“No!” I woke, jerking both arms to cover my face from the blows surely still coming. There were none.
I flopped, got upright, hissed in pain, and fell back onto the ground. The worst day in the mines had never hurt this badly. I felt as if someone had jammed glass shards into my flesh then ground them in for extra effect. I gasped and rode out the wave. It carried on longer than desired. Each moment felt like a battle against lingering damage. My face, arms, legs, and torso cried out from abuse.
“Sir? I’ve prepared green. Don’t worry. It will help you. Lay still.”
“Green?” I questioned.
She nodded. “It’s everywhere here. All the colors are. They make up—I don’t know. Plants? Air? Everything, I think.” She smiled and seemed confused.
I blinked slowly and slipped to a prone position. The ground were no more comfortable than being propped up, but at least the world stopped spinning.
She applied a paste to my exposed bits of skin. Skin jumped with each contact, cooling after. I almost remembered waking up by a campfire a few hours ago. It’d been much the same, my body mending from hurts put upon it by a situation that made little sense.
That moment felt like this one. I felt bad that I’d constantly gotten hurt. Having two doses of green ink to feed me were out of place. Back home, we’d be lucky to get a barrel or two of green in a month. It fetched the highest prices.
“It’s this place. This afterlife. We can’t be more than we were in life, but we can use everything around us. Each item is living, and dead, made of something like the ink. More monsters too.”
There had been far more critters than I’d ever seen outside the mines. Even in the mines, I’d never seen a big group. That many dirt rats could have murdered an entire family, their dogs, and the next farm over to boot.
“Do you know what you are? You’re not a failed Wildling. You’re not a Feline,” she said.
I hadn’t seen my face and only noticed the shift to my hands. They weren’t normal, but felt so natural I’d hardly thought about them. It didn’t matter what I felt or looked like. The clerics and Tattooist Cassandra had named me. The Mountain had named me.
Hound, they’d said.
“You’re like, a dog version of what I became.”
I slowly pieced together a dozen different ideas from the last few months. Hound, as a title, meant something more than simply a dog. It weren’t like other Ranger names, who were associated with colors. Obsidian tied into blacks. Wan related to lighter whites, I thought. Tawny with yellow. They were as much descriptions of the Rangers as they were titles.
But what does Hound do? Am I like the other creature I saw, the giant of lightning and thunder?
“I don’t think you’re like that other one fighting on The Field. You’re too small. Too…” She faltered for a moment. “Weak.”
I blinked with confusion. She’d answered a question I’d kept inside my head. She’d done so more than once during our brief time together. It worried me.
“Don’t be scared. I’m very good at knowing what people are thinking, or what they need. I’ve always been good at it, sir.” She shrugged and smiled. The display of happiness died quickly. “They say my family has a trace of the gift. Something separate from the ink.”
Gift or no, she’d rescued and healed me. I couldn’t see being scared of her. My body felt miles better. Running would be difficult, but I felt sure I could defend myself against a single person, Feline or not. And Momma had raised me to be polite to ladies.
“Chase,” I mumbled while tapping my chest like a caveman. Any more subtlety were beyond me. Her fur patterns suddenly clicked and a light bulb lit. “You’re Poss’s servant. Abby.”
She smiled and nodded urgently. “Yes. And no. Abby’s my daughter.”
That confused me. I’d expected she’d been more than a mere servant, but I hadn’t known the exact relationship. Poss wouldn’t escort anyone common up The Mountain for the procession.
“Not simply her servant, sir. We were lovers at times. Though that feels like ages ago.” She sniffed the air and glanced around.
That seemed insanely private as a detail. “Why tell me?” I asked, before she could answer the partial thought.
“Sir? Because I miss my lady,” the Feline said. Her eyes watered and whiskers flicked. “And if you’re Chase, then you must be Chase Craig. Lily’s first. She spoke of you with a smile.”
What did that have to do with confessions?
“Out here, finding people is hard. Lily said you were kind to her. That’s good enough for me.” She laughed.
Lily had left for a better life. I’d been kind, sure. I would have been kind to her my whole life if I’d thought, for a moment, I could give her everything she deserved.
My mind shut down the memories. They did no good out here in the wilderness. I put more thought into what the Feline had been saying.
Poss and her? I’d heard of humans having relationships with beings altered by The Mountain. I’d heard of women who preferred the company of other women. Those two together made my mind blank for a moment.
“Yes, sir. I love Poss. God help me, I’ve wanted to say that for years.” She glanced down then shook her head while flashing her fleeting smile. “It’s a strange thing to think I had to die to finally say what was in my heart.”
The bushes rustled.
“Come on. We can’t sit here long. It’s dangerous, and worse still at the top.” She dashed away.
I walked much slower after her. We continued up the mountain’s side, straight for the top. The Feline stayed ahead. At times I’d catch her walking bushes or trees. There’d be a brief scuffle, then a death rattle of some monster slightly out of sight. I closed my eyes briefly and continued up the path, thankful she’d taken to keeping guard.
Felines were excellent wilderness hunters. If it hadn’t been for me, she probably could have escaped the horde and whittled them down one by one.
I propped myself on a tree and caught my breath. The trek wore me to the bones. Being so close to death’s door—twice—had taken a toll on my body. If home were truly an option, I’d get back, sleep a month of Sundays, and drain the meager savings I had getting a real green, on booze, and maybe even buy some time with a woman.
“I am alive,” I whispered. “I am in hell, but I am alive.”
“You’re not too far off, sir,” the Feline said in a low tone.
I sucked in a breath and settled once I realized she’d sneaked up on me. My legs were about to give way.
“Sir? We can’t stay here. That other fellow said you need to get back. Though I’m afraid once you’re gone, all that’s left for me will be fighting.”
My brows twitched.
“I heard him speak. His voice carried.”
“Okay,” I said slowly. Her ability to understand my questions were uncanny.
“To the top. That’s where we’d go. Right?”
I nodded. That’d been the only destination that made sense.
“Then you go down and come out the other side. Your soul and flesh are still one. I can see it, plain as I used to see a nose.” She smiled. “Or know when the missus wanted a drink.” She crooked a paw and motioned for me to join her. In her hands were a pike, or spear, whatever the proper term, just like the armored creatures wielded.
I nodded and resumed the trek. The sooner we reached the top, the quicker I’d be on my way back to the land of the living. Any questions on what to do next would have to wait. The older man had been right on that front. Here, we needed to deal with what were in front of us and visible facts.
A dozen steps up the hill, I stopped and asked a question I’d never thought to utter. “What’s a soul look like?”
The Feline turned and smiled. It were a strange conflict of features. Her eyes, how they twisted at the sides and watered slightly, always seemed so sad. But that grin could light up a room.
“Like tarnished silver,” she answered.
After that, we spoke no more until reaching the top. There were other monsters. I saw the edge of a murder of barbed ravens. They were like normal birds but with hooks on their heads growing all wrong, and longer talons. There were blink hounds, but they skirted us. All the while, the Feline continued vanishing into the woods and returned clutching the spear.
Then we stood at the top. It looked almost exactly the same as the real world’s version. A deep, wide hole went into the ground. At the bottom, a lake of gray shimmered. I couldn’t figure out what the lack of color meant, but the pool I’d fallen through before had had the shame sheen.
Seeing The Mountain without a temple or clerics struck me as odd. A dozen statues stood around the cusp and faced inward. They were gray, like the water, and their faces smooth without features.
“Down there?” I asked.
“I don’t know for sure, sir. Makes sense though. Light comes out of this end into the mountain as ink. Reality comes through here as colorless. But I can tell. Alive and hard to make it through.”
That word again, I thought. Hard. Like it meant something more than a simple measure of durability.
“I’m alive,” I said automatically. “What about you? You’re talking to me. Surely you must be alive?”
She glanced at the pool and shuffled her feet. I looked at her arm for a moment. The black-and-white fur had been covered by something red-tinged. She blocked the sight before I could figure out what the coloration meant.
“Sorry, sir.” She smiled weakly. “I’m already dead.”
My stomach sank. This place really were hell. I’d simply popped through a pool of ink for a visit. I wondered what would happen if I grabbed her and took us both into the pool. She’d killed dozens of monsters. Surely she’d be considered hard enough by any Ranger’s measure.
“You couldn’t take me, sir. My place is here. But you can do me a favor.”
The Feline shuffled her feet and kept the odd-colored arm behind her. That spear stuck up straight by her side. “Tell Possy I love her. Tell her it wasn’t her fault about the ladder. Will you do you that, Mister Craig, sir?” The Feline’s eyes watered.
I couldn’t place her name, but I’d never forget her face. It weren’t often a woman looked at me while crying and begging. Even if Poss irritated me with her high society ways, I’d still pass on the message.
My head dipped in another nod.
“Thank you, Mister Craig.”
She pushed me. The situation felt so strangely euphoric. My body weighed heavy and plummeted. My hands stretched out then pulled back tightly. This had happened before. A tingle shot up my back, pushing away all other thoughts.
I fell again. Above me, bearing silent witness, stood Poss’s dead lover. The weapon in her hand glowed a rusty red.
The world blackened and came to at high speeds. I didn’t even feel a thud of force or anything else, only the shift of gravity spinning around me.
My body sat up. A tingling feeling rushed over me. Both hands were back to normal, with splotches of the rainbow drop and the Heart Seeker on either side. The robe I’d been pushed down in were in tatters.
The pool of gray next to me cast off dull illumination. I stood and glanced around. There were no signs of the dead wolf Hardwood’s evil twin had shot.
The world felt a bit clearer than it had before. I replayed in my mind what had happened and struggled to find out where it’d all gone wrong. There’d been a lot of places, but surely I’d be forgiven for losing my mind as insanity unfolded around me.
Dog barking. Cassandra’s dogs. Down and further down I’d gone into that place. That wolf-faced man on The Field. My own furry hands on the other side. Being named Hound. It all fit together.
But how? Goddammit, how?
I needed to get out of this place. There were only a few routes out of the deep mines. This place, real or not, seemed to reflect facts from the world I understood. That should mean that reaching the surface would get me out.
“I’m alive,” I repeated the mantra with more surety than I’d felt all day. Having a goal helped.
Up, out, then answers.
Without red ink or the darkness shroud, I’d never make it out of the mines. They’d dumped me in on a full moon and at most a day had passed. I risked the Darkness Ward, and my back muscles twisted as it activated.
The world grew brighter. I glanced around for twisted visions but found nothing. The pool to my left stayed the same dull color that could have become white or black with ease.
Dirt shuffled. Someone cursed. I turned sharply then saw Ranger Tawny with an ax in his hand. His gaunt features made his clothes seem baggy. Scents lingered about the man and wafted my direction. Lilacs, field flowers, roses—like an old woman who wore too much perfume.
Hardwood smelled of thick trees and reminded me of the deep woods a few miles from home.
Why can I smell them?
The frozen moment passed as Tawny tilted his head. He stared over my head. I turned and realized if I could smell Hardwood, she must be here. She leveled the gun again.
A dog barked. I whirled, expecting to find the same beast over my shoulder. The room sat empty besides us three.
“Told you, you ain’t alive!” she shouted then cocked the gun.
I bolted. I’d be damned if Hardwood shot me twice.
The dim light worked against me. I fumbled through a barely visible pathway as Hardwood shot. The bullets cracked with so much noise, my body tilted sideways in immediate vertigo. It might have been a marking effect. Maybe Tawny had cursed me somehow.
“Mongrel!” Hardwood shouted.
My sight wavered with the attack. I put together a few stray thoughts as bullets pounded the walls behind me. She’d spoken. The real Hardwood hadn’t said a damned thing during our hunt. Either she got annoyed quicker or this were another vision.
I memorized the next dozen feet then let go of the marking’s power.
A dozen feet later, I slammed into a wall where there should have been a doorway. The lead I had over Hardwood dwindled as I scrambled to find my feet. Only Hardwood weren’t there. I huffed, alone in the dark, and wondered what the hell had happened.
Deal with the facts.
The visions triggered whenever I struggled to see in the dark. The Eyes of a Man markings must be tied to the effect. Using the markings made visions appear. That other place with the man who turned into a giant wolf-man might have been real. It might not have. He’d also told me not to get lost in the possibilities, so I couldn’t let that situation influence my beliefs.
What do I know?
I knew few things for sure. Panic, in bucket loads. Fear, like a wet blanket that threatened to rob me of air. The thudding sound of my own heartbeat, and darkness that couldn’t be seen through without the aid of a marking.
An idea hit me and I stood ramrod straight. My head tingled. The dizziness from the noise magnified the effect.
This could be a giant test.
One solution would be to face the test-giver. The second involved escaping The Mountain, real or not, and getting to the surface. I’d rather reach the surface than face The Mountain. Given a choice, the fight for freedom meant everything.
The caverns were oddly quiet. I expected monsters at every corner but heard and saw nothing. Silence carried me until I lost track of time, tried to start over by counting the minutes, then lost myself again.
I searched for signs of an upward incline or traps in the walls. There were none.
“Way up we’ll go.” A soft chorus in the distance made my ears perk. “While the moon’s aglow, glow, glow.”
I froze and checked the markings. There were no signs of ink zipping around or my surroundings growing brighter. My heart raced. The Delvers’ song must not be a result of my ink activating.
I toed ahead carefully, tapping my way steadily down an unseen path. There were corners and pitfalls to navigate. My only companions were dirt, dry air, cold, and the occasional lingering song from the Delvers.
“Even if we say no, no, no,” the Delvers sang.
Their words sounded wrong.
“Because we all know woe.”
The tone and echo matched. Changes to the wording bothered me. Harold and his crew sang of digging to reach the bottom of the mines. These ones sang of going up. I vaguely remembered Ranger Ash saying that different groups of Delvers sang different songs.
The song must be a lure. The Mountain had found another way to get at me. I halted and pondered this escape route. In truth, I could have been going in circles. Navigating my own way might fail. Facing The Mountain would be a last resort.
I’d starve at this rate. It had to have been at least a day since I’d been pushed down here. Two could have passed when accounting for unconsciousness. On a good day, getting out of the deep mines took half a day, using the elevator. Without the shortcut, crawling out could take days.
The safe room. There had been a room past all the traps, right outside the elevator. I brightened. I’d make that my next waypoint then decide what to do after attempting the shorter goal. But at this point, I’d have to risk using the Darkness Ward again.
I did, and regretted it as a series of men strode calmly around a corner. Red light pulsed ahead of them, lighting up the tunnel like a heartbeat.
“Hey, Chase, you going in rounds, yeah?” the one up front said. “Round and round. It’s enough to drive a body mad, yeah?”
The rest filed in behind him. There were ten Jeffs. There’d never been ten Jeffs. There were always five, but never this many.
“You’re headed to twelve, yeah?” They smiled in unison. Their teeth were too white, even under the glowing crimson. “That's how old you were when your daddy failed the tests.”
The line chilled me. I weren’t twelve anymore. My face flushed and toes tingled against the cold ground. I thought about running, but there were too many. Even if they only used the pickaxes in their hands as weapons, I’d lose. The Mountain could have given them any number of tricks.
Stop thinking like that. Deal with what you see, I told myself.
“Good lad,” the lead Jeff said.
Can they read my mind?
The lot of them smiled. They were the same in that regard. The one in front always spoke and the rest bobbled along.
I waved then pointed at the cave behind them.
“You want to go this way, yeah?”
They actually stepped aside. A row between ten or twelve Jeffs opened up, allowing me a clear line to the tunnel. This might be a trap. They might be some sort of mimic monsters.
Doubts continued to plague me, but I walked between the lot of them.
“Best be wary, or you won't see daylight in an age. Not with your funny head.”
With each step, I expected to be attacked. No one did. The Jeffs continued to smile peacefully. Their heads swiveled like owls as they let me pass.
On the other side, at the tunnel’s exit, one of the Jeffs handed me his helmet. I’d been prepared to lunge at them and steal one of the lights. They’d read my mind, as surely as Poss’s lover. I shook my head and refused to get suspicious. Whatever I saw, that was all that it were. Anything else would drive me mad.
“That’s it?” I asked while using both hands to form question marks.
“We’re not killers. We don’t need to be. The Rangers take care of monsters.” That series of answers came from three different Jeffs. Even here, they continued each other’s sentences.
“You see the others, tell ’em we’re still down here, yeah?” a Jeff said. “Or don’t. Doesn’t matter, I suppose. In the end, they’ll come back on their own. Us Jeffs always find each other in the end.”
I nodded slowly and kept steady eye contact. The leader smiled. He said sticking together as though they were glued at the backs to each other. For a moment, I thought he’d been conjoined with another Jeff. The light played tricks on my mind.
“Better get out soon, yeah? Not everyone in here is friendly,” their leader said. “Before those snares get too deep. Then you’ll end up like him.”
“Time is life, Chase. Or life is time. Either way, ain’t for us to explain. Run out lad.”
The Jeffs stepped away. The last one shoved a helm into my hands. They were like ghosts disappearing into the darkness. Red light beat from the new helmet, and with each pulse, they became less.
The Darkness Ward turned itself off. That made no sense. Those Jeffs simply hadn’t wanted to be anymore. Either they, or my lingering fear, had let the marking’s ability fade. This place for sure were in The Mountain’s power. I lived and sat in its belly.
Up, I told myself then slid the helmet on my head. Out, I corrected, but couldn’t rightly say what the difference were.
I marched down the halls. Grooves in the floor signaled traps. Going slowly helped me spot them without using my face as a trigger. There should have been a soft green glow as a warning, but this version of The Mountain didn’t have them.
Because The Mountain couldn’t see green. Monsters couldn’t. Green ink came from inside Wellbrook Mines. It healed. Red were the heart. Blue tested air purity. Black came in all shades and filled in the blanks.
I’m going mad, I thought.
Being down here for untold hours had warped my senses. I used rocks to mark passageway intersections. On one corner, I placed a cross. Three turns later, a triangle sat waiting for me. Either I’d made a different marking, it’d transformed, or The Mountain mocked me.
Stop thinking about possibilities. Focus on what is.
Hours later, or a day, or two, the helmet’s red faded. They wouldn’t last forever. I discarded the dead lamp and stomped. Five powers were available to me. Two were good in finding monsters and killing them. The Eyes of a Man were one mark with three abilities. Maybe using the other two abilities, instead of Darkness Ward, would help me.
“I’m alive,” I said.
The words echoed softly. I swallowed a dry lump and activated Watchful Soul.
The world lit with veins of ink all around me. Purple, red, all shades of gray. They spun, dancing, laughing, mocking me. My body heaved with sudden sickness, and the tattoo’s power shut off.
Wet chewing sounds filled the air. Multiple somethings ate nearby. They gnawed on bone and gargled liquids that sounded thicker than any beer I’d drank in my life. I held still and struggled not to panic. The Mountain had tried to kill me and failed. I lived. This latest challenge should be survivable.
I hadn’t realized it, but at some point, I’d stopped to rest. The cold ground beneath me throbbed. Maybe it were warm. I couldn’t rightly tell. Still, the chewing continued. I stood, then almost immediately saw the source of the noise. A half dozen Delvers with bloated bellies and uneven limbs knelt over dead monsters. They shoveled food into their mouths. Smears formed along their faces in a rainbow of gruesome colors.
The fattest one ambled over to me. All the others froze their eating and glared at the leader.
He waved to his companions. “Continue eating, lads. Chase will help me.”