Home bothered me.
They’d sent us on our merry ways with the promise to show up next Saturday. That meant three days of rest and recovery after a seven-day hellish run. Our dozens had become five people. Me, Ducky, the girl I still hadn’t learned the name of, Neb, and the healer with green ink.
But as I’d thought many times, home bothered me. I had to avoid Momma and her constant badgering. She yammered up a storm and followed me about the house. She ventured outside after me into the chicken coop. Even the bathroom had no privacy.
“Can’t believe they ran you boys for days. Why, if your daddy had been told to run for that long, I’d sure as hell raise a cane at them.” Pots banged as Momma shuffled.
I took small pleasure in seeing the cabinet doors swing without squealing. The grease had done good.
“Seven days? Seven days of hard labor? Might as well have been back in the mines. And don’t tell me they didn’t get beasts on you boys. There’s always beasts on those trials. Every year.”
I hadn’t told my mother a damned thing with regards to the trials. She simply knew. Be it from failures who’d already washed out, active Rangers, or experience with Daddy, I couldn’t say. We’d reached a point in our relationship where none of those options surprised me.
Yet, coward me, couldn’t ask the questions that really mattered. I feared doing so might drive momma back into hiding.
“Then you were out there with poor Lincoln's idiot grandson. That boy is all brawn and no brain. Not like my son. My boy is a hard worker. Lord knows he is.” She whipped a hand towel through the air, proceeded to dust, and kept rambling.
I struggled to straighten my thoughts. Momma’s voice faded as she bustled around the house. Jenn hadn’t been home at all during my brief recuperation. I wanted to sleep more, but no position felt comfortable for long. My legs ached. Bite marks littered my body. Healing from the green only did so much.
Hard work is going to get me killed, I thought.
“That girl of yours is out caring for one of our neighbors’ yards. Said she’d made a deal to help you out. Been visiting them all week. Comes back with a few goods. Which went right into the stew you ate last night.”
I’d forgotten Jenn had made a deal to borrow a pair of donkeys. Having a Flop help around the property were easily worth more than a pair of asses for a night. I wondered how good Jenn had gotten with her gifts over the years. With a few hours, a single Flop could plant seeds in a garden and have them budding.
In truth, each race altered by The Mountain’s “gifts” had perks and drawbacks. Delvers worked the dirt. They became stonemasons, worked construction, but mostly miners. Flops worked nature. Their kind took care of livestock or fields. Felines were downright predatory and became bodyguards or courtesans. In a way, they formed a weird circle that covered humanity by taking care of the land, animals, and people.
I avoided deep thinking, but three days of bed rest had given me plenty of time to wonder how such a situation could have come about. The fat devil ruling The Mountain might have made sure only certain beasts were spawned. It might have given Rangers power in order to keep humans close.
Then there were the Rangers themselves. If The Mountain had created a self-sustaining ecosystem, what did Rangers do? Army folks said Rangers were scouts and shock troops. That was what I’d heard at the saloon. Everyone speculated.
I spent the days wondering what I’d gotten myself into. With the Eyes of a Man Cassandra had given me, it were too late to get out. The Watchful, Darkness Ward, and Hidden Soul. Each had a role in my eyesight. Running for days had broken down the barriers between that marking and me. I could switch them around with ease, though the cost was my regular eyesight.
Using the Darkness Ward meant bright lights would be like flares, burning my eyeballs. Seeing ink made the world weird, as though there were lines throughout it. Those three Eyes of a Man markings were tied to switches in my head that turned them off or on. The third eye didn’t take over my normal vision though, it simply hid the markings.
Our last test might be worse than the ones prior. I needed to get more comfortable using the long dagger and gun. The combination served me well, but switching weapons took a lot of work. Firing at dogs more than a few feet away were nearly impossible and relied on luck. If I made it as a Ranger, I’d ask for time to practice.
If I didn’t, well, it might not matter what I got good at. The mine would eat me alive.
I sat at the house, fidgeting with my daddy’s gun and wondering about the reason behind all this madness. People questioned how to make money, but there weren’t many who ever questioned the mines. Places like it, according to the churches, had always existed.
Maybe that’s where I should seek my answers, I thought.
There were two types of churches. The temple up top were more about the circle of dependence upon The Mountain than any sort of worship to a God. My goal had nothing to do with the temple.
I couldn’t sit at home doing nothing. My legs and body worked well enough to go to town. There I searched for flyers from the pastor a few months ago. There were a few, and they gave me directions to another location. That was how I found myself standing outside the Church of Fallen Angels.
The building itself were a small postage-stamp-sized home in the woods, almost exactly opposite Cassandra’s homestead. There were a clear view of Chandler’s Field and Butcher Hills. It were as though someone had chosen this plot of land to show how The Mountain owned everything from the hills on down to the town.
Shadows twisted in front of me then formed a man. The marvel set me back on my heels and I put a hand on my gun.
“You lost, boy?” Obsidian asked.
I nodded briefly then lifted my eyebrows.
The small church door slammed open. A man stepped down the two steps while roaring as if God Hisself were spitting thunder behind him. “Listen, you misguided heathen, don’t you stand in the way!”
Obsidian’s shadow form turned, and for a moment, I suspected he’d been surprised. It were hard to tell with the shade and darkness that clung to him closer than wet on a dog.
The man waved wildly while holding up a book. “You’re on God’s door, Ranger! No use trying to hide yourself from his sight or those in his service.”
“If you say so, Padre,” Obsidian responded.
I wanted to know which tattoo let Obsidian follow me around like an overly critical grandfather waiting to swoop in and decry his failure kin. He should have been bothering Ducky. He should have been bothering Neb. Any of them being shackled together would have made me smile.
“Padre, this boy’s—” Obsidian said, but the church leader stepped right into his shadow body while shaking the book. Obsidian’s form fell apart then vanished.
I found myself staring at where Obsidian had been, then at the leader’s pants, which were now in my line of sight. It made no sense. I closed my eyes and sought out an inking that might explain it, but found nothing. Only a dull, unformed haze that looked nothing like the raw material we pulled from mines.
“Cat got your tongue?”
I shook my head.
“You’re Widow Craig’s boy, ain’t you? Heard tell you don’t like speaking much since your daddy done passed away.”
There I stood, gloves over my fingers, Daddy’s hat on my head, and holding a piss-poor combination of hand-me-down weapons. My entire life consisted of living the path of another man, and the thought bothered me. It bothered me like Obsidian’s interest in my actions, even while roaming the town. It bothered me knowing my daddy had somehow been tied to The Mountain.
“Now, son,” the man said while shaking his book at me, “what brings a young man like yourself to our doorstep? A crisis of faith? You seeking answers? I can’t rightly claim to have any, but I’ve been known to lend my good ear to a troubled soul. Wicked souls get the bad ear.”
My mouth hung open then clamped shut. There were no sane way to voice any of the thoughts in my head. What I had might be called a crisis of direction.
“Well. Least you can do after coming all this way is to step inside for a spell and get out of this terrible heat,” the man said with a wave. His hands were more agitated than Momma’s, as if they found staying still to be a crime against God. “Come on. What kind of leader of the faith would I be if I didn’t offer you some small comforts in your hour of need?”
How does he know I’m in need? I asked myself.
He’d already walked up the steps and opened the door. I followed slowly and worried. I hadn’t set foot in a church since Daddy’s passing, though the Temple up on The Mountain’s ridge didn’t exactly function the same. They guarded the sanctity of the dead and the heart of The Mountain.
Inside, tables were set haphazardly along a narrow hallway. Two turns later, we opened into a wide room with a few people sipping from teacups. The pastor smiled and bobbed his head in greeting to the other folks. They waved and eyed me for a spell before resuming their conversations.
He grabbed a plate with his free hand, stacked it on top of the book he refused to let go of, and gathered food from one of the tables. “Help yourself, son.”
I wondered if taking food somehow served as a social obligation. My body still ached from the days of running and being healed by the fellow’s green ink. Any flab I’d had left had mostly vanished as the green used fat for fuel.
Some of the folks were familiar. Chandler’s Field only had so many bodies in it, despite Wellbrook Mines constantly hiring people from all over the country to come work in its hellish depths. I recognized one of them, though where I knew her from didn’t register right away. The girl were younger than me by a few years. A tiny waif with a hint of darkness to her skin. Not black like immigrants brought from overseas, but well-tanned from working outdoors. I struggled to place her while the pastor talked.
“Now, I’d heard tell about you around town. A hard-working lad they say. Though there’s folks who also think your interests lay in a far less morally upright path.”
I glanced back to see he had an eyebrow raised and his head slowly shaking.
“The young Miss Jewel is one of our faithful. Her daddy brought her to be cared for and watched over, away from the wrong sort of folks who might seek to take advantage.” He nodded at the young woman I’d been trying to place.
Suddenly the conversation took on a new light. I understood how the pastor had learned so much about me. He’d been talking with Mister Jewel, Opal’s father. Or perhaps Opal, who knew me in the same way any young child knew about another in Chandler’s Field.
I didn’t know what to think of Mister Jewel needing to protect his daughter. It made sense to have someone looking out for the girl. He’d implied his other daughter had gone on to a “less righteous” job. That reminded me of Lily and our brief time together.
I hope she’s doing okay, I thought.
“Don’t worry, son. You’re only one man, and no matter what Mister Jewel says, it takes a village to raise a child.” He plopped an item onto my plate, then another. “Try some of these pastries. My wife, Annabel, made them just last night. Delicious.” He grabbed a small flaky piece for himself and pinched the crumbs to make them into a ball. That too went into his mouth.
“Honey, I told you not to have too many of those!” the woman sitting with Opal chided. She shook her head.
“Divine, dear, too divine!” He held up his hand and grabbed another pastry for his plate. “Come on, before she gets me into trouble. We’ll sit on the porch. Sunset’s lovely this time of year. Yes, it is.”
He nodded to himself and dodged around two seated ladies, through a doorway, across a small linen room, and used a shoulder to push open the back door.
“Kenneth, I don’t want you back in here gorging on those pastries! And don’t think that circling around from the front with—” Annabel said from behind us. The door closed and cut off the rest of her words.
“Sorry about the missus. She rules the house with an iron fist. As well she should. I get me pulpit from time to time to spread God’s word while she minds my waistline.” Kenneth smiled at me.
I gave back a tired smile. He nodded and sat down, then patted the porch for me to join him.
“So where were we? Ah, Mister Jewel says you’re a quiet boy. Says you have been since the day your daddy passed. Awfully sorry to hear about that, and I wouldn’t speak of it to a soul except you know how the ladies can be. All gossip all the time.” Kenneth grabbed food from his plate. “And while it ain’t right for a boy to become a man without his daddy, the world ain’t kind.”
My food lost its appeal. The pastries seemed dry and the small bits of bacon I’d fished out were undercooked.
“But as a good neighbor, and I know I ain’t your daddy, I’ll help if I can. It’s not only my job as pastor, but it’s what any god-fearing soul should do. But if you’re not the talking sort, then it’ll be hard for me to listen.”
He ate another bite. I had dozens of thoughts in response but said none of them. Sitting there would be just as good as being at home. Momma chattered up a storm as well.
He slammed his knee with a hand and started up again in that thundering hellfire of a voice. “Tell you what, I’ll take a few shots in the dark, and you nod when we’re on to something. Sound good?” By the end, he seemed to remember he weren’t at the pulpit, spouting at a congregation. His tones regained civility.
“Now given the size of this town, and the way gossip spreads, it’d be a fool’s bet to guess at anything but them Ranger trials. You’re aiming to become one, right?”
“Keeping folks safe from the sins of The Mountain, that’s good work. Wanting to join their ranks is a righteous thing. But I can see how a soul might be divided. Fighting the monsters ain’t their only job. Rangers have to fight men too.”
I did not nod to that statement. The righteousness of the task struck me as irrelevant. Fighting monsters or humans didn’t bother me. Not yet anyway. I’d face those trials when the time came.
The bigger worry was ending up another dead soul and leaving Momma behind. During our run, there’d been monsters, a girl had died, and I’d watched the disturbing sight of green ink swimming through my body and others. The thought of failing in my own task set by Daddy knotted my insides.
“You doubt if you’re on the right path?”
Yes, I thought. If it weren’t for needing to get Momma away from town and needing large sums of money to do so, I’d never venture to become a Ranger. There were tons of folks content to simply work about town in their daily jobs. Maybe I could have been a dock worker in Bell Town.
Risking my life and putting those inks on my body were all for Momma, but that reality plagued me too. Each marking felt like selling part of my soul. I’d parcel away my skin one inch at a time while telling myself it were to honor the promise I’d made.
“You’re young. There’s a mile or two of experiences between us. Get older and you’ll see. Children is young.”
My eyebrow raised and I wiggled one finger in a question mark. Too late, I realized he probably hadn’t heard of my hand gestures from any gossip circle.
“You doubt me? I’ll tell you a story.”
My eyes rolled.
Kenneth laughed around crumbs from his pasty, which he wiped off. “Now don’t mistake me, I’m not preaching. I’ll save that for the sermons. But I will tell you a story from when I was your age.”
He had my interest.
“Years ago, ages before I settled in Chandler’s Field, I wandered the eastern coast. Town to town. Did odd jobs here and there. Saw more than I’d ever expected of man’s darker nature. And truth be told, I ventured down a wrong turn or two myself during those days.”
While the preacher had a voice that could call down fire and brimstone on the godless, he didn’t seem to be the weak-willed sort. His admission that he’d taken a wrong turn or two made my face run cold and back itch.
“Now during those days, we were at war with the Empire, which sits back across the ocean. Over tariffs, and taxes, and demands for resources that we’d broken our backs to gather. People didn’t want to pay someone thousands of miles away in exchange for nothing.”
I nodded. History lessons had stopped once I started work at the mine, but we’d learned some of this at the town’s schoolhouse. That war had started almost thirty years ago and ended just before I was born.
“So we went to war. A long war. They sent soldiers over. And I mean young kids. Hardly a day older than you or that girl Opal in there.”
His words set me on edge. I’d worked hard to consider myself a man. Kenneth didn’t care. He wore his years like the word of God and kept right on preaching.
“The war was a bloody thing that ended with us being an independent nation. But that prize”—he said the word as if it disgusted him—“well, it was built by the deaths of idealistic kids who barely knew what they were dying for.”
I pointed at him and wiggled my finger in a question again.
“Was I in the army?”
“No. Not me. My brothers. One fought for king. One fought for country. I suppose it was fitting since they’d never gotten along a day in their lives.” Kenneth chewed his food slowly for a time. “As for me, I worked on the docks of an Empire town on the coast. There I helped load the dead soldiers, those touched by the Lake of Galahad, back onto ships to venture across the ocean.” He waved in a pantomime of a ship sailing off, then laughed weakly.
The food in front of me tasted dry and lifeless. I worked on a few more bites while considering Kenneth’s words.
“Eventually the war ended. Bodies still came, slower but steady. Then I got a letter by post. I ventured home to find my parents weeping over empty graves. Both brothers dead. Didn’t matter which side they’d been on. Some folks think living in the shadow of the angel’s mine is kind of like hell, but they don’t know what war does to folks. Kin against kin? Ain’t right. War is the true hell.”
Kenneth might be right. I hadn’t seen a war, not really. I’d seen monsters and lived in the mines for days on end, only coming up for a small dose of shelter and rest. I’d survived, taken care of my momma, and been out well after sundown. Those were all nerve-racking enough.
“You might ask what this story’s got to do with being a Ranger. Rangers, soldiers, they’re cut from the same cloth but sewn differently. I’ve seen my share of Rangers, and more than my share of dead soldiers. I sat by and did nothing while families were torn apart. I often wonder if I’d chosen to fight, would my brothers still be alive?” He stared at me as if I might have an answer.
I shrugged and cast my eyes downward in shame. It weren’t a sensible feeling, but it still made me flush red. By the time I looked back up, he’d already resumed staring at The Mountain.
“That question drove me thousands of miles across the land. Got away from the coast and came here to the source of all this power. Closest thing we have to God is a fallen angel.”
His words confused me. There were no angels at The Mountain. None I’d ever seen anyway. All that lay in the depths were traps and monsters seeking to eat each other’s hearts.
Kenneth continued. “One day, if I hold the faith, God or The Mountain might see fit to offer me an answer. Did I serve the greater good by simply helping those bodies return home? Or did I fail by not fighting for king or country?” He yawned then smacked his hand on the book he had set down.
I stared at my plate of half-eaten food and poked bits.
“Listen to me spinning a yarn. My manners aren’t what they should be. What about you, son? Feel like talking yet?”
I shook my head. The story hadn’t provided any guidance. It only told me that even in my later years, I might never have an answer to what path to take.
“I’ll tell you what. When you do feel up to a chat, come see me. Like I said, I’ve got two ears and you’ll get the good one for a spell. Answers, I ain’t got many of those, but I’ll listen as well as you listened to me.”
His words had set my mind afire with confusion and concern. The extra worry only added to my growing problems. But a man like Kenneth, who’d clearly pondered the ways of the world more than any other soul I’d spoken to, might have at least one answer I could use.
Some months ago, I’d gotten drunk and tossed rocks toward The Mountain. I’d cursed it for being a fat devil on the throne. The mine itself was a doorway to hell. For months, I’d ventured into its depths and pulled out strands of ink. We laid it into our flesh in pretty pictures and called it art that gave us power. While he couldn’t tell me if I’d been doing the right thing, he could tell me if my soul were at risk.
“Are we cursed?” I asked, then jumped at the sound of my own voice.
Kenneth waited for me to settle down, but I didn’t. Goose bumps prickled my arms. The evening sun reminded me how late it’d become. I had only tonight to ready myself for the next trial and I’d spent the day navel-gazing with a preacher.
“Cursed? That’s not something any of us have a right to say. It’s between every soul, God, and those fallen seeking redemption.” Pastor Kenneth nodded at The Mountain, looming over the town and backlit by sunset. “But you’re not the first to ask.”
He glanced down and set his plate to one side.
“When I helped ship those bodies back across the waters, I wondered if they were sinners. They’d come over to our shores to kill our soldiers. We’d killed them instead. But did their markings make them evil? Their power came from the Lake of Galahad. Stories say he was a knight renowned for his gallantry and purity. Such a place can’t be evil, can it? I like to think not.” He shook his head again and smiled at me.
“Were I to guess, I’d say that what choices you make mark the soul. Not the ink itself.” He gazed across the clearing, over the town, and seemed to be staring eye to eye with The Mountain. “Think about it. When your daddy died, his body and the ink he wore would have been taken back to The Mountain. But his soul? That went to God for judgment.”
His words sounded reasonable but not agreeable. I didn’t believe that The Mountain didn’t have claws in our very souls. But the idea that Daddy’s spirit lay at rest somewhere outside those hellish depths made me happy.
Kenneth hadn’t exactly answered any of my urgent concerns. Honestly, I still hadn’t figured out what my real concerns were. His story had provided me some comfort. There were hope that no matter what I subjected myself to—fighting beasts from The Mountain, getting marked with dangerous tattoos—if I did my damnedest to be a righteous man, then I’d die at peace.
I wondered if the poor gutted girl in the woods had had any peace when she died. The look of resigned exhaustion on her face spoke otherwise. It were as though she’d given up.
I nodded to him, swallowed a lump, then said, “Thank you for the meal.”
That had been the most I’d spoken since completing the seven-day run.
“You’re welcome, young man.”
Home I went.