“Come on, Kindle,” the person behind me said. “Tell him no and move on.”
The people back there made me hesitate. I wanted to explain I needed more money but didn’t mind working for it. Ducky and I were different in that regard. I took my whippings but kept coming back because of money.
He checked his clipboard then squinted. “No. First, you go check on Harold’s crew. Log says you delivered enough food for an army, and I need to see if they got those barrels ready.” Foreman Kindle narrowed his eyes even further. “Unless you want I should give the credit to Ducky?”
I deflated and rolled my head to one side. Being nice to Ducky weren’t one of the plans. I needed money or else life would keep being crap.
“Once he’s back, send them both to the deeps. Let them see.” A woman’s silken voice interrupted my contemplation.
I turned to see Tattooist Cassandra studying me. Her pale face tilted down and her eyes locked on my gloved hand. I hastily covered the wound.
Can she see where the rainbow drop landed? I asked myself. The ink hadn’t taken hold or there’d be a clear mark. At least that was what happened to other people.
“You sure, miss?” Kindle asked Cassandra.
“Send him to the deeps. He’ll see how Rangers operate. He may die. Or he may survive. What does it matter to you?”
“We don’t move people up without reason.” Foreman Kindle made an effort to speak clearly. He too often fell back into a heavily accented tone.
I’d heard stories from my daddy. In the deep mines, there were monsters under every rock. Born of the ink and hunted by Rangers. There were the barrels of every rare color possible. Down there, we could mine the best materials, especially after a full moon.
“He has potential.” She dragged out the word, and it slid around inside my head, making me squirm. “How well he’ll do during the trials, I do not know. But I sense promise.”
My eyes went wide and breathing sped up. I have potential? I couldn’t keep myself stable. Fresh aches radiated to my elbow from the damaged hand. No one had ever told me I had potential for anything. Not even Daddy. I shook.
“Come on,” the person behind me said. “I don’t care if he’s got the biggest dick on The Mountain! I need to switch my assignment!”
Foreman Kindle leaned over and lifted a piece of paper up between him at the Tattooist. He shouted to the man behind me, “No. You’re stuck on three! Jus’ like last week. Jus’ like the week before. And you’ll be there next week unless you want a foot up your ass.”
“No. Maybe if you worked harder instead of pissin’ and moanin’ here, the rest of your crew wouldn’t chase you out!” The foreman’s accent resurfaced as a vein in his forehead throbbed.
I still had the word potential rattling around. Cassandra were sneaking glances at my hand.
“Chase,” he said. My attention had wandered. “You get back the barrels twelve promised. Tell Harold and his boys they need a rest afterward. Delvers or not, they need to come up fo’ air.”
I hustled out of line and to the double-wide railway cart. A dozen workers stood ready for their shift. Piles of food and other supplies were in the middle of the fortress, along with a tired-looking man holding a clipboard. He marked names and ticked off boxes as people requested supplies. I ordered food to make up for a nonexistent breakfast and pretended not to notice the checkbox that would dock my pay at the end of the week.
We traveled en masse to the mine’s entrance. Two Rangers with their tattoos of The Mountain kindly gave us the babble about the upper mines being cleared. People nodded, others glared at the middle distance, while still more fingered weapons because they knew the Rangers had missed critters with angry teeth.
Ducky and a handful of crews made their way in. Mister Jewel glared at me before leaving with his small gathering. The Jeffs waved to several other miners and smiled as they entered The Mountain’s greedy maw. I briefly rested my eyes then loaded supplies from the second platform.
Once I felt as though enough time for Ducky to fall into a pit had passed, I bellied up to the entryway then confirmed my destination. Down I went, intent on seeing how Harold and his kind had fared during the full moon.
The railway stopped well before Harold’s assigned area. Around the corner, a small passageway could be seen in the bobbing red light from my helmet. I stopped the cart then peered down the tunnel’s access way. Rocks and dirt had fallen in the path.
I grabbed a quick pack with food and a thin tube of reds and blues. I stepped farther down the path with my weapon ready. Rangers should have cleared this place, but little monsters might be anywhere. Closer to the small passage, the sound of chopping and picks could be heard. Their singing hadn’t halted, but the noise were exhausted sounding.
I kicked my steel-toed boot against a rocky outcropping three times then waited. The hammering and singing stopped. A light shuffling of feet could be heard. The noise dimmed to utter silence, and seconds later, someone peeked out. Their red headlamp could be seen.
“Clear,” I said.
Harold’s face peered from between the small crack. “Chase?”
I nodded. His eyes swept the hallway. His ink barely illuminated the crack he hid in. The material had worn down to near uselessness. I held out the resupply satchel. Harold walked forward. His face had scratches on it that were crusted with dirt. A sour smell wafted forward and made my nose wrinkle.
“What day is it?” Harold asked.
“Tuesday. Afternoon.” It might be closer to mid-day. The whistle from the camp up top which denoted hours couldn’t be heard this deep inside.
“The tide is over then,” he said.
Harold pulled back into his hole a few feet. His voice came from around the corner, “Did they get the bear?”
The bear sounded like a mine boss. They were tough creatures. My head shook, but he wouldn’t have seen me.
I said, “The one that killed Ranger Sterling?”
“Yes, young Chase. Is it dead? Bears are too big for us Delvers. Rats. Gophers. Other filthy things we can handle. But we don’t have springboards here. Or traps. They seek the sunlight and are mad with their need for relief.”
I inched closer without disguising my footsteps. The Delvers pulled back as I approached. Their red illumination shifted around.
“Food and supplies. Then the barrels.” The words were harder to say even if Harold were a family friend.
He looked timid. I imagined how big a bear looked to me. I’d seen one brought down by a neighbor years ago.
Pickax noises elevated. A series of frantic bangs dug out chunks of dirt. The wall crumbled. I backed away as the tunnel widened on one side. Indistinct words were muffled by the noises of walls crumbling. They dug out tunnels and revealed a support pillar that had been placed long ago. Then went right around it, clearing more dirt so they could get out the larger barrels.
“We must go above,” a shaky female voice whispered repeatedly.
Others mumbled with her, repeating the idea like a chant.
Dirt continued to be yanked out of the way. Harold came down the newly reopened path, carefully rolling one of the barrels on its edge. I waited until he was clear of those breaking down the wall. Dirt fell from the ceiling, and we all paused to look up.
“Young Chase.” Harold’s words broke into a rumble then calmed back down. “We must load up and leave. We must go now before the large filth returns.”
We remained still until the earth settled. After a minute with no signs of collapse, Harold turned to his crew members then shook his head. They tiptoed back into the hard-to-see shaft and grabbed items.
I didn’t have a ton on the cart, only a few of the resupply bags. The load back with two full barrels would be harder to push. Plus some of the Delvers must be utterly exhausted.
Harold’s urgency got me moving rapidly. We loaded both barrels in silence. Items and gear were gathered for turn in. Two crew members, sporting wounds that were blackened, loaded into the minecart with the barrels. They dangled their legs over the edge limply and scanned their surroundings.
The Delvers returned with me, one pushing beside me while two kept their weapons ready. A sixth scouted ahead but these halls were clear. There were small signs of battles were all around. I could see it easier now in the light of so many dim red headlamps.
How did I miss all this? I thought. Then it hit me—the word potential had blinded me. My shoulders tightened as we steadily traveled to the top.
As we neared the exit, the Delvers visibly relaxed. Weapons went into pouches for everyone but Harold. He kept his hand on the knife’s hilt but no longer checked every corner for signs of impending attack. I kept pushing.
“Are you working after this?”
“Where to, young Chase?”
I took the pressure off my still-healing hand and pointed down repeatedly. The cart slowed as the weight of ink and slumbering Delvers made moving difficult. I slipped down and pushed the cart using a forearm and my good hand.
“You are going below?”
Sweat dripped down my head, matting my short hair. I nodded then wiped away the forming river. Going into the deep would be harder. I wouldn’t be a runner but instead a worker. Set to dig away while pulling threads of formed ink.
“You must be careful,” Harold said while fidgeting with his weapon handle. “Every tide has an evil with it. A filth so strong it eats others of its kind.”
When the full moon hit, liquid welled up from The Mountain’s heart. With it came a wave of monsters that were enraged versions of normal creatures from the surface. Harold had told me about the extra factor I already knew—not only were there regular creatures, but every full moon spawned one large monster.
My father had told me tales of the great beasts. The kind of monsters Rangers regarded as a challenge.
“The Rangers will kill it,” I said.
“They already lost one to the beast.”
I swallowed then nodded. “Sterling.”
The loss of a Ranger hurt us all. Every single one who passed meant fewer people able to stand toe to toe with the darkness. Normal people didn’t get the war markings Rangers did. Ones that led to death for monster and humans alike. They were the guards of all who lived near The Mountain, all who worked inside, and they retrieved those who dared escape. I still didn’t know how they made money—but everyone were aware that Rangers made more than every person related to the mine.
“The evil filth still roams. It searches for food. Now that Rangers have killed most of the surface creatures, it will go back to the deeps to look for new meals.”
“It’s below?” I asked.
“Yes. Young Chase, most filth comes to the surface to be freed by sunlight, but the strongest filths do not. They come to the surface to feed on the weaker ones trying to escape.”
I shook my head. The habits of such large creatures had been a childhood question of mine. One of my favorites. Daddy said that most creatures spawned of The Mountain were in agony, born mad with the need for relief. He said some monsters were like people, born with a soul so dark that they accepted the madness and freed their comrades in the foulest of ways. It made a good story for a boy—until sleep time. Then it were nightmares until Momma made him stop telling me stories of the full moon.
Thoughts of youth kept me distracted until we reached the docking station. In the two hours since venturing below, little had changed. Additional guards stood at the ready, along with two Rangers.
We slowed the cart before it hit the station. The Delvers helped each other while humans stood farther away. They nodded at the short people but did nothing else. All the Delvers kept their heads down and carried the packs I’d brought. My supplies were mostly unused except for the fresh red to light their way.
Harold tilted his head back and watched the station. He wanted to make sure to record all the supplies brought back, along with both barrels. A receipt were deposited into the crew leader’s hands, and he let out a long, shuddering sigh.
“Your father died in those depths. It would not do well for you to go the same way,” Harold said.
“I need to go,” I said then rubbed my fingers together to sign money.
“Then heed some advice, young Chase.”
“Avoid the pools and anything green. Traps are marked in a color those born of the deep do not see.”
My lips tightened. His advice matched the stories told by my father. Green glowed distinctly different than red or blue. Monsters were oblivious to its illumination. Near the green would be a trap designed to skewer lesser creatures.
“Be safe, young Chase. I will say a prayer for you.” His soft words scared me.
“Thanks,” I said while looking down.
Harold left, and I checked in with the station master. He told me to wait for the first trip below.
My stomach shook then knotted as more people arrived. Two Rangers came up from the depths by the hand-crank elevator near the weigh station. Ducky arrived and looked green too, which didn’t help me feel less queasy. The next part went by with agonizing slowness; the knot in my belly twisted.
No one spoke as we loaded into the elevator with a wall of supplies. Lips were sealed as we lowered. Neither Ranger said a thing to warn us of the dangers. The Jeffs, who’d been waiting for us at the elevator, kept their heads down and moved their mouths in unison, but not a sound made it out. They didn’t explain why they were headed below. The heaviness of a dozen people breathing served as a reminder that we were headed to a place where men died.
Ranger Hardwood raised a hand to those of us on the pulley system. Ducky and I kept our quibbling down and worked together to slow the descent. We hit bottom quietly.
The air smelled thin, if such a thing were possible. I took quick breaths and tried to understand how the air felt wrong. Blue light glowed on my upper arm. I shuddered as something washed over me. A chill swirled through every limb then massed at my heart. I rubbed my chest. The other miners and Ducky shook as well.
Only the Rangers were unaffected. Their disregard of the deep’s impact left me amazed. I glanced at Ducky. He gulped but stayed tight-lipped. The Rangers moved forward with bladed weapons. Jeff’s crew moved next. Ducky and I pushed two carts with a mess of supplies loaded into them. They made more noise than everyone else combined.
I couldn’t remember the map perfectly for this floor. I did know the tracks stopped early. After that, we’d need to pack the gear in a fortified room then lock the door. There were other protocols that were the same all over the mine. Be fully clothed. Wear the headgear with a heavy opaque substance that looked like glass but melted easily. They were three dollars to replace.
My hand felt tender. Two days had barely helped it heal. Coming back to push carts had already taken its toll. My breathing hitched, but I managed to stay quiet. Ducky huffed louder. The Jeffs trudged along, carrying their own supplies in bags.
We reached the large fortified room. Jeff directed us to load materials inside, which Ducky and I did in silence. Whatever issues we had as people, or he had in working, Ducky acted as if they had all flitted away. I suspected the Rangers’ presence influenced his actions.
The leader of the Jeffs spoke first. “If there’s trouble, find one of these rooms. Run back. Close the door, and don’t open it until you see the green go off inside.”
He tapped his fingers on the inside and outside of the door, directing my attention to a board that said “clear inside” then “trapped” on the outside. The system had been set up so those in need of rescue could alter the outside by triggering a splash of ink that would replicate on the outside.
“Not even for you?” Ducky asked.
All five shook their heads in unison. Ranger Hardwood scowled. The other Ranger had gone ahead to scout while we loaded our supplies into the shed.
“Why?” I asked.
“Survival, yeah?” a Jeff answered.
The rest nodded in unison.
My eyebrows knitted as I looked around. The idea of not helping fellow miners felt like a trick. Deaths in the mine were only one person a week—no more. This room must have been in case our efforts went badly—or maybe a leftover from two hundred years ago.
I studied the room again. The walls were sealed tightly. All around the door was a thick material that might be good enough to lock against air. I ran a finger along the border and couldn’t understand how well protected the room might be if this chamber flooded.
“Brat. You’re with me.” Ranger Hardwood’s voice sounded rougher than it had back at the stagecoach hours ago. “Move quickly and quietly.”
My musings about the room’s makeup could wait. If life went right, I’d be down here multiple times in the month to come. Thinking about how the location were put together would distract me for hours. Down in the mine, distractions were dangerous but also a much-needed commodity.
I carefully walked after the Ranger and wished for a better fitting pair of shoes. The larger shoe bashed into rocks and uneven patches of dirt. Red light on my helmet jostled. Scratching noises came from down a mineshaft that looked closer to a natural tunnel than a Delver-created structure. The woman in front of me ignored the sound, but I turned as we passed the tunnel. Nothing leapt from the darkness to catch us.
Ranger Hardwood shook her head as though she were annoyed with something. I saw her sniff the air while tapping a spot on her shoulder every few seconds. My fingers were tight against the hilt of a dagger that didn’t have the reach of a gun or Hardwood’s weapon. She practically had a sword, though it were slightly shorter than a full blade, for reasons I didn’t know.
I didn’t have enough time to study her. We crept along tunnels that grew less cut and more natural—past uneven drops that showed signs of being partially worked on. I began to wonder if she meant to leave me in the mines to die.
A hand were shoved in my face. “To think, I almost liked you for a second.”
Small smears of green illuminated the distance with dead near their markings. We passed a pit outlined by the same barely visible ink. Red illumination over the edge displayed a dead pile of creatures. Transformed raccoons or possums. I grabbed the wall and backed away from the pit trap.
“What?” I asked as we wove past another trap in a long line of dozens.
Ranger Hardwood turned in my direction. For the first time, I realized she didn’t have a red ink headband like I did. She wore no blue or any ink other than the clear tattooing on her body. “The bear. It will be here somewhere. Soon, if not already. They always come down here. To the pits.”
I backed up. She survived down here without noticing the chill or worry of the dangers. The woman hunted here as if this were a jaunt into the backwoods to kill some rabbits.
Her grin widened. “You’re right to be afraid of me, brat. But if you can’t overcome the fear, then you’ll never be hard enough to make a Ranger.”