I sighed then looked past as many trees as possible. Miles of ever-steepening road lay ahead of me. When I looked at Jenn, she simply shrugged as if none of it mattered to her. Her dead expression of indifference worried me. Children’s dolls had more emotion on their faces. On top of that, I worried about her intention to come along.
Not that I could ever make Jenn do anything, I thought. Purchases from the general store worked, but only because she needed supplies.
Signing every single question or thought were hard work. There were no perfect words or signs better than simple talking. I’d heard that in big cities, a few folks who were deaf or truly mute had tried to get signing letters together—but this far west, no one cared. It didn’t feel right trying to figure it out simply because actual talking bothered me.
We climbed the hill slowly. As night approached, monsters would be more likely to crawl out and attack. They didn’t like daytime for the same reason ink dried in sunlight. The rays purified and often destroyed anything unstable. I kept a steady pace and resigned myself to running if dawn’s light poked over the east. We had hours to make it up, and that might be enough.
“Tired,” Jenn said as the sun dipped lower.
I sighed. Flops weren’t well-suited for nighttime work. They were creatures of sunlight, farmers, in the same way Delvers were creatures of the mine.
The ground vibrated softly, and that bothered me. No obvious critters were charging around, but it felt like a herd of cows migrating. The constant patter of hundreds of feet slowly traveling put me on edge. I gazed up the hill, but the sky grew darker and the ground harder to see.
“You should go home,” I whispered to her.
She hustled to catch up. I didn’t argue. Few people were left in Chandler’s Field that I cared to talk to, and I could do worse than being lost climbing The Mountain with her. In any other situation, it might be kind of fun. Home would never be more than a day or two away. We could live off the land and trap whatever provisions existed. Unlike Lily, Jenn would stay. Our lives were tied to The Mountain.
Never mind, I thought. The idea of spending quality time up here were stupid. We were friends and would only ever be friends. Every other thought needed to be pushed straight out of my mind.
Dull thudding grew louder as we trudged farther up the incline. My thumb unclicked the button on my blade’s sheath before Jenn charged past me. I couldn’t see much besides her butt wiggling in threadbare clothes. My face flushed and thoughts grew distracted.
Damn her, I thought then silently cursed myself for not acting upon her father myself. Maybe if I’d pushed harder or screamed, then Jenn could have been spared the troubles. Still, the past were the past and I couldn’t let myself dwell on undoing it. One could only do better.
Seeing more than a few feet in front of me grew harder as the sun dipped farther. Jenn stopped near trees and scanned for predators. When she turned far enough for me to see her face, it became obvious that her eyelids were barely open. The woman had to be half asleep. I couldn’t tell if it were because of her Flop nature or simply not getting enough sleep.
My worry for Jenn overrode the desire to keep quiet. “You’re getting tired. You should go,” I said while motioning to her.
“Shush. Loud boy.” She yawned then scratched a floppy ear.
Her entire body vibrated, and I gulped. Here we were on a mountain, walking up to the pit above to dump in a dead dog—and I kept getting distracted by a female. My hands burned with that weird emotional concoction mixed between upset anger and desire. The vision of Jenn’s body rippling replayed once more in a slower a haze of purple and dark blue. I shook my head and curled my toes to keep the blood from rushing anywhere it shouldn’t.
She sniffed then moved up the hill. We still had hours to go and the sun had gone. I glanced about, thinking creatures were moving at the edges of the darkness. The knife in my right hand tingled as it moved with no rhyme or reason. It felt like a leg falling asleep, but only on my fingertips where I’d touched the black ink.
I loosened my grip then switched the weapon to my other hand. That one heated up but didn’t tingle like the right side.
My body quivered as realization set in. They were different types of marks, and both clearly were trying to do something. Refined tattoos could perform miracles—and Ranger Hardwood had said two types of ink were required. I’d touched the rainbow heart and that beast’s core, and it’d resulted in something. They were doing something. I didn’t enjoy the idea of unprocessed inks creating unknown effects inside my hands. It sounded suspiciously like a process that would get me killed.
I flexed and unflexed my right hand until the tingles stopped, then I walked straight into Jenn’s tiny form. She stumbled forward a step then pushed me back with surprising firmness for her size.
She yawned then pointed. “Look there. Blind clumsy warm man. Learn to see in the dark.”
I huffed. Jenn pointed toward a building covered by branches. Most of the deadwood looked deliberately placed around what seemed to be an abandoned shed. I could only see portions of it now that she showed me where to look.
Jenn turned toward me and yawned without covering her face. I reached a hand out and covered it for her. She closed her eyes and drifted off, falling toward me. I swiftly bent and managed to catch her collapsing form. A soft snore started almost immediately. Her eyes rolled briefly then closed. Her breath steamed against the cooling night air into my face. I breathed back and her nose twitched.
Pushing mine carts for months had given me a wiry form that held enough strength for a tiny Flop girl. I lifted her slowly and carefully stepped toward the building she’d discovered. I awkwardly elbowed branches out of the way and the door flopped open—it didn’t have a lock or even a handle to keep it closed after the branch was moved.
The inside of the tiny shack had a single chair and no one else in sight. A small candle sat on a shelf, matches to its side. I fumbled with the satchel and Jenn but managed to get her into a decent position upon the chair. Once she were positioned, I struck a match and lit the candle.
She sniffed, shifted to the side, then thumped a foot against the floor twice before waking enough to talk. “Chase?”
“I’m here,” I said quietly from where I crouched in front of her.
Her lips twitched then went slack. She snored. I were glad I’d bathed and changed my clothes so she wouldn’t wake up commenting about me having an unwashed butthole.
I took a second look around the small building. It were no bigger than my bedroom, and half the roof sat exposed to the stars. Metal racks were under the exposed roof. Two barrels sat against a wall on the covered side. They looked like broken versions of the ones we used at Wellbrook Mines. Slats of wood had been replaced and were slathered in varnish.
What is going on? I asked myself.
A smaller shelf sat above Jenn. I peered inside a box on that shelf. Small carved bits of wood were cradling objects that looked exactly like the cores Ranger Hardwood had shown me—but far smaller. These balls were almost half the size of marbles the kids played with in town. Everything clicked.
My face went cold. Someone were out here in the woods refining ink—who knew monster hearts were required to make the tattooing process work. I slowly circled the cramped space. There were pouches with more supplies inside. The only thing new in here happened to be a set of gloves like what we used in the mine. What I couldn’t understand were how anyone had gotten these supplies got out of the mine without anyone’s notice—much less the broken supplies. Tattooist Cassandra had said nothing happened on The Mountain without her knowledge.
I did laps in the small room while my breathing increased. Someone had an ink refinery to the north and farther down the hill from Wellbrook. Someone had smuggled supplies and enough ink for tattoos. The barrels were empty. Only three of the cores remained. No dried ink anywhere in the entire shack. Someone had already taken it out—and who knew what uses they’d put it to.
The door banged open. A man came screaming in with a branch. I swung my knife, expecting a creature from the ink. Blade banged into wood, and I jerked the knife back to get it free from the branches.
Ducky stood a foot away, between Jenn and me. His body heaved while his face reddened. “Get out!”
“Nngh?” Jenn said.
Ducky turned as his face drooped in surprise. I dove then pushed us out the door. The last time we’d fought, both of us had been damaged and tired. This time, I knew he’d been siphoning off supplies from the mine and stolen enough for a tattoo. The only reason he’d gotten ahead of me were because he cheated. No wonder he never brought up any actual barrels or hadn’t been working his details. The teen had been sneaking ink through another entrance into the Wellbrook Mines that had to be nearby somewhere.
I lost my goddamned mind and dove at him with the blade. Ducky backed away then swatted at my dipping head with the branch. My foot caught then pushed me back up with the blade point twisted around. His branch struck again, and my sharpened blade cut off leaves.
The knife scorched in my left hand. Rage colored my vision. Ducky’s body glowed with a red that beat like The Mountain’s Blood. Rapid pulsing filled my head, furthering my anger. Ducky and his unwashed asshole had cheated. I hated a cheater more than a person who couldn't honor his promises.
Blue pulsed up his arm as a tattoo activated. He moved swifter than expected. I suspected speed or coordination—neither of which I had.
My own markings were wild, untested, and scared me if I thought about them. Only now I weren’t thinking about their actions. I felt heat in one hand intensify while the other tingled more as I held it out, ready to grab his stupid branch. Those sensations from my hands collided with my red anger at Ducky.
His eyes were focused on the knife. The blade glowed as its tip burned. I chopped my weapon at his branch and barely noted as flames ignited along the leaves. He dropped it and I stepped in quickly—less afraid of him than any monster I’d ever seen.
“Should have got a green,” I whispered and cut the man’s arm viciously.
He yelled then kicked me backward. I thrust at him again with the heated weapon, wanting to stab him again until his guts spilled upon the floor. A rush of thudding footsteps startled me, and I looked away in time to see a huge meaty arm swing at me. The blow collided with me, and my knife only scratched the monstrous limb. Wind rushed across my face and my stomach lurched as the world spun.
Ducky stood thirty feet away, near the giant creature—unafraid of its immense size. Another one appeared behind him. Not as large. Both were deformed caricatures of humans that looked closer to children’s drawings. They were shaped differently and their faces were hard to make out, but they looked to be a male and female pair.
Red slowly faded from around my enemy. I tried to understand what had happened but could only feel the inkling of leftover rage. My hand tingled as I struggled to get the blade between those beasts and me. The red heartbeat flickered and slowly died. Only light from the refining shack remained.
That’s no Flop, I thought.
“Wildling,” the man grunted with heavy breaths. “Careful, wildling. Broken Gift should not—” He stopped talking then labored to breathe. The misshapen arm hung heavily in front of him like a prop.
“Not wildling,” the female slurred like a drunk seven shots in. Her legs were deformed and neck crooked. She lifted an arm toward Ducky and he winced. The monstrous female withdrew then looked at the ground. “He’s a sap still. A dabbler.”
“No. He’s more.” The man with the huge arm took a deep breath then grunted. He beckoned rapidly with his smaller, normal-looking arm. “I sense it. The taint of a Heart Seeker. Remove those gloves. Now!”
I shook my head then snapped the sign for no using my free hand. The formerly heated tip of my dagger dimmed greatly. My back bumped into the shed’s wall as I struggled to stand. I wanted to be upright, but the giant creature were too big and loomed.
“Gloves! Now!” the man bellowed while stumbling closer. His face grew more defined in the pale light. He tilted to one side as the weight of his arm threw him off balance.
My sight followed the arm muscles up and took note of the meaty fist which had slammed me. My heart beat loudly. Fingers tingled on one hand as the other burned hotly then shook as a dozen rapid-fire emotions tried to drown me. I looked back and saw Jenn’s form in the broken doorway. She rubbed her face with a fur-backed hand. Her body shook off the sleepiness in a shiver that made my head grow hazy.
“Hands, sap!” the large one yelled, demanding my attention once more. His fist fell to the ground with a thud that vibrated the building walls.
“Chase?” She sniffed then squinted with tired eyes. “What?”
“Stay inside!” I raised my voice while waving at Jenn. The sudden use of my lungs made me heave and cough. Sharp pain radiated up my side. One leg tingled from colliding with the ground.
Ducky flinched while cradling his arm. The female’s deformed face twisted on one side with worry while the other half looked dead.
The large-armed man raised his fist again. “Show me your hands! Or she gets hit next!” Spittle from his deformed face flaked toward me. He grabbed the roof then shook the small structure.
Ducky shouted something then slammed a hand over his mouth. I looked between the mean mug looming above, Jenn’s swaying form, and the other two standing in the shadows. The threat made me colder than any night air possibly could.
I kept myself steady then removed both gloves. The blackened tips on one hand were hard to see. Enough discoloration were visible in the candlelight that spilled from inside. They nearly blended into the darkness.
The deformed man’s eyes bugged, then he stepped back and swallowed. “Heart Seeker.”
He took two more steps away when I turned up the palm of my other hand. There in the center was a spider web pattern in a swirl of colors that were lined with red. It kept changing.
“What happened to your hands?” Ducky’s voice were loud.
I didn’t know how to answer—and Ducky wouldn’t be the one I’d explain to even if I knew. My eyes narrowed as the larger man continued his retreat. He nodded in comical cordiality then spun away as though the sight of my hands had urged him to flee. His knees knocked.
“What is that?” Ducky whispered loudly.
“Not wildling business.” The man shuffled away quickly despite the laborious breaths he took.
Ducky stumbled after him. “But you made the mute—” Ducky were silenced by the male monster cuffing the back of his head.
“If you become a Ranger, then ask again,” the woman said as she followed them.
The trio disappeared quickly into the tree line. I thought there were other shadows moving in the darkness but couldn’t see well enough to know for sure. Only the sound of leaves rustling and branches snapping gave me any hint other people were about.
“Who were?” Jenn whispered then slowly collapsed and fell onto me.
She shook her head repeatedly then planted her face straight into my lap and snored again. The candle behind us flickered and sputtered. Cold air whistled through the trees. Jenn’s body shivered and kicked, but her head stayed warm. I let her be and thought.
I felt haggard. My head swam as the last of my anger drifted away. My ribs hurt and were probably cracked from the earlier blow. Inhaling hurt, but I remained clearheaded enough to be worried. The markings on my hands bothered me—especially given how those inhuman creatures had reacted. I wondered where they came from—and how Ducky were related to them. He had his secrets, and I had precious few left to myself.
Black fingertips tingled sharply anytime they pointed toward Jenn. I couldn’t shake the term Heart Seeker. It felt like a tattoo name, but the ink on my fingers had come from a giant monster that ate other monsters. The cold bit me harder as a feeling of helpless, gut-shaking dread grew; I wanted to scream. I recalled the leather-faced Ranger holding the glob of ink as if it meant nothing. Its pitch-black body had small swirls inside the core.
What made us different? I asked myself.
I recalled Harold’s words. “A filth so strong it eats others of its kind,” the Delver had told me the night of the full moon.
Heart Seeker, the crab-armed man had labeled it.
My hand reacted to those changed by ink. I wondered briefly if that was how Delvers were given their gifts. Somehow, this twisted marking gained by fighting smaller monsters must be similar to their gifts of finding ink in the mines.
What then of the rainbow drop? I asked myself while examining my other hand. I made sure not to touch Jenn with either uncovered marking, afraid of what they might do.
She snored softly. Jenn’s hands were tucked under her head, precariously close to my dangling bits. I worried she would wake up screaming about unwashed buttholes and other derogatory terms. I cast my gaze upward and tried not to think on either topic. The sky above were lit with stars and a pretty woman lay here with me. It were more romantic than the drunken studding I’d spent with Lily.
More creatures like those two probably roamed around in the night. I could feel the patter of hundreds of footsteps. The vibrations came from up the hill, closer to The Mountain’s ridge. When I looked through the trees near the skyline, faint shadows danced. Other deformed mockeries of humans moved in the darkness—a swarm of them that might have only been in my imagination. They didn’t come close. It gave me the impression of people afraid to be seen. The soft sound of vocal-based droning increased. If I didn’t know better, I’d say that up the hill, hundreds of those former people hummed the same song.
I glanced at Jenn’s face and once again tried not to take her comfort with me for granted. I only let a few get close to me, and the other way around were also true. Greg, Poss, and Lily had once been my friends. Lily had certainly set herself apart.
No use dwelling on any of it. I haven’t got the luxury of caring. I needed to finish this task, get my ink, then worry about relationships later.
The candlelight inside flickered then dimmed. Gently, I shook Jenn’s shoulder. She moaned, sounding dangerously aroused. The Flop’s ears jerked as she rocked, then her hand struck my groin. I doubled over, completely dislodging Jenn, and groaned in pain. Being hit by the branch had been bad enough. Being punched a dozen times had probably cracked a rib. Now this—and I didn’t know which pain felt worse.
The Flop bent over my prone form. “No! Bad!” she repeated to my face while waving the tiny finger.
My eyes watered as I nodded. I had no clue what had happened to get such a violent reaction. My face burned, and each breath made every ache on my body worsen. I weakly bent an arm and pointed toward the hilltop.
“Time,” I groaned.
Jenn looked more alert than ever. Her head turned as she scanned the area. I rocked to the side and lay there trying not to whimper like one of Cassandra’s puppies. She’d been in my lap and all I’d done were touch her shoulder to wake the girl. Obviously I’d triggered something. I should have known better.
Eventually I loosened enough to pull my hands away from my groin. They weakly grasped at air as pain lingered.
“Your hands. What’s wrong with them?”
I shook my head. Jenn looked away and slowly walked up the hill without me. I braced myself against the building before I managed to get upright. It hurt like hell, but six months of working Wellbrook Mines had taught me pain were a constant. My daddy had said men learn to suck it up and make do. I survived the pain long enough to recover my belongings then slowly walked after her.
The gloves were back in place, which hurt. Each step came with a shiver of agony. The drone of low chanting or singing continued ahead of us and only grew stronger as we walked. Jenn strode on fearlessly and only stopped once in a while to check our surroundings. I trusted she’d know the dangers of being up here at night better than I did—and I were almost utterly useless.
I fingered my dagger hilt and worried it might heat up in the sheath. The stitched leather felt cool in the night air. Neither marking made a lot of sense, and sitting down to dwell on them needed to wait. But for the moment, it distracted me from the pain.