At the sidewalk, I heaved myself empty a second time. All the while, my mind repeated, I can barely support one woman. How could I ever provide a future to another?

The family house always needed fixing. Our livestock hardly amounted to anything. I couldn’t afford a beauty like Lily when she could fish in larger waters. My faith in money was renewed in that moment.

My feet hastily rushed to the edge of town. More than ever, I needed to keep at my work and earn more funds. There were other jobs in town, but they didn’t give the hours or money Wellbrook Mine did. They didn’t pay bonuses like bringing back a barrel would. Most employment didn’t risk being attacked by a pile of dead animals or being touched by raw ink either.

I needed more than six meager months in the mine to earn my way onto real crews and get higher pay. The deep crews were harder, but maybe I could volunteer for a shift or two down below. What good were my life anyway?

Judging by the stack of bills my momma had, my time was valued at one hundred dollars a day. Too bad the mine didn’t pay me that well. Thinking of Lily’s future made me sour, but I hoped she’d earn enough to live somewhere happier. Maybe she’d net a man who had a fortune and knew a sweet girl when he saw her.

I grabbed my goods from the store, stumbled home, and greased the cabinets. Perishables went into the cellar under our small house where they’d stay cool. Momma had already ventured to her room for sleep.

I got a few hours myself then woke early. A poorly scrawled note of farewell was bundled with money and left behind. Then it were back to the main road to catch a ride to Wellbrook Mines, gateway of The Mountain’s welcoming maw.

I walked slowly and stood under a sign for the carriage. The wait took forever. Early in the morning, before even the sun knew how to think straight, the carriage arrived.

The crossing where I grabbed the coach had only me most days. Sometimes the driver didn’t slow down and I had to dive for a rail to get aboard. We were all lucky the mine paid for our rides. It was about the only thing they forked out money for—but the full moon made it dangerous to build a settlement right at the doorway like they did at the ore mines farther north.

Two escorts were also headed along with us to the mines. Being attacked on the commute back did happen occasionally, but Rangers were busiest on the full moon and would have cleared the obvious threats.

“Morning,” I said to the woman on the horse. She were a Ranger, and my own desire for silence didn’t outweigh the need to make friendly.

She spit on the coach floor. That amounted to more of a greeting than my prior two attempts at hello, so I accepted it. I elbowed my way to a window seat then plopped down. Behind me were Ducky and Mister Jewel, along with a few others.

“Fancy seeing you here, mute.” Ducky’s eye were blackened still.

Mister Jewel were right next to Ducky and did nothing but glare. They must have gotten on during the stop in town. I remembered my failure from the night before.

In light of being paid for my services, the whole affair felt tainted. It didn’t matter Lily had said, “I’ll remember it forever”—only that she’d cheapened a great experience with money. However well-intentioned it might have been, it left me sour.

Our time together were an opportunity to live a dream for one night. That was all and nothing more. I told myself that repeatedly and knew it might take me a few days to get over it. By the end of the week, I’d hoped to forget all about her.

“Morning, Hardwood. I heard about Ranger Sterling,” Mister Jewel said out the window to our escort.

“Mourning is right,” the woman responded.

I didn’t understand until one of the other passengers said, “My condolences, Ranger Hardwood.”

“Don’t need ‘em. Sterling was an asshole, but he died doing his duty. That’s as good a death as any.” The cart bumped us around, but her body on the horse jostled even more.

I looked again. The Ranger escorting us had been doing this for years, to my knowledge. I’d only seen her once or twice, and only after a full moon. Her face was weathered with wrinkles from years of sun, and a faded tattoo sat on her marriage finger.

“I’m sorry,” I said to Mister Jewel. Daddy had taught me to be wise and own my mistakes rather than let them fester. Plenty of events in life couldn’t be controlled and apologizing for those were pointless, but poor choices could be fixed next time.

“I dragged that girl home, and she spent the entire trip protesting she’d fallen out of bed in front of Gregory Chandler.”

I shrugged. Maybe she had. People had been handing young ladies drinks all night, though Lily had seemed willing to intercept everything that would have gone to Opal. Maybe the room had simply been occupied. Poss didn’t strike me as the type to let a girl unwillingly do anything.

“You think girls just ended up in those rooms by accident? People were set up to be together. Nothing’s changed in twenty years in the Proctor house. Then the Chandlers do what they’ve always done. Their sons don’t fall far from the family tree. Maybe children never do.”

My father might have understood whatever Mister Jewel meant. I only knew his words didn’t appear as simple as they sounded—because he had never once bad-mouthed my daddy or momma. No one ever did in the mine. They did, however, feel free to tell me what the man would have thought of my choices and actions.

“Opal looked tired. Maybe she passed out,” I said. The last I’d seen, Opal was talking to people in a corner of the main dining room. She’d had a drag to her step and her movements spoke of dizziness.

“If you believe that, then I got a barrel of silver to sell you for cheap.”

“Silver’s a myth,” Ducky said with wince to his cheek. “And everyone knows Greg’s into coc—” He stopped talking abruptly.

“Silver’s real,” I said quietly. As for Greg’s preferences, it weren’t my business.

The other miners, almost everyone, perked up and stared in my direction. I tensed then sank into myself, trying to get smaller. Last night had my brain all muddled and the filters that should have been controlling my mouth weren’t.

“Keep dreaming, kid. Maybe one day soon you’ll grow up and do right for a change.” Mister Jewel crossed his arms and looked away.

I’ve seen it before, I thought. Only once though, in The Mountain’s heart, on the night my daddy were returned to its depths. As his body descended into the mire, I saw the silver shimmering, then it sank with him.

Eventually the others went back to their early morning naps.

The Ranger rode along next to us, her eye rounded by leathery looking skin that had baked under the sun. She peered around frequently, at every tree and stretch of land as if a monster might appear. None did in the daylight.

Ducky pushed past Opal’s father and leaned out the window. “I hear you got a choosing coming up soon. Next month, right?”

Mr. Jewel puckered his lips and motioned for Ducky to move. They switched spots, and a few people were introduced to elbows. I rolled my eyes as Ducky earned ire from more people than Foreman Kindle and me.

“Who’re you?” the Ranger asked.

“I’m Derek Lake.” Derek stuck out a hand to shake and got no response from the Ranger. “I’m hoping to be chosen next month when you all pick a new member. I think being a Ranger would be a great honor.”

I hoped to be chosen too. How Ducky had any money saved were beyond me. The man didn’t know how to work at all. He did nothing, and I had no clue how he would have found money for his first tattoo. Ducky and I had almost the same background, except his parents were dead.

My eyes clenched tightly as the realization made me almost envy him. He may have no one, but he also didn’t have to support anyone. The twisted mixture of envy and pity made my already upset stomach outright sick. The cart’s lurching motion ramped up. I felt every footstep the horses took and they all made me nauseated.

The hooves of the Ranger’s ride got closer. Her name would be easier to remember than the Feline’s at Poss’s house. Ranger Hardwood and Ranger Sterling were almost comical in description.

“You listen close. Rangers are called from those who wish to serve, or those who have lost family to the deep creatures spawned. But there isn’t one among us that signed up because we're after honor.”

Ducky’s smiled vanished for a moment then came back. “But you’re heroes. You fight those monsters without fear and win.”

Ranger Hardwood spit on the ground. Her horse ambled on as Ducky waited for divine guidance to spill forth. To avoid attention, I kept my gaze leveled at no one in particular. I’d said hello and gotten nothing. Ranger Hardwood felt like the kind of person who only talked to prove others wrong.

“We have no use for thrill-seekers or would-be heroes in our ranks. You want that, go join the real army and die against the Saracons. They’ll pin a wall of medals on your chest posthumously and say the world’s a better place due to your heroism.” Ranger Hardwood’s face wrinkled. Her voice sounded worn, and the hint of two tattoos peeked out of a long set of gloves going up her arm. They became more obvious as she rode closer due to her desire to tell Ducky off.

Ducky’s face lost most of its color the longer Ranger Hardwood’s speech went on.

“We don’t get medals. We don’t get ceremonies. When we die, we get tossed into the mountain where the very creatures we hunt spawn.”

“What about the desperate?” I whispered.

Other coach riders turned their heads to give me a glance—again. Ducky scowled, and Ranger Hardwood narrowed her eyes, intensifying her wrinkles. I took a small breath then looked away. My mouth had done nothing but get me in trouble this morning, and I needed a bent nail to keep it shut.

She answered despite my attempt to pretend the question were never spoken, “Desperation makes a better crop than a thrill-seeker, but they’re far from ideal. A desperate person wanting to be a Ranger jumps in without knowing the truth of what they’re asking to become.”

I didn’t turn back and acted as if the question had come from some other fool on the crowded coach. Ducky glared as people on the stagecoach made idle chatter. Ranger Hardwood tilted her head, and from the corner of my eye, I saw her staring at me.

“What about strength? Or stamina. Plenty of us can handle the work,” Ducky asked.

“Boy, you may be tough, but you aren’t hard enough.” Ranger Hardwood snorted a mile of road dust then spit on the ground again.

“How’s anyone supposta know if they’re good enough?” he responded.

Mister Jewel rolled his eyes while shaking his head. His lips muttered words I couldn’t make out.

“You’ll know,” she said with a chuckle.

Mister Jewel echoed the laugh, along with a few of the older mine workers. She shook her head then led the horse farther away from our stagecoach.

I scanned carefully for clues on the joke. A few of the miners met my gaze dead-on and didn’t blink. Whatever shared joke they were all in on, I was about ten years of hard labor away from understanding. My mouth remained sealed this time.

“Self-righteous cunt. ‘You’ll know,’” he mimicked her tone with a sneer.

Another miner rapped on his head with their knuckles. Ducky opened his mouth to complain but paused upon noticing the other man’s size. The teen crossed his arms and stared out the window. Our ride only got more crowded as we made additional stops on the way up. How such a small carriage fit so many people escaped me.

Ranger Hardwood rode farther away while snorting in amusement. She stayed within sight but outside easy range for talking. I eyed her horse, noticing it looked off from the ones ahead of our stagecoach. The beast's head were longer and thinner, almost a caricature of a horse that wouldn’t be noticed until they were side by side. The fur itself looked too vibrant.

I’d only seen a few creatures of ink, besides the commonly accepted races. Her horse might be an altered creature, like Flops, Felines, and Delvers. I’d keep my eyes and ears open to figure out if such a thing were possible. Being able to make use of those respawned monsters would be more useful than throwing them back in.

The thought kept me quiet as we traveled. By the time we started up the steeper part of the mountains, more than twenty people were crammed into the small coach. The smell made me dizzy. As a group, we went straight to the refinery door. That were normal for the first day back after a full moon.

I leapt out with my bag and scuttled out of the way. A pile of people unloaded behind me. We stretched, wiggled, yawned, and stumbled forward to the open gates. A small group of people were watching over the doorway—guardsmen supplied by the president to protect his investment. We only got a handful of them, and they switched out every few months. All of them had guns at the ready in case monsters attacked. I heard they preferred fighting the Saracons to guarding the mines.

“Hey. Don’t spill another barrel, all right, mute?” Ducky said as he stormed straight for the barracks.

My eyes rolled as a breath went out. The trip up had passed without needed sleep. I stumbled through the big double doors, and the guards hardly paid any attention. They were only around for the monsters, not us poor saps working the mine.

I took slow steps forward. Some people charged by while others lagged behind. A few were going straight for billboards to check what the crew assignments were. Another crew that had arrived before us already had their gear on and hefted large pallets of equipment. Soon they’d be rolling it along the same tracks used to bring up barrels to the refinery.

The smell of ink processing hung in the air. That entire section weren’t open to me, as a lowly runner. If I wanted to work anywhere besides the mines, it needed to be earned—no matter who my father had been. Truthfully, a lot of miners hated the refinery side for having a cushy job.

A crisscross of metal suspended from brick and wood covered the eastern side of our refinery. Grates were used to separate this floor from the next without blocking sunlight. The metal that went into our refinery could have built a fleet of ships, but wars needed ink more.

A tattooist stood on one of the catwalks above. The woman looked familiar. Her name was Cassandra. She wore multiple layers of clothes that were bright and flashed as she walked. I hoped to approach her, or one of the other tattooists, to see about buying my tattoo once I could afford a barrel.

Ranger Hardwood and Tattooist Cassandra were talking quietly while glancing our way. What they could be conversing about, I didn’t feel right guessing, but from the way Cassandra gazed unabashedly in our direction, I knew it’d be a mess.

“You’d never make it in the refinery side.” Mister Jewel glared at me, once again shoving his disapproval in my face. “Hell, kid, you’d never make it as a Ranger either. You can’t see past your own pecker and take care of those who need saving. Like the lady said, you’re strong but too soft.”

I swallowed a lump. She’d said it toward Ducky but might have meant us both. Or Mister Jewel might simply be misunderstanding.

“Have you even asked an artist? Did you look at the prices? Do you even have a clue what types of ink will be required?” Mister Jewel shook his head.

“How do you—” were all I could manage before Opal’s father laughed. He weren’t one of my father’s friends, like Harold or the Jeffs, but he acted as if he knew all about me. I would have punched him like I did Ducky, but I couldn’t afford another fine.

“I got eyes, boy. Every time we come here, I see you staring at the Tattooists. Every time there’s a Ranger around, you try to soak in every detail. You’re worse than Derek,” Mister Jewel said loudly.

If he knew, everyone knew. The mine’s gossip chain outperformed Momma’s and she’d made it a first and second job. That meant it would only be a matter of time before parts of my plan were no longer secret.

“Mute wants to be a Ranger? You ain’t got a chance,” Ducky said, charging past me toward the boards. He’d already gotten dressed.

Of course, I thought.

Now Ducky suspected we were after the same slot because Rangers only ever picked one person a year. Now I needed to fight to earn money, then fight for attention over the loudmouth. It hit me to wonder, why exactly had Ducky been on the same stagecoach as me? He lived in the next district over.

I went to a locker for clothes. My bag of clean socks and clothes went into an alcove. There were used clothes in the lockers, and Ducky had taken the set that fit our builds. We were the two youngest workers here, and both shared the wiry build of teens who couldn’t afford good food.

The new clothes were loose and the gloves didn’t seal perfectly. I rubbed my hand, feeling the fresh layer of wrapping from last night. Momma hadn’t done any of the work herself, but she’d found supplies and left a note saying to be careful the next few days. Seeing the damage reminded me Delilah wanted me to visit first thing.

I headed over to the medic’s shack. Hopefully she’d holed up safely with the staff members who never went home. Some people without families chose to stay all month long at the mines. I would have too, but Momma made it impossible, plus the mine’s bank charged money to hold on to cash.

My mood were terrible and showed no signs of improving. Ducky’s grin across the yard made my good hand twitch. Mister Jewel and a pack of people around him were turning shoulders away from me already. By the end of the day, they’d all know how I’d screwed up over the weekend. But no one should know about Lily.

I walked into the medical building, where there were three tired-looking people and a Ranger laying on a stretcher. He struggled to sit.

“Uncle Herse, you were asked to lay still,” Delilah came in from another part of the room and addressed the man on the stretcher.

“It’s Tawny. You know we—” The man coughed. He looked like a sheet made of skin on sharp bones and sounded close to death. Wet, hacking coughs bent him at the middle. He weren’t wearing a shirt and had gray cloth wrapped around his chest.

“You’ll always be Uncle Herse to me. I don’t care what oaths you took.” Delilah opened a cabinet then shook her head; whatever she sought weren’t inside the wooden shelves.

The man scowled. Uncle implied they were related, and the only part that looked similar were the bushy black eyebrows. Delilah wore glasses, and Ranger Tawny didn’t. Both were thin, but Delilah hid it with frill-covered clothes. She tightened her cheek, chewed on her inner lip, then traveled right around me toward the cot holding Ranger Tawny.

“Stop moving,” she said sternly while pointing. “You know you don’t heal as fast as other Rangers since you took the wings. You need to rest.”

I waved as Delilah came by. She ignored me with a head shake and stuck a needle into Tawny’s arm. I couldn’t remember their real names from our few crossings, but colors were common for the Ranger crowd. They used them as code names.

“I need to get back to the hunt. The bear that killed Sterling is still out there.”

The one both Hardwood and Tawny talked about were a Ranger I didn’t know. I pulled the bandage from home aside a little. Everything underneath had scabbed over and didn’t need to be redressed. No puss oozed from the wounds, though where the rainbow drop hit, I still felt swollen skin. Thumbing the drop from the wound then licking it resulted in a sweet and sour taste that evoked emotions.

“You’ll stay right here. Auntie Tanner is here and speaking with Cassandra,” Delilah responded. Her eyes became wider than the glasses, making her forehead shrink.

“That’s good. She found Sterling’s body, but Hardwood’ll know what to do. She always does,” Ranger Tawny responded.

I let them talk and pressed the soft tissue to see if more drops of clear sweat would come forth.

“And you’ll be staying here until that gut wound is healed. Which won’t be until after the tide falls on this moon.”

“I can still work,” he insisted while struggling to sit.

Other people were on stretchers but were out cold. Chests lifted slowly, and bandages were all over their bodies. I stared at them while pretending not to eavesdrop on Delilah and the Ranger. I knew he was a Ranger, not only because they’d said it but he wore the mark on his neck. Two quick-looking strokes represented The Mountain’s chosen.

“You’ll sit your ass down or I'll tell Aunt Tanner. You can explain to her why her husband is a stubborn mule intent upon tearing open his gut.”

“She wouldn’t like that,” the Ranger said, falling back onto the cot with a defeated expression. His eyes rolled and hand pressed against the bandaged stomach.

I waved good-bye to Delilah. It felt clear enough she didn’t have time or need to pay attention to me. Two other medics were there, but they appeared to be busy checking stockpiles of equipment. Only Delilah had even looked at me. I decided to duck out and head to work. If my hand could survive rendering services to Lily, it would survive working for the day.

Delilah waved, but the limpness to her wrist looked distracted. Family mattered more than a random miner who’d probably end up with new wounds. In my time working the mine, I’d suffered more than barbs from rat creatures. It happened to all of us. Bumps or knocks on equipment, monsters that weren’t cleared, or touching ink.

The gloves stayed on. One hand kept slipping while the damaged one felt cramped. Mismatched gear were a common problem. The shoes were stiff and worn on my soles. While walking, I shook every limb in turn to get the equipment loosened. Overalls and the baggy shirt were held in place by a large belt without a buckle. I stopped outside the medic hut to tuck the long pants into my boots, then I walked on slowly.

I glanced at the sun overhead then rolled my eyes. Midday meant nothing to miners. The inside could be hot or cold depending on the portion of the mine. A mental inventory of the tasks available to me failed to show me a path to enough money. I calculated the earnings if I stayed on the first two floors and found the results wanting. I couldn’t afford a tattoo at this rate. Before the week ended, I needed to talk to one of the tattooists and get a solid price. Mister Jewel had that much right—I should have asked how much this would cost me.

Money mattered. The thought had crossed my mind a dozen times today, and in each instance, it felt like a fresh spike being nailed into me. I needed onto one of the better crews or harder jobs. I needed more hours in the day or a rich patron. I’d ask Foreman Kindle for a better assignment then work my ass off to prove myself capable.

I stood in line to talk to him. He directed people and dealt with arguments over last week’s pay. The person in front of me squabbled over five dollars being cut. Broken gloves cost a dollar. Sleeping overnight cost three dollars. Meals were six for a day. Working in the mine paid a lot, but unless you did a good job and avoided extra costs, then you would barely break even.

“I don’t set prices. I don’t set wages. Those are all determined by Wellbrook Mines.”

“Well, you tell them no man can live on this kind of money,” the person in front of me said, his face twisted in a snarl. “Much less provide for a family.”

“I ‘ave,” Foreman Kindle said.

“Well, tell them again! Then again!”

Kindle’s lips twitched, and he shook his head. “Right. Til then, you’re on six or you can go find another job.” Kindle pointed toward a cafeteria. “Or you can go make a sandwich for the real workers. Pick, because daylight’s burning and I got a line.”

A dozen people were behind me from two stagecoaches that had arrived recently. I’d have to make my desires known quickly. The man in front of me stormed off. He chose to work in the mine over the cafeteria. People making meals didn’t earn as much. There were a chain to getting money. Rangers, refiners, deeper mines and medics, upper mines, and all the others. Runners and support staff were all on the same level. The order shifted around a bit for senior leadership.

When I stood in front of the foreman, my fingers rubbed against my thumb to signify money.

Foreman Kindle’s nostrils flared and his arms crossed. “Not you too. Not after last week. You’re really gonna come in here and tell me you need more?”

My head shook. “Deep crews. I want.” The line behind me kept getting longer and I shuddered. “To move up.”

A few weeks of risking my life should cover the house bills and let me save enough for the tattoo. Survival mattered, but on average, only one person died a week. Two hundred went down, so only one loss amounted to good odds. Generations with the mine had taught us how to keep people alive. The answer to that were also ink. We went down for it. We mined by its illumination. We studied its flows. I felt confident my life wouldn’t be one of the ones lost.

“You’d go to the deeps willingly?”

I closed my eyes then nodded slowly.

A note from FrustratedEgo

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