While I lay in recovery for two days, Rangers cleared The Mountain then vanished. Foreman Kindle paid me a chunk of change equivalent to a week’s effort on the upper floors. He kindly waived the fee for my damaged gear but also said I couldn’t lie in bed for free. Being out of commission and in medical for so many days made the whole affair a wash.
I counted myself wiser from the experience but no richer. Being trapped did afford me plenty of opportunities to cast some sidelong glances at Delilah as she bustled around. Under the layers of clothes and just past the glasses, a pretty girl lurked. She knew it and made no move to hide her sway, but nothing untoward ever happened.
On the third day, Ducky arrived, flush-faced and staggering worse than a drunk. His arm had been cocooned by cotton. Dark red bled through in two spots. I looked and judged the damage to be extensive then turned away to mind my own business. My head swam with colors from moving too fast.
Ducky spoke, “I need new stitches, and they told me I couldn’t do it down below.”
The bed next to me creaked loudly. Ducky sucked in air then gave a muffled scream. I stared at the wall then closed both eyes because everything kept shifting without my say so.
“Good lord, Derek. What is this awful mess?” Her voice lifted. “Who dressed the wound?”
Ducky grunted to cover fresh-sounding pain. “That asshole, Ranger Obsidian.” Ducky grunted again. Delilah murmured quietly as the bed next to mine shook. “He said it was good enough as it was. I thought so too until it burst open on me.”
Delilah’s body scooted in next to mine and fiddled through a drawer. I opened one eye for a peek then pretended to be ignorant. Drawers were pulled out, making a rattling noise as objects slid around.
“When?” she asked while picking up an object that clinked like metal.
“After the full moon. The mute and me went down below,” Ducky answered.
“Full moon? Fool’s moon, I’d wager. And Chase isn’t a mute.”
“Well, he don’t talk.”
“He doesn’t talk to you. Everyone knows it’s because you two might as well be oil and water.” My bed moved again as Delilah bumped into it. “Shame, knowing you have so much in common, having both lost parents to the mine.”
“Which one of us is oil?”
She laughed as if it were a good joke. It weren’t. “Oh, Derek, I can’t answer that.”
“Well. Fuck,” Ducky said, then gave a startled yelp. “You’d think he’d understand what it’s like trying to support ourselves after losing people to a place like this.” He squawked again as I assumed Delilah was sticking him in the arm without being gentle.
Quack, quack, I thought but didn’t have the energy to laugh.
“No, you’re supporting yourself. He’s still got his mother who can’t hold a job to save her life,” Delilah said and tore something repeatedly. “So he’s supporting two. Why else would he fight you over the pittance runners get for delivering a barrel? And that wasn’t my question anyway. I asked when the stitches bust open. You’ve lost blood and you’ve got no green.”
Ducky didn’t answer straight away but hissed from pain. “Blue are better. That’s what I got last week. Eagle Eyes, Cassandra said. Just a hint of soft azure that’ll let me see when monsters are close, even if they’s hiding. She said later, if I get picked as a Ranger, she can fix it so I got even more out of the mark.”
He has a tattoo already? I cursed but kept pretending to sleep. The news added another bit of foulness to an otherwise cruddy week. Reaching out to the silk-voiced Tattooist Cassandra would be my next order of business. As Mister Jewel had said, I needed to ask questions and get dollar amounts. So far, all my saving had been based on secondhand information for the prices. But if Ducky could get a marking, then it should be possible for me as well.
I didn’t want stupid eyes of anything. My goal were still legs of some sort. They could make me stronger, last longer, or run faster. Most did a mix of all three, and even if I failed, I would still be able to work in the mines. Four of the five Jeffs had tattoos. Most Delvers had once been marked before going too far.
“Good for you. Maybe in next month’s choosing, you’ll get to be a Ranger. But hear my words like your head ain’t full of cotton. Pick up a useful green because you’re clearly prone to danger.”
Ducky did something that made Delilah sniff.
“I think that’ll do it. Now you lie down and get some rest. You can’t be working with an arm like that. Doctor’s orders,” she said.
“Thank you, miss,” he responded, then slowly stumbled out the door. “But I have to head into town.”
“Stay off the arm anyway. Get one of the guards to help you aboard the coach. Get your water, get some meat, and get some sleep.”
He went home that day, and I didn’t see him again. I slept as much as possible in order to not be bothered. Ducky were ahead of me, though where he’d gotten the money only God knew.
Once my body functioned as commanded, I started back on the upper floors while wearing extra padding. I refused to touch any ink to see what it’d be like raw. That single brush had almost shattered my mind while Ranger Hardwood had handled it like a harmless melon. I could hear her snort of judgmental laughter as a record, playing the same part over and over.
Days passed, then two weeks. I struggled to keep moving in the name of profit but didn’t want to damage myself as Ducky had. Runners earned a pittance. The first weekend home resulted in most of the money being spent on food and paying the tax collectors, with hardly anything left to put in the bank. On the second weekend home, I stayed on the packed coach into town then got off in the square. I needed supplies for a friend and the house.
Before stepping off the coach, I adjusted the thin rider’s gloves Delilah had insisted I wear. The fingertips on one hand were blackened. I took off the glove, quickly made a fist, then looked around. No one paid any mind to my actions—what few people stumbled around had their own business to tend to. The glove went back on.
I peeked under the other glove and saw a small web of coloring where the rainbow drop had touched weeks ago. What little blood remained in my face vanished. My knees locked, back straightened, and eyes widened.
What does that mean? I asked myself. The gloves were decent but might not last much longer. They’d worn down over two weeks, but I knew for sure neither mark had been there during my last trip home. I’d showered and would have noticed blackened fingertips.
Delilah knew, I thought. She’d insisted I wear these gloves. Had Delilah expected the twisted marks? That must have been it. She believed something would happen.
I marched straight to the general store. Tonight required more than gathering supplies before venturing home. It’d been weeks since my only trip into the deep mines, and considering these recent discoveries, I’d decided a nightcap were in order.
The man operating the register could have been my granddaddy. He wore gray like no other color in the world existed. It lined his skin, hair, and every ounce of clothing down to his boot tips.
“All I’m asking is that you let us put up the sign. So that we can gather the faithful,” a man I didn’t know said. He sounded thin and whiny. Like Ducky with less spine and more age.
That were unkind of me. Ducky had suffered wounds down below too. The damage to his arm must be extensive. He hadn’t returned to the mine in two weeks. Maybe he’d actually been working hard during my absence—hard enough to at least pop those stitches—then needed bed rest to recover. Maybe he’d run off with his tattoo to a great adventure. Eagle Eyes. I failed to see how a detection ability would help him do more than survive.
“No signs but my own in this store. Don’t like them. They clutter the windows.” When the store proprietor spoke, he sounded as though he were frowning, but not an ounce of expression touched his face. It amazed me a soul could say one thing then show another with his manner.
“It’s for the church. How else do we spread the gospel of The Mountain’s origins? Don’t you want the Angel’s Fall to have meaning?” The gangly man had large eyes framed by tired skin. It made him look sad and whimpering.
“Nope,” the owner responded.
“Fine, but consider yourself welcome tomorrow morning. We’ve always got room to help spread the word.” He tipped his hat to the store owner then walked past me, out the door.
“Nope,” the owner said once again. The other man couldn’t have heard him, but this shop’s owner didn’t care.
Their conversation gave me plenty of time to get a few foodstuffs. Small amounts of nearly stale bread, a piece of candy, and more. I stepped across the room and pointed at a small murky container on the top shelf. “A bottle of whiskey.”
“Chase, don’t tell me you grown a year overnight.”
I glanced down at the clothes that didn’t fit me—castoffs from my father as Poss had said. Overalls hung loose, the shirt were untucked, and I couldn’t fight the sharp rosy cheeks I’d inherited. Not to mention the holes Momma never did find time to mend.
“I’m old enough to work the mines. Old enough to be my daddy’s escort up the hill when Momma wouldn’t. I think that makes me old enough for a bottle, sir,” I said while fighting to stand straight. Weariness had entered my bones. I didn’t care what Momma said, that age made it worse—I already felt exhausted enough.
“Eight dollars then,” he said. “Fifteen fifty with the rest.”
I added a few smaller supplies, paid the man, got my drink, and staggered to a vaguely private hollow partway home. A half-moon hung above and the sun had mostly set. It lingered over The Mountain’s horizon as if unwilling to leave our town to darkness without a fight. All I saw were that damnable range of hills. Beyond the mine were even taller peaks with snow on their tips. Storms got stuck over there, blown west from the ocean—or so I’d heard.
Other things lurked past the Butcher Hills. The guards said there were large armies. The ladies downtown stated the Saracons were savages that ate misbehaving children in the night. Stories from my daddy made them out like boogie men without faces who’d abduct babies from their mommas’ arms.
Momma responded that it were all hogwash and Saracons were the same as any other human. Their only difference were in their olive-colored skin, almost like burnt chestnuts. She used to go on about this servant boy her parents had owned. I was always enthralled by those tales. Momma had been a rich heiress destined for money and life in the inner circles of stardom. But she ran away for lust or love and tossed that life away. Daddy knew he didn’t deserve her. To look at her now felt like a shame against what could have been.
A million thoughts ran through my brain. I stared at the goods from the store. Bandages, a few dried seeds, and sewing supplies. Ten dollars’ worth of items set me back a bit. But they were barter for an associate who might be a friend some days. Maybe my only one left in Chandler’s Field. Waiting for her took a lot of time.
I felt closer to Daddy than ever while staring at The Mountain. It smiled back with the lingering sunset hovering like a fat king on its throne. I pointed at the distant range with my bottle’s mouth. The religious man from the store—or maybe the drink—had me thinking. Harold had said the church believed the inkwells to be places where angels had fallen.
“I don’t think you were an angel. I think you were a devil,” I said. “If ever you were an angel, like the church says, then why were you cast down? Why’d you fall, huh? God ain’t just taking wings away for the giggles.”
The Mountain didn’t answer. The sun dipped a bit farther till orange simmered behind the crests. My arms ached. Damage from weeks before still lingered. The ache had grown worse, and liquor made my head swell.
Only a month remained until the choosing and the bank had too little funds to pay for anything good. Of that I felt sure, despite not checking with a tattooist. Since daddy’d died, poverty were a constant companion. The unfairness bothered me. I stood and threw a rock. It hit a tree. More followed as I drunkenly raged. Each one plopped to the ground or banged. My aim worsened.
“I don’t know what to do! I don’t know how to make this work!” I yelled then took another swig.
I’d balanced a checkbook under my bed last weekend. Each time I figured the numbers, they came out against me. The calculations escaped me now, but I could see that silly negative symbol taunting me. A thousand dollars sat between me and the goal in my head.
“Goddamnit!” I raised my voice. “Fuck you, you motherless devil!”
The next two rocks hit trees again. I threw more and continued my journey to the bottle’s bottom. The whiskey tasted like shit and smelled worse. My free hand cupped mouth to nose and I huffed a few times.
Good lord, Momma will kill me. God above could smell the fumes coming off my bottle and breath. It didn’t stop me from continuing to unleash my feeble ire toward the horizon.
“Everyone here is your damn slave! Everyone!”
Still the sun dipped lower until the clouds had a ring of light. The glen I’d found grew colder. Torn up earth and rocks were all over, along with a few tree branches and clumps of grass. I stared at the mess while swaying. My eyes closed longer each time I blinked.
“Can’t find a good job that ain’t at the mine. Town wouldn’t exist without the ink. Daddy would still be alive…” The world went black for a moment and I forgot what were going on.
I came to with the last few drops of whiskey spilling on my shirt. I turned away then walked toward the road home.
“Some angel. Or devil. Or forgotten faerie. But if you were an angel, I’d say you fell ‘cause you were too big an asshole for heaven,” I said slowly. “Big gaping ass…”
Then the world tilted sideways. I hit the dirt and passed out.
Silent nightmares chased me. I saw myself standing at the ridge of the mountain’s top, where—on the night of a full moon—the smooth lake of ink lifted until it almost overflowed. In my dream, I relived the past when my father’s body gradually lowered into the distorted pool. His lifeless arms reached toward me in a silent plea.
“Don’t feed me to the devil,” my daddy’s words broke in a hoarse cry.
I screamed and dove for him. The risen ink took on a life of its own and swarmed out of the pit, over Daddy, and onto my skin. It burned as it took away everything.
I woke to sunlight, sweat, and a giant rabbit’s foot in my face. The rust-colored toes twitched every few seconds. A hint of claws rippled from under the extra folds of skin. I gazed past her thick soled feet to the rest of my morning guest.
If Felines were simple cat-like people, Flops were rabbit-like people. Or something. Her skin still had healthy pink, but the hair, ears, and most of her legs were certainly not normal.
“Jenn?” I asked.
The dirty red foot twitched. I leaned back and sighed. The reason I’d picked this place was to help another friend, one who watched over my momma when she wandered off—a Flop named Jenn. She roosted near this clearing, though her home were actually underground. Most Flops lived in burrows. They liked the security.
“Jenn.” I poked her foot. The toes flexed and rolled.
“Not home,” Jenn responded. Her fingers brushed against a mixture of white-and-rust fur starting at the ears and grew in thickness the farther back one looked. The length never got more than a few inches. Flops with longer hair were rare.
She lay stretched across me in a manner my mother would have called indecent. To Jenn, sleeping on me probably meant not being on the cold ground. She’d done this before. It had caused me many a night of confusion during my early teens.
I pushed the woman off me, and she fell to the ground. Free of the tiny lady’s weight, I had room to sit and brush off the dirt clumps everywhere. My hair felt matted. I needed a shower.
“Smell.” Her nose twitched rapidly. A foot kicked then dug into my side. Her nails were thankfully blunt. “Dirt and drink and Chase?” She curled into a ball then unwound and pulled herself up by the arms—in a movement more animal than human.
“Morning,” I said.
Jenn blinked. “You smell strange.” She approached closer, trying to pinpoint the smell.
I rubbed my hands together and pretended everything were fine. These gloves should cover any possible discolorations. They might give off a scent. Maybe herbs could mask that.
Her head tilted, then she shrugged. The Flop could be considered a clipped and solitary girl who grew irate with people faster than a preacher cried hallelujah. Jenn were short for Jenny, which had been short for Jennifer, as she’d been named by her father in a house of God—both of whom she hated. It was her father’s fault she’d become a Flop in the first place. And the reasons were twisted. I’d have shot her daddy, but he were already dead. Some said he’d met his end by Jenn’s own hands. They imagined her a killer at such a young age.
“Cold,” she said, rubbing her arms. “I was warm. Food now?” The Flop’s arms went out and gestured for me to hand over my goods. She must not have noticed them sitting behind her.
I pointed at myself twice then wiggled a finger in question.
“You were cold. And smelled. Like you bathed in bleach. Like that man. Didn’t like it. Hoped you’d suffocate.” She sniffed, then she shivered.
The woman had a chest and thighs like a goddess, but anything more than admiring were off-limits. She didn’t like men in that way. Jenn barely liked males in any way. They were too tall, she’d told me more than once. Clammy hands, smelly feet, unwashed buttholes, and every other foul description one could use without actually using curse words.
I suppose I should feel thankful she’s still comfortable with me, I thought.
The truth were—if Jenn ever wanted to go for a tumble, I would have said yes in a heartbeat. In some areas further east, they thought it were weird, but those of us near The Mountain had been around Flops and Felines and Delvers for ages. They were creatures like everyone else—and we were all cursed by the fat-assed fallen angel.
I walked over to grab the small bag of goods that’d been set on the ground prior to my tantrum.
“My momma?” I asked for the report.
Our deal were a simple one. Jenn got what she needed—while someone kept an eye on my momma during the week. The price were costly and served as one of many reasons we stayed poor.
“Went to town. Bought clothes. Ate little all week. One bath, yesterday.” Jenn shook her head rapidly then dug a finger in one ear. “Near starves herself. Very unhealthy. Food now, please.”
I closed my eyes and sighed. Jenn pried my fingers open to get at the prizes. She shuffled through the small woven bog while tapping a foot. The pitter patter and strength from her short form were amazing. All transformed races excelled in various tasks. They had gone too far with their ink tattoos and retained an equivalent strength but were changed.
“She—” My head hurt fiercely enough that my entire train of thought halted. “Didn’t have problems again?”
“Stupid men from town. There was one. Sneaking after her. I punched him in the balls. Enjoyed it.” She stared at me around a mouthful of food. One small loaf of sweetbread were all I could afford.
My legs tightened a bit. She’d been asleep on top of me and thankfully chosen not to inflict the same wound. I checked myself for more awkwardness and had nothing but the urge to pee.
“Thanks,” I said. Keeping silent all the time were a lot of work.
She studied me while chewing. I couldn’t tell if Jenn hated me half the time. Flops were harder to get to know. Felines were everywhere. Though both were usually slaves of rich people who’d spent forty thousand dollars on tattoos to force a transformation.
I stood and made my way to a tree. The chaotic rock piles around it spoke loudly about my state last night. Pissing all over the mess were just a cherry on top.
“Gross,” Jenn muttered.
When I finished, which took longer than I’d ever expected, Jenn had gone. I guessed she’d returned to a nearby burrow. Hopefully Jenn would take time to clean her clothes and close the holes. I’d offer to let her bed down at my home, but Momma hated Flops, Felines, and Delvers. Not with outright words, but the gossip took on a nasty tone. She’d think poorly of any Flop using my bed for the week while I worked.
I staggered home in the bright morning sun then sneaked in for a bath. That meant five trips back and forth quietly with buckets of water. The morning sun provided no heat, and wasting logs on a fire cost money. So I sat in the cold water and felt almost civilized by the end. Chilly enough to be a popsicle and worn enough I could barely lift myself from the tub.
But I did. Five more trips were required to empty the tub and water the plants. I limped to bed before Momma even stirred.
That afternoon, I sneaked out the window and proceeded to do a week’s worth of chores. Chickens were fed. They were angry as always. The garden was weeded and fresh seeds planted for the upcoming season. It’d take a month to grow, but everything helped.
It served as another reason for Jenn to be here. She would have loved the garden. It were quiet and peaceful. I’d bet the chickens would have liked her more than Momma. Though they would have loved anyone more than Momma. Neither woman would accept that idea though—and my home life wouldn’t improve without money. According to Ranger Hardwood, killing monsters equaled money. She’d laid bare the great secret to a Ranger’s income.
I can learn. I will learn, I told myself.
With a gun and magical tattoos, I’d be better able to handle the minor monsters. Even a man with a pickax or hammer could take down a beast or two. Harold, with his comically large hands and feet, could take on giant rats. I’d wager even the smaller monsters had weird core bits that were worth money.
I dusted myself off, washed my face, and made for town. The tattooist might not be local, but I intended to ask around and find out. Cassandra would be able to answer questions, tell me prices, and maybe strike a deal. Without some bargain, I’d never make it in time for the testing next week.
The townspeople’s rumors ended with me traveling in circles. Not many people knew where Cassandra lived. Each person sent me to the next. The butcher to a farmer. The farmer pointed me to a courier who ran for the post office. He suggested I travel to the middle of nowhere—which happened to be far north of town. I could borrow a ride on a carriage, and worst case, I could walk back. According to the courier, there’d be a lightly used path after the crossroads.
I went there the next day instead. The trek took hours, but there were a path right off the road—exactly as advertised. On a tree near the trail, a dozen markings of color sat. Almost invisible if I hadn’t known where to search.
A wall of trees separated the building from any roads. The shack itself couldn’t be more than a few hundred square feet, if that. The shingles seemed to be well maintained, brushed free of leaves. I stepped closer to see more. Hopefully Cassandra took weekends at home. Though she’d been at the mine before me a few weeks ago.
It might not even be hers, I thought.
I crept through the overgrown path of untamed shrubbery. They were mixed with late fall weeds that could have been poison ivy. Wood were piled on the eastern side of the building, and most of the area had been utterly rundown. Dogs were lying against the house. I froze.
A low growl of noise came from the bushes to my left.
I pulled out a dagger and prepared to fight. My back pressed against the tree. The object behind me served as a poor shield. Two different dogs crawled out of the bush. One had a broken paw it limped on. The other had tears along its jaw. Both were slobbering, angry, and larger than the rat creatures that had attacked me in the mine. They were a pair of stocky-faced hunting hounds, like the batch by the house.
They moved in my direction. I brandished the knife and slashed it at them while figuring out which one would leap first. The one with the limp sidestepped left. The other barked loudly. Their tails were stiff. Other hounds from the main group barked. My head turned to listen better, but I kept both eyes on the dogs slinking around me.
They moved in closer. I waved the knife while longing for the gun.
A sharp whistle cut the air, and both dogs jerked their heads to the side. One whined, the other turned back to me. Someone whistled a second time. They broke from me and leapt toward the house. Yips, whimpers, and excited barks filled the air.
I poked around the tree’s edge to see where all the dogs had run. Cassandra stood in the middle of a dozen dogs. They barked at her. Most were behind her while two larger canines leapt up, trying to get to her face. A small horde of puppies came around the house’s corner.
“Best come out. Put away any weapons and keep your hands open or the mutts will be nervous.”
Her voice tickled my ears. It hid a low silk-sounding hum I could almost feel. Though Poss’s guest room were the closest I’d ever been to real silk.
I put up the knife and slowed my breathing. My hands trembled. And I want to fight monsters? Handling normal dogs felt difficult enough. The swarm would have taken me down in seconds. Facing four or five rat creatures couldn’t be easy. Taking on two of these mongrels at once would be about as tough as five rats, maybe.
God, her voice.
Everything else about her became secondary to that mental tickle. It made me want to pant with the dogs. I brought my tremors under control and stepped farther along the path to the front door.