Low tones haunted the air like ghosts of The Mountain. Then the noise truly registered. They weren’t ghosts. They were Delvers singing in my ears. Lost souls who’d traveled deep into the ink-infested mines and never really resurfaced.
My mind trailed down a random path, twisted around itself, and grasped at a slippery thought darting out of reach. It’d been about a dog barking in an impossible location. A dozen more half-formed concepts galloped by with flaming eyes and black fur. They looked exactly like the horses that pulled carts up The Mountain before a full moon.
One of the faintly imagined nightmare steeds reared. I backed hastily into a tree. A cat leaned in and licked my face before glaring at me with one deep dark eye full of fear. Then it gave a sharp bark.
My heart jumped. What?
The wrongness of those flashes of thought struck me dumb. None of them could exist. Cats barking like dogs and horses inside the mine’s depths were nonsense. Even the Delvers would be miles away.
I faded out. The dog bark continued at uneven intervals until it roused my brain. The loud sharp noise came twice more while I pushed up from the ground. A hand slipped in a puddle of liquid. My whole arm gave way. My body flopped onto the ground, and a terrible feeling of being the wrong way up spun my vision in circles.
I’d fallen into the heart of The Mountain. The idea filled me with dread. But survival and awareness meant something. That realization turned horror to brief confusion. Fear came crawling in again as my back shivered and scalp tightened.
Have I survived? Or maybe I’m dead and this is hell.
That damned dog barked again. I opened my eyes and peered into a murky blackness. Occasionally bolts of colors swam through, zipping across either air or a wall.
I panicked, thinking of all the raw material I must have touched on the way down. Then it hit me as a certainty—I had died. There were no way for a living body to be dipped in the pool of colors that swelled up The Mountain’s heart. Only the deceased went down that path.
My feet still worked, so forward I ambled, shuffling one leg in front of the other. Walking brought aches. Muscles on my calf and hip pinched with each step. The bump on my head felt tender beyond belief and was matted with a stickiness of blood or maybe ink.
Where do I go?
The ink zipping by came from multiple directions. There were walls, but they were soft and nearly invisible. I bumped into one after the other, and each time, my mind reset and breath hitched.
I couldn’t say how long I’d been walking. The dead should have no concept of time. Seconds became minutes. Minutes stretched on for too long. Throughout it all, the dog barked somewhere out of sight.
“This is hell,” I said, sure at last The Mountain had truly been a gateway to the afterlife. I’d expected more screaming and brimstone but received only blackness. Maybe God hadn’t weighed my soul yet.
I reached for my markings and felt only thick coats of slime. There were nothing to see by aside from the illumination of irregular bolting inks that reminded me of lightning. They continued to curl around me like a heartbeat.
One of the markings on my back should have let me see in the dark. I wondered why it hadn’t activated itself. Maybe the fall had damaged me somehow. Maybe being dead meant my abilities were gone. I covered one eye and focused on the Darkness Ward.
The room spun. Walls which hadn’t been apparent slowly faded into being. Something huge, bigger than any monster I’d ever heard of, groaned. Rocks rolled and my body swayed at the sudden earthquake.
Ink swirled in an orange circle. A smaller circle formed inside the first. It glanced in almost every direction I could imagine before narrowing at me. My head leaned back to take in the scope of such a huge creature. This surely had to be the eye from some giant inside The Mountain.
The orange eyeball mockery scattered in multiple directions. More colors came together. Noise creaked from behind me and I whirled, reaching for daddy’s gun. Only it were gone. I fumbled for the knife. It had vanished too. They’d left me nothing but this ugly robe of mismatched sides. My heartbeat sped as I peered across the dim room in search of the enemy.
Kenneth stood there. His twisted rainbow robe swirled. Similar to the temple, I couldn’t see his face. It had been covered by a thick cloth matching his robe.
“Your clay is mine to judge, boy!” He lifted the book and shook his arms.
“What?” I asked.
Kenneth strode toward me. With each step, red coiled behind him in the shape of fire. He continued shaking the book and walking forward. With each step, he increased in size. “You ain’t alive yet, boy! You may never be.” The flames behind him burned bright as he spit his words. “For vessels are mine to shape.”
He came crashing down over me like a tidal wave. I threw up my hands and fell backward. My eyes closed tightly. Ink splashed, but the blow I expected never arrived.
Instead I burned. My body shook with rage. I wanted to tear down a wall. The raw material deep from the mine fed me insane images. Ducky’s face twisted from anger as we fought over a meager barrel. Daddy smiled in a way that made his eyes look like teardrops turned on their sides.
A damned dog barked repeatedly. I cracked an eye and saw nothing. Kenneth, the walls, those brief visions, and the giant orange eye had all vanished. My body felt like a mess. There were a dozen sensations crisscrossing as a result of the ink, but they felt muted.
I felt doubly sure I’d died during the fall. This world belonged to poor dead souls claimed by The Mountain. It included me now.
One of the half-formed thoughts from earlier solidified.
“Daddy,” I mumbled.
A sad, half turned face flickered. He’d seemed worried on that last day, before heading to the mine.
His body had been sent down into The Mountain’s heart. Since I were dead too, and clearly in this place, I could find him. He’d want to know I’d failed in my promise. Momma would be stuck here for the rest of her life. Or maybe she’d move away, knowing The Mountain had taken her family.
I needed to find my way around this twisted place. The darkness slowly receded until another vision presented itself. All around me were dozens of people. Faceless clerics stood silent with wrappings over their eyes. Behind them stood mockeries of Rangers. Their bodies burned with tattoos that twisted as I stared.
That’s right. They kicked me into The Mountain.
The circle around me closed. Rangers lifted burning hands shining with every color I’d ever seen. The clerics watched.
“We must all return to our roots!” Kenneth shouted.
The words made me wince. I turned to find him standing in the middle of the procession with me. His hands were clasped with the book.
“You’ve been named, Hound. And sent for judgment.”
What does that mean?
“Stand tall and be weighed. For down you were sent. And here you shall see your nature laid bare. Your insides shall become your outside, and I will have no mercy upon your flesh.”
I closed my eyes again and wished the vision away. My body quaked. The words continued, and a tightness pressed upon me from all sides. I felt as though someone had hooked into the air inside my lungs and slowly drew it all out.
“Now don’t go mad. Your soul ain’t mine. Your body will be my clay.”
The situation made some form of sense. Not a lot. I’d gone to school but would never consider myself well-taught. Still, Neb could have figured this out. I thought that this vision might not be Kenneth at all. It might not be hell or the afterlife. This could be The Mountain given voice. Neither possibility made me happy.
“No.” My heart shook as red bounced off the walls, illuminating the room with The Mountain’s heartbeat. “No.”
I ran. Whatever he, the not Pastor Kenneth, wanted to do, it couldn’t be good. My body would not be his clay. It wouldn’t be his anything. I would die a man. Not a Flop, Delver, or Feline.
What else could he mean?
Crashing sounds came behind me. To my front were branches, roots, clods of dirt and tunnels. This were exactly like the deep mines with its endless tunnels. My breath stilled. Two ideas occurred to me, and I fumbled them both.
I fell, splatting to the ground, and rolled to a half crouch. The world around me dimmed. My eyesight faded while I searched for signs of traps. Green would be a warning marker, because the monsters of the deep couldn’t see it.
Wait, was it green or blue?
No. Blue would tell me if the air had been purified.
Colors were in the walls. They moved slower than the earlier zipping bolts. These were like birds leisurely flying through walls of dirt. Red, bright enough to blind even an eagle, swirled along like a living creature begging to be followed.
Snuffling noises from a beast filled the emptiness. I held my breath and listened. There were more creatures sniffing about for whatever scent had caught their attention.
It has to be me, I thought. They couldn’t possibly be searching for anything else down here. I needed to use traps or get to a safe room. Those were the best solutions. Dammit, I’m dead. There are no safe rooms. Even if there are, I’ll never reach them in time.
I fought back a curse. The creature’s snuffling noises abruptly stopped. It were like knowing rats scurried under the house, or a fox might be getting into the chicken coop. I simply knew in that darkness, something moved.
The snorting started up again. I felt myself shiver from chill. Hell had monsters. Of course there were creatures down here. They probably made the ones that crawled above look like harmless kittens.
If I had a weapon, then maybe this could have been easier. A tattoo that summoned a staff like Ranger Ash, or Hardwood’s gun. Those would have helped. Escape became the only route out. There had to be an exit somewhere.
Where do I go?
I bolted. Not toward the looming presences or the wall I’d been traveling down. This route would hopefully be a hallway to freedom.
Stiff fur brushed against my face. I jerked away, or bounced off a hide and fell over. Teeth snapped. Snarling noises filled the small confine. It sounded like a snake and rooster had mated to create dozens of nightmare creatures that couldn’t speak without retching.
I kept one hand out in defense and fumbled for a weapon. My heart skipped. Once again, I realized those damned priests of the temple had stripped me to nothing but the robe.
The beast attacked. Mushy flesh teeth closed around my arm. Sharp needles pierced through to bone. I screamed then thrashed to the side, attempting to roll my attacker into a position that would let me break away.
My free hand banged against a wall. I longed for gloves, a pickax, or even a simple knife. Those were familiar. Instead I found a stick. It lit up with flame. The sudden flare blinded me.
I swung awkwardly as the creature still latched onto my arm shook its head. The arm ached as flesh tore. My flaming stick pelted the creature over and over. Its fur caught fire and it cried out in panic, releasing my arm.
Two more creatures lunged at me. I gripped the stick with both hands and swung like a wild man. A beast nipped my thigh, but the robe proved thick enough to block the bite. One more caught on fire. The first continued to whimper and fell over, knocking one of its hunting companions down and causing the fire to spread.
I swung again, aiming for the one already panicked in fear. There were more hopping along the wall. They alternated between snarling and looking away. Monsters with gaping mouths and needle-sharp teeth spun in writhing circles.
Thudding filled my ears. One hand tingled with a numbing coldness. The other burned. The conflicting temperatures spiraled toward my heart, like the robe I wore. I pushed them down and sprang at the next creature. It yipped, curled, and bit my weapon instead of me.
My free hand punched it in the head repeatedly. The critter’s body jerked with each impact. I continued until the eye curled up and all signs of life faded. The remaining monsters yipped or barfed and ran off.
Energy lanced up my arm. It raced along my skin and my hair stood on end. Tingles tickled my neck and scalp. I struggled to control my breathing and take stock on what had happened.
The weapon in my hand twisted. I stared at it with confusion. Its tip opened in a hiss. My heart jumped, and I threw the weapon down. It burned then slithered away around a corner. The remaining light helped me confirm there were no living creatures left. It also showed me the three dead monsters that looked like moles crossed with porcupines.
What is going on? I asked.
The air felt still. No more beasts approached for now. I leaned against the wall and wondered if I’d die of poisoning. Poison would surely turn my body into a saggy corpse. Supposing that dead people could die again.
I bled. The aches in my muscles worsened from the repeated swings. My bitten forearm screamed from boiling agony. Under the fabric, I felt fresh blood. Or maybe it were smeared with black inks that weren’t lit up. Nothing made sense to me, at least in a bigger picture view.
What had happened made sense in hindsight, but in the brief bout of darkness, I hadn’t been able to analyze what kind of creatures they were. Common monsters, like blink hounds and others, were named after their traits. Everyone working from Wellbrook to Bell Town knew their natures.
Those furry hissing creatures were dirt rats. They came in all sorts of flavors but acted the same. I’d tossed dozens of them into The Mountain because Harold had asked me to. Him and his Delver pals had murdered a whole slew of them.
Were they dead too? I wondered of the dirt rats.
The stick must have been a stone snake. It wouldn’t care about fire. Apparently, with the rainbow drop’s weird functions or us being dead, that meant it qualified as a weapon. There were tales that spoke of men being turned into rocks after one unlucky bite.
I continued shaking and steadying my breath. My eyes drooped with weariness. A few simple animals had nearly killed me, or made me more dead. Some Ranger I would have made. My head shook, but the jitters weren’t leaving me alone. I shivered from fear, sickness, or hunger.
I have to figure this out.
First, Kenneth’s weird doppelganger had assaulted me. That might have been The Mountain talking through a medium. He’d certainly sounded like an asshole fallen angel should, at least in my head. The way his body fell apart and the eyeball made of ink might have been twisted visions from being bathed in rainbow drops.
Visions of familiar people didn’t occur in the deep mines. Not even when the Jeffs told their wildest tales. Monsters of all sorts, tricks of the light, some spoke of whispers coming from dimly lit tunnels, but never men yelling aloud. Plus, I should be dead.
I felt as though I could have seen all this madness coming. There had been signs aplenty. Momma knew about Daddy’s jobs. The Hound name were implied as hereditary. I could have found a day to ask anyone in the universe what the hell that title had to do with… well with anything.
But I were blinded preparing for the Ranger trials.
The excuse sounded lame. Still, thinking about it all kept me from dwelling on the critters scuttling in darkness. I felt the earth’s pulse. Or maybe it were imagined. Like a dozen huge presences sat somewhere around a corner, ready to spill out and devour everything in its wake.
I had to believe this world used raw ink to form itself. That meant the ink came from the pits of Hell or this weren’t the afterlife. These tunnels weren’t Delver-crafted. None of the walls had been shored up. The ceiling sloped at odd angles. I couldn’t tell for sure, but under the light of fire-coated monsters, the place had seemed like a simple tunnel in the deep mines.
Do the dead bleed? I wondered.
“I ain’t dead yet,” I repeated. “But I ain’t alive either.”
The words held a secret and I couldn’t figure it out. It might have been the near-death experience or the fact that I’d been bleeding. Maybe the simple shock of falling into The Mountain’s heart—or being pushed by those clerics—had played a part.
More snarls and yips came from the direction the stone snake had slithered off to. I hoped it were my former weapon catching monsters on fire. I’d ponder my status in the afterlife once I found a safer place.
Creatures continued their angry whimpers. I stumbled on blindly, afraid to use the marking on my back for fear it’d trigger visions of Pastor Kenneth’s evil twin.
At a corner, or a doorway, I dug rocks from the wall. They touched the marking and glowed a sick green, black, and finally red again. The color bounced like a heartbeat but lit up the area exactly as a miner’s helmet would. I found a few more to serve as projectiles.
I can see why Rangers have tattoos for weapons.
The tunnels were endless. Exhaustion pulled at my eyes. Sounds surrounded me, but nothing could be seen under the pulsing red light. I risked using the Darkness Ward to get a better view.
I’d been here before. This pit looked exactly like the one Hardwood had led me to when we were hunting the bear in the deep mines. The pools of ink didn’t have the same color though. Instead of rolling liquid shining with a trapped rainbow, these pits were filled with gray. As if it couldn’t decide between being white or black or any color at all.
“You ain’t hard enough, brat.”
I turned to find a new person standing in the dark tunnel. Hardwood’s arms were crossed and lips puckered, making her leathery face seem sour. She spit on the ground then turned toward me.
“You may never be!” she shouted while drawing a gun. Green energy coiled around the barrel as she raised it in my direction.
I fumbled for a weapon of my own and came up empty again. Hardwood’s arms tensed slowly enough that I could see her pulling the trigger. I dove to one side. My arms and legs worked to shuffle me away like a four-legged beast.
The gun cracked six times. Each shot thudded. A low humming growl came from behind me. I jerked my head to glance at the other being.
A huge monster reared above me. Brier patches sprouted at each wound. Its arms raised, mouth frozen mid snarl. The creature’s snout were too long for a bear. The back muscles created a hunch that didn’t fit any creature I’d seen come out of The Mountain. It whimpered like one of Cassandra’s endless miles of mutts. The body warped and withered. The green patches where Hardwood’s bullets had struck abruptly reversed their growing.
My chest itched then ache. I glanced down and felt my ribs push their way outward. Cracks brought spikes of pain. There were wiggling bits inside me, under the skin, writhing. I fell, clutching my robe and huffing. Pounding filled my ears. A sharp jab of pain lingered in my chest. It went on and on until my eyes refused to see and my ears couldn’t hear anything except a low whine.
The hurt stayed with me. I smacked an arm around, flailing for anything that might help. My hand thudded against a solid object. I repeated the motion uselessly. I couldn’t tell what size the objects were or where my hands ended up. Only that my arm bounced. I couldn’t see what I’d grabbed. One thought made it through the murk. Somehow, Hardwood’s briars were inside me and not the monster.
My body swayed to the side and into one of the gray, indecisive pits. My mind shut up, folded on itself and a lot of other sensations that didn’t make sense. With it came blackness.
A time later, licking assaulted my face. I twitched. My eyes opened and the location had changed. My belly tightened and pain hit. The shock made me double up, causing more damage.
I violently coughed.
“Whoa now. Take it easy,” a rough voice said.
Shallow breaths reduced the sudden influx of agony. I rode the latest wave with short gasps for air.
“It’ll pass. Let the green do its work.”
I didn’t have a marking that healed, unless the rainbow drop somehow twisted a weapon around to leech vitality from a monster. That thought shattered as a fresh bout of pain hit me. This time, I heard the sound of a bone snapping under sudden pressure.
“Careful. Don’t fight it.”
Branches snapped. Heat came from nearby. My chest slowly expanded for air. I focused on not letting the bursting sensation grow. Muscles ached and twitched.
“Use the power. Let it go where it’s trying to go. It’s like swimming with the stream, not against it. Don’t think about it. Do. Struggling will only make the wounds reopen.” The man’s tone vibrated like a struck horseshoe. There were no other way to describe it.
I still didn’t know who spoke. Their words felt far away. Everything did, except the expanding feeling. My chest seemed two sizes too small. Both legs struggled. Fingernails itched, burned, and cooled.
“The hooks are in deep. Down to your bones and the very marrow. But we can use those.”
A hand passed over me. I noticed too late to get more than a glimpse. It was human, rough, and leathery like Hardwood’s hands. Or Tawny’s. But with a monstrous strength to them. Trails, afterimages, something hung in the air where the person had reached across. I felt cool pressure against my forehead. Turning hurt, but I needed to see the man who spoke with such a foreign tone.
“Careful now. Moving suddenly will bend your body wrong. Lying on your side, that’ll help. Fetal position makes the change easier.”
I finally got more than a glimpse of the man. He’d ventured beyond road worn and dust-riddled. Dirt were caked upon his face while streaks of black and brown ran down his hair and skin. His sweat-stained clothes were in tatters. His shoulders huge and waist narrow.
“Watch the knees. Don’t tuck your head too far down.”
“What?” I managed to ask aloud.
“You remind me of my son. Full of questions I don’t have time for.” His tone managed to be rough and soothing.
I’d asked one question. One single word spoken out loud, and I’d been chastised. My voice cracked and lips ached. To hell with him, the dead can ask all the questions they want.
“Why?” I asked.
“First time’s the roughest. Crossing over takes its toll. Then you wake and find out you’re not human anymore.”
The fire in front of him moved wrong. The flames were turquoise. They flickered every few heartbeats then froze in a new position.
The warmth were real. Shivers crawled down my back, and I jerked to put a hand in front of me. It didn’t look right. Fear gripped my heart and I jumped, crying out from a fresh wave of pain.
I twitched. My toes dug in the dirt. It felt cool, like damp morning grass, but it almost had no substance.
It took time. What it was that required time I couldn’t tell. How much, I couldn’t say. This place operated by rules that made no sense. The fire continued its intermittent dance, and the other man stirred it with a stick. Eventually, I managed to confront my hands without thrashing about wildly.
The fingers were too long and the wrong color. They were black. A breeze rolled through, making the fire dance. New patterns rippled down my fur. It reminded me of the Heart Seeker marking, but on a dog’s fur.
Hound, a voice whispered. The clerics on the hill had repeated that word. That title. That description.
None of this made sense. No, it made sense as a visual, but the reasoning behind it had been muddled.
I curled my fingers, and the strange claws turned into a fist. They were sharper and thicker than normal.
“You’re confused,” the man said.
I nodded slowly. The motion hurt.
“See. Statements are worth more than questions. Questions are an impulse, a need to figure out something. You’ll be stronger if you learn to stop questioning and deal with facts.”
“I don’t understand what’s happening.”
“Of course you don’t. None of us do the first time. That’s why someone is here to guide you. Someone stronger. Someone smarter. Someone who knows how to do more than ask useless questions.”
Stronger than me? That much probably went without saying. My body felt weaker than a newborn’s. I could barely think coherently. But who is he? And how is he going to guide me?
He thumbed his nose. The sudden dry scraping sound made me twitch. Moving hurt less than it had. I shook briefly while scanning the area.
This place reminded me of home. It could have been any clearing halfway between Wellbrook Mines and Chandler’s Field. There were even mountains in the distance that reminded me of Butcher Hills. They were farther away and covered by a haze blurring their tops.
I coughed then shook with pain.