The quietness and crickets set my teeth on edge. There were a heavy dampness to the night, along with a spark of something that lit up my nose with zinging energy. The still air felt like the calm before a storm.
Ranger Obsidian chose to leave me be. Perhaps his shadow couldn’t form in any distinct manner. I saw no signs of ink-spawned magic with any of my eyes. Jenn’s long Flop ears were equally absent. For a moment, I missed being called stupid. It would have meant life were normal, that I didn’t sit at the crossroads of change. Tomorrow, Saturday, would mark the final stage of everything I’d worked toward in this last year.
I sneaked into the house, slipped past Momma sleeping in her armchair, and took off my shirt. Daddy’s hand-me-down clothes were folded into a neat pile then put on a chair by the door. I tucked myself into bed. My hand rested on the warm, soft fur of a blanket I couldn’t rightly recall, then sleep sucked me under.
I woke to a scream followed by a heavy thud of noise. Neither sound fully registered as the room shifted through gray-scale, then a strange overlay where a ball of fuzz rocked in a corner, and back to normal vision. Days on edge in the woods made my brain slow to register anything.
Sunrise poked through a window. Pain at my side kicked in, and I reached down to find my calf had thick scratches oozing an angry red. My stomach felt itchy but warmer than it should this early.
I followed the wake of disturbed blankets and a knocked-over chair to the bundle huddled in one corner. Jenn rocked, naked as the day God made her except furrier. She pulled at my folded shirt and attempted to keep her face covered.
“Stupid girl. Stupid, stupid girl,” she muttered quietly. Her arm jerked into the sleeve. “Not Saturday. Saturday.”
My vision frizzed briefly, mixing overlays of the room. Dark spots brightened, and the sunbeam coming through the window turned into a font of fire. Those blurred apart and the markings on my hand faded out of view.
“Jenn?” I mumbled while rubbing one eye. “Were you in bed?”
My chest and body felt weak. I needed more rest, but part of me figured that’d be a useless goal. Today, the other four and I would report back at town. There we would join the escort of dead bodies being returned to The Mountain.
The bedroom door banged open. I rocked from the force and struggled to open my drooping eyes. Momma stood in the doorway, head whipping around, searching for intruders. She had a cooking apron on and a grease-covered frying pan at the ready.
She lowered it slowly while honing in on the two of us. Jenn slowly kicked her legs to get farther into a corner. I took note of the way her muscled thighs rippled and the cute short tail. Then it dawned on me what my momma might be seeing.
I didn’t have a stitch on. Jenn had my shirt on, and the room were an outright mess of hastily knocked over items.
Momma chose to shout at me. “Chase!”
My eyes had no trouble staying open now. Jenn scrambled for the window and quickly pulled herself through. The sound of her thick nails catching the hardwood floor and Momma’s stomping feet filled my room. A heartbeat later, the woman who’d given birth to me loomed over me, red, angry, and shaking a frying pan. In that moment, she scared me more than any being to crawl out of The Mountain’s depths. She would have cowed the devil hisself with a fiery anger Kenneth knew nothing about.
“What have you done, son? Tell me you weren’t taking advantage of that poor girl! Don’t you know what she’s been through? After all I’ve taught you, I expected a damn sight better than—” Her voice went so high, I wondered if it might snap in two like a guitar string being over tuned.
My mouth hung open. Ringing in my ears like vibrating tin drowned her out for a moment. I shook my head to clear the sound.
“Don’t you be dumb with me, boy! I know you’ve got words in you. Don’t think I’ll buy that act now. Lord almighty, walking in here, you naked as the day you came out and her crying on the ground without a stitch on. What have you done to poor Jenny?”
I pulled the blanket over my exposed groin and felt my control over the markings slip. One hand burned hot. The other cold. The Rainbow spot and Heart Seeker blotches faded into view.
Momma huffed. Her hand brought up the frying pan repeatedly before lowering it back down.
“I didn’t! She was…” I started.
My half-formed sentence died, and Momma’s eyes widened with anger. “That’s what it is? Did you think you have the right to hold a good home over her head? The first place she’s felt comfortable enough to stay in years and you’ve chased her out. I should have known. You’re a stain on the family name. Why, your daddy would have shot you himself for even thinking to force that poor girl to be a bed warmer.”
Kenneth had said something the day before that stuck with me. It ain’t right for a boy to become a man without his daddy.
But that thought, and a dozen others, mangled together in my head. They were so loud, even Momma and the ringing in my ears couldn’t stop them from bursting out. The biggest problem was all those nasty retorts and lingering hurts used my mouth to escape.
“I’ve busted my ass for months. Working myself to death up in that mine. Monsters every day. Handling liquid poison. To earn a pittance. And almost all of that goes to the taxes that you let slip before I could get a job. Because someone has to pay for food and materials when you couldn’t even keep the hens. Daddy died and left us with nothing but a mountain of troubles,” I shouted.
“Don’t you—” she butted in.
I stepped over to her and once again realized I’d grown taller than her. Not that height gave me any power, but it served to remind me I’d long ago stopped being a little boy. The idea that I’d snapped at her hurt me, but I didn’t know how to take it back.
The world ain’t kind, Kenneth had said. It rattled through and joined the tangled rage using my mouth to escape.
“And I’m trying!” My voice turned scratchy. “I’m trying to do right. To make sure you’re taken care of like Daddy wanted. I’m trying—” I hiccupped and the words died. That had been the biggest speech out of my mouth since Daddy died, and nothing sounded right.
I shook my head, stepped away, and refused to let myself be seen like this. All this time, I’d been struggling to be strong enough, and I’d fallen apart before even becoming a Ranger. If I had simply lasted a few more days, then everything could have been right.
Realizing my failure doused my rage like a bucket of water over a campfire. My chest heaved for air. I had a million more words to speak and no strength to utter a single one.
“Son…” Momma’s words trailed off. The fire died out of her as quickly as it had from me. I could hear in her voice the sound of a soul crumpling in doubt.
I refused to look and kept my eyes closed. The eyes I’d been given still saw through my meager eyelids. Jenn stood right outside, huddled against the wall—probably listening.
“It’s not your job to take care of me,” she said at last.
I sucked in a breath and clamped my jaw shut. Then whose is it? Because until recently, you sure as hell couldn’t take care of yourself. I screamed inside my head. Biting back those words made my face ache and throat dry. I kept my eyes firmly fixed on the wall.
“I’m going to lie down. I expect to see you when you get back from this fool’s dream of yours. Right and proper Monday morning, with an apology for yelling at me, and a double one for taking advantage of that poor girl.”
Before I could find the words to rebut her insane expectation, Momma stomped out. Seconds later, her door slammed. The house creaked from Momma pacing inside her small room while I struggled to find breath.
The situation felt familiar. She’d done this before, when the clerics of the temple up top asked us who’d go with Daddy’s body. Momma had bottled herself up in anger, stormed inside the bedroom, and left me to be the one to send him off.
I didn’t want to venture up that trail again while knowing Momma sat at home, full of spite and hate. Not when she’d misunderstood everything. But I couldn’t find the right words to say.
I can face The Mountain, but I can’t face Momma.
She stayed in her room while I gathered my hand-me-downs and made ready to leave. Every time I walked by her door, I struggled to find the right words to make her understand, but nothing came to mind. It were a hard thing to know my only family in the world thought I’d taken advantage of Jenn.
The reality seemed to be I’d fallen asleep and not known Jenn was also in my bed. I vaguely recalled the sensation of her furry leg under my hand, but Flops were notoriously hard to rouse during the night.
I grabbed my hat, sure they wouldn’t deny us a simple cover. Daddy’s jacket might not stop the rain on the horizon, but there were no alternatives. I fumbled through a secret alcove in my room and pulled out a few dollar bills Momma hadn’t found.
A short time later, before the morning sun had made it completely over the eastern horizon, I started out of the house. The pastor, Obsidian, Momma, and all others had their points of view on The Mountain. I had mine.
None of it mattered until I survived these trials and became the last man standing, failed, or died trying.
A mile along the path, a bit of rusty red and white jutted out from behind one of the trees. I knew the height and coloring well enough to figure out who’d tried to hide as I passed. Behind that bit of oak stood Jenn.
“Jenn.” I sounded calmer than I felt. My heartbeat thudded loudly enough to drown out birds chirping. The bout of fire I’d felt at Momma threatened to resurface.
She jumped and slowly poked her head out from behind the tree. I gave a tired smile then pointed at her and turned up both hands as if grasping at something. Jenn pulled back behind the tree and refused to come out. I waded past brush on the roadside and toward her hiding spot.
“You got in trouble. Because I did something wrong,” she said quietly.
I nodded twice.
“Your momma is too kind to me. Too kind for a stupid girl like me.” Jenn’s face poked out. She locked eyes with me as her bottom lip trembled.
“You’re not stupid,” I said reflexively.
Jenn stepped out from behind the tree and shivered. I frowned. She still wore the older clothes, worn at the joints.
“I am. I am, Chase. I should have slept on the floor. Stupid. Smells on the bed. Like unwashed man.” She snorted.
That didn’t seem fair. I’d taken to washing before coming in the house or even my room. Having Jenn closer to the house meant I’d needed to keep myself cleaner. It hadn’t been easy. My clothes smelled of the mines and sweat.
I’d have to scrub out the tub once I returned home.
Momma had insisted I apologize to Jenn. Despite her attitude, she was right. Jenn probably hadn’t intended to be anywhere near me. She didn’t like men.
“Sorry,” I said.
“Okay.” Her head wiggled and nose twitched but hands stayed clasped tightly. Jenn’s long toes wiggled and flexed.
I wondered if I might end up a Flop one day. If my future were not as a Ranger, then I could find myself transforming into a Feline, Delver, or even a Wildling. Tattooist Cassandra had warned me I’d find myself at the crossroads eventually.
Then there were that damn scent of wet and static in the air, tickling my nose.
“Is Chase ready?” Jenn asked me.
I paused to let her odd way of addressing me slip by. It beat being called a stupid man. I nodded, so we both ventured back to the road. Jenn walked with me toward town.
“Listened around. Heard rumors. They say this is bad. Different. Dangerous.”
At this rate, we’d arrive at town far too late for Ash and Wan. We needed to make up lost time. Dealing with Momma and coaxing Jenn out had delayed me more than sleeping in. I picked up the pace while gesturing for Jenn to continue.
“The priests talk. They have a new man up there. They go down to a basement.” Jenn’s ear perked and she glanced around. I too looked, but there were no other people on the road besides us. “They tell him there’s three tests for you. Of dedication. Of body. Of soul.”
That sounds like priestly nonsense, I thought.
Jenn didn’t have much else to say. We stopped at the edge of town. She dug her long toes into the dirt and refused to go any farther. I believed her to still be beating herself up over this morning.
My companions for the final trials were standing near a building. I glanced over and saw Ranger Wan and Ash waiting. A wagon with a sheet covering the contents loomed behind the Rangers.
“Be safe. Don’t be stupid. For once.” Jenn sniffed and wiggled her nose, which set the whiskers twitching.
“You shouldn’t worry about me.” I used my momma’s words and felt cold all at once.
“I have to. Chase worried about me after everyone else thought I’d died. They wished me gone. You and your dad. You cared. Idiots, stupid idiots. I have to worry about you.”
I nodded to her, then I walked away to join the others standing outside the sheriff’s building. By the time I reached them and turned to check on Jenn, she’d vanished from sight.
Three tests for me? Or for us? I wondered. They must be tests for the lot of us, but part of me weren’t so sure anymore. Even a dense block of wood like myself could put the pieces together enough to know something were afoot.
Two of my fellow trial takers were arguing. Ranger Ash and Wan weren’t babysitting, instead working to ready another few carriages I hadn’t noticed. If memory served, those carriages would be housing people and the dead. The gutted girl I hadn’t learned the name of would be among them.
“I finally figured out where I know you from. You work at Madam Crawford’s off Little Foot. Spreading your legs for ten bucks a tumble.”
My ears perked at the green user’s statement. He leered at the smaller girl with his arms crossed. Mister Green, or whatever his name were, had a shit-eating smile.
“So tell me, what’s one of the painted flowers of Bell Town doing up here, trying to be a Ranger?”
Her nose wrinkled. “I suspect I’m doing the same as one of Corso’s thugs.”
“You’re a whore?” Ducky asked as his head whipped around. “You work for Corso?”
Lord, I thought. The man had no sense. It didn’t matter who or where a body came from. We were all here to try our hand at being this year’s selected Ranger trainee.
The woman, whose name I still hadn’t overheard, gave Ducky a once-over. “Don’t call me a whore. As if you don’t pay for all your company.” She practically spit the words. “I know exactly who you are. You’re no better than your father, and I pity the poor girl who sets her sights on being married to you.”
“Whore,” Ducky replied as his face flushed red.
I almost felt bad for Derek Lake, but he’d spoken without thinking. Derek’s dad, from what little I inferred, had been turned into a Wildling, one of the twisted and deformed humans who roamed the hills. That were only a guess but it wouldn’t surprise me none.
She snapped her fingers. “At least I worked for my marking. I’m not some puppet trying to get in for his boss, or the son of a man who strayed more than a herd of alley cats.”
Their verbal spat continued as I walked up. Neb leaned against a cart while wearing his stupid smile. He scratched his head and clearly wanted to join the conversation but couldn’t figure out how. Ash shook his head and frowned.
Our green healer chuckled dryly. “Oh, please. For a man, it’s any port in a storm, honey. But a port that takes all the boats in the sea is downright filthy.”
She raised a hand to slap the larger male. I smiled briefly in admiration. Any woman who stood up for herself won my respect, not that she’d care about my approval. It meant little to anyone but me. Ranger Ash stepped down from the cart he’d been sitting on. He shook his head and caught the girl’s arm mid swing. Our former healer, with his green marking, chuckled as if he’d won.
“While you’re applying to be Rangers, it is expected you show a modicum of decency and awareness of your situation. As such, we’re going to play the quiet game,” Ash announced loudly. “Today’s proceeds actually matter to some folks, so try acting like you respect the job you’re applying for, at least a little.”
Bell Town might be worse than Chandler’s Field in terms of gossip. I’d been able to overhear enough details on the situation. Ducky’s father—and apparently Ducky—were well known to the paid ladies of Bell Town. Our female companion somehow tied into those dock-working females. The green healer had ties to one of the gangs that worked the docks. I’d heard the name Corso some years back but couldn’t remember much beyond his people charging protection fees for ships that came in.
I decided to avoid letting their relationship problems pull me under. It had been bad enough that every word out of Ducky’s mouth made my teeth grind in anger. Neb’s constant chatter had nearly driven me to tears, and he seemed back to normal.
Tonight would be difficult at best. The hike up The Mountain for the procession would take all day. I figured we’d timed the Ranger trials and spent all those days running and resting in order to meet the next full moon.
I slowly walked closer to the gathering. Wan shuffled around the corner and yawned. Belatedly, I realized that while I’d rested at home, real Rangers had kept working, getting the carts ready and working with grieving family members.
“Chase,” Wan said with a nod.
I dipped my head in greeting. My lips curled in a slight frown at the sight of two filled carts with linens gingerly lain over the deceased.
Ducky’s eyes rolled. He twisted his lips, turned away, and wisely said nothing. The other two parted.
“Well, we’re all here,” Ash said. “That means it’s time to explain what’s going to happen.”
Wan fell in near Ranger Ash and clasped his arms behind his back. Ash huffed and paced down the much shorter line.
“As we are approaching a full moon, two events will happen. First, every Ranger in the area is to report to the mountain to fight back the monster spawns. We”—Ranger Ash emphasized the word—“will be traveling as a group and escorting this month’s returnees.” He stopped and sighed heavily then swallowed. “And each one of these bodies comes with one person to serve as their witness bearer.”
I zoned out as Ranger Ash spoke. Not out of disrespect, but because I knew what he was talking about. Near every full moon, bodies went up to the temple. The temple proper had bricked walls and served as one of the few safe places during a full moon. The refinery served as another spot, and there were a few homesteads that farmers barricaded inside as night closed in.
Still, the wet scent hung in the air. I sniffed and dreaded how tonight would play out. Clouds bubbled on the horizon, stuck upon Butcher Hills.
“We’ll leave when the bell tolls eleven. Bring your snacks. Bring your weapons. You will be ready or you will die.” Ranger Ash glared at each of us in turn. “And no matter what happens, today you will act as Rangers.”
Ranger Wan scanned us. Ducky and the man with the green exchanged a glance. The girl tightened her lips. Neb nodded happily.
Ash continued. “For the confused among you, it means your first priority is keeping the civilians alive. Second priority, you keep each other alive.” He emphasized each word slowly, as if we were all hard of hearing. “Worrying about becoming an official Ranger is way down at the bottom of the list.”
“Did you all hear Ranger Ash?” Wan shouted.
Hard to believe he were yawning a moment ago, I thought.
I nodded again. The others bobbed with me. Ranger Ash dismissed us. The others avoided each other, and I went to find some umbrellas.
Years ago, when I’d made this trek myself, I hadn’t thought to bring anything to protect myself against the elements. Momma hadn’t helped me and stayed bottled in her room. That night had been cold and lonely.
During my moments of weakness, I could still feel my daddy’s lifeless hand from when I’d sneaked mine under the covering. I’d still had a faint hope he might suddenly move and all would be right with the world. I believed, at the time, tattoos could do anything.
“That’ll be fourteen fifty,” the store clerk said.
My head shook with the sudden disconnect. I’d wandered into the general store to find the same stone-faced man who’d sold me liquor some weeks ago. He glared without a care at two people dressed in expensive finery. The stitching on the man’s suit would have cost a pretty penny. He had shiny cufflinks that caught light from the one bulb the general store owner lit. The buzzing light flickered in a mirror over the counter.
I could see the faces of both people. Poss and her notably older husband stood still at the counter. In front of them was a paper list. I searched for any sign of what she intended to purchase that cost so much. A small paper bag on the other side of the list might hold a clue.
Not my business, I thought. Poss had made her opinion of me clear during our last confrontation. I were worth nothing and would never be able to offer a woman what she really needed. In Poss’s eyes, I still wore diapers and clothes that were too big. A wiser man would have taken all that money and gotten a proper education.
Well, higher schooling had never been in my future.
They hashed out the prices and I searched the store for an umbrella. The store clerk grumped, and the dry sound of paper being counted filled the air. I picked up a few preserved foods and a package of crackers. I needed a few snacks to keep me from being hungry on the road.
The Proctors were still dithering at the counter. Stone-face merely blinked every few seconds and quoted a new price. I reviewed my own items and counted the money in my pocket.
The clerk broke away and looked at both of my piles. “You’ll need to put some of that back.”
I took a deep breath then let out the air slowly. One day I’d have money and be able to make larger purchases, like the Proctors. I’d heard them quoted over two hundred dollars for extra purchases. By the time I’d returned the small bits of candy and one piece of dried meat, the Proctors had reached an agreement.
They both turned around and nearly ran me over in their hurry to move on.
“Mister Craig,” Poss said politely.
I coughed then worked on using my semi-functional voice. “Missus Proctor. Mister Proctor.”
Addressing Poss’s husband made his nose twitch, which set a recently grown mustache swishing comically. He reminded me of a Flop or Feline with long whiskers.
“I don’t believe we’ve met,” Mister Proctor responded.
Poss patted her husband’s arm softly. “Yes, you did dear. This is Widow Craig’s son. Chase. He was at the farewell ball for Greg Chandler a few months ago.”
Mister Proctor’s nose wiggled as if looking at me made him itch. I took my hat off in an attempt at manners.
“Yes. Well. You have a nice day, Mister Craig. Do drop by again.”
Just like that, I’d been dismissed. Mister Proctor turned to walk away, but Poss hung onto his arm. They shared a glance I didn’t understand. Poss’s head jerked toward me as she whispered. Mister Proctor’s eyes widened for a moment. He nodded then patted his wife on the hand. The couple turned toward me with their mirthless expressions.
“My wife will be headed up tonight as witness to the return of our former serving girl. One of many.” He stared at me as if this knowledge meant something important.
It didn’t. Everyone went up The Mountain eventually. I stayed mum and waited.
“I expect you to do your duty,” he said.
I’d already gotten the speech from Ranger Ash. Somehow, Mister Proctor’s stern face and special way of glancing down his nose at me despite our height difference made me want to punch him. I glanced at Poss, who wore the same expression.
She only had a few years on me and acted as though she were a lady born to the high class. I still remembered what Poss looked like with missing teeth and muddy dresses. She’d found her place.
“I’m saying that you are seeking to be a Ranger, correct, Mister Craig?” He glared at me as if expecting an answer to bubble forth automatically.
“Yes,” I said.
“Well. As owner of the town’s more prosperous law firm, my word carries a lot of weight in this community. You make sure my wife is well looked after, and I’ll do my part to vouch for you.”
I nodded slowly and struggled to understand what a posh man like Mister Proctor wanted with a poor nobody like me. As far as I knew, he owned the town’s only law firm, and it was his second office. His main one sat in Bell Town. If my momma’s gossip could be believed, the Proctors also owned part of the mine, along with the Chandler family.
Even if I did become a Ranger, rich families could safely ignore my opinion. Belonging to an order of monster hunters did not make me socially elite.
“All right,” I said.