The idea of receiving his goodwill for doing a task I’d already set myself upon bothered me. I turned to stare Poss in the eye. She straightened, which made Mister Proctor pat her arm, which were looped around his elbow.
“I’m told there are any number of dangers on a full moon,” Poss said with an insincere smile. “It would mean a great deal to know an old friend stood between me and the monsters which might be prowling. For as my husband said, tonight I’ll be joining the procession.”
I nodded again. Mister Proctor smiled then clapped me on the shoulder with his other hand. In his mind, I’d done as asked and, for the moment, we were good friends.
“Excellent! You see my wife safely up and back down. And that will settle that.” He turned and nodded to Poss. “I told you a little bit of last minute shopping would lighten your burden. And while your friend may not be one of our fine guards, he’s half a Ranger already. Why, look at him.”
Poss smiled at her husband, who turned back to me with a wide grin. Poss’s expression darkened for only a moment before she righted herself. Her free hand fumbled behind her back on the countertop. The clerk slid the filled paper bag into her wandering hand. Mister Proctor remained none the wiser regarding their quiet exchange.
I stared at Poss then heard the town’s bells ringing. The store clerk smacked his lips as if tasting something dry, while the couple in front of me grew alert.
“Well. We’re out of time, dear. Come on. I’ll see you off and follow along until the edge of town.”
I saddled up with my few purchases.
“Four fifty,” the clerk said.
Buying straight from a farmer would have been cheaper. I contemplated the need for an umbrella but purchased it anyway. Being damp would make a rough ride aggravating.
Better poor and prepared than sorry, I thought. Obsidian had mentioned the same. Thinking ahead were a valued skill to the Rangers.
I put the bills on the counter. The clerk shook his head, unwrinkled the dollars, and counted them. He handed back two quarters. I bit them to make sure they weren’t wooden.
The clerk gave me a tight smirk then a short farewell nod. I put the goods into pockets and attempted to figure out where to put the umbrella. The two-foot long casing would be too big for tucking into my belt or in a pocket.
I made it outside the store seconds after the bells tolled.
“Let’s go!” Ash shouted. “Time’s burning and those clouds are getting darker!”
A dozen people were loading into two wagons. Horses, larger and angrier than the mules I’d used, stood at the front of each cart. Magic tattoos had been worked into the horses’ flesh, making their legs thick, veiny bulges. Unlike regular horses, these ones had burning red eyes and didn’t wear blinders.
These beasts had been reshaped to fight monsters.
Hardwood hadn’t used a battle horse like these during her escorts of the Wellbrook Mine’s carriage. There were a few reasons. Ink-touched creatures were wild, rare, and hated humans. They were expensive. Most didn’t do well in daylight. These horses were special made to work in the sun but the first targets when monsters swelled out of a mine. Or so I had been told.
Harold had said, “Every tide has an evil with it. A filth so strong it eats others of its kind.”
We were riding along with the dead. Up to The Mountain. With horses like monster magnets.
I didn’t remember being in danger during my trip up. There’d been growls in the dark and eyes glaring at us, but none came close. Running up to The Mountain’s top during the new moon had been even easier because nearly all the monsters were dead after only half a week. Both those facts spoke to the skill and effectiveness of our Rangers, Wildlings, and various traps.
The procession started forward before I found my spot. Other Rangers sat at the outskirts of town, waiting on lesser steeds, but many walked. There were at least three dozen souls, Rangers and witnesses, most of whom I’d never seen before.
Ash strode over with anger in his step. He shook his head and spat on the ground in front of me before coming to a stop. “Well. You’ve somehow caught the eye of Mister Proctor, and he’s of the mind that I must obey the whims of my social betters and I’ll be granting you permission to watch over his fine-figured wife and keep her safe.” Ranger Ash’s tone turned nastier the more he spoke. “And since there’s no room on most of the path for two carts or a horse, you can walk. It shouldn’t be hard, on account of your majestic levels of endurance.”
That didn’t seem like the right word, but Ash’s attitude toward me had been clear. He didn’t enjoy Poss’s husband barging in and giving orders. Since that had been my fault, in Ash’s mind, I caught the flack.
“Or you can tell her to shove off and go out to fight with the rest,” Ash said.
Wan stood next to his comrade with folded arms and simply gazed at me.
“Great. Since you’re so amicable to your prestigious honor, take Derek with you. That way you’re out of the way and us less socially progressive souls can do all the menial labor.” Ash waved at Ducky then shouted, “You’re with Chase. Work together and prove you’ve both got what it takes to think about more than yourselves.”
Ash turned and stomped off while shaking his head.
What? I thought as my eyebrows bunched.
Wan frowned before following Ash. I couldn’t even figure out what to think about the whole situation. The carriages were still rolling off. I saw Poss sitting on the finest seat at the front. She had the paper bag in her hand, which narrowed around the top like a bottle. It dawned on me that she planned to drink the entire trip up.
My momma had said Poss spent her Sundays performing sordid acts. I suspected traveling with a dead servant up to The Mountain’s top had not been on Mrs. Proctor’s list of preferred weekend activities.
“You got assigned to escort the rich woman in a tight dress? How do you…” Ducky said to me.
I pulled back, annoyed by his sudden closeness. He frowned then shook his head. The rest of his thought went unspoken as Ducky stomped past me and hopped into the only remaining seat in the first wagon.
That left me walking as Ranger Ash had suggested. I counted myself lucky Derek had failed the silent game first, but I’d always been better at keeping my mouth shut. The two Rangers overseeing our trials were far ahead of us.
Shouldn’t we all be together? I questioned while frowning. It probably meant nothing but I spent the first hour worrying Mister Proctor’s supposed favor meant I’d failed already.
We continued on. Mister Proctor might have been in sight, but he didn’t venture close enough to say good-bye to his wife. Poss clearly didn’t care and took a sip from her paper bag. When I walked close, the smell of wine became obvious. It stained her teeth red but didn’t stop Ducky from leering.
At the crossroads, we took the path toward the temple. A thin set of trees greeted us, along with a man wearing a cloth over his eyes and a robe. The Rangers fanned out ahead spoke to the man. I craned my head to one side to get a better view.
Their exchange didn’t reach me, but the man stopped and lifted his hood. The sound of raindrops pattered ahead then grew. I sighed and eyed the wagon. There were boards and covers that could be added to the posts. We’d need to set everything up while on the move.
I got two posts up while Ducky worked to unravel the tightly packed cloth covering. The large horse ignored us and stomped forward. I turned to get a third post up as we passed the now-hooded priest.
“Hound,” he whispered by way of greeting.
The sudden word were clear even with the rain. I turned toward the man and lifted an eyebrow. There were few who had heard me called that. Cassandra and her small trio of Rangers had been the only ones present.
“What’d he say?” Ducky asked loudly. “Pound? What’s that mean?”
The cleric didn’t respond and tilted his head slightly until we could no longer see his eyes. He hummed a low steady note that hung in the air even as we moved on. A small fire next to him danced as raindrops made it sizzle.
I trudged by for the third post and grabbed one of the cords. It didn’t matter what a cleric knew about me. I simply had to perform my best and become an official Ranger. That meant taking care of the people and respecting the dead being brought to their final rest.
“Hey. Why’d that guy talk to you? You heard it right?” Ducky’s voice dimmed under the rain.
I shook my head and grabbed one of the strings. He stood and helped roll the fabric down the framing’s side. In seconds, we had a cheap but mildly effective canopy.
Poss hadn’t moved. She sat in the front seat, ignoring the rain and everything else. The bottle in her hand came up every few seconds for a fresh sip. The woman shivered and pulled her thin jacket tighter.
Neither one of the Proctors had planned for the rain, and we had hours to go before reaching the temple. The horses didn’t help us move faster. They simply let us take more in a single procession. Cutting through the trees took less work.
I sighed, wished I’d had the money for two umbrellas, and extended mine to Poss. She stared at it through nearly closed eyes then sniffed. Unlike everyone else on this trail, Poss had absolutely no markings that any of my forms of sight could find. She’d be utterly defenseless against rain, while I’d probably simply suffer through. Walking in damp weather weren’t new. A few hours in the rain would be like walking home after a long week at the mines.
“Poss,” I said while motioning with the umbrella.
She lifted her gaze past the umbrella and stared at me. The bumps in the road made her head sway. I pulled myself up by the thick post and loomed over Poss. She barely moved as I unfolded the umbrella and propped it over her head. She sat on the edge of the covering we’d set up and it wouldn’t be enough protection. Her clothes were practically see-through already and Ducky’s eyes had drifted more than once.
“Mister Craig!” a man barked.
I turned to find Ranger Ash standing off the wagon’s side, glaring at me. Wan, predictably, were nearby, checking out our erected canopy.
“You are expected to walk,” Ash shouted at me. “With some dignity. I doubt the poor Mrs. Proctor can find any comfort in knowing a Ranger too weak to stand on his own feet is meant to be her guard.”
I couldn’t tell if Ranger Ash had suddenly decided to be a bigger asshole than during our run, or if he’d always been this way. He glared. I got down.
“Good job with the wagon,” Wan said. “It shows initiative.”
Ash’s face tightened in a near scowl. He spun and went back to the wagon in front of us, where the forms of the other two from Bell Town could be seen. They were a few steps behind us in setting up the covers. Originally Poss’s wagon had been in the lead, but they’d been convinced that a rich lady might not want to sit up front.
“Good job, Chase,” Poss said in a mocking tone. Her lips puckered as though she were pretending to be someone else. “You have a fine future as a tradesmen. Two parts stick up your ass, one part idiot, shaken, not stirred.”
I had hoped she’d stay quiet the entire trip. With one hand, she pulled on the umbrella. It didn’t come loose from where I’d anchored it.
“Fucking Rangers,” she grumbled.
Ducky raised an eyebrow and looked at me. I flattened my lips and shrugged. Silence, apparently, served as a cue for Poss to unleash a torrent of words.
“Greg may have idolized you fucks as heroes from some children’s tale, but I know better.” Poss took another sip and glanced at the body in the carriage behind her. She utterly ignored Ducky, which made me smile. “Desperate sad souls who can’t find a way through life that doesn’t involve throwing themselves at death. Or thrill seekers who might as well jump off the roof.”
“Someone’s got to do it,” Ducky said.
I kept walking.
Poss cast her arm at me and shook the bottle. “What good has being a Ranger ever done anyone? What good does The Mountain do? We should stick dynamite into every crevice and light the whole place aflame.”
Dozens of other people were within earshot of her proclamation. They ignored Poss or couldn’t hear her over the rain. The trees were heavy with rain, and the thudding sound kept me glancing around in worry.
We passed another cleric, so quiet and still that I almost missed him, until he too said, “Hound.”
A second hum joined the first. It hung in the air and drifted with us.
Ducky came off the wagon and did a lap around it. His eyes squinted into beady slits as he peered through the trees. After apparently finding nothing, he turned to me. “Hey, mute, you hear that, right?”
I debated shaking my head and hoping Ducky went insane. I nodded then tapped my ear.
“Weird. Have you been up this way before?”
I nodded again.
“You remember humming?”
This time I shook my head. I remembered a lot of tiny facts about that night. The way Rangers walked by me and glanced only once. They were like giants judging me, a fatherless boy clinging desperately to a dead man’s hand. I remember seeing Daddy lowered into the pool of ink. There had been a small bridge that stretched out a dozen feet. Between the slats, traces of rolling ink, all colors of the rainbow, boiled like a hungry thing.
“Maybe it’s new. Maybe it’s a trainee thing,” Ducky said.
I couldn’t figure out what had changed in his mind to make us suddenly on friendly terms. Ducky had always been a horse’s ass to me.
Poss jerked and shook the cart. She yanked a slip of linen to one side. I walked a bit quicker to the front while Ducky loaded into the back. She stared at a dead female Feline. I recognized the black-and-white fur. She’d been the one to serve us drinks during Greg’s good-bye bash. She’d also been the one to warn Lily and me of Opal’s father.
Poss shook her bottle at the dead. I paled and flipped the blanket back over. That only upset Mrs. Proctor, and she turned to me, still shaking her drink.
“Dreadful. You can’t even bury a girl like a proper person. This was my friend. Little Charity. She has a daughter, Abagail, who can’t visit her mom’s grave. All because of the stupid rules.” Poss used her deeper mocking voice. “‘What comes out must go back.’ With a proper shave and a haircut!”
Poss stood and waved her bottle. The cart rocked. I saw people up ahead turning their heads in our direction, their faces masked by piles of rain. I grabbed Poss’s hand and pushed her back to a sitting position.
“You’d think she’d have deteriorated by now. When Mister Proctor’s”—she snarled abruptly—“father passed, the undertaker had to fill his body with every type of concoction I’d never seen before. Yet the girl looks untouched despite being out here for days.” She stared at me. “Why is that? You know? You’re obsessed with The Mountain. You brought up your daddy. Surely you know.”
I did. “The ink.”
Poss tilted her head then continued until she tilted into the wagon’s post. She sniffed and pushed herself back up then nodded slowly as if nothing had happened. “So when you die, you won’t age a day. Eternally young and foolish. That’s great for you, Chase.” Poss gave a rude snort. She reminded me of Hardwood. “Except no one will have a body to mourn. Another reason poor Lily and you would never have worked out.”
I shook my head. Poss had to be deep into the drink for her to speak so freely. She’d maintained a filthy but civil tone during Greg’s party.
My heart about stopped when Ducky continued the explanation. “Oh, he’ll age. He’ll die. There’s no marking for eternal youth. And ink preserves bodies, sure. But eventually sunlight will wear them away, until all that’s left are the veins. We’d still have to bring that back.”
Poss’s face paled as her cheeks bubbled. She closed her eyes and swayed with the cart. I had nothing for her to puke in and prayed it wouldn’t come to that. She’d proven herself a champion drinker more than once over the years. I wondered how much she’d been drinking. I reached for the bottle, but she snatched it away.
“Don’t you dare. I need this to make it through the weekend,” Poss shouted in my face, and the stink of wine washed over me. She clutched the bottle tightly. “Best fortification money can buy.”
“I don’t get why your rich old man couldn’t have hired some other tattooed bodyguard. They’ve got some in Bell Town. It’s a bit late now though…” Ducky mumbled as his voice faded off. He fidgeted and rubbed his arm. One hand passed over the blue marking on his neck.
It had to be Poss. Being around a good-looking girl had gone to Ducky’s head. I figured by the swirl of ink under his skin that had traveled up to his eyes, he might be getting more than an eyeful of the wet woman.
“Too many monsters,” Poss mumbled while shaking her bottle. “Far too many of those mountain-spawned monsters. They destroy everything. Bell Town is Chandler’s lifeline.”
I shook my head. Poss stood and pulled the umbrella out of its secured location. Mrs. Proctor apparently knew what Ducky had been doing because she shook the droplets off at Ducky. He pulled back to the cart’s rear.
“And my husband is good with money and excellent with his hands. But he comes from civilized stock.” She twirled the umbrella idly and showed no signs of putting it between her and the rain.
“You mean he couldn’t fight his way out of a paper bag.” Ducky laughed.
Poss glared at Ducky instead of facing away as she had been. “I mean he can afford to let his money and influence do the talking, where hopeless souls with no future outside physical labor can serve in more appropriate tasks. Brains being a rarer commodity than your lot.”
I let Poss defend herself. Even deep in her cups, she had wits enough to handle Ducky and loyalty enough to protect her reputation. Their banter served as a welcome distraction from the low humming still hanging in the air.
We passed two more clerics, a few miles apart. They each gave me the same greeting the first couple had, then refused to continue speaking. Their tiny lights flickered against the darkening skies.
Hardwood’s distinctive voice came from the nearby trees. “Where are you lot? Come on! Make yourselves useful out here.” She stepped out of the tree line.
Great, I thought. Here comes Hardwood to tell us we’re all failures.
The thought weren’t kind. Hardwood had escorted me down into the deep mines. She had also used me as bait for the biggest creature to come out of The Mountain that month.
“Really? You brats are all sitting around?” Hardwood yelled loudly enough to be heard over the rain.
“Don’t look at me. Mister Ash”—Ducky managed to turn it into a swear—“said we had to sit here with Mrs. Proctor. On account of her being important or something.”
Hardwood’s lips flattened, then she clicked her tongue. “Well, he’s not senior here. I am. You’re coming out to the front. The fellas are getting tired and need a rest.”
“Can she do that?” Ducky asked me.
How would I know? I wondered what Mister Proctor would say if I left Poss. He’d been high enough up the chain of power to make Ash sit me here. He might try to bully Ranger Hardwood, but it’d likely backfire.
“Can’t.” I chose a side, stupid as it may be. Poss counted as a civilian. According to Ash, regardless of what Mister Proctor had promised, I had to make sure she stayed safe.
“Don’t be stupid, boy,” Obsidian’s shadow said from the darkness.
“I hate to say it, but the mute’s right. We don’t know if this is a test or not. No one’s explained nothing but stay here and escort the dress.”
Poss snorted then took a long swig from the bottle. I glanced at her then back at Hardwood.
Obsidian stood farther away, leaning against a tree and looking worn. His head rested against the arm being used to prop him up. “You ever ask yourself, boy, why it is the monsters don’t ever interfere with us sending back the dead? It ain’t just those priests burning dead vermin.”
I wiggled my fingers at him. Obsidian scowled.
“These people can walk on in peace, during a full moon, because real Rangers are out busting their asses away from the mist. You want to make the cut, you hold up your end. Brats.” Hardwood turned then walked into the tree line.
I closed one eye and activated the tattoo that let me see ink. A large number of monsters were running around out there.
“Or don’t,” Obsidian added.
Obsidian’s body shifted into shadows. I squinted into the darkness to see which marking let him move like that, but he slipped away too fast.
Ducky sighed then leapt off the cart into the rain. He ran off, and I closed my eyes tightly. My earlier choice might have been a wrong one and burned bridges. Ahead of me, the other two—green and ice girl from Bell Town—were running after Hardwood. That left me and a line of mourners on the way up to their loved ones’ final resting place. I still stuck by what Ash had said. If our first task were to guard the civilians, then staying here would serve them best.
I activated my Darkness Ward and walked along. Lots of inked creatures were in the distance, but most were distracted, fighting Rangers, or headed down the hill. Lights flashed in the distance but were subdued by the foliage and rain.
Still, the monsters out there were only a fraction of the amount we’d see in a few nights. It might be possible for some creatures to break through.
It’s not that I’m scared, I thought, remembering the poor gutted girl who hadn’t made it through the seven-day run. We’d fought our share of weaker monsters during that timeframe. Any still alive prior to the full moon were tougher, meaner, and survivors.
The tide of monsters dwindled slowly. I lifted my hands again and studied the gloves. We continued the trek up the hillside, weaving along a narrow path. The carts barely fit. I almost walked into a tree while debating what my meager powers could do against all those monsters.
How would I stop a flying monster? I asked as one of Ash’s sticks jabbed into the air and caught something’s wing. I couldn’t entirely make out what they were. Only the swirls of ink and color flying above the ground were clear.
“What are you staring at?” Poss asked.
I didn’t realize she’d leaned over the cart to stare into the distance with me. Her head was inches from mine. My finger rose to gesture toward a spot hundreds of feet away. Level with us were a few people fighting minor creatures.
“Can’t see anything. Just miles of pretty trees and smoke making me tired as hell,” Poss mumbled. Her wine-laden breath had grown more intense. “Might be best. Greg was obsessed with watching Rangers in action. Remember that stupid idea? He wanted to turn people into gladiators and sell tickets.”
Her commentary had little impact on the continuing fight. There were flashes of green and blue. I saw a stick weaving through the air against some flying critter. Ducky’s weird multicolored arm twisted into being and he bounced around. Watching them, it became obvious how little I understood about markings used for combat.
“He could have picked up a piece of art or two himself, but he said all the best ones for fights are given to Rangers. That woman with all the dogs? I don’t know her name.” Poss snorted.
The other would-be Rangers were getting closer now as our path slowly wove up to the top.
“Whatever. They say she knows all the markings. Greg says. Said. He used to go on about it for hours. I think he wanted to impress you and help get you all the markings you might want. Greg fancied you. Greg fancied everyone.”
Poss’s words distracted me from the useless pondering of men and monsters.
“What I don’t understand is how two marks can look so different and do the same thing. Or the colors. Or why it is people turn into Felines after too much. Got an answer for that one, oh King of Conversation?”
“These ladies. They get these little flowers on their stomachs. And I’m told they enhance pleasure for both partners. But when I ask, they said they have different flowers. Like it didn’t matter.” She’d gone beyond drunk. Poss had gone so far that condescending judgment became friendly chatter. “Lily wanted a lily. Told her it’d be ugly.”
Her speaking of Lily made me tense. That and the feeling of those woods crawling with monsters I couldn’t completely see.
“Mrs. Proctor?” I said. I kept trudging along, wishing for a second umbrella. The battle raged on out there, but there were fewer signs of opposition. We passed another cleric who wore the same robes as the rest and ignored the rain.
“Poss,” she corrected. “I’ve told you time and time again to call me Poss when we’re alone. My husband doesn’t mind.”
Fairly sure you’ve told me it’s the other way around, I thought. She were proud of catching Mister Proctor as a husband.
“Now this other girl I’d hired, she used to be human. Then one night, she got another marking. One on her chest for lactation so she could serve as a nursemaid. Though we all know she’d been working for a family that didn’t have children.” Poss shuffled until she lay across the seat. She clutched the bottle to her like a teddy bear. “You must have had a few markings. That’s why you became a Feline, right?”
“What?” I asked.
Poss faced the wagon’s back and stared through the wood at those dead bodies, preserved by ink, in the back.
“Right. You wouldn’t be able to answer me, would you, Charity? Because you died.” Poss sniffed and moved on to bawling.
I realized she hadn’t been talking to me. In her drunken haze, she’d been speaking with the dead Feline under the linen. I flushed cold. We were a lot alike in that respect. Maybe that was why we’d both escorted someone up to the top. Her relationship with Charity, a name that sounded familiar but I couldn’t place where from, must have been serious.
There were few reasons to escort anyone up here aside from deep ties and greed. The fact that each body brought back would be exchanged for a single rainbow drop served as a powerful lure. There were bounty hunters whose sole job had become hunting down the changed races’ deceased and bringing them back. A few might be with us now. I hadn’t taken note of anyone but the Rangers and mourners ahead of us. They were still moving onward. Somewhere ahead of us might be another son who’d lost their daddy. Or a husband who lost their wife.
I decided staying here had been the right idea. Not simply because fighting worried me, but because Poss needed someone who weren’t dead. They all did. But my eyes stayed fixed on the distant fighting. There weren’t many monsters of ink out there anymore. I half expected their constant battles to spill over to us, but none of them did. The Rangers and monsters kept their fights to the side. It struck me as weird that none of them came close to us.
There were lots of gaps in the defensive line. None of the Rangers were intent upon creating a screen of any sort. They simply went after monsters, one after another.
A large cat-like creature kept to the treetops. It moved with an insane speed close to the blink dogs, but three times more brutal. Ash and Wan fought the creature back. That monster had more than enough speed to barge through the Rangers and go for softer targets, if it wished.
Then why do they fight at all?