I didn’t know what’d happened, but one man were unconscious or dead and another beaten senseless. Nibbles’s leg hung at an odd angle that I hadn’t seen on a man outside the medic tents. He might be able to recover, but the cost of a green tattoo were higher than any average marking.
“Get going. I’ll take care of these two,” a third person said.
I turned, and Ranger Obsidian stood near a tree, frowning. He went to Ducky and shook him awake before turning to watch Wan drag the dead body toward Nibbles.
Ranger Ash turned to us and wrinkled his nose. He looked meaner than an angry cat. Blood trickled down his face, and one eye glowed bright yellow.
“Now,” he barked then fought back a snarl. “The rest of us are going to keep running. I’ve decided we’re going to run until there’re only seven of you all left. Anyone else want to make a fight of it? Save us all a trip?”
“What happened?” Ducky mumbled as he scrambled to get off the ground. The haze around him had faded. I assumed it to be a sleeping magic of sorts cast by the person Wan had put down.
I almost spoke, if only to get a fight with Ducky. Then I’d give him a proper beating. Still, it weren’t my place to cast people out of the running. Living in a town where they held the trials allowed me to get lots of information. All of the townspeople gave the same tips. Follow orders, plan ahead, conserve my strength, and survive.
No one volunteered. They were either too afraid or knew those guidelines as well as I did. The real fights would be later. Trials for Rangers involved holding back monsters during a full moon. We’d be go up with the dead and hold off the monsters. That’d be a few nights away yet.
We marched. The Rangers proved to have high stamina, but they too switched to a walk. We ended up with a slow, steady pace until nightfall.
During the remaining run, I asked myself a ton of questions, none of which had an easy answer. What made Obsidian follow us? How long had he been trailing us? Those two who were taken down, were they simply failures who couldn’t cut it, or were it something else?
As a collective whole, none of us had prepared to camp. I’d had enough forethought to pack a few bits of food, but only because of hearing how prior trials had gone. They were about the same every year. Run, exercise, fight each other, but no outright killing.
I suspected the Rangers would have made us leave behind any true camping gear. We were being tested on our ability to survive. Obsidian may have preached about thinking ahead, but over planning were as dangerous as under preparation.
I’d imagined, in the past, some overly eager applicant had showed up with days’ worth of tents, food, and water. Then he’d failed the run. We had to come with light gear. All the inkings in the world couldn’t keep a body up for days, unless maybe we were marked to the gills with battle quality stuff.
Then what’d be the point? People with that kind of strength were already Rangers, or the governor's bodyguards, or even the president’s. They got positions where money were tossed around like raindrops in a monsoon. I couldn’t rightly see how anyone pushed that far without transforming into one of the other races.
All those idle thoughts helped me from utterly freaking out as rain clouds billowed across the night sky. They were low enough to block the stars and waxing moon. I wore my jacket with thin sleeves that’d let in every bit of breeze. It were that, or melt away to nothing under the hot sun.
Our trek continued on the next night. Ranger Ash stopped and made us set up a camp again. We weren’t venturing too far from town. If something went wrong, then they’d carry the failure off to be put back together by a doctor or nurse who knew a touch of greens.
Ranger Ash wandered through the small camp. He passed among our three tiny fires and noted each of us, even ones like me, sitting on the group’s edge, away from the smoke and fire.
“You all decide your shifts. If someone attacks tonight, we won’t save you. I’d suggest you take that to heart and be ready,” he said.
Ranger Wan lay next to the biggest pit and threw on some bits of timber. He had a small stack nearby and propped up large leaves on either side to funnel the smoke. They’d probably catch fire at some point then fall into the blaze.
“You’re up first, mute,” Ducky shouted.
I rolled my eyes and gave him the finger. Ducky could go to hell. Him and those Wildlings that had hovered over him. They might be his parents, but I’d heard they were gone like my daddy. I knew I’d be surly if my parents were twisted creatures. Though I couldn’t rightly say how it’d be if Momma were a Flop.
Damn them all anyway. Them being twisted didn’t give him a right to call me names.
“I’ll stay up with you. Being alone at night in the woods is dangerous,” another person said. Neb Lincoln had a sideways mouth, or at least it seemed that way from the right angle. It’d tilt on one end in a grin that made him look mentally disabled. Given his ability to think, maybe he were.
Disability aside, he had a good point. I nodded. It’d be best if we stayed up in shifts of two. One to watch each side. Though with my markings, it should be easy enough to see any beasts coming upon us.
“You got a mark?” he asked me, his voice slow and childish.
Course I got a mark, I thought. My head bobbed.
“I got a mark. My daddy, Bennett Lincoln, he’s a fisherman. ’Cept my momma, Lizzy Lincoln, says he don’t do nothing but drink all day and scream at the river.”
Shoot me now.
“My daddy, Bennett Lincoln,” he repeated, and I managed to keep my lips buttoned, “he says my mark will make me stronger than two ox fighting over a sow. On account of I could already wrestle one ox. With my hands. Though they got teeth and I told Daddy that ain’t fair. Which it ain’t, but Momma says God…”
There were no creatures moving that I could see. I bundled my jacket tightly then paced, taking in a bit of the fires and throwing logs on the low ones. They were like beacons in the night, but leaving a soul defenseless against the biting cold wouldn’t be right either.
“So my momma tells him to knock it off. Says only idiots and queers stare at another man’s ass for so long. Momma don’t like queers. Says they’re a rude lot and she can’t abide by anyone being able to stick a cock up an asshole like that. She says it ain’t natural, but my aunt disagrees.”
I almost retched in my mouth. Instead, I prayed that God would send us monsters to fight. Or that Neb’s prattling would somehow alienate him from the Rangers. Maybe they had a code against being too talkative at night.
“But Pappy—that’s Lincoln, Lincoln the Third—he don’t like how my aunt’s always fawning on them boys at the dock. Says they’re a gang who take good girls and turn them into whores and Jezebels. Says that’s not God-fearin’. Though Momma—that’s Lizzy, I told you Lizzy, right?”
I felt his big goofy face beaming in my direction. It were as if his smile stayed glued on as he wobbled unevenly, praying the two of us would make eye contact. The best part was Neb managed to keep his mouth shut the entire time he waited. He’d been gabbing more than Momma, Widow Craig, in a church on Sunday.
After fixing up a fire and checking the area with my Eyes of a Man marking, I felt calm enough to nod. It were a sure bet Neb would have moved through at least half a dozen different subjects in a single breath if anyone let him.
“So Pappy, my daddy’s daddy, says if my aunt, Melissa Lincoln, had her way, we’d live closer to Wellbrook Mines on account of the ink coming from an angel and all that. But that doesn’t make any sense since the monsters come out and kill people who ain’t sound asleep in their beds like good little boys and girls.”
Halfway through my shift, Neb, his two brain cells, and his mismatched stories nodded off. I found the silence odd after listening to him ramble for the better part of an hour. He’d happily told me about every single family member he had. Most of the Lincolns were nice enough folks. His pappy—that were Lincoln Lincoln—ran the barber shop in Bell Town.
Neb simply didn’t have a mental filter to stop his mouth from running the thoughts in his brain. It beat Derek Lake’s, that’s Ducky. His mouth and mind had been set on jerk since minute one. Though my own momma would have said that’s just my own sour view on the world.
I wanted to stop thinking for the night, but without Neb awake to drive me insane, there were nothing but darkness. I should be scouting, not just tending fires.
The two Rangers may be asleep, but sure money was on them having a way to keep an eye on me. Either there were other Rangers in the woods, or they were pretending to sleep. Or they expected us to die.
I hated not knowing. That were the crux of my problem. I’d heard all about the trials and known people who washed out. I’d heard tell one in twenty died.
Can’t let it be me, or Daddy will find me in Hell and let me have it, I thought.
I shivered all night, worried about the darker possibilities of my chosen enslavement. There were no monsters on the first night. I couldn’t rest anyway and struggled to wake up another possible. They ignored me or outright refused to take a turn. Ducky were the only one who got up, near dawn, and took over.
By then, I were weary beyond belief. The day had been grueling. The night more so, because of Ned and Ducky and everything else under the sun. I wanted to go home and return to my normal week of work. But I steeled myself against such weakness. Failing on the first night wouldn’t be proper. There could be only one new Ranger, and I aimed to be the sole survivor this round.
We hauled along the paths around town. I couldn’t tell for sure, but we were probably within two miles of the river. Thoughts kept spinning in my head during the next day’s run.
The last few months had been a nonstop cycle of working myself to empty, and it’d be over soon, either way. I reminded myself of that over and over as the miles disappeared during our run. My mind spun tall tales made of other people’s rumors.
Word at the bar had it that not everyone who failed lost out on becoming a Ranger. It sounded closer to a drunken story, along with the two-headed snake eyes being pure rainbow drops. There were tales of a hidden pool of ink to the north a ways, along the border of Slaughter Hills, that sent up worse monsters than anyone had ever seen. Even that were more believable than the belief that one correct merger of markings could transform a person into a secret race, an Angel, like them cast down.
But secretive orders of Hunters? I scoffed. Those were secrets no one had made me privy to, despite a lot of not-too-subtle questions. Might as well believe it were possible to escape The Mountain.
Ranger Ash shouted ahead, “Let’s keep up the pace!”
But none ran with the speed of yesterday.
“You’re out!” Ranger Wan’s voice came from behind.
I jumped and spun. Wan stared at a girl who couldn’t have been more than fifteen. She fell to her knees and cried.
“No! I tried. I got the stupid ink.” She sniffed.
“Better luck next year.”
“How am I going to survive until then?”
Ranger Wan’s face tightened. He closed his eyes and shook his head. The man muttered something I couldn’t hear, but the young girl sobbed.
“I can’t fail!” she shouted.
The girl ran straight toward The Mountain. I didn’t know what she expected to gain by going in such a foolish direction. Maybe she believed town lay that way, but it didn’t. My voice cracked with the effort to speak after our second day of traveling. My rations of water weren’t large. We’d passed by a few wells, and I’d put on bursts of speed so I’d have enough leeway to fill up ahead of Ranger Wan.
If I’d thought ahead of time that we were doing circles around the town, I might have set up pockets of food. Doing so would have required knowing exactly what route we were taking though. My thoughts were hardly on straight.
Hours after the crying girl had run away, we ground to a halt. Even Ranger Ash looked exhausted.
“Find your spots. I’d suggest better camps than the first night!” Ash shouted then coughed twice. He shook his head as if he saw spots then slowly kept his legs and arms moving.
I were quiet but studied them. The Rangers weren’t absolute monsters. They showed signs of wear after two days of solid movement under the sun. The light sprinkle last night had simply made it worse.
Neb found me. “You staying up again tonight, Mister Chase?”
“You staying up again tonight, Mister Chase?” he repeated.
I sighed and glanced around. First watch was as good as any, even during the second night. It gave me enough setting sun to test my vision by and let me keep moving a bit to keep from stiffening.
Tomorrow would likely be hell on earth. My legs burned, and an ache in my back threatened to send me sprawling. I felt the three eyes shutting and opening on their own. There were no perfect way to explain how I knew they were the eyes, other than my eyesight flickering with different films.
Wan and Ash glowed with a deeper type of marking than any of the others. The ink crawled under their skin and connected like rivers running to the ocean. I suspected the depth of their tattoos related to the nature of battle markings.
“You staring at another man? My momma, Lizzy Lincoln, she wouldn’t like that, no, sir.”
I ain’t even made eye contact! I swore internally and shut my eyes tightly. The second night wouldn’t be any easier than the first. We’d closed in on The Mountain’s base. In another few miles, I might be able to jaunt to Wellbrook. If I flunked, then going to work tomorrow would be easy enough.
“Momma can’t stand the gays. Which is strange, because she says her best friend is queer. Back in the city, before she moved here. Daddy said he sure wished she’d visit once or twice, but then Pappy told me it weren’t none of my business.”
“I don’t care,” I said. It bugged me how the dumbest people assumed their opinion mattered one whit because I chose not to scream in their faces. Maybe that would have been a better solution, to tell Neb he were a giant idiot.
“You should. Bet your momma cares about all sorts of things. You ever ask her? Mine tells me, every night I’m at home. Lord knows I could do with living somewhere else. Pappy told me Rangers get to live in mansions and are treated like kings when they’re out of town.”
He probably wouldn’t get a clue fast. Neb wouldn’t understand a hint if the finest ladies of Bell Town whispered it in his ear as a secret password to their pearled gate. I weren’t one to talk. This whole stupid mission to become a Ranger couldn’t be the only way to earn Momma a ticket out of The Mountain’s shadow.
“How many more nights of this running do you think we’ve got? One? Two? Daddy, that’s Bennett, remember?” I didn’t nod, but he continued anyway. “He says the first test is always for endurance. Says he once made it through all the way until the end. The second one is normally a fight. Against someone else. Then they make us stand watch. Up the hill for the full moon. Then they send us down into the mines to survive the nights following the worst of it.”
Oh God. If I spoke out loud, I’d sound just like Neb, I thought. All them words without space to breathe, much less let another soul get a word in edgewise.
“Reckon I could make it through the first phase. Daddy says I hit like a bull gone feral. Should be able to do the second one. But I ain’t going down into The Mountain. I could never abide by the darkness down there. All shadows moving wrongly and stuff. Did a day up at Wellbrook once.”
Midnight couldn’t come fast enough. I’d wake one of the others, and this time not take no for an answer. Failing that, maybe it’d be possible to direct Neb’s unfiltered thoughts.
Eventually he petered out, though I made sure Neb sat with me near a fire as he drifted off. Despite not wanting to hear him talk, the man shouldn’t die in the cold. He had the soul of an idiot and needed the helping hand. Part of it boiled down to me repaying all those who’d assisted me over the years.
I stayed warm by doing laps around the fires, but that weren't enough. The second night’s cold cut through me. My bones were freezing and face numb. Concentrating on using my ink-detecting markings took more work than ever.
Once the moon rose above the clouds, we’d have a new shift for the watch. I’d probably stay awake until the sun rose over the fields toward home. Two nights, and we would likely end up here a third. Neb showed no signs of failing to keep up with Ranger Ash.
If anything, I’d be the next one out. Wan had nearly caught up to me dozens of times. He played games with us throughout the day, and not the kind ones where a boy might toss a ball with their dead father. No, Wan wanted to see who faltered or stopped paying attention as he sneaked by.
God, I hate all this running. It’s boring. It hurts. The complaints went on. They did no good. Still, thinking about them kept my mind alert, and I needed that.
Ash plopped down next to me. His sudden weight shifted the log I sat on. I swallowed back sickness from running on a nearly empty stomach.
“Surprised you’re still in the running,” he said by way of greeting.
I grunted. We were both surprised about that. Having Ducky here served as a souring reminder of what might happen if I failed. Lord knew if he succeeded and I failed… well, I might as well shoot myself with Daddy’s gun. There’d be no living down the shit he’d fling my way.
Insulting Ducky did no good. The last time we’d tussled, I’d lost a day’s pay. That boded ill for me, Momma, and even Ducky.
“How’re your legs? Still good? Should rub them a bit, do stretches. Your pop show you any methods for relaxing?”
He had not. I shook my head but stayed mute.
“Gonna be a rough day tomorrow if you don’t stretch. We’ve been pretty kind so far. But Rangers are expected to be tough. Going to run until the final two are knocked out. Don’t let it be you. I’d hate to have to explain that to Cassandra.”
The fact he sat by me to explain a bunch of useless information were annoying. I couldn’t figure out why a Ranger would bother to inform me of such an obvious outcome. They weren’t on my side, I knew.
“You hear those songs the Delvers sing? They use the same general tone every time. You can tell which group you’re coming up on based on their music,” he said.
Way down we go, go, go, go, go, I thought. And how deep we’ll go, ain't nobody know.
“They sing to ward off the demons of the deeps. Say the songs, if they echo or repeat certain noises, will confuse the monsters. Not true. At least not for the rest of us. But Delvers? They’ve their own magic. “
Harold had told me as much. That their music would carry me to safety. Ash apparently was grasping around a subject he couldn’t seem to leap right into. I stared at the man and waved him on with a hand.
Ash shook his head ruefully and said, “They named you Hound.”
I stared at the man. He’d been out in the sun too long. Signs of baldness were obvious along his nearly shaved head. Freckles poked from under his sleeves, along with thicker arm hair.
“You know your dad was almost a Hound?”
“Wha—” My brain flickered off like one of Poss’s fancy electric lights overloading. The thought continued to stutter and I couldn’t rightly say if Ash’d been yanking my chain as a test or spoke the truth.
Daddy were a miner, I told myself. That fit everything I’d heard and remembered until recently. Momma implied he’d been more, but nothing like a Ranger.
“Ah. Here it is. Another test,” Ash whispered. He stood and patted my shoulder.
I turned, and his body had become dust, or he’d faded away. I couldn’t rightly say, but Ranger Ash were gone.
I looked around. A dozen or so creatures wove through the trees a few hundred yards out. Their forms were wiry skeleton framings that reminded me of a dead dog, but binding the bones together were long threads of ink. The very same material we cleaned up and tattooed into our skin.
There were rules in the mines. If a lookout saw enemies, then they woke the others with a hard pinch. Anything else took too long. In a dire emergency, dirt to someone’s face might work well. It had to be a soft sound though, or the animals might notice and go for the person being alerted.
I shuffled over then pinched Neb. He woke then slapped himself repeatedly while groaning. That made no sense, but I’d done my duty. I stepped over to one of the others, who’d huddled under their jacket.
“What’s it, mutie?” the girl asked.
“I ain’t mute. I value silence,” I whispered. “Like now. Monsters coming.”