“Chase Craig. You’re a funny child.” Tattooist Cassandra wore the same style of clothes she had at the refinery. Lots of fancy colors and multiple layers.
I raised an eyebrow. The mess of dogs completely ignored me. Cassandra had bits of cooked meat and mush in a bucket. She laid it into bowls, and the dogs bullied each other out of the way for food. The puppies were knocked over by wagging tails, each other, or sometimes nothing.
She bustled between them, and I stared. A dozen layers of cloth were between my gaze and her swaying form.
“Well, tell me what you’re looking for?”
Her words shook me, and I tried to figure out exactly what I’d been staring at. I looked abruptly at her face to see she’d been gazing at me. Cassandra’s eyes lit up. Her cheeks and mouth were harder to make out, but part of me desperately hoped she’d been smiling after seeing me. I couldn’t even tell why a woman I barely knew mattered so much. It were as if she pulled at me.
My words stuttered more than usual. “Y-You said I have potential. W-What does that mean?”
She laughed, and my knees went weak. “Exactly what the word means. You have potential. To be useful.”
To you? I asked myself. It weren’t even sex—but the option remained open if it might please her. I could have held open the door or cleaned the house. She didn’t have a garden. I plotted how to set one up. The problem would be getting around the dogs. They were a well-ordered bunch once fed.
“I can’t be selected without a tattoo,” I said.
“That’s true. There’s a requirement. We think of it as proof of your commitment to the task. It’s such a simple thing to ask. Everyone has a marking, don’t they?”
It’s proof all right. Proof we’re enslaved, I thought. Being a slave to someone else bothered me—if only because a man can’t hold so many obligations. Mine had already been claimed. The idea made my mind derail. I blinked rapidly but couldn’t shake the feeling of needing to please her.
“Well? You surely know many who’ve been marked. Don’t you want to tell me about them?” she asked.
I wanted to please her by giving the right answer. I started to sign a response then noticed her frown. My mouth opened instead. “Deep miners get them. High-end street walkers. The sheriff and store owners. Everyone. My friend were turned into a Flop slave for money. Because someone wanted a pet to keep their bed warm. But she, and those others, don’t become Rangers.”
“Not everyone is up to the task. Not everyone dares to fight the monsters. What do you think of that?”
My mind still sat on Jenn. “Some don’t have a choice. Some get made into what they are.”
The dogs were circling around her clothes. The layers of color waved as their wagging tails knocked them around. I got lost in the swirls of fabric and wondered which piece of fabric were her favorite. It’d be easy enough to set aside a few dollars and purchase more of whichever kind she liked.
“Does that bother you? The Felines, Flops, or Delvers? Do they disgust you?”
I shook my head. “My d-daddy’s friends, a lot of them are D-delvers. They’re kind. And short. And sad. But not disgusting.”
Her eyebrows raised in surprise. The response made me nervous. I couldn’t tell if I’d pleased her or simply missed the mark.
In haste, I continued, “This girl I’d known, Poss Proctor. Her husband keeps Felines as servants. They’ve always been nice. The guys are a bit scary, but the girls are polite.”
Cassandra smiled. I fidgeted and tried to figure out what I’d said wrong. Poss’s Felines were a bit scary. The men had muscle for days; their type could also be fast. Hunters who excelled at night chasing.
“The girl I know, Jenn, is a Flop. She’s amazingly cute. Especially the ears. They’ve very soft, but Jenn’s distrustful of people. She didn’t want to be turned, and sometimes I see her trembling while losing focus. She once told me how close death had been during her transformation. She said she knew. Knew that she could have chosen to die. Jenn’s father slapped half a dozen gray tattoos on her. He went to Bell Town, got a shoddy artist to do them…” I felt dizzy. The rush of words that had escaped me would have gone on forever, but I’d run out of breath.
Heat flushed my face. Jenn’s history weren’t one I should have shared. She’d made me promise not to tell anyone—though plenty knew the rumors. In a town with people like Momma spouting their gossip, secrets were rare.
My back pressed against the wall of her home. I couldn’t figure out when I’d made it past the throng of dogs to lean against it. Tattooist Cassandra kept smiling, but it looked less gleeful because of how her bottom lip quivered and a small wrinkle on her brow.
“So no, they don’t disgust me. It’s not their fault what The Mountain did to them,” I finished weakly.
“Mmhm,” she said.
I swallowed a lump and stared into the tree canopy. She still hadn’t been pleased. Women were tough creatures to appease.
“I think that’s good enough. Now tell me, something must be wrong for you to come all the way out here to visit me.”
Cassandra had hit the mark. No one in their right mind would come here with all these dogs. Unless the woman wanted company. Many people would want to please her, sure as I wanted to now.
“I don’t have enough money for a marking. I need it to get the best job this town can offer a man with no good connections. Poss’d never hire me for anything decent. Her husband’s too rich to even give me the time of day. I need the money so Momma can live somewhere else…” Too many thoughts tangled together. One of them had to make Cassandra happy. “I need her to leave here and be free. If I do, then I’ll be able to hold my head up and know I honored my daddy’s dying wish. Then I’ll be released.”
I’d never shared that with anyone. Revealing my goals made me pause. Something else were wrong though. Not simply financial woes and the rest of my family. I’d been talking far too much, which made no sense. I closed my mouth then fought the urge to answer Cassandra’s question with even more detail.
My jaw locked so tight it hurt. She smiled sweetly while my stomach lurched. Failing to answer her felt wrong and knotted my stomach. It were like lying to Momma.
I should tell her about the deep mines and my fingertip marking. And the rainbow drop on my other hand.
Those were secrets I’d intended not to mention but seriously considered spilling my guts if that’d make the tattooist happy. Even if Delilah knew, she surely wouldn’t have told anyone else. Ranger Hardwood might have mentioned having me touch the core with its dark exterior. The fact that I wanted to spill those secrets was what bothered me most.
Why do I want to tell her all this? I asked myself.
That—and the talking. She’d bewitched me. There were no better explanation. The idea occurred to me, and almost immediately, I could breathe easier. I woke from the dream with a series of unexpected huffs.
Tattooist Cassandra must have a lure. Momma had talked about such things to explain how some men fell prey to loving ladies outside their marriage. The vocally-born enthrallment would have been caused by a tattoo. I’d been hypnotized into telling her more than I should have, especially about Jenn.
I really looked at Cassandra’s face for the first time. Every other instance had been a glance as a dreamy filter sifted out anything aside from her golden voice. She smiled, and it didn’t seem as enchanting. The colors on her dress lost their allure. Dogs set the fabric spinning, but the muddy edges were more obvious. Cassandra became an average woman, home alone on the weekend, out feeding her army of mutts.
“Excellent,” Cassandra said. Her words were closer to normal. I could still hear that silk in them, but it didn’t tug at my ear and mind. “You’re doing well—better than your friend.”
I pulled myself away from the wall and straightened. The path back to town lay clear as day only a handful of steps away. Getting past the dogs would prove difficult.
“Don’t run. You’ve said your piece, and then some. Now I’ll say mine. I’ll do your inkin’. I’ll get you a mark like none you’ve ever seen. One that’ll let you beat your friend, and maybe other Rangers. But you’ll owe me.”
“I ain’t got much,” I said, risking opening my mouth. My head swam with the tug of her presence. The urge to simply agree and please her made me buckle.
“I can gauge how little you have by the holes in your clothes and your uneven hair. But you’ll pay me in equal trade. That I promise.”
“What do you—” I stopped talking and held myself tightly.
The baying of a dozen excited dogs filled my ears. Cassandra said something that couldn’t be heard. She whistled sharply then gestured with an arm to the distance. The dogs sped off, raising Cain at distant foes.
“I’ll need a favor. Three of them, to be exact.”
I shook at the pull of her voice. The desire to please her surged every time Cassandra spoke. Whatever ability she had must have been a vocal one. I’d thought about it, but the truth felt more obvious now. Three fingers went up and I raised an eyebrow.
“Three, yes. Who am I to break tradition? Three favors. One marking. And I promise it’ll be something that no one has ever seen before.”
Even the puppies had left, into the woods, scrambling toward danger unknown. They moved slower than the old dogs. Distant barking became snarls. I searched for signs of their foe. The afternoon sun blurred the direction they’d gone with brightness.
“Do you agree?” Cassandra asked.
Her charm couldn’t make me spill my guts anymore. I kept my gaze level and attempted to stare her down. If only to prove to myself she held no sway over me. Only… she did by way of offering to ink me a tattoo. The marking was what my entire future hinged on.
“Then your first task, I’ve a pup—”
“The marking,” I interrupted quickly then cursed myself for speaking aloud again. “I can’t wait long.”
“I’m no fool. I know the choosing is soon. What’s more, I know you’ll need time to adapt to the inkin’. Longer if I do something special. Once you’ve completed the first task, we’ll start. And you’ll owe me the other two.”
I nodded again.
“Then I’ve a pup who weren’t hard enough to survive.”
There were that damn word again. The same one Ranger Hardwood had used. Hard. As though they could measure a man by his ability to be unbreakable and no other trait mattered. Strength, intelligence, charm—all meant nothing. It couldn’t be a coincidence.
Cassandra led me around the house to a line of small wooden dens that’d been thoroughly chewed. Thick wire fences kept some separated. I raised an eyebrow as we walked by. The tattooist turned and caught my expression.
She explained, “The cages are for the bitches. When they go into heat, the males lose their minds. I’d rather keep them alive than let them fight or risk one of the untested runts breeding a weaker strain.”
I knew nothing about dogs other than they barked and begged for food. Not a lot of people kept them in Chandler’s Field. Felines and dogs rarely got along, even if they’d been friends before the change.
“That’s the way of it. The stronger males are worth breeding. The weaker ones, they should be cut. But I lost a pup from the old alpha’s bitch. He died real young, yesterday.”
She talked a lot. It felt weird to hear her do all the conversing when I’d been so chatty before. The pull of her voice had nearly vanished. Maybe it only worked on the front side of her house, or maybe the dens around me were too distracting. A few dogs were still in the area and hadn’t run off with the others.
Cassandra strolled toward one of the far pens. Inside the wiring, an old dog curled around a dead body.
“She’s a stubborn girl—but not strong. The last pack leader bred her then died during a full moon some months ago. He was a tough bastard, but now he’s gone and the others barely give her the time of day. Gave birth to two pups who are already running, but this third runt didn’t survive.”
All the information seemed important to her, but I didn’t know why it mattered. She reached to grab the pup, but the bitch growled and whimpered in equal measure. Cassandra chided the female dog with click of her tongue then pointed at the pen’s exit. The dog stayed guarding the unmoving pup.
“Dammit, girl. Move. You know it’s past time,” Cassandra said.
The dog cocked its head to get one pointed ear focused on Cassandra then tightened closer.
“No. You get out. This pup is beyond you now.”
They argued while I wondered what this had to do with my life. Cassandra all but ignored me while chiding the dog. The dog whimpered, shuffled, and beat its tail in response like a—well, like a person I guess. I’d met Flops with less expression. Cassandra eventually won, and the bitch stood. The mutt walked to me and put a paw on my stomach, surprising me.
“Hi,” I said, feeling oddly tender toward a critter I’d never met.
Her face had all sorts of gray hairs peeking through, and she moved stiffly compared to the other animals that had been bouncing. She licked my face once then dropped down and padded away.
All right? I thought. That had been a strange action.
“I need you to carry the runt up to The Mountain and throw him in. Tonight, before morning’s sun rises and the new moon vanishes.” She shook her head. “It would have been better to start hiking this morning. There’s hardly any time.”
The request certainly were unusual. Animals could be sent to The Mountain, but rarely. They weren’t like humans who’d been touched by a tattoo or the mines. Completing the task before sunrise might be possible. It’d just be increasingly dark the longer I took. I tightened my lips and thought about how to see in the dark. The time limit would be nearly impossible—but for a marking, I’d try.
While I pondered, Cassandra unhooked a satchel from the high fencing. The woman knelt and opened her bag. Cotton and unidentifiable plants inside gave off a powerful odor of herbs and leaves. Other scents were mixed in, such as roses like the ladies downtown used. I sneezed repeatedly.
“And you need to make sure no humans see you or else the deal’s off,” she added.
My heart skipped. Taking the main paths up would have taken long enough. A stagecoach were an four-hour trip. If she wanted me to get there on foot without another soul viewing me, then I’d be sunk.
“Why?” I asked.
She ignored my question and lowered the pup into the bag. It made a poor coffin for a man, but suited the dead dog almost like a king. I wondered if that female dog had been smart enough to know I was sending off her spawn to The Mountain. If she viewed it like I did, then maybe even she wouldn’t be remotely happy about it.
“Best get going. Remember. Carry the pup up the mountain. Drop him as gentle as you can. Let no humans see you. If you get caught, I’ll know. There’s nothing alive that moves on the summit without my knowledge. Not even the priests.” She closed the satchel, knotted its cords tightly, then handed it over.
I stared at the container and noticed it weren’t much bigger than the pup’s body. The idea that this small critter had been a formerly excited wiggler made me sick.
Cassandra walked past me then stopped in her tracks. I turned; there outside the pen, in a place I hadn’t been looking, lay the mother. She’d fallen over and didn’t move. The tattooist sighed heavily then knelt. She cupped a hand in front of the dog’s mouth then pried open a closed eye. Her head shook.
“Dead. What a shame. She’d bred some good pups, but I guess her heart finally gave out,” Cassandra said, staring at the dead mother. “Don’t worry, she’s not part of the deal. Your job is the pup. Get up there and send him off. You should know the way. Same as your father. Same as his father.”
I started feeling shaky. Ranger Hardwood’s words came back to me. She’d said “They weren't hard enough.” Seeing the now-dead momma dog—which had moments ago been curled around her deceased puppy—after her mate had passed—well, there were parallels to my own life that didn’t sit well with me. I cradled the small bag, ignored anything further the tattooist might say, and fled from her home into the woods. Barking filled my ears, but none of the dogs ranged far enough to hunt me down.
There were two paths up The Mountain. One went to the southern side, where the miners ventured into the depths. Going through the mine itself would be an impossible task. The main entrance were heavily guarded, and all other ways directly into the mines were closed by Delvers. Humans would be sure to see me along that route.
The second path went up the northern side, where the dead were paraded to their final resting place. I’d traveled the northern path only once, but everyone in Chandler’s Field knew where it started. The roadway could fit a horse and carriage fine. But going up on anything but a full moon could be considered sacrilege and I didn’t dare.
I’d have to choose a middle path through the wooded mountainside then cover as much ground as possible.
All told, with afternoon and night, I had maybe seven hours to make a long trip without any aid. But there were ways around the whole “not being seen” problem. I figured her word choice had been deliberate. She must have been hinting that only humans were an issue. Delvers, Felines, and Flops weren’t human anymore. Not once they’d been completely changed by overexposure. That had to be why she’d asked me if I found them disgusting.
I couldn’t figure out how to accomplish getting all the way up to The Mountain’s top on the night of a new moon without someone seeing me. The mission felt more impossible the longer I mulled it over. Running up the hill would be impossible. I had endurance from months in the mine, but sprinting fell into another skill set. I could only march steadily. The normal carriage took too long. Running would be faster.
A wooded trail got me to a crossroads. I saw Mister Jewel and his surly-looking daughter arguing on their hitched-up horse. They yelled loudly enough to scare away all the wild animals. They were useless, but I watched in case they decided to abruptly leave the horse alone.
I waited in the bushes for too long without success, and I started getting really worried. Cassandra had handed me a golden chance to get what I needed, and my solutions were few. I turned away from my post to see a small Flop sniffing the air next to me. I fell back a few steps then onto my rear. Bushes poked my head and through holes in clothes.
“Jenn?” I asked. My heartbeat thudded. The bag in my hands slipped, but I managed to retain my grip.
“You’re dense. Oblivious. Thick-headed,” the woman responded. Her clothes looked as though they’d been patched recently. New colors that weren’t there yesterday puffed out from under her top. The supplies must have helped. “I’m cute?”
After a few breaths, I realized she’d heard. My face warmed. Jenn must have been listening to me spill my guts. Where she’d listened from, I couldn’t say. My attention at the time had been purely on answering Tattooist Cassandra's questions. Only the constant motion of dogs and swirling clothes distracted me.
“I’m sorry,” I said quickly.
She shrugged. “Charmed. Hard to fight. Seen men do worse. Far worse for a siren. But you did break free. I saw.” Then Jenn shuddered all the way down to her rabbit feet. The motion ended quickly as she sniffed again. She held out her hands and gestured for me to hand over supplies—but I had none left.
Her eyes locked on the pup carrier in my hands. I shook my head then stood. Still, she gestured some more.
“I’ll carry it. I can move quick,” she said.
Cassandra’s orders had been simple enough. I were to go up without getting caught by a human and deposit the pup. Jenn couldn’t do that part for me. My fingers snapped a no sign while I said, “My mission. She promised a marking.”
Jenn whispered, “You believed her? Foolish man. Waste of what your momma gave you. Air-headed dreamer.”
The Delvers had also called me a dreamer. Every time that word came up, I felt stupid for having hopes. But I didn’t intend to quit, and by whatever god sat in the sky laughing at our plays, I intended to see my obligations through.
A sigh escaped as I gazed toward the hills. I saw the outline of a peak far in the distance. Near its crest lay a small dot of white that would be the priest’s home. That location were the only one monsters didn’t try to break into. The entire mountain had a flattened top that—if memory served—were about two or three hundred feet across. From there, a person could see straight into The Mountain’s heart. On a new moon, the ink would be lower than any other time. My cargo, the deceased pup, would have a long fall ahead.
“You’re not disgusted by us?” Jenn asked.
I shrugged while looking back at the roads. A man with two donkeys ambled through. I couldn’t figure out a way to borrow them without making myself known.
“You said I’m cute?” she asked again.
My knees almost gave out. Trust Jenn not to let such a phrase pass. Sometimes I forgot she’d been a young girl once—like Lily or Poss, only far more reclusive. Jenn made me look downright outgoing and sociable. I still didn’t know why she associated with me, aside from our homes having been within shouting distance of each other—before Jenn’s house had burned down.
We’d been childhood friends. She’d been human then. Then one day, she didn’t come out, so I went inside looking for her. I found what no boy of ten needed to see—much less any God-fearing soul. And it were being done to the freshly transformed girl. Sometimes when I looked at Jenn, I still saw that look of wide-eyed horror she’d worn.
I told my momma. Momma told Daddy that weekend, once he got home from the mines. Jenn’s father died shortly after, and the house itself burned down after that. The townsfolk said Jenn had done it—in their minds, there were no other reason for Jenn to hide in the woods. But I had my suspicions on the truth. Her father had violated her. I suspected my daddy had killed him. That question, along with a dozen others on how to be a man, would stay unresolved.
Anyway, our muddled history was why I couldn’t answer her question about “you said I’m cute” right—but simply shrugged again.
Jenn clicked her tongue then charged past me out of the woods. She ran straight to the man escorting two donkeys. The Flop stopped a few feet away and talked to a man. I couldn’t make out their words and worried about creeping closer. He might see me. I couldn’t risk screwing up my mission this soon.
I swiveled my head in every direction. No one else arrived out of the blue as Jenn had—which made my shoulders loosen. She waved at the man, and he nodded then left his donkeys behind. My jaw dropped. Rarely could a man and his beasts be parted.
Jenn waited until the other guy were out of sight then gestured in my direction. Her long, furry ears bounced. Their motion mesmerized me. I hadn’t lied when calling the Flop cute. Her clothes were patchwork, and the young woman could use a solid bath to figure out what color lay under the dirt smudges. Despite those detractions, I saw the same girl I’d played with during my childhood. Only we were now years older.
She brought the donkeys over despite their protests. The creatures wanted to resist, but Flops were stronger than normal humans. Even the tiny Jenn could pull the weight of a grown man. Though Flops’ real skills lay in working with plants and animals.
I stepped out and glanced down the road both ways. No one else were in sight.
My eyebrow went up. A hand, which had been tightly clenching the strings on my cargo, let go and crooked repeatedly in question. Then I pointed at the donkeys.
“We made a deal. I’ll work his fields. For a month,” she said.
I glanced over Jenn’s figure. She were slender, tiny, and notably endowed at the chest but mostly at her muscled legs. Years of running in the woods had built her in a way even Poss couldn’t emulate. They were different girls, of different species. I worried that working his fields meant something else.
The bag straps went over my shoulder. Both forefingers crooked with my question.
“Only his fields. Nothing more. He smells like asses,” Jenn said dully.
I smiled then pointed at the donkeys.
“Nah. An unwashed butthole. These guys are tired. Come on. We’re riding as far as they’ll go.”
My eyebrows lowered and I pointed at her.
“I’m going. You’re stupid. You’d get lost.”
I wouldn’t get lost, but she’d helped solve some problems. I looked back and forth down the roads, trying to debate which way would work best. The path went four ways. One direction went to town, the other to Wellbrook Mine. Bell Town in another direction. Along the fourth route, one would find the temple. Dead went along that road and didn’t come back.
I’d traveled it once to escort my daddy’s corpse. There might have been other branches off to Bell Town and the temple, but I’d never gone down either. I understood why Lily and Greg wanted to leave the town. Standing here at the crossroads with a mount made me realize how big the world might be.
All those thoughts and a dozen more flashed through. Eventually I picked the temple’s path. People rarely went that way. They lived on the other side, closer to the cleared path up to Wellbrook Mine, especially the workers. I debated how to go down the road without being seen. The requirement felt as though it’d been designed as an annoyance and nothing more.
What possible use could this task serve aside from a measurement of sorts? I thought. Then it hit me—this weren’t simply an inane goal for the purpose of getting my tattoo. Cassandra had probably designed it as a test for me as a potential Ranger. She’d given me the label of potential and held enough sway to get me into the deep mines.
“Cover your face,” Jenn said.
“What?” I asked—forgetting to sign the question.
She kept her gaze steady. Jenn rarely smiled or showed any emotion besides dull, unfocused eyes. The Flop lifted her eyebrows then shrugged. To me, that meant she hadn’t been serious. I shook my head, sighed, and moved on to other problems. The temperature would drop and my clothes were worn thin.
Maybe Jenn could sew them, I thought then shook my head. Now weren’t the time for such nonsense.
We mounted the donkeys, which were more work for me than expected. Jenn hopped on as if it were second nature. I almost envied her Flop gifts for that fact alone. Then I tried to imagine myself with long ears and a tail and the envy vanished.
The two of us made it unscathed down the path and to The Mountain’s base. The donkeys we rode moved steadily and surprisingly fast, letting me reserve my strength for the incline to come. I’d burned a lot of stamina traveling to the tattooist’s home. I also couldn’t say how much work walking to the top would take. Or running. Given the descending sun, moving quickly would be the only solution.
A few minutes onto the actual hill and the donkeys started rearing back. They turned away and ignored the bridles’ urging. One bucked wildly. I had a time getting them to move forward. My family had never been rich enough to afford mounts.
“They don’t like it. I’m letting them go,” Jenn said.
My head dipped in agreement as I climbed down quickly. One creature turned toward me and threatened to kick. I backed up quickly to avoid the impending hoofprint. The donkeys turned away from the mountain’s base and walked off.
“Will they…?” I asked half a question.
“Yes. They’re smarter than you.”
The mounts left, and I surveyed the mess of terrain. Trees were sparse this far down, but shrubs and every other random plant had grown to fill the gaps. There were few paths we could travel up. Our rides left, and I prayed they would return home. Donkeys were often smarter than horses—or so Daddy had always said.
Daddy said a lot of things, I thought dryly. All that supposed wisdom and none of it told me how to handle making it up The Mountain at midnight. I don’t think anyone sane had advice along those lines.