I held still while attempting to brave my own silent nature. The woman kept on smiling then sniffed the air again. From this angle, I finally saw what she’d been tapping earlier. On her shoulder was a tattoo of a plant. A strange rose with hooking petals and rows of spiky teeth. Green lined its colors. A sweet scent mixed with some spice carried across the thin air. Ranger Hardwood turned around, sniffing, and scanned the darkness.
Out of habit, I checked my blue ink again. The liquid glowed pure. I wanted to ask how she survived down here without anything more than tattoos, but my daddy had told me Rangers were magical. They survived anywhere. By power of The Mountain’s given substance, they could perform tricks that defied nature. Anyone could, for a price. Rangers, however, got the war markings that no tattooist alive could make work on another soul.
“Hug the wall!” she whispered. Her head were tilted upward.
I backed up, ready for the ceiling to fall. It didn’t; instead, creatures rapidly skittered along it. Their teeth were huge inside grinning mouths. Brown and black bodies nearly melded with the ceiling. Only a flicker of red casting shadows made them visible.
Ranger Hardwood dove along the pathway under them. She skirted a glow of green that caught my eye.
“Look out!” I cried, startled by the volume of my own voice.
A blade fell from the ceiling, startling everyone but the Ranger. Creatures leapt down like falling stars. Hardwood’s sword were drawn, one of falling creatures impaled down to the hilt. She swung the blade, and the grinning corpse flew to one side, then she stepped forward again as another pair let go of the ceiling.
Those two were cut apart; a sticky sweet smell hung in the air. Hardwood’s fingers glowed deep forest green as she wove the blade backward. She braced an attack with her forearm. Sharp teeth sank into her arm but got stuck—and I couldn’t see blood as she punched the creature repeatedly. Its teeth shattered and the body flew into a wall near me.
The heavy ax which had swung down from the ceiling rocked back and forth, shearing the skin of another one of the pack.
I tilted my head and stared at a creature, my blade ready. The remains twitched, trying to pull itself together before ceasing movement. Its body had wings resembling hairy spider legs. The teeth made no sense. It couldn’t be more than a cat or small dog in weight but spread out over four feet.
It twitched again, and one of those long hairy arms moved. I stabbed my blade into its head then stabbed the next one over, to be sure. They stilled completely, and I collected myself. The air down here were thin. A shriek followed by bone crunching shook me. I backed up to the wall on high alert.
I looked up to find all the critters were dead. Her blade jutted from the back of a creature's head. Ranger Hardwood stood over the recently deceased, her leathery cheeks puckered. Its arms twitched. Her disturbingly white teeth smiled at me under the pulsing red illumination. I looked at it and where I'd left my knife. The damn thing had nearly snuck up on me.
My eyes sought focus. Tingles crawled up the back of my spine. She stood ten feet away in a mess of dead monsters. The cavern were dim and the glow of my helmet hid as much as it revealed. Hardwood’s shadow sketched a wicked grin against the wall.
“Done?” she asked.
I vomited—not because of the monsters but because of the air. Liquid splattered repeatedly as my breakfast vanished, leaving me shakier than before. I wiped away the remains and saw Hardwood chuckle—in a manner that felt more like a judgmental snort.
“You had the right idea, finishing them off. But a lack of awareness will get you killed. Now, reset the trap,” she said while cradling her arm.
How do I do that? I asked myself.
The ax slowly slid back and forth as the last bit of inertia died down. I stood, intent upon making a good showing for the Ranger. My knees wobbled as the ax’s reset process confounded me. There were gears at the top. Thick rock that looked Delver-made supported the object in an otherwise natural-seeming cave. I looked at the Ranger and turned up one palm.
“You’re going to need to learn to ask questions aloud. That’s assuming you really do want to be a Ranger, and make it through the trials.” Her head shook. “Now turn around. Check the wall to the right. There should be a crank hidden in the back.”
Everyone on the planet knew of my intentions to be a Ranger, and I’d managed to get my life saved like an idiot. I should have hugged the wall and only killed the one—but instead I’d ended up in the middle of the tunnel, feverishly stabbing monsters. It felt just like my daddy’s stories. Only instead of me being the hero as I’d always imagined, I’d become the one being rescued.
I fumbled along the wall, feeling stupid the entire time. Ranger Hardwood rolled her eyes. The black pits under them looked even more pronounced from the red glow of my helmet. It bobbed rapidly as I finally grabbed the recessed chain. Rust flaked off on my hand as I pulled it down, end over end. The ax lifted into the ceiling. It passed by me as I hugged the wall.
While pulling, I studied the green glowing marks again. It looked as if someone had crudely painted an arrow on both the wall and ground. Arrows must mean bad things from the ceiling—or at least the direction of the trap. I filed away the knowledge and resolved to pay more attention to the traps as we went. They clearly helped, and even Rangers needed assistance.
“Your arm?” I asked.
“It’ll heal. One of the perks of being attuned to the green.” Ranger Hardwood said attunement as a matter-of-fact piece of information.
My daddy’s stories had never mentioned any such thing, but I nodded as if it made sense. It almost did, but how the Rangers used ink didn’t line up with the options available to the rest of us. We, normal people, could get all types of tattoos, but most were based on increasing our endurance or skills. People in Chandler’s Field got them. People in Bell Town got them. But the farther away from a mine one went, the fewer tattoos there were. At least until approaching one of the overseas mines.
The ax locked into place. I pulled the chain again, in case. Hardwood moved on, picking broken white shards out of her arm. The teeth fell to the ground as we continued past the dead bodies. Once again, the Ranger pressed the tattoo of a funny-looking rose. She sniffed the air and ignored the wounds.
I held my weapon ready while trying not to shake. We marched past more traps. I looked at everything, studying the pitfalls in case our strange jaunt through the deep caves went south. The idea of being so far underground shook me enough to check the blue ink again. It still glowed, but the air down here hadn’t improved.
Ranger Hardwood stepped past everything with ease. We traveled through a cavern with a large hole in the middle. Two ledges went around the pit. Spikes lined both sides, but green arrows glowed on the wall. She walked with them, slowly. The spikes bent with her steps.
“Don’t try to turn around in these rooms,” she explained. I sucked in air at hearing her speak for the first time in twenty minutes. “The spikes will pierce to the bone. At best you’ll get tetanus. At worse you’ll panic and fall into the pool below.”
She faced away and didn’t notice my agreement. We kept moving, and I continued my study of the traps. Every single device looked worn down. Most were designed to not require human interaction or could be easily reset.
We passed by one spot that were a series of poles on a spinning gear. Ranger Hardwood skirted around that one, and I couldn’t hang back long enough to really study how it worked. Like most traps, it looked to use throwing monsters in pits as its main weapon.
Many traps already had victims. Dead monsters were laying in droves. I assumed they were fresh from the full moon that occurred yesterday, but I could have been wrong. Ranger Hardwood ignored them, but I didn’t. Each one got stabbed through the eye, where their bodies were softest. Ranger Hardwood scouted at the corner while I compulsively took care of the beasts. The older woman said nothing more in judgment.
One of the walls moved as we approached. A living mass of bugs crawled across its surface. I sucked in air and managed to stifle the scream. They probably feasted on the dead creatures spawned down here. They might have been ink critters. I didn’t know and watched the Ranger’s reactions. Hardwood’s lips were pursed as her head shook.
I wanted to ask her questions but couldn’t figure out how. The woman clearly didn’t like chatter but felt comfortable enough to talk anyway. She were driven, focused, and judgmental. Beyond that, I couldn’t quite figure out how to handle her. I wondered why a Ranger, any Ranger, would allow me to tag along.
Tattooist Cassandra had been the one to start all this. I figured her word must somehow be higher than the Ranger’s. Which made sense—considering Rangers wouldn’t exist without someone to ink them with war markings. Hardwood had kept me safe thus far—showing me traps, fighting off those smiling things—and seemed to be evaluating me.
Is this a trial? Am I already being considered for the Rangers? I asked myself but had no good answer. Part of me assumed asking Hardwood would invalidate the results somehow. The idea that we were already in the testing made me tense at every little noise, worried that even the slightest weakness would mean failure.
“We’re almost there. I hope you’re remembering all this, brat. If something happens, it’ll be on you to make it back safely. I ain’t above using you as bait either,” she said.
I shuddered then counted the turns while wondering what fool had told me the deep mines were a good idea. The answer, of course, were simple—I’d told myself coming down here would lead to money. Money increased my chance of being a Ranger. Being a Ranger meant more money and freedom for and from Momma.
I wished I’d done better in school. I wished a lot of things. Dreams of changing my past were pure useless fantasy that couldn’t solve my problems.
The Ranger laughed, which still sounded like a snort full of all the world’s judgment. Then we left, moving on to the next twist in the caves. All the while, we headed slowly downhill, going farther into the depths. Two rooms later, we came into a huge cavern—bigger than any I’d ever seen. The soft glow of a multi-colored pool came from twenty or thirty feet below.
“We’re here,” she whispered, crouching to peer at the pool. “This is one of the reclamation chambers for the deep. Big ones always come here, seeking easy meals.”
I held still, looking for signs of danger. The cave felt too natural and wide open. Not like the mines above—those were well carved with support beams. Down here, with only traps as a sign of life, it were far more nerve-racking.
She stayed kneeling. I ran through the prior rooms over and over in my head while looking around. This location didn’t match up with any of the others. Up above sat another ledge with two long, slick polearms hanging out over the edge. That might have been one of the rooms we passed before. I couldn’t find any other familiar landmarks anywhere in the giant cave.
Ranger Hardwood covered her lips with a finger and used the other hand to tap the tattoo. She sniffed for the millionth time while searching. One of the dark shadows moved, a rolling bundle of blackness that managed to be darker than anything could rightly be.
It weren’t bugs. I stepped carefully to the Ranger and pointed.
Ranger Hardwood’s eyes widened as if she were excited or confused. Her nostrils flared. “I’m going to kill that son of a bitch.”
The woman’s hand reached behind her back, and a brackish green flared to life. The pattern spiraled out of control on her back, pushing back the red coloring. The creature’s upper half rose quickly. It leaned across the pool until its head reached the light cast from my helmet. It were a monstrous bear face with pitch-black eyes. Its face tilted and lip trembled. I shook while my heart skipped a beat.
Its face scrunched tightly, then exploded with a mess of noise and spit. A glob of spittle slammed into my face. I stood there stupidly, wondering how any sane person handled a creature of such size and immensity.
Ranger Hardwood stood and bellowed back. I turned my head slowly, trying to comprehend which screw in her head hadn’t been tightened properly. She grinned, leveled a gun on it, then frowned. The bear ignored the Ranger and stared at me.
She shouted, “Run, you idiot!” Then she fired.
The bear let loose a second roar. Her shout made me jump. The large bear slammed down then stood again on its hind legs. It nearly reached the next floor up. I didn’t know if it could jump over the pool to me, but I imagined it might try.
I put a hand on my helmet then ran.
Footsteps shook the earth behind me. The ceiling narrowed as I exited the passageway. My only thought were, I have to get to the safe room.
Green illuminations were almost impossible to see. Red ink cast a bouncy glow against the dark walls. Ranger Hardwood yelled a battle cry no human could match. Still, the giant bear kept coming after me.
Room after room of traps, pitfalls, ledges, and slippery slopes filled my mind. I took two turns in the right direction then slammed into a bar stretched across the ground. It spun, and a second bar hit me in the back of the calves while I stumbled. I fell to all fours then scrambled madly forward.
A hole lay in front of me. I remembered coming out of it, but it looked different from this side. Sharper edges meant a mean spike overhead.
I crawled through the narrow passage. The bear thudded into the wall behind me. Hot breath warmed the bottom of my boots as I scrambled forward. My knees banged into rocks, and my eyes rolled with pain. None of it stopped me. It roared in honking bursts, over and over as I crawled through the other end. My hand slammed into a pressure plate, and the monstrous cries behind me dissolved into a yowl.
My elation didn’t last long. The passageway behind me shuddered. A snout poked out of the small passage I’d dodged through. The creature’s body wiggled and struggled while I backed away slowly. My heartbeat raced while I prayed the bear would get stuck.
It didn’t. I turned to run again.
My passageway joined with another. I still couldn’t remember the map for this floor, and everything felt wrong from this angle. The rock behind me crumbled and a fresh roar of noise echoed.
Where the hell is Hardwood? I asked myself.
I stumbled forward, favoring my weakened knee. There were other creatures too. They ran, like I did, away from the huge bulk of anger and muscle. We approached the splitting pathway of spikes. I stumbled then nearly fell onto the pointed edges. My hand grabbed the wall before reeling back. Bugs crawled across my hand.
Monsters ran past me in a wave. Their tiny claws tore my skin in a frantic scramble as they went around or between my legs. We were all afraid. I pushed through the pile of ink-born monsters. Beasts knocked me to my knees.
The bear approached. Its leg dragged, so it’d been left wounded but angry. I watched as the beast slammed its paw into a straggling rat creature. That giant rat squished like a grape. The bear stopped and licked off its paw. I took advantage of the break to walk quickly down the safer path. The beast screamed after me.
Why? I asked myself. A million smaller critters were scattering in every direction. It didn’t need to chase me.
Playing dead weren’t an option. My knees knocked at the thought of even letting it get close. I clutched the blade tightly and drove it at a grinning bat spider that got too frisky. It squealed then fell onto the path. I moved to the exit, hoping another meal might slow the bear.
It didn’t. The creature’s heavy footsteps shook the ceiling and rattled my teeth. My knees struggled to work each time the earth vibrated.
Two turns later and I reached another long corridor. Dead bat spider critters littered the floor. The ax trap should be nearby. I laid eyes on the green glow then stumbled to the left side of the narrow hallway. The bear reduced most of our gap, its loud nails grinding against dirt. Huffs came from right behind my shoulder and somehow grew closer. A click could be heard, followed by the ax sliding seamlessly from the ceiling. It slammed into the beast, bringing forth a fresh howl. The wall shuddered and I kept stumbling, afraid to find out how close it’d been.
At the end of the hallway, I had no idea which way to go. There were too many twisting passageways. The safe room could be left or right—I didn’t know. Miners couldn’t be heard over the monster’s noises. I looked both directions, hoping for a sign. A roar—too close—came from behind me. It bellowed again, and I shook. The blade in my hands would do nothing against that monster.
I turned then stood with my back to the wall. The giant bear lumbered into the next passage after me. It no longer ran. Liquid matted its skin, and one eye had been ripped open. Its back leg moved unevenly, but still he came forth, intent upon getting me.
Where the hell is Hardwood? I thought again—among a scattered collection of other questions. Harold’s warning came back to me. The giant filth spawned every full moon—I’d found a source of corruption so evil it ate its own kind.
It reared but dropped once its huge form hit the ceiling. Our passageway didn’t have enough room for the creature to reach its full height. Tons of muscle rippled under wounded fur. Blinded by blood, but still its one eye was locked on me. Pounding rushed through my ears in time with the damned red ink.
It’s going to kill me. I’ll be dead in these mines, just like Momma were afraid of, I thought.
It charged. I glanced to each side; either choice might end my life. Staying here certainly would. I went right then were abruptly shoved to the ground by a hand. My shoulder planted into a wall and my knees buckled. The ground’s cold indifference greeted my face. One foot jerked in a useless attempt to escape.
Hardwood’s boot entered my line of sight. Her skin glowed green and black like brambles on a bush. I heard gunfire. It echoed again, deafening me.
I groaned and rolled to the side, covering my ears. She fired her gun twice more. Still the bear charged. I watched as its huge bulk moved in surges. Three more bullets pierced its body, hardly slowing the beast. The bear’s front paw bent wrong. It fell forward. Mass and inertia carried it in a slide that threatened to squish me. My body pushed flat against the wall, struggling to find a deeper hole to hide in.
Then the noise stopped. There were no bullets. The glow of green and black had vanished. I couldn’t hear lesser creatures. It were just… silent. My eyes opened and color returned. Hands came off my ears and the sound of heavy breathing could be heard.
A pitch-black eye gazed in my direction. The other was disfigured from its wounds. Its shoulder had a huge gash with pink meat and blood oozing. Maybe the color were different. My helmet lay a few feet from me, creating unfamiliar shadows.
Ranger Hardwood sat. Her arm had tiny little tremors that she tried to cover up. She took short breaths and stared at the bear. I got up slowly then grabbed my knife. The blade slid into its eye socket, turning the good one into a gooey mess.
The bear stayed still and I let out a shuddering sigh.
“Good for you. Even if you wet your pants, you got the right idea. It’s as useless as tits on a bull, but it’s the right idea.” Hardwood stood and dusted off her pants.
I stared down the hall she’d come from. It must somehow connect with one of the earlier passageways. The layout made no sense in my mind. She’d shot the creature dead—I’d made sure. Still, its huge body filled most of the hall, reminding me how close death had been.
What big teeth it has, I thought.
Hardwood’s voice startled me. “Do you know why it chased you and not me?”
I fell against a wall and kicked the creature with a steel-toed boot while considering what she’d asked. The question made me chilly. That cold pit at the center of my chest lingered. My skin were blanketed in goose bumps. Hair stood on end as I rubbed an arm with excessive force.
The giant corpse lay in front of me. My mind couldn’t fathom how it had made it past the spiked floors or ignored pitfalls. The beast simply moved with surprising agility for such a huge creature. It had also seemed undaunted by the sheer amount of damage done to it. As though it’d been fixated on me.
All those questions and more flooded my mind in a jumble. I asked, “Why?” while shakily pointing at the corpse.
“I have my guesses.” She smiled but didn’t explain it.
Ranger Hardwood’s grin never faltered. Her expression were like those earlier bat spider creatures—pure disturbing amusement mixed with a hard edge that might eat me alive. She tapped the tattoo on her shoulder then sniffed. I suspected she used that marking to sense the ink-touched monsters somehow.
She withdrew her short blade then carved the creature's hide. My skin crawled and I shivered.
Hardwood ignored me and nodded. “Cassandra said you had potential. I see now.”
“Why did it go after me?” I asked while backing up a few paces—in case it came to life and wanted to eat me again.
“I’ll show you something, brat. On the off chance I’m right.” She pulled out a thinner blade that had been tucked inside her boot. The weapon made my own knife look like a fingernail file.
Ranger Hardwood wasted little time gutting the beast. Guts poured out, sizzling as they touched the air. I kicked back some ways from the gooey mass. The smell of rot filled our corridor, and the blue gauge on my shoulder flickered as our air changed. My fingers grasped tightly and eyes searched for the route back, in case whatever Hardwood had done had somehow turned The Mountain’s depths against us.
But The Mountain didn’t care we’d killed such a beast. Eventually, the blue settled back to its normal light hue. The smell of rotting flesh never left.
I turned to see what the Ranger had dug out. She held a large ball. Bigger than a beating heart, but smoother and round. The object formed a perfect sphere.
“What?” I asked.
“You almost managed to ask your question aloud. Maybe you can be taught.”
“What is—” The effort of talking hurt. There’d been too many bumps and bangs in that chase.
“Here it is, brat. The truth of how Rangers earn money. We find the biggest, meanest, ugliest monster from the mines or above the ground and tear out its still beating heart. Only monster hearts, those from the mines anyway, they aren’t like normal hearts.”
“Why?” I asked.
“This is what makes ink work. The heart, which all ink crawls toward as its host transforms.” She held up the pulsing glow. It swirled like material from The Mountain’s heart. Alive, constantly changing.
I shuddered to think how they’d use a substance that looked like reverse rainbow drops to make tattoos work. I realized then, she wore no gloves. She handled ink raw. I rubbed my hand where the scattered drop had sent me to the floor. Why Ranger Hardwood could touch it without adverse effects, or what that implied, were beyond me.
“That other brat. He asked about being a Ranger and how to know if you’re hard enough. And word is you want to apply at the next choosing. Do you want to find out if you’re hard enough for this work?”
My jaw moved, but no noise came out. The woman’s eyes locked onto my face, waiting for an answer. I nodded. My hands tightened into fists. I leaned forward. Her face glowed red, showing every single wrinkle on the deeply worn skin. The sight made my heartbeat race.
“Here’s how you really know. This’ll tell you if you’re hard enough.” She nodded toward the beast’s deformed heart. “You just touch it.”
If she could, then I could. They’d taught me that on my first day. Surviving raw ink were a matter of keeping my mind clear. It must be how she’d managed to touch so much of it—if that was what the ball-shaped heart were made of. Maybe monsters had something else in the gullets.
My hand lifted to grab the object.
Ranger Hardwood pulled the object a bit back then said, “Might kill you.”
My eyebrows bunched. Death scared me, but the heartache Momma would suffer made the idea truly frightening. Fear alone wouldn’t stop me from the risk.
“Or?” I coughed from the dry scraping uttering one word caused my throat.
“Might help you. Might activate something else in you. Give you an edge. But no boon comes without a price.” The Ranger stopped smiling and leveled a cold glare at me.
I needed to be the one chosen. I needed it so I could be free of the promise to Daddy. Part of me believed death weren’t a real risk. Every day I worked in the mines meant another brush with the soul-devouring devils of this place.
“You stand at a crossroads, brat. Like that other child who dreams of being a hero. But the choice, and the risk, is yours alone.”
There were never a choice, I thought.
I touched the mass. Heat burned my fingertips, making me jerk back. I turned the hand over and spasms racked through my arm. The scalding warmth crawled upward as I inhaled to scream. The yell stilled as another sensation hit. Frost—which had clutched my heart since our descent to this floor—spiraled up to meet the burning. They touched, and sparks clouded my vision.
A torrent of sensations blanketed me as the two forces met. Pain, pleasure, hunger, excitement, jealous rage all knotted together. The yell which had been building became a mix of moans and snarls. Ranger Hardwood’s dry chuckles were buried by sensations making my body twitch. The heartbeat of light from my helmet pulsed.
Memories surfaced. Lily’s face came in first. She smiled in purple sheets that might have been velvet. I’d never had high quality sheets so it were hard to tell. “One more time? Gentle like?”
She swirled away to be replaced by Poss. “Look at you, still a boy struggling to be a man wearing his father’s leftovers.”
A ring of murky gray marred her features. Thick darkness lined the corners of the memory. That too vanished, and I saw my daddy with a steady light-blue aura that cracked yellow—like a sunny day. I reached for him while listening to his words that drove me forward.
“Promise me, boy. Promise you’ll get your momma way from The Mountain. Promise me.” His eyes were closed and chest moving slowly. The imaged faded to be replaced by yet another face.
Momma’s voice came back from yesterday. “I don’t know what I’ll do if they claim you too,” she said, framed with holly berries and leaves.
Pain cramped my toes, then legs and stomach. Everything clenched. Crimson laced with angry agony won over the other sensations, and time blurred. My teeth ground as I thrashed, struggling to keep hold of my mind.
“I will,” someone said in answer to Daddy’s demand. But Daddy’d died an age ago. I gasped again and found enough air to scream.
Then it ended as the words registered fully. I’d spoken them. Silver swam over the other colors and blanketed my mind in the absence of all sensation. My body slackened and lay there.
Blackness swallowed the final color, then it too faded. After an age, I found myself staring without comprehension at a lit room. The stable pale yellow looked wrong. It had no heartbeat and should have been a deep red. Red stood for pain, and love, and hate—all emotions which twisted together around pieces of my past.
But since the ceiling weren’t red, this couldn’t be inside The Mountain. Somehow, after all those memories rushing by, I’d been taken out of the Wellbrook Mine.
My arm lifted then flopped back down.
Another person spoke, “You’re safe enough. My niece patched you up.”
The world lacked focus. Wrong colors swam over everything. A stink of dried bark and burning wood mixed into disgusting gunk up my nose that stung. I felt lost without screeches, snarling beasts, or the red, pulsing heartbeat.
“You still want to be one of us?” the other person asked.
I blinked then turned my head to the side. The man speaking—Ranger Tawny—were a gaunt fellow who looked more skeleton than human. He sat hunched on a cot with his hands clasped.
“Well, boy?” Ranger Tawny asked.
I gazed at him without comprehension. My leg hurt, but the muscles in my neck felt slack. Relaxed, like when I had been a child ignorant of the world at large. I didn’t want to lose the sensation and attempted not to think of anything but peace.
He leaned back, closed his eyes, and rotated his head around a few times before speaking. “Shocked, I imagine. Rattled. You almost drowned under the sharpest point of a tide. You were almost lost under the first taste of something no sane Ranger sees in the first six months, if ever.”
My eyes tightened, and I struggled to understand what he meant.
“You listen close, boy. My wife, she did something she shouldn’ta.” He shook his pale, skeleton-like head. The man’s neck hardly had any skin to spare as he moved back and forth. I watched his jaw before daring to meet Tawny’s gaunt eyes. “Or are you deaf as well as mute? Blink twice if you hear me.”
His head quivered slightly as he spoke. An air about him were a faint reminder of Daddy. Instead of looking at the sun, it felt more like seeing a rippling sea of soft flower petals, or feathers on a canary.
I blinked twice then closed my eyes for a long time.
He continued speaking despite my eyes being closed. “You touched The Mountain when you shouldn’ta, boy. Be wary on your path. Go much farther now, it’ll touch you back. Then it won’t matter what you want. Your soul won’t be yours no more.”
Those words lingered as my mind drifted. Sometime later, I opened my eyes and found myself alone in the medical room. I glared out a small window and watched as sunlight broke around The Mountain’s tip, casting a looming shadow in the room. Even now, the mine’s entrance smiled.