“I see. You’re still fighting the change and need to be distracted. I’ll talk, you listen.” He poked the fire again. “But this time isn’t forever. I’ll only stay until the sun rises. Then you’ll need to go home the same way you came.”
How is that? I questioned, but said nothing. My companion didn’t seem to want interruptions or anything sounding unsure.
“This is The Field.” He said The Field in the way others spoke of The Mountain. As if there were only one in all of existence.
I sat up, and my teeth chattered. My body curled too far forward. My head hung. Creatures moved in the distance and sounded right next to us but had to be farther away. They had to.
“Here, we fight The War. The only war that matters. The War that will exist after everything else is ground to dust.”
“The War?” I felt stupefied.
He jabbed the fire with his stick. It crackled into a new position then froze. “I don’t like questions.”
My mouth sealed until not even chattering escaped. He’d said someone had to guide me, but it felt unfair that the person teaching me what to do… whatever the nebulous hell that were, didn’t want questions.
He nodded. “You can’t see it from here. This place is huge. Giant beyond belief. As big as Earth.”
The ragged man chewed on something. I couldn’t tell what, but it made me wonder about my own hunger. The dead, apparently, could feel starved.
“I’ll say it, and it won’t make sense entirely. Or you won’t believe me. Or you’ll accept it and not realize how important it is. Doesn’t matter which really.” He spit on the ground then lifted his head back toward the sky.
I followed his gaze upward. Stars were above. They twinkled and distorted, as if fog hung in the air.
“This is where all the power is. The air’s thick with it. Heavy. It smells different with each breath. Sometimes I smell my wife’s pies in the wind. But she’d never be enslaved like us. I refused to let her be touched by the ink.”
I’d sniffed the air myself. No pies, but I could smell chopped wood and damp pine. There were hints of tiny chocolates like the ones I’d sneaked to Jenny. I took another breath and seized with pain. The hurt had almost become a forgotten memory. My chest still ached and fingers felt wrong, but I’d enjoyed being distracted for a moment.
“This place. It’s where all of us, anyone touched by the stuff of creation, come to. Here we continue to fight, man against monster, for all eternity. They’re all here. Delvers from every corner of the world. Felines from the Butcher Hills. Slithers from the Lost Ruins. Dragoons from the Lake of Galahad. And us.”
I almost opened my mouth to ask what “us” meant. His description sounded like an afterlife. A place where our tainted bodies went after death. It made sense that The Mountain hadn’t let any of us go. I’d known it for years. Daddy had said it to me many times before.
Poor Hound. Once The Mountain has you, there’s no getting free. Tattooist Cassandra hadn’t said those words. Neither had Daddy. But I could hear them speaking in a mocking unison.
“Sun’s almost up,” he said.
Time passed strangely. It’d been full night a few minutes ago. He’d hardly spoken more than a few lines. I couldn’t have spent that much time wool-gathering and staring at my strange hands.
“Here we fight the war for reasons beyond me.” He dug his fingers into the dirt then shuddered. “I knew a woman once who claimed to know what had happened. How all this came about. She named me. No doubt someone named you as well. You’ll wish they hadn’t, because names have the wrong kind of power.”
It sounded as though this fight had been going on for generations or more. His words gave me the impression he didn’t care about the past and worked only to survive the present. The man had iron to him, his body tight and locked in a single position. Only his arm moved. I wondered how long he’d been fighting this supposed war in the middle of nowhere.
Or maybe I’d gone mad and made up some daydream based on all the horrors of my life. I nodded as though I understood what the hell were going on.
He continued. “There’re creatures that cross between worlds. They recruit soldiers. They bring in others to fight the war by tainting them. While Rangers, that’s what they were called when I were still a man, work to keep the borders safe.”
I nodded again. It fit with what I’d seen over the years. Creatures came from The Mountain and we kept fighting them back. He spoke as if we were simply on the other side of a coin or over the Butcher Hills, fighting the enemy empires.
“Generals get through the tears. They sneak by, or we—I—can’t fight them all back. There they devour the material of creation until they grow strong enough to kill our soldiers. Or they aim for babies in their cribs.”
I got lost in the steel ring to his voice. The words he said should have meant more but didn’t. We could have been talking of the weather. He continued speaking, and I struggled to absorb the words.
“I’m telling you all this for two reasons. First, there’s a good chance you won’t remember a damned thing when you leave here. This shadow world ain’t meant for the daylight side.” He spared me a glance, pried my hands off the rag I’d been holding to my forehead without realizing, then touched my skin. His hand was warm. “And second, I wish someone had told me. Instead, my daddy only asked if I wanted to go back to the land of the living and protect my loved ones, or join the war. I went back. It might have been better to stay here.”
I didn’t know what to say. His words went onto a pile of half understood ideas I couldn’t figure out how to handle. There it’d join Cassandra’s speech about pups and Harold’s foolish dreamers searching for silver.
“I was… able to choose. Like you. Having flesh meant I could go back to the other side. I didn’t have to stay here and fight this endless conflict.”
Surely I’d died the second time, when Hardwood’s enchanted bullets filled me with briars. Correction—she’d shot that distorted canine creature.
That really happened though? I wondered.
This couldn’t be heaven. These might be the kinds of lessons that were said to be taught to dear souls upon death. But talking with a man in a field, The Field, about The War couldn’t be redeeming. This couldn’t lead me to redemption in the eyes of God.
My hands were the same shape. I might be living another person’s hell. A tenuous relief washed over me, and I realized he’d offered another tidbit.
“What do you mean… having flesh? Am I alive?” I asked, forgetting my guide’s dislike for inquiries.
“Don’t ask me. Tell me.” He glared at the horizon.
I couldn’t tell why, but he seemed reluctant to glance in my direction. Maybe it had to do with the nature of this place.
“I’m alive,” I said.
“Say it again. Sound sure of yourself.”
That couldn’t be done. The dead didn’t get to call themselves alive and mean it. Asking questions and risking the ire of a ragged mountain man were within reason. Believing I still lived were not. I’d be dead until proven otherwise.
“You won’t make it through the gateway without being sure, and your time is running out. Flesh doesn’t last forever. Not over there. Especially not here. This place, it’s a rot on the body.”
Gateway? I wondered.
I struggled to put the pieces together, but so many topics were going on that it made no sense. Gateways were between pieces of property or larger homesteads. Wars on fields that were fought years ago made sense on their own, but neither one belonged inside The Mountain.
Flesh had been what I’d brought down into The Mountain. Flesh—my body—were The Mountain’s to judge. A giant jigsaw puzzle were in my head. All the pieces were fitting together. It had a picture, but the image made no sense.
I muddled over my own status. The possibilities were split between being dead and in hell, being confused and thinking I’d become a dog man, or being alive and knowing all this were real.
“If you’re dead, you’ll stay here and fight. If you’re alive, you could go back and escape his clutches.”
“The Mountain’s,” I said.
“The Mountain.” He snorted as if I’d told a joke. “I haven’t heard him called that in an age.” My companion leaned back and inhaled deeply. “It’s not the mountain. That’s where he punched through. He were driven back decades ago. But the man and the location aren’t the same.”
“The Mountain’s a man,” I stated.
“Course it’s a man. A fallen angel. One of God’s sons. It wouldn’t be a woman.”
They might have been angels before their fall. Down into the earth they went, or were sent, Harold had said.
I’d come out on the other side of a pool of uncolored ink, if such a thing were possible. This were where Angels came from. Or I’d fallen prey to a delusion.
He shook his head. “Only men are stupid enough to go to war when they’re angry at their daddy. Women fight their battles in a smarter way. Least that’s what my wife used to say. Smart woman. Smarter than any man I’d ever met before or since.”
My companion had obviously fought in a ton of wars. It also sounded like he thought women weren’t fighters. Or at least, that were the implication I got from his speech.
Momma might not like to hear anyone considered her lesser. She’d always been strong, before Daddy died. Then it were as if someone had snuffed out her candle. Poss handled her business with an iron fist, and Mister Proctor fell in line with equal surety. Jenn would have roasted this person’s balls on a spit, were she dead and in this foreign hell.
The ground rumbled. With each vibration, the blue flame flickered into a new position. My supposed guide tensed, took a deep breath, and held still. Earth shook again and he smiled weakly at me.
“Remember what I told you. Dealing in questions won’t help you. Deal only in what is— not what might be. Getting lost in the ifs of life will cause cracks,” he said.
Cracks in what? I kept the question to myself.
He stood. It were like watching a giant stand. With each second, he loomed larger and shined with power that crackled along his body. Not ink, but something primal. Raw in the way thunder and lightning carried themselves in a boiling storm cloud. Not only had his size changed, but his build had as well. His body towered over me in the form of a dog given man’s shape, his fur rippling every color of the rainbow.
I’d never seen a dog man creature born of The Mountain, but that was what he’d become. Only he had a savage, feral edge.
“Now say it again. Tell me you’re alive.”
Thunder cracked above even though there were no rain clouds. If God Hisself came down to Earth and commanded me, it would have been in the same tone.
“I’m alive,” I said, wanting my voice to feel as certain as the giant power looming over me.
“Again.” His voice shook me as if I were no more than a leaf arguing with the wind.
“I’m alive!” I shouted.
“Now go. Get through the gateway. Alive.”
He waved me off. I stood, lost. I’d never seen the gateway he spoke of. I barely understood how I’d arrived at this place. Surely that hadn’t been the real Hardwood, shooting a dog creature that somehow hurt me instead.
“Where do I go?” I asked.
He sighed heavily and his nose flared. In the distance, something huge, bigger than him, loomed. With each step toward us, the earth shook. His head shook as he turned to face the giant.
I risked another question. “Where’s the gateway?”
The man’s face, which now resembled a dog’s more than any human’s, frowned. One ear perked. He shifted slightly and listened to a steady pounding from the distance. Following the slamming noise, metal jangled.
The obscured figure barreled toward us from the distance. Withe each long stride the enemy became clearer. It were a creature made of metal and carrying a pike. Eyes of fiery red peered from under the foe’s helmet. The armored man swayed and raised the weapon, jabbing it at the dog man my companion had become. Whatever space between them, be it miles or more, seemed to flood in on itself with freakish speed. Outstretched pike struck the dog man, drawing a line of red and sending blood flying over the landscape. The huge wolf grabbed the weapon and lashed out, rending the arm to shreds, tearing the weapon away.
Ground near me shook with each thunderous step of their oversized bodies. I threw up my hands to ward off their feet. Through a cage of fingers I saw him point a path for me. The gesture cost him as the former pike-wielder attacked. My guide’s body twisted into a curl and bounced back on top of the giant in armor. He glanced down at me and raised his elongated lips in a snarl. His head jerked as a gesture toward the distance.
I knew that head motion. It reminded me of how Daddy used to give me a shaky nod, letting me know he intended to go to The Mountain. He’d also hated questions, preferring to teach by example.
“Daddy?” I questioned.
A second enemy joined the first. The huge feral canine snarled and tore his first opponent’s head clean from its metal body. He wasted no time before diving for the newest foe. His feet traveled away from me, clearing yards, or miles in seconds. I couldn’t rightly tell distance in this place.
The giant detached cranium spun to a halt nearby. Its red eyes dimmed, never once showing a sign of noticing me. Metal clanked as its body toppled, and another monster stomped out of a looming sunrise that blurred the horizon.
I stared, feeling confused and lost. He’d told me to go home, but the path didn’t have a clear exit. If it were my daddy, I needed to stay and help.
The creature he fought bent, bringing its weapon around. The wolf swayed back, twisted to all fours, and ran hundreds of feet in a few bounds. Dirt flew. My lungs struggled for clean air. None of my powers were strong enough to deal with these creatures.
Worse still, those men of metal weren’t like the monsters of ink I’d been raised with. They were something worse, meaner, and somehow less human.
I can’t worry about that now, I thought.
He’d said to only deal in sureties, but there were too many questions. Maybe he had been my daddy at one time. Maybe this world existed as a strange reflection of the one I knew. I couldn’t afford to spend time second-guessing.
I needed to deal with facts. I’d been pushed into The Mountain’s heart and come out dead or in another realm. That meant my way out of here, and back to the other side, might be through The Mountain’s heart.
The fire flickered and changed to a new position. I ran by it, headed for the haze-covered mountain in the distance.
The air stank of mildew and sheep’s fur. Thick trees lined the countryside ahead. Those farthest from the forest’s edge had been chopped down, leaving behind uneven stumps. I puzzled over the idea that anyone chopped wood here and assured myself the dead souls still used logs for their frozen flames.
Two trees crashed in opposite directions as a man of metal barreled from the forest. His body had signs of red that were out of place on the otherwise polished armor. It carried a long pike like the others.
Just my luck. This one is normal-sized, I thought.
The other monsters had ignored me. This one pushed through trees and almost seemed upset. The armor faceplate made knowing for sure impossible. I couldn’t ponder the possibilities as to why it had a grudge against trees. There were sides to this war and none of them would matter unless I got stuck here.
I skirted wide around the creature. It ignored me and continued its attack on the trees. For only a moment, I wondered if I should stop the monster. Then I remembered I still hadn’t much in the way of weapons.
A few more armored beings were farther in the trees. They fought back against nature. I slowed my frantic pace and shuffled steadily toward the mockery of a mountain’s top. My leg seized and my toes curled in displeasure. Pain didn’t stop me. I’d survived months in the mines; I could make it up the hill.
Time passed. I couldn’t say how much because when I attempted to find a safe spot and think, something crashed nearby. The earth thudded with the seemingly endless battle back on The Field.
There were no clear paths. The slope ahead of me had too much unstable ground. I slowly walked along, searching for an easier path up the ridgeline.
A screech of noise set me back. I huddled to the earthen wall behind me and searched for the source. Sounds came from all over. Critters were in the woods. I saw their dark red eyes floating above what were surely hungry maws. One ambled forward, body swaying as it bobbed on uneven feet. More leapt out of the woods and bit the first one. Their entire ball of chaos became a bundle of squawks and molted fur flying everywhere.
I glanced at the mess. They left an opening. My only hope at getting back home were up the hill. My sudden dive for escape made the creatures halt in unison. Two dead monsters lay in their midst, and three more were wounded. The first one’s companions turned to hop after me.
Dozens of the creatures would be too much. I grabbed a stick in hopes that it might burst into flame like the one prior. Blue raced up its side. A small lace of green joined the blue, creating a twist of turquoise.
They continued after me. I dodged by a tree and around some bushes. Some crashed into objects without regard for their own well-being. Thuds followed wood snapping. I threw the stick behind me and felt a wash of exhaustion.
Using the marking drained me. I’d fired over a dozen bullets and passed out. Throwing an equal number of sticks might not work out well. They were bigger. That one blast had drained me as much as a full round.
Shrill noises came from behind. I ran, searching for an escape route. A sudden yowl preceded something black and white diving from the bushes. My feet gave way, a hand raised to defend my face. The creature sailed overhead while screaming a feline battle cry.
Who? I asked myself.
The Feline raked at the monsters with her claws. Black spots and white blotches intermingled upon a clearly female form. She wore nothing, literally nothing.
“Back!” she yelled in a gargled tone.
I hadn’t expected to run into anyone in these woods. A stupid mentality. There were likely people everywhere, strewn across the abnormally large field. Among them were monsters and large armored murder machines. My thoughts flashed to the empty helmet.
There were too many possible factors. The man had been right—focus only on what I knew. The Feline fought back the dirt rats. That’s what those misshapen creatures must be, for no other mountain spawned creature had that mixture of features. When in battle, their numbers only increased.
Escape would be impossible. Fleeing while a girl fought to save me would mark me a coward. I grabbed another stick, intent on having a weapon to beat them back. The two of us might win. My body swayed as the ugly stick lit a sickly yellow.
What does yellow do again?
I shook my head and stumbled toward the fight. My legs shaky, I swung for the critter but fell instead. The yellow touched it, and the dirt rat shrieked as its body crumpled.
More dove for me. I flailed the ugly stick around. Monsters yelled. Others tore at my flesh, shredding the damaged robe. The Feline barreled into creatures, freeing me. A second horde came out of the woods like angry cockroaches. The stick cracked.
Two more received smacks before my weapon faltered. Yellow energy still lit the remaining half. I jabbed in into a dirt rat’s side then stepped back. The creature’s death throes yanked my stick away as it spun in circles then lay still.
The stream of monsters continued to chase us. My Feline savior’s energy had drained.
She turned to me, open-mouthed and whiskers twitching. Her chest heaved as she gasped. “Where do we go?”
I blinked a few times. Running wouldn’t work for me. She’d be able to go, but her question implied we were in this together. These ones showed no signs of fleeing like cowards. Their horde had grown too large for them to show standard fear.
I suggested a worse solution. “The armored soldiers. Will they fight these?”
They continued attacking while we spoke. She raked her claw-like hands at one. I punched one then spun. All escape routes were cut off. A full circle formed around us as the weaker ones stayed back. I’d never seen so many dirt rats in one place.
“Yes. The suits fight everything that lives.”
“Know where one is?”
They bit at me. Claws tore my skin each time I failed to drive them back. Fear made it easier to talk.
“East!” she shouted, then darted off.
The Feline drove right into the line of monsters. I ran after her, focusing on the bobbing black-and-white tail. A dirt rat latched onto my arm as I struggled to keep up. I spared a moment to punch it frantically in the head. It slobbered and growled violently. Each punch sent pain up my arm. I groaned and wished I’d been given a green.
We crashed into a tree. I pinned the creature and gave it another solid hit. It went limp. I coughed wetly then continued after the Feline. She’d gotten ahead. Some dirt rats were fixated on her, or must have been, since they ignored me.
Surely I’m dead, I thought. Being dead would explain why I can survive so much without a green. Or a brown. Or toughness.
So many different markings would have helped me more than random effects for weapons. We kept going. I cradled my arm and pushed aside the pain. I didn’t even have the strength to yell.
Soon the tail got lost in the field of monsters. I couldn’t make out the trees from the horde. They chittered, hissed, and were insane. The dirt rats seemed to be laughing at my failure to keep running in fear. I stumbled and fought off another that tried to bring me down. It coughed, let go, and shook its head. My chest thumped and head grew fuzzier with each passing moment.
They were all around. In my ears. In my head. Coughing wet noises sounded like a chain of roosters being strangled. I huffed and moved blindly. There were no signs of armored warriors. I couldn’t hear the Feline over this noise. She must have run away.
I’d die here—a third time. Surely this would be the end. I closed my eyes and repeated the words that vagabond had told me to use.
“I’m alive,” I said.
The dirt rats drowned me. There were too many to fight back now. I felt them tearing, pulling my flesh.
“I’m alive.” My voice choked. I felt wet and couldn’t say the words right.
I’m alive, I repeated. Pain overrode the barest hint of a thought. My neck tightened and arms pulled in as creatures bumped me. I hung on to the hurt because it was all that remained.
The pressure lightened. I couldn’t see clearly. One of the dirt rats pulled my arm with too much force. Bits of light shined through, but there were too much blood in my eyes.
I huffed for air, surprised I could still breathe. Blood pounded loudly, drowning all but the shrillest cries. My eyelids fluttered, and I could see dirt rats being murdered in droves as though someone were swinging a large scythe.
My body jerked. Someone bent over me. A white-and-black blob appeared in my vision. The face turned slightly and a large ear on the side of her skull twitched.
“Come on,” she whispered. The Feline lifted me over her shoulder and ran.
A thousand tiny tears cried out in protest. She ignored me and took off. The sounds of monsters dying continued behind us. I lifted my head once and eyed the single knight in armor cutting down the critters.
This world is mad, I thought.
Despite gritting teeth and a host of aches, darkness swallowed me again.