Sound battered against my ears but made no sense. Cotton filled every part of me and turned the world into a nightmare. The middle of my back burned, itched, and the skin felt as if it’d crawled off the bone, leaving my innards unprotected. Surely my heart sat there exposed to the midday sun.
Strong pressure at my wrists kept me from digging at the irritation. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like any of it.
Bugs, I thought. Bugs are under my skin. They keep biting. So many. Everywhere.
The sensation felt exactly like those critters crawling over me down in the mines. They nipped at my remaining flesh that hadn’t crawled away. The pressure on my wrists must belong to that beast. I were being hunted again. No, I had been hunted and this time the monster had caught me.
Panic set me twisting. My face bashed against a hard object. The pain didn’t slow me. Heavy breathing could be heard in the room as someone cried out in worry. Wild panic kept me writhing around violently.
It has my arm! Both arms! It’s pulling me in to eat me!
A disgusting scent of feces and piss filled my nose. One leg shook uncontrollably. A tickling sensation ached right along my ass, along with numbness. My eyes opened and huge teeth snapped at me. A nose pressed against my face. Above the nose were wide white eyes. Fur framed a ring. Huge teeth formed lines for spittle to drop down.
I took a deep breath to scream. My head jerked around and caught sight of a woman’s chest. Her clothes torn to shreds. It must be another victim of the bear. She shouted incomprehensible words. Air around her writhed like God Hisself had reached through brown-colored clouds.
Pressure bound my arms tightly, preventing me from scratching the ache between my shoulders. The beast had me trapped on my stomach. Both arms were bound behind me and its teeth dug into my muscle. The female captive yelled and stared wide-eyed at me. Her concerned face was unrecognizable as madness tore me. I struggled to flip over.
“Chase? Stupid Chase. Stupid,” a woman shouted over and over.
I huffed rapidly. The bear sadistically played with me by keeping pressure on my spine. It refused to let me turn. Then a spike of pain radiated in my skull. My teeth slammed together as the world dimmed. My neck rolled and vision lingered long enough to see bunny ears. I only talked to one girl who had soft ears.
“Jenn?” I mumbled as the world dipped to black.
When I awoke again, the feeling of bugs eating my innards through a hole along my spine had faded. Instead, three knots on my back ached as I struggled to sit. My arms burned. My vision stayed blurry and one eye couldn’t see as well as the other.
The bumps on my back twitched in an uneven cadence. Right, left, then the middle. The middle one hurt most, being placed right above my spine. I worked to put together what had happened.
This were my bed. The sheets were a mess. Walls had streaks of blood on them, matching the red tips of my fingers. My blankets and every piece of fabric besides a single pair of britches were piled in a corner. It moved, and the rear end of a cotton-tailed Flop stuck out, along with bunny toe tips.
Snores, or sobs, came from the pile. I groaned then turned over. My hands were uncovered, and the sour spots on my back twitched uncontrollably. The pile of clothes faded in and out, leaving me a vision of Jenn’s form—unobstructed by the clothing piles—holding her body in a ball with her hands pressed over her ears. She cried, then my back twitched again and the sight faded.
“Whe—” I breathed half a word then coughed violently. My body jerked, and each motion brought more minor hurts. There’d been bugs and a large monster eating me, but the room were empty. “Where’s the filthy bear? I got… to kill it. Free. Freedom.”
No one answered. My head dipped and I lay slack as every muscle and bone reported pain. Thoughts came slowly as the situation became apparent.
Were it a nightmare? I asked myself. The teeth had been real. The fuzzy face had looked like a bear’s. Being locked in position had happened.
How… the thought trailed off. There were too many questions and none could be solved by staring at my bedroom walls.
I worked to sit, but a muscle seized. My body flopped backward. It felt like blindfolds slammed over my eyes then tied tightly. Everything dimmed, and this time, both eyes were impacted. I rocked in the bed to build enough momentum to face the window. The sun had lowered. Earlier it’d been bright out of one eye, like daylight.
It must be the tattoo Cassandra had marked me with.
There, on display for all the world, were my marked hands. Fainter than before, but maybe the haze of waking still clouded my eyes. I blinked repeatedly, and each time, the markings looking different. Black fingertips faded to gray then became almost flesh-colored. The spider web tainting from a rainbow drop also faded into my palm.
Then I blinked, and they were back again. The room dimmed and brightened again. My vision wavered as different items magnified then vanished. I’d been drunk before and never felt like this. Mushrooms from the forest floor had done something similar. My stomach twisted, and the urge to wretch hit me.
My floor were covered in vomit and other unwholesome refuses. Signs of someone trying to mop were present, but they’d only smeared the mess into foul piles. I followed the gunk across the room while swallowing back a sour-salty taste.
Momma stood in the doorway. Her bottom lip quivered and arms shook. “You okay, son? Those Rangers, they said you…”
Whatever I were, okay did not seem an apt description. Okay felt like a dream some other man could live simply by not being me. But I were alive and my arms worked. Then I realized Momma still stood in the doorway. Her hands wrung a towel tightly.
I lied by slowly nodding.
“You in control of your mind at last?” she asked.
The question chilled me. My fingers curled into fists then clasped behind my back, but it reminded me of being pinned earlier. They jerked back out in front of me. I couldn’t figure out where to keep the limbs to avoid bringing her attention to my markings and nothing felt right.
“If you’re worried about your hands, there’s no use hiding, boy. It’s too late. I’ve seen it all. Seen more than I thought I’d ever see. Seen what I hoped never to see again. You’ve done a dangerous thing. A fool’s thing. Not sure how I raised such a dumb child. Your daddy—”
She braved the room then slapped towels onto the messy floor. Momma stomped them into a bunch and mopped with her foot. Cold air came in from the open window but didn’t mute the smell. I suddenly realized the foulness came from me. Momma continued her halfhearted cleaning efforts while my attention shifted around the room to survey the mess.
I’d been out of my mind. Whatever marking Tattooist Cassandra had given me must have reacted poorly. Never before had anyone told me such an event might happen. Flashes of the recent situation came to mind. Sneaking up the mountain’s side, dropping in the poor dead pup, then running down in the morning’s chill. I might have been sick to boot.
As for my vision, nothing stayed the right color. My two hand markings shifted like a fire that wouldn’t quite go out. The lumps in my back twitched. As reason returned, I realized Tattooist Cassandra had spoken about the markings she’d given me. The Eyes of a Man. Each one performed a different task.
Can I see through clothes? I asked myself with a weak chuckle. Every boy’s dream and it felt weird. The tense spots on my back bothering me so must be related to the tattoo.
“You tell that scrawny girl she can stop hiding then.” Momma pointed at the pile of clothes in the corner. “Gave her a right fright, you did. She held you down during the worst and you nearly ripped her to shreds. Lost in the delirium of a marking. Madness. She gave you one that were too tough. That Cassandra. Warrior markings are more than anyone should ever try to handle at your age. Your daddy, he never had to bear so much so young. He were twenty-two before he got his first Ranger marking.”
Momma abruptly went rigid and buttoned her lips. I couldn’t focus enough to get past the constantly shifting colors and sight. By the time her words registered as suspicious, Momma were grabbing the towel with slop then rushing outside.
She had explaining to do. Daddy had been marked by The Mountain, that much I knew. That was why he’d gone back to the top after he died. All those touched by The Mountain’s gifts were returned to its pool upon death.
“What?” I asked the empty doorway.
I fell onto my face while trying to get out of the bed. My head banged against the floor with each attempt to stand and the tattoo on my back shifted. It felt like eyelids on my back, closing and opening repeatedly. My weak arms pushed me up and I managed to lean against the bedframe.
The clothes in the corner shifted. Nails scraped against the wooden floor as Jenn’s feet kicked, pushing her further into the pile.
Dryness plagued me. The room were a mess. Smells on the floor worsened the longer I stayed conscious. Still, there were things that needed setting right.
“Jenn?” I huffed weakly. “Jenn, are you okay?”
Momma, known to the entire county as Widow Craig, swept through the room again like a force of nature. She mopped up more goo from the floor, pulled the curtain out of the way, fanned a bit of the smell outward, and plopped orange rinds onto my nightstand. Citrus canceled some of the stink.
“Can’t believe the mess you made. When Tawny and Hardwood brought you in all burning up from fever… well. Those two should have known better. Can’t believe Rangers would be so foolish. You, I can forgive. Your daddy leaving us the way he did means no one told you what they ought to. Not at all.”
“What did you mean?” I croaked.
But rather than answer my question, she fluttered back through the door with an armful of dirty linens. She’d called my tattoo a battle marking. Not simply that, but she’d said it in such a way that indicated my daddy had had his share.
Dad were a miner though, weren’t he? I asked myself.
Momma didn’t return. I heard her creaking around the rest of the house, and the rear door opened then slammed shut repeatedly. Water from a pump outside could be heard. No doubt Momma had set herself to cleaning the foul-smelling clothes before they stained.
Jenn stayed huddled in the corner of my room. The pile of clothes in the corner faded in and out. The vision was coupled with a strange bunching sensation from one of the tattoos on my back. It tightened and I could see Jenn huddled under the blankets. Those same muscles loosened and the image of Jenn turned to simple clothing that moved.
“Jenn?” I asked again. “It’s okay. I’m—”
I weren’t okay. My fingertips stung, and bits of blood littered the space under my nails. Those markings on the wall had come from me. The mess on the floor, also from me. I couldn’t tell how much time had passed since being marked in the clearing, but obviously the process hadn’t been smooth.
A Flop in Momma’s presence and house violated everything I understood about her. But she hadn’t even sounded nasty about it. I felt sure the snippy commentary would eventually come. My tribulations must have set everyone on edge. Jenn must be all out of sorts being in a house, much less my bedroom.
“Jenn, I’m awake. It’s me.”
I need rest, I thought.
The bed’s legs were short, but getting back up on it felt like an insurmountable task. One fit for Hercules hisself. I tried anyway, but my limbs banged, crashing into wood and floor. One leg kicked into a pile of leftover grossness my momma hadn’t got to yet. My body felt sticky from sweat. Once my breath and heartbeat calmed, I’d find my way to the bath.
“Jenn. You—” I took a breath. “Thank you.”
She’d been the face in my nightmare state. The same face I’d thought belonged to the bear. Flops were stronger than humans of the same size, but holding me in place while I thrashed would have taxed such a small woman. The dream about bugs and the bear clearly related to being tattooed.
Based on Momma’s commentary, I assumed the Rangers had dragged me home. Jenn must have come with them to help care for me. I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply. The whole point of becoming a Ranger were to help people—and here I were, being forced to rely on others. It humbled me and served as a reminder that I had miles to go before I could call myself a real man.
I spent the next hour trying to coax Jenn out of her hiding place. When she failed to respond, I worked to control the swimming images from my ink markings fading in and out, or the odd outline of Jenn’s body inside the pile of clothing.
“I’m sorry, Jenn. Sorry if I scared you,” I said.
That brief image of her with a torn top bothered me immensely. It matched, almost inch for inch, what I’d seen her father doing all those years ago. The idea that I—even half mad with fresh markings—would dare do the same to a friend made me feel sick. I would have retched upon the floor were there anything in my stomach.
It became clear to me the three eyes played different roles. One let me see through objects to ink-touched beings. The second tried to obscure my existing markings. The third lit dim areas so I could see easily as darkness set in. By full nightfall, I could almost control the one for brightness. My room lit enough for me to see the pile of clothes move, then it’d fade once I stopped concentrating.
Jenn never left the pile. Momma never returned to my room. The orange peels only muted the smells a little bit, then I passed out again. I woke briefly as people lifted me onto the bed. The scents in the room were kinder and a soft wet cloth pressed along my skin, removing the gross feeling. My eyelids fluttered and arms weakly pushed.
By morning, I felt rested, clearer, and even more confused than ever. My head throbbed from lying too long in bed. A dozen different chores that needed doing ran through my mind. I sat up slowly, feeling the aches and pains from a rough few days telling me to sleep more. They were ignored, just like wounds from the mine. Someone had to take care of this house.
Without much thought, I got up and proceeded to do the chores piling up. As I staggered around, it became obvious someone else had been working in my absence. The hens were already fed and acted pleasant. Our garden had been weeded and fresh plants sowed for the upcoming season. The pump worked smoothly and quickly filled a fresh bucket. Someone had even brushed rust from the piping I’d never gotten around to cleaning.
A woman’s voice hummed from the back end of our house. I ambled toward the sound while trying to place who might make such a pleasant noise. The humming carried and nearly crooned as it went on. My legs were unsteady and mind in a daze.
There, in a spot formerly covered by tall bits of grass, knelt Jenn. Purple flowers littered the area and wiggled as the Flop hummed. Her clothes were ragged but the tone familiar. Only the person it came from didn’t fit my memories. Jenn hadn’t been happy since childhood.
Her large feet swayed from side to side as she twisted her ankles. The effect on the rest of her posture, namely her rear pressed up nicely against those feet, took a moment to sink in. When it did, my face flushed red.
I woke up at that point and recent events registered fully. My filthy body and room, Jenn huddled in a pile whimpering, the raving inside my head, and who knew what other nonsense. By whatever twisted god had created The Mountain, I must have traumatized the girl. Yet she hung around. What’s more, Momma hadn’t chased her away.
She jumped up, spun toward me, and stood ramrod straight. Her hands grabbed onto her worn pants, and one finger wormed into a hole.
“Stupid Chase. You smell. Go use the bucket. Go.” She waved me off; her other hand still wove into the hole in her trousers. “Not ready to see you.”
“Did you…” I pointed randomly around the house. Finally, my confused hands pointed at the purple flowers. She must have been the one cleaning up the outside, because Momma never did.
“You’ve slept three days. Too much not done. Your mom. She’s tired all the time. Hides in her room. Now, go wash.” Jenn’s toes dug into the dirt in a nervous twitch. Her eyes stayed level and ears perked briefly then lowered.
My head felt dizzy, but I made a decision. Those clothes did not do her figure any justice. They were completely ruined, and the stains were probably my fault.
“You need new clothes,” I said. “I’ll get some.”
Talking to Jenn felt awkward. Normally she were one of the few people I bothered conversing with verbally. But she’d seen me in a bad spot. I had to return the favor somehow and buying her stuff were the only method I knew.
And since Tattooist Cassandra had done my marking without needing any of the funds I’d saved, there were some cash to spare. Enough for a few swaths of fabric. Momma might be able to sew pieces into something that would look nice on Jenn. Momma went to town constantly, but she couldn’t be trusted to keep money. She spent it on God knew what, assuming she even made it to a store.
Jenn’s nose wrinkled as her ear twitched. Signs of Flop agitation, so I caved then went to clean myself. The buckets of water were too heavy and my eyesight still hadn’t adapted to the new tattoos. Shadows were brighter than normal. I could occasionally see Jenn through walls as she crept after me but always kept out of sight. Both marks on my hands kept fading in and out.
I felt woozy but worked well enough through what had happened. The Rangers had been around for my inking. They’d dumped me off at home. Jenn and Momma had taken care of me despite my apparently frantic raving madness.
Four buckets of water went into the tub. I scrubbed myself as clean as could be with a thin piece of soap. It cracked in two during my abuses. My altered vision showed Jenn hanging outside the house, near the bathroom window.
That meant I needed to be the one visiting town. My legs were steadier, but I still felt as though cotton filled my ears. I made it back to my room with both eyes narrowed to slits. The sunlight blurred everything and limiting my vision helped. The lumps on my back felt tight too.
I bundled myself in cleaner clothes, ones untouched by the mess I’d been or freshly cleaned. They smelled like Jenn. The mixture of light earth and rabbit musk lingered even as I put on my daddy’s worn jacket then walked down the road.
There were too many problems to figure out. Each step assaulted my vision in a new fashion. But I needed to push through to get Jenn something comfortable. New clothes would help her survive outdoors easier and serve as a thank you gift. I could pick up sweets then test my control over the new markings. Most of all, by being in town, I could avoid the urge to bang on Momma’s door and demand answers.
Behind me, the Flop trailed. I turned as my eyesight shifted and showed her hiding behind objects and in underbrush. Jenn could follow me, but she wouldn’t be able to walk into a bank for my savings.
I kept my gloves off and took longer to reach downtown than expected. With each step, I focused on activating the lump in my back that made the blackened fingertips fade to a normal color. A few hours later, by the time I made it to town, I’d almost figured it out. The problem were any time my other two abilities kicked in, the tattoo hiding power stopped.
Both gloves went back on to prevent slipups. If I added in the two I already had—the Heart Seeker mark which allowed me to feel inked monsters from a distance and the rainbow drop that heated up weapons—then I had three different powers given to me by The Mountain. Five, depending on how a body counted the eyes.
It weren’t a leg tattoo or something giving strength, but the eyes were enough for my Ranger qualifications. I simply needed to control the ability before another week passed.
I slowly walked through town and into the bank. The manager frowned when I asked to withdraw funds. Looking at him gave me a headache. A spot on his neck brightened every time he spoke. His eyes would brighten too, and a space on his chest. While he pulled out enough money for me to afford clothes and a fruit tree sapling, I cupped my hands over my eyes and took deep breaths.
He were polite and gave me a fake smile. The secretary up front nodded and said good-bye. I waved to both of them but said little. Numbers and questions flashed through my mind. The cash weren’t a ton of money, but planting the tree now, while Jenn and my momma weren’t at odds, was the best time. By next spring, we’d have a few small apples and could plant more seedlings for the years following.
If I made it as a Ranger, then trading goods to farmers would be far easier. They might even give me a set of saplings simply for helping to protect them. I’d heard Rangers got gifts from grateful people all the time; plus they made money from monster hearts. Or at least that was what Hardwood had showed me.
I had too many questions and no one to ask. With the Ranger trials so close, asking now would simply display my ignorance.
The general store had a calendar on one wall. It showed shipments, events, and a few birthdays for town notables such as the mayor. I stared at the crossed off days and the Ranger testing. My deadline approached faster than I’d thought.
“Well, young man,” the gray-dressed storekeeper said dryly, “you buying or not?”
I shook my head at the sign then turned around.
“Good. Ain’t got time for window shoppers. Serious buyers only.” He sniffed, and his entire body shook with the action.
People came into the store for weekly orders then left rapidly. I’d spent ten minutes counting the days left until the trials. Placing numbers together in order took too much concentration and my body ached everywhere. A long walk into town hadn’t helped.
“I need fabric. For new clothes,” I said.
“Nope. Fresh out of the small stuff. Not getting anything new until Wednesday.” He pointed at the calendar behind me.
I couldn’t rightly remember what the calendar said because a new sight had distracted me. The shopkeeper’s arm had markings on it. I could see, under a long-sleeved shirt, markings that looked like a chain wrapping around his arm from shoulder to forearm.
That made me pause. Normally I picked up supplies here because the general store had everything for our town. Jenn probably wouldn’t need a ton of fabric. There were premade clothes, but most weren’t sold directly in the store. I’d have to find someone to talk to who made the materials.
“You could go to Shelly’s. Shelly sells all sorts of clothes. Handmade, guaranteed to last. I’d put my stamp of approval on it, except Shelly tried to put her signs up in my window. That ain’t allowed.”
I sighed then picked up more food than I’d normally need. Eating well for the next few days should help with the Ranger’s test. Scrimping no longer mattered.
Then I went to Shelly’s. She sold me two sets of women’s clothes at a higher price than I wanted. Still, Jenn deserved reparations.
Everything rode on me passing the tests. If I failed, then it’d be back to the mines. Maybe there’d be a spot on the deep crews and I could be a scout instead. Once I had better control, this eye might let me search for ink colors easier. A large amount of possibilities sat in front of me, but all of them paled compared to becoming an actual Ranger.
For the moment, I had to make it home. Hours of walking, shopping, and learning to control my new tattoo had worn me out. In addition, my shopping spree had resulted in piles of baggage. I stared at the stack from the general store and wished for a horse or donkey. A good mule could help me plow a field for better planting. But the one we used to have had been sold.
The world spun. My head dipped and chin dug into my neck. Despite closed eyes, bits of the world still lit up through my shut lids. I could see Flops of all different sizes. Felines hung inside one of the buildings. At least three, and two were upstairs, bent in odd positions. I kept seeing tattoo markings blurring in and out. Late evening stretched into shadows and illuminated The Mountain on its throne.
I stared at the pile then up at the distant hill where I worked. The world blurred again, and when my eyes opened my ass was firmly on the ground. A tall man loomed in front of me. His body glowed like darkness incarnate. I struggled to regain control of the marking Tattooist Cassandra had given me. My blackened fingertips tingled as if the man in front of me were more beast than human. Like one of the Wildlings up on The Mountain.
My eyes slowly closed. I pushed myself up, intent upon telling the store owner to hold onto some purchases overnight. It would have been smarter to get only a needed bag. But the shop had closed.
“You’re a sad sack of flesh, ain’t you?” the black-shrouded man said. His head shook. “Detestable.”
Get fornicated by a bull, I dully thought. His voice were familiar, even if the looks were not. Ranger Obsidian were the only inked man I’d met who sounded like that big of an asshole—much less be in a place to judge me.
“Ranger,” I said. That were the extent of my courtesy. My goal of being a Ranger didn’t require getting along with everyone. I only needed to prove myself in the trials.
“Bought yourself too much, didn’t you? Stupid and a lack of foresight. You’ll never be a good Ranger. You’ll never pass the tests if you can’t learn. To think. Ahead.”
I nodded then picked up two bags. They weighed more than anything rightly should. At least the store owner had packed everything nicely into drawstring containers. Bending to pick up the third bag sent me sprawling on my ass, and I heard something inside one of the bags crack.
This was a piss-poor idea, I thought. Charging off to escape where I’d made a mess of myself in front of those few who mattered to me had been more about cowardice than getting Jenn proper clothes.
“You’ve days before the physical trials. Days, and you’re recovering from a mark that should be beyond your soul’s ability to handle. This ain’t no way to make an impression.”
My body swayed and eyes glared. The man didn’t laugh or chuckle like Ranger Hardwood might have. He only glared back in equal measure.
“Can’t abide stupid, boy. You’d best go home. You need rest, or you’ll fail the first night and we can’t have that. You need to be going up on the full moon, fresh and ready.”
Fail day one? That ran counter to my goal of earning money as a Ranger. Resting were my exact plan. Being called an idiot for venturing into town were like telling me rain got people wet after I’d already been caught by a storm. Utterly useless and badgering a point that didn’t need to be made. He reminded me of Momma. Constant chattering no one needed to hear.
I stood again, wobblier the second time. My vision kept flipping around. Ranger Obsidian and his black shadow body distorted everything else in sight. Turning away didn’t help. For flashes at a time, I saw the Felines upstairs in one of the inns. A male’s back arched mid release. Another body clearly sat in the room with him. Their tattoo danced as they violently moved an arm.
Seeing inked creatures and markings through walls irked me at the moment. At the same point, it would be useful during hunts. Blocking out different images would take a lot of work. Being in town made it worse. The mines or mountain on a full moon would be hell. With proper training and a good gun, maybe being able to see monsters as they approached could earn me money.
Elation and my own weakness this late in the day sent me sprawling to the ground again. Food would have made a difference. I took a deep breath, ignored Obsidian, and concentrated on a pair of glowing feet around a corner.