The next few days were rough. My body hurt in places that shouldn’t exist on a man. When lucid, I believed that trek down the mountain had been made by another soul. When feverish, I still lay in it’s depths, fighting a war between monsters of rusted armor and a great wolf who walked on two legs.
I confirmed another price for survival. My voice had been robbed entirely. That, more than anything, made the world feel like a cage. Not speaking had been a choice and now I’d been robbed of it.
On the third day, laying in bed being coddled got to me. I stood and staggered to the outhouse and did my business. Then I fumbled to the back porch to enjoy the freshness of being outdoors. There, I sat on an old rocking chair that daddy used to spend hours in. It faced The Mountain. I weren’t sure if daddy had stayed out here to stare down that bestial location, or if he watched it for signs of trouble like the Rangers did.
The rainbow drop and heartseeker leftovers on my hands were still there. All three markings making up The Eyes of a Man were still functioning. The only part that remained weak were my body which muddled my thoughts.
“The material of creation,” that old warrior had said. I assumed he spoke of ink, as if were the building blocks of reality itself.
That’s only useful to know if what I saw were real.
I’d never considered myself a highly learned man who studied ink. That were for the scientists in their colleges on the coast. There, they sat, safely removed from thread of the Saracons and could ask all the mighty questions they wanted.
I simply stared at The Mountain, hoping that my thoughts would land on something useful. Eventually I realized that the easiest answer would be to confirm some of the things I’d been told. Of the Jeffs, or Poss, or that other man, who surely might have been a Hound before me.
“Do you know what you are? You’re not a failed Wildling. You’re not a Feline,” that girl of Poss’s had said. What I didn’t know, is that The Mountain gave birth to so many creatures.
Felines. Flops. Delvers. Those were the known. Wildings, those I’d learned of. But a fifth type of creature? One rarer than the other three? The Mountain threw out monsters in great numbers. Maybe I’d been turned into one of them somehow. A thinking human monster. I lifted an arm and studied it.
Still a man.
A stiff breeze hit my body. I shuddered and rubbed an arm. The motion hurt but that meant little anymore. Soreness were an old friend. Behind me the house rattle and shook as a second wave of air came in. I eyed part of the land, wondering if I should plant some trees so they might break the wind.
One ear twitched. I heard the creek of wooden floorboards from inside the house as mom shuffled through the house to the back door. Her steps, like everything else since I’d stepped out The Mountain, were louder than they should be.
“Chase! I swear boy you need to get rest. Two days. It’s been two days and you’re still healing!”
Three, I thought. My face tightened but momma’s voice remained as piercing as ever.
She prattled on. “Get back inside this instant. So help me, if I have to go get that girl Jenny from the garden just to drag you back inside I’m going to be upset. You don’t want to do that to me do you? Lord knows you’ve tired me out with all these nights of worrying. Almost as bad as those tax collectors what with the heartburn you’re giving me.”
Each of her steps echoed around the house as she found the back door and pushed it open. Wind caught the door’s edge, slamming it into the house. The noise drilled down to a soft spot in my brain and refused to let go.
I whimpered softly. It were the strongest noise I could make.
“You’re not ready for any of this. It takes time to adapt. Worse than a marking. Worse than a one of them war tattoos the soldiers get. Ask Jenny how her first few days were. Felines are the saddest of the lot. They sleep for days and days all curled like babies. But maybe Jenn’ll tell you and maybe you’ll listen. Lord knows you don’t listen to your momma none.”
Back into bed I went. Momma bustled around my bedroom straighting up nothing at all. She’d cleaned the room so many times that she’d actually run out of stuff to do. Despite that, momma complained.
I tapped at my throat a few times.
Momma paused and held still. Her eyes narrowed at my voice then a shuddered rocked her willowy frame. “Gone for sure?” she asked.
It were the shortest sentence I’d ever heard mom utter. We’d mentioned it once upon my return to the house and maybe she’d been hoping her first guess had been a lie.
“Not the worst I’d heard of. Your daddy, God rest his soul, couldn’t have children after it happened to him. Down he went, and when he came back he wasn’t the same man. Not that he believed me. I told him he was a man. Showed him too, but he was foolish enough to believe that a follows who’s pistol shot only blanks weren’t a man at all.”
Momma had gone over the line again. I shook my head and pulled the covers over my face. Fabric couldn’t step her piercing words.
“Oh, get over it. You’re old enough now, and losing your voice isn’t a big thing anyway. The way I heard it, you ain’t said more than ten words a day to anyone since he passed. Least this way you have an excuse for being meek of mouth.”
Momma stopped again then pulled herself together. I peeked out and smiled weakly. She were trying to be a proper parent, and I’d let her. After all, my own body were still too battered to do much else. Whatever strength I’d used to escape and travel home and left me sorely overtaxed.
“Prices child. Prices. Back on the coast, they call it equivalent exchange. You give up to get. I’ve seen it happen to many a body when working the mines. Just never thought it’d happen to my own child. Worse then messing around with that flower girl. Would have rather you ran off to Bell Town with her than stay here.” Mom bustled about in laps.
“That’s the world for you. Ain’t a bit unfair if you look at it all. Life simply reacts to what we do.” Her voice had a sour note, as if she didn’t believe a word of what she’d spouted. “But you got that girl Jenny. Brave little girl. Scared too. Don’t let her stern face fool you otherwise. Girl’s as broken as any a soul to wander The Mountain’s shadow. It’s a trial I tell you. For righteous souls tough out the worst while fools try to steal from thems they don’t understand.”
With that she wandered out the door, muttering to herself the entire time.
I didn’t understand. Momma seemed to be rambling simple to fill the silence, but her words and the sudden emptiness of my room got me thinking. For years, I’d believed The Mountain made sense. It were malevolent, a thief of life, maybe a living thing. I’d rarely asked myself why it got placed here or anything for the bigger question. It were simply a fact. We had The Mountain.
Other places had their own sources of magic. They had their own ways of using it. Kenneth might have the answer to that. He seemed a man of the world, at least, he’d been traveled to a wider world than anyone I’d ever spoken to. I added his name to my mental list of people to visit, thought after he’d kicked me in that might not be welcome.
Of course, thinking about that night had me wondering about everything all over again. That lead preacher might not have been Kenneth at all. I’d been in a fume of drugs, weary, overtaxed by the rainbow drop, and on edge. It could have been a simple marking designed to make me think the priests were some one familiar. I’d never know unless he admitted to it.
Kenneth’s place on the far side of town would be best. There, we’d have wittinesses and be away from ceremony. He’d even lend me his good ear. Though a priests conviction were a dangerous thing. Speaking to a man who believed so firmly that The Mountain were related to God might color my own views.
I thought back on the words I’d heard from the old cowboy.
“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’d said.
Were that my daddy? I wondered. He’d also said I might forget what I’d heard, but I hadn’t. Words from all of the people I’d met had been echoing in my mind since crawling out of that cocoon.
If it didn’t matter which I believed, then I only need to go about life as I’d intended. That meant seeing if I still had a chance at being a Ranger, assuming I even wanted to go that route in live.
Then it hit me like a bolt, hard enough for me to jerk out of bed. Casandra and her damn dead pup. Hound. The barking down below. That bag with the herbs and casting it into the pool at night. Somehow it were all related. It’d been a ritual of sorts. One I’d subjected myself to.
I needed answers. I’d try Poss first. If only because she weren’t a Ranger, tattooist, or priest.
After resting another day, I managed to creep around the house. On the fifth day of my return from the depths, when the ladies had ventured next door, I put on the hand-me-down clothes from daddy. The arms felt tighter than before and my pants were turning into high waters. They weren’t fitting right anymore.
I stared at them for a time then shook my head. Clothes were another problem for a day when I had money to spare. Off toward town I went.
The journey went better than expected. My legs felt better as they stretched and grew used to moving around. All that laying in bed and sitting had near driven me mad.
The scents along the road were wild. Droppings lined the road, in all states. Flowers hung heavily on some tree branches, ready to bloom into fruits. Apples, if I remembered right.
I found myself staring at tiny white flowers with yellow centers. Lilies, though I couldn’t remember the exact name. Poss would have known. Lily would have known.
I stared at one hand then the other. The markings were still there and I’d forgotten to pack a pair of gloves. It only took a moment to use one of the eyes on my back. COloring on both hands faded, along with the stronger scents. That worried me, as if my heightened sense of smell and hearing were somehow tied to The Mountain’s markings.
“Just a bit of your flesh to house myself in,” that not Harold had said.
Just a bit? I wondered.
Panic threatened to overwhelm me and I pushed it down. It weren’t the first time I’d been in danger. It also further proved I needed knowledge. What if I turned into some crazy monster and attacked Jenn and momma?
I resumed my brisk stride toward town then veered off the road toward Poss’s mansion. The property spanned a good mile of land and their walls were high. We were near a new moon, which meant her gate stayed wide open.
In I went, across the yard and up a cobblestone pathway. A third visit so soon here seemed auspicious. The house’s side were still clean as ever and the roof freshly washed. Trees were carefully manicured and fresh flowers grew strong. Seeing her mansion after spending so long in mine reminded me of the gap between our social status.
Yet, we’d both brought loved ones up to The Mountain. Death struck all of us regardless of races and riches. It’s what came after death that I wanted confirmation of. Course, asking now were like reading the fine print on one of Mister Proctor’s legal documents after already scrawling my name.
I walked up to the door and knocked. Then knocked again, and continued until one of the serving girl’s answered. Abby. That Feline’s daughter. I couldn’t rightly remember what Poss had called her during her drunken stupor.
Now that I had a better idea of her age, it were likely that Abby couldn’t be more than fifteen. Her eyes were too bright and fur clean. Not rough or aged as I’d seen on her mother. That made Poss far younger than her lover but it weren’t my place to judge. After all, I’d hung around Jenn for years, and by now she’d been a Flop in equal measure to her time as a human girl.
“Can I help you sir?”
My eyelid squeezed shut. Obsidian had been right to say I lacked forethought. A smarter man would have picked up paper from the general store. I made a mental note to buy some once I had money. Both lips formed an exaggerated shaping of Poss’s name.
Abby didn’t get it.
I tried again and pointed to my throat. A low sort of harfing sound came out. On the third try I managed to wheeze something that sounded like Poss. The Feline’s ears perked up and hear head tilted.
“You’ve talked to my mom,” she said quietly.
That reminded me of her mother that I might not have met. Based on Abby’s words, it seemed likely that everything in that vision had happened. I nodded, then shook my head, and shrugged. By the time abby nodded along with my insanity, Poss had reached the door. She pulled it wide open then blanched upon seeing my face. She looked down, then up, and back down.
“You’re alive?” Poss asked. “I guess this means I’ll have to pen a fresh letter to Lily.”
I tried to laugh but soreness halted the motion.
“He talked to mom,” Abby said.
I hesitated but nodded again, then wiggled my fingers in a question mark.
Poss’s gaze narrowed. She turned to Abby and put a hand on the young Feline’s shoulder. “Your mom died before Chase met her.”
I shook my head.
“He talked to my mom. I know it. After she died.”
Poss turned to me and frowned.
“I’ve heard Rangers can do a great many things, but speaking to the dead? I’m afraid I’ll have to say bullshit to that Chase. And I think you should leave. We’re in mourning.”
My stomach rumbled loudly. I lifted a hand and my fingertips burned as they briefly pointed toward Abby. The sensation reminded me that I could feel ink touched creatures. I waved the fingers around and felt the sensation go off again while facing the other door. I suspected it meant that Poss’s bodyguards were in place in case I went crazy.
I pantomimed writing in my palm. Poss’s eyes rolled and I pointed at my throat.
“He can’t speak,” the younger feline said.
“I’m sure it’s an important message.” Her eyes shifted toward behind the door and nodded to someone. I curled my fingers and oculd almost trail the Feline walking around. It might have been easier to use one of my Eyes of a Man markings, but the marking that kept my tattoos hidden might slip.
It didn’t matter. A minute later I had a piece of paper and pen. I scribbled down a note.
You were lovers, it said.
I turned it to Poss. She stood there in her slim dress with perfectly woven hair and read it. Her gaze lifted toward mine. Poss’s glare could have set a barn on fire, but I met with my own blank stare. Abby said nothing and cast her eyes downward.
That’s an answer then, I thought.
I jotted another note down.In the time it took my, Mister Proctor arrived at the front door. He glanced at the note I turned toward them.
She said it weren’t your fault with the ladder, the badly scrawled letters said.
Poss’s face flushed and eyes watered. She glared at me while her husband rubbed an arm up and down.
“What’s all this about? What does that mean?” Mister Proctor asked.
I put up both hands to stave off any more questions. They weren’t for me to answer. Poss would have to sort out her issues with her husband and God knew I’d be poor assistance in that endeavor.
“What’s Mister Craig talking about?” Mister Proctor questioned.
“He’s,” Poss’s words faded.
I started to turn away and take my leave. The rest of this conversation would do me no good. Their family drama meant nothing in light of my current mindset. Though maybe he’d be upset about Poss’s feline lover. Maybe he’d known. It didn’t matter to me at the moment.
“Mister Craig?” Poss said. I turned back. She gestured at my hands. “I’ll be needing that pen back. It’s worth more than you’d make,” her words died off as she seemed to reconsider what she’d been saying. “My pen please.”
I gave Poss her fancy pen and the paper with my notes. Down the cobblestone I went, out toward the town.
Their reactions helped me gauge what’d been real and what hadn’t, but they didn’t make me feel any better about the situation. I’d thrust myself into the middle of something grand and the idea scared me. The only goal had been to earn money and get momma to safety and that seemed further away than ever.
It also seemed like it might be useless. What if there were a war? What if all those terrors were really fighting to get out and use people as fighters? I didn’t know how far away to get momma from that nonsense. All of Chandler’s field sat on a knife’s edge, one that meant Rangers were more important then I’d ever suspected.
There were more places to go for answers. The sooner I moved onto the next location, the more sure I’d be. The fact that Poss had reacted as she did worried me for too many reasons and part of me hoped the Jeffs wouldn’t be the same.
I’d had a dollar in my pocket. Enough for a broken pencil, piece of paper, and one piece of jerky. Then off I went, toward the coach’s pickup point.
I continued to consider my course of actions. If I’d been angling to complete all my stops in as little time as possible, then Cassandra’s home would have been closer. There were the possibility she’d been at Wellbrook’s refinery though. At the least, a Ranger or two would be nearby.
I corrected myself. Kenneth’s would be the best place to visit next. I’d get his take on this situation. Not on the war, not on the plains.
Best not to say anything at all, I thought.
I’d let him yammer on and judge his topics for myself. If he spoke of my decent into The Mountain’s core, I’d know he’d been up there in some fashion. Opal might be out there too, but I couldn’t tell for sure if she’d actually helped me get cleaned before being thrown in. That might have been another part of the feverish dream. Maybe he’d have thoughts on the afterlife that all us inked people were headed toward.
Up I went to the building. No one responded to my knocking. The door opened with a slight push. In I went, doing a full search of the building. The cupboards were full and beds made but Kenneth and his congregation weren’t in this little church.
I stepped back out onto the porch and wondered what that meant. There’d been an entire gathering at this place and not a soul remained within walking distance. I could smell a scent that might have been cookies lingering the air. That told me that they’d left recently.
There were footprints in the dirt that weren’t mine. I followed them for a moment until I found they went toward town. They continued down the same nearly the same path I’d followed to reach Kenneth’s church.
Once I hit the edge of town, those footprints got lost in the mess of others. I looked around and squinted as light form the setting sun cut at my eyes.I’d taken longer than expected to get few answers and would likely need another hour’s walk to reach Cassadra’s hut, assuming she’d even been there.
It’d be easier to see if the Wellbrook coach were headed back up the hill, as I’d intended before detouring toward Kenneth’s empty home.
Midday had been quiet enough since but afternoon saw a spike in people’s movement. Everyone bustled between buildings, centered around the tavern. Sounds from the town drove me to the outskirts.
I skirted the crowd and stood some distance away from the coach’s drop off point. My head rocked and stomach still grumbled even after the scrap of food. A dull pounding behind my temple grew until I lost control of the Hidden Soul marking which hid my ink tainted hands.
Both hands went under my armpits as I attempted to master my own abilities. They’d been under control prior to being thrown in and undergoing this strange rebirth. I feared my hand might grab onto a frying pan and light it aflame.
One eye flickered and saw the ink in everything around me. I remembered this annoyance from before and steadied my breathing until it ceased. Then everything lit and dark corners of the building lit up. I held still with barely a whimper until it too passed.
My hands curled into fists. The world spun and I promised myself I’d complete this quest for answers before heading home to rest. Sitting in bed idling with nothing but questions had been irksome.
The sun dipped and the carriage still hadn’t shown up.
A fist hit me in the side. I caved and stumbled toward a wall for support.
“Stupid!” a sharp voice shouted.
My ears rang and vision blurred. Both knees folded and down I went onto the ground.
“Oh,” the one who’d yelled at me said.
“He deserved it,” another woman added.
I rocked to one side and eyed my attackers. Jenn stood there in overalls with holes at the knees. Mom wore the same sun dress she’d been in earlier. Both of them had to be cold in this weather.
Oh horse shit, I thought.
Waving seemed inappropriate given I’d snunk out of the house to get answers. I worked to get upright and failed. My chest wouldn’t lift right and I wished for greens to life easier. A bit of self healing would have gone a long way, even with a side effect.
“Knew we’d find him in town. Always here. Or the mine.” Jenn muttered. Her ear twitched and she dug a foot into the dirt. Soil loosened in clumps around her toes.
Momma waved her finger at me. “Coming into town like this. Bet you were thinking you couldn’t ask me about all this. Bet you didn’t even think about talking to either of us. Chasing down Rangers and that Cassandra without a thought. You should have talked to me first. I’m your momma. I ain’t witless and watched what your daddy went through.”
“Stupid Chase,” Jenn said. She huddled closer to momma’s side as a few people passed by.
They saw the three of us then moved on without a care. I snorted. Nearly everyone in town knew us by sight alone. Chandler’s field were that kind of place.
“You need to get on home. All this walking around today? I’d bet a dollar that you’re legs are jelly at best. All those days in recovery and you’ll have made it all worse.”
I stood and felt wobbly. Momma had been right. To think, I’d been ready to go up to Wellbrook or Cassandra’s homestead. That idea had been beyond foolish.
“We’ll get you home. Jenn, girl, are you able to carry the groceries or Chase?”
She shrugged. “Could do either. Ain’t hard. I’m short. Not weak.”
I shook my head and fought back a forming limp. It wouldn’t do to let either of them know how right they were.
“Pride is bad,” Jenn said. She sniffed and stayed within arms reach.
We collectively went toward the carriage. If we were lucky, the three of us could get a ride to the crossroads at least. That’d save us half a trip.
Momma prattled on saying nothing of use. Jenn only interjected to call me names I’d rightfully earned. When not calling me names, she carried a few bags of groceries in stitched bags. She muttered about everyone we passed and kept her gaze down. Sometimes I wondered if Jenn had ever been given an inside voice, or if she’d been in the woods for so long on her own that she’d gone insane.
We stood by the carriage drop off. Momma didn’t even wait for the workers to unload before she started in on the driver. I couldn’t remember ever seeing her be so serious or protective. He weren’t headed out our way, leaving us to walk home.
The last few got off as we turned away for the long trek home. I shook my head, annoyed that they’d felt the need to come out here. I’d made it out of the mountain while half dead and delirious. Making it home from town would have been easier.
“How?” someone said.
I turned to see Ducky standing there. He’d likely been the last one out of the worker carriage. His face hung slack and mouth stood open enough to catch all the flies in Chandler’s Field.
“You died! I saw you die,” Ducky said.
His commotion caused some of the others to turn toward us. One of them, Mister Jewel, frowned then shook his head in disgust. Off he walked, without caring an ounce for what anyone else said.
Momma put her shoulder under mine. She seemed smaller than I remembered. The extra support didn’t help me get around but I stumbled away with her help.
“What happened?” Ducky asked. His voice hadn’t grown any quieter.
“Go away!” Jenn shouted at him.
“Let’s go son. You need to rest,” Momma said.
“Mute! You’ve got to see the others. They’ve been waiting for you up there for weeks now. Weeks!”
I hadn’t known how much time passed. Apparently a lot more than I’d believed.
Momma turned us and waved Ducky off. “Go away! Run and tell those idiots that my boy survived. That ought to be enough to make even that pucker faced Tawny smile for a moment. But nothing is happening until he’s good and rested. Rested I tell you. Go on. Get out of here. Idiot boy. You’re worse than your mother was and she’d-”
Ducky got so mad he managed to quack. He shook then turned sharply and ran for the carriage that had arrived.
Momma turned us back toward home. I glanced at her feeling overwhelmed by confusion and exhaustion.
Her eyebrow went up. She said, “What? Can’t a woman stand up for her boy? Lord knows I’ve been mourning long enough. Long enough that I’m right back where I started. Watching this hell happen to my son, sure as it did your daddy. Well not twice, you hear me?”