She, whoever the girl were, sat up and grabbed a gun’s handle. She fumbled for bullets. I appreciated the action but wished she’d been smoother in the effort to load a weapon.
One hand went for my gun and the other a small hatchet that we’d used to chop kindling. Those weapons might work, but our enemies looked to be undead and made of bone. It’d be better to rely on turning a bladed weapon into a flame dagger like I’d done before. We should have rigged traps.
Ducky had already woken himself before I reached him. He gave me a dirty glare then waved toward the monsters. “Go somewhere else, Chase.”
At least he said my name this time, I thought then nodded. Ducky may be a horse’s ass, but the creatures of ink would eat us all either way. We should be able to put aside our differences for a single skirmish. I hoped.
A quick glance revealed the canines were even closer. They’d spread out in a circle. I wondered if they were the bodies of all those hounds that had once lived at Tattooist Cassandra’s. If she threw them all into The Mountain, they might be.
I kept up the Eyes and watched as they wove through trees. Using my alternate sight proved difficult. The landscape was lit by our fires. I could use another eye to illuminate the trees, but then I’d lose sight of the dogs.
The others got ready in their own ways. Most were able to pick out which way the enemy approached. Three of our companions gathered near the fire. One took a stick and lit it.
As if more fire will scare beasts of ink. The only thing they feared were the sun. Monsters would burrow at night, hide in caves or holes in the ground. Knowing what I did of the refining process, it was more likely the ink dried out in daylight. None of that knowledge helped me now.
“Four left,” the woman called.
“I see two,” Ducky shouted.
“Almost twelve,” I said. My voice cracked at the sudden burst in volume.
Ducky glanced at me for only a moment before facing two dogs tearing through.
My words must have stirred them. They bunched together. Even Ducky backed up. Each of us remaining applicants would have to fight a dog or two.
Ducky touched a spot on his leg where vines circled rocks in a mixture of light green and brown ink. I didn’t know he’d gotten two markings. He had an entire house filled with drying materials so anything might have been possible. The vines flared under his clothes but stayed visible to my other sight. I blinked and switched back to normal for only a second.
The girl pulled the trigger on her gun and hit one dog square in the shoulder. The dog’s body vanished then reappeared to the side. It staggered from where it’d been shot and took a second bullet between the eyes. She were a wicked shot.
I readied my gun in one hand and my blade in another. I felt the cold of the metal creep through the gloves and merge with the black spider web of ink. My rainbow drop on the other hand burned and the blade glowed. But it weren’t red with flame. This time it shone blue and was equally cold.
A wave of emotions hit me then buried under the urgency of battle. I swung in time to catch a lunging dog in the face. Two quick shots with my daddy’s old handgun made the beast whimper. Its paw shriveled and twisted as the creature tried to escape with its last breath. Then it lay still.
“Blink hounds!” Ducky yelled.
As if I didn’t notice.
I’d forgotten one of the simple rules of dealing with creatures from the ink. It gave us powers, sure, but it’d give them abilities too. Some enhanced a person’s nature. Others were downright strange. The blink hounds could shift from one spot to another, only short distances but enough to lunge at someone from behind.
I hadn’t survived in the mines all this time without being able to handle myself against a single beast. That’d been before getting my own marks.
Now, I could follow them. My left eye closed, which helped activate the tattoo. I’d gotten better with them during our two-day run. It’d be weird to walk around with an eye shut for the rest of my life, but if it helped during battle, I’d roam around in the deeps with both eyes closed.
Two more disappeared. I watched as their ink-laden skeletons wiggled through the air to appear in a new location. The sudden change made my heart race. Those two, along with the others, were attacking other would-be Rangers.
One blinked to me, but I was prepared for an attack. The blue edge of my hatchet sank into its suddenly-appearing chest. I’d gotten lucky and refused to let the dog slip away again. The beast wiggled away before I could level my daddy’s revolver. Another person finished the dog off seconds later, using a nasty-looking two-handed ax.
The oncoming monsters were numerous. More approached from behind. I couldn’t tell if anyone else had seen those ones. Ducky had said he had a sight tattoo of sorts, but he looked lost, tussling with a beast boring down on him.
“A second wave comes,” I growled.
Ducky pushed the animal off him and glanced my way with his jaw dropped in surprise.
Even if we took down two a piece, it would leave us all damaged. Wounds only healed quickly for those with green. I’d been lucky to avoid bites by simply seeing them ahead of time. Ducky and the other girl’s wounds bled a nasty black color.
Neb screamed while swinging his ax into another creature’s skull. It split with a solid thunk and a garbled whimper. He grinned at me with his sideways smile. Mixed ink splatters marred the expression.
I pointed behind him. Two more of the beasts were coming and aimed directly at the big man. My skills were limited and I hadn’t had enough time or money for bullets to practice with Daddy’s gun. Given my choice, I’d wait until the beasts were closer, then pull the trigger when they couldn’t dodge.
Using a beefy deformed arm that reminded me of those Wildlings, Ducky hit a dog. I hadn’t seen the twist that had brought on the change, but the sight made me sick because the arm was somehow warped indigo and blacks in a nauseating spiral.
A girl hung on by using a freezing tattoo shimmering with yellow, light blue, and a thread of pink. Three others huddled together and gibbered. One blink hound broke through toward me while two went for the useless trio. I took a deep breath and made a split-second decision between being a good Ranger who did his duty, letting another contender die, and risking my own well-being, which might mean I could fail Daddy.
Somewhere between those possibilities, my body had already made the choice to run for the trio. The dog after me wetly barked and gave chase. My eyesight swam between semi night vision and following the squiggles of color representing ink. The dog chasing me, or another, shifted in front of me. I raised Daddy’s gun and pulled the trigger as it materialized. My bullet caught it square in the skull, and the dog’s body spun away.
I ran with the weapon and attempted to intercept the other two dogs. My gun should have two bullets left in the chambers. I’d afforded enough supplies for two reloads, but the spare bullets were tightly pressed against my back right hip. Running and reloading were not a skill I’d learned. If I did become a Ranger, I’d invest my time in learning to shoot without needing to be point blank.
Regrets came and went quickly. The two dogs moved faster. One latched onto a man’s forearm and ripped into his flesh. He screamed. The two people with him seemed to wake up and pulled away in time. Neither bore inkings I recognized, so I couldn’t tell if they’d be useful.
“While I have it!” the one on the ground screamed. He flopped with his free arm around the dog’s neck.
“What?” a girl screamed.
“Lay back!” Neb shouted. His words were a funny burst of noise that threw me off. The large goof charged past my recent kill and aimed his ax at the one latched onto the man’s arm.
“Fool,” Ducky shouted.
Our small squad had devolved into absolute chaos. I weren’t a leader of men, but someone needed to take charge for the next fight. If we had another one before running out of contestants.
But how could anyone take charge when we were all against each other? I wondered. In a normal situation, it would have been the Rangers’ job to give orders. That’s what they did.
Taking charge, speaking aloud, commanding, those traits were all beyond me. Firing a bullet into the blink dog’s brainpan was within reason. For me, The Mountain’s gift took the form of seeing trouble before it got to others. That’d be my role.
I ran for the other dog. This one moved faster and hopped through the air in short bursts. Each one would have been disorienting save for one fact—I could see where it’d end up.
Neb swung the flat of his ax into the blink dog. It went flying, taking a chunk of the man’s arm with it. He screamed. Neb’s face changed from ferocious to bashful with a quick twist. The man writhed. I saw green on his chest brighten then break apart into tendrils that swam through his body. All that ink squiggled inside the man’s body, setting about the task of healing, no doubt. The vision made me sick to see.
I fought back nausea and swung my blue-edged blade at the next dog. The burning hand, which lit with the rainbow drop, hung onto the blade as it slammed into the dog's midsection. This one refused to slice as easily. Bullets would have been preferred. My weapon did something though, as the dog’s body stiffened then turned blue. Azure from the blade’s edge dripped into the dog. Then the dog shattered around the weapon’s edge like ice shards.
Daddy’s gun came up. Bits of blue and green ink zapped through the air. I steadied my aim to shoot. One of the would-be Rangers swung a stick of fire in defense. Its sudden flare of light blinded me.
The dog’s path got lost in the shuffle. I fumbled, striving to overcome the sudden flare in lighting. Using the darkness-piercing eye and the ink-seeing one, plus trying to keep my normal vision active, hurt my head and made my back ache.
I felt paws push me over.
“Mister Chase!” Ned shouted.
There were more barking in the distance. I got only snippets of the action. The man on the ground clutching his shredded arm. Neb’s giant ax dangerously close to my face. Ducky’s deformed arm pounding the same animal over and over in a rhythmic coil of red inks.
That makes no sense, I thought, staring at his arm. It’d been different colors before, but so had my own rainbow drop palm.
There were lots of issues with inkings that didn’t make sense. I didn’t think I’d ever seen so many abilities activated in one place. The suddenness of it made me feel like a stranger in my own head. Even the pressure at my back somehow muddled into the mix.
But those musings only lasted a second. I spun around. A blink hound’s claws slid and tore through my clothes. Its deformed maw snapped at me and dripped black spittle. My gun pressed into the beast's neck. All the ink in its body formed and wove to make a false sort of flesh.
Then I pulled the trigger and watched as colors, weaving into the common black ink, sprayed. I got a foot into its side then pushed the mongrel away.
Noise about us died off. Neb huffed. Ducky still blindly fought one long-dead creature with a disturbing rage. I found a tree to lean against and scanned for more monsters. Using my sight ached after the abrupt overload. There were lots of places where ink illuminated the ground, but the only things moving were human.
The fellow who’d played bait chattered and clutched his arm. Both legs jerked as he rocked in place. His words were garbled, but he kept mumbling, “Go green they said.”
His arm knotted and twisted as his flesh sewed itself together. Sweat dripped down his face. Neb lumbered over with his ax. I hadn’t even known he carried the weapon, or where. He didn’t have a tattoo for it like Ash’s staffs.
Three or four of the blink dogs had been killed by my hands. I shook and felt near to puking. My stomach muscles were worn and head heavy. There were no time to rest though. I scanned the area for more monsters while fumbling for more bullets.
There were none. I waited, tense and confused. The Rangers hadn’t shown themselves. Wan and Ash had bunked down for the night but were nowhere to be seen. No one showed to offer us guidance.
“What do we do?” the sole remaining girl asked.
There were six of us now. I searched for signs of other people and saw a dead woman over by a tree. Her stomach had been torn to shreds. I swallowed a sour taste and turned away. One hand crossed my chest in a quick prayer. Momma would be upset I’d let someone die, but I hadn’t even seen her. The sight of another dead human reminded me of that tender moment where Daddy had come back in pieces.
“Gather them,” I mumbled while bunching my hands together. “They’ll have to go back.”
“Goddammit, mute,” Ducky said.
“Ain’t mute,” I answered quietly.
Wish I could keep my mouth shut lately, I thought. Dealing with them made me long for quieter days. Once this nonsense ended, I’d probably be saddled with a Ranger for guidance, or back in the mines.
“This ain’t the deeps. There’s no munchkins to order us about. We don’t have to put them back.”
Ducky’s quacks of protest had no place in this fight.
“Rules,” I whispered.
Things were that way for a reason. Everything about The Mountain said one simple fact. What came out had to go back in. If it didn’t have to go back in, then why did Daddy need to be sent down below? Why else would he want Momma out of the area? He’d feared the longer she lived here, the sooner she might give in.
I scanned again and caught sight of Ranger Wan walking back. His markings were more obvious. The distinctive chest tattoo lit like a grinning face. I’d only really taken note of it while we camped, and even then it’d been with weary eyes. The running hadn’t left me much room to ponder more than putting my feet in front of each other.
I held the gun and let my shaking die down. I checked myself over for any spots where the ink might have tainted me. There were no signs of issues. One benefit to fighting above ground was that the monsters rarely came with the ability to poison. Their bodies were too long out of the pools.
By then, Ducky and the others had gathered the dead. Despite his protests, Ducky knew the rules. I fumbled for one of the beasts, but the man who’d picked green waved me off.
“You don’t have a green?” he spoke a question that felt more like a statement. The man pointed at my side where the dog had torn into me.
It ached, but I’d been hurt worse. I shook my head. Delilah, one of the head nurses up at Wellbrook, would want me to get stitches. She’d be upset by the state of affairs for all of us.
“You and that ox killed the most.” The man thumbed toward Neb.
Neb sat on a log with his ax and stared off into the trees. He seemed like a lost soul, wondering about his purpose in life. I’d bet Lincoln Lincoln, his pappy, would have a thing to say about all this.
“Hold still. I’ll fix you up.”
I rubbed my thumb and fingers together. The man raised an eyebrow.
“Price?” I asked.
“Twelve hundred dollars for this inking. Allows me to heal myself or someone else. Three times a day. Makes me hungrier than a room full of teenage boys,” he finished with a weak laugh.
That hadn’t been my question. It did tell me his one marking cost about twice what I’d originally been saving. We could have bought a house for that price.
My stomach heaved in a dry cough. “Why?”
“In case more show up. You can’t be bleeding.”
He pressed a hand into my back, and I swallowed. His skill sent green tendrils flowing through my skin. I could see them, and dry revulsion crept up my stomach. It would have been better if Cassandra had given me any other marking.
Our failed companion got a bit more reverence than the dead blink dogs. She were pulled from the tree and laid flat. A jacket was placed over her.
“Almost done. Hurts a bit. Feels weird. Never thought I’d get a mark on me,” the man behind me muttered.
I wondered why Neb wasn’t over here babbling up a storm, but it seemed we each felt differently about the fight.
Wan nodded at the pile. He walked over to the deceased woman and closed her eyes. I watched their interaction instead of focusing on the man in overalls who was sacrificing his ink’s power to patch me together. It should recharge by tomorrow.
“We’re going to run. Then once all is said and done, those left will be headed up The Mountain to take her back to her final rest,” Wan said.
“Who’s going to watch over her?” the sole remaining female asked.
“I’ll be watching over them,” a voice in the shadows responded.
My head jerked to the side. Obsidian stood over the dead woman. He shook his head slowly. I tucked away the revolver, sure it wouldn’t be needed again tonight.
The man healing me pulled away. There were a sudden sucking sensation as the mark he’d been using on me stopped. I glanced down at my torso to see if there were any lingering effects. Bits of the green faded as they were absorbed by my body. Their vanishing didn’t comfort me any.
My healer had one more use left today. The others didn’t appear wounded. He wandered around to the rest of our small group and searched for someone to help.
By sunrise, we were running again, with much less urgency. The two Rangers kept a slower pace. Their mission had been accomplished. We were down to the few people required.
Night four went quietly. Neb had stayed in the running, as had Ducky. There were three others, bringing us to a total of six. They weren’t eliminating us anymore. They were testing endurance. The two Rangers were going to work us to death, then set us on the next level of Hell.
I stared at the forest floor. Exhaustion surely, or the dead of night and lack of other sights, or delirium, made me see things no man should rightly see. Down there, far away in the distance, glowed a river of ink. No, it weren’t like a river running downstream. It resembled veins flowing outward and breaking apart to take over the landscape.
“What you starin’ at, mute?” Ducky’s abrupt words made my body flush with a chill.
“Nothin’,” I said.
“And there. He speaks again. You’re on a roll. I count almost twenty words out of you in two nights. Yet two months at the mines and you barely speak ten.”
That couldn’t have been a river of ink below our feet. Not so close to town, surely. It were more likely to be me mistaking my own veins in my foot for that fat mountain king’s influence.
That conclusion amounted to an even worse idea. Should I be afeared of The Mountain reaching so far toward home? Or should I be more scared that the very ink which had enslaved us ran through my blood?
“How far are we?” Ducky’s voice sounded heavy and tired.
Ranger Ash’s arm moved out of the corner of my eyesight. He stirred the fire with a stick.
“How long does the rest take?” Ducky responded.
“As long as it takes. It always takes as long as it takes,” Ranger Ash responded.
Range Wan snored loudly.
Ash walked laps around the few of us remaining. We had two different fires. I knew myself and the night heat well enough to know fires were pointless. The flickering flames would stir any monsters still in their holes.
Four nights. That was how long we’d been out here, running laps during the day until people were sick or gave up. Three hellish cycles of the sun while under The Mountain’s gaze. When we sat at night, I struggled to ignore the veins of ink flowing all around us. The Rangers’ markings stood out under their clothes.
Knowing their nature wouldn’t do any good unless we needed to fight. I stayed sane by contemplating the effects I’d seen against the colors they bore. Greens were nature-related, with enhancements to plants, healing, and the physical senses. Blues were sky and water but stayed element focused. Occasionally a marking could cast illusions, but those were rare outside of the Rangers’ battle markings.
Red meant fire and incited emotions. It were basic and brutal, often sweeping an unaware person aside in seconds. Yellows were soft magics. The colors went on, all across the rainbow’s spectrum. Nearly all had blacks mixed in, more so than any other hue.
I stared at my own markings and attempted to understand how they fit in. The rainbow drop had left a spider web of all colors, which meant it’d go any which way apparently. A wild card maybe, but it’d lit a knife aflame then made it cold. The Heart Seeker on my other hand let me track inked monsters.
Then there were the eyes on my back. I didn’t know what color they were. I’d bet blue or yellow. Once I found private time with a mirror, I could inspect them more. That’d help me identify what inks they were based on and might help me figure out the side effects. God knew there were always a cost.
We were paying our own prices now. Neb stayed quiet during our remaining runs and bedded down at night. He curled up under a thin covering and ignored all attempts to rouse him for watch. I wondered if it was a side effect of his strength.
“Just handle it, Chase. I’ll take the morning watch. Don’t mind them not helping out. It simply proves we’re more useful,” Ducky shouted across the single fire kicking off enough heat for us all.
I nodded. He did have a point. If we were pulling more than our own weight and still going, it had to count for something. What, I didn’t know. Ducky poked the fire, set kindling aside, and nodded to himself. His stomach growled, but we were all in need of food.
There might be a link between his arm, which had showed multiple colors, and my own rainbow drop. I worked my way over and whispered quietly, “Your arm…” I couldn’t figure out how to politely finish. “Changed.”
“So it did, mute.”
“How?” I asked.
“Where’d you get your gun?” he responded.
Having a question answered with another question from Ducky made my stomach knot.
“My daddy.” The words hurt to say. Daddy’s passing had been when my desire to talk had dwindled to nothing.
“There you go,” he said. “Your dad gave you a gun. Mine gave me an arm. Hand-me-downs. Like everything around here.”
He rolled over in a clear dismissal. I took the hint and walked back to my post, where I kept lookout with only thoughts to keep me company. Maybe Ducky and I were somewhat alike, as Delilah had said. We were both boys raised in The Mountain’s shadow. His daddy might be that big twisted Wildling from nights before. Of course, Delilah had said Ducky’s parents were taken. My daddy might have been more than a worker in the mines, as hinted at by Cassandra, Ranger Ash, and Momma.
I took the first watch and thought about what a future with the Rangers might really mean. Hardwood had said most would-be Rangers didn’t even realize what they were getting into.
Hardwood, Ash, Wan, Obsidian, and Tawny were all the same in a respect. Well, alike enough to notice one thing. They were hard people. Though a better label might have been firm, or tough buggers. Even Cassandra, who somehow held a position of respect and leadership, were a tough lady. They weren’t like miners or the rough boys from the docks of Bell Town. This hardness meant more.
Could I ever be that tough? I asked.
I’d survived the first stages of the testing. Our next test would be far more taxing. Heading back up The Mountain to drop in a body wouldn’t be too difficult, at least not if we got a day’s rest before then.
My legs hurt. I rubbed them and worked on knots. A waxing moon crept along the sky. The dead were somewhere behind us, watched over by the grumpy curmudgeon known as Obsidian.
It’d be hours before I could truly rest. Hound, Cassandra had called me. It fit more now than I’d ever suspected. There were monsters in the hills, and I had to keep a lookout.