That night, I dreamed the strangest thing I'd ever seen. Silver flashes that rained down lightning playing out in the Butcher Hills's northern range. Each bolt struck out around some barely seen creature with wings that flew a sharp line above the earth. Between the bolts, other bird like creatures chased after the dark one. Their wings were a blinding gold that stood out even in the darkest storm.
They slammed into the fleeing one and sparks flew off. The dark bit of bird turned and threw one of the golden attackers to the ground, and the earth below rocked. Still, lightning poured down in waves that must have been on par with the ocean, though I'd never seen the sea except for in Poss's artworks.
Time is a funny thing in dreams. Gold birds wove paths through the storm to chase the fleeing one. Their deaths continued to color the ground red with rust. Until one long bright bolt hit the fleeing creature and sent it to the ground. There it struggled.
Then I woke, sweating, even more exhausted than before, and threw myself out of the bed toward my little window.
A storm brewed outside as well. I searched for any sign that the creature sin my dreams were somehow something natural rather than what I feared. Then lighting flashed, and all I could see in the distance were The Mountain. Sitting there in a spot that felt oddly like the land from my time in the ink,
Had my mind made this dream up or were it somehow related?
I hoped it were none of the above. A fallen angel. One fighting others and feeing from thunder. Even if it weren't God and the Devil, it were something important. It felt as if someone were trying to pry open my head and pour in reason.
The thought made me chuckle weakly. Reason had never been a gift of mine. Hard work and pursuing a goal. That goal had been momma's escape from the area and becoming my own man. Here I sat, all but jailed in my room with momma being the warden. I couldn't figure out if my desire to be a Ranger even meant anything anymore. I couldn't tell if being a Hound could get me money enough to buy her a life elsewhere. Not to mention the one idea I'd been ignoring this whole time.
How am I not dead?
Coming close weren't nothing new, working in the mines like I had been. If money didn't come from being a Hound, and if being a Hound made it impossible for me to be a Ranger, I'd be faced with venturing back into those deeps. I brightened a bit. Maybe with these new abilities I could help dig out some of the valuable colored barrels and earn bounties for finding them. I could be a divining rod.
Happy with a plan, and trying not to dwell on my own mortality in the face of grader questions of the soul, I went back to sleep.
The next morning I woke and could smell warmth. That didn't rightly make sense but it felt like sunshine had a scent. A kind of musty and woody smell. There were hints of fresh dirt and a sharp undertone that made an ear twitch repeatedly. I reached out and found a familiar weight to my side, snoring softly.
I tried to cough politely but couldn't. Jenn had once again snuck into my bed, naked, and passed out. his time I had clothes on so it weren't so bad, but it confused me. She hated men but apparently didn't feel safe enough to sleep anywhere else in the house. Given momma's attitude, I couldn't fault her for hiding in here. At least this way momma would be distracted.
Jenn's naked form had a certain appeal. One hand reached out to make sure the blankets were in place. Temptation were one thing, but there'd be nothing more from me. Momma wouldn't approve and I'd feel like an ass for even lingering on those thoughts too long. Jenn had helped me out immensely over the years since daddy died. She'd braved The Mountain with me. She'd drug me home.
If weren’t her fault that life had scrambled her mind until right and wrong were vague at best. I owed her. Jenn were the closest thing I had to a friend now that Greg and Lily had left.
My feet were unsteady but I tried to get up and find some clothes. A leg gave out and I found myself falling back to the bed.
Yesterdays venture had made the problem worse. I'd been healing slowly and able to stagger around the house but wandering for hours across the country side in search of answers set me back. Hopefully tomorrow I'd be up for a walk to temple up top to ask all involved what the heck happened next.
I stood up again slowly, managed to go to the bathroom with the dawn's light guiding my way, and back to lay down. Jenn could solve her own seeping arrangements if she cared enough and I needed rest.
Momma bustled in right as I'd sat down on the bed’s edge. She swept through the room searching for stuff to clean but there were nothing. My clothes were in a drawer and boots by the front. My feet felt a bit damp from dew but nothing else.
"Chase, you're not thinking of running out on us again are you? You need to finish healing. Listen to your momma now and we'll get through this."
My head shook slowly. I hadn't planned on running out, but did need more answers. One finger jabbed toward The Mountain, which were clearly visible through the window.
"Yes. You went in. I'm sure. Your daddy told me once that he'd done so as well but something went wrong. That’s why he went to work the mines more than anything else. He never took time to recover. That's why you need to heal, so that this time nothing happens."
I lifted an eyebrow. That didn't make a lick of sense to me. Someone had mentioned, I couldn't remember who given the jumble in my head, that daddy hadn't become a Hound, or that he'd tried and failed. My forehead wrinkled and I made a note to try and remember everything I'd heard about him while working the mines and dealing with the Rangers.
I jabbed a finger at The Mountain again, trying to tell my momma that the answers would be up there. The priests would know. Cassandra or one of the other tattooists at the refinery might know. A Ranger would have an answer. I couldn't be sure any of them even knew I'd made it out. Though I dimly remembered they'd been set to watch over my as I fell down. To bare witness.
"Oh don't you worry. We'll be going up there together. I'll give them all a piece of my mind for involving you in this nonsense. I'll be that Cassandra didn't tell you anything. No warning on what they were getting you suckered into. Not one whisper. All vague like making you do stuff for her in exchange for this? That woman's as nonsense as ever."
I wiggled my fingers in question.
"I ain't explaining it. If I did it'd be second hand knowledge. I'm not one to shy away from gossip but not on this. Mark my words you'll want to hear the story from the source. Of all the tattooists to get involved with she's got to be the worst of the lot. High and mighty and hasn't aged a day in the time I've known her. Who knows what witchery she'd marked herself with to stay young all these years. Probably requires her to feast on the hearts of the young or some other nonsense."
Momma dashed out the door without further explanation. I reached out and tried to ask for more information. My body slipped forward as both legs failed.
I groaned silently while rubbing the sore muscles.
"You okay? Dumb to fall out of the bed." Jenn said behind me.
Dumb to be naked in a man’s bed. Put some clothes on, I thought. Worse still, momma apparently decided not to care. Whatever that meant. I would have asked her but it were one more topic on the list of hundreds that I didn't wan her input on.
I got back into the bed without Jenn's help. As soon as my head hit the pillow dizziness struck me. The room spun. Jenn's body moved and I couldn't rightly make out more than her form slipping over me and to the other side. Something rustled, the blanket went into place, and I returned to slumber.
Lightning flashed as the dream took hold again. I fought to remain myself in the face of what I'd been witnessing. Silver. The sky was filled with silver. Golden drops fell down out of it, transforming into those winged creatures that had fought the black bird. They scoured the landscape for ages, buzzing back and forth like angry bees. I stared, or shook in the bed as the vision continued. Another black being fell from the sky, carrying something. Gold winged motes chased after it and lightning poured over the ground.
That black bird fought against the golden ones. The black ones were stronger somehow, and this one took a hoard with him. As the gold fell to the ground it transformed the earth from dull brown to rusty red.
Thunder rattled me along with something wet at my lips. I jerked my head back onto the soft pillow. It took a moment for one of momma' giant spoons to come into focus. Behind it sat Jenn, wearing one of my shirts that hung too loose on her shoulders. The sight confused me as much as the images I'd been seeing a moment ago.
"Eat. You need to eat. Don't be a smelly idiot now," Jenn said.
It'd grown a lot darker. I couldn't believe so much of the day had passed that quickly.
Jenn whispered, "One sip. Your mom will be mad if you don't."
I lifted an arm and struggled to get a bit upright. My body hurt less but the room continued to be blurry. My side felt cool. I felt kind of sticky but at the time parts of me were clearly cleaned. the clothes I'd been in were different than before. They'd been right to say I needed rest. It'd been the same way when I got the markings on my back only this took longer.
For a moment I cycled through all the markings again. The room brightened, went dark, Jenn's form blurred then came back. The black ink on my fingertip and spider web rainbow on the other hand on my hand faded back out. I felt the tingles as I moved hoe fingers in Jenn's direction.
"What are those?" Jenn asked, grabbing my hand. I flinched, worried that it might do something to her. "They're scar. But they're not. They work right?"
I nodded. She dropped one an moved to the other.
"A rainbow drop? does it do something?" I shrugged as an answer then nodded. "Can you control it?"
I nodded then shrugged.
"That shouldn't happen. Should it?"
The door banged and Jenn jumped. Momma swept in and carried on like nothing were wrong. "His daddy was the same way. Those marks are different than his, but the same. It's raw ink. Ink that no one sane would touch, but his family line's able to survive the exposure all on their own. Almost like being their own tattooist, but with less fashion sense. And more mess. His daddy had this marking of purple on his back that looked almost like a butterfly. Took up near every inch of skin and damned if it didn't cause me problems when he'd," momma's words halted. She jerked upright then stared at Jenn.
"Well that's none of your business. Now, make sure he gets all that in him." She turned and jabbed a finger in my direction. "Chase, you drink it all. It's got vegetables fresh from the garden. And don't think I won't hear it if you two get up to something, so keep your hands off each other. That's double on you Chase. Jenn's momma ain't here to tell her to be a good girl so it's on you."
My jaw dropped. Jenn stuck a spoon in my wide open mouth. Momma bustled back out, apparently having accomplished whatever he set out to do.
"And tell him what your change was like now! Maybe he'll realize he needs to keep resting. Besides, it ain't like that lot up there don't know your coming. What, with that fool Lake boy running up there shouting it to the winds. Let them stew and wonder on their own, that's what I say. Maybe they'll threw each other into the mountain and that'll be that. Wouldn't it serve them right instead of finding another-" Momma's words halted again and the back door slammed.
Jenn stared at me. I gulped down the bit of broth and opened my mouth for another.
She kept feeding me, which I accepted because sitting up still hurt a little bit, and being pampered were nice. Between bites she talked. "Your momma knows what's going on. Acts like it. Not sure though. Seem tight lipped. Never seen her like this."
I shrugged then brought up my blackened fingertips. She'd said daddy were the same way, but I couldn't remember any ink or markings on him. Not eve the purple that momma mentioned. Maybe he had a marking like I did to make the inks fade out of sight.
Jenn gave me another spoonful then sat still. I stared at her. It were a shame that lie had all but ruined her from such a young age. I didn't know how she'd survived out there or how she handled being inside a house after so long. Maybe Jen didn't know either. If life had been kinder to both of us, we could have grown up together. Maybe meant something to each other. More than friends. I'd have daddy who'd be a saloon worker instead of a miner or a Hound or whatever got him killed.
It were strange seeing a woman wearing my clothes. The thin threaded hand me downs hide little. I cleared my throat then pointed to her ears, eager for a change of subject.
"What are you saying?" she asked.
Jen had been one of the easier people to talk to. Now I couldn't even do that. The realization made e pause for a moment before I pushed past it and reached for her ears.
She tensed. I didn't grab but lightly tapped on them, then on my own chest.
"The change. Your mom says you changed but I don't know. I can't tell. You're. Still stupid."
"She told me to tell you what it's like. But I don't know. Not enough. Jenn don't talk to others.” Jenn shuddered. “I don't. Your mom hates when I talk about myself like that." She set the bowl and soup down on a table nearby then stared out the window. "Jenn. I. I can only speak for myself. Would you still want to hear it?"
I nodded. Anything would help me.
"I told you once. There's a choice. A point where you could be," Jenn's leg started vibrating in nervousness. She gulped. “Either thing.”
Both my hands went up to stop her but Jenn's head shook.
"We’re forced to choose. Because of the ink. That's what they gloss over. Too much. It seeps under your skin. Down to the bone. Down deep until you're not the person God made you."
My finger curled into a hook and dug at my chest. Jenn saw and nodded.
"Deep down inside the bone. Deep down. One mark. Ain't nothing. Two. An itch. Three, four, more until you've less of you and more of it. Then one night, it takes you."
My gaze drifted away as her story slowly unfolded. In her own way, Jenn described what I'd been told. That the ink or The Mountain or fallen angel put hooks into our bodies. As if these tattoos humans sought were some spiritual fishing lure. The image made me shudder. As if it weren't a fallen angel at all, but some old man with a fishing reel and too much time. Ink as the bait and us the fat dumb river-fish. My mind briefly flashed on the older man who'd appeared in my vision. He'd been a strange one.
There are sides, he'd said.
"That's what I felt. Each mark. Each one I felt less like the little girl I'd been. Something sucked away what made me. Me. Replace it. Replaced Jenn with this body. Only I’d barely been a little girl. "
I shuddered. So did she. Jenn glanced at me then back down. Her ears swung up and down and toes stretched uneasily.
“For days I felt wrong. My arms weren’t my own. My legs hurt. I was hungry. Delirious. Not scared exactly. Too tired to be scared. But my arms were stronger than ever. I could taste everything. Smells were sharp. I’d keep waking up in the garden.”
Her quick sharp tone slowed as Jenn seemed to be lost. She may not know what to say, and I surely didn’t know what would help me. Worse still, I remembered the person who’d yelled at me. That not-Harold or not-Kenneth. That I were his to reshape as he saw fit.
I put up a hand then pointed to the nightstand. Jenn grabbed my paper and pen then handed them over with a shaky grasp.
Did you see anyone while changing? I wrote.
Jenn stared at the words. She mouthed them slowly then once more.
Her head shook.
I swallowed, unsure what the differences in our experiences lead to.
“I was fevered. In a nightmare. One that stretched on forever but I couldn’t remember. I know there was ways to go. Knew it. Then I woke and the nightmare continued with familiar faces.” She shuddered again.
In winced and sat up slowly. Jenn continued to tremble. With one hand I attempted to rub her tiny back in hopes that she’d find some comfort. Her eyes stiffened and she held her breathe. I stopped and pulled my hand back.
Sorry, I wrote. I’d forgotten she had issues with being touched.
Her head shook, and out of the room she fled, like I were some monster from The Mountain’s depths and not a childhood friend. There I sat, left alone.
Jenn’s change had been different from mine in terms of what she saw and remembered. That much were obvious. She’d also come out looking completely different, been younger, had more markings of different types. I’d been thrown inside the ink, come out with only the three markings I’d gone in with.
Honestly, I should have come out as one giant rainbow blob. Melting and sobbing like a horror. One single drop had imprinted on me. Nothing else had.
Then I'd encountered a strange version of Tawny and Hardwood while down there. If they were real, that was scary enough. If they'd been ghosts, that were strange too. The Jeffs. Everything felt different and I’d no guidance.
“You need to walk around a bit if you can. Doesn’t do a body well sitting too long in bed.”
I frowned at momma’s sudden intrusion. Especially since she’d been the one to insist I go back to bed in the first place.
“Then when you’re up and about, we’ll take those mules up to the temple.”
There’d be monsters on the way up. I frowned.
“Don’t fret. It’s nearly a new moon so the worst of the tide’s passed. Plus if those idiots up there want to see their precious Hound, they’d best clear a path. Though I wouldn’t be surprised none if Cassandra left all the monsters intact. She’d think of it as a test, that she would. Worse than those other Rangers.”
I grunted and tapped my paper.
“Ain’t got the time nor desire to answer your questions Chase. You already ran off that poor girl and since you’re laid up, it’s on me to keep the house running.”
I wanted to make an unhappy comment but momma had been improving a lot recently. Especially since I’d started this venture to become a Ranger in earnest.
Though if I were being truth, despite my need to understand, the last place I really wanted to go for answers were The Mountain's top. It'd been the site of two terrible days in my life. The first being when daddy's body returned to the ink. The second being when my living body were throw in like a piece of dead lumber.
I remembered shouting at the head priest, "I ain't dead yet!". He'd mocked me by saying I weren't alive yet either. Strange how that echoed the same word as that wolf man from the planes. Alive. He'd been hung up on it. Like Hardwood with being hard enough. The acted like words meant something.
All about the house I stumbled with only my thoughts. The exercise helped and some of my body’s stiffness loosened. By the fourth lap I felt almost up to normal speed. My stomach grumbled with hunger and the sun slowly set. Time kept slipping by me.
First it’d been the weeks in The Mountain. At least, that’s what Ducky stated. Momma and Jenn hadn’t mentioned anything about it, but they were likely used to be vanishing for a week at a time in order to work at the mines.
I went back inside and collapsed on a chair. My stomach continued to rumble. In and out I drifted. Food showed up at some point. I picked at it, hungry but too tired to eat much despite the gnawing feeling. The vegetables and bit of dried meat weren’t appetizing. The scrambled egg tasted a bit more appealing but somehow missed the mark.
Water took the edge off enough for me to get back to sleep. Back I went into slumber land.
For the third time, visions plagued my rest. Golden winged drops chased after the fallen black birds. They had no luck.
Then the rusted ground moved.
My heart stopped. This reminded me of something else that escaped me. I struggled to remember what it meant but couldn’t. The scenes weren’t exactly the same either. Where those black winged birds had fallen had differences each time. A lake in one. Mountains for another bird. A third had landed in a forest of immense size. There were a dozen locations and each had armies of gold monsters around them, searching.
As time passed, the gold birds fell to the ground on their own. They reminded me of windup music boxes, all glittering and dancing in the air until at last they ran out of energy. Even the thundering sky stopped.
I watched the same series of events happened again and again. Black bird fled with some sort of prize. Thunder rained down. Gold drops chased. The black bird killed some. They fell to the earth and stained the landscape. Eventually the black bird fell. Gold ones searched for the remains, I assumed after the stolen prize. Occasionally they recovered some blue orb and fled back to the skies.
They failed in most cases but continued searching until they ran out of steam.
With each replay of the vision it grew fuzzier. It were like those days of running for the Ranger trials. I’d been worn down. The dream wore me down as well. It might mean a lot but there’d been no context. Though part of me wondered if were somehow related to The Mountain.
I woke with that thought rattling in my brain.
What if those are how The Mountain started? Those fleeing creatures, were they the fallen Angels that the preachers belted on about? What if they’d stolen something form the skies? It didn’t seem like heaven in my visions and those golden drops didn’t look righteous, only shiny and bright. They’d run out of energy and set about tasks like machines set on one task. Clocks operated with as much emotion, or the gears that kept the mine’s elevators working.
I felt better after realizing how this might all fit together. It could have been my mind lying to me but I’d started to trust that the vision meant something. It wouldn’t play repeatedly and mean nothing.
That’s what stumped me. These visions didn’t start on their own for no reason. They couldn’t have. Something made them plague me. Something more than my mind trying to apply reason to the world.
I eyed my hands but the room were too dark to see either one rightly. Using a marking would have lit up the room but didn’t feel the need. They were still in the same places they had been. I could feel the ink under my skin. Both would function if I desired.
Below those markings, below the Eyes of a Man, lay another feeling. A deep nagging that bothered me immensely. Either I’d unknowingly walked a path that all Rangers did, which I doubted given that ceremony, or ended up as some sixth choice. Flop. Feline. Delver. Wildling. Ranger.
Me, I thought. A Hound.
I didn’t feel like a dog of any sort. Aside from the amplified noise and sense of smell, nothing much had physically changed. It were more like, there were an itching in my bones. This tiny squirming feeling. Then there were these damned visions. My mind circled back to all the hints along the way.
The closest thing to God we have is a fallen angel, Kenneth had said. The proper version of him, not that twisted mockery of The Mountain.
In those three dreams, the black lights must have been fallen angels. Or near as I’d ever seen. The red rust color reminded me of the men in armor that giant wolf had fought. I wanted to trust the visions and that they were explaining events. But I liked to think being thrown into The Mountain had made me a bit warier and less trusting.
I’d watch the dreams and judge for myself. That’s what a man would do. Children were told to follow orders and I liked to think I’d grown past blindly doing what others ordered. Maybe I didn’t need to get momma to safety, but rather, keep her safe here instead.
That thought lulled me back to sleep despite the knots by my shoulder that wouldn’t loosen.
The next night, after walking around and building up my strength, I had another dream.
This time there were nearly no golden birds left flying around. Rust crawled and heaved itself into staggering shapes that roamed the land. Other creatures made of black fought the rust monsters. I watched it all from above like God must look down on everyone else.
The final few golden birds gathered together. They spun in a circle until a new creature appeared. Not some being made of black crawling across the landscape to fight rust monsters. As the newest creation came to life, all the golden ones fell to join the dirty red monsters.
In their place was something else. A small mix of colors that resembled a dog. It sniffed at the dirt and ran across the land. Monsters of both type tried to kill it but it were fast. It stopped in a quiet area to continue searching for something.
Then it died.
Another one were born from the landscape. It too ran from monsters, fought others, and searched.
Then it died.
They kept coming. The circle continued like the lightning strikes and golden orbs had before it. A never ending battle that looped through the three sides and one creature trying to find a prize.
It grew larger. As if my lofty perch had fallen out from under me. The land rose to meet me. Or I fell without a hint of dropping reaching my stomach. I, and the ground, crashed together.
My heartbeat jumped. I glanced around to find the sun had risen. Momma were padding my damp head with a cloth. She stared at me.
“Lord have mercy Chase. You’re getting nightmares, aren’t you? Your daddy did. Used to wake up with the sweats. Never could tell me what they were about though. Said he couldn’t remember. Not sure if I ever believed him but it weren’t my place to ask. You are, aren’t you?”
“Do you remember anything?”
I nodded again then choked up because God help me, I knew what a Hound were meant to do. If that vision were to be believed, Hounds were meant to find whatever those fallen angels had stolen. That which had caused the sky to rain down lightning and golden drops to find until death. An object that might have created The Mountain and every other gateway to hell like it.
I didn’t know how, but being a Hound meant I could find the source of all this trouble and stop it. That’d free momma, Jenn, and everyone from this cycle of servitude.
Or I’d die trying.