses. A well-traveled path went from the mine entrance to partway down the hill, where the ink refiners got a fortified home. I weren’t sure who had it worse, us folks in the mine or the people who cleaned the toilets to get piss for leather tanning or shit for fertilizer. Even waste couldn’t be wasted. Personally, I preferred putting all my defecations off in an unused cavern. Crap was the only thing I wanted to give The Mountain after hours in its depths.
I banged my good hand against the first aid station’s door. The loud rapping noise told me how agitated I’d become. The door opened, and a woman with thick glasses on the end of her nose answered. She wore black and blue clothes and her hair in a bun. Ink’s glow altered her clothing and face, which bothered me. My good hand pulled off the mining hat then tore at the shoulder-mounted tube of blue.
She snatched my bad hand, which made me whimper and leave off trying to get out the blue tube. “Chase! My God, child! What happened?”
Child? You’re only three years older, I thought. Delilah didn’t care. She’d been a teacher’s aide during primary school back when I was young. In her mind, I were always six with a bloody nose from fights.
She’d progressed from helping the teachers to learning a few medical skills and now served as one of the mine’s first responders. Three others were on a rotation staff, and at any given moment, one might be in the deep mines, working to help crews searching for rare colors or those cleaning out monsters. But not Delilah. She didn’t go down below.
“What did you do?” her words dragged into a whine. Delilah guided me by the damaged hand toward a bench.
I tightened one hand and made a motion of punching myself, then I tried to mimic a duck’s quack.
“You punched someone?!” Delilah exclaimed, showing no signs of picking up who I’d hit.
My lips flattened.
“Lord above. All right. Sit. Sit. Take off that filthy gear.” She waved absently at my clothes. “In there. Don’t get my workspace dirty!”
I ambled to a room separated only by a heavy, dark curtain. My clothes came off slowly, scattering dirt on the floor. They were caked with layers of dust and spilled ink. The bloodied glove came off first, and I set it onto a bench.
Delilah yanked the curtain to one side without a care for my dwindling clothes then grabbed the glove to inspect it. “Look at this! It needs to go to the purifiers and be repaired. God almighty, they’ll have to scrub that inside and out to remove the blood. I have something…” She let the curtain close then trailed off while rattling through drawers. If the Delvers were fastidiously tidy, Delilah sat on the other end of a neatness spectrum. “Somewhere. In one of these drawers.”
A quiet grunt escaped me as I tried to get the heavy coat off my damaged arm. My bandaging got in the way and created a knot around the wounded area.
“Hey!” she yelled, yanking the curtain to one side again. The woman ignored my bare torso and glared straight at me. I banged on the wall with my good hand to ride out the fresh pain. “Oh. Oh, tell me that’s not your idea of a bandage.”
It is, I thought while shaking off the pain. Delilah found scissors then cut my poor wrapping. The shirt came off my other arm easier without the obstruction.
She turned my hand over, inspecting the wounds with a cotton swab bunched at the end of giant tweezers. Delilah dabbed at my wound, lifting away matted blood from a day’s hard labor. The hand looked worse than before.
“You idiot. You’re lucky these wounds are only on the surface.” She cleaned away the last of it then pressed another patch against my skin. More material wrapped around the damage as she kept on talking. “You’ll be bruised for sure. The bone might have a hairline fracture. It’s hard to tell, but you best not use it. Lord above. You shouldn’t have kept working with this in the first place. You should have come right away and gotten it cleaned.”
“Why do this to yourself? Surely I showed you better in school, right?”
Four fingers from the good hand rubbed at a thumb, signing my desire for money.
“What good’s money do the dead?”
My gaze flattened and head tilted slightly.
“Well, you wouldn’t be dead”—she pushed up her glasses and fidgeted a leg—“but much longer and it might have been real dangerous. Wounds can fester. If it starts to pucker at the edges and seep anything that isn’t blood, you come tell me.”
The thought of losing my hand sent chills down my back. Running carts without a hand would be possible, but my work would suffer. That meant less money, which meant no savings, no tattoo, no higher-paying job. Following that, my solution to get Momma out of Chandler Field and The Mountain’s sight would have been a failure. Delilah had a point, but my options were minimal. I couldn’t just drug my momma and send her away with twenty dollars and a note.
Delilah raised her eyebrows then shook her head. She were anything but satisfied and made me promise on Daddy’s grave to come back to see her first thing when returning on Monday. I placed my hand flat over my heart then nodded again.
The sun had nearly set by the time I got cleaned up, saw a foreman about pay for the prior days, and were ready to leave. A coach waited for its last load of passengers to take back to Chandler Field. Horses at its front wore blinders to keep them from startling. Both reared their heads back then stomped. The Mountain’s scent must be teasing as night set in. With a waxing moon, the flow inside would rise and seep through the cracks of our mine’s higher levels. Monsters would grow excited and flood the area.
Then all the Rangers would be called in to clear the monsters that spawned, or at least make sure none hid in the dark. Afterward, mining would begin once more. That was how it’d gone for two generations and would go for generations more. I was so close to being able to trade the enslavement of these wages for better ones. Sure, a Ranger’s life would be more dangerous, but it paid more. The money would help me get Momma out of town. She needed entirely too much money for a house somewhere else, travel costs, and decent clothes to replace her plain wardrobe.
I dreamed big as the coach took a mess of us toward Chandler Fields. The seats were crowded, people smelled, and exhaustion made strange bedfellows of other miners. I kept my arms tight and the wages from my job tucked in a shoe. Most folks were decent and hardworking, but folks could also be desperate.
Getting down took the coach four hours. People with any sense didn’t live close to The Mountain, especially not around a waxing moon. By tomorrow night, the place would be crawling with ink-spawned beasts or other creatures driven to the surface. Some people could stay at the mine—they had a few safe rooms just inside the entrance with enough supplies to last two weeks. The purification plant where all the ink went was the most fortified place in the entire region. Air sometimes got to be a problem, but there were ways to fix that too.
“Crossroads!” the driver yelled, waking a few people.
They left, and we all got a little more room to breathe. From there, the coach slowed once every hour to announce a new stop. The workers who got off ambled down roads toward farmhouses in the distance. Not everyone who worked the Wellbrook Mine lived in Chandler Fields. They were from all over, but the stagecoach only went down the one well-traveled road. Those poor souls may be walking an ungodly amount of time before finally reaching their bedding.
Exhaustion pulled me until a coworker’s arm bumped into me. I jerked awake, which startled another passenger. No monsters were around, and the weapon that’d been at my side during the shift was back at the mine. It belonged to them anyway. All they let me take away from the mine were wounds, bad memories, and a paycheck.
I absently rubbed my wounded palm, feeling the skin where that rainbow drop had hit. Soreness made my fingers twitch when pressed too hard, but that were likely due to the other damage. Purple bruises lined the meat between my fingers. Delilah’s bandage looked clean, but it’d need changing once I got home.
Someone elbowed me out of slumber again, this time followed up with words. “Chase. Hey. Wake up. I got a question for you.”
I waved off the offender in hopes he’d let me sleep.
An older man with peppered hair leaned over and stuck a finger at my arm. “Are you going to Poss’s farewell party tomorrow night?”
I frowned as my head bobbed from the bumpy carriage. Outside the window lay pure darkness with little sign of the roads.
“You’re invited. Poss’s mom said so herself. She said that that girl Lily made a fuss and the Chandler boy made sure it was on a full moon so you’d be off work.”
My shoulder went up in a half-felt shrug. Parties hadn’t meant anything to me in ages. Even my birthday was celebrated without much fanfare. After Daddy died, every joyous activity slowly ground to a halt until the house felt almost as oppressive as the mine. I weren’t sure I’d go even if Greg Chandler, pride of the town, put in a good word for me.
“My kids said it’ll be the best thing to happen all month and got their dress clothes all picked out.” He smiled then stared out the window. He didn’t look old enough to have kids my age, but small town parties went a few years in either direction—otherwise we’d never fill a room.
Poss and I hadn’t spoken in months. She’d been nice enough. I remembered her constantly having scraped knees as a young girl, then she grew older and married at sixteen to a lawyer’s son. That meant she’d lived rich for the last year while I sat in squalor thanks to a mother who’d given up and a dead father.
“You watch out for my daughter, will you? Emmy’s old enough and made her mistakes, but Opal’s a bundle of want stuck between being a kid and not being full grown.”
A young girl at that sort of party might make poor choices. I nodded then smiled as if Poss’s party meant everything in the world to me. It didn’t, and Poss meant little either. Lily, on the other hand, I would love to see. She had been the prettiest girl in the town and only grown more impressive with age. Everyone knew it, and still she took time to talk to me as though I meant something. I had no illusions about being anyone’s cup of tea, but everyone else admired her and so did I.
The carriage bumped on and I made my escape an hour’s ride outside Chandler Field. Our house and property lay a dozen miles outside the city walls. Most of the land sat unused, except a few patches we rented out for the neighbor’s livestock. We had few trees and fewer animals of our own.
Dawn peeked over the mountains before I saw the door. I staggered straight for the chicken coop and made sure everything sat ready for them in the morning. They laid few eggs, but every bit of food helped.
When I walked in, Momma didn’t move an inch from the rocking chair she’d passed out in. I stood there trying to figure out if her getting sleep at last should make me happy, or if it were worth being upset that she hadn’t stayed up for me. Maybe after I’d worked six months at the mine, she’d stopped caring. Maybe I were no longer a boy in her mind. The thought made me sad.
The floor creaked as I tiptoed to a bedroom on the western side of the house. I threw the covers on the floor so they wouldn’t be soiled and crawled onto a bare bed. I lay awake for what felt like forever before sleep won.
The next day went by without much fuss. Messes around the house were cleaned. Food got knocked from our few dishes. Dirty spots on the floor got scrubbed with an old brush. My clothes were washed then hung out to dry. The coop got a cleaning to make up for seven days of absentminded neglect, though that last chore about shattered my mind. The hens were feisty after being neglected for days.
That night, I found myself neck-deep in the biggest young adult gathering to hit our town all season. A mob of people chattered while I smiled, nodded, or shook my head in proper order. The event itself brought together a lot of familiar faces from all around the town, people I’d seen less and less of since starting my job.
Some wore finery. I’d managed to pull out one of my dad’s remaining button shirts. It fit loosely around the waist and was too tight on my shoulders. The tie reminded me too much of the roots of ink we dug up in Wellbrook, so it had stayed at home. On either side of me sat Poss and Lily. They were listening to Greg wax on about his latest gripe.
“Look, what I want to know is why no one ever gets to watch the Rangers in action. You’d think we could make a killing off it.” He wore a tie and suit jacket that flared at the top.
“Oh lord, here we go,” Poss muttered while looking into her wine glass. She’d convinced her husband to break out the fine china for tonight’s event.
I didn’t even know what the point of china were. The only use looked to be making wine prettier. It didn’t make it more effective or my nose would be completely numb instead of buzzing.
“No, no, stick with me.” Greg’s voice raised in pitch as he got excited.
I blinked and lost five seconds of explanation as I swayed. The wound on my hand served as an easy distraction.
“We could build a safe place for everyone to watch, sell the tickets for twenty dollars, and clear ten, maybe twelve hundred easily on the full moon. I mean, right now it’s a waste that only a few get to see them in action.”
“No one would pay that much.” Poss sounded elegant and witty. She had a presence to her voice that never felt out of tune or distracted. “The only ones who go out on a full moon are the procession members and those from the temple.”
“And the Rangers,” Lily added with a giggle.
The wine had hit her hardest of all. Her cheeks were flushed, which only served to make her face light up more. Blond locks spiraled down over a display of cleavage that any sane man would look twice at.
“And the Rangers, of course the goddamned Rangers,” Greg agreed. He laughed at a joke no one else caught. “Or the fools who stay up on the hill after money like Chase here.”
My eyes rolled slightly, then I nodded. He were right. Those people staying up there to refine ink in the middle of a full moon were foolish and after money. They’d have to pay me a lot more than a few hundred to stay during an outbreak. They’d have to pay me like a Ranger got paid.
“Look, Chase, you’re still dead set on joining, right? The Rangers, I mean, not the fools at the mine.” The man’s smile looked the same as it ever did. From five on up, Greg Chandler had managed to be the handsome boy of the neighborhood who made old ladies titter. They talked about his every move, putting him on a pedestal while spreading rumors about his proclivities—which were probably true. “So once they pick you—”
I pulled back a cheek then studied the floor while shaking my head.
“You’ll get those war marks and can show the others tricks for us? By Yule, you should be a badass with something. War trophies and scars and all the ladies!” Greg said.
“Please.” Poss rolled her eyes and sipped her drink. “Who’d want to sleep with one of the doomed?” She pointed at me with the half-empty glass. “You shouldn’t aim to be one, not at all. Save money, get an education, a real one.”
“Rangers protect us,” Lily said with a slightly angry glare. She patted my shoulder, her hand lingering long enough to make me blush.
“They’re badasses. The kind who come riding out of stories to take down demons.” Greg’s face lit up as he prepared to launch into a heroic tale—as he’d done many a time before.
Poss shook her head.
Greg looked hurt then said, “What? I’m serious.”
“I know. That’s what’s so sad about it all.” Poss turned to greet others.
Some were leaving to reach their homes. She played hostess better than anyone I knew. Rosy cheeks belayed how far into the wine she’d dipped.
“But it’s so dangerous. Why would anyone want to be a Ranger?” Lily asked. She swayed, clearly more inebriated than Poss. She was a year younger.
In order we went: Greg, Poss, Lily, then me. Opal and the others fit in below us in age. Ducky, thankfully, lived out in Bell Town, our connection to the mighty river which served as a trade route.
“Don’t listen to them, Chase,” Greg said with a punch to my shoulder.
I shrugged then forced a smile while closing my eyes partway. Days of exhaustion and pain made the drink feel unattractive. I needed sleep, and this stuff tasted tart. Smelling everyone else’s breath threatened to put me to sleep. My eyes drifted to the chandelier above, which cast off candlelight. The home came from generations of money, with more rooms and furniture than anyone rightly needed. Even the grounds outside stayed immaculate from year-round groundskeepers—slaves called Flops. I hadn’t seen any tonight, but they were typically asleep when the sun set. Their entire race hated night travel.
Poss’s home had full running electricity and light bulbs, which were more than most of our town could say. I never thought about it much since the mine had its own lighting system in the form of ink. The house itself belonged to her husband’s family.
Poss’s husband, Mister Proctor, was near thirty, and there were only one way, aside from a firm personality, Poss might have snagged the man. I knew it had more to do with the firmness of her shape in that slender dress. If Lily were fair with all the curves in the world, Poss’s backside could make a man pant like a dog while limping afterward. Or at least it had two years ago; she dressed a smidge more conservatively since marriage. I didn’t mean any ill will by the thoughts. She’d done well for herself and I believed he got a great end from the bargain.
Whiskers brushed against my face and fur over an arm. A woman with black-and-white fur on her face reached over to get my attention. “Another drink, sir?”