Hell, I cursed to myself. Now there were visions of Delvers. Rangers, a man who reminded me of Daddy, the Jeffs, Delvers, and others. The Mountain might throw anyone at me. Seeing Lily might break me.
But I haven’t seen Lily. I haven’t seen Momma or Opal or Mister Proctor, Poss, or even Mister Jewel. There has to be a reason.
Though I didn’t know if Mister Jewel had been marked, the other three hadn’t been for sure. They were all ink-free. I finally realized the connection between these visions and the people being put in front of me. Even Hardwood and Tawny. They’d been touched by ink.
“But it’s too late for you. Even if you dream. Shall I tell you why, Chase?”
Behind him, the Delvers tossed bodies over a ledge. I hadn’t seen the cliff before. Down went dirt rats and blink hounds.
“Because I am the gateway. I own this font of power. And everything that comes in here is mine. Your body is mine to mold, young Chase.” The not Harold snarled the words in either mockery or hunger.
My stomach clenched as a dozen ideas pased through. Only one stayed with me. These were not Delvers. These were all The Mountain. A fallen angel.
“The wolf was right. I and my brothers, we’re in a war. With each other. With ourselves. But he was wrong too.”
I opened my mouth.
I closed my mouth.
The creature who wore Harold’s face smiled. “We had a breakthrough. We opened the tunnel in search of answers. Instead we found weapons waiting to be molded. And you’re my latest general, young Chase.”
Harold laughed. The other Delvers, or not Delvers, jerked their heads up. Expressions of terror etched on their features.
“No,” I mumbled.
“No?” Harold’s cheek lifted in a sneer. He patted his belly with a wet slap and laughed.
The not Delvers shook like leaves and resumed throwing bodies over the edge.
“They’re mine! You’re mine! Mine to do with as I will.” He’d said that before. He’d called himself all sorts of names that implied he had a right to remake me.
“Why?” I asked.
“Ain’t for you to know, boy.” He said boy in the same way other people might say worm. As if I were utterly beneath him in both stature and value.
I took short breaths and worked to stay calm. Panic never helped in the mines. Panic hadn’t helped during the first few Ranger trials. Behind Harold, the other Delvers continued their cycle of eating, dumping, and shaking. Wet chewing sounds filled the air.
The whole situation raised my hackles. I’d been sent down here. My understanding were generals explored the world and recruited others to fight in The War. Rangers worked to stop them.
I would never become a monster Rangers needed to hunt.
“You already are,” the thing wearing Harold’s face said. He smiled wide until his lips stretched farther than a normal Delver’s could. “Even now, my hooks dig deep into your very bone. My gifts for your obedience. And just a bit of your flesh to house myself in.” Harold stuck out a large hand. His head tilted to the side like an owl’s.
He wanted to shake on it. As if that would make our deal unbreakable. This thing had also called me a monster.
“No. I’d rather die a man,” I said.
Those were the same words I’d spoken when first tainted by the rainbow drop. They were the culmination of everything I’d been striving to prove to myself. Honoring Daddy’s wish had been about proving myself an adult. Joining the Rangers had been about proving I’d grown up and could handle responsibility. I would be a man, by all counts, and die as one.
“If you know what’s good for you,” his voice echoed, “you’ll do what you’re told and join me.”
I shook my head and backed away. The Delver’s hand shifted briefly. Veins of ink shot through, making the arm bulge. His arm reminded me of Ducky’s. Harold stomped after me. One shorter leg made his steps uneven and almost comical. He scowled.
“If you won’t join me, then you’ll die here,” he said.
I shook my head again.
He lifted his misshapen arm and pointed at me. “Kill ’im!”
The Delvers behind him perked up, shook in unison, and ran in my direction. They weren’t going to be passive like the Jeffs.
I grabbed for a weapon. There were none obvious. Facing The Mountain had worked against me. Escape became the only remaining option. Ink in the walls dimly lit a path and I followed it, escaping a few dozen feet ahead of the monstrous Delvers.
Traces of red zipped along the walls lighting a path. There were dozens of twists and turns. I bolted down a corridor and slammed into a Delver who hadn’t seen me coming. He flew into a wall. I picked a new direction and fled.
In the next corridor, I found two more people I would have never expected.
They were two Rangers who hadn’t made it. The man with green and the girl who’d stated she couldn’t fail here. They’d both been in the trials, one failing with the blink dogs and the other dying up the hill.
Their eyes glowed dark red. An equally angry crimson zipped along the walls. At the same time, both failed Rangers’ eyes pulsed. They weren’t any more real than the rest of these visions.
I continued to run. My body hurt. It had hurt for so long, it almost became bearable. Slowing down would lead to death. Pain wouldn’t matter.
Corner after corner went by. Hanging blade traps slid down with a sharp ring of metal. Delvers blindly stumbled into axes, pitfalls, and tripped over wires, but I knew where they were. All those months in the mines had been worthwhile. But the deep mine traps were deadlier and more numerous.
This were the third time I’d found myself running through these dark tunnels. The first time, I’d gone out with Hardwood. The second time, I’d run from that giant ink-twisted bear. The turns were easier to find now.
Slobbering noises came from behind me, broken up by Harold’s disgusting laughter. He kept repeating, “Run, boy!” Sometimes he said brat. Other times he called me a worm.
I ran. I ran until my hands bled from scraping rocks. My body screamed in exhaustion.
Ahead of me were a metal doorway with a thick border. The safe room. The Jeffs had told me it should be used by anyone in need of refuge. I’d made it. Any other plans went out the window as I dove for the partially open room.
The Delvers were on my heels. One yanked my foot. My free leg kicked him in the head. Thick nails tore off ribbons of my flesh, but I got enough room to pull myself inside and bolt the door.
I went for the green marker. There should be one on the wall I could light. It would signal to the outside that a fellow miner were in distress. But the spot Jeff had pointed out to me had nothing in it.
The rest of the safe room had been completely emptied. I spun in circles. There should have been days’ worth of supplies. I’d expected metal racks filled to the brim with packaged foods and clean water.
“Damn!” I kicked the wall.
All those ideas only mattered if this had been the real Wellbrook Mines. I’d forgotten during my desperate flight. This hell had no escape.
The Delvers clawed the door. It rattled; their bangs filled the small compartment with noise, driving me near to madness. Adrenaline faded and I slumped to my knees. My eyes closed, and a fervent series of whispers passed my lips. They’d have been prayers, but I weren’t sure I wanted God to hear me. It didn’t matter. Being a Ranger, getting money for Momma, all those things mattered but felt like distant needs.
This Harold had offered me a choice. Well, he’d ordered me to accept what he offered. Power for slavery. That weren’t different from me getting markings to become a Ranger. Rangers stayed near The Mountain. They ensured the rules were followed.
The pounding continued. I rocked and attempted to gather all the facts I’d heard in my lifetime. Rangers fought monsters. They used The Mountain’s power. They used it.
But did it use them?
I wanted to live. Accepting Harold’s offer would keep me alive.
Is that so wrong? No, this place is playing tricks on me.
My head shook rapidly. The Delvers still pounded. I heard the other two failed Rangers calling me. Their words were hard to understand over the slobbering noises.
Then all the noises stopped. The banging, slobbering, the taunts of dead would-be Rangers, even the air stilled. I stared at the doorway and waited.
“Let me in,” Harold said.
There were one more marking to try. If the Darkness Ward and The Watchful Eyes wouldn’t help, Hidden Soul might.
Men don't like it when the world sees how weak they really are, Cassandra had said.
I swallowed and activated the final part of The Eyes of a Man.
The room warped. My prison hallway faded. This time, I stood before an old man. My rainbow robe showed signs of age, its colors faded and edges frayed. His body quivered. This man had outlived dirt and seemed close to keeling over at any moment.
“Time runs thin. Your rebirth approaches,” he said and wheezed. He tried to straighten but seemed unable to lift his head far. Cataracts gave his eyes a glossy sheen.
This had to be another trick by The Mountain. He’d used visions of my friends and enemies. Now he sought another way in.
The old man’s head shook. “No. I’m neither a Hound or a Fallen.”
What then? I wondered but dared not ask. It felt like ages ago I’d told myself that deeper questions didn’t matter, but here I were, being thrust into the middle of a all these vague explanations.
“There are sides to this war. There are paths to this power. There are creators and created. Those who use the power and those who are abused by it.”
That made zero sense. No, it sort of rang a bell. The wolf on The Field had told me to use the power and not fight it. That didn’t connect well with Ducky’s fervent screams.
“The sanctified spirit. The markings to see. She gave you everything you need to survive. You can be his general or your own. You can use the power, but don’t let it consume you. Now, while it’s deep in you bones. Make it something wholly yours.”
I shook my head. He made zero sense. This still felt like a trap, or bait to let the man turn me into one of his minions. Even the concept of people recruiting us barely made sense. I’d only been introduced to the idea yesterday, or this morning. There hadn’t been enough time between all the fighting and running to figure out what I believed.
“Creators and created. You’ve been creating. Those traps that felled his creations?” The man’s image cracked like glass. His face tightened with pain. “Use it. Don’t let it use you. Keep your world safe.”
I shook my head again. The man’s shattering form cracked further as he fell to one knee.
“Use it! Fight!”
His body finished shattering. I saw a tunnel appear in the space he’d been standing in. The door to the safe room didn’t exist anymore, like it’d never been. This whole situation made no sense at all.
I was already using the power. He had said I shouldn’t fight it. This new strange man and the twisted version of Harold might be the same voice, but they didn’t seem to be the same person. This second figure’s pain had been genuine.
But I couldn’t figure out where I’d been running around. This twisted version of The Mountain’s inners might have been real. It might have been a twisted landscape, but that didn’t explain how everything danced around me as if I were standing still. I’d covered miles in my journey to escape.
Unless I’d never left. I thought back to my original fall. I’d been thrown into pure, unfiltered ink. All these endless hours of traveling in the dark, trying to find my way out. What if I’d never gone anywhere at all?
My attempt at escaping this version of hell by exiting Wellbrook Mines hadn’t done a damned bit of good. Because I’d never left. I’d been surrounded by ink and floating in its heart. Jenn had said it, that there’d be a choice.
The time of rebirth. Generals. Sides. The War. The Field. I could take these random bits of information at face value or simply disregard it all. The War could be one inside my head. It could all be my mind’s way of rationalizing being dipped in pure ink.
I could be mad and it wouldn’t matter. Only two choices existed: survive or die. The man on The Field who’d said all sorts of things might have been an illusion as well, but he’d been right. I were alive. I still had thoughts.
The rest should be taken as presented. All the faces had given me advice or spilled words.
I stared at the tunnel with a single light at the end. It made as much sense as the rest of this place. Simply reach that point, be reborn. Use the power but don’t let it use me. Live. Would I come out as a Delver? A Flop, Feline, or twisted Wildling? I set my sights on dying a man. And if it gave me a chance at survival, I’d die a Hound, whatever that were.
Out I stepped. With the first footfall, the twisted Delver creations started to fade into view. By the tenth step, there stood Harold’s evil twin.
“You thought you could hide forever? I’d know your scent anywhere, boy,” he said.
I shook my head. Even now he wouldn’t get me to submit to whatever plan he had for me.
“Heel!” he bellowed.
The word vibrated inside my skull, driving me to my knees. I fell forward, catching myself with both hands, and groaned in fresh pain. They’d been scraped raw during my earlier flight from the Delvers.
“No,” I said. My voice shook and pulse beat unsteadily.
The man’s fists tightened, making his arms turn red, purple, and gray. His face twisted.
I forced myself to crawl forward, despite the pain and weariness. I’d escape.
One of the Delvers leapt at me from the side. I dodged then slammed its head with a fist. He yelped and spun off. Two more dove at me without pausing.
They grabbed me, and I pulled myself forward. Their limbs were weaker than I’d expected. I managed to get upright and continued stumbling toward the light.
Harold marched slowly after his minions. His short form somehow overrode those creatures attacking me. He were like the sun on a hot day. Everything else vanished in a haze of heat except that scorching presence.
“Run, boy. Run!” he said in slow motion.
There were dozens of tunnels to dodge into. A million twisted tracks like those from Wellbrook Mines. Left went to station three. Right went to six. There’d be miners there.
A dog barked. My attention snapped away from those fake escape routes. This weren’t the real Wellbrook Mines. Those turns were illusions that would get me further lost inside this strange world.
He—Harold, The Mountain, fallen angel, or fevered dream—wanted me to run. I’d been doing nothing but running. He wanted me to heel, and I’d refused. This were the choice. Give in, keep running until the ink’s power changed me without regard, or carve my own way out. This was what it all came down to.
On either side of me, small Delvers lay, whimpering and grasping weakly for me. Their bodies curled unnaturally. There were other creatures too. Felines with broken paws and deformed legs. Unnaturally huge Flops. I’d done nothing to them, but they’d clearly failed the change.
Wildlings, I thought. That was what they reminded me of. Now they resembled withered turnips.
Something crept behind me. Something thick and dark. I could feel it in the same way a body knew they weren’t alone in the room. Like a ghost hanging over my shoulder and dimming the world. I heard a gargle and turned in time to see something reach out. It grabbed one of the Delvers and sucked him into the darkness.
The Delver vanished with hardly a peep.
“You’ll be mine,” it said to me. The voice sounded like Harold’s, but I knew it to be something worse.
My legs barely worked. Crawling on hands and knees would have been humiliating, but dignity always ran secondary to survival. I managed to keep stumbling.
The monster grabbed me. Bits latched onto my arms, more around my chest. I lifted my arm and brought it down on the thick strands threading around my waist. They shifted, and a knife formed in my hand.
Use the power, they’d said.
I clawed the strands around me. They snapped. More formed. The blade slit them as though they were wheat. I focused on that knife, its sharpness. It looked exactly like daddy’s knife. A second one formed in the other hand. My knuckles hurt and bones ground. Something were happening to my arms, but still I struck.
“You’ll die a monster. It won’t matter if you’ve made peace with that or not.” Kenneth’s voice roared next to me. He shook his book and loomed overhead like the devil given man’s flesh. “When it’s your time, it won’t matter if you’ve made peace with it or not! The world will make its peace with you!”
My head shook. The motion hurt and my nose flushed with liquid. I broke free and resumed crawling toward the light. “I will be my own man.”
Everything burned. My chest felt aflame to the point where I hardly noticed anymore. Real or not, The Mountain, or my own fevered imaginings, I wouldn’t bow down to anyone. Those two were right. I’d do what I planned all along—use the markings and position as a Ranger to accomplish my goals.
“Just die!” Harold reached for me while roaring.
I lifted an arm and stabbed at the creature looming above me with both knives. It felt as if I’d clawed against something thick but Harold reeled. Emboldened, I slashed again, and again. Pain continued to course up my arms.
Harold fell. Or split. I couldn’t tell for sure as his body faded like the Jeffs had before. All that remained were a single point of light that burned my eyes with the brightness of it. The path to fredom lay in it’s direction.
My body burned with energy. I grabbed for the light and found a hard wall. My hand weakly beat against the pinpoint spot. It widened. My fingers found grip in the hole and tore at it. A dull thud made my chest ache, as though my heart had never beaten until now. The pain continued on, and on.
“Let,” I said through grinding teeth. “Me. Out.”
Out, the Jeffs had said. Of this nightmare. Of this hell. I couldn’t decide which. I’d grown so tired of having my head screwed with. Rebirth, awakening, remaking. None of those words held meaning higher than being free. Free to make my own choices. Free of my promise to Daddy.
Free to be my own man.
The surface cracked. I fell forward, twitching. Steam poured off me, blurring the room. Gunk covered my skin in thick clumps. I took steadying breaths and slowly pushed myself upright. An arm slipped. I tried again and ended up hurting myself. The cold ground pulsed beneath me.
One of my markings had activated to see the forsaken material. I turned it on and off repeatedly. Ink littered all around me in every color I’d ever seen except for silver. There were no visions of Harold or Kenneth. The ragged man from The Field and his endless war never appeared.
This were the first time, since falling in the pit, that I felt almost normal. My body ached, but my fingers were whole. Their earlier rawness had faded or been imagined. My body felt different, but I couldn’t peg how.
My fingertips still glowed with the rainbow drop, but the colors had shifted. They were deeper than they had been. Not vibrant. Not brighter or duller. They reached farther into my skin then they ever had. Darkness played tricks on me as I thought my arms were closer to claws. I blanched and checked again, they were normal. There were no pointed dog ears on my head. My shoulders and legs were the right size.
I turned. Behind me sat a larger pool of ink. In its center were a cocoon or an egg. The mess all around made no sense. There couldn’t have been space inside there for everything I’d experienced or gone through.
It had all been in my head. That must be the answer. I’d been pushed in and were now reborn. Baptized in The Mountain’s heart. Maybe all Rangers went through the same process when they were ready.
He’s not a Ranger, Obsidian had said. He may never be one.
Hound, the clerics had firmly said.
I didn’t have answers. There’d be people to ask if I dared show myself to them. Obsidian or the others would likely find me once the monster tide died down.
My thoughts didn’t line up clearly. I needed rest but didn’t feel safe sleeping inside this cave.
My legs worked poorly. The markings would let me stay ahead of any monsters, but there hadn’t been any. The Mountain’s interior had been empty, almost to the point of a New Moon. Time passed and it were long enough for me to grow hungry, then starving, and finally somewhere beyond that. I managed to find tunnels leading upward and came out in an unexpected location.
I bobbed unsteadily and squinted at the small building. Ducky’s private ink-drying shack sat a few dozen feet away. The location had almost no camouflage from this angle. Being able to see at night helped. My Darkness Ward made the process easier.
Words weren’t coming. My throat felt dry. I couldn’t decide if rain would help or make my condition worse. My clothes were a mess and the gunk on me was turning crusty.
Inside the ink shack stood the untouched barrels from Ducky’s embezzlement. A small strand of black ink sat in the bottom of a barrel. I grabbed it with a bare hand, and the ink curled around my fingers. As my hand lifted, I studied the material. It didn’t bring twisted visions or make memories surface. Instead, it felt as though the material waited to be given a form. Any form.
My head tilted as I tried to make sense of this situation. The strand of black twisted slightly and made my skin tingle. Loose edges turned up into sharp barbs. It could have served as wiring on a fence to keep cattle in their ranges. Maybe it could hammer into a fresh dagger like the one I’d used on that monster.
I abruptly dropped the material. It went limp midair and flopped back into the barrel with a splash. None of that had been real. Yet there I were, making ink twist and turn like a seasoned tattooist at the table. Only they could work with raw ink. They had to—to give it shape and harness the power.
Loud rumbles accompanied my stomach’s backflips. My breath hitched. Figuring out what this all meant would have to wait until I’d freshened up, ate, and rested. I couldn’t think straight while being such a mess.
I left the small room and stumbled downhill. Hours passed, and my mind fogged under the weight of hunger too long ignored. My eyes repeatedly closed and bare feet tripped over everything.
There in front of me were the crossroads. I’d finally made it to the base of The Mountain and more familiar territory. The sight of those diverging roads set my mind to wandering. Jenn had spoken of a crossroads. Or maybe Cassandra had. Their words blended together in my head. I wondered why The Mountain hadn’t shown me those two ladies to go with all the others.
Is it because they’re not dead?
I snorted. The Mountain could show more than the dead. Kenneth, Hardwood, and Tawny had all had a hand in chasing me. To my knowledge, none of them were deceased. They’d each used The Mountain’s power, and that meant more than if they lived. The ink existed in them as surely as it did in me.
My stomach rumbled and I took the hint. I glanced down the roads to figure out which way would lead somewhere useful.
There were four roads. Wellbrook Mines lay on the path behind me. Chandler’s Field in another direction. One went toward Bell Town and the river which fed our town.
Another path went toward the temple. I’d had enough of those clerics and their ways to last me a lifetime. Two trips up that road were enough for any soul. A third might truly kill me.
As a last taunting note, in the trees at the crossroads, I saw the markings outlining Tattooist Cassandra’s home. Those thin threads of faded fabric danced with the wind like birds mating. She’d have answers and provide me nothing but more questions. She’d bewitch me with her words and fancy markings.
I staggered off the beaten paths. I staggered home.
This had to be real and not another trick. I couldn’t smell anything. My nose felt stuffed full of gunk. My skin had slime caked in lumps.
Every few steps, I halted and wondered if this were another ploy to get inside my head. Creators and created. It had something to do with the ink curling around my hand, waiting to be given shape. The muddled thoughts kept colliding and scattering apart. Each attempt to apply logic were thwarted by hunger.
If I’d gone from The Field straight home, instead of The Mountain’s top, would I have found a twisted version of Jenn?
I’d worked for months in the mines and come home dead tired. This were like those long weeks, only miles worse. My eyes fought me with every step. Both legs ached and simply stopped moving for heartbeats at a time.
I’m alive, I told myself. The words wouldn’t get past my dried lips. Each attempt to speak made my head throb and throat ache.
Darkness closed in from all sides, dimming the world to a single light in the distance. My belly hurt. The need for food consumed me as surely as exhaustion did.
My mind continued to give me half-formed thoughts at every turn. I thought there were people around, or at a distance, but they might have been tricks. Shadows felt longer. The horizon brightened. Dawn crept over the land, and still I walked the familiar path toward home.
I paused. This time I hadn’t imagined it. There were certainly a person in front of me. Long flopping ears draped around a crown of red and brown hair. Fur thickened at the sides and gave her hips a wider flair. I knew the colors and short stature but couldn’t think clearly.
She ran to me.
Jenn, I tried to say.
I tensed and fell backward as the shorter Flop tackled me. Her hands were rapid and rude as they prodded every ounce of my flesh. She sniffed my side, face, and even my crotch. My eyebrows wiggled in a half-formed thought about a proper place and time.
“Stupid Chase!” she shouted then hit me with balled-up fists.
I coughed weakly and gave up trying to move.
She ran off toward a blurry building in the distance, screaming “Stupid Chase!” over and over.
Time and consciousness slipped away from me. Something jerked my arm and I pulled away, fearful that dirt rats or deformed Delvers were trying to tear me apart.
“Stop squirming, son,” a woman said.
My voice didn’t work. It hadn’t worked since I’d popped out of that ink-made egg back at The Mountain. My eyes closed. This should be real. Momma had never been touched by The Mountain.
I stopped struggling and fell limp. My limbs were cold and aflame at the same time. Tingles threatened to make my body jerk like a sick cat. I kept the motions to a minimum but couldn’t hold back my teeth chattering.
“It’s him. I told you. Smells exactly like Chase. But it can’t be. He fell in. Could it be? I know you said it might be.” Jenn’s mouth ran on for miles.
My head tightened and stomach gurgled.
“There’ll be time for answers later. He needs to get clean and rest. I know my boy, and he takes after his daddy in all the wrong ways. Well, like his granddaddy I suppose. Ain’t no better.” Momma and Jenn were on either side of me. Their voices made my ears hurt, but I couldn’t stop listening. “But he’s home. We’ll have to nurse him for a spell before I go find those bastards and let them know.”
My face had grown wet as trickles ran down either cheek. I’m alive, I told myself. My mouth opened to say the words, but still nothing came out.
“You’ve been down in the heart of The Mountain,” Momma said. “You paid a price. Might be as simple as your words. Might be more. Your daddy, he were in worse shape than you when he came out. Said he’d seen the face of God and the Devil. Said a lot of things. Time will tell, son. But rest first. ”
Jenn’s ear perked. The fur brushed across my skin, sending tingles crawling down my back.
“What?” she asked.
“You’ll learn when the time’s right. You’re part of this now,” Momma answered.
I slipped in and out of darkness like that dancing blue flame.
“Now you know, Chase.” Momma’s eyes were hard things. Harder than even Ranger Hardwood could be on her surliest day.
My teeth chattered.
“Did you see him? Did you see your daddy?” she asked.
I didn’t know. I’d seen a man who might have been him. Time had robbed me of a perfect recollection, sure as it had turned that man into a tattered-clothes-wearing monster fighting an endless war.
Were it real? I wanted to ask. My fingers jerked in question marks.
She simply stared at me and offered no answer. She kept under my shoulder, and Jenn sat on my right. They lifted me into a bed. I didn’t have the strength to fight when Momma left and Jenn stripped me of the tattered robes.
Momma came back with a washbasin. They cleaned me while my mind ran in circles.
There’d been a series of changes. Almost as if I’d been born as another creature entirely. Delvers, Flops, Felines, all had their gifts. Mine might have cost my voice. Maybe I were too tired to tell. Then the gifts—I’d barely even scratched the surface of what those might be.
Or maybe I’d simply become a Ranger.
Hound. A Hound isn’t a Ranger.
I knew The Mountain, fallen angel, devil, or asshole son of God must be using us as sure as we used the ink for powers. If nothing else, I could say that everything about The Mountain screamed intelligent design. Rangers were likely another angle of the whole scheme.
My hands tingled with a scorching heat and freezing chill. The sensations melded in my chest and I felt a low growl come out. I’d changed in those depths. Something between The Mountain’s normal choices and my own desires. I were alive. Alive, and I’d finally understood what Hardwood meant when she said we’d know. I’d been hard enough to survive and come out of The Mountain.
Happy with that realization, I let unconsciousness claim me.