Near the top of The Mountain, it grew easier to see. Starlight and hours in darkness had helped us adapt. Or so Jenn muttered between name-calling. We were closer to the stars. Or maybe it were The Mountain itself which illuminated the darkness.
Jenn froze a good fifty feet away from the ridge. I gasped then fell into a set of bushes—in case one of the priests who watched The Mountain’s top had found us. Jenn were quick to join me.
“Idiot. You almost walked into them,” she whispered then slowly stuck her head out to peek.
I glanced through the bushes. Rows of deformed creatures stood at the ridge. They hummed a low dirge that reminded me of the Delvers but lacked words. Every few lines, they stomped their feet in unison, which made the ground rumble.
“What are they?” I asked.
Jenn swallowed then fell to her knees. She rocked and faced away from the mass of people. I looked back at them, then at the woman, and couldn’t figure out what were wrong.
“The wildlings. They think like a man. Look too inhuman. I could have been one. I could have been one…” Jenn sank into the bushes and trembled. Her small hand, covered lightly by fur, clenched mine.
I was thankful the gloves were on, in case they were what had set her off last time.
What do I say? I asked myself. Lily felt less complicated than Jenn—by far. Lily wanted and were pretty enough to get what she wanted. Jenn had looks but had been broken by time.
We waited. The army of almost humans continued their low chant. Dozens of voices merged to create a rumble that swung up then bent low. The noise dimmed as time passed. I looked over my shoulder to see the beings drifting away.
Once they were gone, I’d go up to the ridge myself and throw in the bag. Then Jenn and I could get off this cursed mountaintop before any beasts of ink spawned. At least now I knew why nothing had attacked us. There were too many of those strange, deformed humans around for even the most insane monster to try.
“What are they doing?” I whispered.
“Asking for forgiveness. Throwing themselves in out of grief. For what they’ve become.”
How do you know so much about this? I thought. After years under The Mountain’s gaze, I’d never heard of any such ritual. Though it sounded a lot like what happened on a full moon—only for deformed people who let out that downtrodden series of low notes.
“We could all go that way. When touched. I could have died. I could have fought the change.” Her breath quickened and spit out a few words at a time. “Or not made a choice. Been like them. That happens. The man who marked me said. Once I got too many. That I’d have to choose. Death. Or life. Or change. My dad used to call me his little bunny. I saw it. Me. Like a bunny. I chose this.” She gasped then quivered. “Then he. Then he.”
“It’s not your fault,” I said while putting my other arm around her shoulders.
In all these years, she still hadn’t gotten over what happened. I didn’t know if that were normal for what she went through. I didn’t know how to handle or help her. All I could figure out were Jenn didn’t want to be alone.
If I had a little girl, I’d never let her suffer this broken sense of self. I’d sooner murder a man than let him scar someone dear to me like this.
“It’s okay. I know,” I said.
The humming chant lowered in pitch. People walked by, giving us a wide area of space. Jenn’s face held still as we watched. It were as though she tried to turn her insides senseless by not letting her face react.
“Your daddy. He killed mine. Like a demon from hell, he strode in. Then killed him. But I burned down the house. I burned it down. Stared at the wreckage. Felt dead. Wished I’d never become what he made me.” Jenn’s body were tightly wound.
I held still, afraid to get punched for trying to help. She let me hold her, and that spoke miles more than anything else.
“And still I can’t forget. Eight years and I can’t forget.”
My heart broke. She’d shared bits of the story over our time together but never strung it all together like this. Even the hints had painted an ugly picture. I wished I could go back and kill the man again.
“I’ll put this pup in. I’ll get my mark. Then once Momma is safely away, you can use my home. And once I’m a Ranger, no one will ever touch you wrong again.”
She sniffed then shuddered in that Flop vibration that made my thoughts inappropriate. I tried to speak more. If I couldn’t break my vow of silence for Jenn, then there’d be no one else in the world worth talking to.
“And I do think you’re cute. Even if you punched me in the balls.”
Which still hurts, came a dry afterthought.
She snorted then choked out a sob that almost sounded happy. “Stupid boy.”
I looked up the hill. All the creatures had left during our hushed conversation. Dawn couldn’t be far away and the place was cold. Having Jenn with me had helped more than I ever suspected.
“I’ll be back,” I whispered.
There weren’t much distance between the top and me. Illumination around the top made the ledge easy to see. On a new moon, the ink should be at an all-time low, so the glow couldn’t come from that. I knew because miners spoke of traveling to the deepest parts of Wellbrook Mines on new moons—places filled with ink on normal days.
I filed away the mystery and crept closer to the edge. The others were gone. Jenn and I had watched the procession of deformed humans walk into the tree line—not down our side but to the northern ridge by the temple grounds.
“It’s past midnight on a new moon. Your kind should be leaving,” a soft-sounding male said. “Are you still deciding?”
The unexpected voice made me jump then gasp with pain. Where did you come from?
The man wore a white robe that hung loose around the arms. His head tilted in my direction, but thick fabric was draped over his face. Whatever he wore faded in and out of sight as I watched.
“You must be newly deformed. Worry not. I can’t see you. All priests wear blindfolds on the night of a new moon—to not anger those who seek forgiveness for their faithlessness.”
Faithlessness? The term got tucked away as another problem for another day.
If they’re blindfolded, then why did Cassandra warn me not to be seen? I asked myself. The idea made no sense. Unless she were testing something else entirely, such as my willingness to follow impossible conditions. I huffed while thinking sour thoughts at all those efforts. I’d failed anyway because of Ducky.
“If you wish to give yourself to The Mountain, you may. None here will stop you.” The priest barely moved as his body faded from my sight.
I hesitated and tried to make sense of the man. He’d stood on a distinct path to the peak. I knew from my last visit that the ridge would be cleared all around and there was a walkway that went over the pools to lower bodies in. He reappeared like a ghost, waving an arm and gesturing to the last dozen yards between the edge and me. I slowly walked past him, got down on all fours, and crept toward the hole. The pool of ink that had been there last time were gone. Only a deep dark hole remained.
I hated this place. I hated it with a kind of ire that made my heartbeat hammer loudly. Kneeling over the edge reminded me of the day my daddy had been sent into the pools. In truth, when my father had been lowered into the ink, I only saw one thing. Silver. That was how I knew it were real. It’d been there around his body as he sank under the surface. I searched for it now but couldn’t see a hint of ink. Not even rainbow drops from The Mountain’s heart were visible tonight.
I opened the pouch. The lingering scents of roses and herbs stung my nose and I sneezed. The deceased baby dog were still inside. The drawstring tightened, and I tossed the whole mess over the edge. The pup’s bag descended, rolling off walls and making little noise. I hoped to see a hint of shining light appear as it had before. None showed up. I tilted my head back at the starry sky and wondered what it all meant.
“Drifty idiot! Stop dreaming! Come on!” Jenn whispered loudly from the bushes.
The priest stood over my shoulder. His sudden appearance made me jump. Rocks tumbled down The Mountain’s heart.
He said, “You’re welcome to return, if you ever wish to make another sacrifice or ask for forgiveness.”
I ignored the spooky priest’s words then slipped back down the hill. Jenn and I moved quicker than my ribs liked—but with each step, I felt better. My shoulders loosened while the pain receded in a rush of euphoria. I’d done the task.
Neither of us spoke of what had transpired. Hours later, Jenn and I grew close to the road. A growing heat beamed down from the sun. Today would be hot. We continued down, on our way back to Cassandra’s homestead.
Four figures stood in a circle, chattering to each other. Hardwood’s leathery face and her hat stood out first—followed by Cassandra in her many-colored dress. Or maybe the Tattooist simply turned it around. I couldn’t tell. The other two looked vaguely familiar. One of the guys stood closer to Hardwood, and his skeletal features and pale skin remained the same as ever.
I cast a glance to find Jenn, but the Flop had vanished. My face tightened and my relief dissolved. I hoped she’d be okay. Jenn could run like the wind if she wanted.
“Quiet now. Our potential returned from his mission,” Tattooist Cassandra said.
“Took long enough,” responded the Ranger I’d only seen once before. He’d been escorting Ducky after the full moon—Obsidian, I think were his name. The gruffness to his voice and bent posture set me on edge. He sounded like the asshole Ducky had called him.
Their circle broke as all four spread slightly then glared at me like a room full of judges prepared to issue a verdict. I refused to let myself pause and kept moving forward. Ranger Obsidian scrunched his face and looked sour. Ranger Hardwood snorted then shook her head. Tawny tucked back a cheek, making him appear even more gaunt. Cassandra crooked a finger at me then turned to walk away.
I followed. Working in the mine couldn’t shake me and I went back week after week, even after being injured. A night among monsters kept me on edge. But being flanked by three Rangers made me shiver with unease. These four could decide the future of my plans.
“What did you see?” Cassandra asked.
Her voice pulled at me and the pain drifted. Those behind me mattered a little less. I couldn’t tell if their lessening importance made me feel better or worse.
The desire to answer her silken words lingered. Dozens of pieces of information replayed as I blinked for a long time. My feet moved onward and I came to conclusions. The information of Ducky’s shack shouldn’t be shared for fear it might ruin my success. The other creatures were probably more important to her.
Why else send me on a new moon? I asked myself as events clicked. The pup in a bag could be an excuse. Seeing those deformed people had been one of the main points. Avoiding humans had forced me to think on my own. I could see it coming together like one of my daddy’s life lessons. He’d been fond of the same strategy. Set me to a task that had multiple outcomes, each of which had value.
“I saw people that weren’t human,” I said carefully.
The Rangers made different noises. Hardwood’s judgmental snort overwhelmed Obsidian’s low growl. Only Tawny remained soundless. I checked behind me to make sure the pale Ranger still followed us. He did, and his buggy eyes in that thin skull had me worried.
“The wildlings. Did they disgust you?” Cassandra’s voice made me face forward again.
A memory of Jenn’s rocking form came to mind. She’d said those people were a deformed outcome from ink exposure that I hadn’t known about. Their existence were another secret of The Mountain that little boys weren’t told in stories. I’d had time to think on them as we came down the hill.
“They made me sad,” I said.
“Why?” Cassandra asked.
“Because ink did that to them, twisted their bodies until they wanted to kill themselves. People want it because it gives them powers that ain’t natural. All they get is poison to the soul. It makes people slaves, transforms them into bodies they don’t want. Monsters spawn from it and kill innocents.”
Her cheek lifted gently. “Yet you came to me for a mark.”
There were no good answers that didn’t feel foolish to utter. I’d already spoken more than I wanted. Her enthrallment made me want to answer until she smiled.
“I need what I need,” I said.
She smiled as if someone had given her a freshly baked pie or meat from a bear. Her eyes and cheeks lifted. I looked away to shake off the urge to drown in Cassandra’s happy expression. That gave me a chance to study the location—a large clearing with a fire pit dug in its center. The smell of burned wood and ash lingered.
Tattooist Cassandra pointed at a long piece of wood serving as a bench. I sat, and the Rangers took up other benches. They all wore different expressions, but I’d swear they were nervous about something. I didn’t know Rangers could be nervous about anything. Hardwood especially—she’d chased down a monster bear through caverns of traps.
“Take off your gloves,” Cassandra said.
Oh, my mind said as the reason for this gathering became obvious. The markings I’d picked up had scared those wildings—I guessed they were called—on The Mountain. I inhaled deeply and shuddered as it released. Exhaustion made me swoon, and I wished Jenn were somewhere close to help me feel less alone. “Idiot,” she’d say.
The gloves came off slowly. My hands clenched tightly to hide the marks for a few more seconds. Cassandra hadn’t lost that sly smile. A pit grew in my stomach as I turned up both palms. Neither hand stayed steady and the trembling worsened the longer they stared without comment.
“It took. Told you,” Hardwood spoke first.
I grasped my hands together around the gloves and waited until someone told me they could be put back on.
Tawny shook his head.
Obsidian’s face scrunched in clear anger. “How did he survive without enough markings? He should have been corrupted beyond belief. He should have been deformed like those others. Or died.”
“You know why,” Hardwood responded.
My neck hurt from whipping back and forth between them. They all sat in different spots and each one reacted differently. Only Tawny’s tight skin stretched as he frowned and looked down. Obsidian’s face puckered, making him look even older. Hardwood pulled back a cheek and grinned in happiness. Her hand took Tawny’s and gave it a squeeze.
“Can— ” Their heads whipped toward me in unison and I froze. Both hands tightened as I attempted to hide the blackened fingertips. They were worse than a bruise and darker than night and impossible to hide.
Cassandra fiddled with a box.
“Can I get my marking? I need it so I can stand in the trials.”
The three Rangers reacted much the same as they had to everything else. I blocked them from my mind as though they were passengers on the stagecoach home; they were just people talking about something that didn’t matter to me. Whereas Cassandra stood above Foreman Kindle and could decide my fate.
“So you do. Shirt’ll have to come off.”
It hit the ground before I even registered the pain of lifting my arms. The damage from being knocked around caught up. My face tightened, then my eyes closed. I took slow breaths. Someone guided me to a flat spot on the ground while another person started the fire. I couldn’t catch who were who. Once my eyes closed, I kept them that way and focused on breathing evenly. Lying down did not help the pain. The damage from before only felt worse when I lost things to focus on.
Fabric brushed against my arms as someone positioned me better. Two others lifted me and lodged a pack of goods under my belly to prop me at an angle. Rough hands adjusted my head to one side and shoved my shirt underneath my face. I groaned in pain as they jostled me.
“You know you weren’t wrong when you called the Wildlings sad.” Cassandra’s voice soothed me. No questions pulled at me to answer, only a calming tone I wanted to listen to. “They were faced with the burning choice and failed. The ink made their inner turmoil surface. Venturing too far down this path puts everyone at the trial of life, death, or transformation. It has more to do with the heart than we ever tell the untouched.”
“He doesn’t need to know that,” Obsidian said.
“Stop being contrary,” Hardwood snapped.
“When you stop being an uptight bitch.”
“You’re talking to my wife,” Tawny’s voice lowered.
I opened my eyes to see the mess of them standing across the fire, talking without much civility for a supposedly unified group. The fact that even Rangers couldn’t see eye-to-eye all the time shattered a sliver of my childhood dreams.
“He’s been touched. He needs to know. A good tattooist woulda told him while he’d been at a real table getting his ink,” Tawny said while glaring at the darker man.
“This ain’t no table,” Obsidian responded.
“We’re not doing this marking at a table. We do this one here—at The Mountain’s base. It’d be better still up top, but the priests will insist on a ceremony one they know what’s happening,” Cassandra’s voice broke away from its normal velvety tone. She sounded annoyed with the lot of squabbling Rangers.
Soft fingers ran down my back, poking at muscles and sore spots. I hadn’t a mirror to check, but it felt as though Cassandra touched the edge of a massive bruise after my scuffle. She seemed to finally settle on a space between my shoulder blades as the others talked.
The grumpy man said, “So? Who cares what those prissy—”
Cassandra’s words cut off Obsidian. “It’s already started. But for tonight, I don’t want to be disturbed. By any of you. Go watch the woods until I’m done.”
I whimpered softly and struggled to keep the pain to myself.
“Hush, Chase.” Her words obscured everything else in the world. If the earlier pull had been normal, this were a dozen times worse. I couldn’t help myself and did exactly as she asked.
“What’s wrong with my hands?” One tingled maddeningly. The other felt hot. Being near Rangers, who were so mired in ink that they might as well be monsters themselves, had set off my blackened fingers.
She said, “All in due time. Now try to rest.”
I drifted away almost immediately, the questions of my hands out the window.
My back felt uneasy as time passed in spurts. Something I couldn’t see tapped against it. With each touch, my skin crawled for an age. Cassandra shushed me throughout the process. Sometimes I’d see one of the Rangers dropping by with unrecognizable objects. It looked like a table leg sat in front of my face. With each spurt of time, the table leg moved a little and the pinpricks on my back changed direction.
The sky above was darkening again. I felt a bit more aware than before. My hand jerked as my senses noted the sudden changes. The needle poked my back. With each stab, a tingling sensation crawled across my skin and under it. Muscles twitched.
“Calm yourself, Chase. Disorientation is…”
Her words faded away as time skipped once more. I woke colder than last night. Darkness overhead. My stomach twisted with distant hunger. How long have I been here? I asked myself. The fire that had only been sparks now roared in a blaze.
Cassandra no longer sat above me. The warmth of her layers of fabric had vanished and my back felt incredibly cold. Even the flames did little to stop the night air.
“What did you give me?”
“Shush, child. It’s not done yet.”
I am not a child. I haven’t been a child since Daddy died, I thought with distant anger at a world that accused me of being too young. Her task hadn’t been easy, but with Jenn’s help, I’d managed. By my own reckoning to the storekeeper, The Mountain, and everyone in between, I should now be considered a man.
“What are you giving me?” My throat ached from rawness. Talking hurt worse the second time.
She walked around the fire with one hand holding back the folds of her skirt. The tattooist bent onto her knees then pressed a finger into my back. “The piece is called Eyes of a Man. There are three markings that make up one. First, The Watchful, which a man uses to see dangers before they reach his charge. So that he can stand in their way.” Cassandra moved her finger right slightly and pressed another spot that burned. “Darkness Ward. One a man uses when it’s his turn to stand against the hungering night. Shadows will not bar his sight, no matter how deep they grow.”
I tapped the ground to get her attention then held up three fingers. Talking hurt. Lying here hurt. My chest and back hurt. I chose to keep quiet for fear of letting that pain out.
Cassandra’s hand moved right again. “The third is Hidden Soul. It helps a man keep his secrets. You’ll need that one most of all. Men don’t like it when the world sees how weak they really are.”
Footsteps crunched along cold ground. The smell of burnt meat hung in the air, and my stomach growled. Ranger Hardwood dropped off a stack of wood then sat. She went straight to work plucking feathers off a bird.
“Seems he didn’t stay hidden the entire time,” Obsidian said. I’d hoped he would stay in the woods, but apparently that wouldn’t happen.
The idea hit me. I got my markings. My body felt stiff and I wanted to move, but pressure on my back kept me still. At some point during the process, Cassandra had told me not to move until morning.
“He tried. You all saw that much. At least now we know how Derek achieved his marking.” Tawny’s voice came from just out of my line of sight. A stick with meat hanging off the end entered my vision. My stomach heaved as the smell of food grew stronger.
Hardwood plucked feathers from a dead fowl. “Don’t move anymore until it’s done. There’s no use being upset at the truth of your failure. Everyone screws up until life teaches them. And make no mistake, life only offers one lesson—be hard or die.”
“Derek had sense to find a better answer to an impossible task and he’s half a wildling already. This boy, he couldn’t have made it without that Flop girl. He’s young, ignorant, and too reliant upon others,” Obsidian judged.
“You were no better during your trials,” Cassandra snapped.
Her sudden anger startled me. I twitched then let out a faint whimper of pain.
Ranger Hardwood set aside her fowl then grabbed a fresh piece of wood for the fire. Crackling filled the air and sparks arced off. One hit my face, but I only felt the cold. I would have given anything for a warm body against me to help fight off chill. My mouth barely moved, and that crawling sensation intensified. I shook slightly with the need for food and relief.
“Boy needs to be named with his first mark,” Hardwood said.
“He’s not a Ranger. He may never be one.” Obsidian’s clothes, attitude, and hair were black as his name.
I foggily sent a prayer that The Mountain would claim Obsidian before it ever did me.
“He already has a name,” the tattooist said.
“Tell him then,” Hardwood said.
Pressure pushed upon my shoulder—I couldn’t feel more than the weight past the niggling sensations. Cassandra’s cowl hung loosely upon my face.
She whispered in my ear, her tone begging me to heel and be a slave. “I name you, Hound. Hound of the Mountain.”
“No!” Ranger Obsidian said—obviously having heard her words. “Hounds never end well. They’re worse than Sterlings!”
“I don’t like it. We don’t need one,” Tawny said in agreement.
Ranger Hardwood snorted. She looked around the fire at the others but lingered on Tawny. Her head shook slowly. My eyelids fluttered and vision lost focus.
“We had one before. And he was a hard man who paid the price. Now here’s his pup, ignorant, worn, and already tainted in a way few others could even survive. If he completes the ceremony, you’ll have something more useful than a Ranger.” Words echoed from earlier today. Potential to be useful, Cassandra had said. “Too many are getting away with abuses that shouldn’t be allowed. You know exactly who I’m talking about.”
“You can’t—” Obsidian said.
Cassandra put her hand up to shush the other man. “It’s not your job to do anything but expose him to the dangers like Hardwood had before. And on the full moon? He’ll go below.”
My eyelids fluttered. I focused on hearing everything the lot of them said. Secrets were being whispered. While they made little sense now, I’d need to hear them to succeed. I just couldn’t move to do anything about it. Their words went straight in my head, but by the time another person spoke, I’d lost nearly all inkling of what the prior one said. A crawling sensation between my shoulder blades distracted me. The fire weren’t hot enough. I heard dogs baying far in the distance—or maybe wolves. Their howls made more sense.
Obsidian’s dark-soled boots were clear enough in the darkness. He stomped off between the trees and vanished. I struggled to get an arm pulled under me to relieve the pressure. My slight change gave me a better view of the remaining three people. Rocks and clumps of dirt dug unendingly into my feet. My stomach growled with hunger.
“Don’t fidget. The ink needs to dry overnight,” Hardwood said while stirring the fire.
Did Ducky do this too? For a moment, I almost respected the other man. I swallowed again and again until the strength to speak arrived. “What were you all talking about?”
Cassandra’s eyes narrowed as she leaned toward the fire. Its heat did nothing to melt her pitiless gaze and sly smile. “Once, your great-grandfather belonged to The Mountain. He’d been one of the first in our region to give himself over. Then his son, and his son. Now, there’s you.”
I tried to follow the thoughts but couldn’t. My parents had never mentioned anything about a family member who’d done more than get a tattoo or two. Other than Momma’s tales, they’d never mentioned their parents. I struggled but could only hear daddy’s words. Once The Mountain has you, there were no getting out alive.
Maybe he’d gotten those words from his father, and so on—back to the person Cassandra talked about. My heartbeat sped and thoughts ran wild. What’d they mean by ceremony?
“Get your rest. You’re going to need it for the trials,” Ranger Hardwood said. Then she snorted in that damned mixture of judgment and amusement.
That’s right. All that fancy talk must have been some code about the upcoming Ranger trials. It all made a strange sort of sense that way.
I closed my eyes and reminded myself that this were all for Momma.