“Jenn. Jenn?” My head hurt. One arm jerked in a habitual question mark.
“You delirious? A bad sign if you’ve been marked and get sick in the head. But consider it a test. You’re stranded. Overloaded. What do you do?”
I shook my head, which made the pain spike. The knots in my shoulders kept up their damned aggravation. Clenching my eyes tightly drowned out the extra images. The Feline fornicating upstairs in a building faded. But there were still lit up areas that should have been filled with shadows.
“And now you’re closing it all out. You think that’ll help? Do you think you’ll ever learn by ignoring the world around you? We can’t expose a closed mind to this life even if Cassandra wanted us to.”
Obsidian, asshole that he was, winked in and out of my sight. Having my eyes closed didn’t help block his shadow. It pierced everything in waves.
“Why…” I drifted.
“Stupid boy,” a much more feminine voice said, with the exact same insulting tone as Obsidian.
Jenn stood in the same spot as Ranger Obsidian and it were unfair. I looked at her face. Which meant that I’d be glaring somewhere a touch more crass upon the haggard Ranger.
“Why aren’t they looking at you?” I asked the shadowy man.
The shorter woman answered. “No one cares. A tiny Flop like me gets passed over. Poor clothes. Somebody's pleasure slave.” Jenn’s lips tightened. She turned away, and the dark figure of Ranger Obsidian stepped forward.
My eyes crossed, and I felt absolutely overloaded. He lit up like an ink-made creature. A swirl of darkness bubbled and reflected every color in the rainbow. Black overlaid and danced around reds and greens.
“Why’d you come out here? By yourself? Shopping? What for? Nothing here any of us need.” Jenn fired rapid questions, and I couldn’t figure out how to address her questions or the shadow man’s.
“You’re in over your head boy. What do you do?” Obsidian asked.
The damn Feline upstairs kept up his pelvic thrusting. Closing my eyes weren’t preventing me from seeing anymore.
“You ask for help,” the shadow answered his own question.
“Ask for help,” I dumbly repeated.
“Who’d help you?” Jenn sniffed and her large foot tapped nervously. Small whirls of dust from a dry day fluttered. I sneezed.
“Independence is all well and good when it comes to taking a piss. But out there in the field, with them demons of ink against you? Stubbornness will get you killed. If you want to work with the Ranger, then you need to learn now, none of us are alone.” The midday shadow faded with a few parting words. “Ain’t none of us who can do our jobs without someone there for us. You’d think a miner’d know.”
Quit your preaching, I thought. He’d berated me for relying on Jenn to get to The Mountain’s top; now he badgered about not asking for help. Nothing made the man happy.
Still, much as I hated to admit it, the Ranger were right. A smarter man would have asked for help. Since Daddy died, I’d simply gotten used to doing everything myself. Earning money, cleaning clothes, fixing the livestock, or anything else that needed doing. Maybe Momma were to blame for falling apart like she did. I couldn’t rightly say if it were fair on either of us.
Yet in a few days, that’d changed. Jenn had worked the garden and animals. Momma had cleaned the house. I had money to spare and my marking. My world had flip-flopped onto its head.
I shook myself slowly and cast my gaze toward the ground. Jenn’s furry feet wiggled and flexed. Flop’s toes were a strange mix of human and rabbit, which threw off their posture a bit, making them stick out their butts. I couldn’t let myself take note of Jenn’s form right now. Not when I were half broken.
“Can you help get me home?”
Jenn sniffed. Her foot twisted at the heel as she ground a hole. The young woman could use a pair of shoes too. Flops had all sorts of accessories made for their body postures. Felines had even more, preferring jewels and dangling threads over actual clothes.
“Come on. Stupid man. Bullheaded as all get out,” Jenn said.
I lifted my gaze and noticed she’d already bundled all the items under each arm. My head shook at the unfairness of it all. Maybe in a few more tattoos, assuming the ones I had didn’t kill me, I could match her strength or exceed it. My first few markings weren’t useful for physical enhancements though. Better sight, weapons, and finding were useful, but not as good as pure brawn.
Jenn moseyed on. I managed to get myself upright and staggered after her. We crossed the town square. Ahead, miners got off one of the evening stagecoaches. Most headed straight for the saloon. I eyed the crowd, seeing an assortment of tattoos buried under layers of clothing. Nearly everyone had at least one marking.
So many, I thought. Far more than I’d expected, especially among the mining crews.
“Slaves. Stupid men. Indentured to the mountain,” Jenn muttered. “All of them thinking they’re smarter than those who came before. None are. It’s doom, letting the ink touch you. There’s only one end to it all.”
I shook my head again and turned to the Flop. She’d been pacing along with me with more items packed under her left arm. It put her burden on one side.
“Stupid men,” I muttered. “But what else is there?”
There were no other ways to earn the kind of money needed to get Momma away. Being inked gave me an edge. Poss and her husband had piles of cash, but I couldn’t simply be rich. For the poor, few options existed other than hard work and self-sacrifice. At least, there were no other ways I knew about.
“Just gonna die here. Like every other man. Dying a slave to another’s power.” Jenn resituated the bags.
The Flop and I continued, and I realized it didn’t matter much. She’d die here. I’d go down into the shimmering pool of colors one day as well. In the end, we’d all return to The Mountain.
I sniffed then managed a slight smile. “Don’t matter. Either you or I go, but we’ll end up the same. But momma? I promised daddy I’d make sure she makes it out without being tainted. Free of this.”
“Stupid,” Jenn said. “But good.”
My arm lifted and weakly gestured a question mark.
“You can be stupid. And good.” She shrugged then moved ahead faster.
I felt better without carrying the extra material. Keeping up was impossible, but I tried. It took hours to make it home. Jenn ran ahead with her burden then came back for me.
Jenn had helped with both the purchased items and my own weary form. The assistance meant a lot to me. I resolved to make sure Momma didn’t pitch a fit about having an ink-turned human in her house.
That goal might be easier than expected because Momma and Jenn spoke at the door. What they said were beyond me, because at that time, I started to pass out.
I spent the next four days in bed. I ate little and kept my eyes closed. The single day in town had overloaded me, wore out my body, and taxed strength I hadn’t had to spare. The ladies even arranged for a ride back into town, barely in time for the Ranger trials.
Proven Rangers lined us up and it were all I could do to follow orders. My weary body pushed along despite protests. They put us in a small field a mile outside the sheriff's office. A pitiless midday sun baked the ground. I stood in a long line with two dozen other hopefuls. We were nowhere near the shade. Two Rangers with grumpy, flat expressions paced down the line. They had a box and were gathering hats.
“We’ve got to give up our covers?” an applicant farther down asked.
It were a valid concern. My daddy’s hat currently protected me from a murderous sun.
“Or quit now and save me time,” the Ranger I hadn’t met said. He wore red boots dusted by the road.
No one intended to quit this early, especially not over a hat. From what little I’d gathered over the years, there were worse requests in store for us. Ranger trials were long, intensive, and often broke those unprepared. I couldn’t worry about them when I had my own tribulations to overcome. Surviving the testing while weary would be hard enough.
Ranger Obsidian already hated me. Tawny disapproved, and Hardwood could go either way. I couldn’t rock the wagon and risk being passed over. If I failed, it would be another year before they allowed an applicant to join their ranks.
Unless war arrived with the Saracons over the hills. We owed our allegiance to this side of the mountain range, and the government would call for all the fighters in the country to save us. I hoped never to see such a war in my lifetime. Daddy had spoken poorly of the last battles.
“Hat!” the Ranger in front of me shouted.
Belatedly, I realized he’d been repeating himself for some time. I swayed then reached a hand up to my cover. He snatched it away and shook his head. Ranger Obsidian, complete with hat and heavy coat, walked behind the other man while shaking his head.
“Another loser for the pile,” he muttered while walking off.
Well done, Chase, I told myself. Great first impression.
The man traveled to the next hopeful. They weren’t competition, not exactly. Based on my studies, the Rangers might choose a handful of people, or none at all. Most years they took only one, so that’d been the rule. They played by their own rules and no one outside their group knew the reasoning. I suspected it had to do with being “hard” enough.
After my week with the new inking, which was supposedly a battle tattoo of some sort, I understood. It took a strong mind to make these markings work. That couldn’t be the same for every single tattoo. One of the men in line, a dim-witted fellow by the name of Neb Lincoln, couldn’t rub two brain cells together unless someone counted them out and did the actual rubbing for him.
I weren’t one to talk. Counting to four, maybe three, would be difficult. The sun served to turn my face into a pool of sweat. The clothes and gun I’d inherited from Daddy were loose, and I wanted to fidget a bit to get a breeze along my back. The weight of a pistol made me feel off-kilter. My vision switched wildly, and I reassured myself the gloves were on properly.
“You will do exactly as you’re told.” The Ranger had a closely trimmed beard and very little up top. He wore no hat. “Now, some of you are new this year. I’ll be clear—this goes on for as long as it takes. Everything you do will be measured, weighed, and judged by the Rangers administering the tests.” His voice grew closer. “Your opinion does not matter in the slightest.”
My only options were to suffer and do my damndest, or quit now and go back to the mine’s depths. I told myself that over and over as the man marched down the line. He might have been military before becoming a Ranger. Army men had joined, but Rangers served one master before all others.
“Those are the only warnings you’ll get.”
The man with a balding head stopped in front of me. I swallowed, lifted my chin, and reminded myself not to lock my legs. He pulled back a cheek and shook his head at my entire form. His face kept growing fuzzy while my other vision tried to pick up what markings he had under the brown shirt. Two polearms along the insides of his arms glowed red and blue on the tips.
I’m too tired, I thought.
Muscles on my leg were shaking. Standing took a lot of effort.
The Ranger in front of me shook his head again then walked toward the line’s end. He lifted an arm to his chest. “My name is Ranger Ash. Everything you are asked to do, I will be doing. We are fair. Whining about unfairness will not be tolerated.”
I could tell he’d heard people argue about the tests before. There were a few failures in the Wellbrook Mines who liked to grumble.
“Now, follow me. Do not pass me. We’re going to be running. Anyone who lets Ranger Wan pass them will be considered a failure.”
I turned to see the other fellow. Ranger Wan was a sickly looking man who shivered despite being under the hot sun. Beads of sweat formed on his head. He looked to be in worse shape than me, but he also had a full array of tattoos under his clothes.
My eyes closed briefly to blot out the extra images. The markings across his chest weren’t for strength. They probably tied into his lungs or endurance. Tattoos normally impacted the area they were close to. That remembrance made me wonder why eyes on my back had anything to do with the images I saw.
“Come on. We’re going until enough of you drop, or I do.”
Two dozen people would end up being ten, if we were lucky. I shuffled forward and reminded myself this were the route to freedom. From needing to take care of Momma, from needing to honor my promise to Daddy. The best answer was to pace myself. This test should focus on endurance, not being too eager.
As a mine worker, I didn’t have much extra flab. Only lean muscle from hours of running the trolleys back and forth. But miners weren’t the only sort to work tough hours. Field hands, army members, and the tumbling boys of the Bell Town docks were all rough.
Three people surged ahead of me. Ducky passed me quickly. For a few days, I’d forgotten about his existence. Ranger Ash pulled farther ahead. His path went straight down the road, and I wondered if we were going to jog all the way to the next town. The first mile weren’t too hard, but after that, my body started to flag.
A chunk of daylight later, Ranger Wan passed the first person. I heard their complaint behind me but couldn’t spare them the attention. They were too close. Immediately after, a few hundred yards ahead, Ranger Ash turned into a wooded area. My own body limped forward.
Ducky’s ability to hustle bothered me the most. He was up there somewhere but had become obscured by distance. It were likely the blue inking, or maybe he’d gotten a green somehow. That could have helped me heal faster, which would translate to endurance.
“Hustle, come on,” our leader shouted. “Just two million more miles to go!”
Surely you’re kidding? I asked silently. My lungs heaved for a real dose of air. The ground became uneven and harder to travel.
“Yes, sir, Ranger Ash!” Ranger Wan answered.
I turned to see Ranger Wan keeping a leisurely pace behind us. I squinted as we passed through the woods. There were no monsters out, but it were possible some might pounce on us at any moment. We kept on moving. Thankfully, our speed lowered in a shaded area.
“You’re out,” Ranger Wan shouted.
“Ranger Ash, I believe we have a dissenter!”
“Everybody, halt!” Ranger Ash’s voice carried through the trees.
We’d been running for hours in the hot sun. Any demand to stop moving was welcome. The others slowed, and our spread group gathered in a clump. I’d lost track of those being passed by Ranger Wan but there were still a lot of people remaining.
I bent at the waist and sucked in deep breaths. Ranger Wan kept moving slowly. His arms and legs rolled as he cooled down. I struggled to emulate the motions but wanted to pass out. Being inked with a major tattoo had me worn for days and this weren’t helping.
Jogging made aches spring up. Everything hurt. It weren’t right to suffer this kind of abuse. But no one’d ever said being a Ranger was a luxurious life. Money they had in piles. Trials and tribulations they had in spades. Ease they had none.
Ranger Ash strode toward Ranger Wan and the man he’d declared a dissenter. “Nibbles, right? Nibbles the Third.”
The man Ranger Wan had called out tightened his face and frowned. He wore lighter clothes bleached by hours under the sun. Rivers of sweat trickled down his face, and a hint of a tattoo sat on his neck. I concentrated for a moment and felt my other sight kick in. Colors and ink-drawn markings showed, but his looked wrong somehow. As if it had a smell that could be conveyed through sight.
“What’s my name got to do with this?” Nibbles asked.
“Well, Nibbles,” Ranger Ash said, “a name is important. You become a Ranger, and your old name goes away. It gets buried under the duty of your new one.”
“I heard. All you Rangers call each other after a color.”
“That we do. Where you from, Nibbles?”
I couldn’t rightly say how Ranger Ash knew the man’s name was Nibbles the Third, yet didn’t know where he’d come from. New recruits filled out paperwork, but I couldn’t remember none of that. It were possible Momma or Jenn had done it for me.
“We got two choices. You can either shut the hell up and walk away.” Ranger Ash thumbed over his shoulder toward the rest of us. “Or you can fight one of the other possibles to get a spot back.”
“What if I want to fight you?” he said.
“Try it. Because if you beat me, you’re in. You fail and I suspect your legs will never work—” Ranger Ash’s words were cut off as the angry failure leapt at him.
The man moved weird. Dark blue trailed after him and the tattoo under his clothes lit up. He weren’t fast, not exactly, but he felt wrong. His body were in a few places at once, which confused my noggin.
Ranger Ash snorted and put one foot behind him. His polearm marking, the one tipped in blue, flashed.
I closed both eyes and shut off my extra sense granted by the Eyes of a Man tattoo. My mind wandered. Thinking of anything but my tired legs helped me move forward. These markings might not be useful for fighting monsters that Rangers were famous for hunting. I had to figure out what my strengths were.
Ranger Ash and Nibbles fought. I wanted to concentrate on watching how inked men battled each other, but I could barely focus on my own well-being. Each breath took more effort than the last. It weren’t fair to be enduring the Ranger’s trials after being done in by Cassandra.
I spent the first few seconds of their scuffle catching my breath. I sincerely believed Ranger Ash wouldn’t kill the man, since the entire point of these trials were to be a test. My mind wandered, because one of these tests would be fighting ink born beasts. Some of those monsters got downright crazy. Though the bear and messed-up mice were straightforward enough.
A thunderous crack made us all jerk our heads in surprise. Ranger Ash had skid marks under his feet from where he’d been pushed back. The blue-tipped staff in his hand dimmed briefly before resuming a normal glow. He wiped his jaw.
“Nibbles, my ass,” Ranger Ash said then laughed. “You can nibble my ass, Nibbles! Might have been more effective than that pathetic punch. Come on, I ain’t on the ground yet, and your legs are still working.”
Nibbles stooped and grabbed rocks from the ground. He flung them, which made Ranger Wan nod. Ash swung his staff, turned his face slightly, and braced for impact. A trail of ice formed like a smear behind the blue stick’s tip.
I wondered what a trail of fire would look like. Such an item would be dangerous here in the woods. Ranger Ash must have known. I wondered if he’d decided to fight in the woods as some sort of handicap. It were also possible the ice would have melted under the hot sun, because even in these woods, it still faded quickly.
Such thoughts entertained me while rocks pelted into Ranger Ash’s thin shields. The rest went through and hit him in the face. Streaks of blackened mud lined his features. A smell of rot washed over the area.
“Rot?” Ranger Ash said. “Fighting dirty, okay. I can do that.”
“If that’s what it takes,” Nibbles responded.
I couldn’t understand the markings under Nibbles’s clothes. They didn’t fit normal ones around town. Wrong were the kindest word for them.
“It’ll be all right, Chase. Now’s the time to get used to this,” Ranger Wan said.
I blanched. He’d stood right next to me the entire time. I wiggled my fingers in a question, and Ranger Wan’s face tightened. He didn’t understand my signing.
Being silent couldn’t help me during these trials, so I swallowed and asked, “You mean fights between inked?”
Ranger Wan’s voice lowered. “Worse still. Fights between inks.”
Like there’s more than one kind? I thought. My blood ran cold as the realization hit me. It felt wrong because it weren’t from our mountain. That ink had come from somewhere outside of Wellbrook Mines.
Do all Rangers fight other types of ink? It made me wonder a whole host of questions.
“We don’t have all day, Ranger Ash,” Wan said. “Remind him we’re elite for a reason.”
Some of the others looked surprised. I figured them for out-of-town folks who’d never seen a Rangers’ fight. I had seen ’em battle monsters. I’d bet a few would drop out after seeing the creatures roaming tonight. Didn’t matter how many got cleared out, some always survived.
Life near The Mountain weren’t easy. Momma herself had lots of practice setting traps and killing the weaker monsters that made it as far as the homesteads. When she woke up enough to do her duties around the house. But woes over my family issues were for another day.
Ranger Ash’s ice-formed trails blocked most of the projectiles tossed by Nibbles. Those that made it through left dirty streaks that crumbled his clothes. The smell worsened. Ranger Wan shook his head.
They exchanged more blows. Ash pushed back Nibbles. Every pass made Nibbles’s face uglier. His face were a poster board of emotions. Anger, unhappiness, and worry. Nibbles kept attacking, but Ash didn’t care.
Nothing Nibbles did left a lasting mark. Even the rot spots faded. I didn’t have my other sight on to check for a green, but he must have it somewhere. Green healed. Ash simply endured. It were as though the attacks were useless.
What on God’s green earth would be the point of a non-lethal attack? I couldn’t figure out what Nibbles intended to do with his strikes. The rocks, his fists, even feet, they left a filthy smear.
Then it hit me. Those weren’t from Nibbles—they were from Ranger Ash. His body were literally ashing somehow when he got struck, then it simply reformed. I’d seen some strange effects with markings, but that were utterly new.
What sort of marking lets a body turn to ash?
I closed my eyes to bring up the markings again. His red stick still sat under a sleeve, not activated, and only visible when his body twisted toward me. Nibbles’s few markings were doing something as well, giving him a weird, janky shadow movement and streaks that collided harder than any normal fist should.
They connected again. Nibbles had slowed down, worn by the prolonged fight. This time, Ranger Ash jabbed his stick right into Nibbles’s gut. The man doubled over, and Ash’s stick struck him on the back of the head. Down Nibbles went, face first into the ground. Ash grabbed Nibbles’s hair and pulled a clump. The failure’s back bent, and his face twisted in pain. I leaned in as Ash spoke.
“I know where you’re from,” Ranger Ash said with his lips pulled upward like a growling dog. “You still fight like one of them. Sloppy. You’d think you hadn’t been properly trained.”
Ash stood quickly then struck with his foot. Nibbles cried out as his leg snapped. I struggled to understand what the Ranger had meant by all his accusations. Nibbles attempted to get away, but his leg didn’t work anymore. The limb flopped as the man struggled to escape. Instead he ended up in a half ball shape, whimpering.
“I think that’s a clear enough message.” Ash dropped the blue-tipped short staff and it vanished into the air before even hitting the ground. I checked my other sight quickly and noted it’d returned to the original tattoo location.
So he can summon weapons. Must be how Ranger Hardwood pulled that gun out of nowhere, I thought.
Nibbles shook and kept his body in a ball to ward off further attacks that never arrived. Ash stepped away and turned toward the lot of us. His eyes flashed to the ground, and he wrinkled his nose.
“Sleeping on the job. His parents weren’t much better.” He rolled his eyes and shouted, “You got him, Wan? Or do you need me to do that for you too?”
I blanched and looked toward the quieter, less assuming Ranger. He had someone in a choke hold. The other person struggled to get an arm up and pat markings on his neck. Wan’s body jerked to one side, sending them both sprawling. There was a crunch as the man in a headlock yelled. His arm stopped moving and bent all wrong. Wan twisted again, finishing the job.
“Done,” Wan said.
As for the fellow sleeping on the job, Ash must have meant Derek. There Ducky lay on the ground, snoring. My other sight flickered on long enough to see he’d been swallowed up by a yellow haze of sorts.